“Migration Memories” in Karbi Oral tradition
There was a time when a Karbi forefather could speak in endless verses— the language he so fluently used to express his world-views, his religion, and to communicate with his exotic surrounding— and his descendants. The Karbi forefather’s verses, sung in simple repetitive tones but in strict metrical order, told tales of creation of the universe, the origin of the first Karbi parents, the elaborate wedding and funerary rituals, the ordeal of migration and so on. In fact, the vast repertoire of Karbi oral tradition touches upon every aspect of the tribe’s ways of life. In spite of the lack of documentation, these verses have managed to survive in rural Karbi Anglong to this day. The Karbi ‘history’, therefore, continues to be trapped in the realm of myths, legends and hearsays. The ‘lack of historical sense’ that Prof. DD Kosambi observes in the larger context of Indian historiography afflicts the Karbis, therefore, more acutely. This is partly due to the fact that conventional Indian historiography pays little or no attention to smaller primitive tribes, their cultures and ritual practices that lie buried in the lowest rung of Indian history. But having said that, what remains an inescapable truth is the fact that the Karbi ‘elites’ themselves are yet to wake up to the need of documenting the rich but rapidly vanishing oral traditions and numerous religious observances that may hold the key to reconstructing the historical past of the tribe. The discourse presented here is an attempt to loosely string together surviving memories of the Karbi migration, chiefly from the oral traditions of ‘Môsēra Kihīr’ (Recounting the Past) with secondary information from the ‘Kechārhé’ (Dirge) to provoke more in-depth discussions in near future so that some ‘historical senses’ can be shaped.
The folk narratives of ‘Môsēra kihīr’ and ‘Kechārhé’:
‘Môsēra Kihīr’ is an important genre of Karbi folk narrative that literally means ‘recounting the past from memories’. ‘Môsēra Kihīr’ is an essential recital in Karbi funerary ceremony (chōmkan or thī-kārhi) and the ‘collective youth ritual’ known as ‘risō chōjun’. In every funerary ceremony, it is customary for the host (of thī-kārhi) to formally welcome the visiting dignitaries (represented by youths) from neighbouring villages and bid them goodbye at the end of the festivity. The ritual of ‘Môsēra’ serves as the host’s formal expression of ‘gratitude’ to the visitors for their cooperation and a prayer for forgiveness if any lapses or irregularities were committed unwittingly during the occasion. This is the occasion when the ‘heads of village youths’, known by their traditional titles of ‘klēngsārpò’, chant the ‘Môsēra’, in the manner of a long ‘question and answer’ session, recounting the memories of the tribe’s migration and the ordeal it suffered. The long verses of ‘Mosēra’ are ceremonially chanted, in breathless fashion, during the ‘risō chōjun’ as well, at the completion of the co-operative of unmarried youths, known as Jīr Kedām. ‘Return to village’ or ‘ārông kachevōi’ is a Karbi euphemism for death. When a person dies, he is believed to have returned to his ancestors’ village as “…….journeys of the soul often retraces the routes of migration from an imagined homeland….”. ‘Kechārhé’ or ‘dirge’ singing, an important genre in the repertoire of Karbi folk narratives, describes the out of the world journey of the soul into the ‘land of eternal happiness’ (chōm rôngmé, chōm rôngsò), which is an unavoidable part of the Karbi funerary ritual— ‘Chōmkan’. The Karbi funeral ceremony, lasting for three to five days, is a very elaborate and expensive affair where the central figure is the ‘chārhépi’ or ‘uchēpi’, the female dirge singer cum priestess. The ‘kechārhé’ is an exclusively female affair and it is taboo for a male to do so. It is otherwise taboo for even the ‘chārhépi’ to chant the dirge in other occasions within the boundary of a village. The ‘chārhépi’ or a group of them acts as the guide of the soul in its final journey into the land of ‘eternal happiness’ through pre-ordained resting places. Without the chant and the heart-rending wails of the dirge, it is believed that the soul cannot reach its final destination through a journey of arduous terrains, thorny and rocky-mountains covered with thick clouds of mist and big rivers.
Hypotheses of Karbi origin:
Since long, researchers have considered the North East fringe of India as the passageway that connects the mainland with the East and South-East Asia. This region is considered a major corridor of human migrations and a major linguistic contact zone that was predicted to have witnessed an extensive population interaction. Recent studies speak of —‘A series of migration brought the Mongoloids to Northeast India from the North, Northeast and Southeast. In ancient literature like the Vedas, the Mahabharata, the Ramayana and the Puranas, one comes across the term Kirata, which means the Indo-Mongoloids, who are easily distinguishable by their physical features from the Nishada, another pre-Vedic population group of India. The term Kirata is for the first time found in the Yajurveda. Reference has been made to a Kirata girl in the Atharvaveda also. It is generally believed that the Vedas were compiled in the 10th century BC. Hence, it seems quite probable that the Indo-Mongoloids came to India long before 1000 BC. The Mahabharata and the Ramayana are supposed to have been written between 500 BC and 400 AD. By that time the Kirata established themselves in Northeast India and also in North Bihar….. North-western China between the Huang-Ho and Yangszekiang rivers is regarded as the earliest homeland of the ancestors of the Tibeto-Burman speakers. In very ancient time they moved southward to arrive at North of Burma, wherefrom their different batches migrated in different directions. One batch moved westward along the lower hills of the Himalayas and extended up to the Western Himalayas. Another batch migrated southward to reach Southeast Asia via Burma and the adjoining territories. The third batch entered Northeast India and established themselves in the Northeast corner of the region. At later dates members of the first batch started entering Assam in small groups via Northern passes of Bhutan and Tibet. In course of time they were distributed in different regions assuming different names. Certain tribes are small and are confined to particular localities. Others are very large and are distributed over larger areas, sometimes forming subgroups of the same tribe. The tribes like the Garo, Rabha, Kachari, Karbi are descendents of these immigrant groups. This is supported by traditional stories of migration prevalent among these tribes.” Prof. James A Matisoff, the reputed linguist who had extensively investigated the Sino-Tibetan and Tibeto-Burman language-family, comments—“The Proto-Sino-Tibetan (PST) homeland seems to have been somewhere on the Himalayan plateau, where the great rivers of East and Southeast Asia (including the Yellow, Yangtze, Mekong, Brahmaputra, Salween and Irrawaddy) have their sources. The time of hypothetical ST unity, when the Proto-Han (= Proto-Chinese) and Proto-Tibeto-Burman (PTB) peoples formed a relatively undifferentiated linguistic community, must have been at least as remote as the Proto-Indo-European period, perhaps around 4000 B.C.” 
The two observations above offer a very wide and generalised idea about the migration of the TB speakers as a whole and our job of identifying the Karbi migration route resembles seeking a tiny pin from a huge haystack. The Karbi tradition of maintaining genealogy that continues to modern day through the ritual practice of ‘chāmburuksò hōr kepì’ (offering of wine to ancestors) when the ancestors’ names recalled, which is limited to only four to five generations. All the dead ancestors’ names are not retained. In any case, for any Karbi who is genuinely interested in exploring the migration route/s that his long forgotten and nameless ancestors might have taken to reach the present habitat thousands of years hence, studies into the existing versions of the folk narratives of ‘môsēra’ and ‘kechārhé’ are unavoidable. First—let us consider the various prevalent theories about the Karbi migration in hitherto published materials. In the “Bulletin of the Tribal Research Institute”, edited by BN Bordoloi in his article ‘The Karbis—Their Origin and Migration’ (Pages 55 to 64) extensively quoting from sources such as The Mikirs (Lyall and Tack), Karbi Sanskritir Dhara by NN Baruah (Saptahik Janambhumi, June 30, 1976, Mikir by JR Gogoi, an article in Assamese in Asomor Janajati, Ghy-1962, Page 121, Karbi Prasanga (Assamese), edited by D Gogoi, Diphu, 1971 Page-5, Asom Buranji by Gunabhiram Baruah, Ghy-1972, Pp-16 & 17, A Cultural History of Assam, Ghy-1969, Pp 6, A History of Civilization of the people of Assam to the 12th Century AD by PC Chaudhury, Ghy-1959, Pp 13 & 14, Early History of Kamrup by Raibahadur KL Baruah, Ghy-1966, Pp 13 & 14, Races and Cultures of India by DN Mazumdar, Bombay-1965, P-49, The Problems of identification and Immigration of the North East Frontier Tribes, The NE India Research Bulletin, Vol-V, 1974 Pp 45 to 50 by ML Bose, A History of Assam by EA Gait, Calcutta-1963, Introduction to 1st Edition and ‘Sabin Alun’ published by Diphu Sahitya Sabha, has put forth the following hypothesis on the origin of the term Mikir and Karbi. Hypothesis 1: Thireng-Vang-reng, a Karbi king’s daughter named Mekri was married to a Naga prince. The Nagas, being not able to pronounce Mekri properly, could pronounce it as Mekiri only. (Karbi Prasanga by Deben Gogoi, 1971, P 5.)
There is no historical evidence yet to either prove or disprove this hypothesis, but inter-marriage is very much possible among various ethnic groups. Furthermore, though the legend of Thirèng-vāngrèng still persists, there is no mention that he was a ‘king’.
Hypothesis 2: When the Karbis first entered into Assam, they had a cat with them. Unfortunately the cat was lost. Another group of people happened to meet them and when asked about their identity, the question (language) being unintelligible, they (Karbis) replied that they were searching for the lost cat, that is Mengkiri. The people misunderstood the meaning of the term Mengkiri and thought that the newcomers introduced themselves as Mengkiri. This in course of time became Mikir.
This definitely is the most enduring hypothesis about the origin of the word Mikir. But strangely enough, there is no mention or reference to any such term in any of the surviving oral traditions of the tribe. In fact, ‘Mikir is a name given to the tribe by the Assamese’. Hypothesis 3: Gunabhiram Baruah—“They (Mikirs) looked for love and affection from the others. It can, therefore, be assumed that the term Mikir might have been originated from ‘Sakhamriga’ or ‘Markat’. He further opined that our people called them Mikir but they called themselves Karbi. The term Karbi might have origin in the Sanskrit word ‘Kroibya’ (flesh) or ‘Kroibad’ (flesh eater).”
The description of ‘Meekir’ given in the “Aham Buranji”-1875, as found in Chapter-II, Page 13, is worth reproducing here verbatim to have an idea of the contempt and shallow understanding that some of the conventional history writers did have on primitive communities — ‘Mikeer Jati—bortoman nogaon, nagahills jilar aru khasiya porbot jilar majhor parboityo thait ei hanto prokritir jati bah kore. Homobhumitu onek Mikeer ase. Ihote amar manuhe hoite borkoi milibo pare. Mikeer bilakok amar manuhe ‘dalor mikeer’ bule. Hihoteo sneh ba onugrohor ahate heirup baikyo nije bule. Iyar dwara ene upolobdhi hobo pare je hakhamrig ba morkot hobdorei Mikeer hobdo opobhrongho matro. Ei jati adibahi luk, ihote kosari rojar odhin asil.’ (Literal English translation—The Mikirs, these peace loving people, live in the hilly regions between the Nogaon, Naga Hills and Khasi Hills districts. Many Mikirs live in the plains too. These people can mix with our people very much. Mikirs are called ‘Mikirs living in the tree branches’ by our people. They in the hope of getting love and gratuity call themselves so. It may thus give such an understanding that Mikir is only a derivative from ‘Sakhamriga’ or ‘Markat. These people are aboriginals, they were under the Kacahri king.)
Hypothesis 4: A Karbi had left his home after lighting a fire in the hearth inside the house. In Karbi ‘Me-AA-Kar’ means to light a fire and ‘Bi’ means to leave. His wife, who was out of the house, saw from a distance that her husband had left the house without extinguishing the fire which might result in burning the whole homestead. She asked him—‘Me akar chonghoi bi kangkok?’ From the ‘mistake’ committed by the ancestors, the descendants were known as ‘me akar bi’ and in course of time, came to be known as ‘Karbi’.
This is a fabulous explanation but really very difficult to establish its authenticity.
Hypothesis 5: Bôrli-ē, a Karbi forefather, his son once suffered from a serious illness. Bôrli-ē worshipped Hemphu, the family deity for the recovery of his son. His daughter-in-law was through a labour pain at that time. Bôrli-ē instructed a demoness, Panjak, to help in the process of the delivery. Panjak agreed. But at the time of the feast, food could not be offered to Panjak as she was hiding from public eye. Hemphu noticed this when offering was almost over and offered a portion from his food. Others followed suit seeing the Hemphu. The people introduced themselves as ‘Thekar Kibi Aso’. Karbi is a derivative from this.
The practice of offering a portion of food to Karbi deities still continues and ‘Karbi’ as the shortened form of ‘thékār-kibī’ is now generally accepted.
Hypothesis 6: Hemphu and Mukrang created Karbi to their likeness after the creation of the earth. The land was obtained from the king of earthworms. To hold the land together, spiders helped the Gods. While the king of earthworms did not ask for any reward in return, the spider king demanded that its members on earth should be kept the happiest of all creatures.
Hypothesis 7: According to the ‘Sabin Alun’ (Karbi Ramayana) tradition, ‘the Karbis consider themselves to be the descendants of Sugriva, the great hero of the Ramayana who had helped Rama with his subjects to fight against the demon king Ravana for the purpose of rescuing Sita’.
The existence of Rāmayāna story in various ethnic communities outside the established Hindu culture and the Sugriva-descendent theory merits further investigation.
In continuing with the same article, Bordoloi mentions that the ‘North East India, specially Assam, was subjected to successive waves of migration from Central Asia belonging to the Indo-Chinese linguistic families of which mention may be made of the Mon-Khmer (Khasis), the Tibeto-Burmans and the Siamese-Chinese including the Shans (Ahoms). It is assumed that the speakers of the Indo-Chinese language of the Mon-Khmer (Khasis) family were the first band of infiltrators into Assam and their date of infiltration is supposed to be several hundred years of BC. That they were the first band of infiltrators into Assam is indicated by linguistic evidences, popular customs and place-names of the State. (Dr BK Baruah, A Cultural History of Assam, 1969, Page-6). People speaking the Tibeto-Burman languages were the second band of infiltrators into Assam. The Ahoms, one of the Shan tribes, entered Assam in 13th century AD and they were followed by the other Shan tribes, namely, Khamtis, Phakiyals, Naras, Aitoniyas, etc……writings point to the fact that the Karbis, like the other tribes of the undivided Assam, migrated from Central Asia which was their original home long back……According to Dr BK Baruah (A Cultural History of Assam-Early Period), the original home of the TB languages speaking people was in the Western China near Yang-tse-kiang and the Hwang-ho rivers. From these places they went down the courses of the Brahmaputra, the Chindwin, Irrawady and entered India through Burma.…..Both Dr Baruah and Dr PC Chowdhury (A History of the Civilization of the people of Assam to the 12th century AD, 1959, P-86) agree that the TB language speaking people entered Assam, probably from the north, through the courses of the rivers—Brahmaputra, Chindwin, Irrawady, Salween, Mekong and Menam and mountain passes of Assam and Burma through the north-east and south-west.….ML Bose (The Problems of Identification and Immigration of North-East Frontiers Tribes, North-Eastern Research Bulletin, Vol.-V, 1974, Pp 44-45) rejects the theory that the tribes of the North East belong to the Mongolian origin and that their original home was Yang-tse-kiang or Hwang-ho rivers of China. His contentions are that Kiratas are not Mongolians but Mongoloids whose original home was the region where India, China and Burma met.….the earliest inhabitants of Assam have been described as Kiratas in the Kalika Purana. They had shaven heads and yellow skins and were ferocious, ignorant and addicted to meat and drink. (Dr BK Baruah, A Cultural History of Assam, 1969, Pp 5-6).
Another work, entitled ‘The Route of Karbi Migration to Assam’, by Prof. Gopal Chandra Medhi, former Head of the Department of Education, Diphu Govt. College, did indeed make an honest attempt to provide some clues to the question. Prof. Medhi, having served as a distinguished teacher in the only College in the entire hills district during his tenure, used the advantage of his proximity to Karbi culture and life to study the possible routes of migration of the tribe. He begins by analysing the etymological meanings attached to the word ‘Karbis or Arleng’, known to outsiders as Mikir, but to him, the ‘most convincing and highly accepted one’ was Karbi, derived from ‘thekar’ and ‘kibi’— meaning people who ‘keep a portion of eatables for God’. He followed the linguistic course to explain the term ‘Arleng’, interpreted as man or hill-slope-dweller while ‘Mikir’ is derived from Mi and Kiri meaning hill people in Kuki-Chin dialect and to assert that “the Karbis entered Assam through Burma is supported by the linguistic evidence cited by Stack and Lyall……analyzing the relationship among different tribal languages spoken in Assam; Lyall and Stack mentioned two words ‘lāng’ and ‘rông’ and found that ‘nowhere else in the neighbourhood is there a trace of similar words until we come to Burmese.” Quoting from the ‘Imperial Gazetteer of India, 1907, 295’ and also ‘A Cultural History of Assam, Vol. I by BK Baruah, 1969, 6’, Prof. Medhi observes that “The Upper courses of Yantse and the Hwangho rivers in the northwest China were the original home of the Tibeto-Burman races…..The TB races moved toward different quarters from their original homes in northwest China probably owing to some natural calamities…….the Karbis entered Assam by the eastern hilly route through Patkai passes in the North-East… the route connects China, through Hukawang valley in Burma over the Patkai passes with Lidu-Margherita road in Assam.’ He has also referred to the introduction by Mr. JH Hutton in JP Mills’ book ‘Lhota Nagas’ who observed that the northeast route was followed by tribes like Aka, Mishmi, Garo, Mikir, Boro and Kachari and the southern route by the Naga tribes and Lushai Kukis. He has extensively quoted from the ‘Imperial Gazetteer of India’ to support the fact that the Mikirs, Lalungs and Kacharis were the chief aboriginal tribes of Nowgong district, “all of whom are believed to have entered Assam from the northeast many centuries ago”. While referring to the existing published materials on the subject, I am tempted to refer to the coinage, ‘Karbis are the Columbus of Assam’ attributed to the great revolutionary Bishnuprashad Rabha. We may forgive the revered Rabha for unwittingly having conferred the ‘Columbus’ title on the Karbis. But the facts are: surviving migration memories of the Karbis are yet to confirm the hypothesis that the tribe had indeed ‘discovered’ Assam and also that there is yet any hypotheseis that disproves this. In any case, the ‘Columbus’ epithet on the Karbis would mean ‘glorifying the bloodstained legacy of the colonial pirate’.
The apparently short references above are nevertheless a huge work collated from various sources but may still appear too inadequate to formulate any conclusion about the original home of the Karbi ancestors and the long and winding routes they possibly traversed. But thanks to efforts like these, we at least have some ground to advance our guess works considering our continued inaccessibility to newer research materials to be able to make any comparative studies and arrive at some plausible conclusions. As already mentioned earlier, the comparatively easier way out of this predicament is to begin the systematic documentation, studies and interpretations of the surviving oral literature and ritual observances. The inaccuracies in oral literature are obvious as they are dependent on the capacity of human memories alone as folk knowledge is ‘mouthed’ down from generation to generation through centuries. But one cannot ignore the importance of this form of folk knowledge and we must take our chances to explore a bit of our past history from the meeting points of legends, popular beliefs (or superstitions if you please) and myths.
‘Recounting the past’:
The existing ‘môsēra’ traditions in various regions in Karbi Anglong display basically a uniform theme of the origin of the tribe and the peculiar narrative style. But the Chīnthông version seems to have retained more detailed and interesting explanations of the ordeal of the tribe’s migration from the “earth’s navel” or “lônglè acheté” through diverse lands and endless persecution to its present habitat. ‘Lônglè achēté’ is where the Karbis first attempted to ‘install’ their first king ‘Sôt Recho’ or the ‘Truthful King’. The ‘môsēra’ further descirbes that ‘lônglè achēté’ is surrounded by the offsprings/followers of ‘Je and Hova’, which seems to be a direct reference to ‘Jehova’, the God of the Jews. ‘Môsēra’ also describes that the Karbis’ prayer for passage through the settlement of the followers of the ‘Je and Hova’ is granted and allowed to proceed to the ‘lônglè achēté’ to finally install their king. A road is constructed with ‘stone’ (ārlòng ādon). ‘Sôt Recho’ is installed in the highest peak of the ‘lônglè achēté’. But ‘Tongklông Meji’ pursues the Karbis in an attempt to kill their new king. The Karbis fail to defend their king in spite of all their might put together. The king himself asks his people to allow the attackers to come to him. ‘Tongklông Meji’ or ‘hi-ì’ (demon) enemies reach the peak with ‘golden swords’ (sēr anôkjir) and the King confronts them. Realizing his inevitable defeat, the king requests for a last wish— to have ‘ingtat’ (betel leave and nut or pān) before the enemies behead him. But every stroke of the enemy sword renders the king growing in size. Frustrated, the enemies decide to put him in an ‘iron cage’ (īngchin a:ūm) and accordingly imprisons him for three months without food or water. The king survives the ordeal. Enraged and their frustrations doubled, the enemies decide to kill his subjects instead. Killing of the Karbi subjects starts and finding no alternative, the King asks his subjects to flee to a ‘secure place’ telling them that he would join them in a new avatar—in his next birth. He tells them to look for signs—humans will become dwarfs, chili plants will outgrow their original sizes fit enough to be climbed, ‘lông-lēngpum’ (wooden rice pounding stuff) will germinate and cry out, and eggs will germinate and these are the advance warnings of the King’s impending rebirth. He would be borne in the ‘middle of a Rônghāng village’ (literal translation of Rônghāng ārông angbōng or Rônghāng Rôngbong, now in western Karbi Anglong, where the traditional Karbi chiefs have their capital). Karbis then begin to flee, yet again. The following verses from the Chinthông version of the ‘môsēra’ narrate the Karbi exodus through the ‘navel of the earth’—
Ansi Sum asò tangté lepu, Sāng asò tangté lepu
(And then the children of Sum and Sang…)
Ili ta recho chomè lepu, kethe chomè lepu
(We also can have our king, our great leader)
Lasi recho chebātlonàng lepu, kethē chebātlonàng lepu (Therefore, let’s ordain a king, a leader)
Richo athèng rinang lepu, kethē athèng rinang lepu
(Let’s look for one befitting a king)
Richo atheng nang-ri lepu, kethē atheng nang-ri lepu
(Search for one befitting a king ensued)
Timung asôr tangté lepu, Rongphar asôr tangté lepu
(There’s one among the Timung and Rôngphār clan)
Pap klemklè dolang lepu, pun klemklè dolang lepu
(Sins or wrong doings have he not committed)
Ri asèk kechok lepu, keng asèk kechok lepu
(Strong arm and legs he possessed)
Laphan-lè recho batnang lepu, laphan-lè kethe batnang lepu (Him we ordain king, him we ordain our leader)
Lasi asôt kedo apôt lepu, abôt kedo apôt lepu
(Because holy he is and pure he is)
Lasi sot recho pukôk lepu, bôt recho pukôk lepu
(Therefore the holy one, pure one he is called)
Lasi Sum asò chingvai lepu, Sang asò chingvai lepu (Therefore Sum’s children, Sang’s children consulted)
Recho kebi adim tangte lepu, kethe kebi adim tangte lepu (King’s abode, leader’s abode should be)
Inglông kangthir adim nangji lepu, ārlôk kangthir adim nangji lepu
(Mount of holinees required, canyon of purity required) Lasi inglông kangthir tangté lepu, ārlôk kangthir tangté lepu (Therefore mount of holiness, canyon of purity is where…) Pirthe la achetédet lo lepu, mindar la achetédet lo lepu
(Earth’s navel, universe’ navel is….)
Lasi pirthē la achēté adim, mindār la achēté adim
(Then earth’s this navel, universe’ this navel)
Ahem la kimpidamlonang lepu, arit kimpidamlonang lepu (Home thus begins to be built, hearth thus begins to be built) Ansi Karbi asò atum, ansi Karbak asò atum
(Then Karbi followers…..)
Ahem kimpidampo kepu, arit kimpidampo kepu
(Home they commit to build, hearth they commit to build) Lasi loti jokjé lepu, tovar jokjé lepu
(Then passage not being free, access not being free)
Lasi sadu jokjé lepu, lasi samé jokjé lepu
(Then road not being free, route not being free)
Bang ing-lông kômchen tangté lepu, bang ārlôk kômchek lepu
(They mountain surrounded, they canyon surrounded) Ji atum dothip lepu, Hova atum dothip lepu…………
(Ji in their strength resided, Hova in their strength resided….)
The ‘môsēra’ also speaks of the tribe’s flight to the land of ‘white sky and white earth’, ‘white mountain and white canyon’ in the company of great many communities of the Kuki-Chinpi, the Dukpa, the Lepcha, the Lama and the Tamang. The following verses give an idea of the Karbi migration—
Bang Kuki-chinpi atum tangté, Kukichinpo atum tangté
(They the great Kuki-Chins…..)
Do adim cherai lepu, La thak adim cherai lepu
(Demarcated their areas to dwell….)
Dak nedung tangté lepu, Dak nerei tangté lepu
(Here surrounding us….)
Nangtum Dukpa atum tangté lepu, Nangtum Lepcha atum tangté lepu
(You Dukpas and Lepchas…)
Nangtum Lama atum tangté lepu, Nangtum Tamang atum tangté lepu
(You Lamas and Tamangs….)
Do adim nangjangpônpé lepu, thak adim nangjangpônpé lepu (Can not be accomodatied we are told….)
Lasi bang Kukipi (Huki) atum pudet, lasi bang Hukipo atum pudet
(Then they the great Kukis or Hukis spoke to us…. )
Bang Chinpo atuim pudet lepu, bang Chinpi atum pudet lepu
(They the great Chins spoke to us…..)
Bang dakpen thurnoi pu kipu, bang dakpen damnoi pu kipu (They ordered us to leave from their land…..)
Lasi Lama atumpenta, lasi Lepcha atum penta
(Therefore with the Lamas and the Lepchas….)
Bang Kukichinpi atum, bang Kukichinpo atum
(They the great Kuki-chins….)
Ron chepho lepu, mai chepho lepu
(Battles among them ensued…)
Si Karbi atum tangté, si Karbak atum tangté
(So Karbis all of them…..)
Ron kapheredun lepu, mai kapheredun lepu
(Being afraid of the battles……)
Lasi Karbi atum chingvai lepu, Karbak atum chingvai lepu
(Then the Karbis consulted among themselves..)
Dak bang ron dokok lepu, dak bang mai dokok lepu
(Here a battle is being fought…..)
Jo arni chithu lepu, Jo arni chithat lepu
(Every night killings took place, every day killings took place…)
Lasi sining kelôk lepu, lasi lônglé kelôk lepu
(So in sky-white, in earth-white..)
Inglông kelôk tangte lepu, ārlôk kelôk tangte lepu
(Mountian-white and canyon white…)
Dodun adim ave lepu, thakdun adim ave lepu
(Accomodation not available here……)
Lasi dakpen bé lonàng lepu, Lasi dakpen ché lonàng lepu
(So from here we flee, from here we disperse…..)
Lasi Karbi atum tangté lepu, Lasi Karbak atum tangté lepu
(So Karbis we ……)
Lasi nangbethu lo lepu, Lasi nangchethulo lepu
(Therefore dispersed again…..)
Sining ta kanphuri vanglo lepu, Longlè ta kanphuri vanglo lepu………
(Sky we roamed around, earth we roamed around…..)
The ordeal continues for the Karbis as they are driven out from ‘the land of the White Mountains’, avoiding the battles that killed ‘every day, every night’. The ‘White Mountains’ seems an unmistakeable reference to the great Himalayas while the great Kuki-Chins, the Dukpa, the Lepcha, the Lama and the Tamang are easy to identify. However, the ‘Dukpa’, an unmistakeable derivation from the ‘Drukpa’, a sect of Tibetan Budhism, may seem untenable historically as the sect itself is a later formation. But a beautiful story of the ‘first discovery of rice’ by the Karbis while in close proximity with the Kuki-Chins still persists.
The next stop in the Karbi exodus is narrated in the following verses of the ‘môsēra’—
Bang Karbi aso tangté lepu, Karbak aso tangté lepu
(They the Karbi offsprings…..)
Mung-ri bang rong nangkim lepu, Mung-ram bang rong nangkim lepu
(Mungri and Mungram are where they built villages..)
Mungri kedo thirthé lepu, Mungram kedo thirthe lepu (Mungri and Mungram settlements did not last…) Taipi pen ron chepi lepu, Taipo pen ron chepi lepu (Battles with the great Tais ensued…)
Ansi Mung-ri pen nangbethu lepu, Mun-gram nangbethu lepu
(Then from Mungri and Mungram Karbis dispersed…)
Sining ta kanphuri lepu, lônglé ta kanphuri lepu
(Sky and earth they roamed…)
Ningkan krehini aphi lepu, ningkan krekethôm aphi lepu (After twelve-thriteen long years of wanderings…) Manghu pen vangsita lepu, Mangram pen vangsita lepu (Through blunders and slip-ups they advanced…) Arakan nangpho lepu, la Paikan nangpho lepu
(To the Arakan and Paikan ranges…)
Inglôngpi la akengri, ārlôkpi la akengri
(By the shadows of the great mountains and canyons…)
Lasi rong nangkim lepu, lasi rup nangkim lepu
(Then villages were built again…)
Lasi Arakan kedo jokta, la Paikan kedo jokta
(Then settlements in Arakan-Paikan too…)
Havar cho chithi dokôk, hapat cho chithi dokôk
(Land disputes arose….)
Lasi jaipek alam chepho lepu, lasi jaihòi alam chepho lepu
(Then confrontation arose on boundaries…)
Lasi Barmipi pudet lepu, Barmipo pudet lepu
(Then the great Barmese ordered….)
Thoipi lônglé kejôi dolang, joipi lônglé kejôi dolang
(In the great plains there are vacant spaces..) Kôpli la apirthē lepu, Kôlōng la apirthe lepu
(It is where rivers Kôpli and Kôlōng flowed….) Lônglé kejôi dolang lepu, phēlang kejôi dolang lepu (Vacant lands existed there…)
Lalé nang Karbi asò tangté lepu, nang Karbak asò tangté lepu
(Then the Karbis with their offsprings…)
Nākā la dongponput damnon, Nārā la dongponput damnon
(You proceed through the Nagas….)
Ānké nangtum thoipi phōpô lepu, ānké nangtum joipi phōpô lepu….
(Then you will reach the great expanse of the plains….)
The Karbi encounter with the great Tais at Mungri-Mungram is narrated here. The Karbis are displaced from the Mungri-Mungram after their defeat at the hands of the great Tais. The Karbi ‘Mungri-Mungram’ seems to be directly derived from Mungri-Mungram of the present day Burma where the first Ahom Kings Khunlung-Khunlai were beleieved to have descended from heaven. The reference to Tai seems to indicate the ‘Tai-speaking’ Mān people of Burma, a small number of whom live in present Karbi Anglong district. But Karbi settlement did not last long there as they further move for shelter in the shadows of the great Arakan mountain range of Burma. The Karbis thereafter confront with the great Barmese who force them to leave their land towards the great river valleys of the Kôpili and Kôlōng in the presen day Assam through the lands of the Nagas. ‘Referring to a Karbi tradition JH Hutton and H Bareh mention that southern Nagaland offered land route to the “….. tribes migrating from Burma via Manipur hills through which a passage was made by tribes who preceded the present people of the Patkoi mountain. The other preceding tribes are described to have Austric and Karen affinities”. But before their final sojourn to their present habitat, they make the last few stopovers in Burma as the following verses reveal —
Lāsi sālu nāngpholô lepu
(Then sālu they reached..)
Lāsi mukindon nāngpholô lepu
(Then mukindon they reached…)
Lālè inglông kāngtui lepu
(So high was the mountain…)
Lālè ārlôk kāngtui lepu
(So deep the canyon…)
Sāmé ānlè jôkjè lepu
(Road was not safe…)
Sādu ānlè jôkjè lepu
(Neither was any path available..)
Lāsi inglông kārlu tāngté lepu
(Then climbing high mountain..)
Lāsi ārlôk kārlu tāngté lepu
(Then climbing so deep gorges…)
Lāsi ingchin adōn chedōn lepu
(That’s why iron bridge was built…)
Lāsi ārlòng ādān chedōn lepu
(That’s why stone bridge was built..)
Lāsi inglông bātlô lepu
(Then mountain was scaled..)
Lāsi ārlôk bātlô lepu……
(Then deep canyon was crossed…)
The reference here to ‘Salu’ and ‘Mukindon’ as mountains is thought provoking. Here, one is tempted to imagine of ‘Salu’ not as a mountain but as the shortened form of Salween, the river that still continues to flow in northern Burma. To quote from a research paper —‘Nevertheless, and despite this uncertainty about chronology and geography, there is a broad consensus that the homeland of Tibeto-Burman is somewhere in that famous region where northern Burma meets southwest China and four major rivers (Yangtze, Mekong, Salween, Irrawady) run side by side from north to south.’ ‘Sālu’ is also a kind of thorny creeper in present day Karbi vocabulary, which could have been implanted from the memories of the difficult wanderings across dreary rain forests in Burma leading to the crossing of the Salween river in some point of time in the Karbi ancestors’ migration. ‘Mukindon’, though at present stated to be a Khasi derivative (Mou=stones, kindon=steps or literally meaning ‘steps of stones’), Burma map still shows the presence of ‘Mindon’ mountain that the Karbi ancestors might have once encountered. These assumptions may appear a little too far-fetched, but one cannot rule out the possibility as existing written materials suggest the migration of batches of TB speaking people from across Burma to North East India. But current memory of Mukindon is of a hill, full of stones and it is situated in the border of NC Hills and Nagaland, within the present-day boundary of NC Hills district.
Chomangpi-along chomangpo along
(In the land of the great Chomang…)
Ili nāngbé loké, ili nāngché loké
Tāmu nangdoloké Nāmdông nāngdoloké….
(Tāmu and Nāmdông are where we landed…)
The exodus into the present NC Hills is narrated in the ‘môsēra’ of the Rôngkhāng version. They wandered across to the Jaintia-Khasi land. Chomāng is the name given to the Khasi people by the Karbis. The places — ‘Tāmu-Nāmdông’ as referred to in the ‘môsēra’ are located in the present day Maghalaya (in Jaintia Hills district), 8 kms from Pampura (in Karbi Anglong), near Rôngkangtui (Umnem in Khasi) in Block-II. In Namdông, the remnants of old Karbi habitation— ‘Lāngtuk-Lôngchòng-Lông-é, thārvé-jāngphông’ (earthen well, memorial stone, mangoe and jackfruit trees) are still found. The Lāngtuk (earthern well) by the Nāmdông (dāmpijuk athè— a kind of eatable acidic wild fruit) river was used during funeral by the Karbis. This lāngtuk is referred to as ‘Chhat Mynri’ (or Thāt Mynri), Mynri (in Khasi) is ‘old wise men’, phumen asò, phulôk asò in Karbi. Interestingly, Tāmu has no related meaning either in Karbi or Khasi language. Tāmu and Nāmthlông are small towns inside present day Burma. The names of villages, rivers or mountains that the Karbis had left behind in their long journey through numerous regions find mentions again as they make new settlements in newer regions. Khasis refer to the new Karbi migrants as ‘Nongpoi na Tāmu or Nongpoi Tāmu’—referring to ‘Migrants from Tāmu’. Some migrant Karbis from Tāmu who assimilated to Khasi still bear the title ‘Jait Tāmu’ or ‘belonging to Tāmu or Tāmu tribesman’. These ‘Tāmu Tribes’ are still around as a sub-tribe of the Khasis, located in Henrulangso Āmang in Karbi or Khli Umwang in Khasi, Langtui (Umteli), Lāng-Mek-kri (Ummat) villages, numbering about 4 to 5 hundreds, inside Karbi Anglong. They also are found in some more locations inside Meghalaya. Karbis who migrated to Khasi hills from Rôngkhāng areas and assimilated to Khasis are now referred to as ‘Jait Ryngkhang’. These sub-tribes are located in Umpawin (Langchingthu), Bhoi Lymbong (Where a Karbi Thigh Lies Burried), Umrôi (Lāngpró) and Umdothali (Ôk-lāngsò-ārói) etc.
The Karbi migrants in their wanderings across NC Hills have many present day references. A reference to ‘Vò-Amīr’, literally meaning ‘flower of bird’ (the flowery crest atop a bird’s head), is also found in the Karbi elegiac (kechārhé) and the present memory of the location points to Maibong in NC Hills. Mukindon is also variously referred to as ‘Lò-pindông Ānglông’—a hill, stiff and very high with uncertain present day location. There are regional variations of toponym in the various versions of the elegiac, as they exist today. But historical facts, however sketchy they may be, corroborate the existence of Karbis in the present NC Hills. ‘In 1866, in the month of January, the Nagas of the village of Razepemah raided and destroyed a Mikir village in North Cachar. Lieutenant Gregory took retaliatory measures by burning the village of Razepemah. In the same year, in the month of June, the men of Razepemah, to retrieve their honour, raided the village of Sergamcha in the Mikir community. They killed twenty six Mikirs on this raid. The rains followed soon after, and prevented any retaliatory steps being taken. In the following winter, Lieutenant Gregory visited Razepemah again and burnt down the whole village. He further prohibited them from re-occupying their old lands and fields. The lands were distributed among other communites.’ Lieutenant Gregory was the officer in charge of North Cachar hills in the period mentioned. “Mill’s Report on the Province of Assam” has this account—‘……..According to the tradition of the tribes they were originally settled in Toolaram Senaputtee’s territory under various Chiefs of their own selection. Some years ago they were conquered by the Rajah of Cachar from whose oppression they were driven to take refuge in Jynteah there meeting the same treatment; some migrated to Demoroo, Beltollah and Raree in the District of Kamroop, the remainder took up their present abode in the locality as described above. In this position however having the plains of Assam on the North, a portion of Cachar on the South and being only separated from Jynteah by a space of thirty miles of low land, the Mekirs were subjected to continual demands from these neighbouring States.’
In many cases, the informations provided by the ‘môsēra’ about the wanderings of the Karbis find parallels in the ‘kechārhé’ as well. The names of the hills, mountains or rivers referred to in the dirge narratives are bound to undergo changes as is wont with any oral literature. Elaborating on the use of the word ‘chōm’ in Karbi as the corruption of Sanskritized ‘yama’, Lyall and Stack described the Karbi belief of a departed soul that ‘gains admittance’ to ‘chōm ārông’ only through the ritual performance of ‘chōmkān’ and that of gaining rebirth. Lyall and Stack believed this concept of rebirth to be borrowed from Hinduism (Page 29). But, Prof. Kosambi asserts that the ‘large succession of rebirths….is characteristically Buddhist’. It may therefore be not very inappropriate to guess that the Karbi idea of rebirth may have been a Buddhist influence considering the specific mention of ‘Dukpa’ in the migration memories of ‘môsērā’ as a Karbi neighbour thousands of years ago in their wanderings through the ‘White Mountains’ of Himalayas before they crossed to Burma. Further, the repeated references to ‘lāsā’ in Karbi folk songs, ‘Jili ālūn’ and the ‘kechārhé’, provoke one to consider the past proximity of the Karbis with the Tibetans. A relevant part of ‘Jili ālūn’ sung by dancing males during the festivities of ‘chômkān’ is reproduced below for reference —
‘Lāsā Āmbinong akūng
(Lāsā by the Ambinong river)
Ānī Rupli tā nāngdūn
(Sister Rupli also came)
Rupli nedung nāngdodūn
(Rupli near me hang about)
Ne lāsā bāng rung-re tā rung
(I dance the lāsā dance if others refrained)
Si lāsā āngdi chōn thārun
(Thus lāsā was danced in uniform rhythm ). . . . .
Besides these, there are interesting and also intriguing references to toponyms in ‘môsēra’ that may defy modern day interpretations. But the existing ‘môsēra’ versions that are prevalent in rural Karbi Anglong today are fragmented and tinged with new explanations that make the job of deciphering the hidden meanings more complex. Several versions of the migration-myth that are found today cannot therefore be taken as complete. With the passing away of the majority of the older generation of the exponents of ‘môsērā kihīr’, the hope of restoring the comprehensive and undiluted version of the migration-myth seems to be receding even further. Particularly, with the rapid disappearance of the performances of the ‘chômkān’ or death-rituals due mainly to economic and other social reasons, the practice of the complete rendition of ‘môsērā’ too is also beginning to disappear into oblivion. For example, the ‘klūng’ version of ‘chômkān’ has totally disappeared.
The Karbi exodus as narrated in the Chinthông version of ‘môsēra’ provokes some interesting questions. The Karbis are described to have begun their first exodus from ‘Lônglè achēté’, the ‘navel of earth’ fleeing from the pursuit of more powerful adversaries referred to as ‘Tôngklông Meji’. Likewise, the next-door neighbour of the Karbis, the Khasis believe their origin from the ‘navel of sky’ or ‘sohpet bneng’. The Khasi ancestors are believed to have descended by a golden-ladder from heaven at ‘sohpet-bneng’ situated on a hilltop by the river Bārāpāni. The reference to ‘navel of earth’ in the ‘môsēra’ provokes one to draw some parallel to the powerfully asserted Christian and Judaic concept of Jerusalem as the ‘navel of earth’. Jewish-Greek literature also claims the centrality of Jerusalem. The concept of ‘navel of earth’ is however not confined to the Jewish traditions alone. The Buddhists also regard the ‘Bodhgaya’ as the ‘navel of earth’, centre to the Buddhist faith. In the case of the Karbis, the reference to the ‘navel of earth’ may fit with the claims of some researchers that the TB speakers in the North East had their origin in Central Asia. The next reference in the ‘môsēra’ of ‘Jehova’, the Jewish god, is perplexing. It is hard to conjecture on the so many coincidences that one constantly encounters in the Karbi migration memories without having any ‘historical’ occurrences in the forgotten past.
The Karbi proximity with the Lepcha and Tamang is already mentioned above. Interestingly, in a websites about Sikkim speaks of the Lepcha origin in these words —‘The origin of Lepcha is shrouded in mystery but it seems that they belonged to the clan of the Nagas of the Mikir, Garo and Khasia hills which lie to the south of the Brahmaputra valley.’ Whatever may be the historicity, some striking similarities of personal Lepcha names and toponyms of Lepcha habitation in present day Sikkim with Karbis are worth mentioning. A few examples such as ‘Rôngpò’ (a small town in Sikkim), Tung and ‘Thékông Tek’ (name of a prominent Lepcha chieftain) are enough to incite a Karbi mind and to revisit the pages of ‘The Mikir’ (168) to argue the claims of Lyall and Stack who observed that ‘…..Water is lang and village is rong. Searching through the tribal vocabularies, Tangkhul Naga (A Naga-Kuki form of speech) appears to have ta-ra, the corresponding word to lang (r=l, and ta a prefix). Nowhere else in the neighbourhood is there a trace of a similar word until we come to Burmese, where water is re (now pronounced ye.) Similarly, it appears to be only in Burmese that we have a word for village, rwa, corresponding to the Mikir rong. These coincidences, like others already mentioned, seem to point to the south for the affinities of the Mikir race. At the same time it is to be observed that Mikir once appears to have had, like the Kuki-Chin languages generally, the word ti for water. This survives the word for egg, which must mean “fowl’s water”…..’ Along the linguistic track, even a cursory look at similar sounding words of the numerous TB languages from the vast sub-Himalayan regions and Nepal to the south in the Burmese territories, one can be sure of encountering more specific pointers to the Karbi affinity that would help in retracing the migration route of the tribe. The religious and shamanistic observances, particularly various modes of divination and the widespread use of the drongo-feathers and drongo-related rituals are found among the Magar, Rai and Tamang communities of Nepal that have parallels in the Karbis as well. Magar shamans wear drongo-feathers while performing shamanistic rituals. The Karbis regard the drongo as their sacred totem and distinguished male members wear the feathers in formal ritualistic occasions such as the funerary ceremony.
Late Dr Phukan Ch. Phangcho, the first native doctorate, has discussed the probable route of Karbi migration with documentary evidences, including sketch maps, in one of his important publications— “The Karbis of North-East India —The Karbis : A Spatio-Temporal Analysis in Tribal Geography”. In Chapter-III, Page 26, Dr Phangcho observes that— ‘It was only after the advent of the Ahoms in 1228 AD that some information pertaining to Karbi migration into Ahom territory and Karbi-Ahom political relations have become known as these were recorded clearly in the Ahom Buranji.’ Again in Page-26, he further observes— ‘It is a popular belief among the Karbis that they came to their present abode, especially the district of Karbi Anglong, from the east. This migration must have been during the first and second millennia before Christ.’ He further observes — ‘Considering these evidences, it can be said that the route of migration of the Karbis from Burma into the present Karbi Anglong and its neighbourhood was through northern Manipur, south-western Nagaland and north-eastern North Cachar Hills.’ To support his claim of the Karbi settlements in NC Hills, he observes that ‘….there are some monoliths in the neighbourhood and north of Maibang, North Cachar Hills, installed in memory of the dead. UC Guha mentions about the presence of a number of ponds (without water) around which Karbi boys and girls used to perform the ceremonial dance at the time of Chomangkan’. (Cacharer Itibritta, Assam Publication Board, 1971.)……Dimasas have no practice of installing monolith or digging pond in memory of the deceased. KL Baruah….believes that these monoliths may belong to the Khasis or to the Karbis. (Khasis and Jaintias do not have the practice of digging pond in memory of the dead.)’ As regards, the Karbi migration and settlement in the plains of present day Kamrup and Morigaon district, Dr Phangcho, himself hailing from an obscure Karbi village near Guwahati city, observes in the book thus — “It is not exactly known from where the Dumuralis began to settle in the plains. According to a tradition prevalent in Panbari, Chenimur, Sonapur and Jagiroad, a group of Karbis came down from the neighbouring hills on the south and established a kingdom under the king named Dumura. Henceforth, these people came to be known as Dumurali or Thoi Aso or ‘Thoi Asor’— meaning plains dweller.” But as already mentioned in the present discourse, the Karbi settlement in present Guwahati city, once a Karbi village, finds no mention in the ‘conventional historiography’ of Assam. Myths, legends or hearsays—are the stuff that ‘oral traditions’ are made of from where ‘history’ emerges. Or at least so for the Karbis, it cannot be otherwise. The Karbi migration myth as an important genre of folk narrative is therefore a possible guide to trace the tribe’s history, which had never gained the significance, as it should have. Instead of regretting the lack of a written history of the tribe, these ‘memories of the past’ could well serve the purpose as meaningful starting point. I believe that ‘No one in oral societies doubts that memories can be faithful repositories which contain the sum total of past human experience and explain the how and why of present day condition.’ The practioners of the rich ‘oral traditions’ among the Karbis have rapidly dwindled in the past decade or so and unless the Karbi ‘elites’ wake up to the situation, in a few more years hence, there will be no ‘history’ left of the Karbis.
 The Culture and Civilisation of Ancient India in Historical Outline—Vikas Publishing House Pvt. Ltd., Reprint-1999
 The original English version of an essay ‘Die Reise der Seele: Bemerkungen zu Bestattungsritualen und oralen Texten in Arunachal Pradesh’, published in 2005
 ‘Rông-lin’- Written and published by Bônglong Terāng, Rông-plim-plam, 1986.
 Anthropology for North-East India : A Reader, Edited by Arabinda Basu, Biman K Dasgupata, Jayanta Sarkar. Indian Anthropological Congress Commemorative Volume. ‘Indian National Confenderation and Academy of Anthropologists, Indian Anthropological Society and National Museum of Mankind.’ Published March 2004
 Vol. 1, No. III-1985, Dept. For Welfare of Plains Tribes and Backward Classes, Govt of Assam
 Tribes of Assam, compiled by S Barkatarki, Published by National Book Trust of India
 Asom Buranji, Guwahati-1972, Page 16 & 17
 Aham Buranji, reprinted by Asom Prakashan Parishad, 3rd Edition, 2003, Published by Lakhinath Tamuly, IAS
 The Mikir, Lyall and Stack, Chapter IV, 28
 Myth and Reality by DD Kosambi, Published by Popular Prakashan Pvt. Ltd., Bombay-34, Reprint-1994, Page 16
 Inputs from Prof. Michael Oppitz, Director of Ethnographic Museum, Zürich.
 The folk songs in this essay are from ‘The Karbi Folk Music Project’— Thomas Kaiser and DS Teron. I am also thankful to Mr Longsing Be of Murap, West Karbi Anglong, for his rendition of Mosera.
(The write-up was presented in the National Seminar on ‘Indian Tribes’ held in Delhi University jointly by the Delhi University and Jila Saksharata Abhiyan Samiti under Karbi Anglong Autonomous Council.)