The Karbis are an ethnic group of Northeast India. They follow their traditional religion called Aronban which is based on their vernacular beliefs and practices. They have three supreme deities, Hemphu, Mukrang and Rasinja, the trinity in Karbi vernacular belief, of which Rasinja is female while the others are male. Despite assigning these deities distinct gender characteristics, in actual ritual practice gender boundaries are often blurred, and they are often gender neutral. This essay attempts to contextualise Karbi ritual practices, and the ritualistic language, as a verbal art form, contributing to the blurring gender of the folk deities.
The Karbis are one of the major ethnic tribes of Northeast India. They reside mostly in the the hilly areas of central Assam which include the hilly districts of Karbi Anglong East and West and Dima Hasao, and in the neighbouring states of Meghalaya and Arunachal Pradesh. Karbi Anglong is divided into East and West districts with respective administrative headquarters located at Diphu and Hamren. West Karbi Anglong is divided into three distinct provinces or regions, Rongkhang, Chingthong and Amri and their respective capitals are known as Rongbongs. Each Rongbong is headed by the clan elders called the Pinpo-s, who assist the Chief, known as the Recho (king) or the Lindokpo. The Habes are the intermediate chiefs over several clusters of villages who function under the King. The village is looked after by the Sarthe (the village head man), in interpreting religious, cultural, social, and judicial matters.
The Karbis are regarded as one of the oldest tribes of Northeast India. They believe that their ancestors migrated from central Asia through the Great Himalayan ranges, to South-western China, and entered Burma through the course of the Yangtze, Mekong, Salween, and Irrawaddy rivers (Blackburn, 2003-04). From there they migrated down the course of Brahmaputra (known to the Karbi ancestors as Lut, probably derived from Luhit), to the Chindwin and the Irrawaddy rivers in Burma, and from there, entered the rest of Northeast India. The Karbis racially are of Mongoloid ethnicity, and linguistically their language belongs to the Tibeto-Burman group of languages, which comes under the Sino-Tibetan group.
The Karbi people are categorised as a Scheduled Tribe under the Constitution of India. The Karbis were known as ‘Mikir’ for a longer period of history, but in 1976, the word ‘Mikir’ was officially replaced by the term ‘Karbi’ (Blackburn, 2003-04). Socially, the Karbis have five-exogamous clans called Kur. They are Ingti/Engti (Li’e/Lijang), Terang (Han`e/Hanjang), Teron (Kron’e/Kronjang), Enghi (Ejang), and Timung (Tung’e/Tungjang). Each of these clans have numerous sub-clans. They are an agrarian tribe, and practice both ‘jhum’ (inglong arit) cultivation in the hills, as well as, wet land cultivation (hidi) in the valleys. Jhum or the slash and burn cultivation takes place in the spring season around March to May. Under this method, they cultivate several crops such as paddy (sok), sesame (mempo), maize (thengthe), yam (hen), sweet potatoes (ruidok), ginger (hanso), turmeric (tharmit), pumpkin (bonghom), long beans (thengbon), cucumber (thoithe), watermelon (thoithe ba-ik), chillies (birik), eggplant (hipi) etc. Wet land cultivation is practiced in the plains, from May to August, and crops such as paddy (sok), mustard plant (hanjang), sugarcane (nok), and other vegetables (han) are grown.
The Karbis have a rich oral, material and folk culture tradition (Dorson, 1972). The Baptist missionaries introduced writing in Karbi language, using the Roman Script, which was adopted on 29th December 1978, replacing the Assamese script (Dhanaraju and Teron, 2020). Hence, various treatises on Karbi folklores have appeared in written forms too.
Karbis and their Traditional Religion – Aronban
Majority of the Karbis follow their traditional indigenous religion called Aronban, popularly known within the community as Hemphu-Mukrang-Rasinja which comprises of vernacular beliefs and practices. According to Aronban, all things fundamentally share the same nature and same interactions with each other, like between the rivers and the hills, the trees and the forests, the beasts and the serpents, the living and the dead, and also among the ancestral spirits. Karbis believe in multiple spirits, both malevolent and benevolent. In their belief systems, the concept of god therefore, is not synonymous with the Western concept of ‘God’. Not surprisingly an American Baptist missionary had assumed that, ‘They have…no correct idea of God, or the future state of man’ (The Baptist Missionary Magazine, 1845). Similarly, Major John Butler, who was among the first colonial military officers to travel among the Karbis, commented that ‘[t]he Meekirs have no particular creed…’(Butler, 1855). The Karbi term for ‘God’ is Arnam, which perhaps comes from the Tibetan word gnam (heaven, sky), as pointed out by a Tibeto-Burman scholar Paul K. Benedict (Teron, 2018). Ancestral spirits called tirim, and chamburukso, are hailed as arnam, and propitiated at regular intervals, thus giving them a status equal to Arnam Kethe (Big God), the supreme deity in the Karbi pantheon. The Karbi word for ‘sky’ is sining, and the term metaphorically represents the idea of ‘heaven’, or something which is ‘limitless’ or ‘expansive.’ (Ibid.)
The Karbis worship Arnam (god), through artifacts like Bongkrok (wild calabash gourds), filled with sacred rice beer and rice, and through practices like the sacrifice of fowls, pigs, and goats. This religion has been practiced and kept alive through oral transmission from one generation to the next. In the Karbi religious belief system, the sacred and the profane are distinguished. The rituals are practiced by the male priest, because the Karbis follow a patriarchal social system. The supreme god of the Karbi pantheon is Hemphu, who is the universal deity. After Hemphu, the deities Mukrang and Rasinja are worshiped. These three deities form the holy trinity of Karbi deities. Apart from them, the Karbis also worship the Peng arnam (protector of the house), Arnam kethe (big god), and practice rituals dedicated to other deities like Inglong arit arnam (protector of the jhum), Rongker (protector deities/spirits of the villages), Chojun (worship of household and the ancestral spirits), etc. They also have their own origin myths and tales performed in traditional verses.
In almost every ritual, the Karbis first need to worship Hemphu, Mukrang and Rasinja, as we can see in the ritual of Rongker, which is performed for the well-being of villagers. For these deities, Karbis visualise and imagine them to belong to certain genders. Hemphu and Mukrang are visualised as male figures, whereas Rasinja is visualised as a female figure. However, in actual performances of the rituals, the gender distinction of the deities is blurred. The beginning of the priest’s prayers/chants:
Oi pothe arnam
Oi pithe arnam,
Po Mukrang arnam,
Pi Mukrang arnam
Po Rinja arnam
Pi Rinja arnam
A literal translation of the above chant is: ‘Oh great father god, oh great mother god, oh father Mukrang god, oh mother Mukrang god, oh father Rinja (Rasinja) goddess, oh mother Rinja goddess.’
This prayer demonstrates the gender neutrality of deities in chanting during Karbi rituals. The Karbi Arnam is not represented by any idol or image because it is believed to be spiritual and thus, beyond visibility. During the actual ritual performance, the kurusar (priest) chants the following prayer for Hemphu:
Oi suwai kethe
The kurusar (priest) prayers/chants for Mukrang:
Oi pi Mukrang
Oi po Mukrang
The prayers/ chants to Rasinja are:
Oi pi Rasinja
Oi po Rasinja
Oi pi Rinja
Oi po Rinja
In the context of Karbi prayers, when the kurusar (priest) calls or utters their names, it starts with the words with Pi and Po, which literally mean ‘mother’, and ‘father’. Even though Hemphu and Mukrang are believed to be of male gender, the word Pi is also used for them. Similarly for Rasinja, who is believed to be a female goddess, the word Po is used. This highlights a big paradox among researchers as to whether or not Karbi deities are gendered or gender neutral. One theory we can think of is that the Hemphu, Mukrang and Rasinja are given the same status and respect of both parents, as the Karbis consider themselves offspring of these deities. Addressing, or calling out their names directly is considered disrespectful. Hence, Hemphu is both Father and Mother. The same belief applies for Mukrang and Rasinja.
Another theory is that the use of Pi and Po, are literary tools or ornamentation, that facilitate the rhythm and rhyme of the chants to work fluently. Pi and Po are considered to be a duality and a pair that always go together while chanting. Reduplication or pairing of words is an essential verbal art form, which is unavoidably used in all sacred prayers, or during formalistic social or cultural exchanges, among the elders. In fact, reduplication, or pairing of words is the norm, in traditional Karbi life. The use of reduplication is a must in sacred chants and prayers. This practice of using Pi and Po to address gods and goddesses are also used in chanting for other deities, who may also not be assigned genders. Indeed, in the Karbi peoples’ minds, they do not bother much nor explicitly distinguish the genders, for other deities. They do not clearly distinguish between the genders for them. Instead, there is rather, a strong belief in the ‘Them and Beyond’ vision.
The Karbis practice individual, as well as communal rituals. Some examples of individual rituals are, Peng Ase (worshiping the protector of the household), Donri (ritual to protect from evil spirits), Rit Anglong (ritual to protect from wild animal and evil spirits), Habit Ase (jungle ritual), and Vur Kematha (an individual ritual to bring positive vibes). Examples of communal rituals are Rongker (for the well-being of a village), Chojun (worship of the household deity and ancestral spirits), and Chomangkan (funeral festival). I examine the Peng Ase ritual in the next section of the essay as the ritual highlights the genderlessness of of the Karbi deities.
Protector of the house – Peng Ase
The Peng Ase ritual is performed for an individual house, or for the whole family, and is performed by the Nok`hum (a particular clan and its sub-clans, in the community). Peng is a deity which protects every Karbi household. According to the origin myth, the Peng spirit originates either in the hills (highland) or from water, depending on the belief of individual households. In this ritual, if the household offers Mir`ang (cockscomb flower), which is red in colour, it indicates that the spirit originates from the hills. If the household uses bamboo leaves, their Peng is supposed to originate from the streams . For performing this ritual, a goat and a chicken are sacrificed. In some versions of the ritual, the Hemphu, Mukrang and Rasinja are also worshiped together with Peng Arnam.
The ritual also involves the enactment of a story performed through conversations (employing the linguistic process of reduplication), between the spirit and the household. A group of men, representing the spirit, knock at the door (the main entrance of the host’s house) thrice from outside. Another group of men waiting inside the room (where the Peng is housed in a small bamboo basket tied to the door above) respond to the knocks. The performance of a ritualistic conversation thus, starts. This important segment of the ritual is called chepadam, which is performed with great mirth and joy, surrounded by onlookers. The chanting used in the chepadam ritual are examined below.
Host’s reply (to the three knocks):
Dei pini arni le, pini ajo le
Moseng arni, mulong arni le
Bhomkuru arni, bhomti arni le
Jo ne Penghu kachethok arni le
Jo thu arki dokok, pang arki dokok
Hi`i loma, arnam loma
Avur loma, akrem loma
Tengkai loma, bangkai loma
Etum ke Karbi te Karbi,
Sumsi ma sumsi, sumsap te sumsap
Etum ke hi`i ta chinine, arnam ta chinine,
Avur ta chinine akrem ta chinine
Netum ke horpo si chodeng thekchot,
Horlang si chodeng thekchot
Anlok si cho thekchot, an ik si cho thekchot…
(Oh, what happened today and tonight, Sunday and Saturday, the day I offered Penghu, I heard a strange sound from the front yard and the backyard. Are you an evil or a good spirit, an epidemic or a pandemic? We are Karbi only Karbi, only human and human. We don’t know evil, god, spirit, or epidemic or pandemic. We only partake rice beer with wild calabash, we know only white rice and rice only).
Ei pini arni le, pini ajole
Ei thu arki nang chibi, pang arki nang chebi
Lake suri alam kali, pharo alam ta kali
Oh nang kethok arni, nang kijir arni
Lasi ne arbung vanglong poma, arphe vang long poma
So nang langpo, su nangrai po,
Oh, arbung akengri, arphe akengri,
Ei thu arki nang chibi, pang arki nang chibi.
(Oh, today and tonight, I made the sound in the front yard and the backyard. This is not about hundred words or thousand words. This day you offered me. This day you sacrificed to me. So am I allowed to come to your house, or to your entrance? I will protect your sons and daughters, your nieces and nephews, in your house, in your compound. That is why I knocked on your front yard and backyard).
Ei Penghu richo nanghenlo ma, pengha richo nanglo ma
Ei pini arni le, pini ajo le
Thu arki chibi le, pang arki chibi le
Penghu richo le, pengha recho le
Jo Hemphu pen lo ma, Mukrang lo ma, Rasinja pen lo ma, pithe pen pothe pen lo ma
Ei penhu richo nang lo ma, pengha richo nang lo ma
Ei pini nangkethok, pini nangpajir
Ei kuru pu henlo ma, chengdon puhenlo ma
Hormai puhenlo ma, horthai puhenlo ma
Sakhi puhenlo ma, huidi puhenlo ma
Beng puhenlo ma, arme puhenlo ma
Bi losar ne nangkipi, vo losar ne nangkipi eh
Lapu henlo ma, arnam atum arni atum
(So, are you the Penghu king, Pengha king? Today and tonight, I heard your sound from front yard and backyard. Penghu king, Pengha king, so are you Hemphu, Mukrang, Rasinja, oh great mother, oh great father? So, are you the Penghu king, Pengha king? Today I offered, today I gave. Was this the way I gave to [my] master, was this the way to offer rice beer, was this the way I vouch, was this the way I give dry fish, was this the way I give the fish, I give mature goat and fowl. Is this the way to you, all deities and sun).
Ei kru ta puhenlo, chengdon ta puhen lo
Hormai ta puhen lo, horthai ta puhen lo
Sakhi ta puhen lo, huidi ta puhen lo
Kipu ente nang`arbung nangchak te, arphe nangchak te
(This is the way you offer, this is the way you offer rice beer; this is the way you vouch, if you allow me to stay in your house or the entrance of the house).
Arbung nangchak te, arphe nangchak te
Mo nang su rairedet te, so rairedet te kopulo?
(If I accept you in my house, if I accept you in my entrance, and if you not protect our nieces and nephews, if you not protect our sons and daughters, what will become?)
So raire te, su raire te
Pini nephan nangtum nangkethok, nephan nangkijir
Laso asakhi dolo, huidi dolo
Sakhi nangpabisar nang, huidi nangpabisar nang nephan, kur-eh-vang…
(If I don’t protect your sons and daughters, if I don’t protect your nieces and nephews, today which you offered me, gave me, vouched before me, let these witnesses punish or judge me…let all be fine!)
This ritual conversation is symbolic of a spiritual pact enacted between the host and the spirit (Peng). The spirit reassures that it will protect the household, and if it fails to do so, the witnesses (represented by old coins called sakhi–huidi) will punish or judge the Peng. This spiritual pact is renewed every year. According to one myth, Peng was a wild spirit, eager to protect man (human being). It was only looking for an opportunity to interact with a man, and later got tamed and domesticated. There is no specific mention of the gender of Peng. Therefore, we can assume that the spirit is gender neutral. Here we can see, the example of a gender-neutral prayer/chant, done by a kurusar (priest).
Hapchong puthe 
In this chant for the spirit Peng, we cannot distinguish their gender, even though Pi and Po are recited. The Karbis have a strong belief that in the Peng spirit, there exists a dualism of character, which means it has both malevolent and benevolent characteristics. In the Karbi concept of Hi`e Arnam (evil and good), in their faith system of Aronban, we can see both bad and good impacts. Where there is bad, there is good, and where there is good, there is bad. This framework explains the characteristics of Peng, which is benevolent and malevolent, to the Karbis. This is how the Karbis understand the Hi`e Arnam concept, in their rituals and belief systems. These prayers/chants are performed in lamlir, which is a poetic language used by the kurusar (priest).
In the Karbi religion, there are multiple and complex rituals and spirits. These rituals follow an order, from the initial lower stages to the higher stages, requiring the expertise of priests. The trinity of deities are gendered, whereas the Peng spirit, or prayers to the spirit use both Pi (mother) and Po (father). Though there exists a female and male nomenclature in prayers/chants during the Peng ritual, they can still be said to be gender neutral. The practices of tribal religions that deal with spirits are sacred beliefs. The gender of the spirit is not explicit, and mostly blurred. Indeed, they do not classify the gender of the deities and the spirits. For the Karbis, to keep a healthy relationship with the deities and spirits, the kurusar (priest) must follow personal disciplines in matters of consumption of certain foods.
While discussing the kurusar (priest) in Karbi society, it should be noted that majority of the rituals are performed by male priests, the exception being the uchepi who is a female priestess engaged during Chomangkan (funeral festival). The Karbis are a patriarchal society, where the role of the women in worship is extremely limited. However, right from the beginning of the worshiping processes in general, they prepare rice beer that will be offered to the spirits, and do sang kinim (soaking of rice), and also do the cooking and serving etc.
- Telephonic interview with Jona Sing Engleng of Borjan, Inglongpo (Singhason) on 14th April 2019.
- Telephonic interview with Longsing Tokbi of Hamren on 5th February 2020.
- Telephonic interview with Dhonison Lekthe of Volongkom Aji on 30th August 2021.
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[The author would like to express her gratitude to Dharamsing Teron, Director of Centre for Karbi Studies, who guided her in this research. She is also grateful to Dhonison Lekthe, an advocate and Kurusar (priest) who helped and supported this research.]
Amphu Terangpi is a PhD researcher at the Centre for Folk Culture Studies, University of Hyderabad. Her research is on Karbi Arts & Crafts (Material Culture). She is also a painter and textile artist with Bachelor’s and Master’s degrees in Fine Arts in History of Art, from Kala Bhavana, Visva-Bharati University, Santiniketan. She typically uses subjects like Karbi traditional themes, landscapes, and nature studies for her artworks.