The Nocte Tribe of Arunachal Pradesh | Celebrating Indigenous Peoples

Nocte Tribal Woman With Facial Tattoo

Its been a while we have posted something in our blog. We would like to continue with our series Celebrating Indigenous Peoples, focused on indigenous peoples of Northeast India and their times – bringing into highlight in this post knowledge on the Nocte peoples of Arunachal Pradesh.

Nocte Tribal Woman With Facial Tattoo
A Nocte lady with distinct facial tattoo. Source: National Geographic

The Noctes are the easternmost inhabitants of India who inhabit the remotely forested and sensitive frontiers of Patkai Hills, in Tirap District in Arunachal Pradesh. The hills stretch part in Burmese territory and movement between the borders for these natives has never been restricted. They occupy a distinct geographical region where they are free to practice their own traditional customs and religious practices. This tribe is believed to have migrated from Hukong Valley of Burma as they were attracted by the highland salt and pleasant climate of the Patkai Hills. The Noctes have cultural similarities with their neighboring Konyak Tribe of Nagaland such as the tradition of tattooing their faces and bodies, and like the fierce Konyaks, the Noctes also took part in headhunting. The word Nocte which describes these highlanders is derived from the words ‘Noc’ meaning village and ‘Te’ representing people, hence these Nocte villagers have a very systematic administration of their villages. It also symbolizes their lifestyle of being simple village folk.

Patkai Hills, Arunachal Pradesh
The Patkai Hills remain temperate with lush subtropical vegetation. Source: Tirap.nic.in

Society

The Nocte society is divided into two groups, the chiefs and the commoners. Their society is organized under a powerful chief, whose position is superior to the Ngoangthun village council. This makes the Nocte society different than those of its neighboring tribes. The chief not only makes the decisions for the council, but also maintains law and order. The Nocte chief also receives tributes. While the common villagers dwell in thatched bamboo huts, the chief gets the privilege of living in a stone house.

The Noctes also have dormitories for training their youth, which is similar to their Konyak neighbours. The dormitory for bachelors is called Poh, whereas those for girls are called Yanpoh. The dormitories are stilt houses and built on wooden pillars. These dormitories are decorated with skulls from head hunting adventures and also have large wooden drums called Thum, made out of hollow logs. The dormitories though less impactful today once played an important role in developing the Nocte youth and providing a foundation of friendship, companionship and faith.

Slash and burn agriculture, Nocte Tribe, Arunachal Pradesh
Nocte slash and burn farms are spread throughout the Patkai Region.

Economy

Economy of the Nocte people is mainly agrarian. They practice slash and burn cultivation to raise rice, which is their staple diet. The Nocte people are excellently skilled craftsmen in bamboo and wood work. Trade of inland salt was once an important aspect of Nocte economy, river salt that was abundantly found in their region was exchanged for barter with their neighboring communities.

Religion

Animal skulls decoration in Nocte temple, Tirap District, Arunachal Pradesh
Animal skulls decorate the entrance to an Nocte temple.

The Noctes were originally animistic and had their own indigenous faith during the time of migration from Burma. Jauban was their main indigenous deity who was worshipped at all occasions. They later came in contact with the Hindu people from the plains of Assam with whom they traded salt, they learnt the Assamese language and converted to Hindu faith. Later, majority of them were converted into Christianity by the great American missionary Miles Bronson who arrived in this region with the objective of converting in Myanmar and China. However it is interesting to note that many aspects of the animistic roots still live.

Festivals

Chalo Loku Festival, Nocte Tribe, Arunachal Pradesh
The Chalo Loku, held during November, is celebrated with zest and enthusiasm by the tribesman. Source: Tirap.nic.in

Loku, means chasing out of the old season of the year, is the main festival of the Nocte. The festival lasts for three days, involves the slaughter of cattle, entertainment and the gathering of food on the first day. The second day, known as Chamkatja, requires the Nocte to pray to their indigenous gods and take the chiefs’ blessings. After which, feasts and dances begin that lasts up to the next day. On the final day, both the elderly villages and the chief will seek for good fortune by breaking eggs collected from the village. The Chalo folk dance of the Nocte tribe is also an important part of the Loku festival. Held during late November, the festival is the best opportunity for cultural travelers to get a glimpse of the early Noce ways.

Nocte tribal village, Arunachal Pradesh
A Nocte village appears serene as dawn breaks.

To end with, we would like to share a quote from noted and noble anthropologist Verrier Elwin observing the interaction between the ancient and industrial world ~

“The people of NEFA (erstwhile Arunachal Pradesh) are not paupers to be turned into clowns with secondhand clothing; they are traditionally a proud people, and though a former thoughtless and undirected tradition has done something to make them servile, we must now at all costs bring it to an end. The applies equally to the Assam Rifles and Army Engineers, some of whom are sincerely generous, as well as to the civil staff. Generosity can often do more harm than good.

Once when I was in Margherita, a Nocte girl came to then Political Officer’s office complaining that her money had been stolen. Asked what she intended to spend it on, she replied that she had come down from her village to buy some cloth. Kindly subordinates immediately suggested that, as she had been robed by civilization, civilization should repay the debt, and that she should be given cloth or money equivalent to what she had lost. The Political Officer, however, had a better idea: he asked her if she could weave. She said that she could and he therefore presented her with a bundle of yarn (of colors suitable to her tribe) and suggested that she should herself weave the cloth she needed. She was delighted and went away consoled.

This little incident is to my mind a parable of the proper way of bringing relief to those in need.

Unintelligent benevolence can be as great a menace to the tribesman’s character as intelligent exploitation can be to this pocket.”

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. The Bugun Tribe of Arunachal Pradesh
  6. Dams Versus Northeast India