Believers of the Land of the Dead: the Idu Mishmi Tribe of Arunachal Pradesh

The Mishmi or Deng minority ethnic groups residing mainly in Tibet (China) and Arunachal Pradesh (India), are formed by three main tribes: Idu Mishmi; Digaro; and Miju Mishmi. The Idu tribe, also known as Yidu Lhoba in Tibet and Chulikatas in Assam, is one of the most ancient tribes of the region. The Idu tribe claims its origins from “Mudu,” which loosely translates into “Sky.” Notably, Mudu is the name of the area from where the Mishmi tribe migrated to Arunachal Pradesh during the ancient times. However, as per the Bradley report of 2007, many of the members from Miju Mishmi and Digaro Mishmi tribes have migrated initially from China to India.

The Idus believe that Rukmini, chief Consort of Lord Krishna, belonged to their tribe. According to one of the legends, Lord Krishna asked the Mishmi people to cut their hair as a form of punishment for not allowing him to marry Rukmini. The penalty is the main reason why Idu-Mishmi’s are called “Chulikata” or people who cut hair. The name is derived from the words “Chuli,” which means hair and “Kata,” which means cut in the Assamese language. The plays and dances on ‘Rukmini Haran’ are conventional during the Idu festivals.

The people of the Idu Mishmi tribe are believers of Holy Spirits, who, according to them, are always present in places such as farms, houses, forests, rivers, and mountains. The Idu Mishi people believe that these spirits bless them with good farm produce, animals to feed on, safety for their children along with wealth and well-being for their friends and families. However, to get the favor of the spirits, a person has to follow strict code of conduct within the tribe, failing in which could lead to severe consequences including failure of harvests, unsuccessful hunting operations, and spread of diseases for the culprit and in some cases for the entire tribe.

Idus, depending upon the position of a person in a tribe, perform four types of funerals. All four types of funerals require priests and relatives or friends who can sing a mourning song for the deceased, from within the tribe. The most elaborate one among all four funerals is the one knows as “Yah” funeral, which also includes a ritual of sacrificing an animal, mostly “Mithuns” or Gayals. The funeral lasts somewhere between three to four days, during which the priest continues to chant the sacred mantras for almost two days. After completing the chants, he performs a special dance while using a unique instrument used by the people of the Idu tribe to play the music. Often, the reputation of a priest is defined by the number of “Yah” funerals a priest has conducted. For some priests, this number can go up to 124.

When an Idu departs, the family calls for a priest and immediately starts to follow a ten-day ritual, which usually includes observing food restrictions. The body of the deceased is then washed, dressed in new clothes, after which a few coins are placed on his palm. The Idus believe that the soul would need this money to buy water on the way to the “Land of the dead.” Once the body of the deceased is kept inside the house after placing coins on its palms, the mourning song of friends and relatives begin. The song continues until the burial ceremony is finished, which in some cases takes place after one or even two days. The mourning song, known as “Anja,” is a particular song for the funeral ceremony and includes individual phrases and stories. Mostly the mourners are the women of the family.

In some cases, however, its also the men who participate in this ritual. The mourners mostly form a small group of two to five people and mourn in rotation so that it they can continue the ceremony until it is required. The content of the song is subjective as in most cases the mourners recite the life of the deceased, while warning him that his role in this world is over. The song usually summarizes with: “You were 10 months in your mother’s womb and you have lived your last days here. Now you must find your way to the land of the dead and you must ask others the way.”

The arrival of the priest, which in some cases takes up to 24 hours, is marked by placing a bush in the steps of the house of the deceased. The priest, upon arrival, begins his chant, which is called “Larati” in the Idu language. While chanting, the priest tells the deceased not to return and disturb the family, not even appear in their dreams.

In the meanwhile, Mithun or Gayals are sacrificed, and food and drinks are prepared for the guests. Simultaneously, a grave is dug for the deceased following which it is furnished with different kinds of items according to the last wish of the dead and according to the resources of the family. Some graves are entirely equipped with beds, shelves, and cook wears, while some others contain only a few items.

After completion of this task, the body of the deceased is carried, which is often followed by a group of men either carrying a weaving machine or a sword depending upon whether the dead is a woman or a man. On the way to the grave, the mourning becomes loud and intense. The priest, however, remains inside the house and continues to chant there until after the burial is complete. The priest then comes to the grave and offers rice, beer and meat in a small bamboo container, which he then hangs on a fence in front of the grave. After this, he moves his sword on the wall to get the dead person’s attention, which he does to prepare the soul for starting its journey to the land of the dead. While gaining the attention of the dead, the priest chants a mantra called “Laron Maba.” During the chant, a particular variety of leaves known as “Evena” are placed in the ground to serve as an exit point of the soul from its grave. The soul, at first, is guided towards the north and then back to the grave, where he is asked to take his last meal while listening to further instructions from the priest about his final journey to the west.

After making the soul depart to the west, the priest returns to the home of the deceased, where a structure (Amugo) made of Evena leaves is attached to a bamboo frame and placed on the wall inside. The priest hurls a broom at the structure, which is believed to be a symbol of sending the soul away. Once the guests leave the house, the priest uses the Evena leaves to sweep off any remains of the dead so that there is no chance of the soul to remain clinging to the place. After the sweeping is finished, the funeral ceremony is considered complete.

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