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Enduring Traditions - Arunachal Pradesh Crafts

Down the ages the people of Arunachal Pradesh have utilized their crafting skills for meeting their daily requirements. The skill of home crafts exists to this day and every household still continues to weave its own cloth and baskets, make its own utensils, sleeping benches, bows and arrows…

While the genesis of the development of the varied crafts of Arunachal Pradesh lay in the tribal urge to meet their daily requirements, these crafts have come as a godsend to them in modern times – as a source of valuable income.

The traditional handicrafts of the State are much in demand within the country as well as abroad, where they have gained popularity in the world market. Among the important handicrafts of Arunachal the numero uno certainly is bamboo and cane craft; followed by handloom weaving, wood carving and carpentary, ivory and metal crafts and pottery and blacksmithy.

Bamboo and Cane Craft. Arunachal Pradesh is famous for its cane and bamboo crafts – practised throughout the State by its tribes at the household level. The heavy rainfall and temperate climate has assured an abundance of bamboo and cane in the region over the ages. It is not surprising then that the native tribals came to depend on these materials almost exclusively for constructing their dwellings, utensils, furniture, and even weapons such as bows and arrows, dibbles, spears, armour, hunting and fishing traps and implements.

Apart from these traditional uses, bamboo and cane is crafted dexterously into colourful basket mats, cane belts, attractive smoking pipes, combs and a variety of generally used household tools and implements. The newcomer to this State will find the use of bamboo tubes as water carriers, the spoons, mugs, plates and jugs and trays made of this ‘wonder shoot’ a welcome transition from the mundane world of plastic and metal cutlery and crockery.

Yet another use the tribals put bamboo to is in making jewellery out of it. Tribal women wearing rings and headbands made of cane are a commonsight in Arunachal Pradesh.

The Hill Miris, Adis, Monpas, Sherdukpens, Apatanis, Mishmis, Noctes, Wanchos Mishis and Tanga tribal group are especially dexterous in making fine, colourful and attractive cane and bamboo crafts. Of these, the Adis and Mishmis are considered good engineers – the former having once built a 500 feet long suspension bridge over the Dibang river.

Weaving. Weaving is yet another important household industry in Arunachal Pradesh – the exclusive premise of the tribal women of this State. The equipment used is a simple reedless loom where the actual weaving is done with a bamboo tube throw-shuffle. Besides cotton and wool, some of the Arunachal tribes use bark-fibres extracted from trees like udal, pudu and rhea-nivea. Similarly, in the sphere of dyes, one finds an abundant use of natural dyes.

The influence of Tibetan, Burmese, Bhutanese and Assamese processes is easily apparent here. The Tibetan and Bhutanese influence is most pronounced in the Monpa loom on which the Monpa women weave with cotton, wool and bark fibre. They are well known for their fine and colourful coats, shawls, sashes, carpets, bags and tapes (for tying around hats). Unlike the Monpa women, the Sherdukpen womenfolk use only cotton and plant fibre but no wool. Nevertheless, Monpa weaving is considered to be the best example of the specimens from Arunachal.

The Nishis grow a large amount of cotton in the valley of Palin and Panior. Though the Nishi women are not as god at weaving when compared to their counterparts – the Apatanis – they do produce woven cotton and pudu fibre skirts, blankets and cloth.

In contrasts, the Apatanis are considered the most advanced weavers from this State. The Apatani women are perfect in the art of weaving and produce excellent ceremonial coats and shawls, and embroidered cotton cloth. Many tribes such as the Nishis, Hill Miris, Akas, Buguns and Mijis also depend on the Apatanis for their supply of cloth. As Dr. Elwin observed, “It was a common practise for Apatani girls to stay in daflas houses for a time to do their weaving for them”.

The Adi women weave wool, cotton and goats hair to produce attractive things form them. The Mishmis too have acquired a good reputation in the art of weaving, indicated by the good commercial demand for their items. The Mishmi women weave cotton, wool, plant fibre and human hair into a variety of clothes. In fact the Mishmi coat has found a wide market within and outside the State of Arunachal Pradesh.

Singpho weaving is basically famous for its artistic patterns. And similar to them are the Tangas – reputed for their spun-dyed clothes out of which they make hand bags, skirts and lungis (loin cloths). Both the Tangas and Singpho women are also known for their expertise in making artistic ceremonial costumes.

Wood Craft and Carving. The practise of wood carving and allied crafts is part of a long tradition among a number of tribal communities in Arunachal Pradesh. The main centre for wood carving and wood craft in the State is the Wancho area of Tirap district. According to Dr. Elwin’s observations on the subject, the Wancho wood carvings can be classified under three main categories. The first are those connected with head-hunting; the second with the decoration of the Morungs of men’s communal houses and the third with the funerary images of different animals.

The Monpas, Shedukpens, Mombas, Khambas and Bugums produce different types of masks – often painted with colours. The Khamptis especially are well known for their beautiful wooden images of Lord Buddha.

One can also find carpenters working with their primitive tools within some of the tribal communities – namely in the Monpas, Noctes, Wanchos and Tangas. These craftsmen churn out articles of daily use as well as furniture – albeit of crude workmanship.

Ivory and Metal Craft. Ornaments made of brass, bone, ivory, silver and gold are also crafted – using a set of simple tools – by many of the tribes here.

The Monpas and Sherdukpens are well known as traditional silver smiths and even supply silver ornaments to other tribal groups – the Khowas, Mijis and Akas.

The Nishis and Sulungs have perfected the art of brass smithy. They dexterously craft ornaments, dishes, sacred bells and smoking pipes out of this metal.

Similarly, the Khamptis work mainly in gold, iron, silver and ivory, though their products were mainly meant for use within their own tribe.

Because of the abundant availability of cane and wood in Arunachal, pottery never gained popularity. Another reason for its relative under development is the nonavailability of suitable clay in this region. However, several tribes like the Monpas, Sherdukpens, Apatanis, Nlishis, Noctes, Wanchos, Adis, Khampas and Mombas practise for art. Among the pottery work, the beautiful clay images of Lord Buddha made by the Monpas, Mombas and Khampas are specially mentionable.

Blacksmithy. While blacksmithy is not very popular in Arunachal Pradesh, the Adis are well known for their expertise in this trade. They are known to produce various weapons and implement from iron. Among the other tribes, the Mishmis are known for their arrow-heads and knives, the Singphos for their daos – which are famous all over the State, the Noctes, Wanchos and Tangas for their forges, and the Nishi blacksmiths for their skills in casting and smelting. In contrast to these one can mention the iron bracelets made by the Apatanis – probably the only item of jewellery made by the blacksmiths here.

Two things are specially worth mentioning about the crafts of Arunachal Pradesh. In the first place one finds the tribal communities making use of easily available natural resources as the raw materials for their traditional crafts. And in the second place the endurance of these traditional crafts in contemporary times. Without doubt, the traditional crafts of Arunachal Pradesh appear to be all set to make their mark in times to come.

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