Karbis Of Assam

Ethnology on the Karbis also Known as Mikirs

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A Brief view on the ethnology of the Karbis

Posted by Administrator on March 10, 2009

Karbis of North East India- Custom, Law and Cultural Variation
(a review of the first impression on the Karbis on the field)
– Morningkeey Phangcho

On my ethnological studies on the Karbis of North East India, field works on different location with Dr. Philippe has given various result so far, which is of course not the final and more rigorous and intense studies has to be done on that.  Looking at the various pattern of result has far surprised Philippe, even more to me. Being a Karbi by practiced and birth myself, I was quite surprise to see various result for perception  and escalation , a Karbi man can have about oneself depending on the surrounding which make me force to think that Karbi could be one of the most adaptable tribe in the world. To the Ri-bhoi district of Meghalaya, the south of Brahmaputra Karbis are sandwiches between the culture of the plain ( Aryanise) and the culture of the blue mountain ( more Khmer) . The evidence is very much visible in their day to day practices and social behaviour. At first glance Christianity has created a layer over the tribal culture as most refuse to talk about the customary practices and claim to be a true christian by rejecting to even have the mention of the ethnic festival and custom ,  forget practicing it.

After keen observation only we could have some glimpse of the customary practices in their day to day life, of course them being unaware about it most of the time. It  has become very difficult to draw a line between a Karbi and a Bhoi Khasis in Ri-bhoi district of Meghalaya. Most of the bhois are having typically Karbi Clan names like Rongchon, Tron, Bey etc.,  follows matrilineal and considers ones to be a Khasis. Where as we have come across a village, the people have typical Khasi Names, Speaks a dialect of Karbi, most follows patrilineality , considers oneself to be a Khasis but trace their originity to some Karbi man and have a common clan with those of the neighboring Karbis having exogamous practices.

Moving down the hills, we enters into the plains of the Kamrup district where we find some more variation in social practices with it having some admixture with the Aryan culture of the general Assamese. Here Karbis are considered as on of the sub-caste of general assumes society. We find the people around these areas to celebrate Domahi during the season of Bihu of the general Assamese, which very much resemble the Domahi festival of the Kacharis and the Bihu of the general Assamese. Unlike the Karbis on the hills, the Karbis of the plains are much influence by their neighbours. Most prominent being the women taking the clans name of the husband after marriage in some location. Here the women can take reincarnation in the lineage of the husband , which is impossible amongs the hill Karbis as the women will forever retain the name of her father even after marriage. The development of  Kathar  into a Brahmin like status within the Karbi tribes is amongs the most prominent. The only qualification being however is to be a priest of the village and to be active and knowledgeable in social customs. So we find Kathars amongs the non-Ingti clansmen also in the plains, which is again impossible in the hills.

The adaptability of the Karbis according to the environment of the place of living can be again proven by the fact that the Karbis in North Cachar Hills considers the leopard as equivalent to that of tigers. Since Tigers seems to plays quite an important part in Karbi Social life, as Tiger is consider as the ultimate judge of the sinner and due to its rarity or unavailability in the jungle of North Cachar Hills, the Karbis there takes Leopard as one their guardian in place of Tiger in those areas.

The hub of Karbi culture, West Karbi Anglong Hamren is also very interesting as the basic of the Karbi Kingship I.e the Lindok Habe system resembles the Lyngdoh system of the Jaintias in many ways. More Cultural variation amongs the Karbis can be ascertain from the fact that the Karbis from Hamren Sub-Division are not very accountable with “Sabin alun”, the Karbi version of Ramayana as those in Diphu Sub-division, which is considered as one of the Karbi epic in those areas. The depleting population of older generation and influences of modern society including Christianity , which has forced them not  to talk about their old age custom, forget practicing it and the ever increasing Hindu movements like Lakhimon, Sankari etc has forced the present generation to be misled in various ways equalizing their pantheon and practices with those of the overpowering stronger faiths.  The result of course could be consider as one of the new development of  new social behaviour of the Karbis in general.

All this observation has given me a new insight into the Karbi Society, bringing more complexity and analysis which till very recent was within me seems to be far away at this present juncture. The ever self anointing behaviour of the present bunch of Karbi intellectual forced us to have different views at different places complicate the ethnology more as we tends to get different information from different informant. At this present juncture the only thing which is common amongs all the Karbis, be it plains or hills is the believe in rebirth, the procedure of naming a child, the language and the consideration of oneself to be a Karbi. As it has been observed with those in Ri-bhoi District of Meghalaya, just having a Karbi names does not prove one to be a Karbi. You must accept to be one besides following some of the orders believe to be typical to Karbis.#

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Condemn the ‘Columbus Legacy’

Posted by Administrator on November 5, 2008

Bishnuprashad Rabha, the great revolutionary and visionary, hailed the Karbis as the ‘discoverer of Assam’[1] and lovingly conferred the ‘Columbus’ title on the tribe in an obvious analogy to the ‘discovery’ of America by the 15th century ‘explorer’. Whether or not the Karbis did indeed discover Assam as the revered Rabha had boldly asserted and that the opposite view is yet to emerge to disprove him, what has remained an irritating source of moral discomfiture for all of us Karbis is the ‘Columbus’ epithet on the tribe. But Comrade Rabha, as a fellow tribal, must have had better reasons to credit the Karbis as indeed the ‘discoverer’, because he knew the history of the tribal peoples of the then unified Assam as probably no one did. The only ‘collected essays’ of the great Rabha is now nearly 30 years old since the publication of ‘Bishnu Rabha Rachanavali’ in 1982. The rare ‘publication’ indeed gives an insight into the intimate knowledge of the culture and history of the northeast tribals that the great Rabha possessed. But what really is a painful reality for us fellow tribals of the present day Assam is that the huge unpublished materials of Rabha’s are now probably lost; partly maybe due to the our common amnesia to what is history and partly due to a few established historiographers’ calculated unconcern towards tribal history. Considering the bitter dispute over the renaming of ‘Assam’ to ‘Asom’ in recent times, no one would probably want to revert to ‘Bullung-Butthur’ for Brahmaputra, Ti-lao for Luhit or Luit, or Kamoru for Kamrup.[2] The efforts of the revered Rabha could well have provided the tribal people of Assam a stepping-stone to compile their histories.

            Now, coming to the second and main point—how did the great Rabha see in the Karbis the Columbus analogy ? It is simple as the man himself was. But the history of Columbus has never been so simple for the indigenous population of the Americas ever since this ‘harbinger’ of the ‘Age of Discovery’ is credited to have ‘discovered’ the new world on October 12, 1942. And since 1937, with the then American president Roosevelt’s proclamation of October 12 as ‘Columbus Day’, the indigenous people in the US had been provoked to rise up in protests. There are disputes as to what nationality Christopher Columbus really belonged to, but many believe he was of Italian descent. Nevertheless, nothing deterred president Nixon to give his stamp of authority by declaring every second Monday of October as a national holiday.

            If the great Rabha missed the historical fact that the advent of Columbus in the Americas resulted only in the devastation of indigenous population and their histories, the analogy that indigenous people had everywhere the same fate at the hands of the rulers is a point we must all agree upon. For, like Columbus, we Karbis did not ‘colonize’ but instead, they now are colonized, suppressed and cornered into the precarious edge. And, since the Columbus Day celebration started in the US, indigenous people had formed various associations to protest the ‘savage injustice’ committed by Europeans against them. To quote from an internet publicity, ‘Columbus was enormously successful in marketing his mix of “God, Glory & Gold” to Europe. His failure to find significant gold on Hispaniola made him the first transatlantic slave trader in order to pay dividends to his investors.’[3] 

            ‘Transform Columbus Day Alliance’ (TDA) publicity leaflet[4], widely circulated in the internet reads like this— ‘We’ve all been lied to about Columbus. Before Columbus sailed the Atlantic, he was a slave trader for the Portuguese, transporting West African people to Portugal to be sold as slaves. Columbus initiated the first Trans-Atlantic slave trade. Columbus, his brother, and his son all continued slave trading of indigenous peoples from the Americas to Europe and from Africa to the Caribbean. Under his administration as viceroy and governor of the Caribbean Islands, 8 million people were killed, making his “contribution” to history the first mass genocide of indigenous peoples. The Columbus legacy is steeped in blood, violence, and death. Public holidays celebrating Columbus not only teach children to honor a cruel and brutal man, they encourage people in this society to ignore, look away, and even support racist practices embedded in today’s economic, political and judicial systems.’ And how did Columbus’ actions lead to the drastic depopulation of the indigenous people ? “……with their horses and swords and pikes began to carry out massacres and strange cruelties against [the Indians]. They attacked the towns and spared neither the children nor the aged, nor pregnant women nor women in childbed, not only stabbing and dismembering them but cutting them to pieces as if dealing with sheep in the slaughterhouse. They laid bets as to who, with one stroke of the sword could split a man in two or could cut off his head…They took infants from their mothers’ breasts, snatching them by the legs and pitching them headfirst against the crags***They made some low, wide gallows on which the hanged victim’s feet almost touched the ground, stringing up their victims, in lots of thirteen, in memory of Our Redeemer and His twelve Apostles, then set burning wood at their feet and thus burned them alive.”
 – Bartolome’ de Las Casas, The Devastation of the Indies: A Brief Account (originally published in 1547) reprinted by Johns Hopkins Press, 1992. pp. 42-45. Las Casas was a Dominican priest, the first European historian in the Americas.”

            The cruelty surpassed the Nazi Holocaust. The impact did not end there. “Columbus’ actions set the foundation for legal and social policies — still used today in United States, Mexico, Canada, South America and in many countries around the world. These policies justify the theft and destruction of indigenous peoples’ lands and knowledge by corporate and government interests. Media, films, judicial systems, educational systems, and other political and social institutions support this continued assault on the natural resources of indigenous peoples. Indigenous peoples today remain at the margins of technological society — struggling to overcome the destruction of land, culture and language. In many ways all peoples on this planet are impacted. These attacks on indigenous peoples and their land and their knowledge contribute to the destruction of ecosystems and the erosion of human rights for all people.”

            The ‘blood-steeped legacy’ of the ‘colonial pirate’ Columbus is endless. In his famous book, ‘Year 501’, Noam Chomsky commenting on the ‘first genocide’ and its political, economic, historical and cultural impacts on today’s world, says — “October 11, 1992 brings to an end the 500th year of the Old World order, sometimes called the Columbian era or the Vasco da Gama era depending upon which conquerors bent on plunder got there first. Or “the 500-year Reich”……. While modalities have changed the fundamental themes of the conquest retain their vitality and resilience and will continue to do so until the reality and causes of the “savage injustice” are honestly addressed.” Therefore, the ‘Columbus legacy’ in any manner or any remote reference to this ‘butcher’ of humanity must not be tolerated. And we Karbis must, as should all indigenous and right thinking people, declare our total rejection of the Columbus legacy.

 

 

[1] ‘Bishnu Rabha Rachanavali’ (p.59), Published by Suren Baishya on behalf of Bishnu Rabha Sunwarani Gobeshona Samity, Nalbari, 1982.

[2] ‘Bishnu Rabha Rachanavali’ —(P. 16-17), Tilao (‘Ti’ or ‘Di’ galao=long big river). ‘Kintu tetiya Kalika Puran, Jugini-Tantra rosito hol, tetiya ei puran and tantra proneta hokole nana golpore hojai Kamoru-k Kamrup korile, kom-lokhi ba Kam-khi-(khyi)-k ba kam-khya-k Kamakhya korile, Bhullung-Butthur-ok Brahmaputra korile, Tilao’k Laoti, Luiti, Luhit, Luhitya korile.’

 

 

[3] 1998, InterPress Third World News Agency (IPS) 
All rights reserved

[4] (01/20/2005 

 

 

 

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