TRIBAL GROUPS IN ASSAM AND NORTHEAST INDIA

TRIBAL GROUPS IN ASSAM AND NORTHEAST INDIA

In the northeastern states of Arunachal Pradesh, Meghalaya, Mizoram, and Nagaland, upward of 90 percent of the population is tribal. However, in the remaining northeast states of Assam, Manipur, Sikkim, and Tripura, tribal peoples form between 20 and 30 percent of the population.

The Thadou is a group related to Chin and Kuki that lived in the hill country of the northeastern Indian state of Manipur and northwest Myanmar. There are around 200,000 of them, with around 80 percent of them in India and 20 percent in Burma. They speak a Tibeto-Burman language and are believed to have originated from China or Tibet.

The Thadou have traditionally lived in fortified villages on the top of ridges in the jungle. In the old days villages raiding and head hunting were common. The taking of heads was closely linked with the cult of the dead . Heads taken in conflicts were placed on the graves of deceased relatives and were believed to work for them as servants in the after life. Heads were also collected for the burial of chiefs and as settlements for debts. The Thadou marriage ritual often includes a mock elopement with a feast featuring wrestling and throwing mud, dung and rotten eggs at friends of the groom. Premarital sex and divorce are common. Large feasts are held to honor men who killed all the dangerous animals of the forest.

The Tsanglas of Arunachal Pradesh are Buddhist who speak a Tibetan languages. The live near the Tibetan border and migrated from Bhutan many generations ago. They live in thatch roof huts and poles so their homes off their the ground in the monsoon season. They eat rice. To keep evil spirits away they hang the skins of jungle cats on the edges of their villages. The Mishing, the second largest tribe of Assam, inhabiting the Brahamputra Valley, are a people of Mongol descent. They have Hindu beliefs.

The Riangs are a people that live Tripura. They perform a dance after a good harvest to thank the Goddess Hazagiri (an incarnation of Lakshmi, the Goddess of Wealth). The ceremony begins with the worship of nine gods and culminates with the worship of Hazagiri. The dance begins with slow dancing, often with the dancers with pots on their heads, and concluders with ecstatic dancing to a fast tempo.

Abor

The Abor is the general name given to tribal groups that lives in Assam and Arunachal Pradesh. Some are also found in Tibet and China. Also known as the Abuit, Adi and Tani, they live largely outside Indian society and seem do quite well. The Abor name has been applied to 15 different groups: Padum, Minyong. Pangis, Shumong, Ashing, Pasi, Karo, Bokar, Bor, Ramo, Palibo, Milan, Tangam, Tangin and Gallong, of which the Padam, Minyong and Shimong are the most numerous. [Source: Encyclopedia of World Cultures: South Asia, edited by Paul Hockings, C.K. Hall & Company, 1992]

There are believed to be around 100,000 Abor. Most of their settlements are along the Siang and Yamne rivers. They speak Adi (also known as Miri, Abor, Arbor or Mishing), a Sino-Tibetan language. Some of them still live traditional lives. Other have been widely acculturated. Many live in the Dihang Valley near Tibet on the Brahmaputra River in Arunachal Pradesh.

The Abors look more like Southeast Asians than Indians. They migrated to India from Tibet or China by crossing the Himalayas and then retreating back into the highlands. The reason for the migration is unknown. Between 1847 and 1862, the British government tried unsuccessfully to conquer all the Abor territory and a treaty was reached that gave the British some hegemony and promised unrestricted trade and communications and an uneasy peace was achieved. The British divided the area into four region for administration purposes.

Abor Religion

The Abor have traditionally been animists who practiced animal sacrifice and believed in a pantheon of benevolent and malevolent spirits. They consider rivers as gods and fear river nippongs (water spirits associated with women who died pregnancy), Epom (offspring of Robo, the father of evil spirits) and souls the deceased people who died unnatural deaths or were not properly buried. Among the most prominent of the benevolent spirits is Benji Bama (controller of human destiny).

There are two main religious practitioner: epak miri (diviners) and nyibo (medicine men). They use incantations and spiritual discernment to determine which spirts might be causing a particular illness or problem. Treatments involve herbal remedies, appeasement of spirits and using signs, dancing and special beads to exorcize the spirits.

Big events are the annual hunt and rice harvests. Most ceremonies are associated with life cycle events such as initiations into the boy’s and girls houses and hunting ceremonies. Song, dance, and telling tribal myths, stories and histories are important fixtures of these events. The Abor have a rich oral literature of legends, folk tales, ballads and political narrations. In the afterlife, they believe, the dead live on in a world that is not much different from the world of the living. At funerals the dead are given possessions, food and drink to take with them to the afterlife.

Abor Life

The Abor have traditionally built the villages on hills for defensive purposes, preferably with a gentle slope on one side that provides access to water and steep slopes on the other sides. The houses are built from bamboo, wood, and thatching grass on platforms and arranged in rows from the bottom to the top of the hill so that the rear side of the house faces the hill. Public buildings include the bachelors dormitory ( moshup) and single women’s dormitory ( rasheng). In the old days, many villages were surrounded by stone walls with wooden reinforcements.

Nuclear families are the norm and the strongest social unit. Other important institutions include the agricultural system, the moshup, the rasheng, ritual cults and folklore groups. Social status is based on wealth. Villages are controlled by a council called a kebang. Groups of villages are governed by ibango councils. In the old days disputes between various groups often escalated into armed conflict.

Most marriage are monogamous, Premarital sex is common and encouraged. Divorce is fairly common. Absolute authority resides with the husband-father. All property descends through the male line. Young children are raised by their parents until they reach adolescence when they move to the boys and girls dormitories.

The Abor wear ornaments around their neck, ears, waist and wrists. Their dresses and aprons are similar to those of Tibetans. They sometimes greet outsiders by forming a line and chant, sway and dance. Chiefs known as gam dressed in ceremonial gear wear battle helmets made from cane rings, a bark loin cloth and a sword known as a dao. The Ponung is a dance of the Adis performed by teams of young girls in perfect rhythmic unison. It is performed mainly for entertainment and recreation.

The Adi eat wild boar, roasted pig, venison, monkey, grains, eggs, beans and fruit. For fun they drink apong, a mildly intoxicating drink made from fermented grain. It has a sweet-and-sour taste. Adi women pound rice chaff with their bare feet and use it to make apong.

When hunting men use breach-action rifles and bows and arrows with poison tips. One the eve of the hunt men climb into the mountains to collect poisonous roots while shouting, " Gogbat! Gogbat!—May the poison be most powerful!" They then hold a big feast. Hunters go after birds, rats, wild boars, monkeys and deer. After the hunt a village elder wearing a red robe places a freshly killed monkey outside his home as a talisman.

Abor Economics and Agriculture

The Abor have traditionally practiced hunting, fishing, gathering and agriculture and bartered or sold their surpluses for necessities and luxuries they couldn’t produce for themselves. They had no currency of their own and placed a high value on metal items, particularly metal caldrons obtained from Tibet. They traditionally relied on slash-and-burn agriculture and used the land for one to three years before letting it return to jungle.

Primary crops include rice, five varieties of Job’s tears maize, four types of finger millet, foxtail millet, maize, namdung (a kind of seed), beans, oil seeds, gourds, pumpkins, eggplants, soybeans, potatoes, tomatoes, spinach, mustard, chilies, jackfruit, bananas, papayas, oranges and pineapples. Cotton is raised for clothing and fiber. Gayals, dogs, pigs, goats and chickens are kept. The Adi keep mithu, a cross between a wild buffalo and a water buffalo.

Bamboo, wood, cane, clay, stone, glass, metal, cotton and wool are used to make a variety of products, including clothes, tool, weapons, furniture,, baskets, containers and utensils. Items associated with warfare include bows, arrows, swords, shields, helmets, spiked wristlets and bamboo spikes or panjis.

The Abor have traditionally used trade networks that extended into Tibet. Groups throughout Abor territory traded with groups like the Boris that lived along the Siang Frontier. They also traded raw hides and chilies for rock salt, woolen cloth, swords, vessels, ear ornaments and brass bangles from the Tibetans.

Apatani

The Apatani are tribe of Chinese-Tibetan descent that lives around the Talle Wildlife Sanctuary in central Arunachal Pradesh. There are around 20,000 of them. They are farmers who like to hunt in the forest and catch small game with traps, bows and slingshots, but don't spend the night in the forest because they are afraid of spirits called bhoots. [Source: Jesse Oak Taylor-Ide, National Geographic, September 2000]

Apatani are especially fond of eating rats and squirrels and drinking rice beer. The rats are skewered on bamboo slivers and cooked over an open fire. The hair burns and the skin bubbles. The skin is carved off and served. The meat reportedly has a gamely flavor that taste somewhat like squirrel but varies depending on what the rats eat. One man told National Geographic, "When the old people eat rats they leave nothing. Rats like these are not found outside Talle. People walk for days just to eat them. For me, I prefer not to eat the skull, but its brain I do take."

The Apatani used to hunt tigers and leopards with spears made of poisonous bamboo but stopped doing so in 1975 out of respect to the cats. One Apatani told National Geographic, "The tiger is the brother of the human being. To kill a tiger is equal to murder...to kill any cats is a serious offense. The Apatani always cut the head off a snake they kill and bury it. If they don’t they believe the snake will come back and get them.”

People in the Talle Wildlife Sanctuary are also of Talle Valley tea, made with black tea and dark rum, and Talle Valley chicken stomach mixed with egg and cooked in bamboo. The also eat banana tree blossoms.

Bodos

Bodos are hill tribals of Mongol extraction who inhabit the northern plains region of Assam. Bodos are fervently proud of their heritage and culture and have increasingly felt that their own culture and language is threatened by Assamese dominance The Bodos are known to be the earliest settlers of Assam, and the first to cultivate rice and rear silkworms. The Bodos are considered to be the largest ethnic and linguistic group of the Brahmaputra valley and they reside in the north-western parts of Assam. Udalguri and Kokrajhar of Assam are considered the centre of the Bodo area. [Source: india-north-east.com |=|]

The Bodos are the largest among the Bodo - Kachari Clan. The word 'Bodo' has been derived from the word 'Bod' which means Tibet. The Bodos speak Tibeto - Burmese language or the Bodo language. Bodos also have a language of their own called Deodahi. They are considered to have reached the Brahmaputra valley via Tibet and settled in the foothills of the eastern Himalayan range which includes the whole of Assam, Tripura, North Bengal and parts of Bangladesh. Historically the great Bodos were known as the Mech. Even today the Bodos living in West Bengal, Nagaland and Nepal are called Mech. The Bodos use the term Bodosa (meaning son of Bodo) to describe themselves. Even though Bodos are demographically separated they follow the same culture, tradition, language and religion. |=|

Apart from farming, weaving is another integral part of Bodo culture. Many families rear their own silkworms, the cocoons of which are then spun into silk. Bodo girls learn to weave from a young age, and no Bodo courtyard is complete without a loom. The Bodos are also expert craftsmen in bamboo products. For most of the Bodo tribes, rice is the main food which is generally accompanied by mouth watering dishes made from pork or fish. Bodos are also fond of the conventional drink called Zu Mai. Zu means wine and Mai means rice. |=|

Bodo Religion and Culture

Bodos practice Brahmoism (a Hindu reform movement), Bathouism, Christianity and others. As of 2001, more than 90 percent of the Bodos living in Assam were believers of Bodo Brahma Dharma. However, the percentage of Christians is growing. In 1991, only 8.58 percent of the Bodo were Christian, but that percentage had increased to 9.40 percent by 2001. Similarly, the percentage of Brahmos decreased from 91.13 percent in 1991, to 90.31 percent in 2001. Only a few Bodos still believe in the Animist religion (2,478 in 1991, 141 in 2001). [Source: Wikipedia +]

In Bathouism is a form of forefather worship called Obonglaoree. The sijwu plant is taken as the symbol of Bathou and worshipped. In the Bodo Language Ba means five and thou means deep. Five is a significant number in the Bathou religion. A clean surface near home or courtyard is considered as an ideal place for worship. Usually, a pair of areca nut called 'goi' and betel leaf called 'pathwi' could be used as offering. On some occasion, worship offering could include rice, milk and sugar. For the Kherai Puja, the most important festival of the Bodos, the altar is placed in the rice field. +

Bathow Puja is an important religious festival of the Bodos. The different forms of this festival are - Garja, Kherai and Marai. Among these Kherai is the most significant and the most important festival of the Bodos. Other important festivals of the Bodos include Hapsa Hatarnai, Awnkham Gwrlwi Janai, Bwisagu and Domashi. +

The Bagarumba or Bagurumba dance and Deodhini Dance are the important dances of the Bodos. The Bagurumba dance is also called the “butterfly dance” as the dancers dance like butterflies. The term Deodhini is derived from the Sanskrit word “Deva” which means god or deity and “Dhani” means sound, i.e. echo. Hence the term “Deodhini” literally means the sound or utterings of a god or deity. |=|

The dresses of Bodo women are a distinguishable feature of Bodo culture. A man can identify a Bodo womanfolk seeing the dresses of her. Bodo woman wears her “Dokhna “covering the body from the chest down to the ankle. Its length and breadth is made in such a way that it can be tied one round at a time in the waist. Dokhna or Dokhona is made of varied colours and “Agor” or ( Phul in Assamese).Now-a-days Bodo women wear blouse to cover her upper bosom and adorns with “Jumgra “(Scarf)on it. The Jumgra covers the upper portion of the body. Bodo women wear various colours of scarf with full of Agor (handy work design) to beautify themselves. Seeing this beautiful art of the Bodo women Lady Hydery (Wife of the first Governor of Assam) made this comment, “I have travelled throughout the world with my husband but I have not seen that a mother has spun and woven the cloth for herself and for her children.” +

Bodos Political and Regional Groups

In 1956, Jawaharlal Nehru's government created linguistic states in the wake of ethnic strife throughout northeast India. However, Bodos (one of the largest tribal groups in India) did not receive a separate state but were incorporated into the state of Assam. Most Bodos seek autonomy within India in the form of a state of their own called "Bodoland" (which would comprise almost the entire area north of the Brahmaputra River in Assam). However, a relatively small segment of the group population seeks secession from India. Although the Assamese-dominated Assam's People Party (AGP) government attempted to treat Bodo tribals and other minority groups (within Assam) as part of greater Assamese society, the Bodos opposed these policies. [Source: Center for International Development and Conflict Management, University of Maryland ~]

Under the auspices of the All-Bodos Students Union (ABSU), headed by Upendra Nath Brahma, the Bodo community launched a self-determination movement in the late 1980s, reminiscent of the Assamese student movement a decade earlier. The Bodos' demand for a separate state from Assam, however is unacceptable to AGP members who fiercely oppose the division of the already "much-fragmented" state. The Bodos have also demanded that the central government recognize Bodo as one of India's national languages and that Bodo be declared as the official language in Bodo areas. They have called for an increase in the number of seats reserved for tribal peoples in admissions into educational institutions, as well as more housing grants, radio and television stations, and an agricultural university for Bodos. These cultural and economic demands, however, have not been voiced in recent years. ~

Bodo Insurgents

Bodos are represented by a variety of organizations, including the All-Bodos Students Union (ABSU), the Bodo Liberation Tigers, the Bodo Security Force and the National Democratic Front of Bodoland. The National Democratic Front of Bodoland has been fighting for an independent homeland for the Bodo tribe since 1985. In the late 1990s it and the ABSU dropped their demands for a separate Bodo homeland and instead called for the establishment of Bodoland Territorial Council.

Bodo groups have at times resorted to violent tactics, including attacks on public buildings and railroads to attract the attention of the central government. Both the ABSU and the Bodo Security Force (BSF) have employed violent measures to gain publicity for their cause. In the mid to late 1980s, more than 600 people were killed in Bodo-related violence. Between 2001 and 2003, Bodos clashed with Bengalis and Santal adivasis. Intercommunal conflict has continued in recent years, including with Assamese.

In July 1994, Bodo tribal militants launched on attack on a crowded relief camp near Bansbari, 100 miles east of Guwahati, killing at least 40 Muslims. The attack was the culminating event in a series of conflicts between Bodo tribe members and Muslim settlers from Bangladesh. Between October 2nd and October 5th, 2004, 70 people were killed in a series of explosions and gun attacks in town and villages markets and a station. Some of the bombs were strapped to bicycles. The attacks were blamed on the ULFA (United Liberation Front of Assam) and the National Democratic Front of Bodoland. Twelve people were killed when six heavily armed gunmen opened fire on a group gathered in a village square in western Assam. The attack was blamed on the National Democratic Front of Bodoland. Most of the victims were Muslims.

In February 2003, an agreement was reached between the national and state governments and Bodo leaders to create a Bodo Tribal Council that provided for greater self-rule in Bodo majority areas. The deal was implemented in December 2003, allowing for greater political control. As part of the settlement, the federal government announced the funding for the creation of a hospital and the provision of jobs for the rebels who had surrendered. Despite these developments, some Bodo factions continued to engage in militant activity. In 2005, an additional militant organization, the National Democratic Front of Bodoland, reached a year-long ceasefire with the government. Though the ceasefire technically elapsed in June 2006, there were no incidents of violence, and the talks were continuing. Protest has continued at low levels in recent years.

Garo

The Garos are a group that lives in the East and West Gar Hills in Meghalaya in northeast India. Also known as the Achik, they are well known because of their matrilineal customs. There are around a half million of them and more than half are Christians and others follow a traditional religion focuses on spirits that have no form but act like humans. The Garo have rain-making rituals. [Source: Encyclopedia of World Cultures: South Asia, edited by Paul Hockings, C.K. Hall & Company, 1992]

The Garo have traditionally been slash-and-burn agriculturalists who raised rice and a variety of crops on cleared forested slopes. The traded with people in the plains and were famous for being headhunters. They speak a Tibeto-Burman language related to Naga and are believed to originated from Tibet.

Kinship is determined through the mother and property is handed down through the female line. There are strict rules about marriage with young men preferably marrying their mother’s brothers daughter in an arranged marriage. After marriage the man moves into the residence of his wife. Even so men are regarded as the heads of the households and decision-makers about property. Women do most of the domestic chores, field work and make beer and men do the heavy work like clearing fields and constructing houses.

The Garos were once self sufficient but no longer are. They sell coal and wood for cash and have switched to high yield strains of rice and risk losing rare strains they have used for centuries. Crop yields are lower then they once because soil fertility has been compromised by collecting wood for timber rather than letting it rot and not letting field lie fallow as long as before during crop rotations. The Garo suffer from high rates of some diseases, particularly tuberculosis.

Film: Still, the Children Are Here is about a Garo village in northeast India. The impression one ges from this film is that the Garos are a tired people who have many of the same concerns as ordinary people.

Lakher

The Lakher are a Kuki tribe that lives n the Lushai Hills of Mizoram. Also known as the Magha, Mara, Shendu and Arakanese, they live in mountainous, forested areas and are related to the Chin, Mizos and Naga. There are around 20,000 of them. Many are Christians. The Lakher were headhunters and continue to hunt wild animals. They have traditionally eaten rats, elephants, bears and snakes but eschew tigers and leopards. Dogs are eaten by men but not women. Gayals are used in festival sacrifices and marriage settlements and to pay off debts.[Source: Encyclopedia of World Cultures: South Asia, edited by Paul Hockings, C.K. Hall & Company, 1992]

Most marriage are monogamous although some concubinage is practiced. Premarital sex is common. Courting often begins with a young man and woman working together in the fields and the male spending the night in the female house. If a young woman is interested in a young man she places her bed near his. Similar arrangements are made after young people sing and do a knee dance together at festivals.

Tattooing is practiced and people drink nicotine-water created by smoking through a water pipe. Music is produced with gong, flutes, violins and zithers and special songs are performed over the carcasses of dead animals. Sickness is believed to be caused when a soul leaves a body and has difficulty returning because of spirits known as leurahripas. Sacrifices are performed to appease the spirits and help the soul become reunited with the body. Death occurs when the soul is not united with body.

Mizo

The Mizo are a group that lives mainly in the small northeastern states of Mizoram. Manipur and Tripura. Also known as the Lushai and Zomi, they are a colorful tribe with a code of ethics that requires them to be hospitable, kind, unselfish and courageous. They are closely related to the Chin. Their name means “people of the high land.” [Source: Encyclopedia of World Cultures: South Asia, edited by Paul Hockings, C.K. Hall & Company, 1992]

The Mizo have traditionally been slash-and-burn agriculturists who hunted birds with catapults. Their main cash crop is ginger. Their language belong to the Kuki-Chin Subgroup of the Kuki-Naga Group of the Tibeto-Burman family of languages. These language are all tonal and monosyllabic and had no written form until missionaries gave them the Roman alphabets in the 1800s.

The Mizo and Chin share a similar history (See Chin). The Mizos have been in rebellion against Indian rule since 1966. They are allied with the Nagas and the Razakars, a non-Bengali Muslim group from Bangladesh."

The Mizo claim to be one of the lost tribes of Israel. They have a tradition of songs with stories that are similar to those found in the Bible.

Mizo Culture

Nearly all the Mizos in northeastern India converted to Christianity due to the pioneering efforts of an obscure Welsh mission. Most are Protestants and belong to the Welsh Presbyterian, United Pentecostal, Salvation Army or Seventh-Day Adventist sects.

Mizo villages are usually set up around churches. Pre-marital sex is common even though it is discouraged. The bride-price process is complicated and often includes the ritual sharing of a killed animal. Mizo women produce lovely textiles with geometric designs. They like Western-style music and use guitars and big Mizo drums and traditional bamboo dances to accompany church hymns.

The Cheraw is a colorful and distinctive dance performed in Mizram and also known as the bamboo dance. Similar to bamboo dances in the Philippines, it features dancers doing quick steps in and out of moving staves of bamboo.

Santhals

The Santhals are a group that lives in Assam. They migrated there from the Jharkhand region during the mid 19th century to work in Assam’s tea plantation. They claim they are being harassed and driven out of the area by Bodo separatists who want to lay claim to the areas where they live. Attacks on Santhal villages began in 1993. As of the early 2000s, 20,000 Santhals lived in refugee camps and 1,000 people had been killed in fighting between them and Bodo separatists. Santhals have threatened to take up arms unless the government does more to help them out.

See Santals Under Tribals

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Text Sources: New York Times, Washington Post, Los Angeles Times, Times of London, Lonely Planet Guides, Library of Congress, Ministry of Tourism, Government of India, Compton’s Encyclopedia, The Guardian, National Geographic, Smithsonian magazine, The New Yorker, Time, Newsweek, Reuters, AP, AFP, Wall Street Journal, The Atlantic Monthly, The Economist, Foreign Policy, Wikipedia, BBC, CNN, and various books, websites and other publications.

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© 2008 Jeffrey Hays

Last updated June 2015

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