What do we understand by loss of culture is loss of identity?

[ Dani Sulu ]

The slogan ‘Loss of culture is loss of identity’ seems to have caught much of people’s imagination and has become a point of contention and debate amongst the people of Arunachal Pradesh. As the debate rages on, it may do us good to pause, introspect and try to understand what is culture, what is indigenous identity and whether the changes in certain age-old customs and cultures are bane or blessing for the society.

What is culture?

  1. a) As we understand, the culture of any society is it’s language, it’s dresses and ornaments, the kinship pattern, it’s culinary and food habits, the songs, dances and the music, the paintings and other works of art and architecture, customary belief systems, the rituals and ceremonies that are performed during social occasions like marriages and in venerating the gods and spirits of the community, the agriculture and other economic practises that sustain the community’s life and it’s shared values and attitudes that distinguishes them from others.
  2. b) Further, the cultural legacy of any society can be defined as certain cultural traits and aspects of society which has defined it’s course of history, because of it’s overwhelming impact on that community’s social fabrics and which has been passed down from generation to generation. The cultural legacy could be good or bad, dead or alive.

Culture: Is it dynamic or static?

  1. a) A cursory flip through the pages of history reveals that the varied aspects of culture of society and place evolve with time.
  2. b) The language of people which greatly defines the culture of any society changes over time. The English language of the Shakespeare’s time and modern English is very different. So also, the Hindi as we know today is hardly a century-and-a-half old. The ancestors of speakers of Urdu, Assamese, Bengali, Kannada, etc, spoke some other language just a few centuries down the line when the origin of their present mother tongue can be traced back.
  3. c) The religion and belief system is also one of the major components of cultural aspect of any society. The society and its members also keep changing their religion with time, place and situation. Christianity originated in Asia, but it is viewed as a western religion. Hardly any trace of Christianity is left amongst the populace of its place of origin in Jerusalem and Middle East. However, Christianity supplanted the already existing religion and belief system of the western world. Buddhism and Jainism have also hardly left any trace of it in the place of its origin in the hills of Bihar and Nepal and India in general.

However, Buddhism moved out of its place of origin and supplanted the already existing belief and religious practices of central Asian countries Myanmar, Thailand, China, Japan, Korea, and for that matter some part of Arunachal, as well. So also is the case with Hinduism and other religions. Hinduism based on the Vedas was brought to India by the Aryans and it established itself in India either by wiping out the old religion or by integrating them in to Hinduism. Islam and Sikhism are relatively younger religions that have taken into their folds millions of people who were practising some other religious beliefs.

  1. d) The dressing sense, the food habits, the rituals and ceremonies, the songs and music of every society has undergone changes over the time. The culture, the customs and the traditions of a dynamic and progressive society keeps changing with the need ofthe time, situation and place.
  2. e) However, there are societies whose culture has not evolved since they learnt to make fire and hunt with flints and stones. They remain confined in the small pockets of the Amazon forests, the Andaman forests and Papua New Guinea. The people of Arunachal are lucky to have left the stone age culture around sixty to seventy years back and embarked on a catching up walk in break neck speed to catch up with the society who were already in the space age civilisation after having started their journey some five to six thousand years before people of Arunachal Pradesh took their toddler step.

Arunachal society: A case in point for evolving cultural and customary practise

  1. a) Having defined what we understand by culture of society, its cultural legacy and the universal truth of changing nature of culture and custom of society all over the world, let us compare pre-1970s culture of Arunachal society when most of our great grandparents and their predecessors lived in typical stone age lifestyle and compare it with contemporary cultural lifestyle of Arunachal society.
  2. b) Prior to the early 1970s, many of the members of various tribes were still making fire with stone and hardly had any type of proper clothing. The society of the times was comfortable being bare and nude, except for scanty covering of genitals of was normal life style. The drinking of alcohol and chewing of tobacco were part of the cultural lifestyle for both the males and the females from early age. The tribal justice system of that time was based on might is right and gender discrimination. The revenge system based on eye for eye and tooth for tooth was part of prevailing culture practice. The gender discrimination was glaring in terms of property and other natural rights. In many societies the daughters and sisters were sold like properties in the name of marriage. Polygamy was part of normal cultural practise. The culture of slave system was being practised and people were bought and sold like any other property. The local shamans treated the sick and weak through incantations and animal sacrifices. The food habit and culinary were limited to boiled rice, some leafy boiled vegetable and occasional treat of meat from the forest games and ceremonial animal sacrifices. The language was ancient and the present generation can hardly understand them in serious deliberations. On the other hand, there existed a very strong kinship amongst the members. The elders were respected and younger ones were taken care of. They liven in harmony with nature.
  3. c) When we compare the pre-1970s Arunachal society, with the modern Arunachal society, it will be found that there has been sea change in cultural and customary practises change in terms of clothing style, food habits, dwelling patterns, social conducts, language, the genre of songs and music, the prayers, the ritual practises and propitiation pattern, the medical treatment and education system. There have been visible and undeniable changes in all the aspect of Arunachal society that define the culture and custom of society.

Cultural identity and religion

  1. a) The Arunachal society would have continued to evolve and adapt to the changing cultural and customary practises without much ado, but for occasional clash between the tribals who have converted to Christian religion and some of the local people who see their conversion as a threat to the indigenous identity. However, it is alleged that many of these people themselves are found have adopted the Hindu way of belief system in the name of indigenous faith.
  2. b) The culture and customs of any society/community or religious groups differ from time to time and place to place. The Hindus, Christians, the Sikhs and Buddhists who lived in the 17th century had a different culture and customs from their descendants, who are following same religion. The Hindus and Christians of Kerala follow different culture and custom from the Hindus and Christians of Manipur. The Japanese Buddhist and a Tibetan Buddhist vastly differ in their cultural and customary practises. The religious practise is only one aspect of the cultural component of any society. So, it will be wrong to bracket the culture, custom and indigenous identity within the definition of religion only and blame Christians for not following own culture and custom. It will be equally wrong to allow the Christian fundamentalists to let loose their one-sided evangelic agenda and let them and demean and insult the local religious practises.

What is the current indigenous identity of different Arunachal tribes?

  1. a) With so many changes that have taken place in the lifestyle of Arunachal society in last 50 years, many are tempted to ask themselves who they are in terms of cultural, customary and religious identity. The Arunachal people have adapted themselves to the needs of modern times and have evolved their cultural practises at times and have adopted many cultural traits from other society. Although the people may not be practising what their grandparents practised half a century back, they still maintain a distinct cultural identity which defines them and their lifestyle.
  2. b) The trees shed their leaves with changing season, but remain the same tree even as new leaves sprout out; the snakes shed their old skins to let grow new skin as per the need of new season.
  3. c) So also, people of Arunachal, like every other dynamic and progressive society, have changed and adapted to the needs of the times without losing out own distinct identity in the way nature around us changes with the changing season without losing their identity. The Arunachal society is a nature’s work in progress, shedding away what was bad, preserving what is good and adapting new cultural practises as per the need of the time and space in its own distinct ways with identity. (This is the first part on the topic of culture, custom and identity. In the second part, the writer will dwell on the rich cultural diversity of Arunachal and how the beautiful aspects of the state’s culture can be protected, preserved and promoted. The opinions expressed are the writer’s and not necessarily of this daily.)