Assam is the meeting ground for many diverse cultures and has a kaleidoscopic population of ethnic and tribal peoples. It is inhabited by descendants of Aryan, Mongoloid and Dravidian stocks co-mingled with those of Indo-Burmese, Indo-Iranian and Indo-Tibetan origins. The Assamese culture is a rich and exotic tapestry of all these races and has evolved over a long assimilative process. The natives of the state of Assam are known as “Asomiya” (Assamese), which is also the name for the state language of Assam.
Assam is populated by seventeen distinctive tribes that co-exist peacefully, each unique in its traditions, culture, dress and exotic ways of life. They include the Bodo, Mishing, Kachari, Karbi, Mishimi, Adivasi and Rabha. Most tribes have their own language although Assamese is the principal language of the state.
As a result of working together with our NGO partner, Balipara Tract & Frontier Foundation, to promote and showcase the rich and bio-diverse cultures of the region, we at Wild Mahseer have built up a close relationship with the villagers of Baligaon, an authentic Mishing community located a short 10-minute drive from our property.
The Mishing, an Indo-Mongoloid group formerly referred to as Miris, are the second largest ethnic group in Assam. With a population approaching nearly one million they are scattered over the eight far eastern districts of Tinsukia, Dibrugarh, Dhemaji, Lakhimpur, Sibsagar, Jorhat, Golaghat and Sonitpur.
Originally a hill tribe from Northwest China, Tibet and Mongolia, the Mishing, one of Assam’s aboriginal communities, travelled down from Manasa Sarovar, the highest freshwater lake in the world and an ancient holy site considered by pilgrims to be the source of the four greatest rivers of Asia (Brahmaputra, Karnali, Indus and Sutlej) and around the 8th century settled in Arunachal Pradesh. Around 700 or more years ago they migrated down the course of tributaries feeding into the Brahmaputra like the Dihing, Disang, Dikhow, Subansiri, Ranganadi and Dikrong to the Assam plains in search of a less hostile more economically viable life, but as comparative latecomers found the best lands had already been taken. They therefore settled on the fertile riverbanks which also gave them protection against their enemies. After building up such a close affinity with rivers over the centuries it is not surprising that many Mishing are accomplished boat and fishermen, however sadly some of the villages are being forced to relocate away from the rivers due to soil erosion.
A folktale exists that says although the Mishing wrote the alphabet given to them by their god of learning on a sheet of deer-skin over time it slipped their mind and they ate the deer-skin, losing their script forever. Therefore although the tribe has its own language they have no authentic written records and so the story of their exodus was passed on verbally.
The traditional religious beliefs of the Mishing are animistic. They believe in different, usually invisible, supernatural beings that haunt the earth and to which they offer sacrificial offerings, usually chickens. Although nature worship as such is not a common practice they do on occasion make appeasement to the god of thunder and claim to be “children of nature”. The Mishing consider themselves to be descendants of the sun and moon. They regard polo (moon) as their father anddonyi (sun) as their mother and always honour them first before holding a ceremony, embarking on a business venture or making any major decision in their life.
The leader of their faith is a mibu, a priest or medicine man, who is reputed to have special powers of communion with supernatural beings. Although traditional beliefs are being eroded by modern education and healthcare, the appeasement of supernatural beings still continues.
In addition some form of monotheistic Hinduism has been passed on through the Vaishnavism of Sankardeva, the saint-poet of Assam and although the two are poles apart they have coexisted in Mishing society without conflict. This is possibly because it did not interfere with traditional customs like drinking rice beer and eating pork nor have to be observed on socio-religious occasions. As a result the Mishing have taken on a part Hindu identity.
A typical Mishing village is located on the banks of a river and normally consists of 50-60 households although Baligaon has a population of 1,500 with 200 houses. Made from wooden supports a traditional Mishing house is stilted with a thatched roof on a bamboo frame and has bamboo flooring. It is built on stilts because during the monsoon the rivers can flood. Domestic animals are kept under the house which is shaped like an “I” with the “I” becoming longer as the number of family members increase. A granary and cowshed are usually built close by.
The traditional chief was called a Ga:m and he used to preside at the Kébang(village council meetings) held to deliberate community matters and deal with complaints. The Kébang was the legal, judicial and executive authority although theGa:m had the final say on all matters other than those relating to their faith. TheGa:m has now been replaced with a Gaonburha, an Assamese word meaning “Village Head”, who is also a government agent and the Kébang with Mel, an Assamese word meaning “assembly of people to hear a case”. Kébang now means an Association.
The Mishing community stands out for its love of peaceful living. They have an internal system that resolves conflict. If an individual ever sheds blood or offends anyone they must call for a dobur ritual either as a family or as a village to ask for forgiveness.
The main source of livelihood for the Mishing is agriculture and Baligaon is one of the original villages to participate in our NGO partner Bali Tract & Frontier Foundation’s initiative to enroll 1,000 farmers across fifty villages from eight diverse communities as organic cultivation partners in a drive to understand prevailing farming techniques and the challenges faced when introducing and following organic and sustainable agricultural practices.
Villagers typically grow different varieties of rice paddy, some they sow in spring for harvesting in the summer and others they transplant during the rainy season to harvest in the autumn, as well as medicinal plants, mustard, pulses, maize, vegetables, tobacco bamboo and areca. The food they grow is chiefly for their own use apart from mustard which is a cash crop.
A typical Mishing meal would normally include Joha rice (Assamese aromatic rice),roti (traditional bread) and a selection of other dishes like pork curry, chicken curry, smoked or deep fried fish, mixed vegetables and salad. Baligaon produces four types of home-brew from rice flavoured with local herbs and spices using a traditional fermenting and filtering process.
The men fish and farm and make all the tools the community needs like baskets, carry bags, trays, boxes, fish traps and hencoops out of bamboo and cane. They also make boat-shaped mortars, pestles and canoes out of wood. The women contribute to the income of the family by rearing pigs, chicken, goats, cows and silk worms.
Today a small percentage of the Mishing population takes salaried jobs, especially in the public sector, and a few trade in order to earn income.
In general villagers lead a very peaceful, simple, and hygienic life. They have healthy eating habits that are a major contributing factor to their life expectancy of around 70 years. The literacy rate is low, at around 35%, although much higher among the younger generation. The Mishing are a simple people who delight in their festivals and both men and women perform their songs and dances for the pure pleasure in them.
Weaving is the exclusive preserve of the Mishing women who start their training in this craft before they reach their teens. They also have a good knowledge of natural dyes. They weave cotton jackets, towels, endi (shawls), thick loincloths and sometimes shirts for their menfolk. They also weave ege (skirt-like garments), ri:bi(rectangular cloth with narrow stripes wrapped over the lower garment from bodice to knees), seleng gasor (fabric occasionally worn instead of a ri:bi), riya (a long scarf) and níseg (a cloth tied over the shoulder for carrying babies). They also weave the gamocha, the traditional cotton scarf and Assamese cultural symbol that is bestowed on honoured guests visiting the village.
Before cotton thread was readily available the Mishing used to grow their own cotton and spun the yarn themselves. They also use some silk yarns, but sparingly. They used to use endi yarn obtained from silk worms fed on the leaves of castor-oil plants however they later learned the use of the golden muga (silk obtained from worms fed on the som tree) and the white paat (from worms fed on mulberry leaves) from neighbouring communities.
The Mishing women of Majuli are specifically renowned for their exquisite handlooms, especially their mirizen shawls and blankets, and they reinvent their traditional diamond pattern in countless weaves using their favourite colours orange, yellow, green, black and red.
The Mishing also make a very special textile called gadu, a blanket that is fluffy on one side and woven on a traditional loin loom. It is extremely intricate and time-consuming work. The warp is cotton spun into thick and strong yarn and the weft is spun into soft yarn, cut and inserted piece by piece to form the fluff. Sadly this particular form of weaving is fast disappearing due to the ready availability of inexpensive blankets in the market.
There are 3 typical ways that the Mishing get married.
The first is in a very simple ceremony and is only followed in cases of extreme poverty or if there are other unsurmountable problems and takes the form of a few elders going to the groom’s house to bless the couple over a few bowls of rice beer. The second, still the most common in rural areas even today, is by elopement. This happens when the boy cannot afford the cost of a formal wedding, expects some opposition or does not want to wait. Usually marriages by elopement are later sanctified through a simple formality. The third type, a formal marriage, is arranged by parents after two or three stages of negotiation and is common for the wealthier and better educated. The couple would not normally be totally unknown to each other and it is customary for the groom’s parents or guardians to pay a bride price although this is often a nominal amount. This form of marriage seems to have been influenced by the non-Mishing community neighbours.
Divorce is uncommon but allowed, and both parties as well as widows and widowers are allowed to remarry.
Weddings are very festive affairs and everyone, young and old, wear new, beautiful clothes and celebrate with songs and dances.
The Mishing keep their dying relative inside the house and apong (water) is poured into the mouth through a conical leaf. The body is first wrapped in cloth then a mat and carried to the graveyard to be buried in a common burial ground located some distance from the village. Family members will weep openly and observe certain practices until receiving purification. Two last rites are mandatory although there is no fixed deadline for performing them. The first is normally carried out within a few months and the second, a very expensive affair, can take poorer families four to five years to save up for. If another death takes place in the meantime a common final rite can be performed.
Only male children can inherit property although daughters can inherit their mothers’ clothes and jewellery.
Festivals & Dance
The two chief traditional festivals observed by the Mishing are the Ali-Ai-Ligang and the Porag. They are both connected with the agricultural cycle.
Ali-Ai-Ligang, the most colourful, is the spring festival. It occurs every year on the first Wednesday of the month of Ginmur Polo (February-March) in the Mishing calendar. It is held to appease mother earth and the forefathers of the Mishing and to mark the new sowing season. Ali means root or seed and ai means fruit andligang means sow and the heads of families ceremonially sow paddy in a corner of their respective rice fields in the morning hours and pray for a good crop during the year as well as for general abundance and well-being.
Dancing and singing is a big feature of this festival and the young boys and girls don traditional costumes and dance Gumrag Pakes Cha Nam, characterised by brisk stepping, flinging and flapping of hands and swaying of hips to indicate youthful passion, reproductive urge and general gaiety which is accompanied by drums, pipes, flutes, cymbals and gongs. The gong is only ever played at Ali-Ai-Ligang and the drums have a special beat for the Gumrag dance.
The formal dance of the festival starts on the courtyard of the easternmost house in the village. The performers dance in circles on the courtyards of every house in the village and in return the host rewards the dancers with rice beer, chicken and even on some occasions cash. The dancers then often move outside into the fields.
The songs sung at Ali-Ai-Ligang are not confined to the songs of youth alone. Their themes are vast and varied and include the life of man, his sufferings and death. However there is a focus on songs about the joy and sorrow of love.
The festival continues for five days. On the third day the youths hold a feast and on the fourth day villagers strictly observe taboos regarding cutting trees, fishing, ploughing, burning jungle and eating certain foods as it is regarded as a day of rest.
The last day of the festival is called lilen and is celebrated with Dapan Tipan, a huge community village feast that includes pork and dried fish and at which poro apong or rice beer is drunk.
Porag is the post-harvest festival. Harvesting of rice is now very common in autumn so Porag is observed sometimes in early winter and sometimes in early spring. It is a very expensive three-day festival (these days sometimes reduced to two or even one day) and in many villages is only held once every two to three years.
At Porag many people are invited from other villages, and everyone, young, old, male and female, join in the festivities. Typically women who married outside the village accompanied by their spouses as well as a group of singers and dancers are invited too, making it a great reunion celebration as well.
Although there are no formal singing, dancing or drumming contests organised the festivities typically turn into a friendly tournament.
The Mishing may also recognize Dobur, an animistic rite occasionally performed that involves sacrificing a sow and some hens in the hopes of averting crop failure or to ensure general wellbeing in the community. Typically the younger males of the village beat the walls of every house with big sticks to drive away the ghosts and goblins, perform the sacrificial rite some distance from the village and hold a feast. If anyone unwittingly passes by they have to stop until evening or pay a fine.
In addition to the above the Mishing also recognise the Assamese seasonal festivals of Bihu that mark three distinct phases of the annual rice-farming calendar and is celebrated in three parts during the year with great pomp and grandeur by all Assamese, irrespective of caste, creed or religion. The Bihus are named according to the months of the Assamese calendar.
Bohag or Rongali Bihu, the most important and most colourful, is celebrated in the middle of April. It marks the Assamese New Year and coincides with the advent of spring and seeding time. It is celebrated with singing and dancing for several days.
Kati or Kongali Bihu, the quietest of the three, is observed rather than celebrated in mid-October. The mood of this Bihu is very sober with none of the usual dancing and singing.
Magh or Bhogali Bihu is celebrated in the middle of January immediately after harvesting the rice crop with village feasts, singing and dancing.
In particular Bohag Bihu and Magh Bihu are observed by the Mishing almost like native festivals.