The origins of the tribes that are currently living in Arunachal Pradesh remain shrouded in mystery. Whatever little is known has been passed down from generation to generation via oral traditions. It is widely believed that the tribes who inhabit this land now, came from Burma (present day Myanmar) and Tibet, where Mongoloid tribal groups with similar cultures still live.

Over the course of these migrations, several inter-tribal feuds occurred, which resulted in the groups scattering across the region. In addition to that, natural calamities that had occurred in the area forced the tribes to take up different habitats and adapt to the nature of their geophysical surroundings.

When you’re in Arunachal Pradesh, you will hear of stories about inter-tribal warfare, when tribes battled for supremacy and better lands. Although you can’t see any fences, most of the tribal territories of Arunachal Pradesh are invisibly marked. Every tribe knows its territories and the rivers that come under them and which particular clan alone has hunting or fishing rights over that area. In order to maintain a distinct identity, each tribe used tattoos, headgears or nose plugs.

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A Mishmi tribesman in Sarthi village
A Mishmi tribesman in Sarthi village

Every tribe has a village council. These councils solve issues pertaining to kinship, group activities, and set moral standards and necessary regulations. Most village councils also solve basic civil and criminal cases and play an important role in development activities. It is interesting to note that there was no police force in Arunachal Pradesh up until 1972 and the councils were responsible for maintaining peace and order.

There are about 20 scheduled tribes in Arunachal Pradesh each with its own sub-groups. For instance, the Mishmis that inhabit the Dibang Valley have three sub-groups – Idus, Digaros and Mijus. Further, each tribal community has its own unique culture, customs, practices, language and folklore.

Arunachal Pradesh has the highest concentration of scheduled tribes in India. Additionally, this region is probably one of the last remaining outposts in the country where tribes still live a primitive existence, seeking out a living from the land and maintaining a harmonious relation with nature.

The religious practices and lifestyle of the tribes share close ties with their surroundings. For instance the Monpas who inhabit the West Kameng and Tawang districts, are essentially Buddhists who follow the Mahayana sect. The Nyishis and Apatanis in the East Kameng, Papum Pare and Lower Subansiri districts practice what can be called almost pagan or pre-Aryan beliefs, which is evident from their worship of trees, rocks and plants amongst other things.

The Noctes, found in the Tirap district, follow Theravada Buddhism and Animism. However, in the central and eastern parts of the state, some tribal communities have started practising Hinduism and Christianity, and hence the areas are now dotted with several churches and temples.

A large majority of the tribes are involved in agriculture, even though they were originally hunters. Wetland cultivation is a common occupation. Tea and fruit such as kiwi and apple are commonly grown commodities here. Some tribal communities are involved in weaving and the production of several items from bamboo and cane. For instance, the Apatanis practice bamboo cultivation; they use the giant grass as food and also to make products such as mugs, ladles, containers, bags, etc., which are sold in markets.

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A Monpa woman with her grandchild
A Monpa woman with her grandchild

Monpas

The westernmost part of the state is home to the Monpas, who follow the Mahayana sect of Buddhism, which they adopted in the 17th century CE from Merak Lama. Hence, the Tawang Monastery plays a central role in the everyday life of the people of this tribe. They speak the ‘Monpa language’, which is actually a combination of Dakpa and East Bodhish Tshangla.

Like most tribes in the state, the Monpas also migrated here, possibly from the Western Himalayas, through Sikkim. It is believed that the Monpas are the only nomadic tribe in Northeast India. In the times gone by, they used to largely depend on yaks, cows, goats and horses for sustenance and had no permanent settlements. However, due to the increasing influence of urbanization, they have begun to build homes in different parts of the West Kameng and Tawang districts. The Monpas are commonly employed at various levels in monasteries (such as priests). They also make shawls, bags, carpets, masks, thangkas (Buddhist paintings), wooden bowls, etc.

Sherdukpens

The Sherdukpens, although small, are one of the most progressive tribes that can be found in Arunachal Pradesh. They reside in Bomdila and the surrounding villages of Rupa, Jigaon, Thongri and Shergaon.

The Sherdukpens are divided into two groups – the upper class Thongs are believed to be the descendents of a Tibetan king and Ahom princess, while the Chaos, considered the lower class, are descendants of the king and princess’ servants and porters. They speak the Sherdukpen language, which is similar to the one spoken by the Monpas.

They practise agriculture, fishing and rearing of livestock. Although the Sherdukpens have also adopted Tibetan Buddhism through Mera Lama, unlike the Monpas, most of their practices still remain pre-Buddhist and more Animistic.

Nyishis

The word ‘Nyishi’ literally translates to a ‘civilised human being’. The Nyishis are the most populous tribe of Arunachal Pradesh and inhabit the Papum Pare, Kurung Kumey, East Kameng, and the Lower and Upper Subansiri districts of Arunachal Pradesh. They are mainly involved in shifting cultivation and produce rice, millet, cucumber, etc.

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Nyishi tribespeople performing a dance
Nyishi tribespeople performing a dance

Folktales, Laws & Customs

The Story of Kojum-Koja

According to legend, Kojum-Koja was an ancient civilisation that sprang up on earth millions of years ago. Their self-sufficient society established several villages. The Kojum-Koja people were supposedly a content lot until a great flood wiped out their entire population.

It is believed that Biri-Bote, the ruler of waters, caused the flood. She was engraged at the loss of her son, Biri Angur Potung (a fish), who was apparently killed and eaten by the Kojum-Koja people during a festival. The deluge left no trace of the Kojum-Kojas. However, a beautiful bride named Nyangi Myete, survived the calamity and it is she who later recited the tale of destruction wreaked on her people.

The celestial bride, today, is considered the epitome of grace and honour. The tribes believe that she still lives on in all things that are naturally beautiful; for example, green vegetation is believed to be her skirt, clouds her white robe, water and rain her sweat and tears, and so on.

Birth of a Child

In the past, the people of Arunachal Pradesh welcomed a newborn child into the world by placing certain symbols at the entrance door of their houses. Passersby would come to know of the child’s gender from these symbols. For instance, a miniature bamboo bow and arrow indicated a boy while a small woven rain hat meant it was a girl.

Marriage System

There is no concept of dowry amongst the tribes of Arunachal Pradesh. Instead, there is a custom known as the bride price. A daughter is considered an economic asset, and the groom’s family is supposed to compensate the bride’s family with a mithun, fabric and valuable utensils in exchange for accepting the bride into their family.

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An Apatani man sitting outside a traditional bamboo house
An Apatani man sitting outside a traditional bamboo house

Arunachali society is strictly patriarchal and a widow cannot possess her late husband’s property or pass it on to her daughters; only personal possessions, such as ornaments and weaving kits can be inherited by the female offspring. All the assets are usually inherited by the son. In case a woman commits adultery, she is deprived of any temporary rights over the property and she may also have to repay the bride price. A fine is also imposed upon her, which is expected to be paid by her new husband’s family in case she is marrying again.

Death and Burial

The tribes in Arunachal see death as an event that should be shared by all. Relatives flock to the house of the deceased and perform a ‘wake’ for days together and guests are accommodated at night. Songs of lamentation (penge) are sung impromptu, retelling the departed person’s childhood and other important anecdotes. Their possessions are buried along with their body and a small bamboo shelter is erected over the burial site.

Only the Buddhist tribes in the state believe in reincarnation. Most others believe that one passes through a gate called Sedi Litung Borbung after death and then meets his/ her ancestors. Some tribes believe that tattoos are the only way one’s kith and kin can recognise them in their afterlife. Apatanis

UNESCO has proposed that the Apatani valley be listed as a World Heritage Site for its ‘extremely high productivity’ and ‘unique’ way of preserving ecology. The tribe, mainly found in the Ziro Valley in the Lower Subansiri district, is known for its wetland paddy cultivation, which produces high yields even without the use of farm animals and agricultural machines.

The Apatanis have a distinct culture with systematic land use techniques and rich traditional ecological knowledge. Their sustainable development ways, and natural resources’ management and conservation, that has been acquired over the centuries through informal experimentation, is simply exemplary.

Apatanis are a vibrant tribe that celebrate several festivals such as Drii and Myoko. They make intricately woven shawls and skirts that are worn during these festivals. They also create jewellery out of precious and semi-precious stones.

Thanks to the availability of raw material, they make products for daily use out of bamboo and cane.

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A dancer performs the Cham
A dancer performs the Cham

Khamptis

The Khamptis migrated to Arunachal Pradesh from Assam and the areas around the Irrawaddy River. They are mainly found in the Namsai and Changlang districts in Arunachal Pradesh and follow the Theravada sect of Buddhism.

The Khampti dance drama, Ka Poong Tai, is a highly expressive art form, which reflects the unique culture of the Khampti Buddhists.

Festivals

Celebrating culture and tradition through festivals is an integral part of the Arunachali way of life. With the presence of so many different tribes, one can only imagine the wide range of festivities that occur here.

Torgya

The festival of Torgya is celebrated on the 28th day of the 11th month of the lunar calendar. The Tawang Monastery hosts this three-day-long festival, which is characterised by monastic dances called Cham. These dances are performed while wearing wooden masks. Pagcham, Zamcham, Graicham, Dungcham and Gayi Cham are some of the dances, which depict ancient tales of war.

Adi Festivals

The Adi tribe celebrates a number of festivals but the most important ones are Aran, Solung and Etor. Solung is a harvest festival that is observed in the first week of September for about five days. It is marked by songs, dances, display of weaponry, etc. Etor is celebrated in the month of May and men perform various war dances (collectively called Tapu) during the ceremonies. Aran is observed in the month of March.

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Adi men and women dressed in tradtional attire
Adi men and women dressed in tradtional attire

Drii and Myoko

The Apatanis have two main festivals – Drii and Myoko. The former is celebrated in the month of July. It involves the sacrifice of fowls, eggs and animals to the Sun and Moon gods. The purpose of the festival is to appease the gods so that famine is averted.

Myoko is a festival of prosperity and fertility and is celebrated in the month of March. Its rituals include sacrifice of fowls to nature gods.

Sangken

Khamptis host Sangken on 14 April every year. People – irrespective of their tribe, caste, culture, race, etc. – participate in the rituals associated with the celebrations. The main attraction of Sangken is splashing clean water, which is the symbol of peace and purity. Idols of Lord Buddha are taken out on processions accompanied by song and dance during the festival.

Nyokum

This festival is celebrated by the Nyishi tribe in order to appease their gods. People gather in community grounds in brightly coloured clothes and perform various dances. Nyokum is observed on 26 February. Certain rituals of the festival also include praying to ancestors as well as praying for a good harvest.

Adis

The Adis are one of the most prominent tribes of Arunachal Pradesh. Now living in East Siang, Upper Siang, West Siang, Lower Dibang Valley and Lohit districts, they were originally from Tibet.

The Adis probably migrated to Arunachal with the gradual spread of Buddhism across Tibet in the 17th century, for they were traditionalists that wanted to hold onto their original religious beliefs. They follow a tribal religion known as Donyi-Polo and worship gods and goddesses such as Kine Nane, Doying Bote, Gumin Soyin and Pedong Nane, who represent various elements and things found in nature.

Young women and men are introduced to each other through the system of dormitories prevalent in the Adi tribe. Men can visit women’s dormitories but are not allowed to stay overnight. Occuptionally, the Adis are by and large wetland farmers and hunters.

Other Tribes

The Idu tribes inhabit the Dibang Valley near the Mishmi hills and are said to have come from the Tibetan highlands. The Noctes in Tirap are ethnically related to the Konyak Nagas from Myanmar. Noctes sport distinct jewellery and interesting headgear.