In 1700s, Lotha Khunbao, the Chief of undivided Namsang-Borduria-Laptang, accepted tenets of Vaishnavism of the Bali Satra under the care of Sree Ram Dev. He was called Narottam, which means the best among men, by Sree Ram Dev and is considered as the First Nocte Saint. He still has thousand of followers.
The Noctes and the Ahoms were at each other’s throats ever since Ahom King Chao Suhungmung captured important salt-wells located at Mohong from the Noctes in 1526. Being far away from the sea, these salt-wells were the only source of salt for the Ahoms and as well as the Noctes. The Noctes used to barter their salt produce with their tribesmen, the Wanchos, and later on with the Ahoms.
Ahom chronicle, Tungkhungia Buranji, had recorded one of the bloodiest conflicts with the Noctes. In 1692, the Noctes raided Ahom salt-wells and killed 23 of them. Ahom King Langi Supaatphaa sent a punitive expedition against the Noctes and captured the band. All the raiders were beheaded including the Nocte Chief who led the raid.
In less than a decade, in 1701, the Noctes under the lead of their Chief Lotha Khunbao raided the Royal Salt Factory of the Ahoms located at Borhat and killed at least 10 royal officials. Khunbao was the brother of the Nocte Chief who was executed in 1692. Ahom King Sukhrungphaa sent a punitive expedition against the Noctes under the leadership of Basang Phukan. However, Khunbao conveyed his willingness to compromise and to solve this matter without shedding blood. Sukhrungphaa accepted his proposal and gifts were exchanged between them. Khunbao was the Chief of undivided Namsang-Borduria-Laptang. After this event, the Noctes and the Ahoms frequented each other’s place for trade and cultural exchange took place.
Due to constant cultural exchange with the Ahoms, the Noctes might have been subconsciously influenced by the religious practise of the Ahoms.
As per the legend, somewhere in 1717, Chief Lotha Khunbao dreamt of a man with spiritual powers. He was convinced that this was no ordinary man and expressed his willingness to meet the man and the man gave Khunbao certain directions. The following morning, Khunbao called his Ngongthun, a council of advisors, and informed them about his dream. After that, Khunbao and a dozen of his men came down from the Nocte Hills or Deogiri to the Dehing River. As instructed in his dream, Khunbao prepared a pair of bamboo tubes and filled it with kam (gold) and ngun (silver) floated it down the river. Khunbao and his men followed the tubes until it stopped.
On the 11th day, the tubes finally stopped in a place called Merbil Ghat and on its bank was the Bali Satra of Sree Ram Dev. The Satra is located in Sasoni, a village in Upper Assam about 16 kilometres away from Naharkatia. Chief Lotha Khunbao and his men hid on the other bank of the river to see who would catch the tubes. A disciple of Sree Ram Dev, who was bathing in the river, saw the tubes and tried to catch it. But the tubes kept drifting away from him. Surprised, he ran to Sree Ram Dev and told him about it. Sree Ram Dev came down, offered a prayer, and caught the tubes. At this moment, Khunbao and his men came out of hiding and told Sree Ram Dev that in his dream he saw that whoever caught the tubes would be his Guru.
Sree Ram Dev was skeptical at first given the reputation the Noctes had at that time and by seeing the fierce-looking band of warriors.
Chief Lotha Khunbao kept requesting Sree Ram Dev to accept him as his disciple. Therefore, Sree Ram Dev decided to conduct a test on the chief. At that time, Sree Ram Dev was organising a programme called Kalidamon Bhavna or Nrisingha Yatra at Bali Satra. Later that evening, Sree Ram Dev wearing an old turban and a very dirty dress started playing drum along with seven other drummers. Khunbao was told that if he could identity Sree Ram Dev, then his faith is true and he could become one of Sree Ram Dev's disciples. Khunbao passed the test without any difficulty.
After passing the test, Khunbao and his men accepted Vaishnavism and became the disciples of Sree Ram Dev. Though they accepted Vaishnavism, it was in a very primitive form and they never abandoned their indigenous faith. After the conversion, Khunbao changed his name to Narottam, which means the best among men, and was also given a pair of silver bangles with gold work on them, a pair of broad bangles which is called Gam Kharu in Assamese, and some other articles as presents from the Bali Satra.
After accepting Vaishnavism, Khunbao handed over the affairs of his state to his eldest son. Though he stayed in his village, he chose the ascetic life.
It is said that Lotha Khunbao was a learned man and used to visit the Bali Satra frequently with his subjects and had religious discourses with Sree Ram Dev. He helped his Guru in spreading the religion among other Noctes. To facilitate his visit to the Bali Satra, Khunbao had constructed a road from the hills to the Satra on the north-eastern bank of Dehing River. This road is known as Soiang Road.
Dr. Moheswar Neog in his book Asamar Janajati and Prof. Atul Chandra Hazarika in his book Mancha Lekha, mentioned that, "from the book Sree Ram Dev Charit (Biography of Sree Ram Dev), it is evident that Sree Ram Dev and Lotha Khunbao were born on the same day on a Tuesday of 21 March 1667.”
As per the book Sree Ram Dev Charit (Biography of Sree Ram Dev), Lotha Khunbao and Sree Ram Dev also died on the same day in 1747 at the age of 80. Dr. Neog further writes, "At Bali Satra, the body of Sree Ram Dev and at the Nocte Hills or Deogiri, that of Narottam were laid on the pyres. But all saw with their own eyes that the smoke of both pyres 'joined together on their way to heaven. Then all uttered 'Gosain Siri Ram Naga Noruttam songe Boukuntholoi Jai', which means Sree Ram Gosain and Naga Noruttam are going to the heaven together." In Nocte culture, cremation is prohibited and, in the past, they practised tree burial.
A popular story among the Noctes regarding the divinity of Sree Ram Dev collaborates with Atul Chandra Hazarika’s Mancha Lekha. The story goes like this, “Once there was scarcity of water in the hills. Sree Ram Dev came to know about it in his camp at Jeypore on way to Sadiya. There at Jeypore the people complained and Sree Ram Dev threw one of his silver slippers called Kharam, which was presented by Ahom King Sukhrungphaa, towards the hills. The Kharam went inside the hills through stones and water began to flow in a stream. Water scarcity stopped in the hills forever. Since then the stream is popularly known as Narottam Kund or Namcha or Namchu. The Noctes still believe that silver slipper is still there in the water of Namchu and any one who looks at the stream with a pure mind will be lucky to have a view of the glittering Kharam.”
After Chief Lotha Khunbao and his subjects accepted tenets of Vaishnavism somewhere in the first half of 18th Century, there were no recorded conflicts between the Noctes and the Ahoms till 1807. In 1807, the Noctes plundered several Ahom villages. Even after the death of Khunbao in 1747, the Nocte disciples frequently visited the Bali Satra for paying annual tribute. They used to stay there for a few days and go back with presents from the Satradhikar. The visits to the Bali Satra stopped most probably during the reign of Ahom’s last king, Purandar Singh in 1836, when the relation between the Ahoms and the Noctes turned sour again because of Singh’s exploitation taxation on the Nocte salt production trade.
It was not until 1953, the old religious relationship was revived when the Noctes started to visit the Bali Satra. In 1966, a meeting was held in the Bali Satra between the representatives of Nocte disciples and the Satra to find out ways and means to revive the religion among the people. In that meeting, a plot of land was donated by a member of the Satra for construction of a rest house for the Nocte disciples visiting the Satra. It was also decided in the meeting to impart training to Nocte disciples in Namkirtan for running of Namghars (prayer halls) in the Nocte area. There are now Namghars in four main villages of the Noctes, i.e., Khonsa, Borduria, Laptang and Namsang (Deomali). The Namghars of Borduria and Namsang each receive a monthly honorarium for its maintenance from the Namsang-Borduria Fund.
In 1975, Shri Gopal Krishna Dev Goswami, the then Satradhikar of Bali Satra, performed Bhawana of Ram Bijoy, Kalkunj Bodh, Laba Kusar Yudha, Khudrakar Yudha Yatra and Dimba Kunja Bodh in the Namghars of Khonsa, Borduria and Namsang. Thus, the Nocte disciples of the Bali Satra are continuing Vaishnavism in the memory of the pious union of Sree Ram Dev and his great disciple Lotha Khunbao.
In Deomali, the open slaughter of cow was banned by Shri Late Wangcha Rajkumar, a resident of Namsang village and a three-time Member of Parliament, because the consumption of beef is prohibited in Vaishnavism.
The name Lotha Khunbao holds great religious and historical importance for the entire Nocte tribe. However, he is more popularly known as Narottam. The following are the places and the institutions named in his honour:
Narottam Nagar is small area which is only a few kilometres away from Deomali. This place was named Narottam in 1972 when the Chief of Borduria and Namsang donated a large tract of their forest to set up one of the most famous institution in Arunachal Pradesh : Ramakrishna Mission School.
In 1977, the Acting Chief of Namsang, Shri Wangmai Rajkumar, opened another timber industry in Deomali and named it Narottam Udyog Industries Limited. He was the father of Shri Wangcha Rajkumar, a three time Congress MP who was assassinated on 23 December 2007.
Indian martyr who laid down his life for the country after killing four hardcore terrorist who were trying to infiltrate in India, Hangpan Dada was posthumously award the Ashok Chakra, the highest peacetime military decoration, on 26 January 2017. The story of his supreme sacrifice echoed throughout the country and his Nocte tribe.