An ethnic and indigenous community, inhabiting the Brahmaputra valley, Mising tribe are known to be one of the largest tribal groups and early settlers found in Assam and some parts of Arunachal Pradesh. The name Mising derives its name from: man (mi) of the water (asi).
My visit to Majuli, the land of the Mising tribe, was a long pending one. For 5 years I’d been waiting to visit this beautiful island. In 2019 December, I organized a Secret Santa initiative for a few school kids there and since then I have been waiting. Majuli is the world’s largest river island situated on the Brahmaputra River in Assam. It’s the first island to be made a district in 2016.
Lush green paddy fields all around, cattle grazing leisurely, children engrossed in their play and chatter was such a sight to behold. And of course, the warm hospitality of the Mising tribe captivates your heart.
As soon as Shameem my project partner and myself reached the village, it wasn’t just the children and the principal with his family who welcomed us but also the Rain Gods showered their blessings. It was the 1st rainfall in Majuli. Warm smiles and piping hot ginger-clove tea was just the perfect combination for a beautiful rainy evening.
Throughout our stay, the fireplace in the kitchen was a place where most of the stories were shared. While the fire flickered across the cane walls of the kitchen, we listened in amazement to the fascinating history, culture and traditions still being practiced by the Mising tribe. Their folk life is full of vivid art and culture. However, modernization has changed the essence of the original source of culture. While we listened in awe about the unique traditions being practiced, we were also saddened to know the challenges the tribe face till date.
Since 1983, the Mising tribe have been demanding Sixth Schedule status under the Constitution of India. The Misings currently have state autonomy under the Mising Autonomous Council (MAC) which was formed in 1995.
Table of Contents
Mising Tribe History
The Mising tribe were originally known to be a hill tribe (from the Indo-Tibetan border) which later migrated to the plains in Assam on the banks of the Brahmaputra River. Being the largest tribal group living on the banks of the river / water bodies, the Mising tribe are undoubtedly the only riparian tribe of North East India. Over the time they have gradually blended themselves with the culture of the other communities inhabiting the plains. No much-written history is recorded about their migration from the Himalayas to the plains of Assam. However, history was passed down orally in the form of folk songs and stories by the ancestors from generation to generation and is still prevalent in their society.
Life & Culture:
While the seasons 1st rainfall made its way in the island, swaying the paddy fields and the stilted bamboo houses, we relished the scent of the showers and kept ourselves warm around the fire in the kitchen where we sat cocooned in the beautifully handwoven Mising tribal shawl, sipping hot ginger-clove tea over chuckles of laughter as the children shared silly village ghosts’ stories. Children! the best story tellers! It was interesting to listen to the youngsters share their career plans. While one desires to become a doctor, the other is keen on pursuing fashion designing, and another is preparing to join the Indian Army.
Children sharing stories
With the youth in the Kitchen
After that refreshing nectar, tea, we decided to take a walk around the school campus. Little boys aged 10-12 were busy playing on the slide. The child in us leaped with joy and we too joined the kids in their game. Shameem is a children’s delight. He can easily woo children and instantly they formed a team.
Shameem with children
Dinner time is a time where the family gathers around the fireplace in the kitchen to discuss the day’s happenings. While organic hot food of rice, lentil, vegetable was being served (in customary copperware), glass full of Apong was served. Apong is rice beer, a traditional drink made of fermented rice. We were told one doesn’t need an occasion to enjoy a glass of rice beer. This drink (when consumed in moderation) is considered as a health drink curing ailments such as diabetes and blood pressure.
Dinner with the family
Family Ties & Marriage:
Mising tribe, though being an indigenous community, live a simple yet strong knit community life. Mising are a patrilineal and patriarchal society, which means only the male children are entitled to inherit the property. However, female children are also given property if the parents wish so. Daughters have the right over mother’s clothes and jewelry. Having said that, there is no gender discrimination among the tribe. Girls are treated equally. However, it’s interesting to know that girls even after marriage are encouraged to pursue their education and choose a career of her choice. With the influence of the modern world, the size of the Mising tribe families is now becoming smaller. The change is seen from earlier joint family system to the nuclear family. Also, the number of children in each family have reduced to 2-3 unlike 6-7 till recent past.
Marriages are formally arranged through negotiation of parents of both the boy and the girl. Even in case of love marriage, the marriage is done formally. The affluent ones prefer to have an arranged marriage ceremony with lot of fanfare. However, those economically challenged opt for a simple marriage ceremony within the household. One will also find marriage by elopement as one of the common practices followed here which is socially accepted by the Mising tribe. The couple is allowed to enter the house after their feet are washed – a purification ceremony. All types of marriages are incomplete without seeking the blessings of the elders and the deceased family members. After marriage, a girl goes to live with her husband’s family.
Marriage within the same clan is strictly prohibited as they are thought to be originated from the same forefathers. For example, a person from Pegu clan cannot marry from Pegu clan, but can marry from Doley clan. Inter community marriages (Hindu with Christians or animists) are allowed, however the marriage is subjected to purification ceremony and approval from the clan.
With the belief of living in peace and harmony with nature and people around is what makes this tribe truly distinct. Hence dowry, caste system, gender discrimination, divorce are issues which the Mising tribe do not seek refuge in.
Being the river people, Mising life revolves around agriculture and fishing. Wet paddy cultivation is practiced by the tribe predominantly. Rice being their staple diet is consumed thrice a day with lentils, fish, vegetables, chicken, pork. Mising tribe grow their own food. What surprised us was that dairy products are not used at all. Consumption of milk, butter, cheese, etc. is not heard of in this tribe.
Food served in customary copper plate
Apong – Rice beer
Living on the banks of the river, Mising tribes are among the worst to be affected during the flash floods and soil erosion. Hence their bamboo houses are flood resilient and are built above the ground on bamboo stilts. The flooring, roof, beams, granary, cowshed all are made of bamboo.
Traditional Bamboo houses built on bamboo stilts
The art of weaving is very important aspect in the Mising culture. Clothes are woven by the women in the house. We were in for a surprise when asked if we wanted to wear the Mising tribal dress. How can anyone resist such a treat to be dressed by them like them?
Mising clothes are bright colored (usually black and red are prevalent in the rich traditional dress).
I was dressed with Mosang Gasor which is a piece of cloth wrapped around the bust (an upper garment worn with the Mosang Age which is like a shawl. Shameem was given a black and red (with decorative design) sleeveless front opening jacket called the Mibu Galuk and Pohtuv, a red and black scarf. It is worn by all the male folks on special occasions or festivals and functions. It is sewn by hand only.
Mosang Gasor with Mosang Age
Religion and Belief System:
Mising are animists by nature. They practice the cult of Do-nyi (Sun)- Polo (moon) which literally translates in to worshiping the Sun and the Moon. Mising people consider the sun and the moon as the main source of energy for life. However, there are some who have adopted Hinduism and worship Lord Vishnu along with their traditional religious rituals. Though there are temples in the villages, they don’t believe in idol worship. Women, just like the men are allowed to go to the temple. However, there are no set prayers or mantras recited by the people.
Festival: The main festival is the Ali-Aye-Ligang festival which is the spring festival. The entire village gather together wearing traditional dresses and engage in singing, dancing merry making.
Language: The language spoken is Mising, belonging to the Sino-Tibetan family. The culture and all its learning were till then passed on orally from one generation to the next. Mising tribe realized the need to be document their culture in a literary form before it gets lost. They acknowledged that print literature was used worldwide and hence to preserve their culture, they started using the Assamese script. However, over time and after lot of research, Roman script was adopted as the Mising language script.
Though the Mising tribe is an indigenous group, over the years they have assimilated with the mainstream society and have not just accepted the developmental schemes and policies but have contributed effectively to the growth and enrichment of the Assamese society. However, at the same time, they are maintaining their culture which distinguishes them as a separate ethnic group still maintaining their own socio, cultural customs, traditional beliefs and customs.
India is known for diversity of peoples, their culture, art, tradition, religion and practices. In every region of the country, you’ll find its distinct uniqueness. Do plan your next visit to Assam, a beautiful gateway to the North East India and soak in the beauty of this magnificent island Majuli to relish the love of the Mising tribe.
This blog is contributed by Roshni D’ Souza.
Roshni is from Mumbai. Though a city girl, she generally spends her time with the tribes in India, understanding them and also writing about them.
She has a corporate experience of 12 years. Currently, she primarily works with NGOs in wildlife conservation,rural empowerment, education in village schools and youth rural development.