The Monpa tribe is one of the most populous tribes of Arunachal Pradesh and is considered as one of the major tribal communities in the entire region. Monpas are the inhabitants of the high altitude Tawang district and the mountain passes of Bomdila in West Kameng district. Historically, the Tibetan word Monpa referred to all the indigenous tribes of southern Tibet and Bhutan, who were considered barbaric by the highly civilized Tibetan Buddhists. Mera Lama of Tibet spread Buddhism in southern Tibet and converted these Monpas into Gelugpa faith of Tibetan Buddhism. As a result of which these inhabitants of Tawang came under the religious and cultural influence of Tibet and Tawang was administered by the Dalai Lama from Lhasa.
The Monpas were later separated from their Tibetan connection when the British colonists drew the MacMahon Line border with China and the Monpas remained in the Indian Territory.
Monpas speak Tshangla, which is also understood by the Bhutanese and Tibetans as these languages share a similar origin. The Monpas are however categorized into six clans depending on the variations of their dialect and the location of their villages. These groups were not in frequent contact with one another as Monpas lived in isolation.
The traditional Monpa society was administered by their Trukdri council which consists of six ministers. The Kempo, or high priest of Tawang monastery, was also included. The Lamas also hold a respectable position and two monks known as Nyetsangs, were also part of the council. Two others were Dzongpens, or fort administrators.
The Monpa society is patriarchal; the man is the head of the family and is the one who takes all decisions. In his absence, his wife takes over all responsibilities. When a child is born, they have no strict preference for a boy or a girl. However, some prefer a daughter for she stays in the house of her parents once she is married. Her husband is the one who moves to the house of his parents-in-law.
Being skilled craftsmen, the Monpas traditionally engaged themselves in weaving and preparing bamboo products. Though many Monpas were initially practicing hunting and foraging in the mountains, they started shifting cultivation and recently switched to terraced farming agriculture. Barley, rice, maize, chili and beans are among their major crops. They also rear domestic animals like yaks, pigs and sheep.
Since the end of their isolation culture, the Monpas have greatly participated in trade with other tribes of Arunachal, people of the plains and also the tourist visitors in to their region.
The Monpas, like most other autochthons of the eastern Himalayas, believed in the native animistic Bon religion before their conversion into Tibetan Buddhism. But unlike the other tribes, the Monpas were fully absorbed into their new religion leaving behind only a few elements of their old religion. Many Monpa families also send their children as Lamas to join the monasteries. The Buddhist influence increased with the growing importance of Tawang when a Monpa from this region was chosen as the Dalai Lama.
Losar, the Tibetan New Year, is the main festival for even the Monpas. Crowds gather at the monastery and the Lamas preside over the ceremonies. Choskar, or the harvest festival, is unique to the Monpa community. Though a non-Tibetan festival, it also has religious elements in the festivities as people travel to Tawang for pilgrimage and Buddhist Lamas would read religious scriptures in the Gompas for a few days during Choskar.
Due to the growth of tourism in the scenic Monpa territory, the Monpas have come out of their seclusion and have also emerged as a friendly community to outsiders. Their youth have also progressed in urban commerce and education, and are finding good and resourceful jobs.
Thembang is a Monpa village located at about 2300 m altitude. It is of high historical and cultural significance as it is an ancient village. In medieval era it was a headquarter of a large territory which was ruled by the powerful Thembang Bapu who were the direct descendant of the king of Tibet. Traditional Monpa village lifestyle can be experienced in homestays in Thembang because of an active and benefiting community based tourism project which has been started with the help of WWF India. For more details and help in planning a visit to Thembang, contact us.
Buddhism in Arunachal Pradesh is a special tour to the western cultural sphere of Arunachal Pradesh, involving authentic and responsible interactions with the host culture and environment.
And finally, to quote Dr.Verrier Elwin’s description of the Monpas as;
“Gentle, friendly, courteous, industrious, good to animals, good to children, you see in the Monpas the influence of the compassionate Lord Buddha on the ordinary man”.Dr.Verrier Elwin
This post is part of our continuing series Celebrating Indigenous Peoples, focused on indigenous peoples of Northeast India and their times.