Human-animal relations: a view from the Mishmi hills


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THERE are various ways of perceiving human-animal relationships. From hunter-gatherers, pastoralists and agriculturists, all the way to industrial societies, the relationship between humans and animals have undergone dramatic changes. Studies by Knight, Manning and Serpell show that animals are worshipped, considered as kin, loathed as evil spirits, and slaughtered for food or offerings.1 Human perception of animals in the contemporary world is even more complex, where animals may be employed as entertainers in circuses, objects to gaze at in zoos, serve as research subjects and also to provide considerable care and concern as pets. In the modern world, human-animal relations have taken new meanings created by the ideas of biological conservation by wildlife scientists and conservation NGOs.

In this paper, I provide an account of the Mishmi’s relations with their animals (both domesticated and wild), to highlight the role of animals in the lives of the Mishmis from a socio-cultural perspective and how this relationship changes with the new ideas brought in by modernity and by conservation related ideas and approaches. I begin by providing an overview of the Mishmi’s association with animals from both pragmatic and symbolic approaches. Then I demonstrate how these local standpoints can be problematic for both the state and conservationists as these views are in contrast to the science of conservation, especially concerning the tensions between the subsistence and cultural activity of hunting and with the wildlife protection laws that see hunting as an illegal activity.

Mishmi is one of the 26 major tribal groups of Arunachal Pradesh. There are four sub-groups recognized within the Mishmi (Idu, Digaru, Miju and Deng). Named after the river Dibang, the Dibang Valley (where I do my research) is home to around 12000 members of the Idu Mishmis, one of the clans of the Mishmi group. The extremely high mountainous landscape has left most parts of this district uninhabitable. The harsh weather conditions imply that the land on the mountaintops is under permanent snow or frost. Dibang Valley district has the lowest human density in India (one person per sq km) because of unfavourable living conditions and a lack of basic infrastructure like reliable roads or hospitals.

Largely dependent on land for swidden farming, the Idu Mishmi have a difficult life as the land is mostly unsuitable for any kind of agriculture, especially on the higher mountain ranges. For many decades, these districts remained cut-off from the mainstream connectivity of the roads, as they lie close to the Sino-India border in Northeast India. Of late, however, there have been rapid changes through infrastructural development such as roads, dams, bridges and markets and pressure from belief systems different from their own. Relations with animals acquire new meanings with an increase in the influx of migrants into the valley. The local ways of subsistence, belief system and resource use are influenced by a range of actors including government agencies, religious and semi-religious groups, NGOs and wildlife biologists.


Domesticated animals that the Mishmi rear are pigs (ili), mithuns (sha/saa) and chicken (eto). They are reared for meat, for selling and for ceremonial slaughtering. Pigs are always stall-fed in a separate section, either below the bamboo house standing on stilts or adjacent to the house in pens (ili apa). Mithun (Bos frontalis) is a semi-domesticated cattle and a descendent of the guar, the Indian bison (Bos gaurus). Mithuns are not found truly in the wild, though some animals have become feral and can be found roaming in the wild.


The mithun belongs to the bovine family and is widely distributed in the hilly areas from the Arakan Hills and Chin Hills of Burma through the Chittagong Hills of Bangladesh, northeast India and Bhutan. This is the most prized and culturally valued domesticated animal in the region. In the absence of herding or pastoral practices, Mishmi relations with animals are limited to wild animals in the form of hunting and trapping and with the mithun, which takes a central position in their lives.

Mithuns are reared for purposes of slaughtering during ceremonies (marriages, funerals, political gatherings) and as payment of fines, but not for milk or ploughing.2 They play a crucial role in exchange of wealth between relatives (during marriages and conflict resolution) and during ceremonies for dead or propitiation of spirits. According to Aisher, the slaughtering of mithuns as offerings to spirits is considered the most significant form of exchange deemed possible between humans and spirits and this renders it the sacrificial animal par excellence.3 After sacrifice, mithun skulls with the horns intact are placed on the sacred skull board4 in the first room, similar to the wild animal skulls.

Mithuns indicate status for the owner and are used as bride wealth during weddings. Mithuns are economically valuable animals, each costing around Rs 40,000-50,000 (650-750 USD), which can go up to Rs 70,000 (1000 USD). The wealth of a person is gauged by the number of mithuns he owns. Wealthy Mishmi men can afford to give more bride wealth and have more wives.5 According to customary law, wilful killing of mithun, similar to killing tigers (amra), is a serious crime, equivalent to murder and there is a heavy fine of 3-5 mithuns on the accused, writes Chaudhuri.6 Mithun owners constantly maintain contact with the animals by providing them with salt7 (Fig. 1). Owners can identify their mithuns by the slit marks made on the ear lobes. Salt is routinely offered to mithuns to inculcate loyalty with the owners.

Figure 1: Mithuns being fed with salt by their owner.


There are constant attempts to ‘Hinduize’ the people of Arunachal Pradesh.8 Similarly, though conversion to Christianity is prevalent, one cannot ignore the role of political forces and religious groups affiliated with Hindu religion working in Arunachal that directly or indirectly influence the belief systems of the local people. Outsiders who visit Arunachal often express shock over the consumption of various kinds of meat, especially the mithun. This bovine is often mistaken for a cow. Slaughter and consumption of mithun is seen as an act of barbarism among those who are from outside the Northeast.


During my fieldwork, I met a lady from Bangalore, a member of the Art of Living9 (AoL) who arrived in Roing (Lower Dibang Valley district) to teach yoga and spirituality to the local Mishmi students. Members of AoL conduct programmes with school children and I have seen them ‘preaching’ their views on eating habits. Visits by such groups, including the Brahma Kumaris,10 to promote vegetarianism signal that in this view beef eating (including Mithun meat) is a crime and a sin. The lady from AoL told Mishmi teachers and students who came to learn yoga to give up onions, garlic, tea/coffee and alcohol and, of course, meat.

The mainlanders, largely Hindu caste groups, look down on the Mishmi and other ‘tribal’ groups, especially for their food choices. There is a subtle undercurrent of their influence on the Mishmi, some of whom are abandoning slaughtering rituals; this has even resulted in some Mishmi becoming vegetarians. Some Mishmi members who follow Brahma Kumaris have given up meat, fish and even eggs.

A temple in Roing (lower Dibang district) has images of both Hindu and Mishmi deities; the temple is named ‘Adiju-Shiv mandir’ (Fig. 2), Adiju being the name of a spirit in Mishmi mythology. Similarly, there is a temple in Hayuliong (Anjaw) called ‘Mishmi-Ram mandir’. Such hybridization may lead to a gradual fusion of animism to Hinduism, marginalizing or undermining the Mishmi way of life. Such preaching by the socio-spiritual groups is increasing in the remote areas of Arunachal; they reproduce the perception of Mishmi cultural practices as being primitive, uncivilized, wild and junglee11 and the need to reform such practices. Hinduism may, therefore, also influence their decision to give up the mithun as a symbol of their cultural identity.

Figure 2: Temple with Hindu and Mishmi deities.


While the Mishmi take pride in ‘being tribal’ and in their indigenous conservation taboos, they are also moved by the labelling of their culture as ‘barbaric’. Therefore, some of them are abandoning eating animal meat and inculcating dominant Hindu practices. Small shrines with idols of Hindu gods and god-dess have been installed in people’s homes. Photos of Lord Rama and Sita are hung on the walls. The impact and influence of religious conversions on indigenous belief systems related to wildlife conservation remains to be investigated and revisited in depth. The attempts to equate the mithun with the cow by certain religious and semi-religious groups could lead to projecting the mithun as sacred as the cow and thus not a slaughter animal. Such influences may alter how mithuns are regarded by Mishmis, both in the sense of tradition and for pragmatic reasons.

While there seems to be an effort to ‘civilize’ people by exposing them to practices of Hinduism, the practice of hunting has for long been an issue of concern among the forest department and conservationists. The following section dwells upon the importance of hunting in the lives of Mishmi and that there are serious tensions with the wildlife protection laws and the ideology of wildlife conservation.


Hunting among the Mishmi12 is claimed to be part of their traditional way of life and cultural practice. Men undertake hunting for subsistence, trade13 and for crop protection. Animals such as barking deer, wild boars, monkeys and bears are some of the animals commonly hunted closer to the villages. Hunters in Dibang Valley move uphill and cross mountains towards the Sino-Indian border for musk deer. The cost of a pod is around Rs 20,000-30,000 (300-450 USD) per tola.14 While meat is consumed, musk pods (aalaapee) are not used locally but often sold to marwaris,15 which are then exported illegally to international markets and used in making perfumes.

Another animal that is hunted for trade related purposes is the black bear. It is targeted for its gall bladder from which bile is extracted and used in traditional Chinese medicine. It is sold locally for Rs 5000 (75 USD) per tola. The demand for soft and waterproof otter skins is high in the international trade and each skin is sold for Rs 8000-10000 (120-150 USD) to buyers from outside the region, sometimes even from Myanmar.16


The interlinkages of hunting with the spiritual world of the Mishmis is important to highlight why hunting is not just a sport or for mere consumption of meat. Spirits are considered as active agents by the Mishmi and wild animals are believed to be owned by a mountain spirit, ngolo, the most important spirit for hunters. People believe that ngolo is the one who ‘supplies’ animals to the hunters, so when there is a successful hunt, an offering must be made to ngolo in exchange. If not, the ngolo gets annoyed and could cause accidents to both hunters and consumers of the hunted animal, and may cause severe illness to either the hunter or his family members.

Hunters have certain duties, responsibilities and rights which need to be followed to let ngolo offer the animals to hunters. One of the duties of hunters is to address the animals in a proper way with special code names. Wild animals have two names: one is the Mishmi name that is used when they are in the village and other is the name that hunters know and use only during hunting, an exclusive knowledge that only they possess.


When the hunter returns home, there is a restriction on things he can or cannot do for five days, but only if it was a successful hunt. There are taboos on eating onion (elompran), garlic (eloni), mushroom (akupi), a herb called marsana and fermented soyabean (aadulo chhin). Men stay in a separate room and sex is forbidden. They are not allowed to receive water and tea prepared by women who are menstruating. Hunters do not attend funerals and avoid washing clothes for a certain number of days. Wild meat is cooked in a separate room or in the men’s room (the first room of the house) or in a separate shed outside the house.

Displays of wild and domesticated animal skulls are a common sight amongst the Mishmi (Fig. 3). Wild boar, takin, serow, goral and asiatic black bear are some of the animals whose skulls are mounted on a neatly made bamboo frame which is found in almost every rural Mishmi house. Animal skulls and jaws of animals are symbols of hunting and sacrificial rites.

Figure 3: Display of wild animal skulls.


While hunting of some animals is permitted provided one strictly observes taboos, there is a restriction on hunting animals such as tigers and hoolock gibbon. Killing a tiger is the worst crime a person can commit and a strict taboo is observed not only by the hunter and his family members but also the entire village. This is because according to Mishmi mythology, Mishmi and tigers were born to the same mother and are siblings; thus the tiger was the elder brother and the human, the Mishmi was the younger brother. According to the Mishmi, tigers could only be killed or trapped when there is a loss in property or for personal safety. If a tiger is killed, an elaborate ritual (tamama) over five days is conducted with restrictions being placed on both family members and the villagers.

Figure 4: A glimpse of the diverse ways of associating with wild animals by the Mishmis.

There is no one way that Mishmis relate to animals. Their relations with animals range from protecting some animals, for example, tigers and hoolock gibbon, utilizing some animals for meat (takin akru, serow maay, barking deer manjo), trading animal parts (pods of musk deer ala and gall bladders of bears ahu) and, if required, killing carnivores that attack their cattle (wild dogs aprupru, tigers) or animals that raid their crops (bears, ungulates, wild pigs amwe). While killing animals like tigers and gibbons are conceived as equivalent to homicide, other animals like takin, musk deer, Asiatic black bear, flying squirrels and pheasants are no less frequently hunted. The use of these animals is diverse and widespread: meat as food, skins as bags and mats and skulls as sacred objects to be mounted on skull boards.


Therefore, many Mishmi do not see hunting as a harmful activity. Rather, it is seen as an activity that protects livelihoods, saves human lives and as a culturally just practice to maintain social network with their world and the spiritual world of ngolo. Certain rules and taboos help in conserving animals and, therefore, not protecting crops and not hunting animals is considered illogical. As Mishmi take pride in their local taboos, they remain unconvinced with the complete restriction on hunting.

Many at the local level disagree with the protection laws, often voicing concern that once the state takes interest in wildlife conservation there will be more and stricter regulation of people’s access to wild animals. They believe that resources are better conserved by customary laws and increasing government regulation will only result in a diminished sense of ownership and care for local resources. This may lead to over-exploiting such resources. The relationship with animals creates new meanings when the sense of belonging and ownership changes. Another crucial factor is expansion of local markets to the trade in animal products, where economics take over cultural value manifested in human-animal relations. Would people then still follow taboos? Probably not. The erosion of customary laws and taboos would add another aspect of how and in what ways the Mishmis perceive these animals that are part of their world view and local economy.

The legal framework and conservation approaches consider local people to be harmful to the wildlife species and natural resource extraction by local people to be unsustainable, resulting in a decline in forest cover and wildlife population. While community based conservation projects are being implemented in the state to provide alternate livelihoods to hunters, it is a challenge to convince people who live close to wild animals to not hunt them and coexist with nature. Human-animal relations are also being shaped by conservation NGOs and government authorities, which often undermine or even erase all other local meanings. The multiple meanings of how local people associate with animals conflict with the state view of ‘wild’ animals as ‘scheduled animals’, or as an ‘endangered’, ‘critically endangered’, ‘vulnerable’ or ‘least concern’, according to the IUCN.


Understanding the Mishmi’s relations with animals provides insights to the emergence of new ways of conservation research and practice. If the conservation groups take note of local people’s perceptions of animals, there could be a way forward to better and locally acceptable ways of conservation and that are likely to be more sustainable.



1. John Knight, Wildlife in Asia: Cultural Perspectives. Routledge Curzon, London, 2004; Aubrey Manning and James Serpell, Animals and Human Society: Changing Perspectives. Routledge, London, 1998.

2. National Research Centre on Mithun in Nagaland carries out research on milk production and improving the quality of mithun milk.

3. Alex Aisher, ‘Voices of Uncertainty: Spirits, Humans and Forests in Upland Arunachal Pradesh, India’, Journal of South Asian Studies 30(3), 2007, pp. 479-498.

4. Amuneenddon, bamboo framed board where animal skulls are displayed

5. Mishmis are polygamous. Men are allowed to have more than one wife.

6. Sarit Chaudhuri, ‘Plight of the Igus: Notes on shamanism among the Idu Mishmis of Arunachal Pradesh, India’, European Bulletin of Himalayan Research 32, 2008, pp. 84-108.

7. Cattle, both wild and domesticated, have a strong appetite for salt. In the wild, location of salt-licks are permanently imprinted in their memory and they return to these locations when they require salt. Mithun calves are fed with salt by the owners when they are born and as adults, mithun either return to the village for salt or the owners frequently visit them in the forests to feed them salt. It is also a way of creating loyalty and bond between owners and mithuns.

8. Nitin Sethi, ‘RSS Turns Arunachal Tribals Towards Hinduism’, Business Standard, 29 April 2014. URL: com/article/elections-2014/rssturns-arunachal-tribals-towards-hinduism-114042 900231_1.html. Accessed on 3 July 2017.

9. Art of Living is a volunteer based educational NGO. Its programmes combine the mystical and the modern to help create a life of purpose, joy and confidence. It has its headquarters in Bangalore.

10. Brahma Kumaris is a new religious movement that teaches a form of meditation that focuses on souls. Their activities promote respect for all faiths and meditation through social service activities. This movement has its headquarters in Rajasthan.

11. Junglee is a Hindi word derived from jangal (wood, forest), applied in a derogatory way to ‘tribals’ or ‘forest-dwelling’ people.

12. Not all Mishmi. Hunting has decreased over the years.

13. Species like musk deer and black bear are hunted for the musk deer pod and gall bladder respectively. These are in demand in the international market for their use in the traditional Chinese medicine.

14. Tola (10 gms) is a unit to measure gold and musk pods are also measured in the same unit.

15. Marwaris are traders from Rajasthan who run businesses in Arunachal and other parts of Northeast India. They frequently travel in and out of the state and engage in trading in animal parts like muskpods.

16. In Anjaw district, Mishmi reported that men from Myanmar give leg-hold metal traps to the local people for trapping otters.