TODAY -

Mishing tribe of Assam

S Balakrishnan *



The Mishing tribe of Assam is one among the more than two dozen tribal communities that make the State a most colourful & vibrant one. Assam, which is the nerve centre of the eight North-Eastern States, has a rich & varied ethnic population; it is an intermixture of various racial stocks such as Mongoloid, Indo-Burmese, Indo-Iranian and Aryan.

Added to this is the never-ending infiltration from across the Bangladesh border. Each tribe has its own tradition, culture, language, etc. The Mishing is one among them. They are historically known as Miri. They live spread in about ten districts of Assam and a few more in Arunachal Pradesh, now spread even in the plains from their original hill habitations.

Coming from Tibet/China, they are believed to have settled down in this part of India centuries back; they are related to the great Tani community back there. Hence there is a demand for separate Taniland, like Bodoland and Gorkhaland. For that matter, the whole of North-Eastern India has a very rich tribal tradition.

The Mishing people live in great numbers in the unique riverine island of Majuli surrounded by the gurgling mighty Brahmaputra River. Remember, the Brahmaputra also originates from Tibet. It was a chance encounter with them during our one-night stay in the biggest riverine island of Majuli.

As our guide led us to one of their settlements there, I was reminded of the villages of the Nicobar Islands in the Union Territory of Andaman & Nicobar that I visited years back in 1979. The stilted hutments with space below for leisure and their pets, here again mainly the pigs, very much resembled the villages of the Nicobarese tribe living there.

The Mishings / Miris have put up their houses vastly using bamboo for flooring and walls; the sloping roofing is thatched or, where affordable, tin sheeted. Ladder or ladder-like plank is used for climbing in and out of the stilted houses.

The space below the stilted house is used for varied purposes – for happily swinging, for peaceful sleeping of babies incradle, for storing hay, grass, firewood, etc.,for drying clothes and, last but not the least, mainly for loom. Loom is an integral part of the Mishing women folk. Their handloom tradition is rich with diverse patterns and cloth for varied uses.

It also serves as the leisure area, to play and chitchat, and to doze off. It is the shelter for their pigs, goats, dog, duck and hen. I noticed a house with an annexe, both connected with a ‘skywalk’. Inside one such a house, the loft below the ceiling was used for storing pots.

Their woven baskets, vast drying plates, fishing baskets, winnowing pans could be seen lying here and there. We saw a group of men seriously immersed in playing cards in one such space below a stilted house.

Using the ladder-like structure we gingerly climbed into a house to watch some religious ceremony going on. A few men wearing the traditional gamocha (the Assamese scarf) around their neck were reciting prayers from a bookwhile some more were playing tabla and other musical instruments. It seemed to be a men-only ceremony with women and children only as observers.

Of late, many Mishings have converted to Christianity, as elsewhere the tribes have been converted. It was dramatic lighting effectinside the house with light seeping in through the bamboo floor gaps!

With the ever-flowing Brahmaputra nearby, handpumps were ubiquitous in that habitation. Almost each house had one hand pump close-by, with the waste water irrigating their garden where plantain trees were noticed. Some ingenious householders had even raised the hand pump to the floor level of the stilted house for a more convenient usein the separate wash area.

Cute kids were trailing us; but one boy was persistently avoiding being clicked. As he came out of a passage between two houses I finally succeeded in clicking him. The kids were curious to know us and we were curious to know about them.

So I asked the three boys who followed us their names but could not understand. I whipped my note pad and the two senior boys sincerely wrote them down– Sri Jan Payeng, Sri Satyajit Payeng, Sri Amujal Payeng. But why this ‘Sri’ before their names? And what is this Payeng?

The all-knowing Google answered this. It prominently listed the name of Jadav ‘Molai’ Payeng. Shri Jadav ‘Molai’ Payeng is a simple man from Assam’s Jorhat area who, over hard work of several decades, single-handedly planted and tended trees on a remote sandbar of the river Brahmaputra, turning it into a forest reserve. Acclaimed as the Forest Man, he was awarded Padma Shri in 2015.

Thus, the mystery of Payeng is resolved as the surname, but the mystery of Sri is still reeling in my head. The naughty boys have really played a trick on me, it seems. Though it was a fly-by visit, it further strengthened my realisation about India’s greatness and uniqueness, i.e., Unity in Diversity!


* S Balakrishnan wrote this article for The Sangai Express
The writer can be reached at krishnanbala2004(AT)yahoo(DOT)co(DOT)in
This article was webcasted on November 03, 2018.



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