The Sherthukpens, a mild mannered and courteous people, inhabit the Rupa region in the West Kameng district of Arunachal Pradesh. Very few scholars have attempted to map the Sherthukpen society in detail and those who have done so have tended to club them with their more populous neighbours, the Monpas.
This book documents the vibrant culture and rich diversity of the Sherthukpens and their society, sustained in a land characterised by high mountain hamlets, with precarious wooden houses clinging to wind-swept hill spines. The work attempts to analyse the impact of modernity upon their traditional society and the likely loss and evolution of indigenous knowledge and socio-cultural patterns. The study is an endeavour to bring to the fore their vibrant culture, which exhibits its own energy and vigour, their intricate and rich imaginative faculties, and their emotional and ethical states.
Anita Sharma has studied at Pondicherry, Delhi and Oxford Universities. She has conducted several years of ethnographic research on Himalayan communities including on the Bakkarwals of Jammu and Kashrnir, the Sherthukpens of Arunachal Pradesh, the Hajong and Chakma refugees, the Lepchas of Dzongu, and the Limbus of Hee in Sikkim. She is currently working on a project on South Asian nomads for the Consortium for Research on Educational Access, Transitions and Equity, University of Sussex.
Tribal societies, located in the frontier regions, have not received adequate attention from scholars, perhaps due to their inaccessibility. The relatively few studies, although rich in material, are dated, having been undertaken much earlier. With growing accessibility, the traditional mores, social organisation and traditional knowledge are fading away before the relentless advance of mainstream civilisation. Much, however, remains to be documented.
The Natural Heritage Division of INTACH has tried to address the knowledge gap and document the culture arid social life of these tribes from an anthropological perspective by referring to the earlier studies mid supplementing the same with fieldwork. The work has been ably carried out by the author, Ms. Anita Sharma, whose arduous efforts in the field and dedicated research have resulted in this serious contribution to the subject.
The work was supported by a modest grant from the Ministry of Culture, Government of India, during 2004-05. Rather than let the document crumble on some dusty shelf, it was thought appropriate to put the material into the public domain.
At the north-eastern tip of India lies the rolling terrain of Arunachal Pradesh, home to snowbound passes, lush forests and deep mysterious valleys. Bounded by Bhutan to the west, Tibet to the north and Burma to the east, the people of Arunachal Pradesh, lived for long, beyond the pale of urbanisation, self-sufficient and proud in their seclusion. They lived as hunters and gatherers. Tribal life in the region, for centuries, whirled around slash- and-burn farming without any significant shift in their internal socioeconomic or political structures. External contact was limited and left little lasting impression on their indigenous life. Their culture was a safe repository of the past, which was stored in the collective consciousness of the larger community. However, with the onslaught of modernity, their lives have transformed considerably. Cultures, after all, are invented and defined by their members overtime. New dynamics are added and the old are left behind and forgotten. The shift from nomadic to sedentary cultures leads to an evolution of new traditions, mores and material cultures. This, however, does not imply that the prior traditions have been obliterated. Cultures have their own method of continuity and transition. Large tracts of Arunachal yet remain isolated from the city lights and are guardians of traditions, otherwise lost in urban living. The life and culture of remote and rural communities, often characterised by having distinctive customs regarding birth, marriage and death, a moral code, folklore and myths, peculiarities of religious beliefs and rituals, still survive in their rural and urban societies through oral tradition.
The Sherthukpens, a mild-mannered and courteous people, inhabit the region in and around Rupa in the West Kameng district of Arunachal Pradesh. Rupa, the mother village of the Sherthukpens, is at a distance of 19 km from the district headquarters at Bomdila. The main Sherthukpen belt extends westwards from Rupa through a beautiful mountainous gorge, generously sprinkled with rhododendrons, towards Shergaon.
Few scholars and travellers have attempted to map the Sherthukpens in detail. Most studies conducted in the area have only mentioned the Sherthukpens in passing, and almost always clubbed them with the Monpas, their more populous neighbours with whom they share a marked cultural affinity. A monographic study on the Sherthukpens was first attempted by R.R.P. Sharma in 1961, and the Census of India undertook a socio-economic survey of Rupa in 1971. Niranjan Sarkar attempted to analyse and document Buddhism among the Monpas and Sherthukpens in 1980.
The Sherthukpen belt, characterised by its high mountain hamlets, where precarious wooden houses cling to wind-swept hill spines, unravels a richness of diversity and cultural life. This existence is now in direct contact with the mainstream. Roads now have built bridges that were earlier inconceivable. People are fast merging and mingling with the outside world. Isolation and ignorance of the ‘other’ is being exchanged for awareness and information.
This report has been carried out for the purpose of recording the Sherthukpen society in transition under modern influences. Working under several constraints, the author has managed to explore and gather significant study material and update on the Sherthukpen life. The report’s main value lies in analysing the impact of modernity upon their traditional society and the likely loss and evolution of indigenous knowledge and socio-cultural patterns. This study is an endeavour to bring to the fore their vibrant culture, which exhibits its own energy and vigour, their intricate and rich imaginative faculties, and their emotional and ethical states.
The fieldwork for this report was conducted from January to March 2004, and the service of interpreters was often employed for the purpose of research. The primary sources of data were the Sherthukpens of Rupa, Shergaon, Thungri, Gorwa and Doimara. Information was chiefly obtained by observations and interviews, and from secondary sources in the Nehru Memorial Library, New Delhi, and the district library at Bomdila. This study would not have been possible without the relentless patience and generosity extended by all the Sherthukpens encountered in Arunachal Pradesh. Laam Dema’s unencumbered friendship opened the first doors for me in Rupa. Mr. Nima Thongchi’s family was a source of constant support ad encouragement and Dema’s magical smile and hospitality worked as a balm after difficult journeys. This study owes a huge debt to Karma Khrimey, Pema Wangdi and Chandu for their humour, insights and companionship, to Netan Dorje Thongon for his thoughtfulness and guidance, and to Pema Chom and his family for their gentleness and strength, so characteristic of the Sherthukpens.
The Sherthukpens live in and around Rupa in the West Kameng district, in the valley of the Tengapani River of Anmachal Pradesh. Rupa, the mother village of the Sherthukpens, is a small town at a distance of 19 km from the district headquarters at Bomdila. The main Sherthukpen belt extends westwards from Rupa through a narrow mountainous gorge towaxds the semi-urban settlement of Shergaon. Small populations of Sherthukpens have also settled in and around the village of Doimara, in the foothills of the district bordering Assam.
Rupa became the headquarters of the Kalaktang administrative circle during its establishment in 1943. The headquarters was later shifted to Kalaktang in 1957. Rupa is known as Thongthuik among the Sherthukpens. (thuik = village, Thong= high caste Sherthukpens, thukpen the village of the Thongs). Sherthukpens are also called Sangi-Tongi or the people of Shergaon and Rupa. Hence, Sherthukpens are Sher = Shergaon + Thukpen = the people of Thongthuik or Rupa. According to some, Sherthukpen is a Bhutanese word which means, ‘the people living in the East’. The name Rupa is said to be given by the people of the plains. The Census of India report mentions that the name was given because, “when money was introduced in the area, the transactions in cash between the people of the hills and the plains used to take place in the village; hence, the name Rupa, meaning silver coin came to be associated with it.”1 Some Sherthukpens are of the belief that the name was given by the people of the plains purely because of the picturesque setting of Rupa, which in Hindi means a thing of beauty.
It is widely believed that the Sherthukpens originally came from Tibet and are said to be the descendants of Japtang Bura, son of a Tibetan king. Elwin details the most famous legend of the Sherthukpens, The King Geporading-darje lived in Debolojari2 with his queen, by whom he had a son. But he heard that the Ahom King of Assam had a very beautiful daughter and his desire was kindled for her. He sent his Minister with a strong force to Sibsagar to ask for her in marriage. But the Ahom King refused to send his daughter to an unknown, distant land, and it took the Minister twelve years to persuade him to let the girl go.
At last they started on their journey home and came to the Brahmaputra and crossed to the far side. There sin entered the Minister’s mind and he seduced the princess. When they arrived at Debolojari, the King of Lhasa was delighted with his bride and married her with great ceremony. But very soon, too soon, afterwards, he noticed that his wife was pregnant, and he asked his Minister how this could be. The Minister replied, ‘How can I tell? I lived twelve years in exile and brought her to you with great pain and difficulty. The child must be yours.’ The King said, ‘Never mind.’
But when the child was born, although he had the body of a human being, he had the face of a dog and the horns of a goat. For the Minister, his father was a man of low degree. When the King saw the child, he had him taken to the forest and left there to die.
But he loved his young wife and forgave her and in due time had two other sons from her. The elder was named Jabdung Mawang-Namaja and younger Gyaptang-Bura.
When the boys grew up, the King gave his own kingdom to the son of his elder wife. He gave Bhutan to prince Jabdung Mawang-Namaja and the country around Rupa and Shergaon to Gyaptang-Bura, who was the first Sherdukpen King.
When Gyaptang-Bura came to Rupa, the Ahom King heard of it at Sibsagar and invited his grandson to come and see him. He gave him all the land which lies between the Donsiri and Gabru rivers as they flow into the Brahmaputra and told him to tax the people living there.
Gyaptang-Bura was told by his father, the King of Lhasa, that his people should not pay taxes to the Tibetans or carry loads for them. But he should beware of the Hrussos, for they were demons at that time, and should give them cows and other tributes to satisfy them.
When King Gyaptang-Bura came from Lhasa to Rupa, he brought with him a great train of porters and servants. The King’s descendants are now called Thongs and the descendants of the porters are called Chaos.
Sharma further adds to the legend,
Japtang Bura first came to But and Khoina, and found that the neighbouring Tribes (the Akas and the Mijis) were at constant war. He toured the entire area including Buragaon and Jamiri, and promised to give salt, cloth and cattle to the Aka King, Nimmo Chhonjee, provided he maintained law and order in his area. He held out similar promise to the Miji king and the Monpa chiefs so as to ensure peace and harmony in the area. It was possibly the payment of these tributes that brought these tribes on the side of the Sherthukpens in their feuds with the Tembang people over the issue of forced intermarriage. These tributes continued to be paid for a very long time and were stopped only about in the early forties... came to be held in high esteem by the neighbouring tribes, and was regarded as an apostle of peace.... He afterwards shifted his capital from But to Rupa.
Being from an oral tradition, the legends about the me and times of Japtang Bura are recounted with slight variances each time. However, stories narrating the heroic and virtuous deeds of Bura constitute perhaps the richest repository of Sherthukpen legend and history, and are narrated with much enthusiasm and pride by the people.
Sharma gives details of the payment to the various chiefs. Payments were mainly in the form of bullocks, goats, fowls, salt, jabrang (a local spice), cloth, woven bags and rice. According to Sharma, the Tawang Monpa officials, in turn, presented the Sherthukpen king with coats, shoes, hats, blankets and necklaces. The Sherthukpens traditionally collected taxes from the Kachari5 villages in the foothills, which they regarded as their own territory and from the Monpas of the south-west. Bhutanese immigrants who settled in the vicinity of Shergaon are also believed to have paid a tax to the Sherthukpens.
It is believed that Japtang Bura came to Thongthuik or Rupa with a number of porters and servants. The descendants of the servants constitute the lower class among the Sherthukpens and are known as Chaos, while the descendants of the king are the socially superior, upper caste elite called Thongs.
As narrated in the popular legend, once Japtang Bura went hunting and chased a boar all the way down to the foothills near Doimara, where he met the Kacharis through whom he established contact with his maternal grandfather, the Ahom king at Sibsagar. It is said that the Ahom king was so pleased to meet his grandchild that he ceded to him all the land between the Dhansiri and Gabru (Belsiri) rivers. The annual winter migration of the Sherthukpens to the foothills is believed to have its origins from this time. This association is also said to be the basis of the annual payment of tax by the foothill tribes to the Sherthukpens; it was later abolished by the British authorities.
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