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Indigenous Peoples of Northeast India

The Indigenous Peoples of Northeast India

A Look at the Tribal Communities of the Far East 

We were all indigenous at some point in time and space. Modernity has taken the world over! We evolve and grow into one global culture! But what have we left behind? And who are they that still protect and conserve the true essence of living in harmony with nature?!

Let me take you on a journey rather an introduction to the beautiful people who still possess the ancient wisdom and knowledge we lost along the road to civilization! 

The Khasi

Pemblang ceremony, Nongkrem Festival in Meghalaya

The Khasis are an intelligent lot, very talented at music, very protective of their heritage! They live a tough life in the rainiest place on the planet – the Khasi Hills of Meghalaya! They are a matrilineal society with the daughter inheriting the family name and property.

Living Root Bridge in Meghalaya

They are also extremely ingenious! The Wild Fig Tree has been an old favorite of birds. The fruit is not edible to humans but the Khasis decided to build bridges with its roots instead! And these last for centuries! 

Mawlynnong Village in Meghalaya

The Khasis are also very clean and hygienic! So much so that they host the cleanest village in Asia! Mawlynnong with its pretty lanes, tiny houses, and gardens blooming with flowers is quite out of the storybook! 

Mawphlang Sacred Grove near Shillong in Meghalaya

The Khasi Hills are dotted with sacred groves that are treasure troves of nature and highly revered. There is also a myth of a tree that once led to heaven and the ancient peoples used it as a path to access the heavenly abodes. However, they were tricked into cutting the tree and forever losing that connection.

This myth is often seen as a metaphor for the divinity of trees and nature as a whole. It conveys the message that destroying nature could result in severing our connection with the Divine. 

The amount of value the Khasis place on preserving their natural heritage is certainly an inspiration to us all!

The Bodo

Bodo Tribe Festival in Bodoland, Assam

When you travel into the hinterlands of Northeast India, you can’t fail but be amazed by the presence of fascinating tribal culture. One such very special tribe are the Bodo peoples of Assam also called as Boro. 

Landscape of Bodoland - Manas National Park, Assam

In the Bodo language Ba means five and denotes the five mighty elements of the Supreme God – land, water, air, fire, ether. This forms the very basis of their lives and springs from their ancient philosophy Bathou. 

They are fiercely independent and demanded their own state Bodoland from the Indian Government. Finally coming to a peace agreement and forming an autonomous region within the state of Assam known as the Bodoland Territorial Region. 

Wild Elephant Herd in Manas National Park, Assam

Once known for thriving on forest produce and hunting, they have now plunged into conservation and earn from the tourism afforded by their inherent natural heritage. 

The Bodos possess incredible knowledge and know the name of every herb, tree, and animal in the forest – of course in their own language. They are warm and loving people who are happy to host travelers at Manas National Park and share with them their wisdom on nature. 

And yes! One should totally try their delicious cuisine and rice beer! 

The Mishmi

Shaman from Mishmi Tribe, Arunachal Pradesh

The Mishmis that occupy the eastern valleys of Arunachal Pradesh are a beautiful and peaceful lot. They are non-intrusive and go about their daily work as usual in total harmony with nature. They be and they just let you be – something one finds very rarely in travels!  

Mithun in Mishmi Hills, Arunachal Pradesh

They have a very peculiar relationship with wild oxen known as Mithun, which are highly revered. This Ox is left free for most of the time to go roam the wild and it is said that it mysteriously returns to its family at the time of a festival or wedding or birth and brings with it much honor! 

Mishmi Tribal Women in Traditional Attire, Arunachal Pradesh

Their excellent skill at weaving is said to have been passed down to them by a girl named Hambrumai. She was the first to learn this art from the God Matai by watching the designs in nature – the ripples in the waves of the river, the trees, plants, and flowers.

Relationship of Tiger and Mishmi Tribe in Arunachal Pradesh

When Tigers in India were drawn to extinction from hunting, the Mishmis were at the heart of protecting them in their land. They believe that the tiger is their brother and killing a tiger is as good as killing your own brother.

The Mishmi and the Tiger were born of the same mother they say! They are our family!

The Konyak

Konyak Tribal Man with Tattoo in Nagaland

Tribal Nagaland has always been wild rather the ‘Wild Wild West’ of the East! With fierce tribes warring for supremacy and the Konyaks collecting heads of their enemies to be hung on the walls!

Konyak Tribal Man in Nagaland

As a warring tribe, they are skilled at traditional methods of making machetes, gun-smithing, brass -works, iron-smelting, and gunpowder-making. Only giving up their head-hunting activities as late as 1961.

Naga tribal craftsman shaping a horn, Hornbill Festival, Kohima, Nagaland, India

They possess much traditional knowledge which has helped them thrive for so long in remote regions, completely disconnected from the modern world. From housebuilding with locally sourced material to making pots without the use of a wheel. They excel at wood carving, making intricate jewelry, tattooing, and building fascinatingly large log drums.

Konyak Morung House in Nagaland

An interesting feature of the Konyaks is the existence of Morungs. They are dormitories for young unmarried men. Some Morungs are also dedicated to housing young Naga spinsters. It is in these Morungs where the young learn the culture, customs, and traditions of their ancestors and help to keep them alive.

Now, with the influence of modernity entering the lives of the Konyak youth, these Morungs gain even more prominence as centers of learning and preservation of traditional Konyak knowledge.

The Apatani

Apatani Tribal Women with Tattoo and Noseplug at Ziro, Arunachal Pradesh

The Apatani ladies known for their nose plugs and facial tattoos are a very wise people! Hardworking and thriving in the remote region of Ziro in Arunachal Pradesh, they have mastered the skill of survival in this exceptionally beautiful valley. 

Landscape of Ziro Valley in Arunachal Pradesh - Rice Fields in the Himalayas

The Apatani peoples possess immense scientific knowledge of agriculture. They farm rice in terraced fields and use organic waste as fertilizer to enrich their soil. These farms are not only used to grow rice and vegetables but also to rear fish at such a high altitude! 

Apatani Tribal Men constructing Bamboo House in Ziro, Arunachal Pradesh

While the women mostly work in the fields, the men are out collecting timber and bamboo. They are experts at working with bamboo and cane and make almost everything they need out of this natural material – from hats to baskets to containers and other household items. 

Donyi Polo Religion of Arunachal Pradesh
Copyright @ Flickr

Donyi Polo is the ancient philosophy of the Apatani. Donyi means the Sun and Polo stands for the Moon. They also worship their common ancestor Abotani. They follow an animist culture in a world that has lost its connection with nature and place much value on the reverence of their natural heritage.  

The Road Ahead

Our world is changing and revolving as we speak! What do we hold on to and what do we leave behind?! The love for nature and a connection to our natural world is but something we have to hold on to! More so the respect and reverence for the land, the forest, and its creatures! 

Even so to live sustainable lives by using the materials in our surroundings, to grow our own organic produce, to farm our fish, to weave our own clothes, and build our own houses! It seems like a lot of hard work and a far-fetched dream in this modern world! And yet so many people are now leaving the rat race to settle on farms and do the very same! 

We have so much and I mean literally so much to learn from the indigenous peoples of the world! Where exactly do we begin?! 

Tribal Tours by
Greener Pastures

Explore a kaleidoscope of colorful vibrant cultures and make friendships on the way.


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