At the eastern tip of the Himalaya lies Arunachal, which literally means “mountains of the rising sun”, now going through a process of uneasy and sometimes reluctant transition to “modernity”. The following articles deal with two aspects of that transition, the rainforest, still largely pristine, and the changing status of the women of Arunachal.
There are 20 major tribal groups, encompassing about 110 sub-tribes in the Indian state’s 84,000 -sq km area. The majority carry out slash and burn cultivation. Culturally, there are three main divisions. The western-most district Kameng, bordering Bhutan, is influenced by Buddhism. The middle region, comprising Subansiri, Siang and Lohit, is rich in cane weaving and bamboo works. Burmese influence is apparent in the eastern-most district of Tirap.
By Sanjay Acharya
The thumping of log drums tore through the mountain stillness. Bare bodies glistened in the evening light as wooden clubs pounded in unison on the gnarled 100-foot hollowed out log. The message was that the youths of Pongchau had established a new Morung, or fraternity, and to celebrate the event had successfully hunted deer. The village chief arrived with due ceremony, with hornbill feathers springing majestically from his cane headdress and emblazoned with wild boar tusks. Colourful beads decorated a well-muscled chest, a leopard’s jaw hung from his formidable sword and five shrunken human skulls bobbed up and down behind his straw skirt. By the fireside, young girls ladled large quantities of millet beer into long bamboo tankards of the victorious hunters.
I thought that this must certainly be the last frontier. Here, in the rump of the north-eastern Himalaya, the villagers of Pongchau seemed to me oblivious to the 20th century. Yet I knew that most of the tribes in the region were in transition, from hunting and gathering to becoming settled agriculturists. They burn hillsides in a collective effort called jhum and cultivate crops in a shifting pattern spread over a period of a decade or so.
They gather firewood and timber from the forests and hunt deer and wild boar. An occasional leopard or even a tiger sometimes falls to the smoking barrel of a muzzle-loader manufactured by the. local smithy. Whether hunter-gatherer or agriculturist, however, in either case the tradition of Arunachal Pradesh has been to preserve forests and forest wealth. The Poncahau tribals know that without these natural. assets there is no survival. In these self-sufficient communities, the forests are not sold.
Lately, however, that delicate social fabric has been coming under intense pressure, as an unfamiliar cash-based economy has begun making serious inroads. Modern education is alienating youth from their roots in the tribal family; missionaries, bent on proselytizing the “pagan” animists, are destroying their identity; chiefs are becoming politicians; developers are granted concessions; government agencies have targets to meet. Sawmills and plywood factories have come up to the foothills, some of them even owned by tribal chiefs. The villagers have already been enticed by contractors from the plains to help in illegal timber operations.
These changes are inevitable not because there is no other way, but because the authorities have been too lethargic to find alternative ways of introducing integrated forms of development, designed around local needs and perceptions. There is also a vested interest in exploitation. Assam, Nagaland and Meghalaya have already lost their dense forests. Paper mill owners from Nagaland are now prowling in the forest of Arunachal hoping to lobby for fresh contracts.
Under the thick canopy of the forest around Ponchau, it is wet and dripping even though it has not rained for days. 100-foot trees block out much of the light and leeches wave about menacingly on the moist decaying leaf litter. Giant hornbills flap overhead, while troops of hoolock gibbons loop across the tree tops and crash through the branches. The forest reverberates with their piercing cries. Neither the wildlife, nor Arunachal’s tribal society, are prepared for the lumber merchants.
Sanjay Acharya is a- Delhi-based photographer and writer
Women Look to the Future
By Kiran Mishra
The role of women eveywhere in the Himalaya is changing and women are adjusting to new exposure and opportunity. But the changes and choices confronting women of the Arunachal tribes have their own complexities. The weight of tradition is heavy and burdensome, yet women are a major force in its preservation. Change will bring about a certain amount of emancipation, but it will also disrupt personal, family and tribal life. Conflict and tension lie ahead.
Villages in Arunachal are normally made up of long houses, with up to ten families and as many hearths in one building. In “patrilineaI, fraternal and polygyneous” tribal society, the eldest wife occupies the first hearth on the entrance side and the youngest is farthest in the back. The woman enjoys a relative economic freedom because she has her own jhum and hearth. And yet, she has little social or political standing. The patriarch is all-powerful. The man’s status is reckoned by the number of wives and mithun cattle he possesses.
Beginning in childhood, women engage in hard labour. They do the sowing, harvesting, husking, forest gathering, domestic work and household crafts. On occasion, it is they who conduct the rituals to appease ancestors of the long house. Personal property is in the form of ornaments, called guinn, which women bring along in marriage. It is normal for the mother to give away her ornaments to her daughter, but it is the father or the brother who receive mithun cattle as the bride price.
New elements like the growing cash economy, formation of private property, work oppurtunities and education are changing perceptions and expectations among Arunachal’s people. Among other things, the role of women has started to change. Young educated women are sharply critical of their elders “for selling away their daughters as mithun to the highest bidder”. These women are spearheading radical action, especially against polygamy, which is central to the tribe’s traditional economic, social and family structure. Yet the threat of tribal breakdowm does not keep young, educated women like Mano from saying, ”We are not like a cane basket to be unceremoniously discarded when it wears out”.
Kiran Mishra is a Fellow of the Indian Council of Historical Research.