LEKHAPANI, India — For two weeks, Khaong Imphum hiked and hitched rides through the mountains of Burma and into India to reach this small town.
“I’m very excited,” said Miss Khaong, a petite 20-year-old woman wearing a red hand-woven dress, while taking a break from the dancing and drumming of the festival that brought her here. “It feels really nice to be with my own people in a different country.”
Every year, in the mountains of eastern India, members of the ethnic group known as the Singpho in India, and the Kachin in neighboring Burma, gather to celebrate the Shapawng Yawng Manau Poi — a festival that honors their ancestors, but also is increasingly a rallying point for their cultural identity.
The Singpho in India, who number about 15,000 and are concentrated in the northeastern state of Assam and neighboring Arunachal Pradesh, are just one small outpost of larger Kachin communities in Burma and China.
They are afraid for their future in India, worried they will be swallowed by the larger ethnic groups — particularly the Assamese, who dominate the area.
They speak the Kachin language in a region where Assamese is commonly used. They are Buddhists among larger populations of Hindus, Muslims and Christians. Their clothing — men and women often wear pants formed by cloth they wrap around themselves ? differs from the Western garb typically seen.
“Our identity is at stake,” said Gauri Gam Singen, a teacher from Ouguri, one of the 27 Singpho villages in Assam. “We fear we could get lost due to assimilation with the rest of the communities in the area.”
While India’s northeast is riven by often-violent ethnic separatism, the Singphos, who sometimes refer to themselves as Kachin, are proud of their citizenship.
“We are Indians first, then Kachins. We want to live in India, but with our culture and identity intact,” said Rajesh Singpho, a young community leader.
The issue of cultural protection is largely focused now on language and marriage. Community leaders are urging the state government to switch to the Kachin language at primary schools with Singpho children, and are encouraging Singphos to marry within the tribe.
While the task is daunting, they have not lost hope.
Innaw Ladgam, a college student from Arunachal Pradesh, said the festival was one way to keep the culture alive. “We get to meet our kinfolk from far and near that help us stay united,” he said.
About 2,000 Kachins — most of them Singphos from India — came to a two-day gathering in early spring to celebrate their heritage under a huge covering of bamboo poles and palm leaves.
The festival was held along the Stilwell Road that crosses the India-Burma border to the Kachin heartland in Burma. The road, built by U.S. forces in World War II and named for American Gen. Joseph W. Stilwell, stretches on to the Chinese city of Kunming, another Kachin stronghold some 1,020 miles from here.