Hunter identity in a changing landscape


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THE state of Arunachal Pradesh in northeast India is home to 26 major tribes and 110 sub-tribes who speak more than 90 languages. The majority of people live in villages spread across the mountainous terrain where they continue to follow traditional livelihood practices of shifting cultivation and hunting along with some newer agricultural options. With 81% of the state under forest cover and located within the eastern Himalayan biodiversity hotspot, Arunachal Pradesh’s wealth of biodiversity is still being discovered and described.

Traditionally people of this region relied on a barter economy with the Tibetans to the North and Assamese to the South in the Brahmaputra plains. Even after India’s independence, NEFA (North East Frontier Agency) as this region was known earlier, remained largely isolated from the rest of the country due to a variety of reasons. The war with China in 1962 changed that and saw Arunachal being thrust into the limelight. The people of Arunachal Pradesh were exposed to a series of developmental interventions that were primarily concerned with strengthening the borders and avoiding a repeat of the Chinese incursion of 1962.

The Adi tribe is the second largest in Arunachal Pradesh, mostly inhabiting the Siang districts around the Siang river. The northern parts of the Siang valley were important to the British because of the search for a route to Tibet as well as to ascertain if the Tsangpo did indeed become the Siang/Brahmaputra. The people of this ‘remote’ area were considered savage in nature and backward or primitive in their practices. After three wars with the Adi people, the British made peace with them and decided to leave them mostly to their devices. With the exit of the British in 1947, government policies in the remote hills of NEFA remained largely the same.

The Nehru-Elwin period saw policies that aimed to minimize contact between the tribal regions and outsiders. British era acts such as the Bengal Eastern Frontier Regulation Act (1873), which introduced the concept of the ‘Inner Line’ to protect British trade interests in the hills, now proved useful to advance anthropologist Verrier Elwin’s ‘philosophy’ for this region.1 This policy of non-interference has gone through much re-evaluation, most notably after the 1962 China war. An aggressive development of the area has been advanced in the last two decades. This has started to create friction with the traditional livelihood activities and institutions in these areas. This sudden interest in these borderlands and their communities is driven more by geopolitical concerns and strategic interests than by concern for the environmental and social wealth of this region.


The customary practices of the indigenous tribes of Arunachal Pradesh that have allowed them to largely maintain subsistence livelihoods are today changing even before they have been studied or understood by outsiders. These practices that have evolved over centuries based on their interaction with their surrounding natural environment have allowed them to maintain an intimate relationship with nature that has been facilitated by various cultural and institutional factors. It involves cultural practices, rules and regulations associated with two of the most significant activities in this landscape, village hunting and shifting agriculture.

I present a case study based on the annual hunt for a rare mountain ungulate by hunters from the Ashing sub-tribe of the Adi of Upper Siang district. The Adi hunters have traditionally practised hunting in areas adjoining the village as well as specific areas that are very far from the village. Hunts can roughly be classified into ‘short distance’, ‘medium distance’ and ‘long distance’ hunts based on the distance of the hunting areas from the village. The ‘long distance hunts’ takes place once a year in the winter months (December-January). These hunts are specifically undertaken to hunt the takin (Budorcas taxicolor), a high altitude goat-antelope that is found only in the eastern Himalayas and parts of China.

The physical and mental rigours of this hunt and the special status accorded to the takin through myths and folk tales separate this hunt from the regular hunting and trapping that occur close to the village. Tradition, culture and animistic beliefs are deeply interlinked with the planning, journey and conduct of this hunt. A range of factors now influence this activity due to an increased exposure to global processes. I explore the dynamics of the takin hunt and its importance to the hunters from the study village. I also try to understand how engagement with global processes and the developmental agenda have contributed to the changing of this traditional practice.


The takin is an uncommon animal and very little information is available about its distribution, population status and ecology. It is regarded as ‘vulnerable’ by the IUCN. There are four sub-species of the takin and there are suggestions that two of those sub-species – the Mishmi takin (Budorcas taxicolor taxicolor) and the Bhutan takin (Budorcas taxicolor whitei) are both found in the Dihang Dibang Biosphere Reserve. The takin plays an important role in the cultural life of the Adis and skulls of the takin are considered the most precious by a hunter. It is also indicative of their social status and prestige in the village. I conducted detailed interviews with some of the prominent hunters in the village who have gone on this hunt to understand the dynamics of a takin hunt.

The spatial nature of the hunt is unique because the takin hunting areas are not contiguous to the village of the hunters. The hunting areas appear to have been selected based on seasonal takin presence and divided among the major villages in the region. Hunting groups typically have at least one experienced old hunter. The elders play a vital role in guiding the other hunters as guides and mentors. Rituals and offerings to dimu-tayu,2 the spirit guardian of the mountains and the owner of the takins are offered before and after the hunts. The journey is an opportunity for the younger members to learn hunting skills as well as the rituals associated with this important activity.


Takin hunts take place during a particular window of time during the winter months immediately after harvesting the crops from the fields and is further restricted to the months of December and January. Hunts are organized to coincide with the period of winter when the takin come down from the snow covered mountains to the forests at a lower altitude. The seasonal migration of takin in this area from Tibet is well established.3 This time also corresponds to the general hunting and trapping season among the Adis as they are free from agricultural responsibilities. The climate is considered suitable for the hunters while the hunted fauna also have greater body fat reserves.

Hunters are usually motivated to complete most of their long distance hunting and trapping activities well in time before the Aran festival in late February which is when much of the hunted wild meat is used as offering to ancestors. The planning and composition of the group for the hunt is initiated by experienced hunters who have been on these hunts in the past. Soon, other hunters voice their interest and a group is formed. While there are obviously new hunters on every trip, there are no restrictions on the number of hunters. Although there are reports of 30 and even 50 hunters going on such hunts in the past, in recent times groups have rarely been bigger than 10.

There have been some years even in recent times when hunts did not take place due to lack of numbers.4 Before setting out, individuals are expected to procure their own supplies for the journey. This includes guns, cartridges, rice (for food as well as for brewing rice wine), fermented millets for alcohol and other items of personal preference such as bidis and chewing tobacco. Hunters estimate that they spend a minimum of Rs 1000 for procuring the supplies for the trip.


The peculiar spatial arrangement of the hunting area being non-contiguous and often at a great distance from the village forces the hunters to journey for almost a week before reaching their camp. The areas of three villages separate the study village from the mountains in which the takin is hunted. The takin hunting area is known to the locals as bendhi, a place where the siben (takin) is found. The hunting area which is on the Sino-Indian border has designated hunting territories for four other villages in the vicinity. This unique form of resource sharing appears to stem from the shared origin of these villages, all of which belong to the Ashing sub-tribe of the Adi people. Splinter villages that were formed from the original village were allocated specific hunting areas separated by geographic features within the larger hunting grounds.

Hunters from the study village had to journey the longest to reach their camp, although travel time has decreased significantly over the last two decades because of a new road. In spite of these roads, the journey still involves 3-4 days of walking, 10 hours per day with loads of 25 kilograms or more. There is understandably some discontent at how easy it is for the hunters who stay closer to the bendhi. The experienced men who have been on this hunt previously, play an important role in recognizing the path to the camp and clearing the vegetation and debris that would have accumulated in the past year of disuse.


After reaching the camp site, there are clear responsibilities based on the seniority of the hunters. While the older and more experienced hunters are in charge of setting up camp and gathering firewood, the younger lot is expected to clear the trails around the hunting area and make lego or step ladders from wooden poles in steep areas. Having set the stage, the following morning the men choose their hunting partners and scout around to locate the animals. Once they have identified the animals and their routes, the hunters position themselves at strategic points to maximize the number of kills. The actual hunt occurs only for a maximum of two days. Hunters admit that killing a large animal like the takin has become easier with the use of guns, as earlier they needed to track the animal for a longer time even after it was shot with an arrow.

After the takin is killed, the skull with the horns (rebung) is taken out and given to the man who has killed it. The accompanying hunters then cut a path with their dao (machetes) through the vegetation towards the central camp area and help in getting the carcass till there. Here, all the animals are cut and divided by the elders. The abong (a portion from the underbelly) is removed and given to the hunter who has killed the animal. This abong is presented by the hunter to his father-in-law. The rest of the animal will be cut and put into a ‘common pool’. Some of the pieces will be further cut if required to be eaten there.

The next day, the pieces from the common pool are divided equally among all members. Each person’s basket is kept in a line and the pieces are distributed among them. Once the division is done, a temporary drying platform (chang) is constructed and the meat pieces are smoked on the platform. Smoking the meat improves its shelf life and makes it lighter and easier to carry. These pieces are then packed into each member’s personal baskets.


On their return journey, the hunters drop in at some of the other Ashing villages along the way and exchange pleasantries. This is also the time when they share takin meat from their hunting trip among their clan members in these villages. The last stage of the bendhi trip involves the return to the village and the celebrations. Once they reach their village, the moshup or the communal long-house serves as the venue, as for most other celebrations in the village. One of the most unique aspects of the takin hunt is the implication for a first-time hunter. Killing a takin for the first time is considered a significant achievement. Thus, any hunter who has killed his first takin is expected to arrange a feast by sacrificing a pig for the entire village on return from the hunt.

Hunting among the animistic tribes of Arunachal Pradesh is considered an exchange between the spirit guardians of the animals and humans. Humans appease the spirits through sacrifices and rituals in return for the ability to take the animals as food. Among the Adis, a majority of the large mammals that they hunt are believed to be under the protection of upom, a forest spirit, but not the takin. The takin is considered to be the property of dimu-tayu, the spirit of the snow-capped mountains. The juxtaposition of human and spirit lives are brought forth clearly when siben are described by villagers as the mithun of dimu-tayu.5 Such comparisons have also been reported from the other major Tani tribe, the Nyishi, through the work of Alexander Aisher.6


This perspective blurs the boundaries between domestic and wild as people maintain a relationship with the spirits on a regular basis that is comparable to the social relationships that exist within their own human society. This relationship is reiterated during the hunt for the takin. Dimu-tayu is repeatedly addressed throughout the duration of the hunt starting with their departure from the village and ending with their return. Rituals and sacrifices are addressed to him before and after setting up the bendhi camp, followed by further prayers after the hunt of the animals. The final sacrifice and offerings are made just before they enter the village after the hunt while the celebrations that follow are also marked by expressions of gratitude to the spirit for allowing them to return home safely after a difficult journey.

The tribes of Arunachal Pradesh in general, and the Adi people of the Siang valley in particular, have been exposed to radical changes in a very short period of time. The impacts of a greater interface between rural communities and the fruits of globalization are increasingly seen as influencing their traditional livelihood activities. Inevitably, the nature of hunting has also changed over time. Bows and arrows have been replaced by the universal use of guns in hunting, including for takin hunts. Journeys are no longer as time-consuming or as difficult as it was even a few decades back with access to vehicles. The younger generation has even started carrying ointments and sprays to relieve aches during the strenuous treks. It is difficult to believe that even a few decades back the Adi hunter would set out barefoot with just a loin cloth and a coarse woollen jacket.


Adi world view and cosmology based on the animistic practices of what is now formally referred to as the ‘Donyi Polo faith’, give rise to a very close relationship between humans and their (organic) surroundings. Interactions between humans and spirits are common and spirits are never taken for granted. This world view and cosmology is very different from the Occidental ideas of human-nature relationships that stress human domination and subjugation of nature. In the Adi world view, humans are a part of nature and maintain a constant communication through sacrifices and appeasements with the various uyu (spirits) that inhabit the landscape.7

The benefits that a subsistence hunter accrues from his hunting prowess extend far beyond the immediate advantage of access to more meat. High prestige and social status are advantages that serve hunters in the long-term within and outside the family.8 Among Adi society, social status within the village and among the immediate family and clansmen is extremely important. This is maintained through the practice of meat sharing among the family, clan and friends. In the case of the takin hunt, sharing meat with friends and clan members in other villages tends to reinforce bonds and build social capital even over long distances.

A physical manifestation of hunting prowess exists in the form of trophies of animal skulls that are displayed on the wall opposite the entrance in Adi houses. Takin skulls are given a special pride of place on their walls and often a hunter’s prowess is judged by the number of takin skulls that he has. Takin hunting trips have traditionally served as an opportunity for the elders to pass on their knowledge of specific customs, rituals and knowledge of the landscape through the oral tradition. The hunt also serves as an occasion for the hunters to periodically reacquaint themselves with landscapes that have defined their identity and livelihoods.


Regulations and policies against hunting have long been in place, largely influenced by the colonial attitude towards native utilization of forests and forest resources. Apart from this, the cultural importance of hunting by indigenous tribes in the eastern Himalayas is rarely considered or understood. Now, these same practices have been exposed to the sudden and unplanned development schemes that have had far-reaching consequences on traditional activities such as shifting cultivation and hunting.

Changes to hunting have also been seen within the last two decades, especially with relation to technology, access and institutional changes. Hunting of large mammals is now dependent completely on guns, as hunting with methods such as bow and poisoned arrows are no longer prevalent. Mobility within the landscape has increased with the building of roads and accessibility to motorbikes. More importantly, with the introduction of the panchayat system, there has been a gradual shift in power to the younger generation within the last few decades. The traditional institution of the kebang has always been composed of elders in the village and it continues to remain the same. However, the relative significance and powers of the kebang has seen a decrease with the entry of the panchayat system.

The kebang and the panchayat have been provided distinct responsibilities in village life. While the panchayat representatives are primarily responsible for the ‘development’ of the village and executing schemes of local interest, especially in the fields of agriculture, animal husbandry, public health, education and village industry etc., the kebang is in charge of legal matters as well as day to day functioning of the village. However, with time, the importance of the panchayat representatives increased exponentially as they were responsible for obtaining the ‘contracts’, which are the only source of earning cash for many people in the village.

The panchayat representatives are mostly young, politically well connected and savvy about the political process, unlike the gamburas of the kebang. With the increasing importance of the panchayat representatives, they have established themselves as a parallel power centre in the village that is progressively overshadowing the kebang in various matters. These developments signify a growing disconnect with the past and an increasing fascination with the opportunities which might arise in the future. There is already evidence of this disconnect among the younger generation. These growing engagements with the globalized world will continue to influence the nature of human relations with the landscape around them.



1. Verrier Elwin, A Philosophy for NEFA. Gyan Publishing House, Delhi, 1957.

2. Also known as Diimi diyu/Diite uyu among other sub-tribes of the Adi.

3. George Schaller, E. Zhang and L. Zhi, An Ecological Survey of the Medog Area in the Yarlung Tsangpo Great Canyon National Reserve, Tibet. Report of the John D. and Catherine T. MacArthur Foundation grant ‘Biodiversity Conservation in the Himalaya of the Southeast Tibet Autonomous Region’, awarded to the Tibet Forestry Department, 2000.

4. Hunters consider four to be the minimum number of individuals required for a takin hunt.

5. Mithun (Bos frontalis) are semi-domesticated bovines common among tribes in Arunachal Pradesh and Nagaland as barter, fines and even bride price.

6. Alexander Aisher, Through ‘Spirits’: Nyishi Tribal Cosmology and Landscape Ecology in Arunachal Pradesh, Northeast India. University of London, 2005.

7. Tamo Mibang and S.K. Chaudhuri (eds.), Understanding Tribal Religion. Mittal, New Delhi, 2004.

8. Michael Gurven and Christopher Von Rueden, ‘Hunting, Social Status and Biological Fitness’, Social Biology 53(1-2), 2006, pp. 81-99.