Northeastern Tribes of India – Little Known Things About Their Culture


Garo girls in Traditional Attire – Wikimedia

The Northeastern states of India are home to a multitude of tribes, and each has its unique culture. Despite being an integral part of the country, people of this region face ethnic and racial discrimination when they venture out of their homeland. The cultures and livelihoods of the Northeastern Tribes of India are unique and beautiful. Here are some of the most interesting and little known things about these tribes.

Matriliny of Khasi and Garo tribes

Khasi Tribe –Wikimedia

The Khasi and Garo tribes are ethnic to Meghalaya and constitute the majority of its population. They have practiced Matriliny for centuries, and the practice is continuing in its original glory. Although it is not a novel concept and had existed in small pockets in different parts of India, these two tribes continue to be its largest practitioners. But what does Matriliny mean? It refers to the practice where the property is handed to the youngest daughter, instead of being passed over to the sons of the family.

Garo Treble Couple – Wikimedia

Other aspects of this practice include the groom living with his bride’s family, the family name of their children being that of the mothers and dominance of women in social and economic spheres. Yet this system has been criticized by the men of the community as they are denied equal rights. Protests against unfair property laws yielded no conclusions about their relevance. The practice might have lost its novelty in the state, but it remains a beautiful and distinguishing feature of the community.

Devanagari Script of the Bodo Language

Boro language textbooks in Devanagari – Wikimedia

The Bodo tribe is one of the largest ethnic groups in the seven sisters, and they speak the Bodo language, one of the officially recognized languages of our country. Yet, this mother tongue of more than a million Indians, has a unique feature- it is written the same way as Hindi. This is strange because the homeland of the Bodo tribe is distributed across four districts of Assam which are quite far away from the Hindi speaking heartlands of northern India. For a period of time after the original Deodhai script of their speech slowly became extinct, the language was mostly spoken without a proper script.

When the need for written material arose, there was a question as to which one the tribe would choose. They were reluctant to use the Assamese script because of past cases of discrimination, and the Bodo Sahitya Samaj took the lead to promote the Latin or English script. But this saw resistance from the other side. Accepting the advice of the Union Government, the Bodo tribe began writing in Devanagari, and today it is a distinguishable part of their culture.

Idu Mishmi – The Tribe of Rukmini

Image – Idu Mishmi Kesha Yandou via Facebook

An integral part of Indian culture is its mythologies which have seen various local interpretations across millennia. The Idu Mishmi tribe inhabiting in Arunachal Pradesh believe that they are the descendants of Krishna’s consort, Rukmini. Although the tribe does not practice Hinduism, Hindu Mythology of Mahabharata has vastly influenced their culture.

Rukmini and her life are deeply rooted in their cultural identity. Rukmini was a princess whose brother, Rukmi wanted her to marry Krishna’s cousin Shishupala. An enmity existed between Rukmi and Krishna as the latter had killed Rukmi’s friend Kansa. Thus when he discovered that Rukmini and Krishna wished to marry, the prince forbade the marriage. On the fateful day, when Rukmini eloped with her lover, the people of the Idu Mishmi tribe tried to stop them. As a punishment, the Lord commanded them to cut their hair. To this day, the tribe members are also locally called “chulikata” literally meaning “those who had cut their hair”. They still sing love songs depicting the marriage of Rukmini during the season of love, spring.

The Villages of Singing Names

Image Source

A mother’s love is beyond measures. When she sees her child for the first time, tears of happiness well up in her eyes. And out of love and joy, she might hum a tune. In the Kongthong and the neighboring villages of Meghalaya, which are occupied by the Khasis, this little song becomes the name of the baby. She composed two tunes, one is a full song, and the other is a shorter version of it. Kongthong is also known as the whistling village as their song names sound like melodious whistles. The children have another name for official purposes, yet their family members do not address them with this commonly. They only do so when they are angry with them. After all, the name symbolizes love. So, when anger is present, love need not be! And every one of these lullabies is unique.

Even when a person dies, their song is not passed onto their newborn village-members. They also have a unique marriage tradition revolving around the tune where the unmarried men sing their names on a full moon night, and the best singer is chosen as the groom. This practice of singing names has several advantages. The most important one is when the community members are out in the nearby forests, and are in danger. The villagers may not hear their names, but the song would echo through the woods.

The Unique Cultures of Northeastern Tribes of India

Regrettably, most of these cultures are still unknown to the rest of the country. The local bodies have tried to increase tourism and made efforts to protect these cultures. But most efforts have been in vain- partially due to lack of infrastructure and connectivity. Cultures, if not indulged in and appreciated, are lost with time. So next time you are planning a trip, explore the Seven Sisters, and enjoy the vibrant culture of the states.

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