Traditional dress, practices and festivals refashioned – Arunachal Pradesh

Arunachal Pradesh is home to about twenty-five separate tribes and as many languages/dialects in the Tibeto-Burman family. (Despite the descriptive inadequacies of the term ‘tribal’, the alternatives are equally imprecise; ‘tribal’ is a politicised category all over India [Beteille 1991], but in Arunachal Pradesh the term is used with little controversy, and often with pride by those to whom it refers.) Earlier part of the unadministered tracts of Assam and later the North-East Frontier Agency, the region has been isolated both by mountainous terrain and official policy. In 1873, the British authorities established the ‘Inner Line’ to demarcate the extent of government control, and in 1914 the McMahon Line was drawn to separate these unadministered territories from Tibet. This policy of isolation has been in force ever since. After Independence, Prime Minister Nehru endorsed it in order to prevent the pauperisation of tribes evident elsewhere in India; today the ‘inner line of control’ is the state’s southern boundary, which even Indian citizens, who cannot own land or businesses in Arunachal Pradesh, require permission to cross. Foreigners are not permitted to enter, except for a few days as tourists or NGO workers.

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Although this policy of protection (or ‘gradual integration’ as Nehru and Verrier Elwin preferred) has prevented Arunachal tribes from wholesale absorption into mainstream culture, historic trade links with Tibet and the plains have always brought new objects, practices and ideas; and today these are brought by television, education and better roads. Cultural change is everywhere apparent: textile designs of one tribe are borrowed by others; local festivals are centralised and refashioned as community events; oral traditions are printed and discussed as ‘cultural heritage’. One tribe regularly holds a ‘Fashion Show’ in which young men and women display the latest innovations in traditional dress. Some traditional practices (such as tattooing) have been banned by tribal organisations, while others (woodcarving, for example) are expanding. Perhaps the most fundamental change is that animistic beliefs and rituals are undergoing formalisation into a ‘religion’, with new visual images, permanent places of worship and a formal theology. This systematisation of the worship of Donyi-Polo places it alongside the other religions in the area: Christianity, Buddhism and Hinduism. Ritual practitioners have also formed a state-wide association of shamans. All these changes are fast-paced but largely undocumented. […]

Source: Tribal Transitions at SOAS – Research Description
Date Visited: 31 July 2022

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