The tribals of the North-Eastern Indians were natural hunters. Though some tribes were known to hunt heads, some tribes restricted their hunt to animals. The pride of a tribal man who has hunted a lion, tiger, or Mithun was considered such a prestigious achievement that, the celebration would continue for days. This practice is predominantly found among the Chin-Kuki-Mizo-Zomi communities. A person with such many collections of animal heads could perform Saa-ai," which is akin to awarding knighthood; only that Saa-ai is more of an initiative from the hunter proclaiming his invincibility.
Horn on the wall
The erstwhile Tribal hunters whose livelihood solely depended on hunting and cutting woods are now banned from doing so.
Updated 1 Jun 2020, 10:25 am
I would look into the Mithun head with hairs and horns intact, displayed on our wall, and asked my father what its worth would be. "it is our identity; it is our way of life; It is a priceless possession," he'd told me. The erstwhile Tribal hunters whose livelihood solely depended on hunting and cutting woods are now banned from doing so. The implication of hunting endangered species and cutting trees is known to them. But the issue becomes tricky when they do not have firewood or food to cook.
Once a proud art with promising prizes and possession, hunting for the Tribals now, is an offence punishable by law. Some continue to do it but ended up in jails. While there exist thousands of decorative items we could beautify our homes that old Mithun skull is a symbol of pride for most Tribals of the NE region. The debate on the prohibition of hunting for Tribals, which have been their livelihood, without any skill development training given to them to take up alternative livelihood, is worth pondering. Hunting was their right, though it is not right to do so now.
The ICAR-National Research Centre on Mithun was established in June 1988 in the state of Nagaland under the aegis of Indian Council of Agricultural Research to provide impetus on the research work on Mithun (Bos frontalis). Interestingly, the historical and socio-economic importance of the animal is also well recorded in the British Museum, where records of other imminent significance like ''thingkho-malcha''- a traditional practice of vows taken by tribes of the Kuki people before fighting the British in the Anglo-Kuki war 1917-1919 ( aka Kuki rebellion 1917-1919/) were also recorded in details. Since animal remains were once symbolic to the culture and tradition, the profession though illegal now, collections of these remains, possessed individually could be housed in one tribal museum, at least for people to know and remember their roots and history.
Most tribal houses now have, not horns but portraits of BR Ambedkar, Mahatma Gandhi, or God in their houses. The important endeavor of conveying the message to the tribals of preserving biodiversity by not hunting endangered species like tigers and lions should be supplemented with efforts to preserve the culture and traditions of the Tribals. I, myself could have considered 'just another story' if not for the one that hangs on our wall about the significance of 'Mithun' in our culture. It won't be a surprise if the next generation children loathe and hate the very sight of an ugly skull with horn unless of course, they know that once upon a time there lived their forefathers who have proudly ruled the jungle in their times and were kings of the king of the jungles.
First published:1 Jun 2020, 10:25 am
Author of Hilly Dreams, T Seiminthang Haokip is a Contributor of Imphal Free Press. A former development professional, the writer served as a consultant in the Ministry of Rural Development, GOI.