This article is my sincere effort to let people know more about the lovely, warm and friendly Nyishi Tribe of Arunachal Pradesh. It’s based on my personal experience, inputs furnished by my host for the Nyokum Yullo Festival of Nyishi Tribe and research through online academic journals.
With an invitation to attend the Golden Jubilee Yazali Nyokum Yullo Celebrations (23-27 February 2018); I boarded my flight to Guwahati. I was lucky enough to grab a golden chance to peek into the traditional lives of beautiful and ever welcoming Nyishi people.
My excitement knew no bounds as it was my first-ever rendezvous with tribal life. I’ve always been interested in culture and the traditional lives of people in the remote area, ever since I can remember. I would see different tribes on the National Geographic and Discovery channel and dream of meeting them in real life. This trip to the charming town of Yazali in Arunachal Pradesh was a dream come true.
Arunachal Pradesh – Abode of Tribes
Sitting quietly along the borders of China, Myanmar, and Bhutan is the incredibly untouched state of India, Arunachal Pradesh. It is the largest and least inhabited of Seven Sister States of Nort-East India.
Mother Nature has been tremendously kind to this part of the earth. Or maybe she loves to stay here because of its inaccessibility from the rest of the world. The Land of Rising Sun is a real feast for nature lovers.
Sun spreads its rays here before anywhere else, thus the name Arun (sun) and Anchal (rise).
Arunachal Pradesh is known to be the abode of diverse ethnic groups and tribes as it holds 26 tribal groups and 112 sub-tribes; each with its own unique culture, tradition, social structure, and dialects. It houses the most number of tribes than anywhere else in entire South Asia.
Principal tribes include – Adis, Apatanis, Buguns, Hrusso, Singphos, Mishmis, Monpas, Nyishi, Sherdukpens, Tagins, Khamtis, Wanchos, Noctes, Yobin and Khambas and Membas.
Yazali – Home to Nyishi Tribe
Yazali is a tiny and beautiful tribal town in the Lower Subansiri district of Arunachal Pradesh in North-East India. Gorgeous Ranganadi/Panyor River welcomes as you enter the picturesque valley of Yazali. Yazali is home to the Nyishi people, the largest tribe in Arunachal Pradesh.
I spent three days in this unexplored region and enjoyed every bit of it.
As I strolled through the village of wooden and bamboo houses, it felt like I’m in a different world altogether. A world of unmatched beauty, utter wilderness, and loveliness.
Nyishis not only believe but demonstrate organic living. Nyishi villages are the epitome of sustainable, chemical-free agricultural production and are surrounded by lush and unexplored forests.
Two days turn into a lifetime experience – connecting with the local tribespeople, drinking local rice beer (apong), and laughing with warm and friendly Nyishi people. They willingly opened their doors to us.
Nyishi (Nishi) Tribe People – The Piece of Sunshine
One of the largest (30,000) and most progressive tribes in Arunachal Pradesh, Nyishis; a subgroup of Tani people are spread across East Kameng, Kurung Kumey, Papum Pare, Lower and Upper Subansiri districts of Arunachal Pradesh.
Hill-Miri and Bangni were the names given to them by the outsiders specifically Britishers. They were also called Dafla once but they don’t like to be called so as they find it pejorative.
I love the way they live exactly the way they want, living in the present without worrying about the future, wearing their culture on their sleeve with pride, not judging anyone, not trying to change anything or anyone – such simplicity and candor that I’d die to embrace. And yes, they are wonderful hosts!
Nyishi Tribe – Genesis
Nyishis are believed to have come from Burma (now Myanmar) and Tibet, where Mangoloid tribal groups with the same cultural practices are still active.
This hunter-warrior tribe believes that they are the descendants of Abo-Tani – a mythical forefather.
The term ‘Nyishi’ is derived from two words – Nyi means human race descended from Atu Nyia Tani who’s the son of Abo-Tani and believed to be the first real man on the earth and ishi means highland, which collectively means the descendants of Atu Nyia Tani who reside in the highland.
Nyishis speak Tibeto-Burman language of the Sino-Tibetan family. There’s no script yet. Like many other tribes, they have a rich oral tradition of folklore, tribal history, and folk wisdom. Whatever is known of them is passed from generation to generation through oral traditions.
I’m in awe of the way priests remember the hymns by heart even though they don’t have anything in writing. It’s nothing less than a miracle.
They are now in the process of developing their script and language.
Nyishis Traditional Dwelling – Namlo
Their tribal longhouses called Namlo are ecologically sustainable as they are made from the locally grown material like cane, bamboo, and mud. The houses are raised from the ground on bamboo and wooden pilings to protect the floor of the house from the dampness of the soil below. The floors and walls are made using split bamboo.
The intention of these tribal homes is exquisitely beautiful and simple – to stay together in unity.
Social Structure of Nyishi Community
Nyishis follow the clan-based system of family relations. They are divided into three clans majorly – Dopum, Dodum and Dollu. The family system is patriarchal and patrilocal. As in all patriarchal joint families, authority remains with the eldest member of the family. Lineage is tracked along paternal lines to the first ancestor (Father – Abotani) and 30-70 people of single ancestry live in a longhouse without partitions with a separate fireplace for each connubial family i.e. the complete family stays under one roof, but each wife gets her own hearth.
Members of the clan are considered brothers and sisters and are known by their surnames.
Marriages in Nyishis – A Sacred Bond
Exogamous (marriage outside a social group) marriages are the rule. Polygamy still remains common among them.
Their bond with their culture and rituals is amazing. They follow their rituals religiously. Nyishis believe that if rituals aren’t done properly it can bring trouble.
They perform omen examinations viz. boil egg examination (peepchenam), pig liver examination (reksing kanam /keenam) and chicken liver examination (pachu kuknam/ruksingkanam) to predict if the alliance is suitable for the bride and groom and their families.
The Shaman consults the liver of a freshly killed chicken that foretells the offering or sacrifice to appease the spirits during occasions and festivals.
Groom pays the bride price to the bride’s family during the marriage; usually, Mithun (traditional cattle) is given to the bride’s family. It normally depends upon the status of the groom’s family or bride’s education. They believe that the exchange of gifts and money ensures the bride’s happiness in her new house.
Most marital and neighborly relationships are cemented through the medium of Mithun.
Other marriage rituals include invocation of God, Goddess, and Nature to witness the wedding and seek their blessings (dapo dingnam); purification process (chngtun phahi) because cleansing of one’s soul and mind before any occasion is a vital ritual; and thanksgiving ceremony (changtum bheenam) which includes exchanging gifts and jewelry for the future wellbeing of the couple.
Philosophies and Religious Ideologies of Nyishi Tribe
Nyishis are the worshipers of nature.
They follow the animistic, shamanic religion called Donyi-Polo which is centered around the worship of Donyi (the Sun) and Polo (the moon.) Ane Donyi (Mother Sun) and Abo Polo (Father Moon) are the corporeal depictions or visible forms of the supreme Gods, Bo and Bomong.
Their religion believes in spirits associated with nature. According to them, nature includes humans as well as spirits and it is vital maintaining a balance in nature. Life on the other side of the death is what they perceive and along these lines they worship spirits.
Nyishi people practice what can be called almost pagan or pre-Aryan beliefs, which is quite evident from their worship of trees, rocks, and plants amongst other things.
Like other tribes, they too sacrifice animals to appease spirits and deities.
Followers of Donyi-Polo religion believe that they all are descendants of Abo-Tani. The religion has no written scriptures and has been orally passed down from one generation to another. The religion strongly believes in the oneness of all the living creatures, from the teeny weeny creature to the powerful creature.
Donyi-Polo believers uphold the faith that wrongdoers are punished and the righteous are rewarded by nature.
Truth is the essence of Donyi-Polo ideology. To them, the truth is everywhere and always wins. They say, “Donyi-Polo e lenduku” – truth prevails upon ultimately.
Donyi-Polo temples (Nyeder Namlo – The Home of Pure) have come into existence to revitalize and protect the ancient culture and religion. Nyedar Namlo follows the tradition of Sunday worships just like a church. Replicas of Donyi and Polo are kept on a raised platform inside the prayer house where devotees offer flowers, and light candles or incense sticks; Priest (Nyibu) recites hymns and sprinkles sacred water.
Occupations among Nyishis
The Nyishi economy depends upon livestock breeding, animal husbandry, and agriculture. Nyishis love hunting, and fighting.
Slash-and-burn agriculture (Jhoom cultivation) and fishing are their major professions.
The major crops include paddy (rice), maize (tapio), ginger (takie), yams (aange) and millet (temi).
Basketry and weaving are some popular handicraft professions adopted by the tribe.
Traditional Legal System of Nyishi Community
Nyishis follow politico cum judicial legal institution called nyelee (formal gathering of people) to settle disputes (yallung) and listening to the grievances. The place where the disputes are resolved is called nyele miram or arekh merem. The disputes are resolved by elderly persons (nyagam aabhu/nyub aabhu) who are experts in the traditions and customary laws of the community.
Status of Women in Nyishi Community – Equality is the Mantra
Nyishis are open-minded and progressive people. Thus, women have been given equal status in the Nyishi community. They consider women a vital source of peace and prosperity. Men always consult their women counterparts before taking important decisions.
Women are involved in every kind of work from clearing the fields to harvesting.
The Significance of Mithun in Nyishi Tribespeople
Mithun (Bos frontalis) is a huge, semi-wild bovine indigenous to Northeast India, Bangladesh, and Burma. The animal is closely associated with the social, cultural, economic and religious life of the Nyishi tribe.
The people’s richness and economic status depend upon the amount of costly livestock they possess. Of all the livestock they acquire, Mithun is the costliest of all.
Mithun is treated sacred and in almost all the ceremonial rituals, the sacrifice of Mithun is vital.
Home-Brewed Local Beer – Apong
Apong is more than just a drink.
Apong is made by fermenting millet or rice with yeast. Millet or rice is soaked or boiled and then spread to cool. Dry yeast (oppop) is mixed with the millet at the desired temperature. The blend is kept in a clean and dried container with a lid. It is left undisturbed for a few days and then distilled. It takes a month or more to get it ready.
The entire process includes drying, smoking, fermenting, and filtering. The brew is served in a bamboo glass or bamboo shoot at room temperature, and it’s malty, sweet, and quite strong.
There are two types of apong: pone which is made of rice, and poling which is made of millet.
Apong is said to enrich the nutritive value of the diet of Nyishi people. It’s not just an alcoholic drink for them but the nutritious drink that has become an essential food habit.
The apong is offered to guests as a gesture of hospitality and is an important element in the social and religious celebrations. Its consumption has been customary and must practice since time immemorial among Nyishis.
You aren’t offered tea or coffee but the local brew apong as a welcome drink when you visit Nyishi’s home.
I particularly loved the goblet made of bamboo shoots called patha which is widely used by Nyishis to serve local brew during special occasions. I was lucky enough to have got one for me. It’s one of the best souvenirs I have ever brought back home.
Food Habits of Nyishi Tribe
Nyishis food choices revolve around their agricultural produce viz. rice, millet, maize, and yams. Rice is the staple food that is supplemented by meat and vegetables. They consume boiled food mostly.
The meat is boiled with a little salt in it. No oil or spices are used. It’s garnished with leafy vegetables and grated ginger. Sometimes, the meat is roasted or smoke-dried and kept in bamboo baskets to preserve it for future use.
Bamboo shoots are used to add flavor to the food.
They are particularly fond of smoked meat. You can always find Mithun meat in a bamboo hollow kept above hearth for drying and smoking. That’s how the Nyishi tribe likes its preferred food.
Nyishi Attire – A Visual Treat
Can you guess which is the world’s oldest recorded jewelry?
Beads jewelry it is!
Seeing Nyishi men and women wearing colorful beads jewelry is an ultimate treat to the senses!
They fancy beads ornaments the way we desire gold jewelry.
No wonder why beads ornaments are commonly termed as tribal jewelry.
Members of the Nyishi tribe, both men, and women, are recognized by their elaborate outfits. Costumes and additional decorative are worn conforming to the status of the person.
Traditional Attire of Nyishi Tribesmen
Nyishi men wear cotton sleeveless shirts with the mantle of cotton locked around the throat and shoulders. They normally tie their hair with a Tibetan thread just at the forehead with a brass skewer permeating through the tied hair in a horizontal fashion. Men wear cane rings around the waist, arms and legs.
Carrying dao (uriuk, chiighee) which is a short sword and a knife (ryukchak) in a bamboo sheath is an essential feature of men’s traditional attire. Traditional adornings also include a spear (nangkio) with an iron head, a large sword, and a bow with arrows (murto); tipped with poison (umiyu) on it. They usually carry a backpack called nara. During the fight, the back and front are protected with the sabbe buffalo hide and over it, black cloak (tassh nara) made of the indigenous fiber sago palm.
Sharp pointed bamboo stick (domkiyo) and head helmet made of animal skin or cane (bopiya) together make their traditional headgear (podum). Bopiya is decorated with The Great Indian Hornbill’s (Buceros bicornis) feathers and topped with the Hornbill’s ivory (casque) and beak (paga hebung). Eagle’s feather (kakam ganglang), the tail of dronngo birds (nangnee ganglang), Eagle’s claw (kokam kheeley) and animal skin are also used as adornments.
Tough wildlife protection laws have discouraged the hunting of Hornbill making the bird as a protected species. We saw the exact replicas made from wood and fiberglass on stalls which certainly indicate the reformed practices of the hunter tribe. Due to Nyishis hunting practices, Hornbills were on a verge to become extinct. The tribe has now transformed into the guardians of nature and animals and their conservation efforts under the Hornbill Nest Adoption Program are quite evident.
Traditional Attire of Nyishi Tribeswomen
Nyishi women drape a cotton mantle (Par ij) around the body and tie one portion at right shoulder and keep open the left shoulder. They tie a red ribbon around the waist and wear waistband with metal disks (hupiya) and cane garters. Hair is parted in the middle and tied in a bun (dumpuye) just above the neck. Jewelry includes metal bells (maji), multicolored (mostly blue and red) beads (tasang/muni) neckpieces called seetir, bangles (cojii), bamboo slid (roonos), brass or silver earrings (ringbings/belling) and metal bracelets. Women look lovely in elaborate attire.
You’ll see most of the Nyishi women carrying a tokiri (egin) on their back to pick firewood or grains from the fields. They look like the princess as the metal crown with blue beads (dumping) adorn their heads.
There’s a huge change in the dressing style of the young Nyishi generation and they have embraced the modern or urban dressing style while preserving their culture and traditions.
Festivals purely mean social rituals for Nyishis.
Celebrations are closely integrated into the lives of Nyishi people. Their major festivals are Nyokum Yullo, BooriBoot Yullo, and Longte Yullo.
All of these festivals are celebrated in the month of February.
I got a chance to attend Nyokum Yullo Festival (pre-harvesting festival) in Yazali, Arunachal Pradesh this year and it has been a beautiful cultural experience. I’d write about the festival in-depth in my next post.
Folk Dance Form of Nyishis
Rikham Pada is a traditional folk dance of Nyishi Tribe. The men, Rikham Bo Pada, and the women, Reeyam Bo Yam express their joy saying let us sing and dance without any fear like a beautiful bird called tacha.
Nyishi Elite Society or NES – Heart of a Progressive Change
NES is a group of dynamic and educated Nyishi people who work for the development of the Nyishi tribe. Society follows the rule which says progression and development shouldn’t hurt the customs and traditions of the tribe.
Learning from the Nyishis
Time spent with the tribespeople left me with a lot to contemplate. It has been the most humbling experience of my life. The way traditional culture and contemporary beliefs coexist exquisitely intrigues me.
When you witness the simple and culturally rich lives of tribes firsthand, your whole perspective on the world changes. You begin to look at things differently. Suddenly, Instagram feed or Facebook likes seem frivolous.
Many of the Nyishi tribal practices teach us to improve our way of life – from respecting the nature to staying together in unity to embrace new while respecting the old.
Nature survives and thrives because there are people who still care for her. Culture and traditions live because there are people who still wear them as a reward.
I’d say paya lincho (thank you in Nyishi dialect) to Chukhu Mammaa (Our host for Yazali Nyokum Yullo Festival) for this incredibly beautiful and transformative experience.
Excited to discover the culture and traditions of the Nyishi tribe first-hand? Contact Chukhu Mammaa here.
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