Visiting a Disappearing World
Written by Nayantara Siruguri
In the boundless forests of Dibang Valley lies a magnificent world - a world where nature and spirit meet in the culture of the Idu Mishmi people, creating an entire ecosystem of lore, ethics, knowledge, and belongingness. In the face of tough threats and challenges, this world waits to be appreciated for all the lives and lessons it holds. We visit this world - through its words, ideas, and people - one story at a time.
Far away, in the land where we – the Idu Mishmi – came from, a great person wrote a script for our Idu language. He wrote us a letter in the script, rolled it up, and gave it to our messenger brother. Messenger brother, with this precious letter in hand, began his long journey to deliver to the Idu people their written words. However, on his long journey, messenger brother started feeling terribly hungry. With no other food remaining, he could not help but boil and gobble up the precious letter! And alas! We, the Idu, never received our script, and even today our words find a place only in speech and songs!
As Chihi Umbrey narrated this delightful story of the Idu Mishmi, my teammate and I could not help but giggle in response. According to Chihi, a research scholar belonging to the Idu Mishmi community of Arunachal Pradesh, this was the story that he was told by his elders when he wondered why the Idu people do not have a script. For more than an hour (that went by in a jiffy), he entertained us with the incredible answers that Idu Mishmi folklore gave him to all his questions about life, nature, belonging, and more – and somehow, somewhere, they also answered questions we never knew we had.
The Idu Mishmi and their Cultural Forests
The Indian state of Arunachal Pradesh is home to twenty-six major recognised Indigenous groups. One of these is the Mishmi group of peoples, inhabiting the easternmost region of the state. The Mishmi group comprises three Indigenous communities – the Idu, Miju, and Digaru. The Idu Mishmi community inhabits the Dibang Valley district, the largest district in Arunachal Pradesh (but also the least populated) and the Lower Dibang Valley district.
An exploration of Idu Mishmi belief systems, culture, and folklore is bound to leave you with a deep sense of wonder and curiosity about their experiences and livelihoods that are intricately linked with the natural ecosystems that they find themselves in.
But what really are the religious beliefs of the Idus?
When we asked Chihi this question, his immediate reply was, “Our tribe has no ‘religion’.” He explained to us that the Idu Mishmis do not “worship” anyone or anything – not even nature. “We live in the same spaces as the rest of nature. And we live in the same spaces as the spirits,” he said simply, unaware of our utter perplexity at what was for us a profound statement.
For the Idu people, the natural world is real, but also beyond real – with a spiritual counterpart or khinu (kheenyū) associated with elements that they interact with. Thus, there is a mountain spirit, a river spirit, a spirit that looks after animals, and so on. These spirits are not worshipped, though – they simply exist together, in the same spaces. What does this mean? One may say that these spirits are just like people – like a society extended beyond just humans, in which other animals, birds, trees, mountains, rivers, forests, are all recognised as living members of the community. And just as in any human society, this special kind of community is one where all beings live in certain terms with each other. This is how the practices, rituals, ethics, and livelihoods of the Idu people were also born (I believe you can also see how when practices are born from a holistic, spiritual, and “societal” relationship with nature, they create room for sustainable and reciprocal interactions).
“Take for example, our hunting practices,” Chihi explained, “First of all, when the natural world (including animals) has a spiritual meaning, then hunting becomes a very cautious practice. And when we do hunt, we leave a part of the hunt to the Mountain Spirit in gratitude for providing us with food and with the hope of not being disturbed by it”. After the Idu huntsmen return, they are supposed to follow strict rules of isolation for five days; they must not sleep with the rest of the family, eat certain kinds of food, or wash their own clothes, among other restrictions. He tells us that he has heard of many stories since childhood of huntsmen being grievously injured or dying after failing to follow these terms.
In order to genuinely understand these subtle but impactful beliefs, we must be careful while describing them. Chihi’s disagreement with the notion that the Idu Mishmis are “nature worshippers” opened my eyes to the problems with using largely Western concepts to describe Indigenous culture. Doing so always carries the risk of setting foreign (and often colonial) boundaries to Indigenous concepts and limiting our understanding of unique beliefs by imposing a possibly non-Indigenous concept on them. When the word “worship” itself has been created and used in the background of a monotheistic and scriptural religion, could its meaning for the Idu Mishmis (with a fundamentally different belief system) be the same?
On hearing Chihi’s elaborate explanation of the Idu worldview, I was also instantly mindful about how holistic and singular it is. For most of us, our personal life, social life, religious beliefs, and relationship with the natural world are all separate parts of our lives. They may interact, but we also compartmentalise them in several ways. For the Idus, however, there are no such distinctions. There is only being – and being includes everything, from the way they perceive the world, to the real world itself. Being, thus, is co-existence.
Where Matter and Spirit share Cultural spaces
Long ago, the Idu people did not practise rice cultivation. They did not know how to, and did not even have the right seeds to sow. In the spirit world, on the other hand, rice grew in plenty. Oh, how they longed for bountiful, golden rice! So one day, a kind bird flew to the spirit world and brought back a few seeds of rice for the Idu. And thus, the Idu began cultivating rice (and still do to this day)!
And do you know about the place where rice always grows? Centuries ago lived Sineru, the first igu or priest. When Sineru's mother died, her soul took many different forms and kept coming back to their house, again and again. One day, it came in the form of a bird. While Sineru's wife was weaving, the bird-soul flew in through the window. His wife struck at it to drive it away. In search of his mother’s lost soul, Sineru travelled far and wide and reached a place beyond the high mountains, at the mouth of the Talõ river – Athu Popu. He wept here for his mother, and his tears stained the rocks. Years later, one can still see his handprint on a rock at the sacred Athu Popu. His tears still drip down the rock in the form of water. A rice field grows there, even when nobody sows the seeds. When our people die, their spirits reach the other world through this wondrous land of Athu Popu.
In Chihi’s passionate narrations of Idu Mishmi folk stories, the inextricable link between nature and the revered and feared spirits was more than evident. The most significant of these is the primal spirit Golon (Ŋgōlō) or the mountain spirit. Chihi further explained his example of hunting practices: After any hunt, a chant is performed over it as an offering to the Golon. The huntsman must offer a portion of the hunt to the Golon with a chant that roughly translates to – This animal has been killed. When I come again, please give more animals. O, one who rears the animal, let more animals be produced. Give us more animals whenever we come again. We have given you the payment … The restrictions will be observed … Do not disturb us. The Golon is considered as the most powerful and respected spirit, and the Idus believe that it is this great spirit that “supplies” animals for them to eat and survive on. While hunting rituals are often carried out by the huntsmen themselves, many other important rituals of the Idu Mishmi people are facilitated by the igu or priest. Igus are Idu Mishmi shamanic priests, a group of learned people who have a crucial role in connecting the Idu people to the spirit world.
Even while the Idu men are out hunting inside the forest, as Chihi informed us, they have to follow strict rules of behaviour. They cannot shout, make unnecessary loud noises, swear, or even speak ill of anyone while in the forest. Moreover, every animal has a code name – and this code name remarkably reflects their knowledge about its behaviour and habitat. The Red Goral (a goat-antelope found in the Himalayas), for example, is referred to as “azo chi” or “the one on the rocky slopes” – drawing from the difficult terrain that the Goral often traverses. The monkey has the code name “aadi chi” which means “the one who lives on the trees” (need I explain this?). The colourful pheasant Sclater’s Monal is called “aaron chi pra-a” meaning “bird of the mountains” – and rightly so, for this magnificent bird is found as high as 13,800 ft above sea level. It is believed that failing to follow these rules and code names will not only lead to major inconveniences, but also serious negative effects in the form of illnesses and accidents.
All this information – from the legend of Athu Popu to the fascinating code names – has been kept alive today through a single channel: oral narration. When we asked Chihi how he had managed to become a living repository of delightful Idu folk stories, he answered, “Bachpan se suna hai (I’ve been listening to them since childhood)!” For too long, oral narratives of Indigenous communities have been seriously underrepresented and underrecognized in the vast body of Indian literature and knowledge systems. But for the Idu Mishmi community, oral narratives – in the form of folklore, chants, and spoken language – are the strongest link to their culture in these rapidly changing times.
An understanding and appreciation of these meaningful stories is important to help preserve the collective identity of the Idu Mishmi in the eyes of the rest of the world; and so is the recognition of alternative perceptions or perceptual diversity. This entails the recognition of worldviews and knowledge systems that exist beyond the mainstream (mostly Western) scientific and philosophical perspectives - as well as those that exist beyond human perception. These mainstream views sideline Indigenous culture and knowledge systems, threatening not only the precious insights that they can give us about the natural world, but also important lessons for a rapidly developing world. How do the Idu Mishmi people (and other Indigenous groups) perceive the interactions between different animals in the wild? What does their folklore say about their lived experience as a once-isolated tribe in the mountains? What can we learn from the unique relationship that they share with nature? These are just a few questions that we need to ask ourselves more.
For Chihi, these stories trigger a tremendous feeling of curiosity for his culture and the concepts that are significant to his community. “When I listen to these stories,” he said, “I feel like knowing more about where I have come from. I feel like visiting the sacred Athu Popu. But most importantly, it makes us feel proud of our tribe – [about] the fact that even we have such wonderful stories about beautiful places.” He added that these stories also communicated a feeling of fear in him as a child – a fear of not following ethical rules and taboos – indicating the moral importance of Idu folklore. These taboos and ethical and cultural values were some of the major reasons of reverence for and protection of their natural surroundings. “Agar ye culture dilute ho gaya, to hunting bhi increase ho jayega (If this culture is diluted, hunting will also increase)!” he pointed out insightfully.
What is truly evident here is that culture builds through storytelling. Even within communities, stories play a major role in passing on cultural beliefs and values – which in turn have an enormous impact on the practices and livelihoods of the people.
A Tale of Two Brothers
Once upon a time, in the pristine mountains of Dibang, lived two brothers born to the same mother – Idu the man, and Aamra the tiger. One day, the brothers got into a terrible fight and Idu the man ended up killing Aamra the tiger in spite. The Creator, on seeing the slain tiger, decided to rebirth him and send him to live in the mountains far away from Idu the man. The descendants of Idu the man came to be known as the Idu Mishmis, who still live alongside their long-lost brother. But their ancestor’s sin still plagues the Mishmis through several misfortunes and hardships; when the tiger steals and kills the livestock of the Idus, it is accepted as punishment, and reminds them of the value of respecting the majestic creature that is their brother.
According to Chihi, this is a story that every Idu child grows up listening to. The tiger – known as Aamra by the Idu Mishmis – is considered as an elder brother by the community, and is one of the most respected and feared creatures. This fascinating mythical story of the Idu Mishmis and its implications on their relationship with the largest big cat in the world manages to amaze scientists, conservationists, enthusiasts, and tourists alike. It did that to us, and I am sure that it will leave you with the same feeling.
“When a person dies, their body is kept at home for one to three days,” Chihi explained to us, “Rituals are performed, and several taboos are observed. And when a tiger is killed – knowingly (in defense) or unknowingly – similar elaborate rituals (called Taamaamran) need to be performed by the igu. Killing a tiger is a serious crime, equivalent to murdering one’s own sibling!” Thus, killing a tiger is either avoided due to fear and reverence of the animal, or because doing so brings contempt and shame in society.
It must be quite clear by now the huge sense of moral responsibility and accountability that the act of hunting carries for the Idu Mishmis. According to anthropologist Ambika Aiyadurai, who has worked extensively to document the cultural beliefs of the Mishmis (and whose works Chihi encouraged me to read), the Idu Mishmi people have a “reciprocal relation” with spirits while performing important activities like hunting and farming. The relationship between humans and their natural surroundings is shaped and determined by rules and regulations or codes of conduct, often rooted in feelings of fear, respect, and gratitude. Simply put, the relationship between the Idu people, nature, and the world of spirits (or culture) manifests itself in a complex, interconnected web of interactions through ethical rules and personal (and collective) feelings.
Such a unique relationship of the Idu Mishmis is not restricted to the tiger. A more detailed version of the man-and-tiger story speaks of the first tiger being killed inside a river. Many years later, a bird mistakes his shining white bones for eggs and sits on them. And then, from the biggest bones the tiger is reborn; but from the smaller bones come the leopard, the leopard cat, the clouded leopard, and civet cat. Thus, even these smaller cats are mythically and spiritually linked to the most respected elder brother. Sharing almost the same level of respect from the Idu Mishmis as the tiger is the Eastern Hoolock Gibbon (a primate) or Amey-pá, as the Idu people call it. The hoolock gibbon is also likened to a sibling or close relation, and is considered a mísū or “forbidden species” (along with several other animals and birds). A mísū can never be killed, for it is considered to be protected by the primal spirit Golon itself. Chihi says that even listening to a hoolock gibbon is a sin, let alone killing it (perhaps symbolising the need to leave it absolutely undisturbed).
Chihi’s own choice of studying for a PhD in Zoology left me curious about whether the lessons that he learnt through stories played a role in this choice. He answered my curiosity passionately: “I come from a culture of having a sustainable and close relationship with nature. It is very natural that I would be drawn to something like this. So I decided to pursue zoology - and specifically, entomology. I study honey bees, but even if not honey bees I would have chosen to study about any other aspect of nature. All I wanted was to remain close to nature.”
An independent camera-trap study in the Dibang Valley region found a higher diversity of mammals in community-owned lands of the Idu Mishmi community than the state-protected Dibang Wildlife Sanctuary. Moreover, it was also found that the tiger density in the community forests was almost 4.5 times that of the sanctuary. How was it possible, I wondered, that “unprotected” land harbours more biodiversity than a protected area with certain restrictions on human activity?
Chihi’s answer to my question left me awestruck:
“First of all, you must know that the Idu Mishmi community is one of the least populated tribes of India, who live in one of the largest districts in Arunachal Pradesh. There are some settlements in this vast area which are home to only one family. The area belonging to just one family covers several hills together.
“In accordance with our ethical rules, anyone from another family is not allowed to hunt in that land, obtain timber from it, or even try fishing in the water bodies without permission. Even within their own lands, for reasons that we have seen already, people’s hunting activities are very limited. So think about it – I do not hunt in other people’s lands, they do not hunt in mine; and they hardly hunt in their own land, and I hardly hunt in mine! All the animals and beings living in this entire area are left undisturbed most of the time.
“Now take the case of the state-protected forest – Dibang Wildlife Sanctuary. Remember that due to our cultural values, we respect the lands of our community members, and therefore do not disturb them (and also due to fear of punishment from malevolent spirits). Now, when this land becomes state-protected, it loses the cultural meaning of a land to be respected. Consequently, there are really no restrictions! There is nobody to condemn you (even the government hardly punishes anyone), and you can easily go hunting there. There are barely any forest rangers protecting this huge area of land.”
Nothing can explain the significance of cultural values for the Idu Mishmi community more than this example. Restrictions set by the state have no real meaning in the reciprocal web of interactions of the Idu people. And authoritarian measures to set restrictions beyond culture can severely impact this web of relationships that was built through centuries of lived experiences.
In 2018, the Wildlife Institute of India (WII) published a study that indicated that the Dibang Valley was home to some of the “highest-living tigers in India”. This led to plans of declaring the Dibang Wildlife Sanctuary as a Tiger Reserve (a state-protected forest area for special protection of the Bengal Tiger). Doing so would seriously restrict the Idu Mishmi people in terms of ownership, autonomy and self-determination, movement, and land rights. Other problems related to Chihi’s example would also exacerbate the situation. In response to this proposal, the Idu Mishmi Cultural and Literary Society (IMCLS) wrote a detailed letter to the National Tiger Conservation Authority expressing the need to come up with a “cultural model” of conservation in the Dibang Valley – one that is inclusive of the cultural beliefs and rights of the Idu Mishmis. “Tigers are our brothers, we are protecting them anyway,” is the collective call of the Idu Mishmi.
Threats to the Forest are Threats to the People
More recently, the Idu Mishmi community has had another cause of concern. Jindal Power Ltd., along with the Hydro Power Development Corporation of Arunachal Pradesh, has proposed a 3097 MW hydroelectric project near the Etalin village of Dibang Valley. Known as the Etalin Hydropower Project, it is just one of 17 dams proposed in the same region. Since the internet holds ample information about the project (which I encourage you to seek), here is Chihi’s detailed perspective on it:
“The Etalin Hydropower Project is just one of the projects on the same Talõ (Dibang) river. Another 2880MW dam has already been approved towards the south – the Dibang Multipurpose Project, the biggest concrete gravity dam in the world. More than 6 lakh trees will need to be felled for these projects – 6 lakh trees of an untouched forest.
“This project is not geologically viable. The Dibang Valley is a Level 5 earthquake-prone area with the highest risk! As many as 34 earthquakes have been recorded in the region in the past century. In fact, the epicentre lies very close to the proposed area of the dam. A study by geographer Chintan Sheth clearly illustrates the risk.
“Have you watched the movie Kedarnath? Do you remember how the entire tragedy was caused by a glacial outburst? The Dibang river is also fed by glaciers within India – around 300 of them (with 350 glacial lakes)! How long will these glaciers be able to hold themselves, especially in the face of earthquakes and the warming climate? Will we be able to handle such a glacial outburst?
“And what if a huge landslide occurs (which is very common in this area) due to incessant rain or earthquake? If the debris falls into the river, it will block the flow of water. Will the dam be able to hold that up?
“The construction itself will consume a lot of time. Hydropower is much costlier than solar or wind generation. So when we have other more viable options, why are we still pushing for hydroelectric energy? It is not even renewable in the true sense. If so many trees and forests are being destroyed, kis tarah se ye “clean energy” ho gaya (how is this “clean energy”)?
“So the project is not economically, ecologically, or even geologically viable. But it is also not culturally and socially viable. Why? Because to make one dam, you will need to bring in a huge labour force of 15,000 to 20,000 people from outside. Two dams are being made here. Imagine how many people will come. Our own population is at around 14,000. If so many people come here, there will be more pressure on the forest and hunting will increase. Our culture could be diluted, and the culture that protected our biodiversity so well will no longer be able to do so. Our political will could also be lost, in this way. Therefore, in my opinion, the dam must not be built. It threatens biodiversity as well as our culture.”
At the same time, Chihi is mindful of some differences in opinion, “Some people do favour the project because it will bring them compensation or facilities in some way. But in the long run, considering all the things that we discussed, we find that this is not a sustainable solution for all.”
So what motivated Chihi to speak out about this issue? “The first thing I thought of while making this choice,” he said, “was my tribe. My tribe is in danger of dissolution and we need to keep our culture and knowledge alive. Second, you see how close we feel to our natural surroundings, right? Our forests, mountains, rivers, trees, springs, and so on? With this strong relationship, it was natural that I would do anything to protect the natural diversity around me.”
The campaign against the Etalin Hydropower Project has taken shape all over the country with participation in great numbers from citizens, scientists, economists, journalists, environmental movements, and conservation organisations. The Idu folk story of the tiger-man brotherhood was quoted in almost every news report and opinion piece. Clearly, there is something about this beautiful story that garners positive curiosity and support from people. “Through stories, people from the outside world will be able to see how interlinked [our cultural survival and the biodiversity around us] are,” agreed Chihi, “and I am sure they will be even more motivated to help.”
The project awaits approval from the Forest Advisory Committee; in spite of the support from various sectors of civil society, the fate of Dibang Valley (with its rich biodiversity and incomparable human-animal cultural relationships) and the livelihoods of many members of the Idu Mishmi community hangs by a thread.
Visiting a disappearing World
Earlier, we Idus never died – we were immortal. But now we die, thanks to our enemies. Now, we are on the verge of destruction. Now, death occurs every day. This is the result of the curse by our enemies, because of which we are suffering. Long ago, we never died, yet we used to perform funerals for dead rats, by washing them. Our enemies used to say, “If you sincerely want to mourn the dead, then when the sun rises, open the windows and keep them open all day. Show us that you are actually doing a funeral. And keep the door open all day, too.” Our enemies got angry because we mocked death by performing funerals for rats, and so they cursed us to die. And now, because of this curse, we have begun to die. Because of this curse, we are doomed to face darkness.
(Source: Blackburn, S; The Journey of the Soul: Notes on Funeral Rituals and Oral Texts in Arunachal Pradesh, India)
One of the major factors endangering the already small Idu Mishmi community, according to Chihi, is the high suicide rate. “There have been so many cases where people have killed themselves one day,” he said, “while nobody could understand why. This is happening at an abnormal rate. People have come from other places to conduct research about this problem.” A huge earthquake that occurred in 1950 (Assam-Tibet earthquake) also led to a lot of fatalities, and the community has still not recovered from the sudden, enormous decrease in population. Many more people were killed after the earthquake due to injuries and illnesses caused by the dirty water and damaged environment.
Problems like these severely threaten the survival of Idu Mishmi culture and traditions. Slowly, with more people converting to Christianity, the recognition for the role of the igu or priest is also declining. Igus are repositories of Idu Mishmi folklore, rituals, beliefs, and history. If their role dissolves, their knowledge could be lost with it too.
What, then, makes some people like Chihi stick to their beliefs and traditions in the face of rapid changes in the contemporary world? “Currently,” began Chihi, “I am studying in a place far away from home. I have even travelled to many other places in the country and learnt so many new things. But then I always look back at my people and my culture – and I realise how rich our own culture is. And I feel immensely proud. Take for example the attire of my tribe – the dress of our women is so colourful and elaborate. Imagine how that must have developed and passed down! There are so many such wonderful things about my tribe!
“In the end, I only ask you to listen to our voices. To talk about this among your own people. About the issues that we are facing (like the Etalin dam), especially in the context of COVID-19 – which by the way, has been caused by deforestation and our unsustainable relationship with wildlife. We must learn in this context that places of rich biodiversity must be preserved. This dam will come at the cost of the whole tribe and all its cultural relationships. Please listen to our voices, and please help our voices reach the maximum number of people.”
If there is one thing that these profound and meaningful Idu Mishmi stories have taught us so far, it is that they are an instrumental window to the world of relationships that the community has built in their natural surroundings. But they also appeal to those who lend their ears and minds, to actively recognise the need to preserve not only the culture that they reflect, but also the nature that has inspired them. Dibang Valley calls out to you with the cultural words of its people, the voices of its spirits, the sounds of its forests, mountains, and rivers. Are you listening?
Before ending our awe-inspiring conversation with Chihi Umbrey, we could not help but ask him the meaning of his name! He answered: “Well, ‘Chihi’ means mil gaya (found it)!” To which he added, noticing our confusion even over the phone, “When my elder brother was born, my grandmother was waiting for the second child. So, when I was born, it was like: (finally) found him!” As our call ended with giggles and gratitude, I thought deeply about the world that I had just travelled to through its stories – a world that I may not ever fully understand, but one that I already had an immense appreciation for. I thought about the feelings in me that this world had inspired, of awe, respect, and a passion to help preserve it. I wondered (and still do) how long this world would have to wait for it to be recognised, for its stories to be found, and for its voices to be heard.
India is home to more than 700 indigenous communities, each of them with a unique culture, belief system, and way of life. For centuries, indigenous communities have lived in close proximity and harmony with their natural surroundings and have taken inspiration from nature to build and shape their cultures and identities. Project Indi is our quest to learn these traditions and culture, through stories, and through art.
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