Asseh: the shamanic ritual of the Idu-Mishmis

Monday Musing

[ Karyir Riba ]

Since the very beginning of time, human society was made up of all kinds of people. The good, the evil, and everything in between have always existed together.

It is in human nature to blame one another, to suspect one another, and to accuse one another. Time and again, people have been put in situations that have compelled them to seek justice through intervention.

In the absence of a judiciary system, this intervention had to be made by certain customary rituals practiced by different communities.

In the Idu-Mishmi community, this intervention is made by a shamanic ritual known as asseh.

Although considered the most degraded of taboos, asseh is used as the last resort to determine one’s innocence or guilt, or to clear one’s falsely tarnished image.

In any given instance, where a person has been wrongly accused of any wrongdoing, he/she can challenge the accuser to perform asseh, and vice versa.

A mediator is sent by the justice seeker to approach the second party with the challenge. Once approached, they have to agree to the challenge because denial would only automatically point to his/her guilt.

Asseh is never performed within a household. It is conducted in the rehko/community hall, or outdoors like riverbanks or near streams.

The igu (Idu-Mishmi shaman) performs the ritual with both the parties present. Once proven guilty, appropriate fine is imposed on the wrongdoer, and he or she must pay the price as per the demand made by the victim party. There is no place for bargaining once the demand is placed. This process is done via mediators.

Asseh can be performed using different methods – ipuhu, ahunkhi, ikupro, amrala-ha/yameyla-ha/aahula-ha/arumbo-ha.

For ipuhu, water is boiled in a metal pot with some wax. While the pot is still over the fire, a stone is dropped into the pot. Both the parties (accuser and accused) will have their turns to remove this stone from the bottom of the pot with their bare hands. The water in the pot is changed and the process repeated for each party, meaning all the parties involved do not dip their hands in the same boiling water.

If the hands of the accused are scalded during the process, he/she is proven guilty. If innocent, no harm will be caused.

In some cases, the boiling water may spill out of the pot (like boiling milk) even before the guilty party has put his/her hand into the pot. This too is considered as proof of their guilt.

Another method is performed using ahunkhi or lead. The igu melts the lead (melting point of which is believed to be at 327.5  ?C). This molten lead is then poured onto the open palm of the parties involved. The palm is placed at a slight angle, and if innocent, the lead slides right off of the palm. If not, the molten lead sticks to the palm and causes severe burns.

These two are the most commonly used methods of asseh.

The other methods are rare, but nothing not heard of.

The ikupro method involves usage of a dog. The igu sacrifices an animal, for instance a chicken, and feeds it to the chosen dog. The dog is then kept under watch for the next five days. The mediator makes sure that no external harm is inflicted on the animal during this time. After the five-day period or ji-manga comes to an end, the igu inspects the dog. If the dog shows any signs of sickness or death, the accused is proven guilty. If the dog is fine and in good health, the accused is proven innocent.

Similarly, in amrala-ha, yameyla-ha, aahula-ha and arumboha, the accused has to consume ground tooth/bones of wild animals. Amrala-ha uses tiger tooth, yameyla-ha wild boar, and aahula-ha bear tooth. Bones of any wild animal is used for arumboha.

Once again, the mediator ensures safety of the person/persons who has/have undergone the ritual for five days. At the end of the five days, if the person is fine, he/she is proved innocent. However, being guilty could mean some kind of harm/mishap on the person, and may even result in their death.

Asseh is performed only by the igu, irrespective of the method used. It cannot be conducted without an igu as it will make no sense.

After undergoing asseh, the parties involved need to follow some ritualistic restrictions or aangi. They cannot consume chilli, garlic or other such food that may produce tingling/burning sensation on the tongue, any kind of mushroom, and some locally found vegetables.

Because of the nature of the ritual, pregnant couples or couples with small children are not allowed to be a part of this ritual in any manner. It is believed to have negative effect on children.

Asseh is an ancient traditional shamanic ritualistic practice of the Idu-Mishmis, which has become scarce. Nevertheless, it is still practiced today whenever deemed required.