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Ethnicity of Chakma and Tanchangya

Posted by Sujan Tanchangya on March 13, 2012 at 7:45 PM

The following article was published in Journal of Applied Science & Social Science, Vol. II, No I. March –April 2011 (ISSN 2229 3205)

By Rupak Debnath

Chakmas are the major ethnic group in the Chittagong Hill Tracts; outside the Hill Tracts, there are Chakmas in Tripura, Mizoram and Arunachal Pradesh. Tanchangyas number less than one- twelfth of the Chakma population; they are chiefly concentrated in the south and south-central parts of the Hill Tracts, with smaller numbers living in northern Sittwe, southern part of the Chakma Autonomous District Council and in South Tripura. Though both groups are essentially valley dwellers with a preference for permanent villages and practicing swidden-farming as principal subsistence strategy, even speaking mutually intelligible dialects, the ethnic relationship between them is historically strained. Chakmas think that Tanchangyas are their sub-tribe; Tanchangyas, on the other hand, assert that they differ from Chakmas in dress and custom.


Most Chakmas have a tendency to associate their origin to the family of Buddha Sakyamuni; as Mills (1931) points out, ‘If a Chakma be asked of the origin of his tribe he either denies all knowledge of the matter or repeats like a parrot an incredible and purely modern story of descent from an ancient and noble Hindu race...’[1] Earlier, Lewin (1869) had noted the same tendency within the tribe.[2] The royal chronicle of the Chakma kings, the Rājnāmā, too draws on a legendary descent from the ruling line of Kapilavastu [3] in contradiction to what history and local traditions indicate to their connections with the Sak of Arakan. We shall note more on this aspect later in the present chapter. Within the ethnic group, the presence of a large number of kinship groups, called goza, are now acknowledged; some of these are as follows – Babura goza, Chege goza, Lachchar goza, Phedungza goza, Dhamei goza, Mulima goza, Range goza, Barbua goza, Kurakuttya goza, etc. Under each group exist a number of clans (‘gutthi’) but no major differences are observed in the customs and manners of the kinship groups.

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Interestingly, the traditional Chakma dress is quite similar to that worn by the Tippera, with whom the Chakmas also share many cultural characteristics.[4] Hutchinson (1909) who believed that Chakmas originated from ‘unions between the soldiers of Nawab Shaista Khan, the Governor of Lower Bengal, under the Emperor Aurungazeb about 1670, and Arakanese immigrants; and subsequently hill women’ [5] also retells in the same account, a Marma tale indicating to ethnic relation between Chakma and Tippera. It is stated that King Chaindra of Arakan journeyed to China to acquire the skull of a dog to cure himself of the severe vertigo from which he was suffering. Though he managed to obtain the dog’s skull and dispose it after performing due rites, his homeward journey ended tragically. When the Queen heard of the calamity, she accused the prime minister, who had accompanied the king but returned safely, of having conspired against the king. At this, the prime minister became greatly perturbed : ‘...he left the country with his followers and came and lived at Rajabili, on the river Sylok, a tributary of the Karnaphuli in Tin-para (three villages), whose settlers are still known as Tipperas. The minister had a younger brother named Tsakma, a rude and uncouth man, who... gradually grew in importance and was locally called Tsakma Raja and became the founder of the Chakma tribe.’ [6]

However, the dwelling houses of the two tribes, despite the uniform preference for the stilt-type structure, have contrasting elements in the basic layout. The Tippera-type house has a narrower front with one front door directly below the wedge of the roof; the traditional Chakma house, on the contrary, has a wider face like that of the Marma with two front doors giving access to the interior rooms, the pina and the gudi, which may be also be partitioned into smaller sub- compartments to accommodate larger families. Religiously, the Chakmas are Theravada Buddhists but their type of Buddhism is much mixed up with the practices of the Hinduised Tipperas.


Like the Chakmas, the Tanchangyas are Buddhist by creed but they have no qualms in acknowledging that their kind of Buddhism is infused with many pre-Buddhist practices. They cannot trace their ethno-history beyond the 15th century AD when they came from Arakan to settle in the upper parts of the Matamuri valley (CHT). Within the tribe, a total of seven kinship groups, called gosā, are now found to exist – Angya gosa, Melong gosa, Daingnya gosa, Mongla gosa, Karwa gosa, Muo gosa and Langbasa

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The gosā or kinship group is divided into several gutthis or clans. In marked contrast to the Chakma system, the Tanchangya gutthi is further divided into del or lineage, which, in the past, regulated intra-clan marriage but those functions became redundant when the clans themselves took to disseminating positive marriage rules by distinguishing precisely all marriageable categories from the non-marriageable ones.[7]

The Tanchangya gosa functioned as an independent village unit, each kinship group under its own hereditary chief called Amu and acknowledging no authority other than that of its own Amu. [8] His counterpart among Chakmas was called Dewan who derived his power from the Chakma Chief. Another notable difference of the Tanchangya socio-political organization was the existence of a residential type of age-set system wherein adolescent boys were segregated at night from their families and made to live at a dormitory for male bachelors under the care of an elderly lad. [9] This system is unknown to the Chakma.

In dress, the Tanchangya differs considerably from the Chakma; in fact, when it comes to noting the dresses of the hill tribes in the region covered in this study, the Tanchangya female is the most exquisitely attired. For covering the lower part of the body, from the waist down to a couple of inches above the heel, she wears a large piece of cloth called penuin or peruin, with wide horizontal borders in black and having red as predominant colour between the borders.

The Chakma pinon is a less colourful piece, without the Tanchangya’s black borders, but having its own distinctively vertical stripe, the chābugi, which is displayed in the line of the left leg when the cloth is worn. In making the Tanchangya penuin, the vertical stripe is always avoided. Another notable aspect of Tanchangya attire is the khabang or the white turban which their women put round the head in the hill fashion, with the crown exposed. Chak females wear a black turban and Chakpas a white one. A Chakma female does not use any headwear while her Marma counterpart puts a white scarf during social ceremonies. Most importantly, Tanchangya women, according to their gosa affiliation, make slight changes in their everyday attire. These variation are noted by Debnath (2008).

There are other differences of interest to structured ethnographies on life-cycle ceremonies. For the present, it would suffice to say that across a common language boundary, Tanchangyas maintain cultural differences with Chakmas.

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Ethnic paradigms: labels of identity and contrast

To understand the ethnic paradigms of the Chakma and the Tanchangya, it is necessary to take cognizance of the dichotomy between what precise labels they use for themselves and what the contrast groups and neighbouring peoples apply to them. Chakmas publicly assert that Tanchangyas belong to their own ethnic group; they also say that Tanchangyas are the ‘real Chakmas’; in private, however, a Tanchangya is Tanchangya, not Chakma, and there is much difference in dress and customs. As for the Tanchangya, he has always known the Chakma as ‘Anokya.’ The Magh or Marma appellation for the Chakma is Sak while the Tanchangya is called ‘Daingnak’ or ‘Daingnak-sa.’ To the Khyang, Chakma and Tanchangya are both Sak; on the contrary, the Sak (Chak) proper is known to them as ‘Chak.’ The Central Chins, Bawm and Lushai, who came to the Hill Tracts in early 19th century use identical appellations for Chakma and Tanchangya. The Bawm calls them ‘Sak,’ which term he picked up from some hill-dweller, while the Lushai calls them ‘Takam’ and the Shendu ‘Takangpa,’ which could have some connection with Chakma settlements in river valleys.[12]

The Historical background

Chakma and Tanchangya are ethnically Tibeto-Burman groups of the Mongoloid stock but they differ from each other in matters of dress and culture. The Tanchangya in particular attaches much significance on being recognized as Tanchangya, not Chakma. Yet, in some way or the other, both groups have old links with the Sak, an early Tibeto-Burman group that migrated from the upper waters of the Yellow River (Hwang-Ho) to reach Burma in the early centuries of the 1st millennium AD. [13] For several centuries, they enjoyed political supremacy in Burma. One group, the Kadu ruled from Tagaung, their capital; they are closely related to the Chak (Sak) of Naikhyoungchhari (CHT) and Maungdaw (Sittwe).

In course of socio-political changes occurring in Burma after the arrival first of the Mranma or the Burmese and subsequently of the Shan, the Sak were severally dispersed. One group passed into the Chakpa of Manipur and were subjugated by the Meithei while another

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group, the Taman of the upper Chindwin today largely Burmanised in custom and language as the Kadu of Katha. Only a small population of Chak of CHT and North Arakan speak the older language. From the Burma chronicles, it is learnt that an independent Sak kingdom existed at Macchagiri until 1333 AD when it was destroyed by an invasion from Arakan. Some Saks were made captives while the others escaped to rebuilt small colonies at Sak-cuh-tong and in the Koladan region.

As for Daingnak or Tanchangya, an old Arakan account identifies them as Sak captives of Macchagiri; King Mengdi had settled them in the Ann-Dalak region of Arakan, where they intermixed with the local population to evolve, in course of the 14th century AD, a distinct cultural paradigm. The Mon-Burman conflicts of the late 14th and the early 15th century pushed the Daingnak northwards into the Saingdin area. Around the same time, a section of Saks living in the Koladan region tried to exert control over the northern parts of Sittwe, which led to a war with Arakan. From native traditions, the Daingnak appears to have allied with the Sak. But on suffering reverses against Arakan, they moved to the southern part of the Hill Tracts where they settled in the Matamuri valley. ‘Daingnak’ or ‘Daingnet’ is Marma for Tanchangya while the appellation ‘Tanchangya’ is linked to their first settlement in the region of the Tein Chaung or Tain Chhari, a tributary of the Matamuri river. In the 15th-17th century, the Sak of Matamuri amalgamated with the Buddhist Barua and the Tippera and the Bru to create a new ethnic system, the Chakma of the Chittagong Hill Tracts, adopting the variety of Indo-Aryan spoken by the Baruas of Chittagong as everyday language and Buddhism as creed. When the newly formed group sought to extend territorial control over the Hill Tracts, the Daingnak or Tanchangya who lived to the east of the Chakma, came under the latter’s domination; they too adopted Indo-Aryan as everyday language. During the ethnogenesis of Chakma, a small section of Tanchangya had amalgamated into them; however, the larger section of the group opposed the Chakma’s ethno- cultural solidarity, maintaining social distance and insisting on having a distinct cultural paradigm of their own.

In the early 18th century, the Chakmas entered into politically beneficial relation with the Mughals and acquired trade monopoly between the hills and the plains, a position that made them masters of the Chittagong Hill Tracts. The Chakma-Tanchangya relation was already strained; it strained further when the Chakmas made a move in course of the same century to absorb the

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Tanchangya into them. The latter opposed the move and left the Hill Tracts for Arakan. In the early 19th century, they came back to the Hill Tracts led by a consensus leader whose independent status the Chakma Chief would not recognize. Disgruntled at that, many of them returned to Arakan; some stayed back, settling among the Marma who by that time had began to control the southern parts of the Hill Tracts. In subsequent times, small groups of Tanchangya moved northwards into the Chakma Circle, and many of them gradually waived their differences with Chakmas. But the majority still insists on being different from the Chakma.

About the Author: Rupak Debnath is Research Scholar in the School of Humanities under Singhania University. He is presently working as Assistant Director in the Directorate of Distance Education, Tripura University.

End and References:

1. J.P. Mills, ‘Notes on a Tour in the Chittagong Hill Tracts in 1926,’ Census of India 1931, Vo.5 (1931), p.517.

2. T.H. Lewin, The Hill Tracts of Chittagong and the Dwellers Therein (Calcutta: Bengal Publishing Company), 1869, pp.62-63.

3. M.C. Chakma Kormi, Rājnāmā (Rangamati: Self-printed edn.), 1941, pp.11-13.

4. C. Brauns & L.G. Löffler, Mru – Hill People on the Border of Bangladesh (Boston, Birkhäuer Verlag), 1990, p.27.

5. R.H. S. Hutchinson, Chittagong Hill Tracts (Allahabad: Pioneer Press), 1909, p.25

6. Ibid., p.55.

7. R. Debnath, Ethnographic Study of Tanchangya (Kolkata: Kreativmind), 2008, pp.178- 79.

8. Ibid., p.187.

9. Ibid., pp.187-88.

10. Ibid., pp.137-38.

11. Ibid., p.125.

12. N.E. Parry, The Lakhers, (Calcutta, Firma KLM), 1976, p.574.

13. He Ping, ‘Rise and fall of Kantu: A historical study of an ancient Tibeto-Burmese speaking group,’ Frontier History China, vol.4 (2006), p.540.

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