The Nyishi tribe is one of the principal inhabitants of Arunachal Pradesh in north-eastern India. Nyi refers to "a man" and the word shi denotes "a being", which collectively means a civilized human being. They are spread across six districts of Arunachal Pradesh viz.,Papum Pare, part of Lower Subansiri, Kurung Kumey, East Kameng, parts of Upper Subansiri, the recently created district Kra Dadi and are also found in the Sonitpur and North Lakhimpur districts of the neighbouring state of Assam.
Their population of around 300,000 makes them the most populous tribe of Arunachal Pradesh, closely followed by the combined tribes of the Adis and the Galos (Abors) who were the most populous in the 2001 census. The Nyishi language belongs to the Sino-Tibetan family, however, the origin is disputed.
Polygyny is prevalent among the Nyishi. It signifies ones social status and economical stability and also proves handy during hard times like clan wars or social huntings and other social activities. This institution, however is being challenged especially with the continuous march towards civilization and modernization and also with the spread of Christianity. They trace their descent patrilineally and are divided into several clans.
The Nyishi are agriculturalists who practice jhum, rag in Nishi, which is a form of shifting cultivation. The principal crops raised include paddy, tapio (maize), mekung (cucumber), takie (ginger), aange (yams) and temi (millet). Rice is the staple food of the people, supplemented by fish, meat of various animals, edible tubers and leafy vegetables. Before modern economic invaded them, they used the barter system. They greatly valued the generalized reciprocity and also balance reciprocity in their economic system. A locally-made drink known as apong (the two types of apong: pone, made of rice, and poling which is made of millet) are made from millet and rice. These drinks are served at every social gatherings and important events. The Nyishis are typically fond of it. Nyishi people, traditionally being dependent on the forest also include fruits, roots, bamboo shoots, wild animals, fishes, wild leafy vegetables in their diet. Traditional ways of preparing them include steaming, roasting and smoking. Recently they have been forced to move towards a market based exchange economy.
Traditionally, Nyishi plait their hair and tie it neatly at the forehead with Tibetan thread. A brass skewer passes horizontally through the tied hair. Cane rings were worn around the waist, arms and legs. Men wore a cane helmet surmounted with the beak of the great Indian hornbill. The usage of actual hornbill beaks is discouraged these days due to tough wildlife protection laws since the great Indian hornbill is a protected species and generally due to growing awareness among the people as well. Nowadays It is being supplemented by beaks made of cane or other materials and the entire headgear/cane helmet itself is readily available in the market for purchase. Additional decorations varied depending upon the status of person and were symbols of manly valor.
The clothing of the men consists of sleeveless shirts made from thick cotton cloth, striped gaily with blue and red together with a mantle of cotton or wool fastened around the throat and shoulders. Strings made of beads in varying sizes and colours were also worn, mainly for decoration purposes and to show the wearer's status. They also carry a Machete called dao (uriuk, chiighee in Nyishi) (short sword) and a knife (Ryukchak) in a bamboo sheath that are mostly covered with animal furs. Their armament consists of spear with iron-head, a large sword (dao), and a bow and arrows which are tipped with poison (umiyu). During war both the chest and back are covered with shields made from sabbe buffalo hide, and over it they wear a black cloak made of indigenous fibre.
The Nyishi women generally wear a sleeveless mantle of striped or plain cloth, its upper part tucked tightly over the breast and enveloping the body from the armpits to the centre of the calves. A ribbon is tied at the waist. A girdle consisting of metal disks and cane garters is worn at the waist. Their hair is parted in the middle, plaited and tied into a chignon just above the nape. Their ornaments include multicolored bead necklaces, brass chains, metal bells, huge brass or silver earrings and heavy bracelets of various metals.
Nyokum is the festival celebrated by the Nyishi people, a religion which commemorates their ancestors, emphasizes a belief in many spirits and superstitions concentrating especially on thanking for the harvest yielded, and includes religious rituals which coincide with lunar phases or agricultural cycles. Aabhu Thanyi is revered by the Nyishi as the primal ancestor of the animist tribes of Tibetan or quasi-Tibetan origin. Strictly speaking the Nyishis do not have common religious festival, however, the Nyokum Yullo is now treated as a common social festival (for bumper harvest). It is celebrated between 24 to 26 February each year since 1967-68 at Joram village in the Lower Subansiri district. Now after the creation of many new districts, it is being celebrated in respective districts and it is headquarters of the Nyishi inhabited areas.
Most Nyishis have been converted to Christianity by Christian missionaries and proselytisers since in the 1990s, particularly in the Papum Pare region and Christianity is the major religion among the Nyishis. This has effectively led to an eradication of the Nishi culture, language, religion and knowledge systems. Small groups of Hindus also exist among the Nyishi and there are ongoing efforts for preservation of indigenous cultures.
The hornbill issue
The Nyishis, who traditionally wear cane helmets surmounted by the crest of a hornbill beak (known as pudum, padam), have considerably affected the population of this bird.
Several organizations, such as the Arunachal Wildlife and Nature Foundation and the Wildlife Trust of India, have been trying to stop the Nyishi hunting these birds in order to protect them from extinction. Nature reserves, such as the Pakke Sanctuary, are being set up to protect the birds, while artificial materials, such as fiberglass, have been introduced as an alternative to the hornbill beak in Nyishi dress. While the Bopa ceremony is an important part of Nyishi tradition, and the campaign has faced stiff opposition, the Nyishi have recognised the possibility of the extinction of the great Indian hornbill, and 70% of the Nyishi have already accepted this new idea.
- India Ministry of Information and Broadcasting Published by Publications Division, Ministry of Information and Broadcasting, Govt. of India (1979). Arunachal Pradesh. pp. 15–6.
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