The great historian of Assam Dr. S.K. Bhuyan wrote that one lesson which the tribal can teach us is their self-sufficiency in domestic economy. They are less dependent on supplies from outside. The craft here therefore bears the ancient tradition of the ethnic culture which the people cherich with pride. They curve out utensils from wood, they spin out cotton and make quilts and traditional apparels. In other words the craft of hill areas is a rare combination of aesthetic and technical intricacy.
The Karbis mentioned as the Mikirs in the Constitution Order, Govt. of India, constitute an important ethnic group in the hill areas of Assam. However, they never call themselves Mikir but call themselves Karbi and sometimes Arleng which literally means a man. Although at present, they are found to inhabit in the Karbi Anglong District, nevertheless, some Karbi inhabited pockets are found in the North Cachar Hills, Kamrup, Morigaon, Nagaon and Sonitpur Districts also. Besides the original Karbi Tribes, there are also a large number of other tribal communities residing in the district. The prominent among them are :-
1. Dimasas in Dhansiri / Mohendijua area.
2. Bodos in Langhin area.
3. Kuki / Thadou / Hmar Tribes in Singhason and Koilamati araes.
4. Tiwas in the areas bordering Nagaon and Morigaon District.
5. Garos in Hamren Sub-division.
6. Man-tai speaking community inhabiting in Bokajan Sub-Division.
7. Some Khasi Tribes inhabiting in areas adjoining Meghalaya mostly in Hamren Sub-Division.
8. Scattered population of Chakmas mostly in Borlangphar area.
9. Rengma Nagas in Nilip Block area.
Brief on Karbi Tribes and their Culture
A. EARLY HISTORY.
Racially the Karbis belong to the Mongoloid group and linguistically they belong to the Tibeto-Burman group. The original home of the various people speaking Tibeto-Burman languages was in western China near the Yang-Tee-Kiang and the Howang-ho rivers and from these places they went down the courses of the Brahmaputra, the Chindwin and the Irrawaddy and entered India and Burma. The Kabis, alongwith others entered Assam from Central Asia in one of the waves of migration.But, it is very difficult to trace the history of the early settlement of the Karbis bereft of any written documents and other evidence like archaeological remains, etc. Of course, in the old chronicles and Buranjis occasional references here and there were made to the people of this race. But from these references also it is very difficult to trace the chronological events of the Karbis. Their folk-tales and folk-lores are the only sources from which it can have an idea regarding their early history.
The folk-lores of the Karbis, however, indicate that during the long past, once they used to live on the banks of the rivers the Kalang and the Kapili and the entire Kajiranga area, the famous National Park situated in Assam, was within their habitation. During the reigns of the Kachari kings, they were driven to the hills and some of them entered into Jaintia hills, the erstwhile Jaintia kingdom and lived under the Jaintia suzerainty.
While a section of the Karbis remained in the Jaintia kingdom, others moved towards north-east by crossing the river Barapani, a tributory of the Kapili and entered into the Rongkhang Ranges. There they established their capital at a place called SOCHENG. Those who continued to live under the suzerainty of the Jaintia king had to face constant harassment at the hands of the Jaintias and this had compelled them to migrate north ward. A good number of them had entered into the Ahom territory and prayed for protection from the Barphukan at Raha. Thus migration took place at the beginning of the 17th Century. The Karbis who migrated to the Ahom kingdom had to face the Burmese invasion. The Burmese who invaded Assam perpetrated inhumane oppression on the people. The Karbis took refuge in the deep jungles and high hills leaving their hearth and home in the submountane regions. In order to save themselves from the greedy eyes of the Burmese invaders, the young Karbi girls started to use a black line from the forehead to the chin which is known a "DUK" with a view to making them ugly looking. While some of the Karbis migrated to lower Assam, some had crossed the Brahmaputra and settled in the north bank.
Photo Above: CHONG-KEDAM (A traditional Karbi Shield & Shord Dance)
B. REGIONAL DIVISIONS :
From the point of view of habitation, the Karbis are divided into 3(three) groups namely 'CHINTHONG', 'RONGHANG' and 'AMRI'. These groups are otherwise known as Chinthong, Nilip-Ronghang and Amri Marlong. Those who live in the plains districts are called 'DUMRALI'. Fundamentally, these groups do not differ each other and they should not be confused with clans.
C. POLITICAL SYSTEM :
The Karbis later on had shifted their capital to Niz Rongkhang from Socheng. The place Niz Rongkhang is also known as Ronghang Rongbong, situated about 16 kms south of Hamren, the subdivisional H.Q. of the Hamren Civil Sub-Division. There is a parliament called 'PINPOMAR' . The Pinpomar selected the traditional Karbi King called "LINGDOKPO". He still exercises his traditional authority in respect of socio-religious matters. Each village under the erstwhile Karbi kingdom was headed by a village headman called "RONG SARTHE". Several contiguous Karbi villages constituted one "LONGRI" and the administrative officicer of a Longri was called "HABE" or "HABAI". The kingdom had 12 (twelve) such Longris and these Longris were constituted into 4(four) "ARTUS" and each ARTU was goverened by an officer called Lingdok. And at the apex of the 4(four) Lingdoks was the king called "RECHO" or "LINGDOKPO".
D. TRADITIONAL INSTITUTIONS:
The Karbis, like other tribes, have some traditional institutions which have been continuing from time immemorial. While some of the institutions are socio-political in nature, some are of economic character. Some of these institutions have proven outdated in the modern context and some are still continuing withstanding the wear and tear of time. Some of such institutions are as follows:
i ) The village Council "ME":
The traditional village council of the Karbis is called "ME" and this council is composed of all the elderly male members of the village. The council is presided by the Sarthe or Gaonbura, the village headman.All the village disputes which are not of very grave or serious nature are settled by it. The Me plays an important role in regulating the social, economic and religious life of the village.However, the Me has lost its original footing in the present context. Now, people prefer to go to the law courts instead of referring the disputes to the village Council.
ii ) The Bachelors' Dormitory, "FARLA" (JIRKEDAM):
The bachelors' dormitory of the Karbis, which is variously known as the Terang Ahem, Terang Hangbar, Farla, but more popular as "JIRKEDAM". In the plains area of the Karbi Anglong district where there are no bachelors' dormitories, the Risomar of the youth club, serves more or less the same purpose although the functionaries are different. The Zirkedam was originally designed to include males only but now the females are also accompanied although they do not occupy any officer of consequence. In fact, the participation in it means the preparation of the youth for the future. It is not merely a club, it is a school too. The dormitory is generally constructed in a central place of the village with locally available construction materials.The Jirkedam has 10 office bearers with its leader and deputy leader known as Kleng-Sarpo and Klengdun respectively.This traditional institution is, however, gradually dying as it fails to withstand the onslaught of rapid changes brought about by development activities including the spread of education.But, the spirit of offering a helping hand to the needy by the youths of a Karbi village has not yet been eroded by the absence of the building of the bachelors' dormitory.
E. SOCIAL LIFE:
I). CLANS AND MARRIAGE.
Photo Above: A Newly Married Karbi Couple
The Karbis have 5(five) clans called "KUR". These are Terang, Teron, Enghee. Ingti and Timung. Each of the five clans has a number of Sub-clans. While Enghee and Timung have 30(thirty) sub-clans each, Terang and Teron have 6(six) sub-clans each and the remaining clan Ingti has only 4(four) sub-clans. These clans are completely exagamous and marriage between a boy and a girl belonging to the same clan can never take place since the children of the same clan are considered as brothers and sisters. Violation of this customary law obviously leads to ex-communication of the couple involved. Even in the cremation ground called Tipit or Thiri, area is kept demarcated for each clan. Although all the five clans are socially on an equality, Ingti being a priestly clan was supposed to have a higher status in former times.
Although, monogamy is the prevailing practice, there is no bar to polygamy and the cases of polygamy are very rare. Cross-cousin marriage is a preferential one. Like other tribal societies, the Karbis do not have the system of bride price. After marriage, the wife continues to use the surname of her father. But the children assume the title of their father. Thus, the Karbis follow the patriarchel system of family structure.
II) VILLAGE STRUCTURE:
The settlement pattern of the Karbis is in the form of a village. Each village has a headman called Gaonbura or Sarthe who is appointed by the authority of Karbi Anglong Autonomous Council. But each revenue village has a number of hamlets situated kilometers apart. Each of the such hamlets has also a Gaonbura. Each Karbi village is named after the Gaonbura. The Karbis, like the other hill tribes, have a tendency to live on the hill tops. But the people generally donot live in compact areas. The villages are not only smaller in size, but scattered too. In the plains portion of the Karbi Anglong District where the Karbi people practise permanent cultivation and where the village headmen are quite strong, the villages are found to be stationery. But in the interior areas of the district where shifting cultivation is practised, shifting of village site is still in the practise. The reasons for continuing such a practise are sometimes economic and sometimes social. The following reasons can be ascribed to this:
a) The post of the village headman whether that of the revenue village or of the hamlet is a very much coveted and prestigious one. In the performance of every socio-religious rite or festival, the headman has to be honoured first. Moreover, the village or the hamlet is also named after him. In a Karbi village there might be a few aspirants for this coveted post. Whenever an aspirant finds that there is no chance of fulfilling his desire if he continues to stay in the village, he leaves the village along with his followers and establishes a village in the new site where he automatically becomes the Gaonbura.
b) If the Karbi people living in a particular village, think that their village is a haunted place frequented by ghosts or evil spirits, they shift their village to a new site very soon to get rid of the ghosts or the evil spirits.
c) The Karbis who practice jhuming or shifting cultivation very often shift their villages to new jhum sites which might be 10 to 20 kms away from the present site.
PhotoAbove: Jhumias Busy with Sowing Seeds
Agriculture is the mainstay of the Karbis .In the Hills they Practise Jhuming (Shifting Cultivation) by cleaning the forests of the Hills . In their Jhum they cultivate mixed Crops. They also do low land cultivation where such lands are available.
Photo Above:A typical Karbi Hut
A typical Karbi hut is neither too small nor too big. It is built on a bamboo platform using timber posts for super structure. The platform is several feet high above the ground. For roofing purpose, thatch is used. The walls made of split bamboos are mud-plastered. The house has two varandas - one at the front and the other at the rear. The house is divided into two parts lengthwise. The front part or room with a hearth at the centre is called 'KAM' or guest room while the inner chamber called 'KUT' is used as the living room for the family members. A wooden or bamboo ladder is used as an approach to the front varanda. Cattle are generally kept under the bamboo platform.
Photo Above:A Front View of Karbi House
Of course, the traditional housing pattern has more or less been abandoned by the Karbis. Instead of having raised bamboo platforms, the houses are constructed on grounds. Building materials required for construction of the houses, whether traditional or modern, are procured from the nearby forests, markets.
Among the festivals observed by the Karbis, mention may be made of the "Chojun Puja" or "Swarak Puja" ;"Rongker"; "Chokk-eroi"; "Hacha-Kekan", "Chomangkan" , etc. While the former four festivals are socio-religious in nasture and the letter is a social one.
The spot for "Chojun Puja" or "Swarak Puja" is generally selected near the house of the family which wishes to perform the puja. The deities in this festival are Barithe, Shar Arnam, Arni and the Devil Hii-i and other smaller Gods. Hemphu, the greatest God of the Karbis is also propriated.The puja is peformed for the welfare of the family.
Rongker is performed at the beginning of the new year by propitiating the different gods and goddesses for the well being of the entire village. The deities are worshipped by all the elderly male people of the village so that with their blessings the people of the village could be free from diseases, natural calamities during the year and the families could have a good harvest. The women are not allowed to enter into the worship arena.
There is an another kind of Rongker performed in a greater scale. This type of Rongker which is performed at the beginning of every 5 years is called Wofong Rongker. This Wofong Rongker is performed for the well-being of all the people of the villages that fall within the jurisdiction of a Mauza (a revenue administrative region consisting of a number of revenue villages). Each revenue village is represented by the village headman and a number of village elders (males only) in the performance of the Wofong Rongker. While the Rongker performed for a village is only of one day's duration, the Wofong Rongker continues for two days.
Sokk-erroi festival is observe when the paddy field is ripened to the fullest extent. The ripened paddy is cut and taken to a place specially cleared in the field. Then the paddy is dehusked on the floor and the paddy is collected. A large number of youngmen go and collect paddy in bags and carry it to home. There starts a great rejoicing and the young ones dance to their hearts' context. Sok-erroi means the carrying of the paddy from the field. In the festival, one person is selected as the leader who provides the leadership in dancing and singing. He is called 'LUNSE". He is the director of singing and dancing.
The Hacha-Kekan is not exactly based on the folk-tales.Hacha-Kekan festival is associated with the after harvest rejoicings. There is no fear element in it and there is no need to propitiate any god. Hence it is to be assumed that the Hacha-Kekan is secular in its activities and differs substantially from another festival - RONGKER. Because, the latter needs the propitiation of god.
Although, the Karbis perform the funeral ceremony at the time of the cremation of the deceased, they also perform the death ceremony called "Chomangkan" at a later date for the eternal peace of the deceased. It is the most elaborate and expensive socio-religious ceremony of the Karbis which containues for four days and four nights non-stop.The ceremony does not require any formal invitation and all are welcome to it. In spite of the sad undertone, it is the proud day for the family and they welcome all with great warmth. They come in batches and everyone carries a symbolical rod with 5(five) branches and at the end of each branch, there is a wooden bird, which is called in Karbi "Vo-rali". The whole rod is called "Jambili Athan". This is the symbolical representation of the tribe and it is also the symbol of clan unity.
Photo Above:-Jambili Athan
The Jambili is a very interesting phenomenon. The tribe has five Kurs or clans and the Jambili has five branches. Under the cover of it, the Karbis listen the story of their origin. It is called "Muchera Kehir".
(Traditional Red Shirt of the Male Karbis)
The Karbis have their traditional dresses which are artistically designed. These dresses are woven at their family looms.There are separate dresses for men and women. The aged men use an artistically designed shirt called Choy-nangpo and the shirt used by the young men is called Choy-hongthor. The men use a loin cloth called Rikong. But now-a-days most of the male persons have abandoned its use. Only in the remote interior place, Rikong is found to be used specially by married and aged persons. Karbi male wears a Choy-Aan (Jacket) with a Rekong-ke-Er (Loin cloth of red cloth of silk) with a Gamocha on his shoulders and a Poho of endi silk in his shoulders.The use of turban wears on the head by Karbi men called Poho which is also fast disappearing.
The Karbi women and girls generally use Pinicamflak, a piece of cloth tied around the waist like a Mekhela. A piece of artistic cloth is used by them to cover the upper part of their body and it is called Pe-kok. A very highly artistic waist band called Wankok is also used by every woman and girl. The ladies use coloured and striped Endi scarf called Khongjari during winter. During the performance of Chomangkon (death ceremony) young girls use a special Endi scarf called Dokherso. The Karbi women and girls are very fond of their traditional dresses and they have been using them even in the face of a strong competition of modern trends.
VI) DANCE AND MUSIC :
Photo Above: SHIELD & DRUM ( Indispensable For CHOMANGKAN DANCE)
Dance and Music play an important role in the life of the Karbi Society. Various types of dances are performed by the youths during the performances of Chomangkan, the death ceremony and other socio-religious festivals. Hacha Kekan, the dance performed at the harvesting festival is very lively and eye-catching. Their traditional songs whether folk or religious, are generally sung by experts only who are not only well conversant with their meaning but are also endowed with sweet voices. During the performance of the cremation rites and the performance of the death ceremony, only a professional weeper called UCHEPI is allowed the sing a melancholy song called Sarhe. They have a Karbi version of the Ramayana called Sabin Alun, but the most interesting part of this epic is that it is unwritten and it has been handed down from one generation to another orally.
Photo Above: A View of CHOMANGKAN Dance
The Karbis have very limited number of musical instruments. A big drum called Cheng is their main musical instrument. It is generally played by a master drummer called Duihudi. They also use small drums called Chengbruk. They have two kinds of flutes, the wooden flute is called Muri and bamboo flute is called Pangche. In some of their dances they use war shield made of rhinocer's skin called Chong and prototype war sword called Nok.
In the bygone days, a Karbi man used to put on a brass made ear-ring called Narik, silver bracelet called Prinsoroi and heavy silver necklaces called Lekrooa and Lek-Enji. But now a days, no male person of this community is found to have used them.
The most beautiful ornaments put on by aged Karbi woman is Nothenpi, a pair of very big ear-ring made of silver. It is about two and a half inch in length having a diameter of about half inch. This ear-ring is detachable into two parts. The women and girls use silver bracelets called Rup-Aroir. Besides, the necklace made of white beads called Lech-lo-so, the women are also found to have used a kind of necklace made of silver coins and red beads called Lek-Chike.
From the point of view of folk-lores and folk songs, the Karbis are very rich. It has been mentioned earlier that they have their own version of the Ramayana called Sabin Alun which has been handed down from one generation to another orally. However, during the recent years, the Karbi society has undergone transformation and changes. The grip of inertia in which this society was found in the past, has now been slackened. In this connection, the pioneering leadership was given by Late Khorsing Terang who was not only the first Chief Executive Member of the Karbi Anglong Autonomous Council but also the first member of the Assam Legislative Assembly from the Karbi community. Among the other leaders, mention may be made of Late Nihang Rongpher, Late Chandra Sing Teron , Late Chatra Sing Teron, Late Dhaniram Rongpi, who were not only the Chief Executive Member of the KAAC, but were the members of the Assam cabinet also, Late Joysing Doloi, Ex.CEM ; Late Sai Sai Terang, Ex. Chairman ; Late Samsing Hanse, was a member of Assam cabinet ; Mr. Biren Singh Engti, Ex.M.P. and Ex.Central Deputy Minister ; Mr. Bidya Sing Engleng, Ex. CEM and sitting M.L.A. ; Dr. Jayanta Rongpi, Ex.CEM and sitting M.P.(Lok Sabha) ; Mr. Holiram Terang, Ex. M.L.A.; Mr, Jagat Sing Engti, sitting M.L.A.; Mr. Dharam Sing Teron, Ex. Chairman and sitting M.L.A. and many others.
In the literary field, Padmashree (Prof.) Rongbong Terang, Mr. Longkam Teron, Dr. Phukan Chandra Phangcho, Mr. Lunse Timung, Late Samsing Hanse, Mr. Jeet Rongpi, Song Bey and many others have made significant contribution for the development of Karbi literature.In this connection, reference of "Karbi Lamet Amei" (Karbi Sahitya Sabha) may also be made.
The Karbis have now come forward to accept the developmental schemes of different sectors with a view to changing their own destiny. But at The same time, they are maintaining their culture which distinguishes them as a separate ethnic group.