Year 2017! Bipin Sivaji Dhane, a young alumnus of IIT Kharagpur visits Majuli and it was love at first sight. Bipin left his lucrative job in cosmopolitan Singapore to start a school in a remote village for the children of Mishing Tribe. A new journey was embarked upon through partnering with local Mishing community leaders to bring in qualitative changes in the area of school education in a land that is gifted and cursed at the same time. Today Bipin’s school ‘The Hummingbird’ has become a ray of hope for the Mishing children and is thriving as a model for the rest of India on community driven education. In December 2018 I was fortunate to be here spending 3 days with the Mishing tribe, about whom I had heard a lot but not experienced life with them.
The meaning of the word Mishing – Mi (Men), Yashing (Bright or God), which means – ‘We are bright or Good People’.
According to Mishing folklore on their origin myth, there is a common origin of the three groups – Mishing, Padam and Minyong from the creator of universe itself.
The myth goes: Sedi Babu (father Sedi), the Supreme Being is the creator of all the living and non-living beings in the universe. Sedi Babu first created Melo Nane, the creator mother and they together created Dietem (the earth), Rukji Meran (the ants and insects) and Peyi-Peltang (the birds and animals). At the same time they created Sun (Donyi) and Moon (Polo), and wind (echar), water (asi), fire (enic) and other objects of the universe. Sedi then created Diling who was survived by Litung. Litung was survived by Tuye, Tuye by Yepe and Yepe by Pedong. Pedong gave birth to Dopang, Domi and Doshing. The son of Dopang was Padam and his offspring are the Padams of today. The son of Domi was Minyong whose descendants are known as Mishings.
Sedi created the sun and the moon, which act as the two eyes of the Supreme Being through which he watches the people of the earth and no man can hide or escape from them. Both the Mishings and the Adis share the common belief and regard the Sun and the Moon as the manifestation of Supreme Being. The cult of Donyi Polo has a great influence on the Mishing as well as the Padam and the Minyong tribes. No ceremony, either secular or ritual ever begins without invoking Donyi Polo for their blessings.
Today the Mishings (earlier known as Mirs) are one of the largest tribal groups in Assam. There are a small number of Mishing villages also found in the lower hills of Arunachal Pradesh. Capt Nuefille was the first British officer who reported about the Mishings of the Assam Valley in 1825. At that time the Mishings inhabited the north bank of Brahmaputra River. Now they are settled in a much wider region of Upper Assam. However their maximum concentration is in Majuli and North Laxmipur Districts on the banks of various rivers and streams.
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Majuli is world’s second largest river island located in the newly created Majuli District in Upper Assam on the banks of Brahmaputra. To reach Majuli one has to take ferry service from Koklimukh Ghat at a distance of 15 km from Jorhat Town, which is connected by both rail, bus and air services. It takes about 1 hour 30 minutes to reach Majuli. While at Majuli visit various Namghars, a Vaishnava institution established by 16th century Saint Sankardev. Bicycles are the best options to commute within Majuli in one’s own pace. Hummingbird School is located in remote Kulamuha Village. Pathorichuk is yet another Mishing Village which can be reached after crossing three wooden bridges over a river. You can also have boat ride in beels and rivers at your own pace. While at Majuli visit Samagri Satra for the masks. Made of bamboo and dried cow dungs these masks depict special characters and used in various religious dramas called Bawna. For a gastronomic experience try patta dia mas (fish backed in banana leaf), chicken kharika (chicken roasted in sticks) and fish curry (Oo Tenga Mas Jul) along with fresh vegetables.
The Mishing migration to the plains of Assam was spread over a long period of time, commencing approximately in the 16th century and ending only in the early decades of the 20th century. According to their folklore, the community had originally occupied the area upstream of the Dihong River, while the Minyong inhabited the area north of Dihong up to the eastern bank of Dikhari River. The Padams lived between the Dibong River in the east and the Dihong River in the west. Despite of their common origin and the common cult of Donyi Polo, the relationship between the three communities could not remain brotherly and peaceful. Although they occupied independent through contiguous mountainous terrains, they were engaged in regular conflicts over the possession of the valleys and hill slopes for carrying on shifting cultivation which was a major subsistence activity of the hill tribes. Thus for the increasing need of cultivable land, the days internecine feuds began which finally took the shape of regular wars among the communities living in the Dihong Valley. Some of the folktales also describe the important socio-political events that took place in the past which finally forced the Mishings to migrate from the hills in search of new homes where they could live in better peace.
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As you enter into Majuli what draw your immediate attention is their vernacular houses on raised stilts, locally called Chang Ghar.
The house on stilts is a large hall with a central kitchen for a large joint family. The lower part of the house is used to provide to shelter animals that every household rears. Apart from the main house there is a traditional granary over a raised platform. According to the elders of the Mishing tribes, once upon a time the banks of Brahmaputra used to be tall grasslands and also had thick vegetation of reeds leading to favourite game area for wild elephants. According to them elephants do not attack houses on stilts and therefore not destroy even the granaries. The grains are also protected from moisture, rodents and floods.
The major components of these houses are bamboo, cane and palm leaves for roofing. Bamboo is a raw material of great flexibility and forms an integral part of the lifestyle and economy of Mishing community. Their stilted houses have thatched tops and are patterned simply like the letter ‘I’. Mostly they face rivers. Sometimes boats are left underneath the dwelling in case of flood.
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Another draw in a Mishing village is women engaged in weaving. The Mishing women of Majuli are specifically renowned for their exquisite hand-looms, especially their mirizen shawls and blankets and they keep reinventing their traditional diamond pattern in countless weaves using their favourite colour palate, yellow, green, black and red.
Their traditional throw shuttle loom is built under their stilt houses. Though a tedious process, the weavers produce wraps like mekhela chador and gero, stoles like gamosa and some other utilitarian items. Traditionally, weaving in the Mishing community was for their own use. But these days, Mishing handloom products are much in demand in cities.
The Mishing women are generally known to be laborious with extensive participation in agricultural work. Traditional methods of farming techniques are used for agricultural productions. They generally cultivate rice, mustard seeds, black pulse, Jute, potatoes and other vegetables. Besides agriculture they are also engaged in livestock rearing such as cattle, pigs and poultry.
Mishings also depend upon fishing. They use small plank built wooden boats to perform the operation in the marginal areas of Brahmaputra River and its tributaries and beels (swamps). The fishing activity is started in early morning hours and continues throughout the day till sunset. During the start of the operation, the fishermen select a shallow area with mild water current near the river bank. They take a small piece of duck meat and squeeze it with fingers at a depth of about one foot below water surface for 10-15 minutes. After ensuring that a good number of fishes have gathered in the area, the fishermen scrap only a part of bottom soil from the river bank to dig a small semi-circular pit of about 30 cm diameter using a small spade. The fishermen with the meat piece in hand then shift the location of squeezing the meat to inside the pit. Fishes attracted by the meat ultimately enter the pit, after which the fishermen block the narrow entrance to the pit with the help of a steel plate. Thereafter fishes trapped in the pit are handpicked and kept in harvesting pots made of bamboo.
Mishings mostly depend on nature for their livelihood. Besides fishing and farming, they use plenty of wild plants and vegetables in their daily food items from time immemorial. Leaves of plants are especially used as wrappers for the preparation of different pitha (sweet meats), smoked fish and pork.
Pork and fish are the favourite food items for the Mishing tribe in addition to meat of domestic fowls. These are cooked with green leaves both on daily basis and on festive occasions.
Mishings of Majuli coexist with Assamese Vaishnavites who are part of the classical Satara institution.
Though life is peaceful here, but there is always a danger in monsoon, flooding and land erosion in Brahmaputra River. In last few decades 60% of Majuli’s landmass has been shrunk and there lies an uncertain future for the Mishing community. Migrating to cities and abandoning the traditional life especially among youth in a globalised economy add further misery to their unique indigenous life and living with nature.
Author – Jitu Mishra
He can be contacted at email@example.com