Long before I set off for the Dibang valley in the distant northeast (Arunachal Pradesh), seeking the necessary permits was quite different from the days of the British colonial officers. The inner line permit (ILP) allowed us no more than two weeks in the area, and so I started off from Mumbai on a journey first by air to the eastern most operational commercial airport in India— Dibrugarh. From Dibrugarh we proceeded by jeep to Tinsukia where we spent the night and before the sun rose the next morning we availed a jeep again to take us to Roing, a trip that had us crossing the Brahmaputra, a river that literally bisects Assam in half. Roing lies at the foothills of the Mishmi Hills, from here the distance to Anini is just 230 km but the rough terrain meant it would take us close to 14 hours to reach our destination.
I had with me a few articles and essays written by colonial officials and other explorers who had made earlier expeditions; such as those by TT. Cooper, FM Bailey and there was also Angus Hamilton’s account of the Abor and Mishmi Expeditions. My first glimpse confirmed some of Francis or Frank Kingdon- Ward’s observations made earlier in the 1940s and 1950s: dense jungles with thick bamboo patches, and tree like giant ferns that gave almost a Jurassic era feel and there were pine forests at the higher reaches. Kingdon-Ward had described in detail the flora of this region as also the great earthquake that occurred on 15 August 1950 and the devastation it brought to Saidya located in the plains.
We passed mountain springs that soon conjured themselves into fast flowing streams and these in turn formed the large tributaries feeding the Dibang river. We followed the Dibang river for part of our journey and the many other smaller tributaries that appeared in the valleys of the mountains had a mesmerizing effect. I had left the dull heat of the plains behind, and here up in the eastern Himalayas, autumn already carried a tinge of winter.
Along this visually refreshing yet, tiring journey we had to make frequent halts at what initially seemed like village gates. At every such gate, the passenger seated next to the driver or by the doors had to hop off, open the gate and let the vehicle pass before closing the gate all over again. These gates numbered so many that by the time we reached the last one, the lady who had been opening them, let out a sign of relief. I could see the irritation and frustration written on her moon shaped face. These gates I gathered were to keep the Mithuns (a semi domesticated bovine) from straying from one person’s territory to another. Now with the Indian army planning to increase their presence in Anini and the border areas, I wonder how long these gates will last.
Mithuns are a much prized species of cattle; strong, and sturdy, these animals resemble both the ox and the bison in shape and size. They are highly revered in Mishmi society and a man’s status and standing is based on the number of Mithuns he owns. These hardy animals are allowed to roam freely in the jungle and during festive occasions, such as weddings or deaths, they are offered as sacrifices.
We stayed in the Circuit House of Anini, a quaint caterpillar shaped wooden structure, forlorn but with the ubiquitous presence of government officers and visiting army officers.
While at Anini we made enquires for visiting a traditional remote Mishmi hamlet and some young government officials stationed at Anini, who to my surprise also happened to have studied in Mumbai, Pune and Ooty, places that I too had lived in, suggested that we go towards a village called Dambuem. It was on our way to Dambuem that as luck would have it, we met a person on the road who took us to the village of Ahunli. I was expecting to find more houses but to our unexpected surprise, the owner of the house offered us his own hospitality for his was the only house in that entire village.
The clan of Mishmi who live in the upper Dibang valley are the Idu Mishmis. There are other Mishmis as well, those who call themselves the Midu Mishmi but were popularly known as Chulikattas by the Assamese or ” crop haired,” they live in the Lohit district. The other Mishmi clan is the Digaru Mishmi.
The Mishmi people are thought of to have originated from Burma (Myanmar) and there are different clans. Lt. Colonel Frederick Marshman Bailey who had visited them in 1911 wrote of them being fierce and resentful and suspicious of outsiders. There are also stories of quarrels and squabbles with the people coming over from the Tibetan side.
The murder of Mr Noel Williamson (Assistant Political Officer at Saidya) and Dr Gregorson (a tea planter and doctor) in 1911, caused the British to rethink their strategies in this important region, close to China and Central Asia. The earlier approach of non-intervention now gave way to a proactive approach and the British mounted military expeditions to quell the tribes.
The village of Ahunli, as mentioned, turned out to be a lone homestead. Only three people resided here: a man and his two wives, their children of school-going age lived in larger towns not too far away like Roing and Anini. Polygamy was common to this society. Most men worked in the towns farther away and those who could afford to, like our host, could have more than one wife.Each wife has a separate room and a fire place and kitchen where her children stay, this is inside the main house itself. Then outside there are storehouses where corn and potatoes were being stocked up for the coming winter.
The Mishmi in large part preferred to live in remote villages like these and not in large village clusters. At times a village might just have one house as was the case with the place we stayed.
The house of Mr Mihu (our host) was a long elongated structure, a corridor running along its entire length and rooms to one side.The most striking feature of the first room which was the guest room was the number of skulls and jawbones of wild animals and Mithuns that were displayed on the walls. Each room had a central fire place around which daily life revolves.
Above the fire place were racks to store and dry meat and fish. The house was made of bamboo and Mr Mihu explained that he had rebuilt his roof with tin to keep away the rain dampening his house. The house was ringed by a bamboo fence and the pigs and chickens freely roamed below. The whole house stood on stilts again as a precaution from the rains. The elevated house offered certain other advantages such as keeping snakes, rodents and other harmful creatures away; the house too was noticeably warmer, as being on a higher level kept the cold and snow away. The water from the kitchen and washing areas also drained out from the sieve like bamboo floors and the chickens and pigs housed below also had plenty to feed on from this waste. This appeared to me very eco friendly and sustainable. Even the leftover food was offered to pigs and chickens and nothing ever was really wasted.
Mr Mihu said that he had plenty of empty rooms and so we could be his guests, which suited us just fine. As the afternoon wore on we moved closer towards the fire as it was getting colder now. In these eastern areas its gets dark by around 4 in the evening.
As we chatted drinking rice beer —called Apong, there was a commotion outside. In an instant Mr Mihu had dashed away hurriedly, picking up his rifle and a flashlight. We heard a squawking and screeching, a mixture of strange jungle sounds, that buzzed eerily around us. Its echo drowned his returning footsteps and his forlorn look. ‘The jungle cat or the leopard again, they stole two of my hens earlier,’ he said. We city dwellers have seen guns only with the police or in the movies, but every household in this area apparently has a gun or arms, to protect themselves. The Mishmi are also very fond of hunting and this was evident by the bear skin bag and the numerous skulls and skins stored below the house. This got me thinking about wildlife laws, but Mr Mihu explained that a bear could destroy his entire crop in the course of a single night and then who would feed him and his family?
That night we slept near the fire and were awakened many times all through the night by the screeching chickens and every time Mr Mihu too would go out to inspect whatever it was, armed with his usual flashlight and rifle. Every time he returned to reassure us that all was fine. Protecting his poultry and the pigs was simply a way of ensuring his own survival and sustenance.
The next morning a dense fog hung over the house and as we sat near the fire place the lady of the house placed a large jug and two glasses in front of us. I assumed this was water or even tea, but it turned out the pitcher was full of Apong, the white coloured rice beer. This is drunk nearly the whole day, as tradition and its customary to also offer Apong to visitors. Certain sources say the British gave them opium to calm the restive tribals. A Mishmi is incomplete without his silver smoking pipe. Earlier, bamboo pipes were also used, although they are rare now.
It was quiet everywhere, and looking around I found the birds were evasive, easily startled and they hid deeply in the undergrowth. I sort of understood that the long traditions of hunting had taught them to adapt too.
That fine sunny morning Mr. Mihu took us to his fields, he was growing apples, with seeds obtained from Himachal Pradesh. There was also corn, pumpkins, kiwi fruit, oranges and lots of other edible plants. He invited us to visit once again during the Reh festival which happens sometime in February.
From his fields we proceeded to the nearby village of Etabe by foot. Here we sought an audience with the village doctor/priest called Gaon Burra. People relied a lot on the Gaon Burra to cure them of ailments and he also officiated at ceremonies of birth and death. We asked the Gaon Burra if his father had been a priest too and he replied that this was not a hereditary post. There was no priestly clan or class, and even a slave could be a priest. We asked if he could chant some of the mantras, but he was reluctant, saying he would only do so when necessary for otherwise, to chant at any time would bring on bad luck. When a wealthy person dies among the Mishmis, many animals are offered as sacrifice, in particular the Mithun, which is valued and powers attributed to them as told to us by the priest, were seen as beneficial tothe departing soul.
The colonial official Mills long ago had also described the funeral customs of the Mishmis. Items of everyday use and other goods are placed alongside the dead, to help them avail these comforts in the after-life. Sometimes Tibetans who come down the valley offer their goods in exchange for the goods placed with the dead.It a curious relationship with the Tibetans. Life now ensures some degree of cooperation, for both groups have to survive in an unfriendly, changing environment though history is riddled with stories of conflict between the two groups.
It was a remote village we left behind us, lost in its own customs. The presence of hydro-electric dams in the future, that could cause landslides or even flooding in areas, did not seem to be a concern currently. Mr Mihu’s world appeared self-contained, though threats of a different kind were never too far away. I left with the image of him frequently rushing out, rifle and flashlight and the screeching and squawking that ensued – a reminder of the elemental struggle between man and nature, between wildness and domesticity that is never too far away.