The Mishing Files — Reconnecting with my tribal roots in Assam

The Mishings are the 2nd largest ethnic group in the North East and are believed to have their roots in the Mongolian steppe, slowing migrating to the valleys of Assam over hundreds of years. Now we call areas near the banks of the Brahmaputra and parts of Arunachal as home. I left Assam when I left home for college at 18 and one of the chief complaints of my parents is that I haven’t made any efforts to reconnect with my roots. The last time I went back to our ancestral village was about 23 years ago. So this time, I decided to do a road trip with my parents and visit both their villages and spend time to see how my people lived in the villages. Here is a small effort to bring to you some intimate moments in the form of snapshots… hope you like it.

The Bogibeel Project

The river island of Majuli is where most of the Mishing villages are located and travel usually means being ferried across the mighty Brahmaputra. The Bogibeel Bridge Project is supposed to connect the North Bank (Silapathar) of the Brahmaputra to the South Bank (Dibrugarh) and ease travel and also logistics and development into these Mishing populated villages. Started in 2002, it is about 70% done and I personally can’t wait for it to be completed!

A ferry crossing ours

The ferry ride across the Brahmaputra river was super fun and I still have amazing memories of ferries as a child with my family and cousins to go back to the villages. The Brahmaputra is very serene and peaceful during the winter seasons but don’t be fooled… come the rains and you can see what devastation it can bring to the state

The ladies of the house posing in front of the main kitchen structure

Our ancestral house (dad’s side) comprises of a large compound with 3 main structures. One has the kitchen, dining area and a small sleeping area for my Aunt whose mobility is limited. The 2nd structure is comprised of 5 bedrooms for the rest of the family. The last structure is that of the store house for grains and livestock. The kitchen area structure is built in the traditional Mishing style of ‘chang ghor’ which is built on elevated platforms to protect itself from flooding, which is quite common during the rainy seasons. In this shot, you can see the ladies of the house in front of the kitchen & dining structure

In this shot, the men (mostly) of the house. My uncle’s 3 sons and their families live in a joint structure

This is my aunt, the wife of my now deceased uncle (dad’s elder brother). Last time I saw her 20 years back, she was quite healthy and active, but old age coupled with a hard life is starting to show up and she needs constant attention and help. But I was pleasantly surprised that she recognised me and asked me if I was doing well

Village mornings can be extremely chilly and as the houses are not built for winters, they can be quite miserable, specially for comfort creatures like myself. So my mornings won’t start till somebody comes and tells me that the fire has been lit. Here in the picture is my dad warming up his old bones and he was in a much better shape than me…

Our community is known for its massive cook outs and one of the things on my agenda was to do a small ancestor remembrance ceremony involving the whole family (immediate and extensions). Word was sent out to the whole clan and they were expected to join in for a meal. This meant a big preparation for food and drinks (all home grown and brewed). The whole family chips in with the work and my job was to keep everybody entertained and I think I kind of did ok there…

The ladies of the house preparing the cookout
Village elders conducting the ancestor ceremony

The Mishings are part of the Donyi-Polo (sun-moon) group of pagans. Over the centuries, due to continuous exposure to mainstream Assam, we have imbibed a lot of the regional Vaishnava practices into our ceremonies. This ceremony was to honour all our ancestors and spirit guardians and I was quite impressed by my dad’s ability to remember all our ancestors to the previous 3rd generation

2 of my ‘great grand kids’ by relation

Kids are the best indicators of the food being tasty or not and clearly the food from the celebration meet their quality standards. Village kids don’t need the attention and pampering that we see in city kids and most of them start being independent in their life functions quite early. Of course, they are not allowed (mostly) to drink the local rice beer called ‘Apong’

My nieces

In villages, they marry quite early and have kids really fast and so while I was still studying, my cousins were already having kids which meant that their kids would be grown up now and are either married now or of eligible age. Here are 2 of my nieces who are already married and are taking a breather from the work at the ceremony

Talking of nieces and nephews, can some of their kids be far behind? These are my ‘grandkids’ by relation i am still wrapping my head around being called ‘Grandpa’ or ‘Taato’ by them. Just when I was finally getting used to being called uncle, life decides to throw more lemons at me…

Early morning farm workers crossing a rivulet

Living in a Mishing village means that you have to get used to crossing rivulets and streams all the time. This time, it was a trip to a neighbouring village to visit our extended family. By car, it takes about 45 mins but my mom still gets tensed and starts preparing hours in advance for the journey. I realised that she is still using the benchmark of almost 35 years back when there were no cars to take them and it used to take half a day to just walk to the next village

Steely eyed fellow traveller on the boat

Boat rides are like being in a lift. You are stuck with your neighbours till it comes to a halt. Out of all the co-passengers, this dude struck me with his steely piercing eyes and he reminded me of a boxer who is about to enter the ring

Getting a royal welcome in the Hingimaari village

Now this is a village that knows how to throw a party. It is called Hingimaari and since the access to it a little difficult, they don’t get too many guests but they are known for their party mode and also their apong is rated as one of the best in the whole community. My dad’s cousins live here and the moment they got to know that we are coming, preparation started a night back and let’s just say that a lot of animals sacrificed themselves for the party

The kitchen fires burning bright

The Mishing community life revolves around the kitchen and it is usually a large earthen hearth with a smoking pit above for meats and fish. Iron pots are usually the choice of cooking utensils for their size and also to ensure we get our daily dose of iron in our diet (Mishings are genetically anaemic). Winters are quite fun to sit around the fire sharing a bowl of apong and food, but summers are a different story. Also, since the hearth is at a ground level, a lot of our older women tend to get bent backs due to the constant bending

New members are welcomed into the family by the tradition of seeking blessings from the elders and now my dad is a community & family elder and so in all the houses we visited, the new members actively seek out his blessings and received gifts from him. I also had quite a few new members seeking my blessings and it was quite surreal

These are my older cousins or ‘kai’ as we call them. I literally felt like a rockstar politician amongst my family and they were extremely happy to finally see me come to their homes. Usually, they would come and visit us

And these are my sisters-in-law or ‘maamo’ as we call them. I am meeting them for the first time ever as they got married after I stopped visiting the village but they spoke to me as if they have known me all their lives. Of course, the main topic of jokes was what they would do for my marriage :-|

I lined up the kids of my cousins for this shot and they were all naturals and independent. They didn’t need adult supervision to tell them to pose or behave in a certain way

This is another aunt or ‘Atta’ as well call them. Again old age has made her quite invalid physically but her mental agility was quite visible as the only thing she had for me was ’inform me when you get married’ :-|. She was basking in the warm sun outside

A wild horse grazing next to a mustard farm

Mishings are one of the few known tribes that ride horses bareback without a saddle and wild horses roam quite freely (or at least used to). This was in the morning when it was particularly foggy

Gold and blue

‘Sarson ka khet’ is synonymous with the Punjab but I would say that our mustard fields are as beautiful if not more. Don’t believe me? come and see for yourself and also have a picnic while you are at it…

My mom’s brother and his wife

My mother’s side of the family lives in a village called Bormukoli and one of her brothers live there with part of his family. Rest of her family have moved out and live in a radius of 3 kms from our current house. This is a shot of my mama and mami or ‘kaki’ ‘nani’ as we call them. We stopped by for 10 minutes on our way back

Parting shot of the Bogibeel from the Dibrugarh side

Lastly, a parting shot of the Bogibeel bridge after we crossed the river back to Dibrugarh. It was indeed a wonderful experience and I hope that it won’t take another 25 years for the next trip. Once the bridge is completed, it will become quite easy to go to our villages and come back within a day and I look forward to that day. There are tons of more pictures and hope you liked this extremely personal journey

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