Chakma – An Ancient Tribe in a Modern World

The Chakma tribe, also known as Changmas, are considered to be the largest tribe occupying the Chittagong Hill Tracts region of Bangladesh, as well as in India, where they have been settled for many generations. They have their own unique historical traditions, culture, folklore and language of Eastern Indo-Aryian origin, with the vast majority of Chakmas being followers of the Hinayana sect of Theravada Buddhism. Traditionally ruled by a king, these days the position of Chakma king – currently Devasish Roy – is more of a symbolic nature.

In keeping with their ancient traditions, Chakma women wear an ankle-length cloth, known as a phinon, around their waists, while being covered above the waist with a wrapped cloth known as a hadi. Both these garments are colorfully hand woven with a variety of intricate designs. Although Chakmas distinguish themselves from surrounding groups by their language, the majority are bilingual, speaking Chakma and Bengali, with many being conversant in other regional languages of Bangladesh. The script of the Chakma language is seldom used, with Bengali script being used instead. Many members of the Chakma tribe are accomplished writers, poets and artists.

The first historical written reference to Chakma settlements in the Chittagong Hill Tracts dates right back to around 1550 AD. The Portuguese explorer and cartographer, Lavanha, indicated on the earliest surviving map of Bengal that a tribe known as Chakma was living in a settlement of the Karnafuli River. Conflicting theories abound as to the origin of the Chakmas, with the most popular and convincing theory linking Chakmas with central Myanmar (previously Burma) and Arakan, a state of Myanmar. It is believed that they were taken captive by the Arakan king after a conflict with the Chakma king. The Chakma tribe adapted to their new circumstances and settled down to cultivate the land.

Although the Chakmas are intensely protective of their ancient traditions and culture, in recent years they have found that the outside world has begun to encroach on their land as well as their heritage. In an effort to preserve their way of life and to secure the right to participate in any governmental decision making processes that affect them, the Chakmas have been outspoken and active in the international arena, but only time will tell whether the Chakma tribe will succeed in holding on to the way of life which makes them unique.