The Sherdukpen Tribe of Arunachal Pradesh | Celebrating Indigenous Peoples

Sherdukpen Monastery, Arunachal Pradesh

Upcoming this week is the International Day for the World’s Indigenous Peoples. Observed by the United Nations on August 9th each year, it is dedicated to promoting and protecting the rights of the planet’s indigenous population, along with recognizing the achievements and contributions that indigenous people make to improve the issues facing the world. It is only natural that a lot of indigenous activity happens during this time. Worth mentioning is the Indigenous Peoples Week, celebrated by Planeta and friends, it is an online unconference in its 4th edition focusing on indigenous people and tourism, with themes such as biodiversity conservation, crafts, cultural heritage, food and literacy. Meanwhile, Proud To Be Indigenous is an initiative by Cultural Survival to give an online platform for indigenous people to express their cultural richness.

Continuing our efforts to take part in this year’s discussions, we are proud to continue with our blog series Celebrating Indigenous Peoples, focused on indigenous peoples of Northeast India and their times; starting with the Sherdukpens, who are an indigenous tribe in the West Kameng district of western Arunachal Pradesh bordering Bhutan. There are roughly 5,000 members of the Sherdukpen tribe, hence they are one of the smallest tribal communities in India.

Sherdukpen Men in Traditional Attire
Sherdukpen men in their traditional attire.

The Sherdukpen believe that their mythological ancestor Asu Gyaptong, was a descendant of the Tibetan king Songtsan Gampo, who came to the plains of Assam and married a native Ahom princess. Hence they have long lineage of Tibetan ancestry and have inherited Tibetan culture. The Sherdukpen tribe derives its name from Sher (Shergaon) and Tukpen (old name for Rupa) villages in western Arunachal Pradesh.  They have inhabited this mountainous region and lived in coexistence with the Monpas, Brokpas and Bugun ethnic groups.

Society

Sherdukpen society is divided into two classes of hierarchy, namely the Thong and Chao. The Thongs are believed to be the upper class and descendants of their Tibetan ancestor Asu Gyaptong, while the Chao are considered as lower class, who were porters who accompanied Asu Gyaptong. In due course of time, Thongs emerged as the landlords and the Chaos served them as workers and soldiers, social barriers separated the two clans.

The Sherdukpen society is patriarchal, property is inherited only by their male heirs. They also trace their ancestry on paternal lineage. Women do not have much influence on the Blu, or village council, which are dominated only by the men of élite Thong clan.

Sherdukpen Dancers in Mask, Vintage
(vintage) Wooden masked Sherdukpen dancers are figures in a version of a yak dance performed widely across the Tibetan Buddhist world. Year: 1944. Credit: Christopher Haimendorf

Economy:

The Sherdukpen people were initially merchants who spent their winters in the plains trading with the people of Assam. But frequent raids by the barbaric Aka Tribe on the trade route near Bomdila eventually led them to practice agriculture. They practice both shifting and permanent farming with the use of advanced tools for cultivation. Sherdukpen women are also skilled weavers who make attractive carry bags. Writes anthropologist Ved Prakash on their clothing, “They wear a variety of ornaments which the forswear for a year in case of a death in the family. The women are fond of silver bangles, lockets and bracelets, purchased from the plains. Earlier, they manufactered their own ornaments by melting the rupee coin; and in some cases, they still do.”

Religion

Owing to their Tibetan origin, the Sherdukpen tribal people are influenced by Gelugpa sect of Mahayana Buddhism. Religion forms an important part of their daily life and the Buddhist Lamas undertake all the ceremonies, weddings and funerals. However, the Sherdukpen people are also animistic and do believe in Bon religion, which was the traditional belief among many Himalayan tribes before the influence of Buddhism and Tibetan migration. Thus, their religion is a curious mixture of Buddhism and traditional magico-religious beliefs. They continue to believe in and are in awe of spirits, both evil and good.

Cham Dance of Sherdukpen Tribe, Arunachal Pradesh
Sherdukpen dancers perform the Cham.

Festivals

Sherdukpen people celebrate Buddhist festivals similar to other Buddhist communities in the Himalayan region. The Tibetan Chaam Dances are commonly seen even among the Sherdukpen festivals. Lossar, the Tibetan New Year is also a special occasion for the Sherdukpen. Wang is also celebrated twice a year in honour of the Buddha.

Khiksaba is an indigenous non-Buddhist festival of the Sherdukpen, dedicated to appease the forest deities and other mountain spirits. Rep Lapchang is the harvest festival which is also popularly celebrated by the community. Such festivals are presided by the Jiji, or local Shaman instead of the Buddhist Lamas.

Sherdukpen Monastery, Arunachal Pradesh
A Sherdukpen Monastery in Kameng District, Arunachal Pradesh.

To Visit

Buddhism in Arunachal Pradesh is our itnerary dealing with the Kameng Valley and the indigenous, Mon-Buddhism and Tibetan Buddhism cultures of the region, tracing the region as far as the high-grounded border land with southern Tibet.

To end with, a quote from Col. Ved Prakash on the marriage system;

“The young boys and girls of the same age group form into clubs and start sleeping together in batches in some vacant, convenient houses, or even in surplus accommodation available with a family. The emotional attachments formed thus often lead to permanent liaisons in later life. When a young boy likes a girl, or vice versa, they exchange slashes, indicative of their engagement.”

This post is part of our continuing series Celebrating Indigenous Peoples, focused on indigenous peoples ofNortheast India and their times.

More in this series:

  1. The Konyak People of Nagaland
  2. The Adi People of Arunachal Pradesh
  3. The Angami People of Nagaland 
  4. Re-Visiting The Indigenous Past Of Northeast India