Identification. The Mikirs are one of the more numerous of the Tibeto-Burman peoples inhabiting the Indian state of Assam. The major locus of their culture is within the Mikir Hills of Assam, but they are also dispersed throughout the Golaghat Subdivision of the Sibsagar District, Nowgong, Kamrup, the Khasi Hills, and the Cachar Hills. Mikir, a name of uncertain derivation, is the name given to this people by their Assamese neighbors. The Mikir call themselves "Arleng" (meaning "man" generally). Much of the detailed Ethnographic data available on the Mikir was compiled by Edward Stack in the late nineteenth century. This information was edited, supplemented, and published by Charles Lyall in 1908.
Location. The Mikir homeland is an isolated and Mountainous region situated between the Brahmaputra Valley (north), the Dhansiri Valley (east), the Kopili Valley (west), and the Jamuna Valley (south). Summits in the Mikir Hills reach as high as 1,200 meters, but the majority of the Mountain peaks are of lower elevation. The entire area is densely forested. The plains at the base of these mountains, which are quite fertile, are also occupied by the Mikir. The climate is forbidding: there is little breeze and the air is quite moist. Malaria and leprosy are constant health threats.
Demography. In 1971 the Mikir population totaled 184,089 persons. However, a 1987 poll conducted by the United Bible Societies recorded some 220,000 Mikir speakers in the region.
Linguistic Affiliation. Mikir (also called Manchati, Mikiri, or Karbi), which belongs to the Tibeto-Burman Family of the Sino-Tibetan Phylum, is the native language of the people.
History and Cultural Relations
Some traditions point to the eastern portion of the Khasi and Jaintia Hills (near the Kopili or Kupli River) as the original Mikir homeland. The Mikir themselves designate this region as Nihang and call their current homeland Nilip. Before settling in their present locale, their history was dominated by intermittent conflict with Naga tribes, Kukis, and Khasis. After a brief period of conflict with the Ahoms (who occupied their present homeland) the Mikir placed themselves under the protection of the Ahom king in Sibsagar, and they are said to have refrained from armed conflict since that time. Unlike their more warlike neighbors, the Mikir have since occupied themselves with basic subsistence activities. Memory is retained of an early king, Sot Recho, who the Mikir believe will return to Earth one day. There are also architectural remains in the northern Mikir Hills, the construction of which is ascribed to the gods.
Villages are located in forest clearings. Since the Mikir's chief subsistence activity is agriculture, the location of a village changes when cultivable land has been exhausted. The floor of a typical house is elevated a meter or so above ground level and the structure itself is built on supporting posts. Construction materials consist of bamboo and thatching grass. Each dwelling contains two doors (front and rear) affording access to the outside of the structure. Pigs are kept beneath the house. The kam (guest's/servant's chamber) and kut (family quarters) are the major sections of the house and are separated by a wall containing a doorway.
Subsistence and Commercial Activities. The major Mikir subsistence activity is slash-and-burn or jhum agriculture. Land used for cultivation is prepared by cutting trees, burning them, and planting seeds in the fertile ash residue. The Mikir make no use of the plow and their farmland is not artificially irrigated. Major crops are maikun (summer rice) and phelo (cotton). Additional crops include castor oil, thengthe (maize), turmeric, hen (yams), birik (red pepper), hepi (aubergines), hanso (ginger), and 1ac. Fowl, pigs, and goats are domesticated. Fishing (with rod and line) is also a subsidiary activity. Deer, wild pigs, iguanas, and tortoises are hunted. In addition, the chrysalis of the eri silkworm, crabs, and rats are also consumed. Rice beer, tobacco (smoked and chewed), and betel nuts are also used by the Mikir, as was opium until its use was prohibited by law.
Industrial Arts. Few items are manufactured by the Mikir. Among those found are dyed woven cloth of cotton and silk, metal implements (daos [adzes], knives, needles, and fishing hooks), ornaments of gold and silver (necklaces, bracelets, rings, ear adornments), and pottery (made without the use of the potter's wheel). Bamboo and wooden implements used within the household are also, one presumes, manufactured by the Mikir.
Trade. Little may be said of trade between the Mikir and their neighbors. It has been noted that the pressures of assimilation have led to a decrease in the indigenous manufacture of many items and a subsequent increase in the importation of foreign goods.
Division of Labor. The ethnographic literature does not contain much information on the Mikir division of labor. It is known that one task, the weaving of cloth, is the prerogative of women. Farming seems to be done exclusively by men.
Land Tenure. Village lands are apportioned by Household, each house being allotted its own fields. Male members of a household limit their labors to their own fields.
Kin Groups and Descent. The Mikir living in the hill country are divided into three groups: the Chintongm (living in the Mikir Hills), the Ronghang (occupying the Nowgong Plains), and the Amri (occupying the districts of the Khasi and Jaintia hills in Meghalaya and the Kamrup District of Assam). There is some question as to whether these names reflect true tribal divisions (derived from ancestral designations) or are simply place names. Each of these contains Several subdivisions, or kur. Each of these kur is exogamous, and their number is reckoned variously by ethnographers. Among those cited by Lyall is the list of Stack, who reckons their number at four. These are Ingti, Terang, Lekthe, and Timung. These four are further subdivided into additional exogamous groups. All members of a kur are considered to be brothers and sisters. Patrilineal descent is the norm.
Kinship Terminology. Omaha-type kinship terminology for first cousins is employed.
Marriage. Monogamous unions are the Mikir norm, though polygyny also occurs (usually in the case of wealthy men able to afford more than one wife). Males are married between the ages of 14 and 25. Females are married between the ages of 12 and 15. Premarital sexual relations between males and females are uncommon, though in previous Generations, when the maro (bachelors' house) was an active institution, liaisons are believed to have been more frequent. Marital infidelity is rare. Postmarital residence is patrilocal, a newly married couple taking up residence with the bridegroom's father. The only exception to this norm occurs if the female is an heiress or an only daughter. In such an instance, the couple reside with the bride's father. Divorce is permissible, though rare, and the remarriage of divorced persons is not prohibited. Widows are also allowed to remarry.
Domestic Unit. Small nuclear families are the Mikir norm. A typical household will consist of the members of a single family together with its male biological offspring and their families.
Inheritance. Sons inherit the property of their fathers, the eldest son receiving a greater share than his siblings. Daughters receive no inheritance from their father's estate. A widow may obtain control of the deceased husband's property by marrying another member of his kur. Otherwise, she is allowed to keep nothing more than her personal property (i.e., clothing, personal ornaments, etc.). Upon the death of a Father, the surviving family usually remains undivided and adult sons support their widowed mother. A father may choose to divide his property during his lifetime.
Socialization. Little that is specific may be said of childrearing practices among the Mikir. From the makeup of the typical domestic unit one may deduce that this is a responsibility shared by all family members. In the case of male youth, the maro (young men's dormitory) played an important part in the process of socialization at one time. The young men's association has survived as an institution, though the maro has been replaced by the home of the gaonbura (village headman). This organization is hierarchically structured and its members eat and work the village fields together.
Social Organization. Mikir life is focused on the agricultural cycle. The young men's association plays an important part in this (e.g., by assisting in land cultivation) and in the maintenance of Mikir customs (e.g., in music and dance). There is no apparent evidence of a rigidly stratified social structure (e.g., by age, class, occupation, etc.); neither does there appear to be a ranked hierarchy of kur.
Political Organization. The autonomous village, headed by a gaonbura or sar-the (headman), is the central administrative unit. Village affairs are supervised by the headman and the members of the me (village council), made up of all male householders. The me mediates in disputes and has the power to levy fines. Villages belong to larger administrative districts called mauzas, which are administered by a me-pi (great council), membership in which is limited to gaonburas. A me-pi is headed by a mauzadar (head gaonbura). This body addresses issues having effects that extend beyond village boundaries.
Social Control. While vendettas (between families) are said to have been an element of prior Mikir history, the Present state of internal cultural affairs is characterized by stability and order. Disputes are mediated by the me (village Council) , which is presided over by the gaonbura (village chief). The organizational structure of the young men's organization within a village is itself a mechanism of maintaining order. Oaths, corporal punishment, fines, and voluntary separation from the community are among the means used to maintain social control.
Conflict. Traditionally, the Mikir have not made armed conflict with their non-Mikir neighbors a priority. Furthermore, internal strife (e.g., between Mikir villages) has been absent historically. Periodic conflict between the Mikir and other neighboring peoples (e.g., Nagas, Kukis, and Khasis) may be noted, but it has not been a result of Mikir instigation.
Religion and Expressive Culture
Religious Beliefs. The Mikir acknowledge the existence of a number of divinities, though temples, shrines, and other places and objects of worship are lacking in their villages. Worship is not directed toward trees or animals. Individuals may be in the possession of bor (amulets or fetishes) of stone or metal that are believed capable of bringing good or bad luck. The gods are called upon and animals sacrificed to ensure good fortune and to avoid negative circumstances. Some of the more important members of the Mikir pantheon are: Arnam Kethe, the "Great God," who, though a household god, actually lives in Heaven and receives sacrifice once in three years; Peng, a household god who actually resides within the home; Hemphu, the "householder," who "owns" all of the Mikir people; Rek-anglong, the local deity identified with the hill upon which a village is located; and Arnam Paro, the "hundred god," who is, perhaps, a composite figure made up of all of the gods who are a prominent part of the annual Rongker festival. In addition to the aforementioned gods, there are others (e.g., Chomang-ase, "Khasi fever"; Ajo-ase, "night fever"; and So-mene, "evil pain") who are identified with specific diseases. In addition, natural features of an impressive nature (e.g., sun, moon, mountains, waterfalls) have divinities identified with them, though those of a celestial nature are not the objects of propitiatory sacrifice. Christianity has had little impact on the world view of the Mikir. Evidence of Hindu influence, however, may be noted.
Religious Practitioners. The diviner is the major Mikir Religious practitioner. The generic designation for the office is uche, when held by a male, or uche-pi, when held by a female. Of these there are two classes. The first is the sang-kelang abang, or "man who looks at rice," who exercises this office after a period of instruction and practice. The second is the lodet or lodet-pi, a female practitioner who dispatches her Duties while under the influence of supernatural forces.
Ceremonies. Communal celebrations include the following: the Rongker (annual village festival held either at the Beginning of the cultivation season in June or in the cold season); a harvest-home celebration; and the occasional Rongker-pi ("great Rongker") held on special occasions (e.g., to expel man-eating tigers) and attended by an entire mauza. Several ritualized behavioral restrictions (called gennas in Assamese) are also observed.
Arts. In addition to articles that have a utilitarian or ornamental purpose (e.g., domestic utensils, clothing, and jewelry), musical instruments are also produced. Music and dancing are said to accompany the harvest-home celebration and burial rites. Tattooing is also practiced by Mikir women (a perpendicular line applied with indigo extending from the middle of the forehead to the chin). The oral literature of the Mikir includes myths and folktales.
Medicine. Prolonged illness is believed to be caused either by witchcraft or the malevolent action of supernaturals. The services of male and female diviners (the sang-kelang abang and the lodet or lodet-pi, respectively) are required to alleviate the malady, by discerning who has cast the spell or what the divine forces are that need to be propitiated.
Death and Afterlife. The burial cult of the Mikir is designed to insure that the deceased gain entrance into the underworld abode of the dead, which is ruled by Jom Recho, the "Lord of Spirits." Those whose burials are not accompanied by the proper ceremonies do not gain admittance. The deceased remain in Jom-arong, "Jom's town," until they are reborn on Earth as children. This belief in reincarnation is an apparent borrowing from the Hindu neighbors of the Mikir.
Barkataki, S. (1969). Tribes of Assam. New Delhi: National Book Trust.
Stack, Edward. (1908). The Mikirs. Edited by Charles Lyall, London: D. Nutt. Reprint. 1972. Gauhati: United Publishers.
HUGH R. PAGE, JR.