The North East : Part I

 

The allure of the North East seems largely to do with it's remote, disconnected relationship with the rest of India. Travelling via land takes an average of 35 hours by train and requires passage through the Siliguri Corridor, or 'Chicken's Neck' which is a narrow stretch of land (just 23km wide at it's narrowest point) bordered by Nepal, Bangladesh and Bhutan. Indian independence and the partition in 1947 resulted in the North East becoming a landlocked region that now shares approximately 90% of it's borders with China, Myanmar, Bhutan and Bangaladesh. The North East is made up of seven states, known as the 'Seven Sister States' and has experienced decades of violent regional conflict which continues still to this day. Perhaps for these reasons it is still relatively unexplored territory when it comes to crafts and textiles.

We planned a three week research trip to coincide with the memorial service for the grandfather of our Assamese friend, Jelson. We travelled by train to Guwahati, the capital city of Assam, and then connected onto another overnight train up to the far north east corner of Assam to a small village called Telam.

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Telam is a predominantly 'Mising' tribal community, the second largest tribal population within Assam. The Mising people are a colourful tribe with many practices at odds with the customs of the rest of India. The consumption of pork and rice beer is well accepted into Mising culture, and even takes on religious importance on many of their traditional occasions. 

We stayed at Jelson's family home, which is a modern adaptation to the traditional Mising houses made from bamboo and elevated on stilts to avoid the wet season's annual deluge. Mising people follow their own religion and an animistic way of thinking, where their sole gods are the Sun and the Moon. To honour their gods, animal sacrifices of pigs and fowl are common. On the morning of the funeral day we attended, seven pigs were sacrificed and put to death in the Mising custom of strangulation with a bamboo vice around the neck. 

The Misings are an agrarian society whose existence still revolves primarily around the land. They are farmers who produce to their family's needs and sell very little of their crops. They build their own houses and weave their own fabrics and even make a lot of their tools woven out from bamboo and cane. It was interesting to observe a community still abiding to such resourceful practices (without the intention of being 'sustainable') when many Indian communities have already been shaped by bulk plastic manufacturing and the commercialised lives that come with it.

In the Mising culture there are a number of mortuary rites that follow after the death of a family member. The dodgang is the final funeral ritual where the family members of the deceased put on a feast for the entire community. Due to the expense of such an occasion, the dodgang usually takes place after one year has passed and was the funeral rite we had the opportunity to attend. The day before the feast took place, pigs and banana leaf-wrapped sacks of rice beer paste were rounded up from various homes around the village. The feast was catering to an estimated guest list of around 2500 villagers. In the place of a catering company however, were family members and villagers from nearby homes that all pitched in organise, prep and cook the seemingly endless supply of pork curry and rice.

To be continued...