Arunachal is a treasure trove of ethnic diversity and ancient traditions and shaped by its geographic setting. Living in the remotest part of northeast India, these people are still moored to the traditional lifestyles.
The Monpas and Sherdukpens of Bomdila and Tawang (blog) in West Kameng and the Membas belong to the Mahayana stream of Buddhism. The Khamtis, Singpos and Tangsas of Lohit and Tirap region are said to have originally migrated from Thailand and Myanmar (Burma) and follow Hinayana Buddhist practices. The Adis, Akas, Apatanis, Mishis, Nyishis, Mijis, Tagins and Galo communities still follow animist tribal forms of worship which are linked to the seasonal and agricultural cycles. The Mishmis in Lohit, Upper and Lower Dibang Valley, Noctes and Wanchos in Tirap and Changlang districts also still continue with their ancient beliefs and indigenous practices of worship, which is animistic in nature.
The Monpa belong to the Mongoloid Kirati ethnic groups centered in Tawang and West Kameng districts. A small number of them may be found in bordering areas of East Kameng district and Bhutan. The Monpa are followers of the Gelug sect of Tibetan Buddhism and the Tawang Monastery plays an important role in their daily lives. The Monpa are known for their wood carving, Thangka painting, carpet making and weaving. They manufacture paper from the pulp of the local sukso tree. They are also renowned for their wooden bowls and bamboo woven products.
Principal Monpa festivals include Choskar, Losar, Ajilamu and Torgya. During Losar, people pay pilgrimage at the Tawang monastery to pray for the coming Tibetan New Year. The Monpa practice shifting and other types of cultivation methods. Cattle, yaks, cows, pigs, sheep and fowl are kept as domestic animals, and meat is hunted using primitive methods. Due to the cold climate of the Himalayas, the Monpa, like most of the other Buddhist tribes, construct their house of stone and wood with plank floors, often accompanied with beautifully carved doors and window frames. The roof is made with bamboo matting, keeping their house warm during the winter season.
The Sherdukpen are an ethnic group inhabiting West Kameng in the villages of Rupa, Jigaon, Thongri, Shergaon in Bomdila. Sherdukpen society is divided into two classes- The Thong and Chao, the former is considered the higher caste and is divided into eight clans. Marriage between castes is considered a taboo within the tribal society and is strongly discouraged. Local legend mentioned that the upper caste are the descendants of a Tibetan king and Ahom princess, of which they bore two sons. The Chao are the descendants of the king’s porters and servants. The Sherdukpen generally practice monogamy and trace their descent patrilineally. Their houses are built on strong stone foundations with their wall and floor made from thick wooden planks. The Sherdukpen are agriculturalists, although hunting and traditional fishing methods are practiced as well. Using simple tools, both shifting and permanent farming methods are practised, and livestock such as ponies, cows, goats, sheep, fowls and bullocks are kept.
The Memba are a tribal population centered on Tuting and Geling, near the Siang river in the West Siang and Upper Siang district of Arunachal Pradesh, not very far from the Tibetan border. The Memba are agriculturalists and grow cash crops in the terraced fields. Boiled rice & millet flour is their staple diet. Their homes are made of stone and wood and walls are made of wooden planks. The house is built on a raised platform above the ground. The Membas follow Nyingmapa Tibetan Buddhism and have their own script- ‘Hikor’, which is derived from the Tibetan script. In every village, there is a small Gompa presided by a Buddhist Lama. They are devout Buddhists, and follow all the intricate details and rituals of Buddhist worship. Festivals that are celebrated by the Memba include Losar and Choskar.
The Mishmi or Deng people of Tibet and Arunachal Pradesh are an ethnic group comprising mainly three tribes; Idu Mishmi, Digaro tribe and Miju Mishmi. The Mishmis occupy the northeastern tip of Arunachal Pradesh in Upper and Lower Dibang Valley and in Lohit and Anjaw districts. The three sub-divisions of the tribe emerged due to the geographical distribution, but racially all the three groups are of the same stock. The Idus have their distinct dialect, which falls under the Tibeto-Burman group of languages. Traditionally, Idus believe in animism. They practice both terrace and wet rice cultivation. rice, maize and millet are the staple food of the Idu–Mishmis. They preserve food by smoking and drying over the fireplace. The Idu women are excellent weavers and their great aesthetic sense and skills are well reflected in the exquisite handloom weaves created by them. The Idu men make beautiful basketry items of bamboo and cane. An Idu-Mishmi house is rectangular, raised above two feet from the ground and supported on wooden posts usually to accommodate a joint family. Bamboo, cane, wood, leaves and straws are used for construction. The major festivals of the Idus are ‘Reh’ and ‘Ke-meh-ha’. Reh festival is held during the month of February. It is an occasion for merrymaking. The Keh-Meh-Ha festival is a post harvest festival and is celebrated every year on the advent of winter season on September 24. ‘Keh-Meh-Ha’ in Idu dialect means eating new rice. On this day, they make offerings to the gods for good yield of harvest. The highlights are; the sacred preparation of the rice beer to begin the festival, followed by traditional folk dances, rituals and community feast.
The Khamti, or Tai Khamti are a sub-group of the Shan people found in the Sagaing Division, Hkamti District in northwestern Burma as well as Lohit district of Arunachal Pradesh in India. A small number can be found in parts of Assam as well as the East Siang district of Arunachal Pradesh. They adopted a script of Shan origin, known as ‘Lik-Tai’ for their language and their mother tongue is known as Khamti language. The Khamtis are very strong believers of Theravada Buddhism, a branch of Buddhism that uses the teaching of the oldest recorded Buddhist texts, as its doctrinal core, but also includes a rich diversity of traditions and practices that have developed over its long history of interactions with various cultures and communities. Houses of the Khamtis are built on raised floors with thatched roofs. Wooden planks are used for flooring and the walls are made of bamboo splices. The Khamti are settled agriculturists. and grow crops such as paddy rice, mustard, sesame seeds and potato. The Khamti are renowned for their craftsmanship of using wood, bone or ivory to carve out religious statues. Sangken is the main festival of Khamti. It is celebrated on 14th April. The main attraction of the festival is splashing clean water, which is the symbol of peace and purity. The procession is accompanied by drums, dances and enjoyment. This holy bath of lord Buddha is an auspicious event in the festival. The celebration takes place for three consecutive days.
The Tangsa, termed Tangshang in Myanmar (Burma), is a community living in Changlang Districts of Arunachal Pradesh,and parts of Tinsukia District of Assam and across the border in Sagaing Region, Myanmar (Burma). They are a scheduled tribe under the Indian Constitution where they are listed under ‘other Naga tribes’. Today Tangsa people live in the Patkai mountains, on the border of India and Burma, and some live in the plains areas on the Indian side of the border. The Tangsa’s habitation along the Myanmar border resulted in cultural influence from neighboring tribes across the border and the adoption of Burmese dress among many tribal members. Traditionally Tangsa people practiced shifting cultivation and those in the plains practice wet rice cultivation. Owing to the climate and terrain, the Tangsa live in stilt houses, which are divided into many rooms. Traditionally the Tangsas were animistic and is still prevalent and seen in the Wihu Kuh festival. The festival involves sacrifice of animals and prayers and songs to the female earth spirit, Wihu. Another annual festival celebrated by the Tangsas is the Mol or Kuh-a-Mol in April or May. This festival is related to agriculture where they make animal sacrifice to appease the gods in hope for a bumper harvest. Some Tangsas, particularly the Tikhak and Yongkuk in India and many Donghi in Myanmar, have come under the influence of Theravada Buddhism and have converted. Most of the Tangsas, have accepted Christianity.
The Adi, or Bori or Bokar Lhoba people is one of major Tani tribe living in the Himalayan hills of Arunachal Pradesh. They are found in the temperate and sub-tropical regions within the districts of East Siang, Upper Siang, West Siang, Lower Dibang Valley and Lohit. The literal meaning of Adi is “hill” or “mountain top”. The Adis live in hill villages, each traditionally keeping to itself, under a selected chief who moderates the village council. While the older women wear yellow necklaces and spiral earrings, unmarried girls wear a beyop, an ornament that consists of five to six brass plates fixed under their petticoats. Tattooing was popular among the older women. The Adi celebrate a number of festivals, in particular their prime festivals are Aran, Solung and Etor. Solung, is observed in the first week of September for five days or more. It is a harvest festival performed after the sowing of seeds and transplantation, to seek for future bumper crops. On the last day of Solung, indigenous weaponry are displayed along the passage of the houses – a belief that they would protect people from evil spirits (This ritual is called Taktor). The Adi practice wet rice cultivation and have a considerable agricultural economy. The Adi keep pigs, chickens, mithuns and grow vegetables. The majority of Adi traditionally follow the animist Donyi-Polo religion, which involves the worship of deities who are associated with certain tasks and act as their protectors and guardians. In modern times many of the Adi, especially the youth, have converted to Christianity. Adis in Tibet, in particular the Bokars, have adopted Tibetan Buddhism.
Akas or Hrusso
The Aka, also known as Hrusso, are found in the Thrizino, Bhalukpong, Buragaon, Jamiri, Palizi, Khuppi area in West Kameng of Arunachal Pradesh. Their language belongs to the Tibeto-Burman family. For the convenience of administration, the Aka people elect a chief, who often plays the role of the village headman. Polygamy is widely practiced in their patrilineal society, and cross-cousin marriages are accepted. The Aka practice shifting cultivation and rear domestic animals such as the Mithun. The Aka live in elongated houses made from bamboo, wood and cane leaves. Raised on platforms about 6 feet above the ground, the Aka house are further sub-divided into three sections. The granary is built away from the main house. The Aka share strong cultural affinities with the Miji, and intermarriage with the Miji is prevalent. Handicrafts, basket weaving and wood carving are the principal arts among the Aka tribe. Indigenous festivals under the guidance of a village shaman such as those of the four-day Nechido festival, held in January, involves the affiliation with the natural world and community. The Aka are mainly Animists, however, centuries of Buddhist and Hindu influences have greatly shaped the religious rites of their religion. Superstitions and magic play an important role in their belief system.
The Apatani, or Tanii, are a tribal group of people living in the Ziro valley in the Lower Subansiri district and a few in other parts of Arunachal Pradesh. Their language belongs to the Sino-Tibetan family. The Apatanis practiced facial tattooing and modification until the 1970s. The females had two sets of tattoos: one running from the forehead to the tip of the nose, and another set on the chin. The male had a less elaborate tattoo on the chin in the shape of a “T”. The females were the only one practicing facial modification with the use of nose plugs, called ‘yaping hurlo’ in the local language.
The agricultural system of Apatanis is unique of its own, where resources are used judiciously to gain maximum production. Their wet rice cultivation system and their agriculture system are extensive even without the use of any farm animals or machines. So is their sustainable social forestry system. UNESCO has named the Apatani valley a World Heritage Site for its “extremely high productivity” and “unique” way of preserving the ecology. The Apatanis live in very closely constructed houses in the villages. A traditional Apatani house is identified by its use of tall vertical wooden stilts, tight weave of the walls and the floors, and bamboo roofing. Most Apatanis are nature worshippers. Myoko, the festival of friendship and prosperity, is celebrated in a grand manner lasting for all of March each year. Dree Festival, celebrated on 5th July every year, is the main agricultural festival of the Apatanis.
The Singpho are a tribe inhabiting India, China and Myanmar. In India they reside in the district of Lohit and Changlang in Arunachal Pradesh and in Assam they inhabit the district of Tinsukia and some districts of Sivasagar, Jorhat and Golaghat. The Singpho are the same people as those called the Kachin in Burma and the Jingpo in China. They speak the Singpho dialect of the Jingpo language. Like the Khampti, the Singpho are mainly Theravada Buddhist by religion. Animism is also widely followed in this community.
Unlike most hill-people, shifting or jhum cultivation is not as widely practiced by the Singphos, although tea is widely planted. Singphos were the ones who gave British the idea of tea. The Singpho produce their tea by plucking the tender leaves and drying them in the sun and exposing to the night dew for three days and nights. The leaves are then placed in the hollow tube of a bamboo, and the cylinder will be exposed to the smoke of the fire. In this way, their tea can be kept for years without losing its flavor. The Singpho also depended on yams and other edible tubers as their staple food. Singpho dwellings are usually two stories and built out of wood and bamboo. The houses are of oval form; the first floor serves as a storage and stable while the second is utilized as living quarters.
The Nyishi tribe is spread across six districts of Arunachal Pradesh (Papum Pare, part of Lower Subansiri, Kurung Kumey, East Kameng, parts of Upper Subansiri, and the recently created disctrict Kra Dadi. They are also found in the Sonitpur and North Lakhimpur districts of the neighboring state of Assam. ‘Nyi’ refers to “a man” and the word ‘shi’ denotes “a being”, which collectively means a civilized human being. The Nyishi are agriculturalists who practice jhum cultivation. Rice is the staple food of the people, supplemented by fish, meat of various animals, edible tubers and leafy vegetables.
Traditionally, Nyishi plait their hair and tie it neatly at the forehead with Tibetan thread. A brass skewer passes horizontally through the tied hair. Cane rings were worn around the waist, arms and legs. Men wear a cane helmet surmounted with the beak of the great Indian hornbill. The usage of actual hornbill beaks is discouraged these days due to tough wildlife protection laws since the great Indian hornbill is a protected species and also due to growing awareness among the people.
Nyokum is the festival celebrated by the Nyishi to thank for the harvest yield, and includes religious rituals which coincide with lunar phases or agricultural cycles. It is celebrated between 24 to 26 February each year since 1967-68 at Joram village in the Lower Subansiri district and other Nyishi inhabited areas. Most Nyishis have been converted to Christianity by Christian missionaries and proselytisers since in the 1990s, particularly in the Papum Pare region. Over time this has led to the fading of the Nishi culture, language, religion and knowledge systems. Small groups of Hindus also exist among the Nyishi. There are ongoing efforts for preservation of indigenous cultures.
The Miji are also known as Sajolang and Damai. They inhabit the districts of West Kameng and East Kameng in Arunachal Pradesh. With a combination of Tibetan and Assamese ancestry, most Miji possess skin and complexion of the people of high altitude Himalayas. The traditional costume of Miji women consists of an ankle-length white garment with a beautifully decorated red jacket. Like the Akas, the Miji wear silver ornaments and glass-based necklaces. Indigenous cosmetics are made from pine resin. Chindang Festival is one of the most important festivals celebrated by the Miji. It is an agriculture festival celebrated after the harvest by offering prayers and performing rituals and animal sacrifices. Most Mijis are animist, although a few have adopted Christianity. There is some Buddhist influence as a result of long-standing cultural contacts with Buddhist tribes to the west.
Tagin Tribe is a member of the Tani tribe. They are concentrated in the regions of Daporijo Upper Subansiri and in adjoining areas of West Siang. They are adherents of Donyi Polo. However two groups of this tribe – the Na and Mara have been influenced by Tibetan Buddhism. Si Donyi is one o the most important festivals of Tagins in which the sun and moon are worshipped. The ‘Tagin-Moya’ and ‘Mayu’ reside in the upper valley of Subansiri river and the valleys of its tributaries. The ‘Mara’ and ‘Na’ sub-groups inhabit the Limeking and Taksing Circle. Si-Donyi, the most popular festival of the Tagin community and they celebrate it with much religious fervor and traditional gaiety. It is celebrated annually on 6th January with a belief to promote the health, wealth and prosperity of the people of the tribe. The festival involves various rituals that are performed to appease various elements like Si (Earth) and Donyi(Sun) Gods. The festival ends with folk dances and a large community feast.
The Galo are a central Eastern Himalayan tribe, who speak a language of the tani group and are descendant of Abo Tani. The Galo primarily inhabit the West Siang district of modern-day Arunachal Pradesh state and are also found in the southwestern side of East Siang district, the southeastern side of Upper Subansiri district, as well as in some small pockets in Itanagar, Lower Dibang Valley, and Changlang districts. Other names which have been used to reference the Galo in the past include Duba, Doba, Dobah Abor, Gallong Abor, Galong, Gallong Adi, etc. Galo are normally monogamous, but polygamy is also practiced by a few. Traditionally, Galo practice shifting cultivation. However, after the 1960s and 1970s, wet rice and terraced cultivation was introduced by the Government and now it accounts for the majority of production in the Galo area. Most Galo children speak Galo and are also bilingual and borrow frequently from Assamese, Hindi and English. Indigenous religious traditions and practices persist in most Galo areas. In some, an institutionalized form of ‘Donyi-Poloism’ has been developed, within which indigenous religious traditions are re-interpreted with a mix of Hindu concepts and practices. Christianity is also rapidly on the rise, especially in foothill areas. Mopin is a festival celebrated by the Galo. It is a celebration of the harvesting season held in the Galo months of “Lumi” and “Luki”, corresponding to March–April. The official date is around April 5th. In villages, the celebrations last upto a month. A local drink called Apung/Poka (a local alcoholic beverage made from fermented rice) is distributed and consumed in bamboo cups during the festival. The Galo smear ‘ette’, a rice flour on each others’ face and perform a dance called Popir to mark the festival.
The Wanchos inhabit the Patkai hills of Longding District of Arunachal Pradesh. Culturally Naga, they are ethnically related to the Nocte and Konyak Naga of the Mon and Tirap districts. The Wancho language belongs to the Tibeto-Burman family. Unlike the other Naga, the Wancho, together with the Nocte and a small minority of the Konyak, still retain the belief of Animism. The Animist Wancho believes in the existence of two powerful deities, Rang and Baurang. Christianity has gained some followers among the Wancho, many of which belong to the Baptist or Roman Catholic denominations. Tattooing plays a major role among the Wancho tribe. According to tradition, a man is tattooed on his four limbs and his entire face, with the exception of certain regions around the eyes and the lips. The women adorn themselves with necklaces and bangles, along with some light tattooing as well. Oriah is an agricultural festival of the Wanchos, which starts on 16th February. It is celebrated for a period of six to twelve days interspersed with prayer, songs, dances, sowing of the jhum paddy and ritual sacrifices of pigs, buffaloes and mithuns. Like most neighbouring tribes, the Wancho construct houses made out of wood and bamboo, and roofs were thatched with dry leaves.
The Nocte (literally meaning, villager) live in the Patkai hills of Tirap district of Arunachal Pradesh, India. Ethnically related to the Konyak Naga, their origins can be traced back to the Hukong Valley in Myanmar, where they migrated from between the 1670 and 1700. The Nocte have an elected chief who exerts control over the village and keeps law and order. The Nocte were followers of Theravada Buddhism and Animism, although they have adopted Hinduism since the 18th century, under the influence of Shri Shankardeva. This has brought them closer to the Hindu culture of much of the rest of India. In the traditional Nocte religion they worshiped Jauban (supreme god) and other malevolent and benevolent deities as well. Offerings of food and water are given to the gods in order to appease them. Loku is the main festival of the Nocte and is celebrated to bid farwell to the winter. The term Loku came from two local words – ‘Lofe’, which means to drive out and ‘Rangku’, which means the season. Loku or Chalo Loku is an agriculture festival and is celebrated in the month of February. It is a 3 days festival of folk dance, traditional practices, animal sacrifice and feasting.