The Mishmi or Deng people of Tibet and Arunachal Pradesh are an ethnic group comprising mainly three tribes: Idu Mishmi (Idu Lhoba); Digaro tribe (Taraon, Darang Deng), and Miju Mishmi (Kaman Deng). The Mishmis occupy the northeastern tip of the central Arunachal Pradesh in Upper and Lower Dibang Valley, 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 Kaman, which was also known as Miju-Mishmi, have settled down on the upper region of the eastern part of the Lohit district where a separate district named Anjaw has been created recently. The area of concentration of the Kamans is around the upper Lohit and Dau valleys, the area to the east of Hyuliang, Billong, and Tilai valleys, and the southern part of the Lohit district. Some population have settled around Tezu.
About the original home of the Mishmis, there are different opinions. According to J.P.Mills, (1952), the Idu Mishmis were the first to come across the Patkai Hills from Myanmar. The legend and the folk tales current among the Idu Mishmis tell us that they have migrated from the north. After the Idu Mishmis, the next to come over this region were the Taraon.
The Kamans are believed to have migrated to the upper region of the Lohit valley from the direction of Hkamti Long or the Kachin country across the Patkai range.
Digaro, also Taraon, Tawra, or Darang, is the language spoken by the Taraons (Digaru Mishmi).
The Mishmi society is patrilineal and counts their descent from paternal line. Traditionally the general tendency was for polygamy however, the current trend is towards monogamy. The father plays the role of the head of the family, and the descent is patrilineal. The smallest unit of the society is the family consisting of the father, mother, and children, normally the right of inheritance of property devolves through male members of the family.
Among the Mishmis the son inherits the father’s property. If a man dies without any son, his property usually passes on to his brothers. If there is no brother, the property usually goes to the nearest agnate. If a man dies leaving minor sons, his brother takes care of the property till the minor grows up. The wife of the deceased cannot inherit, nor can the daughters. The daughters are, however, entitled to receive from the family ornaments, clothes, and presents at the time of marriage.
The Mishmi society is organized on the basis of clan and the social relations are determined by kinship and locality. The Mishmi tribe is endogamous and is divided into several clans which are exogamous, that is to say, marriage is legitimate within the tribe but not within the clan. The clan is a very important element in the organization of the tribal society, and a breach of clan rule is a serious offense. It also plays a very important role in regulating marriages. Marriage within a clan or sub-clan is strictly prohibited and anybody violating this rule is never allowed to go without punishment. It has been observed that clans are mostly named after places, but some clans appear to have derived their names from the river along which they are settled. Usually, the pattern of village settlement is based on the distribution of the clans but the tradition of one clan one village system is not always operative. The Mishmis for instance, are migratory in their habit. With the growth of population, a section of the population may migrate to a region where cultivable land is available. Persons from other clans may also join them, and thus form a new village of different clans.
The Mishmis, in general, lacked in political organization. Traditionally, there is no system of chieftainship to maintain the law and order in the society which is natural in such an individualistic free-minded society of the Mishmi. However, the Kaman society has formed a form of tribal council to settle the civil and criminal cases called Pharai .
Pharai is a sort of village or inter-village council in which, besides the gaonburah, who is a government representative, neutral members, and affected parties attend to resolve certain disputes or enter into some agreement. Usually, all concerned parties follow the council’s decision. However, in cases of serious allegations or charges of wrongdoings by a person, people also resort to ordeals employing pouring of molten iron or scalding hot water, etc. to prove the truth. The Taraons call it Pasei whereas the Kamans call it Mashai.
Mishmis are said to be keen traders, they used to regularly visit the nearby market centers in Assam and bartered musk pods, musk deer skins, honey, medicinal herb known as Mishmi Teeta or Coptis teeta which contains valuable alkaloid berberine, a kind of poison which had a great demand for its pleasant smell, and in exchange, they used to take salt, metal tools, utensils made of brass and copper, cigarette, bidi, glass beads and beads of semiprecious stone.
The Kaman Mishmis inhabiting the upper parts of Lohit valley were enterprising traders carrying on trade with the Zayul district of Tibet. Their merchandise was the same as that of the Taraons. The Kamans and the Taraons went across the Indo-Tibetan border in groups from time to time. The goods they carried were musk pods, aconite, skins of animals, Mishmi coat and loincloths, various kinds of barks, and roots for dyes or drugs such as ‘gotheon‘(an odoriferous root) manject (madder), and Mishmi teeta. In exchange, they brought from Tibet cattle, brass pipes, gongs, woolen goods, copper vessels, and beads.
Reference of regular trading activities between the Kaman Mishmis and the Burmese people took place through Hkamti Long in Myanmar.
The Mishmis are good crafts men. Weaving and cane-bamboo works are the other economic activities. They used to produce textile items for their own consumption, as a result they need not procure it on barter or spending money. Similarly they were self sufficient in preparing all kinds of day to day items like baskets, mats, utensils etc. Thus the handicraft activities of the Mishmis contribute in a big way in their economy.
The highly valued medicinal plant coptis teeta (Mishmi teeta) is grown on a considerable scale which has a good market as commercial item. Timber trade of the Mishmi gave great boost to improve economy of the area.
The concept of high impersonal God among the Mishmis who they regard as the supreme creator embodying the highest ethical principle of justice is based upon beliefs in the spiritual qualities of natural phenomena, good or evil, as caused by an agent who in their mind is a spirit. They believe in numerous such spirits having great powers to rule over human beings. According to these beliefs, there are mainly two kinds of spirits; one brings happiness and prosperity and the other distress and misery. The Mishmi have, therefore, evolved a system of magi co-religious rites and practices to dispel the evil spirits by appeasement. The relation of the spirits with the high god is not well defined, but they are thought to be subservient to him. Propitiation of the spirits who dominate the world of man is the most significant aspect of the Mishmi religion.
By an extension of the religious beliefs in the spirits, the Mishmis have conceptualized a supreme God, the creator of the world, who is infinitely more powerful than the spirits and mortals. The Kamans address him as Matai. They believe that the supreme God is beyond all human propitiations, and therefore, no sacrifices or offerings are made for him, but his name is invariably invoked on all sacrificial and ritualistic occasions.
The Mishmis have other gods also who control the sun, the moon and the stars, the rain, fire and the wind, etc. these gods are worshipped and
appeased so that they may evade their wrath, which manifests itself in natural calamities such as earthquakes, fire, epidemics, storms, crop failure, etc. the extension of their religious belief is expressed in the form of natural worship as well. Some of the deities and spirits are as follows:
- Wata is believed to be the creator of the earth and all mankind. He shows men the way to build houses and to do agriculture for better crops.
- Boru is the deity who protects man from accidents. It is believed that he comes for the rescue of men who invokes him in danger. He also prevents the evil spirits from doing harm to man. But he destroys human property and livestock when neglected.
- Cuta is a deity of the forest to whom offerings are made for successful hunting.
- Bruhhutang is a deity who controls birth. If neglected, he may cause a miscarriage or cause harm to the newborn child.
- Cupe is an evil spirit of gigantic stature like a palm tree. When he clutches a man in a lonely place, he may either carry him to the jungle to make him insane or kill him.
- Kupa is a spirit who lives in big trees. If anybody cuts a tree where he lives, he would get leprosy
- Slong is a spirit who is responsible for causing stomach trouble to the children.
- Kachel is an evil spirit who brings dysentery and other epidemic diseases to a village.
- Along is a spirit that causes continuous fever. He is offered a live fish for the cure.
- KungGau is a spirit who is held to be responsible for the serious illness of human beings.
- Hambram is a spirit that also causes serious illness. A man loses his hair due to the evil intentions of this spirit.
The priests play the most important role in the Mishmi society. They perform all the rites and rituals in society. A priest is called as KAMBRENG by the Kamans.
The socio-cultural life of the Mishmis finds its vibrant expression through the different festivals and ceremonies they perform on different occasions. Any day of the year is auspicious to the Mishmis for ceremonies if provision exists and animals and birds are available for sacrifice. The religious ceremonies of the Digaru Mishmis (Taraons) and the Miju Mishmis (Kamans) are in many cases identical, differing in names only. The priest of one community conducting the ceremonies of the other community is a common practice.
Takku — 15th February
The men wear a narrow waistcloth which is brought up between the legs and hangs down in an embroidered flap in the front. Over this is worn a sleeveless coat reaching halfway down the thighs, the lower half of which is embroidered. The coats and the waistcloth are both woven on an ordinary Indonesian tension loom.
British India silver coins and Yunnan silver coins are used for necklaces and cane rings are sometimes worn below the knee. The hair is worn long and often tied up in a small turban.
Women wear long black skirts reaching almost to the ankle, with a little red embroidery around the edges. A gaily embroidered and very abbreviated bodice leaves the waist bare. A dark shawl is usually thrown over the shoulders. The adornment and patterns on the skirt and shawl have gotten much more intricate and complicated over time. Thin silver forehead plates and large earplugs are characteristic, and rich girls often wear numerous silver hoops around the neck.
The house of the Mishmis is a flimsy hut, made of bamboo, cane, leaf, leafy rope, and thatch. They actually take advantage of the slant of the hill as a protective measure. Such houses accommodates a whole family. But the distinctiveness of the homestead plan of Mishmi is evidenced in a large rectangular enclosed room that looks like a corridor train. Such house accommodated all the members of the family consisting of husband, wife, at times more than one wife, husband’s parents the children, husband’s brother and sister. Family members may range from ten to sixty.In the case of the plan of a house belonging to a rich family, it is usually a long one, extending to 30 meters in length and 5 meters in width, with a passage running from one end to another end along one side in the interior. At times a number of compartments in that structure as rooms are seen, dividing it into different quarters. Mishmi room, whether big or small has a hearth made of clay, square in shape at the center of the room. At the front of the house, there is a porch having a semi-circular roof. Next to the porch, there is a common room, where the guests are accommodated. The next room in the row is usually meant for the owner of the house. The third and fourth rooms are for the wives and children. A notched timber and ladder are fixed with the front porch for entrance.
The main posts of the house are made from Kane and Ngero trees which are durable and not easily decayed or spoiled. Floor walls and rafters are obtained from a large stemmed bamboo (abato). Beams are made from fir trees (thombo). Roof is made by elephant grass (ako). Ropes are made from ‘abato’ bamboo. Tying things are made from young bamboos particularly from abato. The strips are dried over the fire and at the time of construction taken out and soaked in water for 3-4 days.
The roof is usually thatched with palm or ‘jengu’(calamus erectus) which are abundantly available. The layer of thatch is fastened to stripes of bamboo matting; the framework is secured and strengthened with cane strings. The floor is made of split bamboo. The side walls are either made of split bamboo or of wooden planks. The entire house is constructed on several wooden and bamboo pillars. The house is always raised from the ground for about four to five feet, and that is why it is commonly called ‘chang ghar’, which actually means that the house is on a raised platform.
The Buiya dance has two types of movements and it is performed for entertainment while the Nuiya is a ritual dance performed by a priest.
Buiya dance is performed on any festive occasion like the Duiya, Tazampu, and Tanuya festivals which are performed for the prosperity and good health of the performer and his household. This dance may also be performed after a feast arranged by a family to entertain the fellow villagers who co-operate with it opening a new field. The dance is performed in the passage which runs along one side of the house from the front to the rear. Men and women take part in this dance. There is no limit to the age of the dancers although generally children and old persons do not take an active part in the dance itself but merely sit by, as spectators. There is no special costume for this dance, so they perform this dance wearing their usual dress. The male dancer wears a loin-cloth a sleeveless jacket, a turban, and earrings. The female dancer wears a blouse, a long skirt reaching down to the ankle with a short one wrapped over it, and a side bag on the left side. They wear necklaces, large silver-ear-plugs, and a silver fillet with its strap studded with coins or cowries.
The dancers stand in a line, one behind the other, in the passage. One of the dancers plays a drum while another plays a gong. Cymbals are played, if available, by another dancer. Keeping time to the beats of the drum, gong, and cymbals, the dancers take one step forward with the right foot, then gently bring the left foot up to the heel of the left one flexing the knees as before. They dance forward repeating this sequence of movements till they reach the rear of the passage with the same sequence of movements. Thus they dance up and down the passage of the house. They may or may not sing to the accompaniment of the dance. When they sing a song, it may be solo or in chorus.
There is another movement when they dance with skipping steps but with no accompanying song. The skipping steps of the female dancers are lower and graceful while those of the male dancers are higher and more vigorous.
The dancers get no remuneration. There is no formal training but they learn the dance movements by imitating those of the elders.
Nuiva is a ritual dance relating to funeral ceremonies. The dance is performed by the priest who sings a chant to the accompaniment of drum and gong played by two other persons.
In the morning the food is prepared. Rice or ‘kado’ (millet) and some boiled green leaves (lai patta) seasoned with chillies and salt. After cooking the grain the water is not thrown, it is covered tightly with leaf and taken with the meal. Leaves of some other varieties are also taken by the Mishmis in large quantities. A favourite relish is the young bamboo shoot called ‘Apachu‘ It is pounded first, and then stored for about ten days in bamboo tubes for fermentation. ‘Apachu’ is sometimes prepared dry. In that case, the shoots are cut into small pieces, kept in large baskets covered on all sides, and then allowed to dry in the sunshine for three to four months in the time of scarcity or famine; the Mishmis usually depend on the roots of palm trees, maize, different kinds of arums, and sweet potatoes. Tobacco is grown in this area and when required for smoking, the piled-up leaves are kept for fermentation; then they are cut into pieces and dried in the sunshine, about a month after it becomes ready for use.
Yu or rice beer is the common drink. It is prepared from rice or millet.
- “Ethno archaeological study of the Mishmi tribe in Arunachal Pradesh and its exposition through ethnographic museum” – Malik, Basudeb (2007) : Calcutta University
- “The Anthropology of North-East India” – Ghosh, G. C., Subba, T. B. (2003) : Orient BlackSwan.