RIVERS, RAIDS AND RESILIENCE: A HISTORY OF THE MISING COMMUNITY THROUGH FOLKTALES

Folklore is an important archival tool for historians studying indigenous pasts and keeping this argument in mind, the essay attempts to construct a history of the Mising tribe of Assam through the community’s folktales by looking at how folk stories trace the migration of the tribe from the hills of Arunachal Pradesh to the plains of Assam, and the factors that caused it.

ANIDRITA SAIKIA

One of the enduring architectural images of colonial legacy from tea gardens, has been the elevated chang bungalow within the manicured lawns of Upper Assam. These houses which are rapidly being converted into home-stays and resorts, were a colonial appropriation of the local thatch houses of bamboo built by the Misings. In Assam, the Mising community is the second largest plains tribe community after the Bodos. Accorded the status of a Scheduled Tribe by the Indian nation-state, the community is predominantly found in the districts of the eastern parts of Assam along the banks of the Brahmaputra especially on the northern bank of the river, and in the southern parts of Arunachal Pradesh which shares borders with Assam (Peter Pegu, 2019). The presence of the Misings in this region can be traced to a gradual migration from the hills of Arunachal Pradesh around the early thirteenth century, soon after the Ahoms had established a kingdom in the Brahmaputra Valley.

Previously called the Miris, a name used by the colonial state, they belong to the ethnicity of the Mongoloids with their language being Tibeto Burmese. Like many nature worshiping indigenous communities of the Northeast, the Misings are a community who lack a script, however, they continue to have a rich oral tradition of folklore, myth, songs and chants. To trace out an indigenous history where the fault lines of the archives become most visible in the absence of textual traditions, one has to turn to the contours of the folk and myth and try to penetrate the memories of a community whose identities are rapidly shifting. Although folk narratives such as tales and songs differ within regions and also within clans and different generations in terms of the spoken text and characters, yet, the structure and thematic narratives tend to remain the same (Ratul Deka, 2018). In this essay, I trace out the past of the tribe through folktales which have been passed down from generations within the Mising community. However, I would like to point out that my research is confined to the compiled texts of these folktales with my primary source being Tabu Ram Taid’s translated compilation of Mising folk tales published by Sahitya Akademi in 2016, and that all the folktales mentioned in this essay are drawn from this text [1].

Book Cover of Tabu Ram Taid’s Indian Literature in Oral Languages: Mising Folk Tales, published by Sahitya Akademi.

MIGRATION OF THE MISING COMMUNITY

Any cursory glance at a standard photo based glossy coffee table book of the tourist hot-spot Majuli (Upasana Mahanta et.al., 2013), the largest river island of the Brahmaputra, would show numerous photos of men and women from the Mising community engaged in fishing, celebrating the harvest festival Ali Aye Ligang or being present in front of their distinct chang houses. Majuli is home to different plains tribes such as the Sonowals and the Deoris, however, it is the Misings who constitute the dominant tribe. The community has been prominently engaged in riverine activities and occupations of the char and chapori areas, becoming excellent fishermen and boat makers during the Ahom and colonial periods – although they also continued to be one of the most destitute communities during these reigns (Ritupan Goswami, 2010).

Yet, the question remains on how this tribe arrived on the silty sands of the riverbanks from the mountainous hills of Arunachal Pradesh. Even as they settled into an agrarian and riverine lifestyle, what memories did their folktales hold that could point to causes that forced them to do so? In any attempts to answer these questions, it is pertinent to note the dichotomies of studying a community which is spread out across two divergent geographical terrains ̶ the hills and the plains.  Although these two starkly divergent terrains have captured imaginations for centuries, the binaries between the hills and the plains also came to be inscribed socially. Colonial scholars and administrators who cast the net of imperial rule as far as the misty mountains of Arunachal Pradesh, constructed a civilisational discourse where the hill people came to be identified as wild, savage, and aggressive, while the plainsmen were understood as peaceful, sedentary, statist. In this essay, the focus is on the community who have settled in the Brahmaputra Valley from the isolated hills and their transition in doing so.

In Tabu Ram Taid’s (2016) compilation of Mising folk tales, one recurring theme that cuts across numerous stories is that of migration – the descent of the tribe from the hills to the plains. Although reasons vary, one of the primary causes that these stories hold is inert tribal conflict, especially with the neighbouring Adis. Earlier called Abors by the colonial state, the Adis are further subdivided into numerous sub tribes like the Minyongs, Padams, Pasi and Shimong among others. The Adi language is similar to that of the Misings and both inhabit the regions in and around the East Siang district in present day Arunachal Pradesh. It is therefore, not surprising that the folktales which have been passed down, even with the lapse of time, contain specific references and titles about the Adis, despite the multiple variations that oral narratives are characterised with.  

This migration into the valleys of Assam was not an isolated event but took place in gradual waves from the different regions of Arunachal Pradesh. From one folktale titled as the Story of Tusig Matsig, one can trace how the survey of the new terrain was undertaken by adventurous leaders within the community. However, debate still persists if it was Tusig Matsig or Ranu Raku, who was the first one to visit the plains and make way for the others later (Taid, 2016). My own reading of the story is about an inter-clan rivalry based on the two men’s hostility for each other. In fact, it would not be incorrect to assume that the two adventurers were members of two clans of the Mising tribe who descended from the hills, braving wild animals and thick jungles, to find out whether it was suitable to live in the plains, and demarcating the territory for others to follow.

Artistic impression of the Mising folktale, the Story of Tusig Matsig. Art Work: Mrinmoy Deka (2021)

Another story of migration, The Misings Migrated to Plains, narrates how Adi men from the Damro region raided an old woman’s house whose two sons were skilled craftsmen. Frightened, the little family managed to outsmart the raiders by pretending they had numerous family members and soon fled their homes to the plains in fear of retaliation. Her sons, adept at making tools, cut down thick forests and dense vegetation on their way. Although the narrative only mentions two men doing so, I take this as a point of inference to understand how in waves of migration, certain degrees of environmental change was undertaken by controlling the landscape by clearing away jungles and demarcating routes. The village of Damro in the Upper Siang region of Arunachal Pradesh, features in other stories as well, in stories of conflicts against the Minyong Adi clan who had tense relations with the Moying clan of the Misings, often escalating to massacres and raids. In one such incident, where a small section of Damro men from the Adi tribe were killed by the Misings, the latter fled to the plains with the help of another hill chief of a different tribe who was appeased by offerings of yams and potatoes (Pierre Clastres 2004; Marcel Mauss, 1925). The role of the chief in such tribes is not elaborated in the folktales. However, even in the hills where the social structure was relatively egalitarian and the authority of the chief was based on prestige, social divisions often made itself felt (Taid, 2016). To answer such social ruptures, many Mising folktales carry a deep belief in the power of destiny – that one’s wealth and power is ordained due to fate such as stories like One’s Fate is Ordained (Taid, 2016).

These stories construct the Adis as aggressive and warlike, yet to give into a binary that juxtaposes the Misings as having antonymous nature would be incorrect. In a folktale titled Making of the Gourd Flute, the Padam Adis were said to have killed many Misings. In revenge, a massacre of the Padams followed by the Misings who soon retreated into the plains in search of peace, fearing war. In another story, Why the Longgings Left the Hills,  which traces how the Longging clan of the Misings settled in the riverine tracts of the Brahmaputra, specificities of the memories of life in the hills prior to the migrations abound. The fertile Damro region was the bone of contention between the Longging clan and the Kepang clan and in the conflicts that arose between the two, other hill tribes are also mentioned and the relations that the two clans held with them – the Idu Mishmis, the clans of Borang, Yirang and Ra-tan. It was because of ensuing clashes and raids against these tribes that forced the Longgings, and their allies, the Loying Parag to take river routes downstream of the Dibang to reach the plains of Assam. Raiding has been a part of many tribal hill societies, but what made them so necessary and integral to the tribes even in the face of such high risks of loss of labour and death? Jankhomang Guite’s (2011) studies on the raiding practices of the Kukis allow us to understand such practices among other tribal communities as well. According to Guite, raiding was essentially an expression of hill politics, tied to power and authority of the tribal chiefs, which played an integral role in the economy of the tribe to sustain labour.

There are also the themes of raids and kidnappings between the plains people and the hills. The Story of Sitong Loyyid shows how a small group of people from the plains of Sadiya ventured out to the hills for fishing. While they were sleeping peacefully under an open sky, they were taken captive by the nearby tribes who kept them enslaved for many years. After years of labour, the plainsmen finally escaped by dividing themselves into two groups who came down to the plains by the banks of the Siang river. Slavery as a means of institution among the tribes of Northeast is a contentious issues in tribal societies, where the economy was often short of manpower, and servitude through control of labour by the chief was a source of power, and kidnappings provided the most elementary mode of labour supply (Sajal Nag, 2012). However, to straitjacket such practices which were determined by customary laws and traditions as institutional slavery, was to pit an indigenous practice against European enlightenment standards to prove the civilisational superiority of the latter.

Another story of the two brothers Kulling and Kullai, traces how the Misings descended from Kulling and the Assamese Hindus from Kullai. This understanding of a shared origin is deepened by the fact that the hill Misings and the plains tribe of Assam had a harmonious co-relationship with ties of interdependency in matters of trade. The relations they had with the Assamese of the plains was built on reliance but, also of reluctance. A legend says that one Goswami (head priest) of a Satra (a Vaishnavite monastery) who frequently came to the Mising villages to sell tools, was able to foresee the future, which even the Mibus, the Mising shamans, could not (Taid, 2016). Convinced that the Goswami knew far more than their Mibu, many Misings started offering allegiance to the Goswami who encouraged their conversion to the Vaishnav fold. It is likely that this story had recent origins in the riverine valleys after the fifteenth century where many Satras and Vaishnav establishments began springing up in Upper Assam. However, even with these conversions, Vaishnavism was not a monolithic religion and many converts continued to observe their indigenous practices [2].

Many clans have different origins, which are narrated in folklore. For instance, the origins of the Sirang clan is embedded in a moral tale of nature and caution. The tale narrates how a  man refused to share his hunting meat with his tribe, which was the norm, and was chased away due to his selfishness and left to languish in a clump of thorny bushes called the sirang. Some however are simple and tied to nature, for example, the Sungkurang clan owes its name to the shuffling sound of suruk sarak of a squirrel. 

Many of the different Mising clans are endogamous in nature. A Matrimonial Tale looks at the origins of the matrimonial relations between the Doleys and the Kondars, the two clans are said to be the progeny of Sobo, the son of the rivers, and the daughter of the rain. Both these two sects live near the rivers and build elevated houses, while Kondars build theirs pointed to the west, Doleys build theirs facing to the east, each respective direction belonging to the route that their ancestors came from. Since most Mising communities did not own land on the permanently settled villages at a distance from the Brahmaputra, they had no option but to temporarily leave their homes during high floods. Becoming attuned to life in floods and high tide, their houses were constructed on elevated stilts made of bamboo and reed called chang ghor which till date, prove to be a sustainable mode of housing, protecting the inhabitants from floods and wild animals.

Throughout the world, many indigenous societies lack a written script. Mising legend shows that the loss of their script and language is bound to larger issues of cultural processes. According to one legend, the Misings received their script from the god of knowledge, Do-ying Ba-bu, and were instructed to write them down on the barks of trees and preserve them carefully. However, the Misings wrote it down on a deer skin sheet which was preserved for numerous decades. After many years, a great famine struck the community and the river dried up, leading to the Misings to eat up all the fowl that they owned. Driven by hunger and craving for meat, the custodian of the deer skin roasted it and ate it up and thus, the Misings lost their script forever [3].This oral history of the Misings ‘eating’ their script is sharply similar to the tales that James Scott (2009) writes about the Akha, the Lahu, the Wa and the Karen communities of South-East Asia whose scripts, written on some kind of animal hide is consumed by one or all of the community in times of hardship. The consumption of the script is a rather fascinating theory to note, for through the process of eating, it becomes a part of the community, acting as a metaphor the sense of the loss which is also a shared sentiment of community membership.

ROLE OF WOMEN

A common misconception that flows in the rest of India away from the peripheries of indigenous cultures is that patriarchy seems to have been absent in the hills. The general layperson understanding is that the role that women play in the economy of tribal communities allows them to move beyond the hindrances of patriarchal control. However, a more minute reading of folktales is contrary to this view. Similar to how Roland Barthes (1957) studied mythologies, I attempt to decode the ideological components of the oral narratives in the Mising community, by deciphering the assumptions these tales hold about social realities pertaining to the woman’s body.

In many stories, women are portrayed as objects of desire who need to be kept within the purview of the village and clan. In another story on migration, Misings Migrated to the Plains,  rivalries between the men from Damro and the men from Moying are traced to the desire to covet and keep a certain woman within her clan. When a Moying man marries the beautiful Turi of Damro, the men from her village are ashamed and angry. Turi becomes an object that they sought to retain to uphold the honour of her village, which leads to the murder of her Moying husband by drowning him. Grief stricken, Turi drowns herself in a river. It is not Turi’s needs or well-being that is noted, but only the need to take revenge on the audacity of desire and love that transgresses the lines of clan identity.

In another story on how dolphins were created, The Porpoise and the Crocodile, the tale notes that dolphins originated from a Mising woman [4]. Unhappy at how her parents forced her to marry someone she did not love and anxious to not let her family down, a young bride commits suicide by drowning herself in the river. She was so upset at the harsh realities of the human world that she turned herself to a dolphin, never to look back and face the world of men again. This trope of the distressed lovelorn woman who drowns herself in a state of trouble, pinpoints to the limited space for resolving issues and conflicts that women faced, especially if desire was involved. Yet, this acknowledgment of female desire is one which also runs across many stories, even in those where such yearnings are reciprocated and lead to successful marriages. The story of Kondar’s daughter who falls in love with Pedong in A Matrimonial Tale, is an example and even now, marriage between the Doleys and the Kondars, the two tribes that trace their roots to the couple, are encouraged.  

While the young Mising female body, at the cusp of childhood and adulthood, is a space of desire, it is also one which upholds and preserves innocence. In the Chronicle of Lightning and Thunder which looks at their origin, the roots of both these two natural entities are traced to the story of two siblings, Panoi and Panbor. On seeing his sister Panbor’s bare body while crossing a stream, Panoi is overcome with lust. He becomes reclusive and is adamant on marrying his sister, much to the horror of his parents and family. Aggrieved and distressed, Panbor turns into a bird and flies away, with Panoi chasing after her, but never being able to catch her. Thus, the Misings believe that lightning comes before thunder as it signifies Panbor fleeing away from her brother who chases her in the guise of thunder, but is unable to catch up with her. Such a folklore shows that incestuous relations were highly condemned in the tribe, and extremely frowned upon. It is the Mising woman who upholds the moral obligation to turn down and escape from such wanton desires, and preserves the sexual morality and principles of the tribe.

Artistic impression of the Mising folktale, the Chronicle of Lightning and Thunder. Art Work: Anidrita Saikia (2021)

Similarly, in another story titled Karpunpuli on the creation of the galaxy, it is not simply mortal men who are overcome by carnal desires but spirits as well. Two beautiful young Mising girls, Karpun and Puli, who were foraging in the forest, were spotted by the forest spirit who was overcome by carnal desire. He chased after them, but the two terrified girls,sought the help of the epoms, the tree dwelling spirits, who shielded them and whisked them into the sky where they dwelt in the milky way. Like Panbor, Karpun and Puli are represented as preservers of chastity and virtue. Such tales also hold a note of caution about how young women should be wary of the power of their bodies and be aware of male desires, be it in the forms of mortals or spirits.

There are also many instances of women’s labour that abound in these folktales and how such labour sustained the domestic economy. This labour was not restricted to foraging outside, but also to cooking, cleaning and serving the males in their families. Clear demarcation of gender roles is spelt out by how men go out for fishing and hunting, but it is the women who have to cook, clean the house and get the meals ready.

In one noted folktale which the essay mentioned above, Why the Longgings Left the Hills, the site that this tale is situated in are the hills of Arunachal. Before the migrations when the Ato- Kepangg clan visited the Longgings, they found the whole village deserted, except for a young girl who was looking after an infant. The role of young girls acting as babysitters is not uncommon in Mising society, notes Taid, where both men and women go about to fish, hunt and forage. The role of the nurturer which had been inscribed on the female body since a young age trespasses boundaries of mortality. The origins of the Ali Aye Ligang harvest festival have been associated with Abotani, the first man on earth, being given seeds of paddy from Mother Remi, a benevolent progenitor of generosity and nurturing.

ON STUDYING THE ORAL AND THE FOLK

The permanence of the textual word has been so steeped in dominance against the oral that for many years, it has been the defining feature of writing history across the world. This dominance speaks of a larger process of the hegemony of colonialism, where the written word is taken as rational, objective and true, demarcating a dichotomy against the oral word. However, the traditions and histories of indigenous pasts cannot be judged by the parameters laid out by hegemonic faculties of Enlightenment driven academies. To turn to the oral is to understand that the spoken word carries with it memories of resilience, dynamism and vitality. To study history through the use of folklore occupies a fine line that traverses inter-disciplinary boundaries between history, anthropology, folkloristics and cultural studies. To study the folktales of the Misings is to study the oral tradition as a marker of the community’s identity, unearthing the truths that it carries for the community through lived social realities, and in the process, exploring the resilience and the effervescence of the preservation of memories of the Mising pasts.

To arrive at understandings of indigenous histories beyond what has been dictated by the colonisers and even post-colonial nation-states, is to undertake a process of unlearning while upholding the human values of empathy and inclusion. For the historian today, this includes shifting the gaze away from the artifices of the academy, rebelling against the hegemony of ascendant European paradigms of knowledge which perpetuates exclusivity, and constantly redefining the archive and the paramount possibilities it can hold.

NOTES:

  1. This essay written in early 2021, is a project that has been shaped by the pandemic. While researching on local sources, restrictions on travel forced me to sit at home and make do with what was available at home, nearby, or online. As a result, my primary source came to be limited to the magna carta of Mising folkloristics, Tabu Ram Taid’s compilation of folktales, the only comprehensive translated compilation of the tribe’s folk stories, and all that I could scourge online
  2. Misings in the Brahmaputra Valley led an economic lifestyle which was distinct from that of their counterparts in the hills. However, jhum or shifting cultivation was practiced in the char-chapori areas well into the late nineteenth century. See Ritupan Goswami (2010) for more details.
  3. There are many variations of this story, often the deer is a pig and the famine is a flood. Yet, in almost all instances, the narrative remains the same with the theme of loss of the script, which was to be carefully preserved, by human consumption.
  4.  Although the story has originally been titled as The Porpoise and the Crocodile, it is likely that the porpoise in the title describes the endangered freshwater South Asian River Dolphin which are found in the Ganga and Brahmaputra river basins, as porpoises are not found in the Indian subcontinent.

REFERENCES: 

PRIMARY SOURCE:

Taid, Tabu Ram. Indian Literature in Oral Languages: Mising Folk Tales. Kolkata, New Delhi: Sahitya Akademi, 2016.

SECONDARY SOURCES:

  1. Barthes, Roland. Mythologies. Paris: Seuil, 1957.
  2. Clastres, Pierre. Archeology of Violence. Translated by Jeanine Herman. New York: Semiotext (E), 1994.
  3. Deka, Ratul. A Comparative Study of the Folktales of the Mising and Deori Tribes in Assam in Terms of Structuralist Narratology. Unpublished PhD thesis. Guwahati: Gauhati University, 2018.
  4. Goswami, Ritupan. Rivers and History – Brahmaputra Valley in the Last Two Centuries. Unpublished PhD thesis. New Delhi: Jawaharlal Nehru University, 2010.
  5. Guite, Jangkhomang. “Civilization And Its Malcontents: Politics of Kuki raids in nineteenth century North East India”. The Indian Economic and Social History Review, 48, no. 3 (2011):339–376. DOI: 10.1177/001946461104800302
  6. Mahanta, Upasana, Mahanta, Partha Sarathi and Bezbora, Mridul. Colours of Majuli: A Pictorial Journey Through The Mystic River Island. Guwahati: Bookbell Publications, 2013.
  7. Mauss, Marcel. The Gift: Forms and Functions of Exchange in Archaic Societies. Translated by Mary Douglas. London, New York: Routledge, 2002.
  8. Nag, Sajal. “Rescuing Imagined Slaves: Colonial State, Missionary and Slavery Debate in North East India, 1908–1920”. Indian Historical Review, 39, no. 1 (2012):57–71. DOI:10.1177/0376983612449529 
  9. Pegu, Peter. The Economic History of Miris. Mumbai: Mishing Society of Mumbai, 2019.
  10. Scott, James C. The Art Of Not Being Governed: An Anarchist History of Upland South East Asia. New Haven, London: Yale University Press, 2009.

Anidrita Saikia is a reluctant writer and an avid reader. She is currently an M.Phil research scholar at Delhi University’s Department of History specialising in the colonial history of Northeast India. She has been published in Scroll.in, The Print, and The Book Review Journal.

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