The Misings are an indigenous community inhabiting in the parts of the Indian states of Assam and Arunachal Pradesh who were of Mongoloid origin. They were also known as Miris in the past and still recognized as Miris in the Constitution of India. Miri is the older name and traces back to the ancestor Abotani. Misings are recognised as a Scheduled Tribe by the Indian government under the name ‘Miri’.
The Misings belong to the greater group of Tani people, who speak languages of the Sino-Tibetan family, which comprise many tribes of Arunachal Pradesh in India and Tibet. All Tani tribes share linguistic, cultural and racial similarities.
There is no written history of Misings about their migration from Mongolia to the plains of Assam but history was passed down orally in the form of folk songs and stories by the ancestors from generation to generation and is still prevalent among their society. Though they belong to Tani group of tribes and used to be hill dwellers, they started living on the banks of rivers in the plains of Assam. The reason for this change of habitat is not known, but there are theories. One theory says that the Misings presently living in plains of Assam were not one single tribe, but it evolved into one when many tribes from various Tani tribes of Arunachal Pradesh migrated to the plains of Assam. This explains the presence of many Mising clans with different Mising dialects as well as different levels of development.
Music and Dance
Ahbang: It is a verse of hymn of praise and worship of gods and goddesses. Ahbang is sung by the Mibu (priest) at rituals. There is also community Ahbangs generally used in Pobua, a ritual festival, praying for better crops, health and happiness.
Kaban:It is one of the oldest forms of Mising folk songs. It is lamentation music and recalls sad events. At the death of a dear one, the women burst out into a sort of cry and song which for an outsider may sound funny.
Tebo Tekang: It is a romantic lyric, narrating some love encounters.
Siuhung Nihtom: It is a melancholic song, sung in lonely places like jungle.
Bini: These are lullabies sung either at home or in the field, taking babies to places of work. The baby is tied to the back of the mother or the young babysitter.
Midang Nihtom: This is usually sung at the time of ushering in a bride to her new home, often in order to tease her. These too are rather melancholic, since they depict the sadness of brides wailing at being separated from her family, friends and the familiar childhood environment.
Oi Nihtom: It is the most popular form of Mising folk song, sung by Mising youths when they are working or moving about the fields, woods, etc. It is an integral part of the Mising Sohman (dance). It has a variety of themes ranging from romance, humour, tragedy, and socio-cultural motifs. Each line in an Oi-Nihtom is of seven syllables.
Misings have rich folk music. Apart from dumdum, luhpi, lehnong, marbang, bali, etc. used in Gumrag dance and which are common to other locals, the following are the typical type of traditional instruments played in Mising folk music: ejuk tapung, derki tapung, tumbo tapung, tuhtok tapung, ketpong tapung, gekre tapung, dendun, dumpak corég, gunggang, tulung etc. These are mostly wind instruments made of bamboo. Yoxa (sword) is used as a musical instrument by the priest (Mibu) during the religious dance.
There are many types of Mising dances, and each has their particular rules. Gumrag is performed five times in circles. Drums and cymbols are the usual musical instruments for the dances.
Mibu Dagnam: It is a priestly dance performed mostly during Po:rag, the harvesting festival, observed in the Murong, the community hall of the Misings. The priest sings the Ahbang while performing this ritual dance.
Selloi: This is a kind of merry-making song and dance often performed for fun, by young boys and girls with the accompaniment of drums or cymbals. It marks the beginning of the influx of the Mising people from hills to plains of Assam.
The traditional craft of weaving is a very bright aspect of Mising culture. It is an exclusive preserve of the Mising woman, who starts her training in the craft even before she reaches her teens. For the male, she weaves cotton jackets, light cotton towels, endi shawls, thick loin cloths, and, occasionally, even shirtings. For women she weaves a variety of clothes, such as ege “the lower garment of Mishing women”, rihbi (a sheet with narrow stripes, wrapped to cover the lower garment and the blouse), gaseng (used for the same purpose as that of a rihbi, but having, unlike a rihbi, broad stripes of contrastive colours), gero (a sheet, usually off-white, wrapped round the waist to cover the lower part of the body, or round the chest to cover the body down to the knees or so), seleng gasor (a light cotton sheet, worn occasionally instead of a rihbi or a gaseng), riya (a long, comparatively narrow, sheet, wrapped, a bit tightly, round the chest), segrek (a loose piece of cloth, wrapped round the waist by married women to cover the eagey down to the knees), a pohtub (a scarf used to protect the head from the sun, dirt, etc.), and nisek (a piece of cloth to carry a baby with). Before yarn, produced by modern textile factories, was available in the market, Misings used to grow cotton and obtain cotton yarn by spinning. The use of endi yarn, obtained from worms fed on leaves of castor-oil plants, was probably common amongst them. However, they learnt the use of muga (silk obtained from silkworms fed on a kind of tall tree, called som in Assamese) and of paat (silk obtained from silkworms fed mulberry leaves) from their neighbours (other indigenous Assamese communities) in the valley. Even now Mising women weave cloths, using muga and paat silk, very sparingly. Thus weaving cotton clothes is the principal domain of the Mising weaver. She has good traditional knowledge of natural dyes.
Misings are one of the most colourful of the various indigenous Tribal communities in Assam. Mising has its own religion named ‘Donyi Polo’, viz, the Sun and the Moon God. They mostly assimilated with Animism and adopted Hinduism after the bhakti movement that was started by Sankardev. The traditional religious beliefs and practices amongst the Misings are animistic even today.
In the Brahmaputra valley, the Misings have undergone a process of acculturation. They believe in different supernatural beings haunting the earth, usually unseen. These supernatural beings fall into four categories, viz. uyu or ui (usually malevolent spirits inhabiting the waters, the woods, the skies, etc. capable of causing great harm including physical devastation), urom po-sum (hovering spirits of the dead, who may cause illness or other adverse conditions), guhmeen-sohing (benevolent ancestral spirits), and epom-yapom (spirits inhabiting tall, big trees, who are generally not very harmful, but who may abduct human beings occasionally, cause some physical or mental impairment and release them later). Barring the epom-yapom, all the supernatural beings need to be propitiated with sacrificial offerings (usually domestic fowl), both periodically and on specific occasions of illness, disaster, etc. Even the benevolent guardian spirits are propitiated from time to time for the all-round wellbeing of a household. Nature worship as such is not a common practice amongst Misings. But the god of thunder is propitiated from time to time, and although not worshipped or propitiated, the Sun (who they call Ane-Donyi ‘Mother Sun’) and the Moon (who they call Abu Polo ‘Father Moon’) are invoked on all auspicious occasions.
The leader of their animistic faith is called a mibu (also called miri earlier), their priest or medicine man, who is supposed to be born with special powers of communion with supernatural beings. While mibus are on their way out amongst the Misings owing to the introduction of modern education and healthcare amongst them, propitiation of supernatural beings continue to mark their religious life (see Mibu ahbang below for more on Mibus)
In addition, they have embraced in the valley some kind of a monotheistic Hinduism as passed on to them by one of the sects of the Vaishnavism of Sankardeva (1449-1568 A.D.), the saint-poet of Assam. As faiths, the two forms, animism, and Vaishnavism, are poles apart, but they have coexisted in the Mising society without any conflict whatsoever, primarily because of the fact that the form of Vaishnavism, as they have been practising it, has not interfered with their traditional customs (drinking rice beer and eating pork, or using them on socio-religious occasions, for instance). Their religious life in the valley has thus assumed a fully syncretistic character.
Ali-Ayé means seeds in a row, and Lígang means sowing of seeds. Thus the words mean the beginning of sowing of seeds. Ali-Ayé-Lígang is celebrated in the second Wednesday of February month. The festival marks the beginning of the sowing season. The Mising people in rural areas are dependent on agriculture, so the festival of Ali-Ayé-Lígang mark the beginning of a new agricultural calendar for them. Ali-Ayé-Lígang is a five-day festival. The celebrations start on a Wednesday, which is considered an auspicious day by the Misings, with the heads of families sowing ceremonially rice paddy seeds in a corner of their respective rice fields in the morning hours and praying for crop abundance. Young men and women participate in the occasion by singing and dancing at night in the courtyard of every household in the villages to the accompaniment of drums, cymbals, and a gong. The gong is not used on any festive occasion other than the Ali-Ayé Lígang. Similarly, the drums have specific beats for this festival. The troupe accepts from each household offers of rice beer, fowls. After the singing and dancing in this way is over, the youths hold a feast on the third day.
Po:rag is the post-harvest festival of the Misings. Harvesting of paddy rice in autumn is very common now amongst the Misings and so a Po:rag is usually observed now sometime in early winter or early spring. But there was a time when a harvest in summer too was very common amongst them and so Po:rag was celebrated earlier in the months of August or September also. It is a very expensive three-day festival (reduced to two days or even one these days, depending on the extent of preparation on the part of the organizers in terms of items of food and drinks) and so held once in two-to-three years or so. Entertainment during the celebrations is open to everyone, young and old, of the village, and invitations are also extended formally to many guests, including some people of neighbouring villages, to join the celebrations. More significantly, it is customary on this occasion to invite the women who hail from the village but have been married to men of other villages and places, far and near. This makes Po:rag a grand festival of reunion. Moreover, apart from the husbands of the women so invited, a group of young men and women, who can sing and dance, is expected to accompany each of them. No formal singing, dancing and drumming contests are organized, but the congregation of many singers, dancers, and drummers from different villages, in addition to the ones in the village, turns the festival into some kind of a friendly music and dance tournament, as it were. This has an amplifying effect on the air of joy that the festival exudes. The sole responsibility for organizing the festival is vested in a body of young men and women, called Meembir-yamey (literally, ‘young women-young men’). The organization is run with a good degree of discipline, following the provisions of an unwritten but well-respected code of conduct. Erring individuals are given hearings and penalized if found guilty.