Indigenous culture and tribes of North-East

Available ancient texts reveal North East as a part of the country known as Pragjyotisha and Kamrupa. Pragjyotisha is found in the great epics of the Mahabharata and the Ramayana and also in some of the Puranas. the Mahabharata it is mentioned that the boundary of Pragjyotisha extended up to the Bay of Bengal in the south and Karatoya River in the west. Some parts of Nepal and Bhutan were also included within the territory of ancient Pragjyotisha. – Amrita Dhillon*

North East comprises of seven states, often called the Seven Sister States (Arunachal Pradesh, Assam, Manipur, Meghalaya, Mizoram, Nagaland, and Tripura). The state of Sikkim is also considered to be a part of North East. The Siliguri Corridor in West Bengal, with a width of 21 to 40km connects the North East with rest of Indian heartland and separates Sikkim from the seven sister states.

North East makes up one of the richest single linguistic regions with about a whopping 220 languages in multiple language families (Indo-European, Sino-Tibetan, Tai–Kadai, Austroasiatic) that share common structural features. Assamese is the most widely spoken language in North East as it is easily understood by Bengalis too. The language is spoken mostly in the Brahmaputra Valley, developed as a lingua franca for many speech communities. Assamese-based dialects have developed in Nagaland (Nagamese) and Arunachal (Nefamese), though their use has been on a decline in recent times.

The Austro-Asiatic family is represented by the Khasi, Jaintia and War languages of Meghalaya. A small number of Tai–Kadai languages (Ahom, Tai Phake, Khamti,) are also spoken by tribes. Sino-Tibetan is represented by a number of languages that differ significantly from each other, some of which are: Bodo, Rabha, Karbi, Missing, Tiwa, Deori, Biate (Assam); Garo, Biate (Meghalaya) Ao, Angami, Sema, Lotha, Konyak (Nagaland); Mizo, Hmar, Chakma (Mizoram); Hrusso, Tanee, Nisi, Adi, Abor, Nocte, Apatan and others. Meitei is the official language in Manipur, the dominant language of the Imphal Valley; while Naga languages such as Poumai, Mao, Maram, Rongmei (Kabui) and Tangkul, and Kuki languages such as Thadou, Hmar and Paite predominate in individual hill areas of the state.

Image: Nagaland’s Hornbill Festival | Credits: Insight Assam

Northeast India has over 220 ethnic groups and the equal number of dialects in which the Bodo form the largest indigenous ethnic group. They are recognised as a plains tribe in the Sixth Schedule of the Indian Constitution. Udalguri, Chirang, Baksa, Sonitpur, Goalpara, Dhemaji, Lakhimpur and Kokrajhar of Assam are considered the centre of the Bodo People.

Available ancient texts reveal North East as a part of the country known as Pragjyotisha and Kamrupa. Pragjyotisha is found in the great epics of the Mahabharata and the Ramayana and also in some of the Puranas. the Mahabharata it is mentioned that the boundary of Pragjyotisha extended up to the Bay of
Bengal in the south and Karatoya River in the west. Some parts of Nepal and Bhutan were also included within the territory of ancient Pragjyotisha. North-East is the homeland of several ethnic groups of the Indo-Mongoloid origin with multiple dialects. The topography and ecology of the hilly plains and hills have influenced almost every sphere of the life of the people.

The lifestyles of the people living here get reflected in traditional art forms through the representation of indigenous games, hunting agriculture and fishing styles. The tribes were very innovative with their unique objects made of bamboo, cane, clay, stone, various headgears and other items for regular use even in ancient. India is a country of traditional music and music has been important in people’s lives. North East too has their unique form of music. The rich textile of the region has been exhibited through the folk narratives of the paintings by native artists. Besides, the role of women in shaping the culture of the region from domesticity to contribution in a small-scale industry to freedom movement of the country is noteworthy.

Children and women generally are taught to be self-independent from a very young age. In Meghalaya and Nagaland, there are societies that are matriarchal which is a rare phenomenon in patriarchal India. Khasi, Garo, and Jaintia are the three major tribes of Meghalaya. The Khasi and Garo people practice matrilineality. In a matrilineal society, the women of the family inherit all the ancestral property. It is indeed a contrasting culture to be seen in a male-dominated country like India. Indeed it is something the whole country should follow in the wake of increasing crimes against women and trends like #metoo which reinforce the harsh reality of women abuse.

The craft making of North-East is rich and comprises textile weaving, woodwork, pottery making, mask making, doll making, and cane and bamboo products. Metalcraft is also exclusive to some of the groups in the region. Assam silk is a famous industry in the region.

The tribes here mark their festivals and rituals with their inherited dance and song forms. Maut songs, nature-songs, Bhatheli festival, a creation of myths, the landscape in art, songs of seasonal and agricultural festivals and others. Sattriya (from Assam) and Manipuri dance (from Manipur) have been listed as classical dances of India.

Besides these, all tribes in the region have their own folk dances associated with their religion and festivals. The tribal heritage in the region is rich with the practice of hunting, land cultivation and indigenous crafts. The rich culture is vibrant and visible with the traditional attires of each community.

The art of tattoos spread more in North East than in rest of India. In the Apatani tribe of Arunachal Pradesh, for instance, young girls were tattooed to make them unappealing to the rival tribes of the neighbouring districts, who could otherwise abduct their prettiest women. Tattoos also helped in establishing tribal identity in the region, besides enabling recognition after death in a war or fatal
accident.

Northeast is also the home of many intriguing Living root bridges which offer breathtaking walks. In Meghalaya, these can be found in the southern Khasi and Jaintia Hills. They are still widespread in the region, though as a practice they are fading out, with many examples having been destroyed in floods or replaced by more standard structures in recent years. Living root bridges have also been observed in the state of Nagaland, near the Indo-Myanmar border.

The views and opinions expressed in this article are those of the author and do not necessarily reflect the views of The Kootneeti Team

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Amrita Dhillon

Amrita Dhillon is the Founding Editor of The Kootneeti. She’s also an Honorary Analyst at Equilibrium Global, a Buenos Aires-based Think Tank and Senior Defence Analyst at Defense Romania. She can be reached at amrita@thekootneeti.com || Twitter @amritardhillon

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  1. 2nd May 2020

    […] the states in the region are a confluence of multi-ethnic groups, with as many as 220 different ethnic groups across the eight states. Except the valleys of the Brahmaputra, the Barak, the Howrah, and the […]

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