In this post, I am going to highlight the people of Majuli Island, their cultural heritage, their raw & rustic lifestyle. The spotlight will be on Mishing Tribal Community, which is the largest in numbers on the river island.
The synchronized sound of the loom was constant as I was on a morning walk in the Mishing village, early in the morning. The rising smoke from the stilt houses announced the daybreak. Children were playing in the courtyard and men were ready to leave for their farmland.
A few blocks away, I saw a Mishing woman busy in the rice field, half of her legs buried in the muddy watery field. The raw and rustic lifestyle of the Mishing Tribe of Majuli was beyond fascinating. Irrespective of the main focal attraction, that’s the Neo-Vaishnavite Satras, I had decided to spend my time in the river island with the Mising Tribe.
The Mising tribe is the second largest tribal community in Assam and the largest number of the Mishing people are concentred in Majuli island. They truly dominate the socio-cultural landscape of this floating island. In this post, I will be discussing their bucolic lifestyle, culture and traditions, and food habits.
Majuli needs no introduction. The River Island has been drawing attention from globetrotters for many years. Especially, during the winter months, it welcomes a sea of tourists across the globe.
Mostly known for the Neo-Vaishnavite Satras, founded by the social reformer and visionary Sri Sankardeva in the 15th century, the river island is much more than these cultural institutions. Life in general on the river island is quite taxing due to the erosion of the mighty Brahmaputra River.
Every year, the unstoppable flood situation makes life on the island quite challenging. Despite that, the communities like Mishing, Deuri, Sonowal Kachari are living there. Interestingly, they are not just surviving there, rather thriving.
WHO IS THE MISHING TRIBE?
My tryst with the Mising tribe of Majuli happened when I was randomly invited over tea during my morning walk in the quaint Mishing village. The friendly nature of the Mishing people had me hooked on to them immediately. As I climbed the steep wooden ladder typed staircase to reach the raised platform, the lady of the house opened the door to welcome me.
I was served Lal Chai (Black Tea) at their Chang Ghar as they call it. The platform house has a central fireplace around which the life of the Mishing tribe revolves. There is one central hall and no partition as such.
They cook, eat, sleep, and do everything around the fireplace only. The traditional way of living in the age of skyscrapers in a far-flung river island can sway you with numerous questions for sure.
The Mising tribe, also known as “Miri”, is mostly concentrated in the riverine areas of Lakhimpur, Dibrugarh, Sibasagar, Jorhat, and the newly formed Majuli district of Assam. Often referred to as “The River People”, they have been living by the bank of the various rivers for ages.
The Mising tribe is originally a hill tribe within the range Abor, Miri & Mishmi hills of Arunachal Pradesh. They came down to the plains of Assam much before the reign of Ahom kings. Ever since they have settled down in the riverine areas of the Brahmaputra and Subansiri rivers.
Although, there is no recorded history to determine the exact date or year when the Mishing tribe came down to the plains and why.
LIFESTYLE OF MISHING TRIBE
The word “Mi” means Man and “Shing” means water/river. So, the word Mishing means the tribe living by the river /water. The river has been an integral part of their identity ever since. According to the Mishing community, the river had guided their community’s migrations over the centuries.
Though the Mishing community has adopted a few lifestyle traits from the mainland people, their distinct lifestyle practices are still intact and can be seen in their daily life. Otherwise, the straightforward Mising people can surprise you when it comes to hospitality.
I was overjoyed when I got an opportunity to have a traditional meal with a Mishing family in Majuli. Even though they live a very humble life in their stilt houses, they never lack warmth. The Mishing people are one of the best hosts among all the tribal communities in Northeast India.
House of Mishing People
The very first thing that draws your attention in Majuli would be those raised stilt houses. The distinctive pattern of their houses says a lot about their sustainable lifestyle on the flood-affected island. The thatched roof bamboo houses are constructed in such a way that no harm is done to the family in the flood situation.
Another theory of their architectural style is that the Mising community is predominantly agriculturally based people who spend a considerable amount of time in the paddy field. When the parents leave for their farmland leaving behind their children at home, their raised platform home is considered safe. According to them, the wild animal can’t climb up to attack them.
The “Chang Ghar” is a giant hall without any compartments or separate rooms. They have a central fireplace and maybe a separate space for cleaning the utensils. But apart from that, there is no concept of a separate room.
The length of the house will depend on the number of family members the house has. Everything revolves around the central fireplace. You will notice that they generally keep the meat, fish, and other edible things just above the fireplace so that it gets dried slowly due to the heat.
The lower part of the house is used to provide shelter to animals. Apart from the main house, there is a traditional granary over a raised platform on the premises. Although, a separate granary is only seen in wealthy Mishing families. Otherwise, the granary is built inside the main house only.
In every Mishing household, a loom is mandatory. Weaving is another important aspect of the culture of these people. Traditionally, women practice weaving for their utility purposes. But in the present scenario, handloom cloths have not been restricted to these villages in Majuli but have a promising market in Assam.
The loom is mostly placed under the platform only. Therefore, don’t be surprised if a Mishing woman ignores you. Most probably she is busy on the loom and weaving exquisite Mekhala Chador.
Food habits of Mishing Tribe
The food habits of any community are shaped based on the geographical environment and climate of a place. Since the Mishings are a riverine tribe, so fishing is part of their lifestyle. Hunting used to be an integral part of their life, now it is extinct.
Their food includes fish, a variety of meat, locally grown vegetables, and wild edible plants, etc. They are hugely dependent on agriculture and paddy cultivation is the main occupation. Therefore, rice is a staple food of Mishings.
You will be treated with Mishing delicacies if you are invited by the tribe in their Chang Ghar. The dried smoked fish and meat hung over the central fireplace is a common sight in their household. I had the opportunity to relish the traditional cuisine of the Mising tribe in Majuli.
The traditional dishes like Mach Pura (Local fish barbequed on fire), Tora Pator Bhaat, (Rice wrapped in a leaf and cooked by steaming or boiling), Pita Oyeng (Chicken cooked with rice flour), Namsing (The powder of dried fish), etc., was served to me.
The joy of relishing the traditional dishes in Chang Ghar with the Mising family was quite overwhelming.
The authentic taste of their simple delicacy still lingers in my mouth. Don’t be surprised if you are offered “Apong” (Locally brewed rice beer) served in a bell metal bowl instead of Tea at the Mishing household. They consider this drink quite prestigious to offer to the guests.
Nowadays, the food habits of the Mising community have been changing slowly. Their oil-free food habits have changed into the normal food where they take the egg, milk, and other food that were earlier not part of their food history. Instead of Apong, they offer tea and betel nut (tamol-pan) to their guests these days.
Other Cultural Aspects of Mishing Tribe
The Mising community is one of the warmest and friend tribal communities in Assam. They are also very hospitable. Culturally rich, this riverine community has a very distinct way of living. Whether it’s their traditional attire, wedding, festivals, age-old rituals, and socio-economic fabric, or their strong belief system.
When it comes to traditional attire, the women of the community wear “Sumpa” which is worn around the waist extending down to the knees. On their upper body, they wrap a narrow strip of cloth called “Galuk”. Another small piece of cloth named “Hura” is worn as a headdress. The male member of the community wears normal attire, except on festive days.
The Mising community thrives on agriculture. You will find both males and females working equally in a paddy field. Apart from that, Mising women are expert weavers. The handloom cloths like traditional Mekhala Chador, Gamosa, and other attires are normally woven by them for daily use.
But, with changing times, the traditional attires are in high demand in the market. It has resulted in a new way of earning money for the community which has contributed in making the Mishing women self-dependent financially.
The main festival of the Mising tribe is Ali-Ai-Ligang. It is celebrated on the first Wednesday of the spring season. They celebrate this festival with a lot of flares. Feast, singing, and dancing are an integral part of the festival. The whole community comes together to enjoy this festival. Places like Majuli come alive during the festival. Apart from that, they also celebrate festivals like Porag, Amrok, etc.
In the present scenario, the Mising community has been adapting to changes in their lifestyle. In a remote island like Majuli, the traditional stilt houses are slowly converting into Assam typed concrete houses. The traditional meals are slowly becoming a delicacy only cooked at festivals.
The fraction in the community has quietly penetrated due to religion. In origin, the Mising community purely follows the Donyi Polo religion, but some of them have become completely Hindus by embracing, neo-Vaisnavism.
Regarding occupation, the young generation has adopted a modern approach to getting educated and entering each field. Agriculture is no longer the only source of income for the community anymore.
The women are also slowly turning themselves self-sufficient by earning a living with their handloom products in the market.
On a positive note, the “River People” have come a long way. If you want to have an intimate conversation and meet the Mishing tribe, Majuli is the ideal place to be in. A river island that is home to this amazing tribal community allows you to get a close look at their rustic lifestyle in the most spectacular way.
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