Map of Arunachal Pradesh in Northeastern India.
History of Arunachal Pradesh Tribes/ Tribals
. . we are faced with the phenomenon of a rapid material, social, and
educational development of a tribal society which has found a place in
the modern world without so far losing its identity as a distinct ethnic
From time immemorial the until the later half of the twentieth century the people of the highlands of Arunachal Pradesh have lived in almost complete isolation and autonomy from the main body of Indian culture, economics, and civilization. But in 1944 and 1945 the Indian government began a policy of establishing contact with and administration of the tribes that lived in the Kameng and Subansiri districts of the region. At initial inception, the new government policies were very pro-tribal and by the mid 1980's the communities of the region were flourishing by the standards of the dominant global paradigm. My interest in writing this paper is to discover how this initial blooming has held up in the face of the globalization policies of the twenty first century, as well as to analyze how traditional tribal culture and values have been altered through increased contact with outside peoples, ideas, and systems.
Throughout this research I have taken liberty to clump all of the cultural groups of Arunachal Pradesh into one broad group vaguely labeled as “tribal” (I will provide a definition of this term subsequently). I have done this for the reason of clarity; as repeated cross references between group labels would invariably lead to confusion and the ultimate dilution of the point of this enquiry: which is not necessarily the specifics of any particular tribe, but a general synopsis of the changes that traditional tribal communities have undergone as a result of contact with industrialized society. Where it had become a necessity to distinguish one community from another I have done so but, again, my main focus is on the region as a whole.
I have chosen the tribals of the mountains of Arunchal Pradesh as my research subjects due to the fact that they have remained obscure and autonomous from dominant world systems until relatively recently. Therefore, an ideally concentrated lens has been created from which to view the effects that contact with modern civilization has on ancient ways of life.
The Kameng and Subansiri districts of Arunachal Pradesh, which means “land of the dawn-lit mountains,”1 stretch from the plains of the Assamese Brahmaputra valley in the south to the high mountains of Tibet and from Bhutan in the west to the frontier of Siang district in the east.2 Indicative of its name, much of the region is incredibly mountainous with inhabited elevations ranging from one to six thousand feet above sea level. “Geologically, the mountains are of young age, and break down into soil easily; and the whole of the land is covered with a thick mantle of vegetation.”3 The climate of the region, understandably, varies greatly depending upon ones elevation, and changes from the hot and humid plains of the south to the frigid highlands of the north.4 Rainfall is plentiful and some areas receive as much as a hundred inches of rain a year.5
Arunachal Pradesh was once an untamed land, free from the control of nation-states and governments but the Indian authority eventually sought to implement control over the region. This was done in stages, and prior to 1972, when Arunachal Pradesh gained acknowledgement as a union territory, it was administered as the North East Frontier Agency. In 1986 the region was granted full State recognition.6 This overtaking of Arunachal Pradesh and the subsequent ‘ordering’ of the population will be discussed later on in this study.
The state of Arunachal Pradesh is made up of five river valleys (the Kameng and Subansiri being just two of them) that are geographically isolated from each other. Due to these natural barriers the tribes of the region traditionally had little to no contact with any of the other tribes that inhabited different valleys. This isolation has allowed for the independent cultural evolution of communities that initially came from a similar genealogical and cultural background.
The people of the Arunachal Pradesh region are predominantly of Mongoloid stock and speak languages that are related to the Tibeto-Burman linguistic group.7 Phenotypically, they appear very similar to the Tibetans of the southern reaches of Kham with whom they share a 1,080km border and, subsequently, a common blood heritage. Historically, the entire Arunachal Pradesh region was a part of Tibet until 1914, when the British annexed the area to provide a buffer zone for its southern colony with the deal known as the “McMahon Line.”8 Culturally, the Arunachal tribes are agrarian and they traditionally subsist on various forms of cultivation, domestication, and trade.
The agricultural techniques of many of the Arunachal tribes are very complex and ingenious, yet their physical methods of cultivation are among the most primitive in the world. As Christoph Von Furer-Haimendorf states:9
Although the Apa Tanis [representative tribe of Arunchal Pradesh] had
developed an exceedingly efficient system of rice cultivation which enabled
them to produce a surplus of grain for barter with neighboring tribes, they
did not know the use of the plough, were unfamiliar with the wheel, and did
not use their cattle for traction, carriage, or milking.
The Apa Tanis’ ecologically conscious, creative, and very productive manner of wet rice cultivation has even inspired UNESCO to consider making their valley into a World Heritage Site.10
Although many of the Arunachal tribes have been sedentary agriculturalist for an extended time, some of the region’s tribals, such as the Nishis, traditionally depended upon shifting cultivation for their sustenance. Their particular manner of field rotation is referred to as Jhum cultivation and is a type of migratory slash and burn technique to clear and fertilize agricultural plots. As Nirmal Kumar Bose explains:11
In areas where it is practiced in India, a village community controls a certain measure of land, consisting of mountains and valleys, and puts a small part of it every year under cultivation. . . After winter, a portions of the hill-side or jungle is first marked off for cultivation. It is cleared by lopping off the undergrowth and branches of trees, which are allowed to dry. . . Shortly before the rains set in, the dry leaves and bushes are set on fire . . . the ashes are lightly spread over the ground.
In this way the soil is fertilized and is now ready for the sowing of crops. This is done by making a small hole in the ground into which seeds are placed and then covered with the freshly invigorated soil.12 This particular way of agrarian centric migration traditionally consists of communities staying in one area just long enough to reap the agricultural benefits of the soil- usually around three years- before moving to another area to carry out the same process. Jhum cultivation is generally only practiced in hill-strewn areas and even the more settled tribes still farm the steep areas of their localities in this way.13
The rigors of the semi-alpine regions of Arunachal Pradesh are vast and the area as a whole can be thought of as being rather inhospitable to human habitation. These inherent environmental hazards have pressured many of the tribal cultures to innovate unique practices to better ensure their survival. An example of this is found in the fact that, at the high elevations of the region, only one rice crop a year is possible; so the tribal cultivators will, often times, plant both early as well as late ripening varieties of rice in order to slightly offset the harsh demands of the environment.14 This and other ingenious agricultural methods show the degree to which the people of this region live in observance of, and in accordance with, the rhythms of the natural environment. If such attention had not been paid to the particular ecology of each valley then human communities would have consistently had a much harder struggle for survival indeed.
In lieu of the fact that the traditional15 tribal cultures of the region have evolved, to varying degrees, independently of each other it is necessary to momentarily focus on a few tribes separately; in order to analyze their particular patterns of living. I have chosen three representative, though very distinct, communities from the Subansiri and Kameng valleys for the purpose of showing the range of cultural variation that was traditionally present in the region. These three tribal groups are the Apa Tanis, the Nishi, and the Sherdukpen. There are many more distinct cultural groups in the region but, for reasons of brevity and conciseness, I feel that these three tribes adequately represent the cultural span of the region as a whole. Please note that I am making references to how these tribes traditionally operated; I will go into contemporary developments later on in this investigation.
Before we proceed any further, it will be useful to first devise a working definition of the terms “tribe” and “tribal” for the context of this investigation. The Anthropologist, A. Beteille qualifies tribes by their, ‘primitivity’ and ‘indigenousness16 while Aparna Rao and Michael J. Casimir denote such groups as displaying attributes of “isolation, . . . subsistence economies, autonomy, and homogeneity.”17 In his study of the Banjaras, C.H. Childers wrote that, “In India, to speak of a group as ‘tribal’ conveys that it is thought of as operating in the interstices of social order, as not locked into any single localized system.”18 Whereas Suresh Sharma notes that, “. . . the tribal formation represents an early form of human organization in the universal though often complicated scheme of human evolution.”19 The Indian scholar, B.P. Singh, denotes tribes as having kin-based social structures, a strong sense of group identity, and a common ancestry.20 In my own definition, a tribe is a group that exists in a distinctly independent paradigm from outside force of influence while sustaining an autochthonous society based in community initiative; while, at the same time, viewing themselves as being part of a cultural entity that is distinct from all other societies. Ideological dislocation from any particular tract of land and a way of living that works within, rather than dominating over, the natural environment can also be used as defining qualities of what I deem as a tribal society.
The Apa Tanis are traditionally agrarian sedentarist who made their niche in the 52 sq. km valley that bears their name (Apa Tani Valley) at an unknown time in the distant past. There are seven villages in the valley that, in 1980, varied in size from 160 to 1,000 homes. The Apa Tanis live in uncharacteristically crowded conditions and “The fact that roughly 300 tribal people can make a living on one square kilometer would be unusual anywhere among primitive subsistence cultivators dependent on their own resources. . .”21 They live in a mountainous environment at five thousand feet above sea level and have adapted to this semi-alpine environment culturally as well as genotypically. As with most other Arunachal tribes, they are of Mongoloid descent and still bear the characteristic physical features of their northern brethren.
As a tribal unit, the Apa Tanis are very successful agriculturalist and they have evolved a highly complex system of cultivation using very primitive, grassroots technologies. “They are expert at growing several varieties of rice” and they utilize terraced fields that are irrigated by a very complicated system of channels and ducts.22 Every piece of cultivatable land is used in Apa Tani Valley and they have devised an ingenious method of agriculture that does not call for excessive crop rotation and the need to leave fields occasionally fallow. Christoph von Furer-Haimendorf observed their agrarian sophistication when he wrote:23
The meticulous care with which the Apa Tanis have transformed the entire valley into
veritable garden, in which every square yard is put to a useful purpose, is one of the most striking characteristics of the tribe, and one which distinguishes them from the much less systematic shifting cultivators in the surrounding hill regions.
Apart from rice cultivation in all available level and terraced land, the Apa Tanis also make use of the surrounding hills by growing millet, maize, potatoes, and vegetables (though many of these crops were introduced post-contact) on them using traditional Jhum slash and burn methods.24
Culturally, the Apa Tanis live in a highly structured and well-developed society that seems to be on par with subsistence agrarian communities the world over. Apa Tani society is divided into two distinct social classes that can roughly be described as the ‘patricians’ and the ‘commoners.’25 The upper ‘patrician’ class owns more land in the valley and, consequently, carries more political clout. Community decisions are made through democratically elected tribunals administered by bulyans, who can be thought of as tribal elders, “. . . but there has never been any overall authority controlling the entire tribal community or determining its relations with neighboring Nishi villages.”26 Slavery was once prominent in Apa Tani society and the slaves were usually acquired through inter-tribe warfare and kidnapping. Descent is traced patrilineally and men occupy a slightly higher status than women; although both sexes share in house hold responsibilities.27 Traditionally, “Money had no place in their economy” and trade was carried out using cattle as a manner of currency.28 The holding of land has always been held in great esteem and is used to dictate a man’s “prestige and influence” within the community.29 Prior to contact, community work groups would cultivate all of the fields in the valley in rotation30 and the functions of mutual aid were very common in most spheres of labor. Taken all together, Apa Tani society matured to a very high level without outside influence. Many of the attributes of traditional Apa Tani society even reflect community structures that are the hallmark of the so-called ‘civilized’ cultures of broader India.
The Apa Tanis traditionally have a strong sense of religions devotion which serves, in large part, the construction of their sense of identity as a culture. Their religion was originally based on the indigenous Tibetan Bonpo but has subsequently grown into a distinct faith. The rituals of animism still hold strong sway and sacrifices to nature spirits are a regular practice. “When a misfortune occurs, they believe it is caused by certain spirits, and thus they make appeasement sacrifices of chickens and cows.”31 The Apa Tani social calendar is based around religious celebrations and the tri-annual feast of the Mloko is the foundation of the yearly devotional cycle. As they are able to communicate with the gods and deities, Shamans play a large role in Apa Tani religious devotion. Belief in an underworld, that in all aspects resembles life on earth, is another strong aspect of the faith.32 The religion of the Apa Tanis has always served as a manner of social adhesive and, in a large part, defines what it means to be a part of their culture. Missionaries have attempted to make ground in their community and there are now around a thousand converted Christians but, “They are sometimes considered socially inferior by the more orthodox Apa Tanis, as the Apa Tanis tend to look down on those who follow another religion.”33
The Apa Tanis consume a diet that is very different from their Hindu neighbors on the plains of Assam. They are ardent carnivores and “Among the Apa Tanis there is an inexhaustible demand for beef . . .”34 But rice is still the staple of their diet and they also regularly ingest other grains and vegetables.
The traditional appearance of the Apa Tani is very elaborate and distinct. Their clothing is very colorful and decorations of cane, metal, and beads are also worn in abundance. The men usually wear cane hats and tie their hair in top-knots, which are then skewered with twelve inch brass rods that look like knitting needles. The women traditionally stretch out their nose and ear piercings and insert very large gauge plugs of silver or wood. Men also elongate their earlobes and wear similar jewelry as the women.35 Traditionally, tattooing was also very prominent, and Apa Tanis of both sexes would decorate their faces with elaborate tattoos. It has been presumed that this tradition arose through the desire to make the women so unattractive that rival tribesmen would not abduct them for marital purposes.36 But, from studies of the tattooing traditions of other cultures, I do not feel that this defensive motive was enough initiative for the continued proliferation of the art. Tattooing has deep cultural meaning and is a mechanism by which individuals are able to define themselves and their community from the pale of outside society. This inherent drive for community distinction is very strong and I feel that it is one of the main reasons why people of various tribal cultures (as well as those of other social structures) go to such self-deprecating lengths to indelibly impose a visible inside/ outside cultural dichotomy. In recent times, the drive to decoratively sign-post ones cultural affiliation in Apa Tani society seems to be going by the wayside and many young Apa Tanis are substituting the distinct dress of their forbearers in exchange for western slacks and button up shirts.
The Nishis are another tribal group whose traditional ways I would like to further explore in this paper. They live in the south west part of Subansiri District and extend westward into neighboring Kameng District. The Assamese once referred to them as “Daflas,” which has the derogatory meaning of “wild man.” The term Nishi, that comes from the word Ni which means “man,” was found to be less objectionable by tribe themselves and they are adamant about being referred to as such in their dealings with outside communities.37 The Nishis’ population is currently around 120,000, which is 11% of the total for Arunachal Pradesh.38 Like their neighbors, the Apa Tanis, they are highlanders and live a way of life that fits the demands of their environment.
Nishi lore tells us that they are descendents from a mythological figure named Takr and his three sons. The sons pro-generated the three branches of Nishi society: the Dopum, Dodum, and Dol.39 These strands of Nishi culture are then further divided into a spider-web of clans who have varying degrees of connections with each other.
Traditionally, the Nishis are shifting cultivators who continuously live on a rotational cycle that takes them to various, though somewhat localized, agricultural areas. As Christoph von Furer-Haimmendorf observed, “. . . the Nishi . . . seldom tills a piece of land more than two or three years in succession . . .”40 They are slash and burn agriculturalist who, traditionally, apply the most primitive of methods. The iron hoe, digging stick, and wooden baton are examples of archaic tools that the Nishi used up until very recently. They rely on Jhum methods of cultivation, the specifics of which have been outlined previously in this paper. The root of Nishi agricultural approach lies in their mobility, and they have been almost continuously migratory; forever moving from hillock to hillock in the pursuit of fertile land that would provide them with sustenance.
Traditional Nishi social structure is rather anarchic and lacks all vestiges of a central authority. The adhesive of their community is found in a grassroots network of family and friend ties. They live in large long houses comprising several families and, “It is only the members of such a giant household who have the duty to support each other in any dispute with outside adversaries, for Nishis lack tribal organization capable of maintaining law and order.”41 Polyandry and polygamy are both practiced freely and nearly all forms of community structure seem adaptable to environmental and social circumstance. There was no conception of land ownership in traditional Nishi society and everyone had the right to cultivate wherever they wished. The possession of any demarcaters of wealth were also discouraged as, “. . . wealth could not be invested in land, and moveable possessions, be they cattle or valuables, were liable to fall into the hands of powerful opponents.”42
The Nishis are historically a very war prone people and continuous disputes and feuds with other tribes were commonplace. When rival tribes would invade Nishi settlements there was no inherent obligation on the part of anyone in the village to assist anyone else who was directly in the troughs of violence. “Any disputes created among themselves are considered to be personal rather than social matters and the parties are often left themselves to settle their score, without interference of the society.”43 This was essentially an “every man for himself” type of dichotomy, which caused the entire community to perpetually live in a state of fear of being kidnapped and raided. Often times, families would attempt to raise their level of security through making marriage and friendship bonds with members of other communities. But this was all done on a long-house by long-house basis; as there was no cohesive community structure to any Nishi village.44
The religious beliefs of the Nishis are similar to that of the Apa Tanis though, at the same time, distinctly their own. They follow a form of the Donyi-polo faith, which is of quasi-Tibetan origin, and the worship of animistic deities is one of its main attributes. The devotion to nature spirits coincides perfectly with the precarious manner in which the Nishis have lived for so long. As they have been perpetually at the mercy of their environment and other circumstances beyond their control, it is completely obvious as to why the Nishi faith evolved to allow for the direct communion with the forces of happenstance (i.e. sacrifices to appease nature).
The Nishis, traditionally, also have a very colorful way of dress that is very similar to that of the Apa Tanis. Both men and women elongate their earlobes in order to wear ear spools of silver or wood. The women dress rather ornately and have many strands of beads draped around necks, heads, and wrists. The men arrange their hair in top knots that are skewered by brass pins and they often times carry swords for both decoration and protection. The main article of clothing for both men and women is a single piece of cloth that hangs over the shoulders down and to the knees. This is usually tied at the waste with decorated cane rings, bead strands, or a brass chain.45 I have not been exposed to any research material that indicates if the Nishi also practiced tattooing but, given their proximity to the Apa Tanis and the intrigue that the art seems to inherently possess, I would not doubt that they engaged in tattooing at some point in their history. Again, like the Apa Tanis, the traditional dress of the Nishi has also been altered by the workings of time, a topic that I will breach later on.
The Sherdukpen are the third group that I will analyze to represent the cultural range of the tribes of Arunachal Pradesh. They are a relatively small tribe that number around 4,200 members who live between two settlements in a single valley of Kameng District.46 They refer to themselves as the Senji-Thonji, but the name Sherdukpen, which is what the neighboring tribes call them, was adopted by the Indian Government. They live in a mountainous environment with elevations ranging between five to six thousand feet and they are also, like most of the Arunachal tribes, of Mongoloid descent.
The Sherdukpen live in permanent villages and their social structure is highly organized. Their folklore tells them that they are descended from a Tibetan prince and his entourage who came from Beyalung. Following their historic rites, Sherdukpen communities are divided into two endogamous classes: the dominant is known as the Thong and the subordinate the Tsao. The members of the Thong class are said to be the descendents of the Tibetan prince whereas the Tsao class, which makes up the majority of the population, derived from the princes followers. Membership in these classes is determined by birthright and there is no opportunity for an individual to interchange between them.47 The community is politically arranged around a village council which is presided over by a Chief whose responsibility it is to administer social control. Recognition of descent in Sherdukpen genealogy is along patrilineal lines, and monogamous, nuclear family arrangements are most commonly practiced.48
Religious practice forms a major part of Sherdukpen life and also serves as a major qualifier of their cultural identity. They are traditionally Tibetan Buddhist of the Gelugpa sect, though the influence of Bonpo animism is still heavily retained. Haimendorf wrote of this spiritual combination as follows: “Like many populations on the periphery of the Tibetan cultural sphere, the Sherdukpens practice two religions: an old tribal cult as well as Mahayana Buddhism.”49 An interesting aspect of the Sherdukpen religious culture is that they share an annual festival with the Assamese plainsmen at the mutual border that both groups share in common. This celebration bears no relation to Tibetan Buddhism and is presided over by priests who are elected by the Sherdukpen of Rupa village. The practice of Buddhist rites are generally carried out by lamas who have received ordination in nearby Bhutan.50
The traditional dress of the Sherdukpen is very similar to what I have previously described in reference to the Apa Tanis and the Nishi. One difference is that their sleeveless robe is made of silk, rather than cotton.51
Taken all together, the three Tribal
groups that I have outlined provide a good representation of the
cultural spectrum of the Kameng and Subansiri Districts of Arunachal
Pradesh. The Apa Tanis are very successful sedentary agriculturist who
live in a highly structured society, the Nishi are a free roaming,
semi-itinerant group of Jhum cultivators who do not have any form
of centralized authority, whereas the Sherdukpen are Tibetan Buddhist
who still retain a strong sense of their historic heritage. I have taken
the liberty to use the combined traditional practices of these groups as
a lens from which one can view the cultural basis of the region prior to
contact with the greater whole of India. Though many of the finer
cultural aspects of the Arunachal Pradesh tribes may differ, they all
currently find themselves occupying a similar position in the
2 Christoph von Furer-Haimendorf. Tribes of India: The Struggle for Survival (Delhi: Oxford University Press, 1985). 286.
3 Nirmal Kumar Bose. Tribal Life in India (New Delhi: National Book Trust, 1971). 12.
5 Nirmal Kumar Bose. Tribal Life in India (New Delhi: National Book Trust, 1971).12.
7 Christoph von Furer-Haimendorf. Tribes of India: The Struggle for Survival (Delhi: Oxford University Press, 1985). 286.
9 Christoph von Furer-Haimendorf. Tribes of India: The Struggle for Survival (Delhi: Oxford University Press, 1985). 287.
10 Based on observations of other UNESCO sites around the world, this fact indicates to the researcher that the Apa Tani valley has be tossed into the thoroughs of excessive tourism.
11 Nirmal Kumar Bose. Tribal Life in India (New Delhi: National Book Trust, 1971).12.
14 Ibid. 288.
15 The use of the word “traditional” is meant to indicate the long standing pre-contact period.
16 A.Beteille. “The Ideal of Indigenous People” Current Anthropology 39 (1998): 187-91
17 Aparna Rao and Michael J. Casimir (editors). Nomadism in South Asia (Oxford: Oxford UniversityPress, 2003). 17.
18 C.H. Childers. “Banjaras” in Aparna Rao and Michael J. Casimir (editors). Nomadism in South Asia(Oxford: Oxford University Press, 2003). 398.
19 Suresh Sharma. Tribal Identity and the Modern World (New Delhi: Sage Publications, 1994). 1.
20 B.P. Singh. “North-East India: Demography, Culture, and Identity Crisis” Modern Asian Studies Vol. 21, No.2 (1987): 270.
21 Christoph von Furer-Haimendorf. Tribes of India: The Struggle for Survival (Delhi: Oxford University Press, 1985). 28.
22 Ibid. 288.
23 Ibid. 288-290.
24 Ibid. 288.
25 Christoph von Furer-Haimendorf. Tribes of India: The Struggle for Survival (Delhi: Oxford University Press, 1985). 298.
26 Ibid. 29
28 Christoph von Furer-Haimendorf. Tribes of India: The Struggle for Survival (Delhi: Oxford University Press, 1985). 290.
29 Ibid. 290.
30 Ibid. 291.
32 Christoph von Furer-Haimendorf. Tribes of India: The Struggle for Survival (Delhi: Oxford University Press, 1985). 29 and 299.
34 Christoph von Furer-Haimendorf. Tribes of India: The Struggle for Survival (Delhi: Oxford University Press, 1985). 292.
35 Ibid. 24.
37 Christoph von Furer-Haimendorf. Tribes of India: The Struggle for Survival (Delhi: Oxford University Press, 1985). 23.
39 Christoph von Furer-Haimendorf. Tribes of India: The Struggle for Survival (Delhi: Oxford University Press, 1985). 23.
40 Christoph von Furer-Haimendorf. Tribes of India: The Struggle for Survival (Delhi: Oxford University Press, 1985). 28.
41 Ibid. 26.
42 Ibid. 26.
44 Christoph von Furer-Haimendorf. Tribes of India: The Struggle for Survival (Delhi: Oxford University Press, 1985). 300.
47 Christoph von Furer-Haimendorf. Tribes of India: The Struggle for Survival (Delhi: Oxford University Press, 1985). 30
49 Christoph von Furer-Haimendorf. Tribes of India: The Struggle for Survival (Delhi: Oxford University Press, 1985). 31.
50 Christoph von Furer-Haimendorf. Tribes of India: The Struggle for Survival (Delhi: Oxford University Press, 1985). 31.
|History of Arunachal Pradesh Tribes/ Tribals|