Adi, meaning “hill man” or “man of hill”, is a large tribe inhabiting the unspoiled valleys of the Brahmaputra River during its course in South Tibet. In Occupied Tibet, they are referred to as the Lhoba people but remain recognized by the government of China. With no written records, myths say that the Adis migrated from East and Southeast Asia. Early outsiders referred to them as Abor, meaning ‘uncontrolled or savage’, due to the tribe’s reputation as fierce warriors. This view of the tribe’s primitiveness was however detested by notable anthropologist Verrier Elwin, who described the tribe to be highly cultured and civilized, if one was to go by their philosophy of life and existential issues. Without seeing an ocean ever, the Adis devised the idea of a primeval ocean from which all things have emerged. The tribe, like other major tribes, is divided into sub-groups; Minyong and Gallong, which are in turn divided into various clans and subclans. This is quite remarkable as the various groups of Adis trace a different identity within the confines of the tribe. An early scholar writes, “Among their neighbors, Adis are perhaps the most forward-looking and a people of very independent character. An Adi is energetic, jolly, freedom-loving… and plain spoken. Boris and Ashings have certain abandonment about them but have indomitable spirits. They are free, casual and independent. The Palibo and Ramo youth look bright, with smiling faces and dominating self-respect. Bokars are most disciplined and self-contained, who give impression of being men of the world. The Shimongs, Pasis and Padams are energetic. The Minyongs have great solidarity.”
The Adis show a remarkable sense of artistry and proficiency in weaving, which Elwin described as “The Adi art is almost entirely confined to the decorations of their own persons, that is to say, it is expressed in the wearing of fabrics, the making of hats, and the forging of ornaments.” It is again remarkable to notice a great diversity of textile patterns in the various clans of the tribe.
Kebang, meaning ‘village council’, is the important political institution of the tribe, and works on a highly developed system of democracy. Influential and important persons of a village are council members and are provided judiciary power over deciding disputes and social issues such as celebration of festivals. Like some other tribes of Northeast India, the Adis too have dormitory systems for young males and females, called “moshup” and “rasheng” respectively. These social institutions play an important role in developing the youth to responsible human beings by teaching them about discipline, co-operation, culture and customs. More importantly, as scholar Col. Ved Prakash observes, “It is here that they are initiated into secrets and romances of life. The boys from different moshups are permitted to visit rashengs; and the courtship often leads to happier alliances… A boy or girl is free to choose a partner for life.”
The religion of the Adi is centered on Donyi-Polo, the Sun-Moon god, who is regarded as the eye of the world. They believe in the world of spirits, and perform ceremonies to appease malignant ones to ward off the evil. Keyum is credited with all creation. Doying Augang, the sky-god, is credited for good harvests and blooms. The Dere or Moshup is the temple of the Adi. In Donyi-Poloism, there are numerous deities and spirits controlling various aspects of life, and the various sub-tribes have their own pantheon of deities. Animal sacrifice is the principal attribute of all the Adi festivals and rites. Being an agricultural society, most of the rites and festivals are in relation to the agricultural cycle. Pomi is held in February to mark the clearing of the jungle. Mopum follows to celebrate the completion of the sowing of the seeds into the earth. For 3 days in April, Mopin is celebrated praying for rich harvest to the god of rain and is considered an important festival. Solung, the most important, is celebrated in July-August to mark the completion of the wedding functions and transplantation of the paddy plants. It is the time when the entire community makes merry, eating, dancing, drinking and singing. It is again to be noted that in the complex Adi society, different sub-groups have their own names for these agricultural festivals.
The Adi are also noteworthy for their bridges. To Elwin, their bridges were “marvels of untutored engineering skill”. An early explorer W Robinson was equally fascinated and wrote “The skill in constructing these bridges is really surprising, and is such as would not to discredit to the more civilized nations.” The cane suspension bridges are quite a showcase of native ingenuity. When completed, such a bridge looks like a long tube of webbed cane work.
To end with, the Adi are justly proud of their history. Though they enjoy considerable control over their own affairs and land, and benefit from the government’s initiatives meant to preserve tribal culture, globalization and the lure of the materialistic luxuries of the modern world is increasingly having an impact on the Adi’s ancient ways, and the same goes for the other indigenous tribes of Northeastern India.
This post is part of our series Celebrating Indigenous Peoples, focused on indigenous peoples of Northeast India and their times.