Indu Swami Report

Excerpts from January 2013 report

During the month of January, the information collected from some elderly Karbi persons of town Taralangso regarding prevailing kinship system in the Karbi tribe was compared with the information available in Karbi literature with the help of Karbi community elder, Sh. DharamsingTeron, for better understanding of Karbi kinship system.

A close conformity was found between literature and the information provided by elderly Karbi persons of town Taralangso. It is revealed that the Karbi society, as a whole, is divided into clans, sub-clans, and lineages, whose members reckon their presumed kinship and common ancestry through the paternal line only. The Karbis have five primary patrilineal sections or patriclans called “Kur”. Each of the five clans has a number of patrilinages or sub-clans. The name of all the five clans and its respective sub clans of the Karbis are provided here under:

(A) Lijang (Ingti):

1. IngtiHansek, 2.Ingti KatherBura, 3. KatherRiso, 4. Ingleng, 5.Taro, and 6. Ingti Killing.

(B) Hanjang (Terang):

1. Terang, 2.Terang Engnar, 3. TerangIngjai, 4. TerangDilli, 5. TerangRongcheicho, 6.Bey Ke-ik, 7. Beyke-et (Ronghang), 8.BeyChingthong, 9. Bey Dum, 10. BeyLindok, 11. BeyMiji, 12. Kro, 13.KroNilip,  14. KroNihang, and 15. KroKhamu

(C) Ejang (Enghi/Inghi):

1. Enghi, 2. Rongpi, 3.RongpiRonghang, 4. RongpiAmri, 5. RongpiChingthong, 6. RongpiLindok, 7. RongpiMeji, 8. RongpiRongchehon, 9. Ronghi, 10.Ke-ap, 11.Rengoi, 12.Renglum, 13.Rente, 14.Lekthe, 15.Bongrung, 16.Kramsa, 17.HanseLindok, 18.HanseChingthong, 19.HanseDurong, 20.HanseNongphili, 21.HanseNongloda, 22.HanseKa’I (Kalongtam), 23.Ronghang, 24.RonghangLindok, 25. TissoRongphu, 26. TissoRongchitim, 27. TissoRongling, 28. TissoMotho, 29. TissoRongcheicho, and 30.Tisso.

(D) Kronjang (Teron):

1.Millik, 2. Kongkat, 3.Langne, 4.Sirang, 5.Dengja, 6.Ai, 7.Torap, 8.Sir-ik, and 9. Miji.

(E) Tungjang (Timung):

1.Timung, 2. TimungRongpi, 3. Timung Killing, 4. TimungPhura, 5.Phangcho, 6. PhangchoJuiti, 7. PhangchoLangteroi, 8. PhangchoIngnar, 9. PhangchoVojaru, 10. Pator, 11.Killing Miji, 12.Killing Nokbare, 13.Senar, 14.SenarMuchiki, 15. SenarMeji, 16. TokbiRonghang, 17. TokbiTotiki, 18. TokbiChingthong, 19. TokbiDera, 20.Rongphar Senot, 21. RongpharPhura, 22. Nokbare (Longthulu), 23. Nongdu, 24.Nonglada, 25.Dera, 26.SenarPator, 27. Senot, 28.ChalutSenot, 29. Mu Chophi, and 30. Tokbi Killing.

Although all the five clans are socially equal, Ingti being a priestly clan was supposed to have a higher status in former times. The five clans are symbolically represented by Jambili Athan. It is made up of a rod with five branches having a wooden bird, which is called Vo-rali in Karbi, at the end of each branch. JambiliAthan is a symbolical representation of the Karbi tribe and of clan unity. Under the cover of it, the Karbi listen the story of their origin which is called Muchera Kehir.

To gather quality information about Karbi folk religion, field study was also undertaken among the persons of Karbi tribal community in few villages of Diphu sub division in Karbi Anglong district such as Manja, Dhansiri, Bakulia, Dokmoka, Uttordorbil in association with the Karbi community elder, Sh. DharamsingTeron.

Excerpts from February 2013 report

During the month of February, I visited the village Taralangso, in the vicinity of Diphu, the head quarter of the Autonomous District of Karbi Anglong in association with the Karbi community elder, Sh. Dharamsing Teron to capture the different moments of the Chojun Puja or Swarak Puja. Further, field study was also undertaken among the persons of Karbi tribal community in few villages of Bokajan sub division in Karbi Anglong district such as Bokajan, Borpathar, Dillai, Rongmongwe, Chowkohola, Deithor, Dolamara, Khatkhati, Chowkihola and Kat Teron to gather quality information about Marriage System of Karbis.

It was found that Karbis are custom bound to follow and observe the below mentioned marriage circle:

TERANG—->INGTI—–>TIMUNG—–>ENGHI——->TERON——>TERANG

According to this marriage circle rule, a Terang and all its sub-clan should, by custom, marry an Ingti girl. A Teron should marry a Terang girl. A Timung should marry an Enghi girl and an Ingti should marry a Timung girl. Any valid and legal marriage among the Karbis is a marriage according to the marriage circle. This marriage circle is a must among the Karbis till recently. Any violation of this circle was considered as a crime. But by now, the violation of the marriage circle custom is very frequent. And it seems that the Karbi society itself has under gone a remarkable change. The only prohibition which is adhered to till today is the marriage within the same clan. The clans are completely exogamous 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 and social boycott of the couple involved.

In Karbi tribe, cross-cousin marriage is a preferential one. The parallel cousins (father’s brother’s children and mother’s sister’s children) are equated with siblings and therefore not marriageable, while cross cousins (father’s sister’s children and mother’s brother’s children) are clearly marriageable. In general, monogamy is the prevailing practice, there is no bar to polygamy but the cases of polygamy are very rare. 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 patriarchal system of family structure.

Excerpts from April 2013 report

During the month of April, I visited the village Dokmoka in Karbi Anglong district along with the Karbi community elder, Sh. Dharamsing Teron to capture the different moments of the death ceremony. The Karbis have a unique system of performing death. They firmly believe the concept of re-birth; therefore, every Karbi family has the responsibility to perform the death ceremony of the deceased. This ceremony of the Karbis is called CHOM KAN. The Chomkan (also known as “thi-karhi”) is a festival unique to the Karbis. It is actually a ceremony performed by a family for the peace and the safe passage of the soul of family members who died recently.

Previously known as Arleng Karhi, this ritual is nowadays called Chomangkan. The ceremony is derived from the fundamental Karbi belief that the soul is immortal and that it is reborn. After the death of a person, he is normally reborn either into the same family or at least into the same clan. However, in the interregnum between death and rebirth the soul is supposed to reside in the world of the spirits known as the Chom Arong. The Chomangkan ceremony is considered essential to facilitate the entry of the spirit into the world of spirits.

The documentation work of Chomkan was performed by taking around 60 photographs and video of around four and half hours. The documentation work performed during this month clearly depicts the various steps performed during this important ritual of Karbi Tribal Community.

Further, field study was also undertaken among the persons of Karbi tribal community in few villages of Diphu sub division in Karbi Anglong district such as Manja, Dokmoka, Anjokpani, Samelangso, Borlongfer, Bokulia, and Uttar Borbil to gather quality information about Chomkan.

The available Karbi literature pertaining to Chomkan ritual of Karbis are critically studied and compared with the information collected from field study. It was found that the ‘Karhi’ performed as a celebration of death is as much a celebration of life in Karbi tradition. But taboos apart, the hard economic realities are threatening to change all that. The rhythmic sounds of Karbi folk drums that once announced the ensuing funeral festival in a village nearby are fading into oblivion. Traditional drummers, once respected and recognized, the Duhuidis are a vanishing tribe. Their drumbeats no longer reverberate in young hearts and entice them to a ‘nimso-kerung’ dance interspersed with the erotic tunes of mi-ring-rang songs, because their art is no longer appreciated. ‘Karhi’ as the celebration of death is gasping for breath. This funerary ritual that embodies the philosophy of death and rebirth, eroticism and fertility, the art of music and dance, and a communal cultural activity — is also the essence of the cultural edifice of the Karbis. But the tragedy now is that —the ‘chomangkan’ or ‘Karhi’ is well becoming only a celebration of death and decay, reflecting the crude realities within the Karbi society which itself is gasping for survival between tradition and modernity

One of the very important religious ritual/ceremony of the Karbi tribe of North-East India i.e. Chomkan was studied and documented during the month of April 2013. The documentation work performed during this month clearly depicts the various steps performed during Chomkan ritual of Karbi Tribal Community.

The dead body is kept in the house and it remains there till the preparations for the Chomangkan is ready. Hence, the funeral may be held within a day, a week or even longer depending on the financial condition of the family. During this time family members are not permitted to sleep in the house and each family in the village is supposed to volunteer a man to sleep in the house of the deceased every night. In case the house is not big enough, the villagers enlarge the house by adding a platform in the front. Normally the ceremony lasts for four to five days and the idea is to ensure sufficient supply of rice and beer for that period. Chomangkan begins with ruh kehum ritual, which literally means ‘bringing back of the soul from the cremation ground to the house of the deceased’.

There is no particular time for holding the Chomangkan festival. It depends upon the convenience of the locality. The Karbis generally held this festival outside the village. It is the most elaborate and expensive socio-religious ceremony of the Karbis, which continues for four days and four nights non-stop. In other words it is “a non-stop four days and four nights celebration.” The first day of the festival is called Rukehum, the second day is called Kanas, the third day is called Kanapi and the fourth day or the last day of the festival is ended by doing earthly purificatory rites of the dead person through “Banejab Keku” function or ceremony.

The ceremony does not require any formal invitation and all are welcome to it. In spite of the sad undertone, it is an important occasion for the family to welcome all with great warmth. They come in batches and everyone carries a symbolical and ceremonial totem with 5 (five) branches. At the top of main totem, there is a wooden “Vo-jaru” (racket-tailed drongo). The totem is called “Jambili Athon”. This is the symbolical representation of the tribe and it is also the symbol of clan unity.

The song sung along with this dance is “Kapa-Er-Alun.” Both the young boys and girls take part in this dance wearing their traditional dresses. The dance is circular. The musical instruments used in this dance are Cheng, Pongi, Muri and Kum. The Karbis do not do anything hastily for holding the funeral ceremony of a dead person just after his death because they wait for the arrival of his relatives. After their arrival, all the relatives of the dead person hold his funeral ceremony formally. Chomngkan festival is a must for every Karbi.

Karbis cremate their dead on a raised platform or machang. While the cremation is in progress, women sing a symbolic song narrating the life of the deceased and how he is going to meet relatives who had predeceased him. Singing and dancing continues in the cremation ground till the body is fully burnt. The bones that remain un-burnt are tied up in a cloth and buried. Interestingly, these ceremonies are obligatory in case of all deaths including stillborn children. However, in the event of death due to contagious diseases such as small pox or cholera, the bodies are buried immediately and the prescribed rituals are performed later by cremating the bones that are dug up.

Generally the Chomangkan festival is hold under the leadership of two persons. These two important persons are the weeper and Duihudi. The weeper is an aged Karbi woman who is well-versed in the rites and rituals of the festival. Next important person to the weeper is Duihudi. He has two functions. He maintains the programmes or phases of the festival on the one hand and beats the drum maintaining the relations with the different phases of the festival. Herein lies the credit of Duihudi, as a drum beater or “Dhulia” of the festival on the one hand and as a conductor of the same on the other. However, besides the functions of the weeper and Duihidi, the members of the family of the maternal uncle of the dead also play an important role in the Chmangkan festival.

The Karbis never join the Chomangkan festival or dance without bowing their heads to the Jambelli Athon first. They regard it as the some of their culture. Further, the Karbis believe that for the salvation of the soul of the dead man from all sorts of cares and anxieties, troubles and unhappiness etc. on the one hand and giving it peace after death on the other, they must hold the Chomangkan dance or festival. Herein lies the significance of the festival. The Chomangkan dance or festival is not only a cultural resource of the Karbis alone but also an important cultural resource of the whole culture of Assam.

Excerpts from May 2013 report

During the month of May, I visited a kepangri ceremony going on in Diphu town itself to capture the different moments of the kepangri i.e. marriage rituals of the Karbi tribe of North-East India. The documentation work of kepangri was performed by taking around 80 photographs and video of around one hour. The documentation work performed during this month clearly depicts the various steps performed during this important ritual of Karbi Tribal Community.

The Karbis have a pristine set of rules integral to marriage (kepangri). The Karbi is a patrilineal tribe and descent, inheritance, succession, authority, and residence after marriage are traced through male line among them. They practice tribal endogamy and clan exogamy. The tribal endogamy is highly favoured and esteemed, though in recent times marriage with the members of other communities is also observed. Marriage between a boy and a girl of the same clan is strictly prohibited. Since the violation of this rule leads to ex-communication, this incest taboo is rarely disobeyed. Asymmetrical cross-cousin marriage (orgasopi-pesokapangri) is the preferential type of marriage among the Karbis by which a man has to marry his mother’s brother’s daughter. Nowadays, the younger generation prefers to choose their own mates beyond the periphery of the pristine norms. Marriage by negotiation (adamachar) is the common practice of the Karbis; however, marriage by mutual consent and elopement (kanghupan), and marriage by capture (kachonghupan), are also not rare. Traditionally a girl is married soon after her puberty and the groom is generally older than the bride. Age of marriage among the boys is 18 to 20 years and the age of girls is 15 to 16 years. However, a boy marries from the age of 16 and a girl from the age of 14 in the traditional Karbi society. In case of marriage by negotiation, the father of the groom initiates the process and performs the lead. An already existing closely connected kin in another village usually explores possibilities for finding a match for a boy or a girl of the village. The strength of ties maintained with the extra-local kin varies according to the nature of situation and from person to person. The geographical distance between localities also determines the strength of ties maintained with the extra-local kin. There is a fair amount of choice with regard to interactions with extra-local kin excepting from ‘priority kin’ such as wife’s parents, wife’s brothers and mother’s brothers. In most of the cases, the boy and girl are consulted before making the proposal final. A Karbi girl cannot be forcibly married against her will.

Further, field study was also undertaken among the persons of Karbi tribal community in few villages’ viz., Deithor, Rongchali, and Tara-dong in the foothills of Karbi Anglong district near Numaligarh town of Assam to gather quality information about kepangri.

The available Karbi literature pertaining to marriage rituals of Karbis are critically studied and compared with the information collected from field study. It was found that in Karbi society, most of the marriages is performed by elopement and very few marriages are performed by negotiation. It is due to the fact that marriage by negotiation incurs considerable expenditure which is difficult for a family of modest means. Therefore, the parents of a poor family allow their sons and daughter to establish ties by eloping. Such a couple resides somewhere for a couple of month and then comes to the husband’s family of orientation on in a new local residence. To lead a normal life like the co-villagers, the couple has to offer a feast to entertain the co-villagers. The junior levirate type of marriage is practiced by them to secure the widow’s future in the deceased husband’s family. Traditionally, they practiced widow marriage; however, now days they try to avoid this type of marriage except the compulsory marriage of the widow with her deceased husband’s brother.

Many traits of the Assamese Hindu culture have been percolated to the Karbi culture and become integral to it. Intermarriage with other communities, especially with the Assamese Hindus, widened the familial kin horizon of them. The Karbis of a particular village have familial ties with a number of Karbi and non-Karbi settlements of Assam and Meghalaya. The presence of kin in the nearby villages facilitates contact and communication with them. In different rituals and ceremonies held in a household, kin from different villages also meet one another. In such occasions, kin from neighbouring villages are always invited. A section of the Karbi tribe has abandoned the pristine religion and has embraced Christianity. These Karbis performed their marriage according to Christian rites. The educated section of Karbis who donot follow the tribal endogamy sometimes perform marriages according to the norms of the bride’s community or opt for a court marriage.

One of the very important ceremonies of the Karbi tribe of North-East India i.e. kepangri was studied and documented during the month of May 2013. The documentation work performed during this month clearly depicts the various steps performed during kepangri rituals of Karbi Tribal Community.

The Karbi society has strict rules regarding marriage obligations. In every step of a Karbi marriage, such rules can be easily observed. If a young boy likes a girl, he sends his father, or both the parents, to the girl’s father and leaves a betrothal ring or bracelet with the girl. Sometimes a gourd of rice beer is taken and accepted. If after the acceptance the girl is married to another boy, the village council fines the girl’s family. The length of engagement is not uniform. If the girl and the boy have come of age, it does not last long. Marriage takes place at the bride’s house. In cases of marriage by mutual consent and elopement and marriage by capture, the marriage ceremony has to be performed after the birth of the first sibling at a convenient time.

If the bridegroom’s party on the way to the bride’s house has to go through different Karbi villages, it has to offer a gourd full of rice beer to the members of each village. This custom naturally develops fellow feelings among the villagers besides the people of the bride and the groom’s villages. The guests are entertained with a feast and plenty of country liquor on the marriage day at the bride’s house. Nuptial songs are integral part of the Karbi marriage. Innumerable marriage songs provide a mentionable dimension to the Karbi folk-lore. In different marriage songs of the Karbis, description of the mundane duties, life of women, love, sorrow, kinship ties, duties and obligations, customary laws, views towards the life, etc. are depicted by the unknown poet in a convincing and sensitive way. It is pertinent to note here that marriage songs are sung only by the female folk and participation of male folk in it is tabooed.

Not only the marriage songs, the conversations of the bride’s and groom’s parties on the marriage day also focuses the frolic loving tendency and art of expression of the feelings of the Karbis such as: ‘The bride’s father asks the bride groom’s party why they have come and why presents have been offered. The bride groom’s father replies: Your sister (bridegroom’s mother) has become old and cannot work, so we have brought our son to marry your daughter. The reply from the bride’s father is as follows: My daughter is unworthy and she does not know weaving or any other household work. The bridegroom’s father then replies: never mind, we will teach her those things ourselves ’. Such situations are properly depicted in the marriage songs of the Karbis. A marriage does not bind only two persons but also binds two households and two groups of people with duties and expectations.

After marriage, a girl has to leave her family of orientation and has to live with her husband in the husband’s family of orientation or in a neo-local residence. The Karbi females use pi after their surname. For instance, if a girl’s father’s surname is Teron, she has to write her surname as Terongpi. A girl does not change her surname after marriage, but her children have to use her husband’s surname.

The Karbis are described as a monogamous tribe. However, the occurrence of polygamous type of marriage is not altogether uncommon among them. Traditionally the practice of polygamy is not favoured. Only among the richer section of the Karbis polygamy is noted. Generally a polygamous marriage isto beget progeny. Child marriage is an unknown system among the Karbis. Junior levirate (kepatang) is practiced by them and following that customary law a man has to marry his deceased elder brother’s wife. However, under no circumstances, the elder brother is allowed to marry the widow of his younger brother. Widow marriage is also practiced by the Karbis.

The Karbis are overwhelmingly rural and, therefore, they generally arrange marriages when they get rest after continuous labour in the agricultural field. To a considerable extent the local and extra-local settings determine the patterns of social relations among the Karbis. The basic values of Karbis are handed over from generation to generation.

In Karbis, divorce (kasakok) is very rare, but permissible through the village council only when the separation of the spouse is inevitable. If the wife is barren or if she goes to her parent’s home and refuses to return to her husband’s home in such cases only, divorce is granted by the village council. A husband, whose wife refuses to return to his house from her parent’s house, offers a gourd full of rice beer to his wife’s parents and by this custom, both the husband and wife become free from the marriage bond. After divorce, husband and wife are free to marry again.

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