Idu Mishmis and their sacred relationship with tigers

Monday Musing

[Karyir Riba]

Hunting was the way of life for the earliest human beings. It was the primary way of feeding themselves, followed by gathering other food items like plants, fruits and even honey. According to a National Geographic article, until approximately 12,000 years ago, all humans practiced hunting-gathering.

It was no different for the tribal people of Arunachal Pradesh. Hunting has been an age-old tradition for our people.

With time, though, things have changed, and as we have adopted the modern ways of living, our dependence on hunting and gathering food has long been extinguished. Sadly, the practice of hunting has not totally been exterminated, with many still practicing it today relentlessly. What was once a need has now become a thing of pleasure.

As it is, humans have already managed to turn the natural habitats of wild animals into concrete jungles, jeopardising their very existence. Hunting the remaining few is simply putting the ecologically balance on a spin.

Fortunately, there is a tribe in Arunachal that has wildlife conservation imbibed into its culture and tradition – the Idu Mishmi.

The Idu Mishmis, as a tribe, do not encourage wildlife hunting at all. In fact, they consider it a taboo and have many customary restrictions attached to it. These restrictions are needed to be followed strictly, with no place for mistakes, which in turn deters the members of the community from hunting.

What makes this more difficult is that the whole household of the hunter has to follow these restrictions along with him.

Some of these restrictions (known as aangii or ena in Idu Mishmi) include:

No washing of clothes. One cannot wring clothes during the time of aangii; hence, washing of clothes is not allowed in the household of the hunter. Any wet clothes that need drying can be hanged but sans wringing.

No consumption of onion and garlic.

No weaving or knitting. In general, no work that involves thread can be performed by the family of the hunter.

Ami-apu, or the food supply and bedding of the hunter, which he takes along with him for the hunt, must not be handled by any menstruating female of the house.

No intimacy between the hunter and his wife.

These restrictions fall in place the moment the hunter has made his plans to go hunting, and will have to be followed for a few more days after his return. The number varies from area to area, but the maximum number of days is five.

While some animals can be hunted by strictly following these ritualistic restrictions, there are some forbidden animals that cannot be killed at any cost. These are called misu, meaning bad omens, and so are strictly off limits for any hunter.

Some of these animals are the hoolock gibbon (ame-pa), amrakutulu, ichitu and petaa from the owl family, besides tigers and epamuchi, which is a kind of mongoose with a big, bushy, striped tail.

When it comes to tigers, their status in most of the tribal communities of Arunachal, and the bad omens related to tiger poaching, traditionally works as an automatic way of tiger conservation in the state. Here again, the Idu Mishmis take this to another level as they consider tigers as their brothers, and killing one could mean the highest form of taboo in the community.

The tiger, even if killed by mistake or in self-defence, calls for a huge traditional ritual to be conducted by the hunter, similar in stature to that of the ritual conducted for the funeral of a person.

With respect to these beliefs and cultural practices that strictly forbid hunting of tigers in the Idu Mishmi culture, tigers have been naturally conserved and have coexisted harmoniously since the beginning of time with the community.

Hence, the news reports in recent months regarding killing of a tiger in Dibang Valley district by poachers, with involvement of a local, followed by a careless and irresponsible statement by the PCCF, using the words ‘local poacher’, has rightly angered the Idu Mishmi sentiment.

Use of the words ‘local poacher’ was repeatedly made despite having no evidence whatsoever to prove that any local Idu Mishmi person had any kind of involvement in the unfortunate matter. Till date, no conclusive evidence has ever been produced by the police or any investigating agency that an indigenous inhabitant of Dibang Valley or Lower Dibang Valley (LDV) district was involved in the offence.

These reports also mentioned that the tiger was poached in Malinye area of Dibang Valley. However, further investigation showed that the whole episode had never occurred in Dibang Valley district but was an incident that had occurred in another district altogether.

The whole fiasco indeed seems to be an unscrupulous plan to malign the Idu Mishmis and their sacred relationship with tigers, and points towards a greater interest of the government to, by hook or crook, get the Dibang Tiger Reserve approved despite strong opposition from the inhabitants of both DV and LDV.

Whatever dirty game was tried to be played with such a heinous allegation against the community, the fact remains unchanged that the Idu Mishmis are one such tribe that believes in maintaining a respectful relationship with its wildlife. Tigers have always been given the respectful stature of a brother, and it will remain so until eternity.

For a detailed read on the Idu Mishmis and their traditional wildlife conservation, one may refer to the article titled ‘On maintaining equilibrium’, published by this daily on 25 October, 2021.