Hkamti’s original name is Singaling Hkamti; it is believed that Hkamti is a Shan name and Singaling is Naga. The story goes that once on the bank of the Chindwin River there was a village called Singaling. Later it was referred to as Singaling Hkamti. Today, though, the town is best known by the simple name “Hkamti”.
Until the colonial era, Hkamti was only loosely incorporated into the Burmese state; at the local level, it was overseen by ethnic Shan rulers known as Myosa. Shan control over the area is thought to stretch back for many centuries, pagodas in the area feature bricks with handprints, a typical custom of Shan people.
Hkamti was considered part of a contiguous Shan homeland that ran from northeast Myanmar, near what is now the border with China, to the northwest of the country and the frontier with India. This stretch of territory incorporated parts of modern Shan and Kachin states and Sagaing Region. The Shan influence in Hkamti is still strong, particularly in regards to food; the curries and meats eaten would not be out of place in Shan State. (Visitors should make sure to visit Aung Myanmar, which is the most affordable and delicious restaurant in town. It’s just a small, home-style shop, not a big restaurant.)
Few remnants of either the Myosa or colonial era remain. The British created an enclave on a hill named Bo-Gone (British hill), but only the administrative office, near Hkamti General Hospital, is still there. The descendants of the last Myosa live a normal life together with everyone else in the downtown. Their home, once the the biggest in town, is now hidden between modern dwellings.
In the Hkamti area, the rich flatlands of the Chindwin Valley have traditionally been cultivated by the local Shan population, who are referred to as Tai-Leng, Shan-Ni or Red Shan. The Naga, in contrast, lived in the mountains.
Over time though the proportion of Naga in Hkamti has increased, and it’s now about evenly split with the Red Shan, who are more prominent in Homalin to the south. This shift has been occurring since before the colonial era, when Hkamti was increasing in political and economic importance, and communications and transport links were improving. Many Naga initially came down from the hills to seek out more fertile land for their livestock. Later, though, they came to run businesses or access education. The Naga who live in Hkamti tend to eschew their traditional culture, at least outwardly. The neighboring Naga-dominated townships of Nanyun, Lahe and Leshi are today part of the Naga Self-Administered Zone. These townships still face significant difficulties in communication and transportation, and as a result look to Hkamti as a kind of regional capital.
In Hkamti, there are just a few physical signs of the influence of the Naga. As the Naga are mostly Christian, there is a proliferation of churches, you can find at least eight different denominations in Hkamti. There’s also a field to host traditional ceremonies. But one important cultural influence the Naga have had on the town is the Naga Traditional Court, although Hkamti has the normal judiciary system, most Naga trust and rely upon the traditional court.
Marital problems, petty crimes and community disputes can be addressed at the traditional court, which is recognized by the government. The traditional court has no written rules as the Naga have no script for their language. Instead, the rules are oral, passed down from generation to generation. But for those wanting to see and learn more about the Naga of Sagaing Region, Hkamti is best seen as a gateway to the Naga tribal lands of Lahe, Leshi and Nanyun.