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Culture in North East India

Paper Type: Free Essay Subject: Cultural Studies
Wordcount: 3582 words Published: 3rd Jul 2018

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Historians maintain that the boundaries of ancient India roughly coincide with those of the present day South Asian Association for Regional Cooperation (SAARC). There are some who believe that except for the period under the British rule, India has never been a nation state. Other historians disagree and maintain that India has always been a cultural and economic entity and the North East has always been an integral part of India. There is also a school of thought which maintains that the population of North Eastern India has greater affinity with the people of South East Asia than with those from the rest of India. The political and cultural isolation of the Seven Sisters has spawned these observations. Perhaps, it is because of such divergent views and the prevailing situation that it is not very uncommon to hear the Indian leaders emphasising the importance of early integration of the people of the North East into the national mainstream. 

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The North East is a magnificent & tragic tapestry of people, events & nature. You can be touched by its rivers, rain & mist, overwhelmed by the seeming gentleness of its people & stirred by its powerful & evocative history. There are not less than 220 ethnic tribes in the eight states comprising the region with a population of about forty million people. There are communities with kin in the neighbouring countries.

There are sensitive and complex problems that have defied solution for as long as independent India has existed. The population is about three percent of the national figure. Its people are an anthropologist’s delight & an administrator’s nightmare. A settlement in a district that satisfies one group will alienate a handful of communities in another part of the same district, not to speak of the state. There are special laws, constitutional provisions such as the Sixth Schedule & Article 371A which seek to protect the traditions, land & rights of various hill communities.

North Eastern India has been facing increasing challenges as it copes with pressures emanating from its ethnic diversity. The rising challenges of ethno-nationalism and erosion of the state authority pose an increasing threat to the national security. The present socio political scene in the North East thus underlines disturbing trends. According to an estimate, there are more than 40 insurgent groups operating in the region. Absence of credible conflict management mechanisms is evident from the situation which is deteriorating by the day. Widespread poverty and unemployment, increasing economic disparities as compared with the rest of the country and those within the region and growing corruption in public life are further adding fuel to the fire. Increasing mobilisation for economic and political space by more and more socio-economic groups is causing turbulence in an environment of limited resources and constrained capabilities of redistribution of wealth. Thus, the fear of identity is further compounded by a social security factor, which essentially boils down to protecting the land from outsiders and in some cases within the region from other ethnic groups.

Social, Cultural & Educational Background Of People Of The North Eastern States


The people of Assam inhabit a multi-ethnic, multi-linguistic and multi-religious society. They speak languages that belong to three main language groups: Indo-Aryan, Austro-Asiatic, and Tibeto-Burman. The large number of ethnic and linguistic groups, the population composition and the peopling process in the state has led to it being called an “India in miniature”.

Ethnic Groups. Tai-Ahoms were historically the dominant group of Assam and were the ethnic group associated with the term “Assamese”. More recently, the Assamese language speaking ethnic group has been associated with the term “Assamese”. Bengalis are another major group of Assam and are a majority in the Barak Valley. Bengalis are often stereotyped by many ethnic Assamese as Bangladeshi illegal immigrants, especially if they are Muslim. Bodos are the dominant group in Bodoland. They mostly speak the Tibeto-Burman Bodo language and live in Bodoland.

Culture Of Assam. The culture of Assam is traditionally a hybrid one, developed due to cultural assimilation of different ethno-cultural groups under various politico-economic systems in different periods of pre-history and history. With a strong base of tradition and history, the modern Assamese culture is greatly influenced by various events those took place in the British Assam and in the Post-British Era. The language was standardised by the American Missionaries with the form available in the Sibsagar District (the nerve centre of the Ahom politico-economic system). A renewed Sanskritisation was increasingly adopted for developing Assamese language and grammar. A new wave of Western and northern Indian influence was apparent in the performing arts and literature. Assamese culture in its true sense today is a ‘cultural system’ composed of different sub-systems. It is more interesting to note that even many of the source-cultures of Assamese culture are still surviving either as sub-systems or as sister entities. In broader sense, therefore, the Assamese cultural system incorporates its source-cultures such as Bodo (Boro) or Khasi or Mishing (Micing) but individual development of these sub-systems are today becoming important. However, it is also important to keep the broader system closer to its roots. Some of the common cultural traits available across these systems are:-

(a) Respect towards areca-nut and betel leaves.

(b) Respect towards particular symbolic cloth types such as Gamosa, Arnai.

(c) Respect towards traditional silk and cotton garments.

(d) Respect towards forefathers and elderly.

(e) Great hospitality.

(f) Bamboo culture.

Status of Women in Assam.

(a) In Assam, the status of women is high in comparison to the women of some other States of India.

(b) There is greater gender equality in Assam. The society doesn’t suffer from practices like dowry, child-marriage and bride-burning. This could be due to the fact that the Assamese society evolved partially from a tribal background and has thus retained some of the original value system of equity.

(c) In the field of education, women in Assam are in a better position than the all-India average. As per 2001 census the literacy rate for Assam is 64.28 per cent as against 65.38 per cent for India. While male literacy is 71.93 per cent (India-75.85 per cent), female literacy stands at 56.03 per cent (India-54.60 per cent).

(d) Female work participation is another indicator of women’s status in the society. Assam has a largely rural agrarian economy, which is characterized by high rate of work participation of women. Though Female Work Participation Rates (FWPR) are high, as it is subsistence farming, women do not benefit economically, though they share a disproportionate share of the work burden.


Nagaland is almost entirely inhabited by the Naga tribes except some Kukis, Kacharis, Garos, Mikris, Benglas, and Assamese etc. in the plains sector. Originally, the Nagas were not known by the names of the tribes as they are known now, but by the name of a group of villages. Gradually they have settled down to the tribe names as are found now, but still then the process of amalgamation or separation is still going on. According to the census report, there are 16 Naga tribes and four non-Naga tribes inhabiting Nagaland.

Society. The people are simple, straight-forward, hard-working and honest people with a high standard of integrity. They possess a strong sense of self respect and rarely submitted to anyone who roughshod over them. A hallmark of their character was their hospitality and cheerfulness. The Naga tribals have an egalitarian society, and the village is a closely knit unit consisting of households of different clans.

The Village. They traditionally live in villages. The village is a well-defined entity with distinct land demarcation from neighboring villages. Each has a dialect of its own and as such there is a strong sense of social solidarity within it. The people in it are held together by social, economic, political and ritual ties. The villages have their own identity but not in isolation as there are interdependent relationships with neighboring villages. The impact of modernization is slowly but steadily eroding the centrality of villages as a social unit as large commercial towns are rapidly coming up in every region of the Naga hills. This is bringing about drastic changes in the values, lifestyles and social setup of the people.

The Family. The family was the basic unit of the Naga society. Marriages were usually monogamous and fidelity to the spouse was considered a high virtue. Marriage within the same clan is not permitted and it amounts to incest. Incestuous couples used to be ostracized from the villages. The family was the most important institution of social education and social control. There used to be a deep respect for parents and elders. Material inheritance, such as land and cattle, is passed on to the male offspring with the eldest son receiving the largest share.

Status Of Women. In the classless, caste-less Naga society, women have traditionally enjoyed a high social position, with a pivotal role in both family and community affairs. However, being a patriarchal society with strong warrior tradition, it is considered an honor to be born as a man. The traditional culture and customs expect a Naga woman to be obedient and humble; also expect her to perform the roles of wife, mother, child bearer, food producer and household manager. She also supplements the household income by weaving colorful shawls, an activity which is done exclusively by women. Women are highly respected and given a great deal of freedom, however, they are traditionally not included in the decision-making process of the clan or the village.

Social and Cultural Heritage. The cultural traditions of the Nagas include features which are common to all the tribes like head hunting, common sleeping house for unmarried men which are taboo to women, a sort of trial marriage, or great freedom of intercourse between the sexes before marriage, disposal of dead on raised platforms, the simple loom for weaving cloth etc. Life in Nagaland is replete with festivals throughout the year as all the tribes have their own festivals, which they greatly cherish. They regard their festivals sacrosanct and participation in them is compulsory. Most of these festivals revolve round agriculture, which is still the mainstay of the Naga society. Over 85% population of Nagaland is directly dependent on agriculture.

Transformation And Challenges. The Naga society is undergoing tremendous transformation. The spread of Christianity, the growth of education and developmental programs undertaken by the government have all unleashed forces which are churning up the tribal society and rapidly changing its complexion and character. The modern set up of detached nuclear families is fast catching up with the people as they have greater intercourse with the modern world. This is leading to the erosion of the role of the clan and the village as agents of social control.

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Manipur is a place where different waves of races and culture met through the ages, which ultimately mingled together. The main population of the people is of Manipuries known as Meities. The Meitei speak Manipuri language, which is in Kuki chin group. They are divided into seven endogamous groups locally known as ‘Salai’. The general characteristics of the Meiteis are of Mongoloid type small eyes, fair complexion, rudimentary beards etc. generally they are thin built with well-developed limbs. The men among them do not exceed 5’7″ in height and women on an average about 4″ shorter than their counterparts.

Society. The society is patrilineal though the women bear the major yoke of labour. Women share the responsibilities of earning and are not confined only to household duties. The household is a true social unit ant the head of the family has to perform certain religious duties. Their families consist of man, his wife and unmarried children. They practice both types of marriage by engagement and elopement. Though monogamy is the usual rule, there being more women than men, the practice of polygamy is also not uncommon. Meitei women have always enjoyed high economic and social status in Manipur, and today they work in nearly every social and economic sphere of society. In particular, they control traditional retail, including the Meitei markets and the trade in vegetables and traditional clothing. The Meitei people are well-known for their sporting prowess, hockey and polo are traditional and the Meitei form of martial art, thang ta, has recently been recognised as one of the official forms of international martial arts.

Culture. Agriculture is the main stay of the people. About 88% of the total working population in the hills and about 60% of the working population in the valley depend entirely on the agriculture and allied pursuits like animal husbandry, fisheries and forestry. The people of Manipur have inherent love of performing art with lyrical beauty and rhythm. Their rich culture and tradition are also reflected in their handloom, tasteful clothes and in finer workmanship of handicrafts. Weaving among them is a traditional art of women and finds an easy market. They are deeply sensitive and their unique pattern of life with inherent love of arts is reflected in their dance and music. Their dances, whether folk or classical or modern, are devotional in nature. 


The Tripuri people are the original inhabitants of the Kingdom of Tripura in North-East India and Bangladesh. The Tripuri people through the Royal family of the Debbarmas ruled the Kingdom of Tripura for more than 2000 years till the kingdom joined the Indian Union in 1949. The Tripuris live on the slopes of hills in a group of five to fifty families.

Society & Culture. The indigenous Tripuri people comprise various hill tribal communities who migrated to this land in successive waves in the ancient past. Each community had its own elementary social and administrative organization starting from the village level and up to the chieftainship of the whole tribe. The tribes enjoy their traditional freedom based on the concept of self-determination. The Tripuri people have a rich historical, social and cultural heritage which is totally distinct from that of the mainland Indians, their distinctive culture as reflected in their dance, music, festivals, management of community affairs, dress and food habit has a strong base.


Historians believe that the Mizos are a part of the great wave of the Mongolian race spilling over the eastern and southern India centuries ago. Mizo comprises of 5 major tribes and 11 minor tribes known under the common name Awzia. Mizos are of Mongoloid origin, speaking a dialect of Tibeto- Burman origin. The Mizos came under the influence of the British missionaries in the 19th century and today the majority of the Mizos are Christians by faith. The literacy rate is the second highest in the country. The people are mostly non- vegetarian and their staple food is rice. The Mizos are a close- knit society with no class distinction and discrimination on grounds of sex, status or religion. They are hospitable, sociable and love music, singing and dancing. Mizos are agriculturists & all their activities revolve around this cultivation and their festivals are connected with such agricultural operations.

Society And Cultural. A gregarious and close- knit society, they evolved some principles of self-help and co- operation to meet social obligations and responsibilities. Constructive social works were executed through voluntary community works. Every family was expected to contribute labour for the welfare of the community. The Mizos are a distinct community and the social unit was the village. Around it revolved the life of the Mizo. The Mizos have been enchanted to their new- found faith of Christianity with so much dedication and submission that their social life and thought- process have been altogether transformed and guided by the Christian church organisations directly or in directly and their sense of values has also undergone drastic change. No class distinction and no discrimination on grounds of sex are not seen in Mizo society. 90% of them are cultivators and the village exists like a big family. Birth of a child, marriage in the village and death of a person in the village or a community feast arranged by a member of the village are important occasions in which the whole village is involved.

Arunachal Pradesh

There are 26 major tribes and a number of sub tribes living in the state. Most of these communities are ethically similar having derived from an original common stock but their geographical isolation from each other has brought amongst them certain distinctive characteristics in language, dress and customs.

Society and Culture. The whole population of Arunachal can be divided into three cultural groups on the basis of their socio- politico religious affinities.For about 35% of the population of Arunachal Pradesh, agriculture is the main occupation. Festivals are an essential part of the socio- cultural life of the people. The festivals are usually connected with agriculture and are associated with ritualistic gaiety either to thank God or to pray for bumper harvest.

Summary Of Characteristics Of People Of The NE States

Having seen the characteristics of the social, cultural & other factors pertaining to the people of insurgency effected North Eastern states, it is imperative that the peculiarities be summarized. It is difficult to profile such a vast & diverse anthropology, however for the ease of the study, certain basic similarities could be clubbed together & a basic framework of behavioural & attitudinal pattern could be listed as under :-

(a) People have a strong affinity to their race, ethnicity & have strong inclination for preservation of the same.

(b) In the rural areas, where people reside in their particular ethnic group, there are stringent rules, customs& traditions to be followed & flouting them is taken very seriously.

(c) As the people belong to the lesser developed part of the country, their basic culture & beliefs are intact & there is less proliferation of modernity in their values.

(d) They have strong values regarding respect to the elders, women and could go to great extent to preserve their honour.

(e) They are basically agrarian community, hardworking, innocent & socially active within their own community.

(f) They have rich cultural heritage bonds which gives them a sense of exclusivity & belongingness.

(g) The various societies are religious and secular.

(h) The division of societies is not based on caste system. It is based on ethnicity, & in a particular tribe, everybody is treated as equal.

(j) Women have a pivotal & important role to play in their communities. Few of the societies are male dominated but most of them have equal status for women in the respective society.

(k) Education & awareness is on an increase & over a period of times have reached even the remote areas.

(l) The languages / dialects spoken are specific to a tribe & it does not have any semblance with most of the languages of rest of the country.


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