Karbis Of Assam

Ethnology on the Karbis also Known as Mikirs

Mental Illness and Social Response— A Karbi perspective.

Posted by Administrator on January 9, 2008


‘If a person suffers from any or some of the following ailments/symptoms, a ‘sang kelang abang’ or a diviner is called to determine the cause. He picks out of the pot the unbroken grains of rice (sang) and places them by fives and tens in pentacle or other fashion. He then counts by couples and if in the counts the odd numbers predominate, the omen is good. And if there are no odd grains over, the omen is very bad. Then all are swept again and arranged in three or five heaps. Each heap is counted and a god is named, and if after counting, again by couples, three single grains remain, the god named is propitiated. If three grains do not remain, the process is tried again.’[1]            ‘Sometimes, cowries are also used instead of rice grains. In another method, a nokjir or iron sword with long handle with a crosspiece is used. This iron sword is held upright in the hand by the ‘sang kelang abang’. It shakes by itself when the charm is cited: ‘Let your spirit come!’ The holder asks of the nokjir of what illness the person is afflicted with and what are the cures or whether any god is to be propitiated. The nokjir shakes by itself at the right answer. The charm ends with — ‘if you tell lies, you will be broken up and made into needles![2]            To determine the cause/s of the following abnormalities, the ‘sāng kelāng abāng’ also uses one of above mentioned methods to find out whether the sick person is got hold of by the spirit or devil (ahī:ì) of the maternal uncle (ong or nihu). The abnormalities may include one or more of the following when a person is —

  1. not cured by treatment or medicine (sē langta mémè)
  2. sickly and anemic (lok:hu lokphlep)
  3. absent minded (bokuliti)
  4. biting nails (ari ahi kachecho)
  5. eating mucus (anap kachecho)
  6. eating wax of ear (ano ahi kachecho)
  7. wearing no cloths even after puberty (pe:rì en:é)
  8. suffering from rectal-prolapse (ami angpong jang:er)
  9. aggressive (kachechokji matha:é)
  10. hateful of mother/father (api-apo chelangselet varet)
  11. unrinating/defecating in bed even when grown up (ape:arì chephi:ing varet)
  12. devoid of the senses of shame or concerns about the surrounding (therak thekthédet)
  13. chewing cloths (pe kormir)

             There are several other abnormalities, which indicate various phases of mental illness. In such cases, a ‘sāng kelāng abāng’ is approached, a diviner who determines the causes. The cause of the disease is then said to be ‘nihu kepachoi’ or ‘seeking mother’s brother’. The ‘sāng kelāng abāng’ determines exactly which particular brother of the mother is to be ‘sought’ by the patient.            In any case, the patient is not despised or ill treated by the family or the society during his/her illness. In fact, in old times, such abnormalities in a person are not considered to be a disease at all, because it was then popularly believed that by observing certain rituals, the abnormalities could be cured. The rituals involved paying respect or obeisance to the brother of the mother or a maternal uncle determined by the diviner.            A person said to have been held under the spell of the maternal uncle’s ‘devil’ (hī:ì) is known as suffering from ‘nihu kachiri’ or ‘nihu kachingtung’, and the abnormalities are cured by performing ‘kartap-karvi’. The following steps are performed—            As divined by the ‘sāng kelāng abāng’, the sick person accompanied by the parent visits the particular ‘nihu’ who gives ‘ān:dūm’ (ān=cooked rice, dūm=rounded) to him/her— six cooked rice balls to a male and five to a female. If the patient refuses to eat, or the illness does not subside even after the ‘ān-dūm’ treatment, the ‘sāng kelāng abāng’ is requested to repeat the divination and particularize the ‘nihu’ for repetition of the same ritual over again.            If the sick person eats up the cooked rice balls without any hesitation, then the treatment is considered fruitful and other rituals are performed. The next step requires the parent of the sick person to pay obeisance to the ‘nihu’ with ritual offering of wine, known as ‘Bongchin ahormei’ (bongchin=bitter gourd used as rice liquor container). The sick person is not required to visit his/her maternal uncle or ‘nihu’ for this ritual.             The next step of the ritual is ‘ārnan kehang’ (ārnan=ring, kehang=to seek). For the ritual, the parent is required to stay overnight at the house of the ‘nihu’ irrespective of the distance. Wine is offered to the ‘nihu’ before lunch. The ritual of ‘seeking of ring’ from the ‘nihu’ is performed for the sick person where nine handfuls of rice, bigger dried fish (tomān), six for male and five for female, a little salt, nine strands of raw threads (to hold the ring around the patient’s neck)— all these items are placed in banana leaf placed vertically and offered to the ‘nihu’. Then a ritual prayer ‘horbong arnam kepu’ (hor=distilled rice liquor, bong=bottle, arnam=god, kepu=chant/say) is performed.            If the sickness does not subside after performing the above two rituals, the ‘nihu’ is approached again. This step, the third in the ritual, is called ‘vo-kartap’ (=fowl, kartap=euphemism for ritual slitting of the fowl’s throat). The ‘nihu’ has to be intimated of the specific date and time of the sick person’s visit together with his/her parent. The ‘nihu’ is once again paid obeisance with rice liquor and bantà (betel nut and leaves wrapped in banana leaf) on arrival in his house by the sick person’s parent.            A ‘karkli abang’ or priest is called for a ritual sacrifice of a fowl near the fireplace of the interior of the house. A turban (poho) is placed around the forehead of the sick person and over it, a banana leaf (lòsò) is placed again. The poho and the loso over it are removed from the sick person’s head and placed in the ground. Powdered rice dipped in water is sprayed over the loso on top of the poho. After this ritual, the poho is placed again on the head of the sick person. The fowl is then sacrificed over the poho on the head of the sick person. Blood from the sacrificed fowl overflows the turban to the cheek of the sick person presenting a somewhat grisly look, which is why the practice is not done these days. The fowl, these days, is sacrificed on the poho placed on the ground.            During the performance of this ritual, the legend of Binong Jang:reso (Binong the orphan) is recounted. Blessings are invoked from the gods for the well being of the sick person. This (vò kartap) ritual is the final stage of the treatment of ‘nihu kachiri’. Even after this, if the sickness continues, it is considered to be beyond cure and total madness (ingcham)[3] is said to have befallen the person.            There are however taboos involved in the performance of the ‘nihu’ rituals discussed above. A sick person who had not performed ‘klōngkló athekar’, the ritual ‘removal of the umbilical cord’, immediately after his/her birth cannot go through the ‘nihu’ rituals. Another taboo is that the parent of the sick person must have completed the rituals of traditional marriage.            The devil (hī:ì) or spirit of the mother’s brother (ong/nihu) is believed to be the curse passed on from one Binong Jang:reso long time ago because he was ill-treated by his sisters. As a punishment for ill-treating the maternal uncle, all the five clans of the Karbi society have been under the curse of Binong and till this day it is customary to pay obeisance to the nihu by every sister and her sons/daughters. Their failure to do so would invariably invite the curse of ‘nihu kachiri’ or ‘ong kachingtūng’. The legend of ‘Binong Jang:reso’            Once there lived a man named Bamonpo Dera of the Timung clan. Binong was the youngest and the only male of the six siblings of the Timung family. Among the sisters, Kajir was the most wicked who treated her only brother Bamonpo like a girl.[4] The other sisters— Kanong, Kathong and Kadom also followed suit and went further in their ill-treatment by dressing Bamonpo in pini[5], jiso[6] and putting a duk (tattoo) across his face. Binong was forced to live a living hell as his villagers would constantly tease and taunt him as he grew up agonizingly beyond puberty. Overcome by the shame, increasing psychological agony, Binong one day quietly vanished to a forest far beyond the boundaries of his village and took shelter under a cotton tree. He only had a hen with him, which later earned him the name Binong Vopo, or Binong the hen-man. The hen would go to nearby villages, pecked grains, collected them in its throat (kiju)[7] and provided the master with the seeds (chili) for cultivation.            One day, a poor mother and her daughter went in search of wild roots and tubers. The daughter belonged to a Milik sub-clan of the Teron clan. The search for wild roots and tubers led the mother-daughter duo to the forest where Binong lived all by himself. As the hard and tiring day turned into evening, the mother and daughter became very hungry. To compound their woes, drizzle accompanied the advancing darkness. They noticed a lonely raised hut and hurried near it with the hope to get some food, and probably shelter for the night, as returning home was well nigh impossible. The distressed duo began to call out for help. Binong at first hesitated to respond, because he wore no cloth. Persistent female voices for help forced him to tell the truth. The mother advised her daughter to raise her pini to cover her bosom and give the jiso to Binong to wear. The two were then welcomed to the raised hut (hemtap), given food and shelter. In course of their conversation, Binong proposed to marry the daughter who gave her ‘jiso’ to cover his manhood to which the mother gladly agreed.[8]             Binong then settled with his wife, raised a family, worked together hard and became well off with lots of silver and gold. One day, Binong and his wife organized a big feast by sacrificing a goat (chai-bi-lo) that was left to him by his father. He invited his sisters to the feast and asked them to bring ‘horhak[9]. Some of the sisters carried with them bamboo roots and dried twigs to masquerade as horhak as they were reeling under poverty. Kanong was the only one who carried with her the best horhak. But Binong did not make any distinction and offered the choicest pieces of meat to all the visiting sisters. The sisters who did not bring anything in their horhak felt very ashamed and threw the pieces of meat down below through the loosely woven bamboo surface of the raised hut, which dogs and pigs ate instead.            The next morning, the sisters were bid goodbye and cautioned not to look back. But curiosity got the better of Kanong and she could not resist the temptation to look back after going a few distance. Kanong and her husband climbed a tree to have a clearer view of  Binong’s hut. And lo ! The dazzle of the gold and silver displayed in the courtyard of Binong’s hut blinded both Kanong and her husband. Tragedy struck them as both fell from the tree and died instantly. Their spirits then become birds —‘Vo keilo’ and began to fill the woods with their agonized cries of keilo…. Keilo….. keilo… The male bird cried out ‘nangjok-ajoinélo’ (only because of you) while the female repented ‘thek-keilo’ (sorry/not done intentionally). From the words ‘thek-keilo’, the birds were named ‘keilo’.[10]            Binong was upset by the tragic incident and took it as defiance and an insult to him by his sisters. He then cursed that from then on, all females shall be doomed to wearing a pini without the jiso while the males shall likewise be doomed to wearing pini and jiso. All the five Karbi clans were also cursed to paying obeisance to the mother’s brother and all the five clans shall thenceforth suffer from ‘nihu kachiri’ till they paid obeisance to the mother’s brother.            This belief has prevailed to this day. Persons suffering from ‘nihu kachiri’ are therefore not treated as social outcasts. The belief has permeated the religious barriers as well and even the Christian converts perform the ritual as a cure of persons suffering from ‘nihu kachiri’. Madness is attributed to an evil spirit, which can enter a person, irrespective of the person’s social status, as it is believed to be a pre-ordained happening. It is destiny or fate that is responsible.            The above account was collected from Jirikindeng in Western Karbi Anglong in the summer of 1998. An informant narrated an incident of a man whose 7 year-old daughter was suffering from anemia. The ‘sāng kelāng abāng’ was consulted and it was divined that the little girl was indeed suffering from ‘nihu kachiri’. Accordingly, the girl was put through the rituals and was cured. The girl grew up to raise a family. Though the girl did not disrespect any of her maternal uncles, she was also the victim of the curse of Binong. The belief has prevailed even in urban areas, there are educated sections who prefer to go to the ‘sāng kelāng abāng’ to determine the causes of abnormalities in their adolescent children when preliminary medications failed. The Karbi form of social psychiatry merits further studies as a possible answer to providing a more humane and society friendly treatment to cases of psychiatric problems. Dharamsing Teron 


[1] Lyall, Sir Charles and Stack, Edward— ‘The Mikirs’ (1904)

[2] Ibid

[3] Other forms of rituals are said to be prevalent to treat ingcham or madness in some regions of Karbi Anglong.

[4] It is believed that it is taboo for the Dera sub-clan of the Timung clan to name a daughter after Kajir.

[5] A Karbi female dress, worn beneath her waist and touching her calf.

[6] A piece of cloth used to wrap the female bosom.

[7] It is also taboo for Timung clan to eat the ‘throat’ (kiju) of chicken.

[8] It is believed that Timung clan must marry from the Milik sub-clan according to the legend. 

[9] Home made rice-liquor carried in woven basket by women on such and other social occasions.

[10] The bird is forbidden to be harmed, killed or eaten by the Timung clan as it is believed to be the spirits of Binong’s sister and her husband.

3 Responses to “Mental Illness and Social Response— A Karbi perspective.”

  1. Philippe said

    Very detailled and fascinating account Morningkeey. Congratulations for this hard work. Only one thing : if people didn’t use to consider the patient as being subject to disease, as you wrote, why do you speak of “mental illness”. I think that this concept reflects our modern view of these phenomena. Whereas, as you suggested, people considered these as being an attack by a spirit (and not a “devil”, which sounds Christian). Moreover I don’t think they locate the problem in the “mental”, but in the whole person. I will read the text again, it evokes many questions. Congratulations again. Very useful piece.

  2. DST said

    Thanks for your valued comments and we thankfully note them for further enriching our analysis. Devil and Hi-i may not be the same entities. Karbis propitiate both demons and deities and in this sense, it may be different from Christian demonology. Or is it?

  3. Philippe said

    In this case, this could be the topic of your next article: “The categories of supernatural beings among the Karbis”. This could be useful, as I don’t remind having read any detailled account on this matter.

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in:

WordPress.com Logo

You are commenting using your WordPress.com account. Log Out / Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out / Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out / Change )

Google+ photo

You are commenting using your Google+ account. Log Out / Change )

Connecting to %s

 
%d bloggers like this: