Khowa Tribal Lady, Arunachal Pradesh

The Bugun Tribe of Arunachal Pradesh | Celebrating Indigenous Peoples

Khowa Tribal Lady, Arunachal Pradesh
Khowa lady in traditional white attire.

The Khowa tribe, also known as Bugun people in their native language, of western Arunachal Pradesh bordering Bhutan is one of India’s smallest tribal communities and has a small population of only around 2,000 members. They are primarily the inhabitants of Tenga valley and some also dwell in the subtropical forests near Bhalukpong in the Himalayan foothills of West Kameng district.

They speak Kho-Bwa language, which is derived from the words ‘Kho’ meaning fire and ‘Bwa’ for water, hence the name Khowa. Their language is similar to Mey language of the neighboring Sherdukpen tribe, with who they coexisted peacefully in the mountains. Mythologically their ancester was Punaflas, also known as Achim Pimbu, and it is said the tribe’s first settlement was established by his 5 sons.

Society

The Buguns are of Mongoloid race and they believe to have descended from a mythical tribe Achinphumphulua. The Bugun people are divided into clans based on the location of their villages. The Nimiyang, or the village council of elders, is headed by a unanimously selected chief, known as Thap Bahow. The chieftain takes decisions on behalf of the community and decides the functioning of the society and use of the forest resources. Each family is represented in the Nimiyang proceedings by a male member. However, women can participate in the absence of a male representative.

Newly wed couple from Bagun Tribe, Arunachal Pradesh
A newly wed Bagun couple pose proudly in traditional dress.

Buguns are generally endogamous as they marry within their community, but there are instances of inter-tribal marriages with Sherdukpens to maintain peace and alliance. However, they strictly follow clan exogamy like many other tribes of Arunachal and do not marry within their own clan.

On their houses, writes anthropologist Col. Ved Prakash, ” For reasons of security perhaps, their villages are sited on the hilltops. Their houses are built on raised platforms, with split bamboo walls and thatched roofing. Majority of the houses are double storied; only a few triple storied.”

Economy

Unlike their Sherdukpen neighbours, the Buguns practice shifting agriculture (jhum), which is the traditional practice of cultivation of most tribes in the region. Though they practice sustenance hunting, the Bugun people have also started domestication of cattle, pigs and Mithun (Indian bison).

Religion

Religion and culture of the Buguns have been greatly influenced by the Sherdukpen people. The Sherdukpens, believers of Gelugpa Buddhism, also introduced Tibetan religious traditions to the Buguns. Like most other Himalayan tribes of Arunachal, the Buguns also originally believed in animistic beliefs and nature worship, they were originally believers of the indigenous Donyi-Polo religion until they were exposed to the Tibetan faith. Though they have formally declared themselves to be Buddhists, a majority of them continue to believe in their old faith.

Diying Kho festival, Bagun Tribe, Arunachal Pradesh
A vintage photo of Diying Kho Festival; traditional offerings are given to men by happy womenfolk.

Festivals

Similar to the Sherdukpen, the Buguns also celebrate the Buddhist festivals in the same Tibetan tradition. However, they are more inclined to celebrate few of their pre-Buddhist festivals. Their faestivals are held in Sraiba, village ground for worship and festive celebrations. The Phabi shamanic priest is always considered more important in conducting these festivals than the Buddhist lamas. Diying Kho is the main festival of the Buguns. Songs, dances and community feasts are an integral part of the Bugun celebrations.

Liocichla bugunorum, Eaglenest WS
The Bugun Liocichla is a new species of bird discovered in 2005 in Eaglenest Wildlife Sanctuary and is named after the tribe. Photo courtesy James Eaton

To Visit

The Bagun Welfare Society organizes wildlife and birding based excursions in Eaglenest Wildlife Sanctuary. Contact Mr. Indi Glow (Chairman) at (+91) 3783-273359.

Ending, with a quote by Ved Prakash on their colorful dressing;

“Both men and women cover their body, neck to knee,  with loose endi cloth, a sort of gown, obtained from the markets in the plains. Both sexes wear colorful waist band, securing the white gown at the waist. A white cloth wrapping cover’s a man’s leg from below the knees to the ankle, with its upper edge decorated with cowries or colorful beads. The man sport a bamboo hat.”

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

More in this series:

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