Karbis Of Assam

Ethnology on the Karbis also Known as Mikirs

The orphan and the vulture’s feather

Posted by Administrator on February 26, 2008

Once there was a poor jāng:resó who lived with his old mother. When he grew up to be a young man, he got himself a wife. But trouble started, as the two women would always pick up a quarrel at the slightest pretext, which made his life increasingly unbearable. The mother-in-law would hit her daughter-in-law in her legs with beleng while husking paddy; and likewise the daughter-in-law would also not hesitate to hit her mother-in-law on her back with the wooden pestle.

Thus jāng:resó would always be burdened with thoughts: if he let go his old mother, there would be no one to look after her; and it was not possible to let go his wife since they were married for once and ever. With troubled thoughts in his mind, the jāng:resó one day sat all by himself in a deep wood far away from his house and the quarrelsome women.

Seeing the darkened face of the jāng:resó, the takun-recho approached him and wanted to know what burdened him. The jāng:resó replied— ‘Ever since I got married, my mother and wife would always quarrel and engage in fights. I can neither leave my mother nor my wife. I am at a loss what to do with my life!’ The takun-recho then pulled out a feather from his wings and offered it to the jāng:resó and asked him to go back home and look through it.

The jāng:resó returned home and as advised by the takun-recho, quietly took out the feather and looked through it at the two women husking paddy. To his utter dismay, he found his mother was actually a pig and his wife a deer! The pig would burrow the deer’s legs while the deer would also kick at the pig— and so the two ‘animals’ would not go together! The mother was of a pig ‘character’ while the wife was of a deer’s!

So, one day, the jāng:resó hid himself in a distance and started watching through the takun-recho’s feather at the many travelers frequenting the road and lo— what he saw were hordes of cattle and goats and buffalows instead of the beautiful people he saw with his naked eyes! He continued with his experiments looking through the takun-feather and without it to find a real human being. Towards the end of the day, when the sun was cooling down, he saw a young woman traveler whom he found to be a real human being with or without the takun-feather. He tried several times looking at the young woman through the takun-feather, but she was a real human being though she was not very beautiful. The jāng:resó then caught hold of the young woman’s hand and explained to her his woes and requested her to help him out by accepting to be his wife. The young woman, being a real human being, understood the woes of the jāng:resó and agreed to marry him if it helped restore a life and a family.

When the jāng:resó reached home, he gave his former wife the options to either leave or continue to stay with him as he now had brought a new wife. The former wife left for her parent’s house. The new wife adjusted well with her mother-in-law and there were no quarrels again in the family.

(This Karbi folk-story is a translation from the 1973 collection of Dr. Karl Heinz Grüßner.) 

Jāng:resó– an orphan

Beleng– bamboo winnowing tray

takun-recho – vulture-king or king of vulture




When the earth was young, the drongo had rat-like tail and the rat the racket tail. One day, in a chance meeting, the drongo saw the rat with its pair of beautiful racket-tails that swept the floor so unceremoniously. The drongo started praising the rat for being so proud an owner of the pair of racket-tails and proposed if he could try them on himself for some time! The rat thought over it and agreed to a temporary exchange. The drongo offered his tail to the rat first. The drongo complemented the rat for being such a wonderful match with the new tail! It was the drongo’s turn and when the rat offered his racket-tails, the drongo jumped with joy and flew away into the sky after the exchange. From the sky, as he flew, the drongo praised the rat how nice the tail looked on him. But the drongo never descended to the ground to return back the pair of racket-tails to its original owner. The poor rat could only scream and curse at the betrayal of the drongo who never seemed to care.

Several days had passed and one day, the rat planned to get back his racket-tails from the drongo— with the help of his best friend, the snake! According to the plan, the snake would lie in wait in a tree trunk frequented by the drongo for the swarming ants. The drongo appeared in the appointed location unmindful of the trap and happily chomped at the swarming ants. The snake then suddenly snapped at the legs of the drongo and would not let go so that his friend colud snatch back his rightful possession. But it wouldn’t be so to the misfortune of the poor rat. A vast swarm of doves emerged from nowhere in such quick succession that frightened the poor snake and forced him to loosen his grip over the drongo. The drongo, being clever, had anticipated such an unforeseen danger from the rat and had befriended the doves long before. The drongo was rescued and ever since, he got the racket-tail from the rat, permanently. And in return of the doves’ help, the drongo promised that he would never imitate their voice! To this day, drongo, known for its excellent capability of imitating other birds, has refrained from doing so with the doves.

However, the animosity between the rat and the racket-tailed drongo has continued to this day. If a chance arose anywhere, the rat would never let go an opportunity to pounce upon the drongo and destroy him.

The Karbis revere the drongo as the king of birds and appropriately decorate it on top of the ceremonial emblem of the tribe called ‘Jambili Athon’, used during the funerary Chomkan (or thī:karhi) festival. The racket-tails of the drongo are a prized possession in Karbi tradition as essential decorative headgear for males in important rituals. The racket-tails are therefore stored securely in the house inside a dried segment of bamboo hung from the roof with a pair of cords. It is conventional to store the racket-tails of the drongo in this fashion in a Karbi house, since this is believed to secure them from the attacks of rats. Because, to this day, rats have not forgotten the betrayal of the drongo*!

(As narrated by Hemari Rongpi-75, Kāt Dera-78 and Longsing Hansé-65 of Jirikindeng, West KA. *Drongo, Racket-tailed Drongo Dicrurus paradiseus. Locally called Bhimraj. Vo-jaru in Karbi. )




A Granny and A Pig

One day, an old granny got a rupee. She thought to herself— Ah! What good use would I put this money to? Granny thought and thought, and thought of buying a pig with the money. And lo! There’s the pig. Granny and the pig, on their return home, were to clear the stair to the hemthengsong. Granny ordered her pig to climb the stairs. But the pig refused to budge and replied, ‘No, I shall not climb the stairs!’

Granny was startled at the pig’s refusal and kept on going till she met with a dog. She asked the dog to bite the pig, because the pig refused to climb the stairs and so she cannot reach her home.

Dog replied, ‘No, I shall not bite the pig!’

Granny went on.
She met with a piece of dry wood and asked it to beat the dog, because the dog refused to bite the pig, because the pig refused to climb the stairs and so she cannot reach her home.

Dry wood replied, ‘No, I shall not beat the dog!’

But again, the old granny went on until she met with a fire burning.
She asked the ‘fire’ to burn up the dry wood, because it refused to beat the dog, because the dog refused to bite the pig, because the pig refused go climb the stairs and so she cannot reach her home.

Fire replied, ‘No, I shall not burn the dry wood!’

The old granny went on until she met with water.
She asked the ‘water’ to douse the fire, because it refused to burn up the dry wood, because the dry wood refused to beat the dog, because the dog refused to bite the pig, because the pig refused to climb the stairs and so she cannot reach her home.

Water replied, ‘No I shall not douse the fire!’

Then granny went on until she met with a bullock.
And she asked him to guzzle the water because the water refused to douse the fire, because the fire refused to burn up the dry wood, because the dry wood refused to beat the dog, because the dog refused to bite the pig, because the pig refused to climb the stairs and so she cannot reach her home.

The bullock replied, ‘No, I shall not drink up the water!’
Granny went on and she met with a butcher.
She asked her to butcher the bullock, because he refused to drink up the water, because water refused to douse the fire, because fire refused to burn up the dry wood, because the dry wood refused to beat the dog, because the dog refused to bite the pig, because the pig refused to climb the stairs and so she cannot reach her home.

The butcher replied, ‘No, I shall not cut up the bullock!’

Granny went on until she met with a rope.
She asked the rope to hang the butcher, because he refused to cut up the bullock, because the bullock refused to drink up the water, because water refused to douse the fire, because the fire refused to burn up the dry wood, because the dry wood refused to beat the dog, because the dog refused to bite the pig, because the pig refused to climb the stairs and so she cannot reach her home.

The rope replied, ‘No, I shall not hang the butcher!’

Granny went on until she met with a rat. And she asked the rat to cut the rope into pieces, because the rope refused to hang the butcher, because he refused to cut up the bullock, because the bullock refused to drink up the water, because water refused to douse the fire, because the fire refused to burn up the dry wood, because the dry wood refused to beat the dog, because the dog refused to bite the pig, because the pig refused to climb the stairs and so she cannot reach her home.

The rat thought for a moment and replied, ‘Ok, give me a piece of milk-dough and I shall do as you command!’

Granny brought a milk-dough and gave it to the rat. The rat began to cut the rope. The rope began to prepare to hang the butcher. The butcher began to prepare to cut up the bullock. The bullock began to prepare to drink up the water. The water began to douse the fire. The fire began to burn up the dry wood. The dry wood began to beat the pig. And then, the pig began to climb the stairs. And finally, the old granny reached her home.

Hemthengsong is a stilt house where Karbis lived traditionally. This folktale is reproduced from the Karbi text originally appearing in ‘Tomo Puru’, a compilation of folk-tales published by William Ralph Hutton for the American Baptist Mission, Gauhati, Assam, and printed at the Christian Literature Society’s Press, Madras—1930.
* This write-up was published in the Souvenir to commemorate the 1st ever ‘Diphu Book Fair’ held from 31st Jan to 5th Feb 08.



A Tale of Two Orphans   

Once, there lived two brothers, whose father and mother having died. The orphaned brothers inherited only a cow and a warm pé ingki. The elder brother then advised his younger brother—‘Bòng, look, our father had left behind only a cow and a pé ingki, now how shall we share them? Let me devise it this way—You use the pé ingki during the day while I use it at night.’ The younger brother had no option but to agree to the proposal. The elder brother went on— ‘The cow, let us demarcate it in the middle, the head portion to you and the anus portion to me, so that provisions required for the head shall be taken care of by you while for the anus, it shall be my responsibility! Whatever is borne of the head shall be your property and that of the anus shall accordingly be mine!’ Since the cow is eating from its mouth of the head portion, the younger brother had to feed it all the time. And when the cow bore a cub, it was through the anus portion, which the elder brother had claimed as per the term of agreement.


            One day, the younger brother with the pé ingki worn around him, visited an old widowed woman. He took a seat in the courtyard while his cow was left nearby to graze. The old widow said—‘Grandson, why are you wearing this warm cloth in so hot sun?’ ‘Oh grandma, my elder brother advised that the cow and this pé ingki left behind by our father and mother, he shall wear the cloth at night and I lay bare shivering and I suffer a lot. I can only wear it during day.’ The widow then advised—‘Tonight, in the guise of having accidentally fallen, wet the cloth and later you shall share the cloth.’ And with regard to the cow, the widow advised, ‘Tomorrow, before you take it to grazing, hit it on its head with a stick. This shall cause your elder brother to retort at you and then you simply reply— your cow is the anus portion, not the head and I am not hitting yours. I shall kill my cow, because it is not bearing any cub. Ko, I cannot always graze it.’


            The younger brother returned home satisfied and did exactly as was advised by the old widow. The elder brother then realized his mistakes. If his younger brother kills the ‘head’, the cow shall die anyway. And as predicted by the widow, the younger brother got his due share— wearing the pé ingki together at night and taking care of the cow equally in turns.   (This folk tale is translated version of the original Karbi text appearing in ‘Arleng Alam: Die Sprache Der Mikir’—1978 by Dr. Karl-Heinz Grüßner, published by the University of Heidelberg, Germany.) 














Pé Ingki in Karbi is  =cloth, ingki=worm, made of endi.

Bòng is a term used to address a younger brother or anyone younger of both sexes by an elder.

is a very informal term used to address among Karbi males.

Posted in Folk Tales | 5 Comments »

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.

Posted in Mental Illness and Social Response— A Karbi perspecti | 3 Comments »

“Migration Memories” in Karbi Oral Tradition

Posted by Administrator on December 19, 2007

“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[1], 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’[2] 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….”[3]. ‘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,[4] 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.”[5] 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.” [6]           

  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”[7], 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’[8].            Hypothesis 3: Gunabhiram Baruah[9]—“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[10], 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,[11] 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.”[12] 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”.[13]            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[14]. 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[15].           

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[16] 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 achetéthrough 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[17] 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[18])           

 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’[19] 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[20] 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”.[21] 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.’[22] ‘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                       

(We migrated….)                       

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[23] 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.[24]           

 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.’[25] Lieutenant Gregory was the officer in charge of North Cachar hills in the period mentioned. “Mill’s Report on the Province of Assam”[26] 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[27], 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’.[28] 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’.[29] 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.’[30] 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.[31] 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”.[32] 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.’[33] The practioners of the rich ‘oral traditions’[34] 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. 

Dharamsing Teron.                                            


[1] Rhyme patterns employed in Karbi verses generally constitute of Seng-lông, Tāmpé, Hôidôi, Mārang, Rāngnò, Vānsān, Khraidai, Māvet, Lôri, Kumpāk, Et-let, Ik-lik,Chihù,Māndung etc. 

[2] The Culture and Civilisation of Ancient India in Historical Outline—Vikas Publishing House Pvt. Ltd., Reprint-1999

[3] The original English version of an essay ‘Die Reise der Seele: Bemerkungen zu Bestattungsritualen und oralen Texten in Arunachal Pradesh’, published in 2005

[4] ‘Rông-lin’- Written and published by Bônglong Terāng, Rông-plim-plam, 1986.

[5] 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

[7] Vol. 1, No. III-1985, Dept. For Welfare of Plains Tribes and Backward Classes, Govt of Assam

[8] Tribes of Assam, compiled by S Barkatarki, Published by National Book Trust of India

[9] Asom Buranji, Guwahati-1972, Page 16 & 17

[10] Aham Buranji, reprinted by Asom Prakashan Parishad, 3rd Edition, 2003, Published by Lakhinath Tamuly, IAS

[11] Published in ‘North East Spectrum’, September 1976, Vol. I, No 3 & 4
[12] ‘The Mikirs’-1908, Lyall and Stack: 168
[13] Imperial Gazetteer of India, Vol. XIX 1908, 224
[14] ‘Bishnurabha Rachanavali’, Vol-2, Page-59, Published 1982.
[15] Quoted from ‘Indigenous People’s Opposition to Columbus Day Celebration’—from internet sources.
[16] One of the four distinct cultural divisions of the community viz. Chinthông, Rôngkhāng, Āmri and Lūmbajōng
[17] Ronghang is a traditional ruling clan
[18] Sum and Sāng are the first Karbi parents according to the folk narratives of ‘Karbi Keplàng’(Legend of the origin of Karbis)
[19] ‘Sôk Keplāng’— the legend of the first discovery of rice
[20] Mungri-mungram—‘A History of Assam’ by Sir Edward Gait (p 73-74), First Edition-1905
[21] Quoted from Nagaland District Gazetteer, 1970, edited by Bareh.
[22] Memories of Migration: Notes on the legends and beads in Arunachal Pradesh, India by Stuart Blackburn, undated. Collected from Internet sources.
[23]Inputs from Prof. Thang, Head of Department of Political Science, Diphu Govt. College, KA
[24] These inputs are provided by Lôngsing Bé of Murāp, Chinthông in Western KA.
[25] Quoted from the ‘Historical and Geographical Studies of Nagaland’‑Vol. II, A History of Nagaland, published by Text Book Publication Branch, Directorate of School and Physical Education, Nagaland, Kohima, 1985-1986— Page-29, by Eastern Kire Iralu; Copyright reserved by Shri K Peseye, Director of School and Physical Education.
[26]A. J. Moffatt Mills, Publication Board, Assam, 2nd Edition-1984— Page 218-224—(Originally prepared in 1853 on the administrative system of Assam under the British.)  

[27] The Mikir, Lyall and Stack, Chapter IV, 28

[28] Myth and Reality by DD Kosambi, Published by Popular Prakashan Pvt. Ltd., Bombay-34, Reprint-1994, Page 16

[29] Quoted from Internet Sources
[30] Quoted from Internet Sources

[31] Inputs from Prof. Michael Oppitz, Director of Ethnographic Museum, Zürich.

[32] The Karbis of North-East India —The Karbis : A Spatio-Temproal Analysis in Tribal Geography — by Dr. Phukan Ch. Phangcho, MSc. M.Phil., Ph.D (based on a thesis submitted in 1989, that was approved by the Gauhati University for the degree of Doctor of Philosophy in Geography in 1990) and published in book form by Angik Prakshan, North Sarania, Lalmati, Guwahati-3, First Edition March 2003.
[33] Jan Vansina (1985), Oral Tradition as History, Madison, Wisconsin: The University of Wisconsin Press.

[34] 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.)  

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The ‘Môsēra’ tradition and -the “Egg Origin” of the Karbis

Posted by Administrator on November 5, 2007

The ‘Môsēra’ tradition and
— the ‘Egg Origin’ of the Karbis
By: Dharamsing Teron

‘Môsēra’ is a lengthy folk narrative that describes the origin and migration ordeal of the Karbis. ‘Môsēra’, therefore, literally means ‘recalling the past’. The full version of the narrative is now rarely sung. The existing versions vary from region to region but they retain the same theme and the particular narrative style, which distinguishes the ‘Môsēra’ from a host of other Karbi folk ballads. The theme is almost uniform everywhere but however, the omission or inclusion of some particular term or terms at the whims of singer to singer may not be ruled out; and the terms thus omitted or included have posed the danger of altering the present understanding or interpretation of the narrative. The ‘Môsēra’ has a distinctive style of rendition. The exponents of ‘môsēra’ sing the lengthy narrative in a breathless fashion. In fact, an exponent takes pride in rendering the stanzas of the lengthy narrative in one breath. There are tongue twisters in the narrative, but old hands are capable of rendering them without gasping for breaths. The narrative is sung by head of village youths, the Klēngsārpó or his deputy, the Klēngdûn, during the special ritual of ‘Risó Chójûn’. The ritual is observed to mark the end of the compulsory tradition of ‘youth cooperative’ known as ‘Jir Kedàm’. Unmarried members of the primitive Karbi tradition of ‘Youth Dormitory’, known as ‘téràng’ , participate in the ‘Jir Kedàm’ for a three-year duration. The ‘jir Kedàm’ therefore serves the purpose of practical training to adulthood, a kind of ‘rite of passage’. The conclusion of the ‘Jir Kedàm’ is therefore observed with due ritualistic importance. ‘Risó Chójûn’ is the occasion when the unmarried youths of the ‘teràng’ formally part company from each other and begin a new life thereafter as adults, capable of taking on the complicacies and responsibilities of the society. Another important occasion when the ‘môsēra’ is sung is during the funerary rituals, called ‘thī-kārhi’. It is sung in a ‘question and answer’ fashion between the heads of village youths (teràng)— and this when they vie among each other in how much they can prolong the ‘breathlessness’. The klēngsārpó of the host village of ‘thī-kārhi’ apologises to the visiting klēngsārpós praying for their forgiveness for any lapses or irregularities, which might have been committed during the festivity.
According to the ‘Môsēra’ version, the Karbis originated from the eggs of a mythical bird— Vóplākpi. The narrative starts with the difficult circumstances under which the Karbis were born out of the eggs of the mythical bird, which is not identifiable with any surviving avian species. The subsequent passages of the lengthy narrative tell tales of the trials and tribulations of the tribe in its migration from ‘lông:lè achēté’, the ‘navel of the earth’. The following passage from the Chīnthông version (in western Karbi Anglong district) of Môsēra narrates only the Karbis’ birth from the mythical bird—

Teji lé akeng-ri lepu
A kind of tree too (by the) feet (of) so said
Temur lé akeng-ri lepu
(Botanical name of Teji-Temur=Garuga Pinata)
A kind of tree too (by the) feet (of) so said
Longchong lé akeng-ri lepu
Stone (erected) (by the) feet (of) so said
Long:é lé akeng-ri lepu
Karbi lé chetibin lepu
Karbi too sheltered so said
Karbak lé chetibin lepu
Nangphijiji nagphi haihé lepu
Born nearly born dared not so said
Nangplangjiji nangplang haihé lepu
Bāng asim tangté lepu
Other race then so said
Lā bang ahom tangté lepu
This other Ahom (race) then so said
La bang chomang tangté lepu
This other Khasi (race) then so said
La bang keche tangté lepu
This other (non-Karbi race) then so said
La bang nākā tangté lepu
This other Naga (race) then so said
La bang nara tangté lepu
Bang ké plakvut ati lepu
Others then (a kind of bird) egg so said
La bang plakvut-so ati lepu
This other (races) (a kind of bird)-small egg so said
Ati lé pum-suri lepu
Eggs also numbered-thousands so said
Ati lé pum-pharo lepu
Eggs also numbered-hundreds so said
Epum longchong pati lepu
One number (of egg) (on erect) stone egg (laid) so said
Epum long:é pati lepu
Epum thepāi pati lepu
One number (of egg) precipice egg (laid) so said
Epum thērèng pati lepu
Epum kong-longvoivoi phiphlot chomang mandet lepu
One number (of egg) rolling hatched Khasi (race) became so said
Epum kong-longvoivoi phiphlot keché mandet lepu
One number (of egg) rolling hatched (non-Karbi race) became so said
Epum kong-longvoivoi phiphlot ahom mandet lepu
One number (of egg) rolling hatched Ahom (race) became so said
Epum kong-longvoivoi phiphlot naka mandet nara mandet lepu
One number (of egg) rolling hatched Naga (race) became (doublet of Naga) became so said
La chinam lalé
This true thus
La pani ningké…
This day until

Going by the above passage, one can conjecture the situation when the Karbis were finally born out of the last of the eggs. The Ahoms, the Khasis and the Nagas were born of the hundreds of eggs laid by the mythical bird. Eggs were laid at the base of trees—of the Teji-Temur (Botanical name = Garuga Pinata) variety, then behind huge upright stones and in the cliffs.

Karbis (and the tribes mentioned in the Môsēra), are therefore, born of the eggs of a mythical bird— only mentioned as ‘Vóplākpi’. To an ordinary Karbi, who is not too bothered with either the ‘Môsēra’ or its philosophical contents, the ‘egg origin’ of the tribe has remained only in the periphery, never being discussed or given importance to. And less realized is the fact that, Karbis are not alone who are born of the eggs of a mythical bird. And also that, the Karbi ‘cosmogony’ has a deeper philosophy than we cared to think of. “The idea that the cosmos was born from several eggs laid by a bird is found in the oldest Balto-Finnic myths that have been preserved thanks to the conservative form of runo song. Different versions of the Balto-Finnic creation song were known among the Estonians, the Finns of Ingria, the Votes, and the Karelians. The Karelian songs were used by Elias Lönnrot in devising his redaction of the myth in the beginning of the epic Kalevala.” According to Ülo Valk’s paper, “Ex Ovo Omnia: Where Does the Balto-Finnic Cosmogony Originate? The Etiology of an Etiology”, the far away Estonians have centuries old tradition of the ‘egg cosmogony’ in their ‘creation song’. According to the song, ‘Swallow, the sun-bird, built a nest in the field, laid three eggs in it. One became dawn to the nether world, the second became sun to the upper world, the third became moon into the sky.’ Ülo Valk also gives the Western Estonian version of the ‘Creation Song’, popularly called the ‘runo’ song, where “the bird comes from the sea, flies to “our” paddock, and builds a nest in the bush or a tree. Sometimes the creation begins from an apple tree and an apple that has dropped into the waters. It is probable that the sea here designates the same primordial ocean as in Karelian songs, and we cannot exclude the possibility that the apple tree is a reflection of the cosmic world tree (which can be found in the imagery of some other Estonian mythical songs).” Different versions of the Balto-Finnic ‘creation song’ have been restored as a ‘common mythical story’ which describe that — “A heavenly bird (an eagle?) flies above the sea and looks for a place to build a nest. Having found it (a piece of sod?) the bird lays one or three eggs. The wind rolls them into the water and the sun, the moon and the stars (and heaven and earth?) are born of them” (Kuusi 1963:68). Also found in Karelian songs is a motif of the demiurge Väinämöinen uttering the words of creation that makes the earth and the sky from the shells of that egg.”

Valk further notes that — “The Balto-Finnic cosmogonic myth has many international parallels. They are so numerous that it may initially seem that myths about cosmic egg(s) belong to the common traditions of mankind. An egg is a symbol of latent life force, fertility, and resurrection in many cultures, and the word denoting an egg often has sexual connotations. *Muna (“egg”) already had the parallel meaning “testicle” in the Proto-Uralic language (Rédei 1986:285). The Vedic and Sanskrit word anda is also ambiguous, denoting egg, testicle, and sperm (Böhtlingk and Roth 1855:86). In the dream omens of Estonian folklore the egg is also connected with fertility: if a young wife dreams of finding a bird’s nest, it foretells pregnancy. However, belief in the cosmogonic function of an egg has not been found everywhere; there are, rather, four broad areas where myths about cosmic egg(s) belong to indigenous oral traditions: 1) the Balto-Finnic region; 2) the Eastern Mediterranean lands; 3) South Asia (China, Tibet, Indo-China, India); and 4) the Malay Archipelago, Oceania, and Australia……..In a Lappish creation story, a duck lays five eggs upon a blade of grass on the ocean; vegetation, fish, birds, a man, and a woman hatch out of these eggs (Ajkhenvald et al. 1989:157). In Zyrjan (Komi) mythology the two dualistic demiurges Jen and Omol are born of two eggs laid by a bird. They break the four additional eggs and thus create sun and moon together with good and evil spirits. In Mordvinian folklore three goddesses or mother-spirits are born of three eggs laid by a bird on the cosmic birch-tree (Napolskikh 1991:29). The Uralic origin of these myths is doubtful because parallels in the Ob-Ugrian and Samoyed mythology have not been found.” The ‘egg cosmogony’ is also found among the Egyptians as Valk describes in his paper —“Different versions of the myth of the world egg occur in the mythology of ancient Egypt. According to the priests of Hermopolis, Thoth, the god of wisdom and the moon-god, was the true demiurge who hatched the world-egg on the primordial ocean in the shape of the divine ibis-bird. The sun-god Ra was born of the primeval egg (Viaud 1989:27). A few traces of the myth of the cosmic egg can be found in the Phoenician traditions described by the Jewish philosopher Philo and some Greek authors (see Delaporte 1989:82). The oldest Greek cosmogony, Hesiod’s Theogony, does not mention the cosmic egg; it seems to be a rather specific trait of the Orphic tradition. The speculations of the Orphics about the origin of the world include the motif of the cosmic egg, expressing the notion of implicit totality.”

But Valk’s observation on the ‘egg cosmogony’ among the Indo-Europeans here is worthy of particular mention— “To emphasize the Indo-European origin of the myth, many authors have cited ancient Indian texts (Upanisads, Purānạs, Manu-Smriti, Mahābhārata). However, the oldest source, the Rig Veda Samhitā, does not prove that the myth about the cosmic egg was known among the Aryan tribes who invaded India………The idea of the golden embryo that conceals cosmic potency precedes the later notion of Brahmānda (“Brahma-egg”), meaning the implicit primeval existence of the world and the whole universe as totality. The demiurge Prajapati, who was later replaced by Brahma, was said to be born of this primordial egg. The fact that it is the abstract god Brahma who is connected with the cosmic egg gives evidence of new developments in mythology in the period of the decline of the Vedic gods and the ascent of the gods of Brahmanism and epic mythology.” Valk’s paper, which must have delved deep into the subject, has also commented this — “It is possible that the myth of the world egg, and other cosmogonic myths that are expounded in the Sanskrit sources, have been influenced by the indigenous oral traditions of India. During the period when the Aryan invaders settled in the basin of the Ganges river, they adopted several non-Aryan ideas and religious observances.”

While leaving further scholarship on the subject to experts, what is undeniable, quoting from Valk’s paper again, is the fact that, “there are also essentially different versions of the myth of the cosmic egg in Asia. In the folklore of some of the peoples, the number of primeval eggs is more than one (as in Balto-Finnic songs). In the epic songs of the Miaos who live in China, two gigantic birds are born of eggs and hatch out earth and sky (Jia Zhi 1987:374). Several egg cosmogonies are known among the tribal communities of Assam. According to a Bodo-Kachari myth, the Great Lord created two birds whose three eggs gave birth to spirits, trees, and procreators of mankind. In Karbi folklore the mythical bird ‘wo plakpi’ laid several eggs out of which were born the progenitors of different peoples and tribes of Assam. In Dimasa creation myth gods, spirits, and ghosts are born out of the seven primordial eggs (Datta et al. 1994:39).”

The ‘Môsēra’ narrative that is chanted only during the gradually disappearing ritualistic performances and the rich Karbi ‘cosmogony’ contained in it is therefore capable of being developed to serve the cause of Karbi oral history. Because, in the words of Prof. S H Hooke (1938) — “In particular, there are a certain number of semi-mythical, semi-historical, texts which raise the question of the relation between ritual situations as embodied in the myths, and the beginnings of history.”

Posted in The ‘Môsēra’ tradition | 12 Comments »

A Tribute to Semsonsing Ingti : The Father of Karbi Nationalism

Posted by Administrator on October 26, 2007


Dharamsing Teron


Semsonsing Ingti is undoubtedly the most towering and iconic figure of Karbi nationalism whose intense commitment towards his own people helped shape its destiny at a turbulent time when everything only seemed a distant dream—a dream that was shaped by a fierce imagination of a people who were only faint outlines in the periphery of the emerging India. But the man, to the majority of lesser mortals, has continued to remain an enigma whose life and contributions have never been evaluated in the truest sense. The general amnesia of the Karbi intelligentsia, both of the past and the present, has almost rendered him into a shadowy figure, coming ‘alive’ only during ritual official commemorations. The mass amnesia has manifested through the confusing and often contradictory information about even this man’s birth and death. To confound the confusion further, a tombstone at his grave at the Nowgaon Baptist Church cemetery ‘recorded’ his date of birth as 8 February 1904! This ‘record’ has contradicted and in a way invalidated all the existing literature, though rather sparse, on the man. There even exists the controversy around the date of his death and as regards the place where he was born. Did he breathe his last on 29 February, 1948? Was he born at Tika or Golaghat? These and many more such confusing questions on the life and works of the man have only helped to build an increasingly dense aura of myths around him. Sadly, this reflects upon our own criminal indifference to our history.

Imagining a Political Community:

Semson has been hailed variously as the ‘Architect’, ‘Founder’ and ‘Father’ of Karbi Anglong. There is no denying that all these epithets fittingly describe the one man who dared all odds imagining a political community out of the Karbis who remained ‘scattered over a wide area, from Golaghat to Kamrup and the Khasi Hills beyond Guwahati, and from the Cachar plains near Silchar to the forests north of Bishanath in Darang’…..speaking a language that is ‘practically one and the same throughout’ (Walker/1925). The Karbis were undoubtedly ‘one of the most numerous and homogeneous of the many Tibeto-Burman races inhabiting the Province of Assam’ (Stack and Lyall/1909). From Sibsagar to Sylhet in the present Bangladesh, the Karbis inhabited this long track (Stack and Lyall/1909). Beside this cultural homogeneity, when Semson traveled through this wide, wild and weird country of the Karbis who were ‘among the more numerous of the Assam frontier races’ (Walker), there possibly existed no imagination of a community within the community itself. It was the fierce sense of imagination that Semson had that guided him to realize that it was possible to unite the Karbis into a single political community. Because Semson, born at the turn of the 20th Century and who very briefly lived through the series of rapid and rather tumultuous upheavals that also gave birth to ‘modern democracies’ across the globe. Our own India, one of the biggest ‘democracies’ today, was just an emerging idea. Semson dared to merge his little idea of a Karbi homeland with the big idea of an India that was itself struggling to free from colonial subjugation. And it was a pledge that Semson, the first modern, educated and fiercely nationalist of the Karbis, along with a handful of his fellow nationalists such as Sarsing Teron Habai (Habe) of Hongkram, Harsing Ingti of Longre, Biren Teron-Mouzadar of Duar-amla, Borgaon and Langtukso Ingti Borgaonbura of Silimkhowa, Moniram Langne of Deithor, Barelong Terang of Diphu, Rev. Hondrovel Milik of Putsari, Dhoniram Rongpi (ex-Assam Minister) of Hongkram, Joysing Doloi (ex-CEM/KAAC of Diphu and Khorsing Terang-ex-MLA, John Kathar of Borthol, Khoiyasing Ronghang-Mouzadar of Borneuria, Bonglong Terang of Dillai, Thengklong Rongpi-Mouzadar of Deithor and Song Be of Golaghat (Song Be/Monjir-1980), committed to himself. From within the narrow confines of a colonial service under the watchful and at times possibly wrathful eyes of the colonial masters, Semson carefully and painstakingly continued in his mission disregarding his own career, future and even health. ‘Karbi Adorbar’ came into being as a weapon to draw the first political, cultural and geographical map of a Karbi homeland at the threshold of the birth of a new independent India. He diplomatically overcame the stiffest and at times the most communal opposition from the then Assamese leaders, prominent or rather most infamous among them —one Motiram Bora who tried everything under his command as the Revenue Minister of the British Provincial government of Assam. Semson never lived to see the fruition of his idea of a Karbi homeland but he saw to it during his brief but intense lifetime that the worst of adversaries cannot prevent a community of people staking its rightful claim.

The Price of Sacrifice:

The most tragic disappointment for all the present and future Karbis is not only the premature death of Semson at the most crucial juncture of the tribe’s history, but also is the fact that the rich legacy of sacrifice and selflessness that the architect, father and founder of Karbi identity did not live to preside over the political destiny of the community. Towards the untimely end of his life when Semson chose to contest the lone assembly seat against Khorsing Terang, he was hailed by the most furious communal hate campaign simply because he was a Christian. And this tragic communal divide did not desert us during the creation of Meghalaya when Karbi Anglong and NC Hills were given the option either to continue remaining with Assam, have an Autonomous State of their own or merge with the new state. This divide continues to haunt and imperil us at the present juncture when the Karbis as a people are facing the most dangerous situation—politically, economically, geographically and demographically. The one man who stood so fiercely for Karbi pride, Karbi unity and Karbi nationalism, his legacy is today condemned to a ritualistic vanity. In fact, Semson’s legacy is more endangered now than ever before if we look around at the prevalent mess in the Karbi political and cultural atmosphere that only embodies decay and defeat. The message therefore should be clear before each one of us that the legacy of Karbi nationalism inherited from Semson must be imbibed in its truest spirit so that his idea of a Karbi homeland does not remain trapped in our imaginations alone. ‘Thurnon…Thurnon’, the theme song of the Karbi awakening that fired the imagination of every Karbi heart when Semson led the identity struggle, is even more relevant today than ever.

(Author’s Note: This small write-up was read out in the Seminar held on 26 Feb 09 at Diphu Club, organized by a People’s Initiative to Commemorate the 61st Death Anniversary of Late Semsonsing Ingti. Mrs. Rani Ingtipi, the eldest daughter of the late leader, inaugurated the Seminar where she clarified many important issues such as the date of birth and death of her late father. The information furnished by her was later corroborated by her brother, Mr Pabansingh Ingti, a retired IAS officer, now based in Kolkata, who also attended as the Chief Guest in the 3-Day Commemoration from 26 Feb to 28 Feb 09 at Diphu. The date of birth of the late Semsonsing Ingti as confirmed by the family members is now 8 February 1910 and the date of his demise is 28 Feb 1948.)



The Unsung Heroes—
Remembering Sārdôkā!

• Dharamsing Teron

SP Kay.

Does it mean anything to new generation Karbis? Or does it mean at all to the generations of Karbis? We Karbis, either of the old or the new generations, who seldom care about history, are obviously oblivious of both the man and his work. Not that Karbis are traditionally history-shy people with all the ritual paraphernalia to keep the past alive through some age-old practices such as ‘ancestor worshipping’ that requires every Karbi family to keep track of its family genealogy. But the malaise that is affecting us is a kind of mass amnesia that has rapidly corroded our common memories to recall even the few illustrious ancestors of the like of Sārdôka!

Yes, we are talking about Sārdôkā Perrin Kay— a Karbi from an obscure corner of Karbi Anglong whom we barely remember as the co-author of the ‘English-Mikir Dictionary’ , published in 1904. Sir Charles Lyall, in the introductory note to his ‘The Mikir’ spoke of a ‘bright young Mikir…..a convert of the American Baptist Mission at Nowgong’. SP Kay is none other than Sārdôkā Ingti ‘to which he was accustomed to add the names of his sponsor at baptism, Perrin Kay’. From a humble beginning, under the guidance and care of the missionaries, Sārdôkā toiled to have this remarkable work published. Both ‘Stack and Sārdôka worked togther at the language, correcting and largely supplementing the material contained in their text-book’. The two based their book on the work — the first ever ‘dictionary’ of the Mikir language— done by Rev. RE Neighbor with the title ‘Vocabulary of English and Mikir, with Illustrative Sentences’ that was published in 1878. Apart from this invaluable contribution to the Karbis, Sārdôka and Mr Stack ‘went on to folk-tales, which were written down, with a careful attention to systematic orthography.’ While Stack certainly led the fruitful venture as the senior and more knowledgeable partner, Sārdôka remained ever the fateful collaborator. Both Sir Charles Lyall and Edward Stack, the twin authors of ‘The Mikir’, had also reasons to be thankful to Sārdôkā, who collaborated tirelessly as the sole English speaking native providing original inputs in the compilation of the path-breaking ethnographic work on the Karbis till date. ‘The Mikir’, that has reappeared in the market under a new title, ‘The Karbis’, still remains the only reference book (in English) on the tribe.

But neither Sārdôka nor his compendium (The English-Mikir Dictionary) has been as fortunate. Copies may still be intact in some Karbi hamlets and in the hands of a few researchers, but the man behind this stupendous work is well nigh a forgotten figure. Sārdôka, one among the most few fortunate Karbis to have grown up in missionary care and equipped with English education, ‘helped the preparation of the specimens of Mikir’ section for the pioneering works of the ‘Linguistic Survey of India’ (1902-1909) by George Abraham Grierson. Sir Lyall too, “had hoped to have the assistance of Sārdôka himself in revising the translations”… of ‘The Mikir’, as ‘other help was not forthcoming’. Sārdôka served in the Assam Secretariat for many years after Stack’s death on 12th January 1887. Probably, in recognition of the faithful services Sārdôka rendered to the British and the American Baptist preachers, he was transferred from the Secretariat in 1904 to serve as a Revenue Collector, popularly called the Mauzadar of the territorial division of Duar Bagori, a powerful posting among the tribesmen during the British administration. But this pioneering Karbi ‘most unhappily died of cholera’ on 8th March, 1905. Sārdôka died unsung and virtually unknown, precariously remaining only in the official ritual-homage of the ‘Karbi Lammet Amei’ .
The culture of keeping alive the family genealogy, may it be in the form of a ritual, is fast vanishing. The fate of Sārdôka and his book, if anything, is a telling commentary of the mass amnesia that is corroding the Karbi psyche. The man who laboriously collaborated in the production of the pioneering dictionary of the tribe is now lost as neither his predecessors nor his cemetery are nowhere in our memories. History has no records of when and where this great man was born, but thanks to the Baptist Missionaries and the British ethnographers, at least we have the date of his demise. To begin with, won’t it be apt to pay homage to this great son of the Karbis on his death centenary, albeit its 2 years delayed?

[1] Sār:ānthok—a Karbi ritual wherein dead ancestors of a family are recalled and propitiated for their blessings.
[2] Sārdôka’s word-book is the first ‘dictionary’ in the history of Karbi language by a native.
[3] The Mikir (1908)—by Sir Charles Lyall and Edward Stack.
[4] Rev Neighbor was born in Wisbeach, England, in 1842. He moved to the US with his father in 1854, ordained at St. Charles, Illinoise, in 1867 and in 1870, accepted a service with the American Baptist Mission and was assigned to Assam. He returned to the US eight years later due to failing health. (From the website of the ‘Indiana Baptist History’ 1798-1908.)
[5] Ibid
[6] ‘Karbi Lammet Amei’, established in 1966, 27th March, is the only literary organization among the Karbis, engaged in the development of the language and literature of the tribe.

Posted in Unsung Heroes | 13 Comments »

Mikir: Tracing the genesis of the term

Posted by Administrator on October 7, 2007

Mikir:Tracing the genesis of the term.

Morningkeey Phangcho


Dharamsing Teron 

The raging debates over the renaming of ASSAM into ASOM seem to have subsided ‑ at least for the time being. This ‘needless blundering’ was foreseen as early as 1889 by Samuel E Peal in his ‘Note on the Origin and Orthography of River Names in Further India’. His observation is worth reading when he comments that the ‘…….names that were first spelt correctly, have been thoughtlessly altered, and unless taken in hand at once will become unmeaning, and at times misleading, fixtures.

The word ‘Asam’, derived from the word Ahom, and which later is spelt ASAM by the Assamese themselves, is a case in point; formerly in all private and public correspondence and published works there was one ‘s’ only; but in an evil hour the spirit of innovation moved someone to alter the correct mode and gave us the unmeaning ss.’[1]  This ‘unmeaning’ phenomenon has continued in the naming of the various tribes of erstwhile Assam.

The term ‘Naga’ was coined in similar ‘evil hour’ that meant nothing to the ‘Nagas’ themselves. Mr Peal said, ‘The word “Naga” again, as applied to the hill tribes south of Upper Assam, is a more important instance of needless blundering, inasmuch as it bids fair to become a perpetual fertile source of gross mistakes in relation to these races.’ But the ‘perpetual fertile source of gross mistakes’ had been committed in relation to the Karbis when the tribe was named MIKIR that not only meant nothing to the tribe itself but was also derogatory at best.

Assamese ‘historians’ like Gunabhiram Baruah chose to create a ‘Mikir’ out of the Sanskritic ‘Markat’ (meaning ‘eater of raw flesh’) just as the ‘Naga’ tribes were almost identified to be the snake-worshipping ‘Nagas’ of ‘Upper India’ between whom there was neither cultural nor historical relations or similarities.

The recent ‘Assam-Asom’ controversy would have been avoided for the better if the likes of Gunabhiram Baruahs of the present times were a little more careful. Let’s consider Mr Peal’s observation again when he said, ‘The Germans, more careful in this matter, retained the correct form, and Kiepert even goes so far as to indicate the derivation from ‘Ahom’, the name of the Shan settlers, who came in AD 1228 and conquered the province’. But this sort of shallow hypothesizing has been going on for as long as we can remember but nothing has been as far from truth as the coining of the term ‘Mikir’ as the following publicized theories suggest. While these are vague, incoherent and highly illogical on the one hand, they are also tinged with racial slurs. A dissection of these hypotheses is presented below:  

Hypothesis 1: “Thireng-Vangreng, 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.” [2]  

Thireng-Vang:reng (literally dead-alive, come-alive, thi=die, reng=live and vang=come) occupies a very important place in Karbi customs. Whether Thireng-Vang:reng is a historical person or simply a myth is quite a separate matter but he is credited with divine access to both the worlds of the living and the dead with equal ease. He is credited to have introduced the elaborate funeral rituals among the Karbis as he ‘knows’ both the worlds. In Karbi folklore, there is no mention that Thireng-Vang:reng ever had any children in ‘this’ world. Existing folklore mentions about Thireng’s wife ‘living’ in the ‘other world’ that explains his frequent visits to and fro. The theory of Thireng’s daughter, by the name Mekri, marrying a Naga prince is therefore highly ridiculous though inter-marriage among various tribes is a possibility. Furthermore, Thireng is neither described as a ‘king’ nor is there any mention of his worldly death in the Karbi oral tradition. 

 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.”[3]  

This has been 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. The invention of a ‘lost-cat-seeking’ tribe must have been quiet an endeavor but this sort of ‘unmeaning’ had only created more social and political distortions in the later years that did more harm to the tribe than good.  

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).” [4] 

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 the leading light of Assamese historian of the period did have on the Karbis — ‘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.’  

This third hypothesis is simply outrageous, degrading and racist. A literal transliteration of the above Assamese text would be in place to drive our point home—‘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 Kachari king.)[5] 

The ridiculous absurdity of the historian’s ‘analysis’ can be gauged by the fact that while he asserts that it was the Mikirs who called themselves so in the hope of getting love and gratuity from the Assamese, he also asserts that the name was given to the tribe by the Assamese. But in the same observation he had also vouched to the fact that the Mikirs indeed called themselves Karbis. The self-contradictory oversight in this case is all too clear to require any further explanations. The explicit racist tones are also all too glaring to miss when he calls the Mikirs as those ‘living in the branches’ (dalor Mikir) thus barely avoiding the direct application of the term ‘monkeys’ for the tribe. How a Sanskrit word ‘Sakhamriga’ or ‘Markat’ is so outrageously applied to give any semblance to ‘Mikir’ is anyone’s guess that could only be invented by a ‘pandit’ like him. 

These fabulous hypotheses had indeed created a force of acceptance to be treated as ‘history’ so far as other views had either been ignored, suppressed or not forthcoming. But how had the word Mikir received such a force of acceptance has therefore been an issue of intense debates in the Karbi society. What could be the etymological root of the term ? For, it would be naïve and simplistic to dismiss the term as the handiwork of some fertile brains. 

 Our search for the meaning of Mikir or the nearest to it has led us to delve into the Karbi village traditions. A traditional Karbi village or ‘Rong’ is organized around the institution of a village headman who is known as a ‘sar:the’ (among the Hills Karbis) and ‘bang:the/rong:the’ (among the plains dwelling Karbis).    Members of every household of a village are known as ‘Mekars’.

The senior-most of all the Mekars is known as the ‘Mekar Asar’ (Hills Karbis) who holds a particular position in the village court presided over by the ‘sar:the/bang:the’. The office of the ‘sar:the/bang:the’ has also other office-bearers with hierarchical positions who serve different purposes in the village administrative set-up to run the affairs of the village through democratic consultations. It could therefore be possible that a Karbi introduced himself to an outsider only as a ‘mekar’ or an ordinary member of a Karbi village. In a sense, every Karbi is a ‘mekar’ and in those days of communication barrier erected by linguistic differences, the outsider simply took the tribe to be only a ‘mekar’ which in course of time got corrupted to give the word ‘mikir’. The plains dwelling Karbis has an interesting story to tell.[6]

Once when the Karbis were shifting from the Dimasa kingdom to escape its oppressive rule, a certain ‘Kleng Mekar’ (kleng=elder or senior) was at the head of the group. ‘Kleng Mekar’ was credited to have been endowed with divine powers. According to the legend, a flame would emanate from the forehead of ‘Kleng Mekar’ that would illuminate the dark nights in the tribe’s flight through the thick inaccessible rain forests and hills and vales. Other account of the same story describes the ‘Kleng Mekar’ simply as a heroic and able leader who led his people against all odds to reach to the domains of the Ahom kingdom. He negotiated with the Ahom officials for the settlement of the migrating Karbis. Since ‘Kleng Mekar’ was only known by this name, it is highly probable that the Ahom officials took the tribe to be the subjects of the elder ‘mekar’ and thus popularized it in a new but corrupted name of the ‘mikir’. 

Historically speaking, various neighboring tribes had called the Karbis by various names with whom the tribe had continued periods of interactions in its migration and settlements in various locations across the North East. The Karbis, for a time had settled in the present North Cachar Hills district of Assam where they came into contact with the Dimasa people. A large group of the Karbis also migrated to the present districts of Jaintia hills and Ri-Bhoi under the state of Meghalaya. This led the Dimasas to consider the Karbis as not a separate tribe but ‘Pnar-sa’[7] or the ‘Sons of the Pnars (the Jaintias)’. How the Dimasas failed to see the Karbis as a tribe in spite of the two tribes living together in such close economic, political and cultural proximity for a long time in the same jurisdiction is quite another matter. But the Jaintias themselves used the term ‘Bhoi’ to denote the Karbis after which the present ‘Ri-Bhoi’ district is named. Still, the group of Karbis that came into contact with the Ahoms was named as the ‘Mikir’.

Going by this pattern, there could well have been various other names given to the Karbis as they migrated across the lands of the Kuki-Chin tribes, Meiteis or Nagas and thereby cultivating a long history of interactions before finally settling down in the present Karbi Anglong district.  The ‘MIKIR’ therefore is a direct derivation of the term ‘MEKAR’, far unlike the outlandish hypotheses that would make us believe. The rulers simply imposed the term ‘Mikir’ on the Karbis by inventing explanations which suited them.

 The plains dwelling Karbis had suffered such impositions since long as a Rong:hang was corrupted to  Rahang, a Rongchehon became Rongchon or Rongson and Killing became Klien etc.  It is a pity that the rulers’ tongue has continued to refuse to make a difference between a Teron and a Terang; in the rulers’ tongue the Karbi surnames fuse together to create quite another non-existant Karbi clan called ‘Terong’.    

[1] ‘Note on the Origin and Orthography of River Names in Further India’ by Samuel E. Peal, quoted from ‘Proceedings of the Royal Geographical Society and Monthly Record of Geography, New Monthly Series, Vol. 11, No. 2 (Feb., 1889), pp. 90-95’
[2] Bordoloi, BN’s article ‘Karbis-their origin and migration’ appearing in the ‘Bulletin of the Tribal Research Institute’ Vol I, No III-1985 for Welfare of Plains Tribes and Backward Classes, Govt.Assam.[3]  Ibid[4] Aham Buranji (1857) Reprint, by Gunabhiram Baruah.[5] “Migration Memories in Karbi Oral Tradition” by Mr. Dharamsing Teron and presented in the ‘National Seminar on Tribes of India:  Identity, Culture and Lore’, 5-7 September 2007, jointly organized by the Delhi University and Karbi Anglong Sarva Shiksha Abhiyan Samity. [6] Informants Mr Owen Terang of Marme (Ri-Bhoi district, Meghalaya) and Dhireswar (Mina) Ronghang of Dokhinbam Karbi village (Tetelia, Sonapur in Kamrup).[7]  Informant Dr Motilal Nunisa, Director of Health Services (FW), Hengrabari, Govt. of Assam. 


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The Dumrali Karbis

Posted by Administrator on October 4, 2007

The Dumrali Karbis 

-Morningkeey Phangcho

Those Karbis residing in the plains of Kamrup and Morigaon district of Assam, and the Ri-Bhoi districts of Meghalaya identify themselves as the Dumrali or plains Karbis. With their social head at Dimoria, culturally and customarily they have different sets of social behavior and functions to their counterpart at Karbi Anglong. Linguistically they are a sub group of Mikir groups of the greater Tibeto-Burman family and class as Amri (the other being Karbi) in the latest grouping of the T-B family. The field work was undertaken at Mermain (aka. Marmé) (26º E and 90° N); a village at the border of Meghalaya and Assam. The village is divided between these two states as half the village is in the other side of the political boundary.

40 % of the population in Ri-Bhoi district of Meghalaya consists of Karbis, amongst whom about 60 % profess their religion to be Christianity, and the rest are of traditional religion. You will come across some unfamiliar clans among the populaces like Klien, which is claimed to be the  another version of Killing, a sub clan of Tungjang (Timung), and  Rongson or Rongchon, which is not different from Ronchehon , a sub clan of Ejang  (Ronghang) as claimed by the local population besides Longthulu, Tron and Tumung.

The priest is usually the head of the house; he is assigned the name Penpo which is similar to Pinpo of the Hills Karbis.  Amongst The Plains Karbis there are basically three main social festivals:

 1)      DOMAHI

It is celebrated in the months of March-April. It is a festival of thanks giving to the almighty Hemphu, the traditional god head of the Karbi Household. Each member of the social setup of the village is known as MEKAR, which might be the origin of the word MIKIR as the tribes were known till very recently and in fact still do in some of the official documents. However this is just a hypothesis I would like to go more deeply into. During the festival all the ancestors of the village are remembered and worshipped, which is indeed very similar to the practice of their hills cousin. This practice is known as SAR-KACHERDUNG. “lit. ANCESTOR REMEMBER” the same as SAR ANTHOK among the Hill Karbis.

 2)      MONO KE-EN

Literally Mono means Paddy or Rice and Ke-en means to take. It is generally an affair of 2 days, once in five years. All unmarried males and females of the village are to take part in the occasions. In the house of Riso Bangthe (an authority concern with the affairs of the youth of the village) the traditional folklore about the origin of rice and the route of migration taken by the Karbis from the place of their origin are retold. It is very much the same story which is told amongst the Hills Karbis (Mosera-Kihir) but with the name ‘Karbi Kevang’ “ lit. Karbi Coming” with some addition like the reason for the Karbis to start moving out from their ancestral village somewhere near Inglong Kelok “ lit. Mountain White” , which is unmistakably the Himalaya mountain range. There is a mentioned of Lhasa also on the way. The mentioning of KLENG MEKAR, on whose head a flame of fire always glow to lead the Karbis  during darkness is intriguingly interesting and to be noted. He is not mention anywhere in Mosera-Kihir, the hill version. Terang were supposed to be the porter who carried all the essential items needed for the whole village. The reason mentioned for the Karbis to move out of the ancestral village is also very interesting. It is said that the Karbis being very poetic and romantic once tried to touch the moon and play with it, seeing it stationed beautifully on the top of the INGLONG KELOK. But when they climbed up to the top of the mountain and found the moon to be still afar and unreachable, then only did they realized their mistake. Since they felt ashamed to return to their ancestral village they decided to move forward towards the east and settled down somewhere else, which is not found in MOSERA-KIHIR.  The mention of the river TERON LONGSO, where the TERON with divine power helped the others to cross a river with huge width by stretching himself like a bridge is also very interesting, which has again no mention in Mosera-Kihir with the exception of the river TERON LONGSO, where the paddy was supposed to be discovered by the Karbis which coincide very much with the version of the hills Karbis.

 3)      RONG KEHUM

Literally Rong Kehum means Village Curfew. It is generally a three days affair once in five years. Just like the name suggested a kind of curfew is imposed in the village with all the roads leading to the village being blocked with thorn and bushes. No outsider is welcome to the village during these three days affair. However they can come and witness the ritual by taking non traditional route. This festival is generally celebrated during the winter. It is very much similar to the Rongker of the hills Karbis. This is all male affairs and no female is allowed during the rituals. The fences are broken and lots of hue and cry is created during the rituals as a symbol to chase away evils from the village during the night using a long stick. If any person comes out of the house during the ritual then he might be killed assuming to be an evil spirits and no blame is to be confer upon the evil spirits chasers.


Administratively the Plain Karbis are divided into 9 political areas. With its social head at Dimoria it is divided into 5 Richo (kingships) and 4 Bangthe (a kind of President ship). The Five Richo are Borkuchi, Tentala, Tikra, Bura and Nortap where as the 4 Bangthe are Marme or Mermain,  Somra or Silimor, Honai-Raika and Killing ( Killing Nongkret is the area where the legendry Tiger men existed) .

 TRADITIONAL ADMINISTRATION For the smooth administration of the village, There is a traditional set-up of various official known as AKLENG APHANG “lit. branches of elders” 


Rongchon: He is the supreme head of the administrative, acting something like a president who has a say but cannot take any decision all alone by himself. But he is the authority to implement what ever decision is taken by the others member. Without his consent no customary law is applicable. This post is basically held by the Rongchon clan i.e Ronghang. It is hereditary in nature. i.e only a son of Rongchon can become a new rongchon

Huria: He is an assistant Judge. Enghi Clans is associated with this post.

Karkun: A Clan of Ramde, a sub clan of Ejang again is entrusted with this job. Karkun is a fine collector and a butcher for the social event where animal sacrifice is to be made.

Rhah-hre: He is in charge of the welfare of the warriors of the village. Ingty Clans is entrusted with this job

Bisar: He is the supreme Judge for any kind of conflicts and issues. Ingty Clans is entrusted with this job.

Klengsar : He is the decision maker among them all. It is he who is to convey the decision taken to Rongchon. He acts something like the prime minister.

Riso-Bangthe : He is to look into the welfare of the youth of the village, and the affairs related to the education of traditional knowledge to the young. He is from the Rongchon Clans.

Kathar: He is the Head priest of the village. All kind of sanctification and purification is to be undertaken under his keen eyes. He is in-charge of the religious affair of the village. Ingty clans are entrusted with this job.

Barika : He is the main Messenger and announcer in the village. He is from Enghi Clans.


Special thanks to Mr. Philipe Ramirez for organizing the field trips and guidance. Also to Mr. Dharam Sing Teron, Ex MLA, KAAC ( Karbi Anglong Autonomous Council) for his ample guidance and support . A gratitude to Mr. Owen Terang, President, AMKA ( All Meghalaya Karbi Association) for hosting us and providing us with all the information and for organizing a meeting with the elders of the village during our visit to Merme.


For More Information Please write to me at mphangcho@yahoo.com


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Concept of Re-incarnation and naming of a child among the Karbis

Posted by Administrator on September 21, 2007

Re-incarnation and Naming of a Child among the Karbis (Mikir) of Assam–  by Morningkeey Phangcho 

Concept of Re-incarnation

As Christoph Von Fϋrer-heimendorff has put it in one of his papers quoting a lecture of Sir James Frazer, “Men commonly believe that their conscious being will not end at death, but that it will be continued for an indefinite time or for ever, long after the frail corporeal envelope which lodged it for a time has moldered in the dust. This belief in the immortality of the soul, as we call it, is by no means confined to the adherents of the great historical religions . . .it is held with at least equal confidence by most, if not all, of those peoples of lower culture whom we call savages and barbarians, and there is every reason to think that among them the belief is native.” [1] 

Man has never stopped wondering about the life after death since time immemorial. Like in many other advanced societies around the world, the Karbis in the Indian North East, who are approximately 500,000 in number according to the latest survey of the Census of India, have this concept of life after death and the journey of one’s karjòng (lit. spirit of a person) to the land of the dead (chom-ārong, lit. village of death). If the Karbis belief is followed, we shall not fail to find the mention of a legendary person named Thī-rèng-vāng-rèng (lit. dead-alive-come-alive), who for the first time had enlightened the Karbis about the life after death. It is believed that before the advent of this man among the Karbis, there was no concept of soul and also dead rituals were not performed in accordance with some rules.

The concept of re-incarnation or rebirth is also believed to have originated around that time among the Karbis. The concept of re-incarnation and descent however is fairly widespread. The Hindu and the Buddhist concepts on the subject are very well known. The Karbi religious belief as compared with the more popular Hindu or Buddhist concept is the focus of this article. The Karbis practice exogamous marriage and maintain purity of descent among the clans. A Karbi female retains the surname of her father’s clan even after her marriage to another clan and at her death, she must be cremated in the specifically assigned location (tipit in Karbi) for her clan in the cremation ground and nowhere else. The logic behind this seems to originate from the belief that a person after his/her death returns to his/her clan reborn as a child.

There is also this belief among the Karbis of Kamrup in Assam that such rebirth or reincarnation is possible within the same lineage outside the clan. Among the hill Karbis, such violation can never take place. A person’s rebirth is possible only within the same clan. A female, being the descendent of the member of the particular clan of her father, must also go back to her father’s family reborn as a daughter. But, among the Karbis of the plains, a person can be reborn to a family belonging to same lineage irrespective of the clan. For example, a rebirth of a father/mother can occur to a daughter married to another clan as they belong to the same lineage. Among the hill Karbis, a dead father cannot be reborn to his daughter as her husband belonged to another clan. It is believed that a reborn individual inherits some characteristics of the deceased and fulfils the announcement he made before his death. Just like the Haida of the Queen Charlotte Islands (British Columbia), South Eastern Alaska[2] and the Pulangka community of Thailand[3], the features of a Karbi concept of re-incarnation (Men-Kachevāng) have predictions of rebirth in a family; ‘announcing dreams’, which indicates who is to be reborn; and correspondence of behaviors between a child and the deceased person.

The deep-rooted impact of the traditional beliefs in re-incarnation can be established by the fact that even a Karbi who is converted into Christianity continues to believe in re-incarnation according to the traditions of the tribe. Very similar to the Haidas, the Karbis also believe that a person can, before he/she dies, choose his parents for his re-incarnation by a verbal declaration. Moreover ‘announcing dream’ is also attached importance to in identifying the newborn’s identity.  Such kind of ‘announcing dreams’ usually occurs during pregnancy. In such a situation, a Thékēré (lit. intellectual or knowledgeable is a Karbi shaman performing various many rituals) is approached who, by his paranormal power, would identify the sex of the child of an unborn baby. As regard to the phenomena of the ‘third sex’ (bisexuals) among the Karbis, it is believed that when an individual is not satisfied with his/her sexual orientation and declares before dying that he/she would be born as the member of the opposite sex in his/her next birth, he/she would be reborn with sexual deformities and hence is considered a taboo. However, according to some beliefs, a child born with sexual deformities is considered unnatural and evil and is therefore abandoned after birth to die in wilderness. The identity of the newborn is also established by correlating the behaviour of the child with a particular deceased in the family. As the child grows up and develops speaking skill, he may exhibit post-infantile behaviour, indicative of ‘imaged memories’ of previous personality.

Such a case was observed with my cousin at Umrongso village, N.C. Hills district, Assam. He would often speak of driving a vehicle when he was able to speak and would shout at his mother to give him a particular vehicle. The parent believed that the boy’s previous personality was used to driving. Later on, it was established by the thékēré that he was the re-incarnation of a particular deceased. There was another case at Rongchējèng, Chirikēngding, West Karbi Anglong, of a child who acted as lame even if there seemed no medical or physical abnormality. Later on, it was established that he was the re-incarnation of a deceased who was lame. As soon as the Mēnchi (Previous Personality) of the child was identified and he was named after him, he (the child) became perfectly okay and started walking normally.Unlike beliefs in the more popular Hindu concept of re-incarnation, the transgression of rebirth into non-human form and vice versa is impossible among the Karbis. The Karbis believe that an individual has to be reborn as human only. Generally, an individual declares and chooses the family where he would be reborn in his next birth. But there are instances, though rare, when a person was reborn not in a human form but as a cat, according to the choice of the deceased. It appeared intriguing to me when my mother told me about the case. Once there was a man who was very dissatisfied with his family, and declared that he would be better reborn as a cat or a dog than to be reborn as a son among the uncaring and quarrelsome siblings. I was told that he was reborn as a cat in that family. Moreover, the family refrained from naming any male child after the poor deceased for one generation. After the cat’s demise only was a male child born to the family was named after ‘him’.

However it is considered to be a taboo to talk about getting reborn as an animal. It is believed that one will not live a human life even after being reborn as a human after the one generation gap. However, this kind of phenomenon cannot be taken as a common belief among the Karbis.There is also this belief among the Karbis that a person devoured by wild animals (particularly tiger) cannot be reborn at all. It is a taboo and such accidents are regarded as ‘long:lé kerèm’ (long:lé=earth, kerèm=defeat) or ‘pirthé kelāngnò’ (pirthé=earth, kelāngnò=unclean). There are cleansing or purification rituals for such unfortunate victims, but nevertheless, the person is taboo to be reborn.

Sometime more than one individual claims to have the same mēnchi (mēn=name, chi=die or previous personality). In other words, more than one person is believed to be the re-incarnation of the same person. This phenomenon is called mēn-phlak (shared personality). The logic behind this concept may probably be understood by the fact that the Karbis believe in having more than one soul, to be particular two souls, one being a source of life and the other being conscience. Karjòng is the deathless, immortal souI while the chamburuksò is the souls of the dead persons. I should call the later entity spirit.  Soul (Karjòng) and Spirit (Chamburuksò) are considered to be an entity of the same personality. The difference between Karjòng and Chamburuksò would be discussed in detail in the later part of the article.

 However, here at this point of time, I would like to bring into focus another term called mēn-chelàr (Personality Exchange).Sometime a child but before attaining adolescent stages, might start acting strangely and behave like another person. He may assume the behaviour and personality of another deceased. After the thékēré is called in and consulted whereby it is established as the case of mēn-chelar (Personality Exchange). It is believed that the child was re-incarnated as someone else but due to some paranormal reason, the person who would occupy the body of the child is changed. Now the child would be assumed as the re-incarnation of another deceased and renamed accordingly.

This case was reported in an Ingti family at Umrongso Village, N.C. Hills. A child was born to the family. He was named as the re-incarnation of the late father of the head of the family Mr. Ingti. However, after two years, Mr. Ingti also died. As soon as Mr. Ingti was cremated and all the rituals were performed, the child started acting strange. He began speaking about the occupation of the deceased Mr. Ingti. He began to talk like him, showed his expertise and also started abusing ‘his’ mother just the way his father would. He started exhibiting the likes and dislikes of the late Mr. Ingti. When a thékēré was called, it was established to be the case of mēn-chelar. The child was now a re-incarnation of the father instead of the grand father, which he was for two years and accordingly he was renamed.

A well-developed Karbi case of re-incarnation may therefore have four features.

1) Pre-mortem expression of wishes concerning Re-incarnation— Such as, I would be like this and like that in my next birth, calling a person and declaring that he would be his son in his next birth and so on and so forth.

2) ‘Dreams announcing’ the re-incarnation of a deceased person— Eg: My younger brother is believed to be the re-incarnation of my grand father, whom my father had never seen. An unknown person came to the dream of my father and introduced himself and told him that he is coming to our house. The next month my younger brother was born.

3) ‘Imaged memories’ on the parts of the subject.

4) Unusual behaviours that correspond to identified previous personality.According to the popular Karbi believe, when a person dies, his soul would go to chom:ārong (Village of Death). Chom:ārong is believed to be exactly the mirror image of this world of the living, here nights will be days there, here left would be right there and so on. The soul would perform all its duties as it does in this world and then comes back into this world by taking the form of another human being. It however, can be reborn only within the same lineage and family (as among the Karbis of the plains) and the same clan (among the hill Karbis). The Karbis also believe that a male can be reborn only as a male and a female as only a female or else there might be sexual deformities as explained earlier. All the five clans of the Karbis have different assigned places in chom:ārong as well as here in this world. All the five clans have different Anōksōng or Nōk:hum (clans).

 The Karbis believe that it is the Karjòng (soul) which plays the roles in re-incarnation, which goes to only its assigned ānōksong in chom:ārong after the person dies and it is this karjòng which comes back for rebirth. When a married couple dies, their Karjòng get separated and would have to go to their separated ānōksong in chom:ārong. However, their chamburuksòs (spirits) are not separated and they stay on together. The chamburuksò of the woman would keep on staying with the ānōksong of the husband as she was part of the ānōksong of the husband by their marital association.

The ‘conscience’ of the deceased wife would remain with the husband’s.[4] Karjòng is the soul and the source of life of a person where as chamburuksò is the conscience of the individual.The karjòng and chamburuksò are also important in Karbi concept and there are elaborate rituals.  In case of a person being very sick, there is a ritual of Karjòng Kekur (Lit. Soul Calling). Karjòng of the person is believed to have strayed from the body of the suffering individual. And hence to make the individual strong and fine again, his soul is called back. However, the chamburuksò will come into picture only after the individual is dead. It is however the chamburuksòs, which are propitiated with offerings of rice liquor, meat, fish etc. on any special occasions in the family praying for their blessings. It is believed that if such propitiation is not done, a living member of the family may be afflicted by a sudden and unexplained illness. If such phenomenon strikes the family, it is seen as a sign of the chamburuksòs dissatisfaction who are demanding attention by way of such propitiation.

This very brief propitiation ritual is known as ‘chamburuksò hor-kepi’ (hor=wine, kepi=to give) and is done symbolically to ‘remind’ them that ‘they’ are not forgotten. But, a more elaborate ritual, known as ‘chamburksò kachingduk’ (kachingduk=propitiation, praying for blessings), is also performed by the family.  

Naming of a child

Naming of a child is inter-related with the concept of re-incarnation among the Karbis. The name of the child is given in accordance with the mēnchi (previous personality). The occupation, characteristics, location etc. play a great role in naming of a Karbi child. A chilld may be named as Hemai (Blacksmith) if the mēnchi’s occupation was that of blacksmith. My aunt is named as Sikurpi (Christian lady) since her previous personality was a Christian. Even my middle name, “Keey” signifies the name of my father’s cousin who is believed to be my mēnchi. There are various examples of naming a child after the mēnchi. In fact it was the only significant practice of naming a child among the Karbis before established religions influenced them in a big way.  

A child is named as Kangbura, Sarthé, Basapi, Klengsarpò etc signifying the roles they played in their previous births. Whereas some of the children maybe named according to the characteristics of their previous births like Horjun (Drunkard), Kania (Morphine addicted), and Kehai (angry) etc.

At the conclusion, I would like to thank Mr. Pascal Bouchery, Lecturer in Anthropolgy, University of Poiters, France and Mr. Philippe Ramirez of CNRS, Paris, France for their comments on my previous paper and also helping me out in improving the presentation of my paper. Moreover I am greatly indebted to especially Mr. Philippe Ramirez for giving me access to the online library.   


1)     Reincarnation by A.D. Fraser, The Classical Journal, Vol 47, No.5 (Feb. 1952) p.189

2)     Karbi Aron Ajutang by Sar Lunsé Timung, Ist Edition, 1999, Lorulangso Diphu, Karbi Anglong

3)     Phurkimo Apunsir by Samsing Teron,  Karbi Lamet Amei ( Karbi Sahitya Sabha) , Diphu, Karbi Anglong, 2004

4)     The Belief and Cases Related to Re-incarnation among the Haida, Journal of Anthropological Research, Vol 31. No.4

5)     The After life in Indian Tribal belief by Christoph Von Fϋrer-heimendroff, The Journal of the Royal Anthropological institute of Great Britain and Ireland, Vol 83. No.1, 1952

6)     The Belief of Rebirth among the natives of Africa ( Including Madagascar) by Theodore Besterman, Folklore, Vol 41, No. 1 ( Mar 31,1930)

7)     The Immortality of the Soul  by N. A. Nikam Mind, New Series, Vol. 60, No. 238. (Apr., 1951)

8.)     www.jstor.org , an online library

9)     http://www.wikipedia.com

[1] The after life in Indian Tribal Belief by Christoph Von Fϋrer-heimendroff published in The Journal of the Royal Anthropological institute of Great Britain and Ireland, Vol 83 No.I , 1952 page 37-49

[2] Ian Stevenson, The Belief and Cases related to re-incarnation among the Haida, Journal of Anthropological Research, Vol 31, No.4 Page 364-365.

[3] Douglas Miles,  Yao Spirit Mediumship and Heridity versus Reincarnation and Descent in Pulangka, Man, New Series, Vol.13, No.3 ( Sep., 1978)  pp. 428-443

[4] Sar Lunsé Timung, Karbi Aron Ajutang, Ist Edition 1999, Lorulangso, Diphu, Karbi Anglong. P. A-18 to A-20

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The House and its Rules

Posted by Administrator on December 17, 2006


The House and its Rules

House location and orientation

Contrary to other tribal communities of N. E. India, slopes or hilltops are not favoured by the Karbis for establishing a village, nor is the vicinity of streams. Mountains and streams are believed to be the abode of the most jealous kinds of terrestrial spirits and hence people fear that the foundation of a human settlement nearby would bring disease and destruction (a-hi-i keso) in the village. For that reason flat areas are always preferred. The position of the house is not determined by any fixed spatial orientation, however one usually find dwellings oriented towards the village road or lane, and preferably facing towards the East direction. When houses are to be build on hilly ground, they are oriented so that the front side faces the valley and the rear part faces the upslope of the mountain. In communities settled on rivers banks houses usually stand facing the river.

The dwelling space

Traditional Karbi houses are made up entirely of wood, bamboo and thatch. The whole construction is raised several feet above the ground on a bamboo platform supported by wooden posts, under which domestic animals run about freely. The floor rests on a layer of support consisting of splintered and whole bamboo grids to ensure appropriate rigidity. This platform is enclosed on four sides by a fence of bamboo lattice, leaving only one entry to which one accesses by a bamboo ladder. This protected area contains two constructions :

– Usually facing the entrance of the compound, at the rear of it, is the main building (hempi), where household members work on various domestic chores, have their meals and sleep. The main house has only one entrance doorway, in front of which lies an open platform (hong, literally ‘front‘). In this space all kinds of social and everyday activities take place such as dhan pounding. At the back of the building, a second smaller open veranda (pang, meaning ‘behind‘) is primarily used to throw waste as well as to store any items which are not used daily.

– Occupying one side of the compound and most often oriented perpendicularly to the main building (although sometimes facing it, with the entrance located in between) is a smaller house, hong pharla (hong = front, pharla = platform), which primarily serves as a reception hall for guests Occasionally it is used as a sleeping room for unmarried boys of the household when the main house is too crowded, as well as temporarily for married children before they establish their own separate residence. This annex building has a unique entrance doorway too.

The external aspect of the two buildings is very much similar :

Both are single rectangular structures made of wood (all pillars, ridge pole, horizontal support beams, roof support beams) and bamboo (bamboo poles for cross beams and all the small roofing structure, interlaced bamboo strips for walls and doors). Remarkable is the absence of nails, wires or metal clippings, as well as windows. Bamboo splits as well as thongs extracted from the bark of trees are used to tie structural and non structural elements. The eaves in the front and rear sides (more rarely the overhanging of the gable when the roof is set up perpendicularly) form two small porches. Roofs are thatched by using an unidentified species of grass (karbi : phelang) reaching a height of 1.5 to 2 meters, available in the nearby forests. The eaves do not extend much further down than fencing level. It must be noted that Karbi houses of important people bear no special external decorations that may advertise the status of their owner, as it is often the case in neighbouring societies.

The interior of the two buildings, however, differs : the dwelling-house is divided by a transverse lattice-work partition into two sections, kam (literally : ‘work‘) and kut, both containing a fireplace, while hong pharla is not compartmented and does not contain any fireplace. Moreover all household goods (grain, firewood, clothes, kitchen appliances, jewellery and other valuables of the family) are stored in the main building only. Baskets of bamboo serve the purpose of wardrobes in which paddy, household goods and clothes are kept. Joints of bamboo are used as containers for water as well as ornaments and other valuables of the family.

Entering a Karbi dwelling-house one first gets into a first room called kam. On the left side lies a raised platform of split bamboo (thengkroi, thengtor) for storing kitchen artefacts and, more or less in the center of the room, a fireplace, with a hearth made of clay and wood planks to hold clay at place. The rear side is used as a store room for wood (pang-a-thekroi) and, delimited by a bamboo lattice partition, a sleeping area for unmarried girls (dambung).

From kam, one can access directly either to the back veranda (pang) or to another room (kut) which also contains a central fireplace. Kut can be entered only from kam. It is in fact the innermost area of the house where all the sacred and important possessions of the family are kept. The rear side is occupied by the rice store room (sok angkro). The sacred household paraphernalia (a storage basket, marjong, containing other ritual artefacts) are located in the most valued part of the house, i. e. attached to the central pillar (angbong a-nujok, literally meaning ‘central pillar’) located in the middle of the partition separating kam from kut. When sleeping, the household master should always have his head close to this pillar. Marjong (the name applies both to the basket only or altogether with its contents) is in fact oriented towards the side of the pillar which faces the household masters sleeping place, and placed just above his head.

Social rules within the house

Among the Karbis as elsewhere, spaces within the house are encoded with social and cultural meanings which are manifested in the many conventions regulating their use. The way spaces are separated and linked is determined by social and cultural norms, so the observation of the use of domestic spaces is a relevant clue for understanding the true nature of social relationships. At this level it would be false to consider that the Karbi house is simply divided into a private part and a public part where all social interactions take place. In fact both compartments are multi-functional spaces, where guests are entertained, cooking is done, materials are stored, and both serve as bedrooms. Hence understanding the cultural meaning of the house division requires a more cautious approach. In the case of Karbi society, the spatial distribution of persons and functions is primarily grounded in kinship ground : inside the domestic group, it is primarily based on the degree of parental proximity to the household head. Beyond the domestic group, the encoding of space expresses the perception and degree of acceptance of others.

Spatial ordering of sleeping positions in the household

Household members and guests are not made to sleep outside on the raised platform (hong), but always inside. As far as sleeping is concerned, kut access is restricted only to the household master and his wife. Only tolerated are children below the age of 5 of 6 years who are generally made to sleep besides their mother. Beyond that age, they must move to kam area. Although occupying the same sleeping place, the positions of the two household heads are not equivalent since the household head should have his head closer to marjong than does his wife. In kam, unmarried boys and girls sleep separately, girls sleep together towards the rear side (dambung) while boys (as well as an eventual newly married couple) use the raised platform (hong a-thengtor). Only boys eventually move to sleep in hong pharla if needed.

Spatial ordering for meals and reception of guests

Members of the household usually eat together in kut, unless guests are invited in hong pharla (in which case they will be joined by the household master). People usually have their meals around the fireplace being seated on stools (inghoi) which are similar to Assamese piras. In kut, the household head generally has his meal with his back facing the rear side of the house (although no strict rule requires him to do so), next to his wife. He should always be the first to eat the food prepared for the family (meaning it has not be tasted by anyone before) and the first to be served.

Theoretically, all elders of the same clan (kur-isi, lit. ‘one clan‘) as the owner of the house are allowed to sit in kut. In practise, this access is permitted to clan elders of the same regional subdivison (Chingthong, Amri, Rongkhang or Dumrali) only. Ethically speaking, only elders should be invited although other members may have access to it if needed. No one else is admitted in kut. Village headmen, officials and all important people, if not belonging to the same regional section of the owners kur-isi, will be received in hong pharla.

Apart from household members, only people whom the owner knows personally (chini-chetek, literally ‘known very well to each other‘) are invited to sit in kam instead of hong pharla. Amongst them are kin related people in general, being either close relatives (hem-isi, lit. one house, applying mostly to the paternal kin, or nit, lit. intimate) or far relatives (chepho-chiri; from chepo = touch, and chiri = to lead).

Important visitors received in kam are served rice beer or liquor as a sign of respect. This is also the case for wifes givers (representatives of the mothers lineage, don-rap, such as mothers brother or mothers brothers son). On the contrary wifes takers are supposed to bring rice beer along with them and serve it to the house master (who is in position of wifes giver to them), as would do also all those coming as employees or wishing to solicit the household master for something. This reflects status inequalities between wifes givers and wifes takers in Karbi society, the former being superior to the latter.

The house as a ritual unit

The Karbi house is a residential, economic, but also ritual unit. The responsibility to propitiate the household spirit as well as to perform all kind of domestic rituals usually lies in the hands of the living father, who assumes the title of Arnam Ke-ot abang. After him it should normally pass to the eldest son who is taught all the ritualistic procedures. In case the eldest son refuses or is unable to take the responsibility, the next immediate son will get it. Whoever is to take charge of domestic cults is regarded as Hemripo (hem = house, ri = to lead, -po : male gender suffix) and, as such, should inherit the parental house. It is interesting to note here that a daughter can become Hemripi, since she can inherit lands, properties and money if the situation arises. But daughters cannot inherit the religious artefacts that constitute the marjong, including the basket (arnam a burub) which contains them. The chosen male relative to inherit this is required to become a religious leader of the family. i.e arnam ke-ot abang. A son does not immediately set up a new ritual unit by establishing a new house after marriage, for he will have a new marjong only if the father pass it on to him. Usually after the father has died it is handed to him by the Hemripo. Otherwise he has to attach to his father house and come to his father house for joining all appropriate rituals. Most important rituals take place in kut and especially close to the place where marjong is kept. Kam sometimes serves as a place to perform some rituals such as those in order to improve or restore health of individuals.


Article written by Mr. Bouchery Pascal, Lecturer in Anthropology, University of Poiters, france.

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A Sociological Study of Rongker.

Posted by Administrator on April 2, 2006

The Constituents of a society and the processes within it maintain the equilibrium of the Social system. ” Religion” is such a part of the Society which inifies the systems of the Society which unifies the systems of the Society about its moral values. Rites and ceremonies are two essential components of the institution called “Religion. These, in one form or other, are met with in every culture. All the festivities are the product of religious motives and human activities. These bring happiness to the life of the people by associating it with merry-making. This particular item of culture symbolises the basic social values,norms and views of the community.

Though the Karbis do not like themselves to be called as MIkirs even today the term Mikir is used to a great extend. According to Dr. D.N. Majumdar. ” The Karbis are a combination of four smaller groups each of which is ideally endogamous. These groups are : Chingthong, Ronghang, Amri and Dumrali. The Karbis family is essentially nuclear, though a son or daughter may provisionally stay with the parental family for sometimes after marriage. They have a number of patrilineal clans and the society as a whole has a distinct patrilineal bias as already discussed in the topic social structure. They traditional Karbi religion had a belief in a supreme deity, Barithe. At present time some Karbis claim themselves to be Hindu, some have been converted to Christianity and very few adhere to the traditional religion.

The Karbis perform various rites and rituals throughout the whole year in order to appease different deities and spirits. Every step of traditional life is marked by some kind of ritual with religious or magical significance.

Karbi ceremonies can be divided into three levels viz. Individual, Village and Regional. Sacrifice of birds and animals and the use of rice beer are indispensable part of every religious rite.

The Rongker is the annual festival of the Karbis which is observed once in a year by each individual village. There is no specific times for the observance of the festival. Different villages may observe this festival at diffferent time. This observance of the festival depends entirely on the convenience of the villagers concerned. In order to meet the expenses of the rituals, conected with the festival, the whole village contributes in cash and kinds. Sometimes subscription and donation are also collected from the neighbouring villages. It is better to mention that the worship of different deiteis, during the Rongker may vary according to the locality. Here I shall describe the performance of the Ronker with reference to the Village in Ronghang area.

The Rongker is observed in order to appease the local deities, associated with the welfare of the village, and also to get rid of all eveil happenings. The festival lasts for three days. The main part of the festival is performed in an open field, where a thatched roof is collectively constructed by the villages to provide sitting accommodation for the participants. The whole festival can be divided into four major parts, viz

1) Sadi====The Process of inviting the deities.

2)Karkli==== Worship of the deities. This part can again be subdivided into two parts..

These are-

  • Kibo-Kaba===offering of meals to the deities.
  • Koia-abida===Offering of areca-nut and betel leaves to the deities.

3) Rongphu-Rongling-Kangthin====Drivingout of evil spirits, from the lower to the upper part of the village by way of dancing, and

4) Langhe Rongker===Concluding part of Rongker performed near a bathing “ghat” to prevent attact by tigers.

All together 12 deities are worshiped for the Rongker festival.

1) Longri sarpo : The is the presiding deity for the Festival Rongker. The deity is the Local god where the village , which is conducting the festival falls. This deity is responsible for the welfare of the the Longri ( meaning Kingdom or jurisdiction).

2)Hemphoo : The supreme household god of the Karbis , believed by some of the scholar to be ” Vishnu of hindu mythology ”

3) Mukrang : He is also a households god, His position is next to Hemphoo believed by some scholar to be “ Mahadeva of hindu mythology” .

4) Rosingja : A domestic goddess of the Karbis, She enjoys a position next to Hemphoo Mukrang in the hierarchy.

5) Bamun : A local deity believed to be vegetarian.

6) Ningding Sarpo : The god of Patience.

7) Rit-Anglong : The deity in-charge of agriculture.

8 ) Than : Another local deity who lives in the jungle. It is believed that this deity can protect the crops and people from wild animals ans insects etc.

9) Murti: A headless malevolent spirit who lives in a hole under the earth.

10) Arlock : The deity who lives in a land that stands between two hills.

11) Kuthepi: The deity who looks over kuthepi territory

12) Theng : It is another deity who lives in the jungle and can cure some deases like flue, body ache, head ache, tooth-ache and other physical pains.

The male folk of the village are gathered at the site in the morning with all necessary items required for the Karkli. 10 ( tens) earthen duwans (alters) are made on the eastern side of the site. The shape of the laters are semi-lunar except the later of the Murti , which is a pedestal shaped one.It has already been mentioned that the Murti is a headless spirit. So, the shape of the alter for the spirit is made in such a manner, so that he can rest there with comfort. It is to be mentioned here that Hempho, Mukran and Rasingja , are regarded as brothers and sister and they share a common alter. so only 10 duwans are made though 12 deities are worshipped. the duwans are constructed in a row heading south-north direction. The duwans are made in accordance with the names of the deities listed earlier except for the second duwans , which is shared by Hemphoo, Mukrang and Rasingja. A horbong (gourd with tapering mouth, for holding wine) filled with horso( first made wine offered to the deity) isplaced on the alters in the name of the respective deity. On the duwan of Ningding Sarpo two small branches of bamboo are erected. On the duwan of murti a few branches of Basil (Ocimum sanctum) and a few bamboo sticks are erected. Similarly a branch of Fongrong (a kind of tree used for worshipping god) is placed on the altar of Arlock . Nothing is placed on the duwans of the other deities except the horbong .

Though the entire male folk of the village take part in the Karkli, the main tasks of it are performed by the Kurusar (the main priest), who is assisted by the Deuri, The Barwa, The Thek-kere (all religions specialists) , the Burtaman ( an official of the Karbi Kingdom) the Rong-A-sarthe (Village headman) , the Riso Basa ( youth leader of the village) and a few elderly villagers who are well versed with the system of worshipping the deiteis. It isnot cumpulsory for the participants to take bath before performing the Karkli buth they must purify themselves by sprinkling water with the leaves of the sacred basil (Tulasi, Ocimum Sanctum).

All the sacrifices needed of animals and birds are made in the name of all the deities except for the deity Bamun, who is believed to be vegeterian. Then feast is orgainised at the end of the rituals.Thekere predicts the future of the village by looking at the heart and intestine of the sacrificed animals.

The third part of the Rongker is called Rongphu-Ronglin-Kangthin which means driving out of evil spirits from the lower half of the village to the upper half. It is also called Ajo-Rongker, It is performed at the night of the second day. A duwan is made at the end of the village road and a chicken is sacrificed in the name of Ajo-Angtarpi.

The forth and the concluding part of the Rongker is called Langhe Rongker. It is observed at the third day of the festival.A duwan is made in the bank and a cock is sacrificed in the name of Arnam-teke ( The tiger god).

Taboos observed during the festivals:

1) Husking is prohibited during the performance of the Rongker in the Village.

2)Participation of the female folk in any part of the Rongker is strictly prohibited.

3)No one is alowed to go to ‘Aar’ (Jhum Cultivation) or any agriculture activities.

4) No villager is allowed to leave the village during the performance of the Rongker.

This article was taken from the bulletin of Tribal Research Institute, Guwahati. 1982

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