SOAS University of London

Research Description

The starting point for the project is the recognition that tribal people, contrary to perceptions of them as guardians of tradition, are also initiators of change. We will argue that tribal cultures in Arunachal Pradesh change as much through creative innovation as through passive adaptation. Arunachal Pradesh is a unique location to study such change because its cultures are relatively intact and documented in substantial archives and collections made during the colonial period. Combining a study of these historical collections with contemporary fieldwork, the research will analyse cultural change in historical perspective.

Tribal transitions map

Arunachal Pradesh is home to about twenty-five separate tribes and as many languages/dialects in the Tibeto-Burman family. (Despite the descriptive inadequacies of the term 'tribal', the alternatives are equally imprecise; 'tribal' is a politicised category all over India [Beteille 1991], but in Arunachal Pradesh the term is used with little controversy, and often with pride by those to whom it refers.) Earlier part of the unadministered tracts of Assam and later the North-East Frontier Agency, the region has been isolated both by mountainous terrain and official policy. In 1873, the British authorities established the 'Inner Line' to demarcate the extent of government control, and in 1914 the McMahon Line was drawn to separate these unadministered territories from Tibet. This policy of isolation has been in force ever since. After Independence, Prime Minister Nehru endorsed it in order to prevent the pauperisation of tribes evident elsewhere in India; today the 'inner line of control' is the state's southern boundary, which even Indian citizens, who cannot own land or businesses in Arunachal Pradesh, require permission to cross. Foreigners are not permitted to enter, except for a few days as tourists or NGO workers.

Although this policy of protection (or 'gradual integration' as Nehru and Verrier Elwin preferred) has prevented Arunachal tribes from wholesale absorption into mainstream culture, historic trade links with Tibet and the plains have always brought new objects, practices and ideas; and today these are brought by television, education and better roads. Cultural change is everywhere apparent: textile designs of one tribe are borrowed by others; local festivals are centralised and refashioned as community events; oral traditions are printed and discussed as 'cultural heritage'. One tribe regularly holds a 'Fashion Show' in which young men and women display the latest innovations in traditional dress. Some traditional practices (such as tattooing) have been banned by tribal organisations, while others (woodcarving, for example) are expanding. Perhaps the most fundamental change is that animistic beliefs and rituals are undergoing formalisation into a 'religion', with new visual images, permanent places of worship and a formal theology. This systematisation of the worship of Donyi-Polo places it alongside the other religions in the area: Christianity, Buddhism and Hinduism. Ritual practitioners have also formed a state-wide association of shamans. All these changes are fast-paced but largely undocumented.

The twin pillars of earlier research on tribal cultures in Arunachal Pradesh are Verrier Elwin's collections of oral literature and Christoph von Fürer-Haimendorf's ethnographic work; however, Elwin's last tour was completed in the late 1950s and Fürer-Haimendorf's major research was conducted in the 1940s (followed by brief visits thereafter). Moreover, the anthropologist did not study oral traditions, and the folklorist did not study the context of storytelling; and neither studied ritual performance. Since the 1960s, research on cultures in the state has included a series of survey studies, many of them sponsored by the Anthropological Survey of India, who also published a valuable compendium (Singh 1995); more recently, the Dept. of Tribal Studies at Arunachal University has begun to sponsor fieldwork (Behera and Chaudhuri 1998). If most Indian scholars regard the region as peripheral, foreign scholars (with few exceptions) have been prevented from entering altogether. Two long-term research projects on Tibeto-Burman languages (at Berkeley and at Leiden) have been unable to work in Arunachal Pradesh, and a recent doctoral dissertation at Berkeley on Arunachal languages had to be completed without actually entering the state. One of the best anthropological study in recent years is a book on the Nagas (Jacobs 1990), but it relies of necessity on historical material and only touches on Arunachal Pradesh (see also Singh 1985).

This limited research on contemporary culture stands in sharp contrast to the substantial historical collections in the UK and India. From the middle of the nineteenth century, colonial officials, anthropologists and folklorists collected hundreds of artefacts, shot approximately 4000 feet of film and took well over 15,000 photographs (including several hundred glass lantern slides) of tribes in the state; most of this historical material remains unstudied and, in some locations, uncatalogued. The combination of substantial historical collections, relatively intact cultures and lack of contemporary documentation presents a unique context for the study of change among tribal societies. The proposed research would thus be the first major study of tribal culture in the state for half a century, and the first ever to analyse cultural change over time.

In pursuing a new analysis of cultural innovation, the research will challenge deep-rooted perceptions of tribal cultures as antidotes to modernity. The impulse to romanticise 'indigenous peoples' is still a powerful force in scholarship and public debate, and not only in the West but also in urban India, where 'tribal' (adivasi or 'first-inhabitant') textiles are fashionable, tribal dances grace government parades, and publishing on tribal cultures is big business. Most large-format photographic books of tribal life in India (Baldizonne 1999), for example, only perpetuate images of tribal people as guardians of static culture by conflating historical and contemporary contexts.

Second, in order to shift the focus from preservation to innovation, the research will draw upon a range of writings that historicise tribal culture and theorise tradition as reinvention. Primary among these are anthropological critiques of notions of the 'primitive' which locate tribal culture either in a timeless present or a vanished past (Fabian 1983; Clifford 1988). Also valuable are studies of historical change in tribal cultures, either from participation in regional networks of trade or from adaptation to economic and environmental conditions. While these factors are present in Arunachal Pradesh, too, the research will emphasise change as active choice, especially in ritual practices and the uses of ornaments and the fashioning of social memory. Here we will utilise the concept of the 'invention of tradition' , as first described by historians (Hobsbawm and Ranger 1983); although typically applied to public traditions in large states, we believe the concept is applicable to small-scale societies, as well, where traditions are also invented and reinvented. Folklorists have likewise contributed to this analysis of the reconstruction of tradition and to the emphasis on the inventiveness of culture by developing the concept of 'folklorismus' (or 'second-hand folklore') to describe the conscious manipulation of tradition (Bausinger 1990); oral traditions are now understood less as representations of collective authenticity and more as products of individual creativity (Bendix 1997; Honko 2000). Although these theoretical developments have yet to significantly influence the study of tribal cultures in India, new directions are evident in work on consumption and ritual (Gell 1986)and on oral genres ( Skaria 1999).

We will also be guided by new research in material culture that views objects not as static artefacts or bearers of meaning but as sites of cultural practice and history (Tilley 1999); in a study similar to our research, for example, Gosden and Knowles (2001) have demonstrated that the juxtaposition of museum collections and fieldwork yields original insights into cultural change over time. New research on material culture in India has produced important studies (Breckenridge 1995; Tarlo 1996), but has not yet engaged with tribal communities. Finally, we will draw selectively from the growing literature on 'indigenous peoples'; although this literature often sacrifices accuracy for advocacy, it does contain valuable case studies of change among tribal groups (Bodley 1988).


Research design and methods


The project requires both fieldwork and the study of historical material. Fieldwork will concentrate on three domains (religion, oral narrative, material culture) among five tribes (Nyishi, Apatani, Adi, Monpa, Idu Mishmi) using a variety of methods. By observation, surveys, photographs, films and audio-cassettes, we will document current practices; by interviewing and by showing (copies of) archival photos, we will elicit commentary on change. Research students from Arunachal University will collect ethnographic data and conduct extensive interviews to provide the team with basic information. Within each of the three domains, the research will examine certain aspects among all the tribes studied:


Religion: institution of the priest; a major festival; new practices
Oral narrative: origin myths, migration legends and oral histories
Material culture: use of bamboo and cane


In addition to these broad emphases, the research will focus on specific areas (both conceptual and material) of cultural change in each tribe:


Monpa: pilgrimage; wood block prints, votive stupas; masks for lay dances
Apatani: ceremonial friendship; textiles, clothes, fashion show
Nyishi: leadership/Christianity/Donyi-Polo; cane hat, longhouses
Adi: Donyi-Polo/identity formation; beads
Idu Mishmi: institution of the priest; textiles


The study of historical material in the UK and India will require identification and analysis of objects, photographs, films and documents from Arunachal Pradesh. The major collections to be studied in the UK are held at SOAS, The British Museum, the Dept. of Social Anthropology, Cambridge University, Cambridge Museum of Archaeology and Anthropology, Pitt Rivers Museum, Royal Anthropological Institute, British Library, Royal Asiatic Society and Royal Geographical Society. In India, we will study material at the State Museum in Arunachal Pradesh, the National Museum in New Delhi, the Indian Museum in Calcutta, and the Elwin collection in Shillong. By a study of these collections, we will build up a picture of tribal life as documented during the colonial period and be able to identify areas of change during the past one hundred and fifty years. However, rather than view these objects only as reflections of change in other domains, we will explore their changing uses in ritual and everyday contexts as acts of cultural innovation. We will also deposit (copies of) more than 100 photographs from UK collections to appropriate individuals and organisations in Arunachal Pradesh.


Some preliminary work relating to project has already been completed. Dr. Chaudhuri has been studying changes in religious practices since 1996, and Mr. Riba has been filming similar transformations for several years. In 2001, Dr. Blackburn spent three months studying oral traditions and ritual performances; and in Spring 2002, Dr. Blackburn, Mr. Blurton and Mr. Tarr spent two months continuing the study of oral traditions, initiating the study of museum collections and beginning the photographic record. In order to coordinate the many activities of the project, the research team held a week-long conference at the Rockefeller Foundation's Bellagio Center in Italy in October 2002.


Research outcomes


The planned outcomes of the research are:


  • an exhibition in India, originating in Arunachal Pradesh and travelling to other cities; exhibition catalogue
  • an exhibition at The British Museum; exhibition catalogue
  • a series of documentary films
  • an extensive collection of photographs
  • monographs on cultural change in Arunachal Pradesh
  • a photographic essay on tribal life in the state
  • a volume of essays from an international conference at Arunachal


Overview of Research Results as 1 January 2005


1. Research on UK Collections

This phase of our research has been conducted by Mandy Sadan and Michael Tarr. We aimed to identify and document all photographs and objects from Arunachal Pradesh held in UK collections. We excluded 'Naga' from our research, unless it could be determined that the group was either Nocte, Wancho or Tangsa. Identifications were often confused (e.g., 'Abor Naga') or too generic ('Naga') or simply mistaken.


A. Photos


Michael Tarr found approximately 11,500 photographs of cultural life in Arunachal Pradesh in his study of four major collections (Pitt Rivers Museum, British Library, Royal Geographical Society, School of Oriental and African Studies; Mandy Sadan located more at the National Army Museum). Dating from 1860 to 1980, they include many portraits and many images of interaction with colonial officials, especially military campaigns and porterage. The earliest photograph dates from c. 1861, but the great majority were taken in the 1940s, primarily by Ursala Betts, CR Stonor and Christoph von Fürer-Haimendorf (who continued to add photos from his research up until the 1970s); Betts' and Stonor's photographs are held at the Pitt-Rivers Museum, while most of Fürer-Haimendorf's are held at SOAS. The tribes of central Arunachal (Nyishi, Apatani, Adi, primarily Minyong and Padam) and Mishmis are well-represented, while Monpas and Sherdupkens are also often seen; Hill Miris, Sulungs, Tagins, Khamptis, Singphos, Noctes and Wanchus appear only occasionally.


PRM 4500 (approx.)
BL 345
RGS 120
SOAS 6000 (approx)
NAM 275
Centre for South Asian Studies,
Cambridge 9


Mr. Tarr will continue his work on archival photos in the UK and work also on the Elwin collection in Shillong (through a separate project funded by the Townley Group at the British Museum), which will fill in the gaps in other collections.


B. Objects


Mandy Sadan conducted a survey of objects from Arunachal Pradesh in 76 collections in the UK. She made extended visits to six major collections (The British Museum, Pitt Rivers Museum, Cambridge Museum of Archaeology and anthropology, Victoria and Albert Museum, Horniman Museum, and National Army Museum). She viewed approximately 1600 objects, 439 of which are now on our database; the database includes almost 2500 photographs of those 439 objects, with original notes on acquisition, plus updated information in some instances. She also found an interesting early drawing of a Nyishi chief from 1825 (and nine coloured sketches of Garos c. 1800). The most prolific collectors were JP Mills, Ursala Betts and Fürer-Haimendorf (again), plus Lt. Col. N. Rankin, which explains (again) why the objects come mainly from the same tribes as the photos (Apatani, Nyishi, Adi, Mishmi). The objects come from a wide range of categories, although the most numerous are textiles, hats, weapons and ornaments.


objects in database


BM 170
PRM 137
V&A 20


We have also made enquiries regarding major collections in the rest of Europe, and initial responses indicate that further research may be necessary.


Note: Musical instruments at both the Horniman Museum and Pitt Rivers Museum have not been studied. The 27 objects at the National Army Museum (from the 1911-12 Abor and Mishmi expeditions are not included in the database because photographs of them were not permitted).


2. Field research


Michael Tarr has now taken nearly 8000 photographs in both colour and 8x10 b/w. Moji Riba has completed a film (of ceremonial kinship [buniin ajing] among Apatanis) and hopes to begin a second film soon. Sarit Chaudhuri has completed fieldwork among Idu Mishmis and Nyishis. Stuart Blackburn has recorded approximately 60 hours of oral stories, histories and ritual chants, mostly from Apatanis; with the help of research assistants, he has now translated thirty-four different narratives. Richard Blurton is now completing his study of a large monastery (Gorsam) on a major pilgrimage route from Lhasa to Assam. He has also collected a large assortment of material culture items for the British Museum.

Research assistants based in Arunachal have completed a total of 31 months of fieldwork. They have recorded interviews (on topics such as weaving, trading, priests' life-histories, and culture change); recorded stories about origins and cultural identity; recorded ritual chants; and collected information about material culture, house architecture and ritual practices.