Lisu people in India are called “Yobin“. In all government records, Lisu are Yobin, and the words are sometimes used interchangeably. Lisu is one of the minority tribes of Arunachal Pradesh of India. They live mainly in Vijoynagar Circle in 11 villages. Gandhigram (or Shidi in Lisu) is the largest village. Lisus are found in Miao town and Injan village of Kharsang Circle Changlang District. The Lisu traditionally lived in the Yunnan Province of China and northern Myanmar. There are about 5,000 Lisu people in India.
The literal meaning of the term Lisu is like this. Li – means four and Su means fold or folding of clothes round the waist or belly in Lisu language.
Controversy on name
The name of this ethnic group is apparently controversial. They are identified with different names like Lisu, Lisaw, Yobin, Lishifa, and Khinu. The original name of the community is Lisu and by this very name, they introduce themselves to the outsiders. But the neighboring communities such as Singpho, Khamti, Rawang never use the term- Lisu to call or identify them. Instead, the Singpho use the term Yawyin or Yoyin to designate the Lisu, similarly, the Khamti and the Rawang call them Khinu and Lishifa respectively.
It is said that the Lisu came in contact with the Britishers or British administration first through a Singpho interpreter who introduced them (the Lisu) as Yawyin or Yoyin, but not as Yobin as written in Census of India 1971, which is a bonafide scheduled tribe of Arunachal Pradesh. Incidentally, it was again a Singpho interpreter who introduced the Lisu as Yoyin to the Indian Military Officers who first visited or made an expedition to the present land of the Lisu i.e. Vijaynagar. The term Yobin is simply a spelling mistake or a mistake in the pronunciation of the word Yawyin or Yoyin.
No systematic written records are available on the Lisu except the impressionistic views given by Commodore R. N. Pareek, and Dugene Morse, an American missionary, who lived with the Lisu. The Lisu were first sighted in the present Vijaynagar circle (Daodi) by Major Sumer Singh of Assam Rifles on the 7th May’1961, when Chaukan pass expeditions were made by the Indian Military. Then around November 1961, Major General A.S. Guraya visited Vijaynagar as a part of reconnoitering duties. It is said that Major General Guraya named Daodi as Vijaynagar after his only son Vijay, and a village Yibidi as Pritnagar after his only daughter – Priti. Major Sumer Singh named Sidhi, the old habitation of the Lisu as Gandhigram, because he occupied or brought the area under control without any confrontation or vendetta.
According to Commodore R.N. Pareek, the Lisu originally lived on both sides of the China-Burma border. A large migration from there took place towards the Putao plains of Burma in the third decade of 20th century during the struggle between the Chinese communists and the Nationalist forces. In 1965, General Ne Win took control of Burma in a coup and set up the ‘Revolutionary Government of the Union of Burma’. To consolidate, he tightened his control over the tribal people in the hills of Burma as some of the tribes including the Lisu had formed the Kachin Independence Army and frequently raided Putao. The Government of Burma, therefore, carried flushing out operations against them. This led to the Lisu movement or led the migration from Putao on the eastern bank of Irrawaddy, down south through hills of Burma when they diverted their course to the west around the present district of Arunachal Pradesh, in the region below the foothills of Patkai range.
Government discovery of Lisu
On 7 May 1961, the 7th Assam Rifles expedition team led by Major Sumer Singh entered the Noa-dihing river valley and reached the largest village in the valley, Shidi (now called Gandhigram). They were accorded a warm reception by the villagers and were further told by the villagers that they were the first party to have visited the area since World War II. The Assam Rifles team assured the villagers that this virgin land was Indian territory and the people would be protected from enemy aggression. Till then the international border was not clearly demarcated. In 1972, the Demarcation of International Border with Burma was done, with the help of Lisu guides having a full knowledge of the region. During demarcation, cement International Border Pillars (IBP) were erected at regular intervals.
Arrival via the Ledo Road
Some groups of Lisu arrived in India via the Ledo Road. Some of them worked as coal miners under British (One certificate that originally belonged to one Aphu Lisu is a British coal miner’s certificate from 1918, preserved by the Lisu). The certificate bears the mark of the then governor who ruled the region from Lakhimpur, Assam (the section of Ledo road between Ledo and Shingbwiyang was only opened in 1943. Most of the Lisu who lived in Assam went back to Myanmar. However, some are still found in the Kharangkhu area of Assam, Kharsang Circle of Arunachal Pradesh. While most have lost their mother tongue, some have preserved the language and culture almost intact.
This history of their migration does not fully tally with the oral history or the views of the majority of the Lisu living at the present village – Gandhigram. Although it is generally believed that the Lisu were the last batch of the mongoloid people who entered this part of India through Chaukan Pass during the time of the Second World War. According to Lisu sources, they are the original settlers of this place and have been living there from time immemorial, which was till recently an unadministered territory. It is only around 1961 the authority of the Government of India was established, as per the interpretation of the Lisu. But the Lisu agrees that this area (Vijaynagar circle} was first inhabited by the Khamti, then by the Singpho who later on found the place unsuitable for living and left it. Then after a considerable lapse of years, the Lisu came and settled there permanently. But by that time, as they interpret it, the natural and ecological conditions of the area were changed completely, and the Lisu found the place suitable for living.
They speak Lisu language. This language belongs to Tibeto-Burman linguistic family.
The Lisu are organized into a number of consanguineal or patrilineal descent groups or clans (chewo). But these descent groups of the Lisu do not fully connote the features of a clan defined by the anthropologists.
The Lisu have their own settlement pattern. The Lisu villages are situated generally in the valleys and on the bank of the river Noa-Dihing. A Lisu village is called Chokha.
The society of the Lisu was governed by the village headman called Chowu. Village elders would select him for a life term. The post of Chowu was not hereditary, he could be eliminated if found unsuitable for the post. Chowu, with the help of a few young and intelligent young men, would settle all kinds of disputes in the society by imposing fine in kinds. The decision given by the Chowu was honoured by one and all. This traditional mechanism of social control has undergone transformation, the institution of chowuship exists no longer. When the Lisu came under the administrative control of the government of India, the chowu has been replaced by the gao-bura, a government representative, for maintaining law and order in the village. The Lisu term for gao-bura is Besey. Besides judicial function, the gao-bura is entrusted with the responsibility of looking after the development and welfare activities in the village. Elders of the Lisu choose a person for the post of gao-bura. Besides this secular head, the religious head or priest called Mafa along with other members of the church committee sometimes decides minor disputes in the village.
Beginning in the early-20th century, many Lisu people in India and Burma converted to Christianity. Missionaries such as James O. Fraser, Allyn Cooke, and Isobel Kuhn, and her husband, John, of the China Inland Mission (now OMF International), were active with the Lisu of Yunnan. Among the missionaries, James Outram Fraser (1880–1938) was the first missionary to reach the Lisu people in China. Another missionary who evangelized Lisu people in Myanmar was Thara Saw Ba Thaw (1889–1968). James Fraser and Saw Ba Thaw together created the Lisu alphabet in 1914. There were many other missionaries who brought Christianity to Lisu people. The Lisu people’s conversion to Christianity was relatively fast. Many Lisu and Rawang converted to Christianity from animism. Before World War II, the Lisu tribes who lived in Yunnan, China, and Ah-Jhar River valley, Myanmar, were evangelized by missionaries from Tibetan Lisuland Mission and Lisuland Churches of Christ. Many Lisu then converted to Christianity. The missionaries studied Lisu culture so they could rapidly spread Christianity. They used various kinds of methods, including teaching hymns, sending medicines and doctors, helping the needy, and providing funds for domestic missionaries and evangelists. They also helped in developing Lisu agriculture.
Before the proselytization of the Lisu’s to Christianity, the Lisu believed in spirits called Ni. As per myths, the Ni originated with the Lisu from the same mythical gourd. The only difference between a Lisu and a Ni was that the latter did not get the physical feature of the human body whereas the former did. That was why the Ni always remained angry with the Lisu and the major part of the life of a Lisu was spent to satisfy the Ni. Ni used to punish the Lisu by capturing their souls, spreading diseases, and so on. Services of different ritual experts and specialists such as Nifa, Hatofa, and Dashifa were essential to thwart away the evil effect of Ni and diseases.
The Lisu term for festival is Pei. They celebrate Esohipei (X’mas}, Mokhosi (New Year), Sailapei (Good Friday), and Somupei or Jasipei (thanksgiving) in a year with pomp and grandeur. The village church, referred to as Wakhuhi or Sishyhi, is their sacred centre or holy place.
Their earlier religion, animistic in form, was characterized by the absence of festivals in the true sense of the term. Three occasions i.e. entertainment during marriage ceremony called Wesazi, during house construction called (Hi-yizi), and during shifting cultivation referred to as Hami-yewazazi; were of paramount importance in their life. These occasions were like festivals, but now they are replaced by Christian festivals.
The traditional Lisu dress for both males and females is made from a kind of jute fibre called Zi. The traditional upper dress or garments of the Lisu women are called chito-betsi (skirt) and chidu (jacket). Chidu is a type of black jacket worn over the chito-betsi. Zabech is another type of upper garment for the ladies, the two borders of the Zabech overlap to close in front. The lower dress of the Lisu women is named ye-gaw and Sikaji. Yegaw is like a very loose petticoat whose border reaches well below the knees. Sikaji is a long piece of cloth that is worn under the yegaw by the ladies. Another extra-long cloth called kata is used by the married women that hang over the petticoat in front of the waist, and it serves as a sort of covering. The kata is also used by the girls during their menstrual period.
Both the women’s skirt and men’s shirt of the Lisu are called chieto-betsi. Men’s chito-betsi is looser than the chito-betsi of the women. Its sleeves are black at the ends and its fronts are open. Over the chito-betsi, a long coat-like dress reaching the ankles is worn by the Lisu men while taking rest at home or at the time of marriage. This long overcoat like dress whose sides are open is called Betsi-Jala. A piece of cloth about fifteen feet long and seven inches wide is wrapped around the waist over chito-betsi or Betsi-Jala which serves as a kind of belt is known as ye-Jihu. It is made of zi‘s fibre, over the ye-Jihu, the Lisu gents wear a kind of leather belt made of cows skin in which small conch discs are fitted. This leather belt is known as Lapu-Jilu, its length varies from five to seven feet. A sword or Ahthah (dao) in a sheath is tucked in the ye-Jihu or Lapu-Jihu when the men go out for hunting. A crossbow and a cluster of arrows inserted in a skin bag or bamboo pot are often hung from the shoulder, called Cheyphu. The lower dress of the Lisu male is known as Muchie. Sometimes, the Lisu men wear a piece of long cloth around the head like a turban which is known as Oth. Sometimes, they wear a cap made of animals skin on the head.
The ornaments used by the Lisu ladies mainly consist of stone beads, conch discs, silver, aluminum, and iron which they prepare by themselves. Some parts of the ornaments they buy from the market. All these ornaments are regarded as a great asset of the housewife which are handed down from one generation to another. The following are the ornaments used by the Lisu:
This is the name of the head-dress or head ornaments of the Lisu Women (both married and unmarried) made of stone beads of different colours and conch discs. It looks like a crown from which the strings of stone beads hang around the head. The Lisu women keep two plaits of hair above the ear upon which wulu is worn.
It is a big earring made of silver or aluminum worn by the women and girls.
This is a string of stone beads which connects the two earrings.
This is a big necklace of stone beads of different colour worn by the Lisu women like sacred thread, across the left shoulder.
This is a small bead-necklace white or red in colour worn round the neck only by the Lisu women.
It is a big necklace made of conch discs set in a piece of cloth. This is worn together with Lewo. It is white in colour.
It is wrist ornaments or bangles made of silver or aluminum or iron or wild creepers.
It is a precious red stone bead worn in the ear lobes by the Lisu women as well as men. This is a very costly stone which is an insignia of a well-to-do family or wealth.
The total weight of all these ornaments does not exceed more than one kilogram. Because of the non-availability of materials, the Lisu’s have abandoned the use of the ornaments Leju and solo.
The materials used for house construction are grass (Sinhi), cane (Gami), bamboo (Makhua), bamboo leaf (Chala), and thatch (Shi). The main structure of the house i.e. posts, beams, etc. are made of wood and the walls, floor, and roof are made of split bamboo. Sometimes long wooden planks are also used to build the floor of the house. Leaves of a special variety of bamboo called Dijichey are used for roofing the house. Thatch, small wooden plank, and tin are also used for roofing the house.
A house for the purpose of dwelling is called Hi. Besides the residential house, there are other houses such as the granary house called Ka-Hi, pig house called Awe-Hi, and farmhouse called Miyi-Hi. Generally, each room of the dwelling house is called yi-ko, though other names are also used. For example, drawing cum-kitchen cum bedroom is named Nisi-ko, and the room where the head of the family sleeps is named Hiko-go. A dwelling house is generally divided into two to three compartments. Like most of the ethnic groups of Arunachal Pradesh, the Lisu houses are of the usual chang type built on a platform of a height of four to six feet from the ground.
The walls of some of the houses are fitted with racks (Chaje) for keeping household goods. Sometimes, such articles are suspended from pegs inserted into the wall. Houses are provided with doors, made of split bamboos, which can be bolted.
Almost every room of the traditional Lisu house has a fireplace (Kabiku) situated in its middle. A square area in the center of the bamboo floor is marked out and covered with thick sticks and earth. The perimeter of the demarcated area is made of a kind of fireproof wood to prevent the bamboo floor from catching fire.
Over the fireplace (Kabiku), there are generally three trays (Jina) suspended one over the other. All the trays are made up of bamboo splits. Corn, chilies, meat, fish, arum, etc. are put over the trays for drying. The Lisu sleep by the side of the hearth on bamboo or grass mats, which are spread on the floor.
Beverages consumed by the Lisu are local rice beer (Jiphue) and raw tea (Lacha) without sugar and milk. The Christian Lisu supplements rice beer with raw tea. Before embracing Christianity the Lisu used to throw out a very small portion of food or drink in the name of evil spirit (Ni) before consuming them.