The Karbi Tribe and their Folk Religion

PROJECT TITLE: THE KARBI TRIBE OF NORTH-EAST INDIA: EXPLORING AND

DOCUMENTING THEIR FOLK RELIGION

 INTRODUCTION:

NorthEast India is home to so many ethnic communities and tribes, speaking different languages and dialects, each having their own culture, folklore and traditions; each of them proud of their traditional customs and practices. This heterogeneity presents a colourful cultural kaleidoscope that the nation should be proud of.

The Karbis, mentioned as the Mikir in the Constitution Order of the Government of India, are one of the major ethnic groups in North-East India, especially in the hill areas of Assam. They constitute the third largest tribal community in Assam after the Bodos and the Mishings and are the principal tribal community in the Karbi Anglong district, the largest district of Assam which is administered as per the provisions of the Sixth Schedule of the Constitution of India, having an Autonomous status since 17 November, 1951.  Karbis possess rich traditions and culture unique from other tribes of the region. Racially they belong to the Mongoloid group and linguistically 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.

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’. 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 sub-mountane 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.

 ORIGIN OF THE RESEARCH PROBLEM:

Like the other tribes, the Karbis also have their own language, culture, folklore, traditions, and religious beliefs. The traditional religion of the Karbis is animistic with two types of gods and goddesses: the benevolent and malevolent. It is somewhat like Sakti and Shaiva in Hinduism in a more basic form but they do not have idols, temples or shrines. After death, the body is cremated but the Kabris believe in rebirth and the immortality of the karjong (soul). Karjongs of deceased settle in the Chom Arong (the abode of king Yama, the god of Death) in heaven. Probably, forest environment played a prominent role

in the origin and evolution of their religion. According to Karbi mythology, each and every creature on this earth is created by the god Hemphu (the Creator). Further, objects with fearsome or peculiar appearance are believed to possess divinity. Having accepted this philosophy, Karbis believe in multiple Gods including rivers, mountains, waterfall, rock, sacred groves, etc. These gods are propitiated by sacrificing fowls and pigs or goats annually or after every few years for various purposes – to grant prosperity and avert misfortunes, for rich harvest, etc. Traditionally prepared rice beer is essential in all rituals to satisfy the deities.

The concept of good and evil is highly vibrant in Karbi society and is based on the religious practices of the people. Common belief is good refers to God (Arnam) and evil refers to devil or demon (Hi-i; pronounced as he-e) and considers both entities as possessing divinity and unseen power and enjoying equal status. While arnam are sympathetic and helpful to Karbis and human in general, hi-i inflict harm or bring sorrow without any provocations. Hi-i literally means devil or demon or any destructive entities/forces that cause harm to mankind. The underlying difference however, is that arnam are assigned with specific duties towards Karbis, and their propitiations are meant for strengthening the bond of association. While hi-i has no such obligations and their propitiation is temporary, that is, only to appease hi-i not to harm Karbis. In many families however, hi-i are propitiated as hem angtar (Household god). As for instance, the god Peng (the Protector) who is actually a Chek kama, a hi-i, is propitiated by sacrificing fowls and one white male goat. The concept of good and evil is also extended to persons or objects that possess divinity or unnatural power. Many plants and animals are considered as symbols of hi-i, which is of course based on legends. Cheri (Ficus spp.; Moraceae), thengmu (Alstonia scholaris R.Br; Apocynaceae) among plants, and Vo-ak (crow), takun (vultures) among animals are considered as symbols of hi-i, and so, are often avoided. There are many popular Karbi folklores based on arnam and hi-i that are still narrated to children as bedtime stories. With the onset of modernity and the influence of Westernization, some of the beautiful cultural traits of Karbis have undergone changes and are still changing – for better or for worse!!! In recent times, a small percentage of the Karbis have adopted the Vaishanava and other Hindu faiths, and a few follow the tenets of Christianity indicating transformation in the religious beliefs. In other words, much of the cultural traits and symbols of the Karbi Tribe of North East India – languages, folklores, religious beliefs, traditions and cultural practices that distinguishes them from other ethnic groups, are facing danger of being radically transformed.

The new generation is now making tremendous efforts to preserve these assets in print form. The present project is also a sincere effort in the same direction to explore and document Karbi folk religion/ Karbi religious beliefs, which are basically animist in nature, fused with elements of shamanist ‘mysticism’, ancestor worship and a good many sacrifices to the unseen and territorial deities. The basic argument is derived from the varied and fascinating world of Karbi folklore, cosmologic tales and ritual practices that still continue to dominate the Karbi ‘religious’ traditions under the shadows of the mighty world religions.

The specific cultural tradition of the community elder you seek to research and document:

I would like to research and document the folk religion/ religious beliefs of the Karbi community elder Sh. Dharamsing Teron through exploration of Karbi folklore, cosmologic tales and ritual practices such as the ‘Mosera’ myth, the legend of ‘Peng’, Demonizing the Karbi ‘Hi-i’, concept of ancestor-worship, Souls and Heaven and Hell; Death, rebirth and eroticism, etc.

The research questions that are central to your project:

  •  To carry out a proper exploration of the Karbi folk religion system, in whatever form may it exist at present, and highlight it which would give an animist Karbi ‘hope’ and ‘courage’, because Karbi‘religion’ has much more to offer beyond its religiosity.
  • To document and preserve the Karbi folk religion/ religious beliefs of Karbi tribe of North-East India through exploration of the Karbi folklores, cosmologic tales and ritual practices such as Karbi cosmogony/ ‘Mosera’ myth, the concepts of ‘demons and deities’, the many forms of ‘souls’, concept of ‘ancestor worship’, and ‘hell and heaven’ so that a preliminary idea of the ‘culture complex’ of the tribe can be had as a guide for further studies.
  • To find out the reasons that why the cultural traits and symbols of the Karbi Tribe of North East India especially folk religion/ religious beliefs, traditions and cultural practices that distinguishes them from other ethnic groups, are facing danger of being radically transformed.

 The research and documentation methods:

  • In the first phase, I would like to collect the available Karbi literature pertaining to the Karbi folk religion/ Karbi religious beliefs from various Government agencies as well as Non-government organizations (NGOs) such as the Lammet Amei (Karbi Sahitya Sabha, or the Karbi Literary Council), Assam Sahitya Sabha, distinct public libraries and the University Departments/Centres for the Tribal Studies, etc. Thereafter, intensive reviewing of available Karbi literature will be done with the help of Karbi community elder, Sh. Dharamsing Teron, for in depth understanding the Karbi folk religion as represented in Karbi folklores, cosmologic tales and ritual practices.
  • Intensive field study will be undertaken among the persons of Karbi tribal community in Karbi Anglong district of Assam in association with the Karbi community elder, Sh. Dharamsing Teron to gather quality information about Karbi folk religion. Elders and learned persons, both men and women will be consulted and their narrations on the religious beliefs will be documented audio visually.
  • All the rituals related to Karbi folk religion will also be recorded through audio-visual aids with the assistance of the Karbi community elder, Sh. Dharamsing Teron.
  • The persons of Karbi tribal community who reportedly had adopted the Vaishanava and other Hindu faiths, or started following the tenets of Christianity will also consulted to record their experience and views. Analysis of this gathered information will be carried out to find out the major reasons for the changing religious beliefs.
  • A final report in the form of text as well as audio-visual documentation resulting out of this programme will be submitted to the National Folklore Support Centre, Chennai.

 

Description of what you consider important in the collaborative undertaking between you and the other community elder/ artist:

The Karbi Anglong district is home to many indigenous communities, principally the Karbis, and other communities from rest of the country especially the Marwaris form Rajasthan who have migrated from their home state and settled over there for business and trade. As I belong to the Marwari community, I cannot properly understand Karbi language, particularly of rural Karbi tribals. The Karbi community elder Sh. Dharamsing Teron will act as a bridge and translate the narrations of Karbi tribal people from Karbi to English for clarity and easy understanding of the concepts. This project will provide me an excellent opportunity to explore, understand and document the religious beliefs of Karbis in a better way. This will also improve the inter-community relationships and will encourage for peaceful and harmonious coexistence between both the communities in Karbi Anglong district.

 

A monthly field work plan for a period of one year starting from November 2012 to October 2013:

S. No. Month Field Work Plan

01. November, 2012 With the help of Karbi community elder, Sh. Dharamsing Teron, collection of the available Karbi literature pertaining to the Karbi folk religion/ Karbi religious beliefs from various Government agencies as well as Non-government organizations (NGOs) such as the Lammet Amei (Karbi Sahitya Sabha, or the Karbi Literary Council), Assam Sahitya Sabha, distinct public libraries and the University Departments/ Centres for the Tribal Studies, etc.

02. December, 2012 Intensive reviewing of available Karbi literature will be done with the help of Karbi community elder, Sh. Dharamsing Teron, for in depth understanding the Karbi folk religion as represented in Karbi folklores, cosmologic tales and ritual practices.

03. January, 2013 Intensive field study will be undertaken among the persons of Karbi tribal community in Karbi Anglong district of Assam in association with the Karbi community elder, Sh. Dharamsing Teron to gather quality information about Karbi folk religion.

04. February, 2013 Elders and learned persons, both men and women will be consulted and their narrations on the religious beliefs will be documented audio-visually.

05. March, 2013 Recording of various rituals related to Karbi folk religion will be stated one by one through audio-visual aids with the assistance of the Karbi community elder, Sh. Dharamsing Teron. Firstly, it is proposed to document the ‘Mosera’ myth in the month of March, 2012.

06. April, 2013 Documentation of the concept/myth of creation of the first Karbi parents ‘Sum’ and ‘Sang.

07. May, 2013 Documentation of the legend of ‘Peng’.

08. June, 2013 Documentation of Demonizing the Karbi ‘Hi-i’.

09. July, 2013 Documentation of the Karbi religious beliefs regarding Ancestor worship, Souls, and Heaven and Hell.

10. August, 2013 Documentation of the Karbi religious beliefs on Death, rebirth and eroticism.

11. September, 2013 The persons of Karbi tribal community who reportedly had adopted the Vaishanava and other Hindu faiths, or started following the tenets of Christianity will also consulted to record their experience and views. Analysis of this gathered information will be carried out to find out the major reasons for the changing religious beliefs.

12. October, 2013 A final report will be prepared in the form of text as well as audiovisual documentation resulting out of this programme and will be submitted to the National Folklore Support Centre, Chennai.

The proposed output and impact of the project including how the documentation can be used in

teaching programmes:

(a) The research and documentation of Karbi folk religion/ Karbi religious beliefs will be a valuable asset and can be used as a ready reference document in various teaching programmes to make familiar with the religious beliefs of Karbi tribal community of Karbi Anglong distract of Assam, and for carrying out further research on Karbi tribal community.

(b) This research can be useful for all the disciplines of Social Sciences and Humanities such as Sociology, Anthropology, Tribal Studies, as well as to the various Government agencies and non government organizations (NGOs) associated with the upliftment of Tribal Communities of North-East India, especially Krabi tribal community of Karbi Anglong district as they can formulate their schemes keeping in view of their religious beliefs.

(c) The outcome of the research project can bring paradigm shift in the development of Karbi Anglong district by improving the inter-community relationships and will encourage the peaceful and harmonious coexistence between Karbi and Marwari communities.

Describe your project and your scholarly and technical ability to undertake your project:

(a) Description of the Project:

Karbis represents one of the major tribes of North-East India. They constitute the third largest tribal community in Assam after the Bodos and the Mishings and are the principal tribal community in the Karbi Anglong district, the largest district of Assam. Karbi Anglong district is also home to some other communities from rest of the country, especially the Marwaris form Rajasthan who have migrated from their home state and settled over there for business and trade. Each communities and tribes speaks different languages and dialects, having their own culture, folklore and traditions; each of them proud of their traditional customs and practices. This heterogeneity presents a  colourful cultural kaleidoscope that the nation should be proud of.

Karbis possess rich traditions and culture unique from other tribes of the region. The traditional religion of the Karbis is animistic with two types of gods and goddesses: the benevolent and malevolent. It is somewhat like Sakti and Shaiva in Hinduism in a more basic form but they do not have idols, temples or shrines. After death the body is cremated but the Kabris believe in rebirth  and the immortality of the karjong (soul). Karjongs of deceased settle in the Chom Arong (the abode of king Yama, the god of Death) in heaven. Probably, forest environment played a prominent role in the origin and evolution of their religion. According to Karbi mythology, each and every creature on this earth is created by the god Hemphu (the Creator). Further, objects with fearsome or peculiar appearance are believed to possess divinity. Having accepted this philosophy, Karbis believe in multiple Gods including rivers, mountains, waterfall, rock, sacred groves, etc. These gods are propitiated by sacrificing fowls and pigs or goats annually or after every few years for various purposes – to grant prosperity and avert misfortunes, for rich harvest, etc. Traditionally prepared rice beer is essential in all rituals to satisfy the deities.

The concept of good and evil is highly vibrant in Karbi society and is based on the religious practices of the people. Common belief is good refers to God (Arnam) and evil refers to devil or demon (Hi-i; pronounced as he-e) and considers both entities as possessing divinity and unseen power and enjoying equal status. While arnam are sympathetic and helpful to Karbis and human in general, hi-i inflict harm or bring sorrow without any provocations. Hi-i literally means devil or  demon or any destructive entities/forces that cause harm to mankind. The underlying difference however, is that arnam are assigned with specific duties towards Karbis, and their propitiations are meant for strengthening the bond of association. While hi-i has no such obligations and their propitiation is temporary, that is, only to appease hi-i not to harm Karbis. In many families however, hi-i are propitiated as hem angtar (Household god). As for instance, the god Peng (the Protector) who is actually a Chek kama, a hi-i, is propitiated by sacrificing fowls and one white male goat. The concept of good and evil is also extended to persons or objects that possess divinity or unnatural power. Many plants and animals are considered as symbols of hi-i, which is of course based on legends. Cheri (Ficus spp.; Moraceae), thengmu (Alstonia scholaris R.Br; Apocynaceae) among plants, and Vo-ak (crow), takun (vultures) among animals are considered as symbols of hi-i, and so, are often avoided.

There are many popular Karbi folklores based on arnam and hi-i that are still narrated to children as bedtime stories. With the onset of modernity and the influence of Westernization, some of the beautiful cultural traits of Karbis have undergone changes and are still changing – for better or for worse!!! In recent times, a small percentage of the Karbis have adopted the Vaishanava and other Hindu faiths, and a few follow the tenets of Christianity indicating transformation in the religious beliefs. In other words, much of the cultural traits and symbols of the Karbi Tribe of North East India – languages, folklores, religious beliefs, traditions and cultural practices that distinguishes them from other ethnic groups, are facing danger of being radically transformed.

The new generation is now making tremendous efforts to preserve these assets in print form. My present project is also a sincere effort in the same direction and aims at exploring and documenting Karbi folk religion/ Karbi religious beliefs, which are basically animist in nature, fused with elements of shamanist ‘mysticism’, ancestor worship and a good many sacrifices to the unseen and territorial deities. The basic argument is derived from the varied and fascinating world of Karbi folklore, cosmologic tales and ritual practices that still continue to dominate the Karbi ‘religious’ traditions under the shadows of the mighty world religions.

(b) My scholarly and technical ability to undertake the project:

I am working as Assistant Professor in the PG Department of English at Assam University:: Diphu Campus (A Central University), Diphu-782 460, Karbi Anglong. I have research experience of  around seven years. I am actively engaged in the researcher of Multi-Ethnic Literature and being a Life Member, I am closely associated with the Society for the Study of the Multi-Ethnic Literature of the World (MELOW) and Asom Sahitya Sabha. I have contributed/presented many research papers/ articles in national and international conferences on various aspects of Karbi tribe (please see bio-data). At present, I am handling a UGC Research Project on “Development and Current trends in the Karbi Language and Literature of Karbi Tribe of North-East India.” and guiding two research scholars in the department.

As I was blessed to born and brought up in a Marwari family at Diphu, the district headquarter of Karbi Anglong, it provided me an excellent opportunity to interact with my Karbi friends and to become familiar with some of the rich traditions and culture of the Karbis that are unique from other tribes of the region. My association with my Karbi friends ultimately created in me a special interest to know more and more about their community. Now, I have fully devoted myself to explore/ identity the beautiful cultural traits of Karbis that have undergone changes and are still changing.

Why do you think that this project requires the fellowship support?

As the project involve extensive field work, research and documentation of the Karbi folk religion/ religious beliefs of Karbi tribe of North-East India through written and audio-visual ads, a financial support in the form of fellowship will help us in covering travel, documentation and day to day routine expenses.

Expected output and impact of the project:

(a) The research and documentation of Karbi folk religion/ Karbi religious beliefs will be a valuable asset and can be used as a ready reference document in various teaching programmes to make familiar with the religious beliefs of Karbi tribal community of Karbi Anglong distract of Assam, and for carrying out further research on Karbi tribal community.

(b) This research can be useful for all the disciplines of Social Sciences and Humanities such as Sociology, Anthropology, Tribal Studies, as well as to the various Government agencies and non government organizations (NGOs) associated with the upliftment of Tribal Communities of North-East India, especially Krabi tribal community of Karbi Anglong district as they can formulate their schemes keeping in view of their religious beliefs.

(c) The outcome of the research project can bring paradigm shift in the development of Karbi Anglong district by improving the inter-community relationships and will encourage the peaceful and harmonious coexistence.

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