Karbi people

Total population
419,534 (Assam, 2001[1])
Regions with significant populations
Karbi Anglong (Assam)
Karbi language
Animism, Christianity
For the place in Armenia, see Karbi, Armenia.

The Karbis (Assamese:কাৰ্বি), mentioned as the Mikir in the Constitution Order of the Government of India, are one of the major ethnic groups in Northeast India and especially in the hill areas of Assam. The great artist-scholar Bishnu Prasad Rabha refer to them as the Columbus of Assam.[2] They prefer to call themselves Karbi, and sometimes Arleng (literally "man" in the Karbi language). The term Mikir is now not preferred and is considered to be derogatory.[3] The closest meaning of mikir could said to be derived from "Mekar".[4]


The Karbis are the principal tribal community in the Karbi Anglong district of Assam, a district administered as per the provisions of the Sixth Schedule of the Constitution of India, having an autonomous district of their own since 17 November 1951.[5] Besides Karbi Anglong district, the Karbi-inhabited areas include Dima Hasao, Kamrup, Morigaon, Nagaon, Golaghat, Karimganj, Lakhimpur, Sonitpur and Biswanath Chariali districts of Assam; Balijan circle of Papumpare district in Arunachal Pradesh, Jaintia Hills, Ri Bhoi and East Khasi Hills districts in Meghalaya, and Dimapur District in Nagaland. Apart from Assam, the Karbis are also recognised as Scheduled Tribes in Meghalaya, Mizoram and Nagaland. With a population of around 4 lakhs 6 thousand (406,000) as per 2001 Census, the Karbis constitute the third largest tribal community in Assam after the Bodos and the Mishings.[6]


The Karbis linguistically belong to the Tibeto-Burman group. The original home of the various people speaking Tibeto-Burman languages was in western China near the Yang-Tee-Kiang and the Howang-ho rivers and from these places they went down the courses of the Brahmaputra, the Chindwin and the Irrawaddy and entered India and Burma. The Karbis, along with others entered Assam from Central Asia in one of the waves of migrations.

The folk-lores of the Karbis, however, indicate that during the long past, once they used to live on the banks of the rivers the Kalang and the Kopili and the entire Kaziranga area, the famous National Park situated in Assam, was within their habitation. During the reigns of the Dimasa Kachari kings, they were driven to the hills and some of them entered into Jaintia hills, the erstwhile Jaintia Kingdom and lived under Jaintia suzerainty.

While a section of the Karbis remained in the Jaintia kingdom, others moved towards north-east by crossing the river Barapani, a tributary of the Kopili and entered into the Rongkhang Ranges. There they established their capital at a place called Socheng. The Karbis who migrated to the Ahom Kingdom had to face the Burmese invasion.

The Burmese who invaded Assam perpetrated inhumane oppression on the people. The Karbis took refuge in the deep jungles and high hills leaving their hearth and home in the sub-mountainous regions. In order to save themselves from the greedy eyes of the Burmese invaders, the young Karbi girls started to use a black line from the forehead to the chin which is known a “Duk” with a view to making them look ugly. While some of the Karbis migrated to Western Assam, some had crossed the Brahmaputra and settled in the north bank.


Religion among Karbi[7]
Religion Percent

Most of the Karbis still practice their traditional belief system, which is animistic called "Hemphu-Mukrang", however, there are also Karbi Christians (some 15% according to census of India, 2011). The practitioners of traditional worship believe in reincarnation and honour the ancestors.

Culture and tradition


Main article: Karbi language

The Karbi's mainly speak their native language, i.e. The Karbi language. However, thanks in part to modernization and the fact that they have been living in close proximity with their neighbors, the Assamese, modern day Karbi's are well versed in Assamese. Several Assamese loan words have made their way into the Karbi Language as well and this is apparent in most parts of Eastern Karbi Anglong. For example, Kaam (Assamese Origin word) is used in place of sai to mean 'Work'. The Karbi's are well versed in other languages like Bengali Language, Hindi, etc as well. There are also minute variations in the native Karbi language that can be observed in different geographical regions inhabited by the Karbis. For example, The Plain Karbi's and Hill Karbi's.


The Karbis are a Patrilineal society. They are composed of five major clans or Kur. They are Engti (Lijang), Terang (Hanjang), Inghi (Ejang), Teron (Kronjang) and Timung (Tungjang) which are again divided into many sub-clans. These clans are exogamous, in other words, marriages between members of the same clan are not allowed because they consider brother and sister among themselves. But marriage between cousin (marriage between a man and the daughter of his mother's brother) is highly favored and so is love marriage. Arranged marriages are rarely seen in modern Karbi society. After marriage, neither the bride nor the groom have to change their surname i.e they retain their original surname due to the reason mentioned above that member of the same clan cannot marry each other. The children of the couple would inherit the surname of their father. The traditional system of governance is headed by the Lindok or the king, who is assisted by the Katharpo, the Dilis, the Habes and the Pinpos. These posts of administration, however, are now merely ceremonial with no real power.

There are five clan in Karbi:


The Karbis celebrate many festivals. Among them Chojun, Peng Karkli, Thoi Asor Rit Asor, Botor Kekur are such festival held around the year and some of them at specific time of the year. Botor kekur is celebrated for the purpose to request to god to grace the earth with rain so that crops could be sown. Rongker is celebrated either on 5 January or on 5 February as per the convenience of the villager as a thanksgiving to god and asking their assurance to protect them from any evil harm that may happen to the whole village.


The Chomangkan (also known as "thi-karhi") is a festival unique to the Karbis. It is actually a ceremony performed by a family for the peace and the safe passage of the soul of family members who died recently or long ago and never to celebrate them again.


Karbis have a wide range of textiles which are produced with the help of the "traditional backstrap loom". There are gender and age specific clothing with culturally coded motifs which give a distinct appearance and meaning to the young men and women, married couple and older male and female folks who wear them. The male dress includes Choi Hongthor, Choi’‘ik, Choi’‘ang, Choikelok, Choi’‘umso, Pe-Seleng, Rikong, Poho, Chepan, Mulajin, Jambili, Jamborong, Vojaru ani, Pe’‘um, Pelu Amar and Sator etc.

The backstrap loom consists of simple implements made from bamboo or wood such as Thening (Shed Rod), Thehu (The backstrap which is essentially a belt worn around the waist, made of animal skin or bamboo), Thepun (Rope for Measurement), Harpi (Batten), Therang (Loom Bar), Thelangpong (Heddle Rod), Uvek (Bamboo Bobbin), Ingthi (Reed/Comb), Hi’‘i (Heddle), Barlim (Pattern Sticks), Langvet (A Small piece of bamboo stick with one end fitted with a tuft of cotton dipped into water for sponging the woven part of the cloth), and Honthari (Bobbin) etc.

Karbi have traditional method of dying techniques to create the basic colors of red, black, yellow, blue (or green). Black colour is obtained from iron fillings boiled together with Siluka (Terminalia Chebula Retz). Male clothing is blackened by using this method. Bujir of the Sibu (a species of Strobilanthes) variety is used to make blue dye of female clothing. Sibu has varieties such as Burot, Buthe and Duri besides Bujir. Turmeric (Tharmit in the local dialect) is widely used for making 'ake’‘et' (yellow) dyes while laha (lac) is used for obtaining 'ake’‘er' (red) dyes. Chalavan (Letsea Sebifera Pers. or Sebifera Glutinosa Lour.) is also used as the source for 'ake’‘ik' (Black) dye.

The female folk are an ingenious lot. They have a variety of clothing such as Pini Kamplak (Open Ended Sarong), Jiso (Clothing covering the Breast area), Pekok (Open ended embroidered woven cloth wrapped around the female torso from shoulder to just about the knees), Vamkok (highly decorated waist belt with ends hung loose), Pe-Seleng (A long cloth wrapped around the torso by the females, also used by the males as a kind of dhoti), Jir’‘ik (Light blue colored clothing for the breast area), Piniku (White female bed sheet), Piba (blue colored cloth for carrying baby on the back), Mulajin and Jamborong (varieties of traditional bags).

'The following are some of the unique dresses worn by the Karbi Men' -

'There is a wide variety of female costume, some of which include the following -'

Musical Instruments[8]

Karbis regard music as a gift from the heavens. It is therefore intimately associated with their day to day life. The numerous sacred life-giving worships to unseen spirits and sacred prayers, social interactions across time honoured customs and traditions are all expressed through poetically structured verbal performances.

According to Karbi lore, Rangsina Sarpo, the Divine Musician, was sent from the heavens to teach Karbis songs and dances. His name is immortalised in Karbi folklore and sacred prayers. The sacred verses of ‘Lunse Keplang’ (Origin of Singer), performed at important cultural and religious rituals, eulogises the Divine Musician, Rangsina the Great (Given below is an excerpt of the same) —

Urtí kàngdūksó/Sì Sùm Kàrbì asō
Avē lūn temó/Sì kedō kí pèn kó
Sì Rù songsár rechó/Sì bàng ì phàrlí í tànghò
Bái Sùm Kàrbì asō/Avē alūn tomó
Sì nàng mìrjèng mūsòsō (lé)/Sopírthé cheló (rà)
Parján jāngrēsó/Já pòn Telehórlāngsō
Bàng apūnsō chókphò/Erù Ràngsíná sàrpō
Kedō rūn maró/Sì asēngkūn rè’ò (sì)
Làle thán dàmnon/Lūn temó pù songsár rechó
Sì bàng nàngtòi mūsòsō/Mìrjèng mūsòsō
Somíndár nángló...

('Translation' - When the earth was young, the King of Universe saw how the Karbis suffered due to lack of music and asked Mirjeng bro¬thers to descend on earth and invoke upon Rangsina the Great to teach them the art of music...)

Chùtsāng and Krùngdēng, the two legendary drummers discovered the drum and its unique rhythms from the mysteries of Nature and the surreal world of Spirits. There are legends which narrate tales of Karbi ancestors’ encounters with other than human entities, Tiso Jonding (Tiso the Tall One) among them, which gave birth to a new rhythm. The tradition, where facts and fictions fuse, has continued through surviving rhythms inherited from the Tiso (wild spirit) or Lāngpámpī (waterfall).

According to the legend, Sam Baroi created the rhythms. He created ‘Chēngpī’, the instrument which originated in funeral rituals to communicate with and guide the souls of the dead to the world of the ancestors. He also created ‘Cheng Burup’, the waist drums that guide inmates of traditional youth dormitories in their community farming activities. In older times when rhythm was in its infancy, Karbi ancestors made use of ‘Chēng Thāilōk’ (raft-zither) made of Thùbōng or Tàrsìng — the many varieties of reeds, which infested their surroundings. A sacred verse is dedicated to the legendary ancestor —

Sì bàng erù hòidōi
Là erù Sám barói
Sì erù Sám barói (kè)
Asēngkūn rèjòi
Sì bàng erù Sám barói
An bàng phàng’èt arōng ròi
Sì mengsū sainévòi
Là erù Sám barói...

(Translation - Our revered Sam Baroi, who is insightful, acquired the beechwood and created the rhythm...)

Karbis have known the use of various indigenous variants of the wind, string and percussion instruments shaping their musical traditions which have survived over time in the form of some of the following folk instruments —

'a)'. Morísō– has 6 (six) finger holes with ‘cane sounding tubes and bells made either of wood or animal horn.’ This is a distinct variety.

'b)'. Morí Jàngkèk – is a similar instrument which makes bigger sound; one end tappers into an ‘àkròk’ while the other end ends into a funnel called ‘Abòngphār’; the instrument has seven finger holes; it is mostly used by unmarried youth serenading their lady-loves-

Lì’ò lìi’ò lì’ò le
Nìngvē lasā aníngvē
Hánbōng arájè kemē
Chūsāng achúnì sàt’è
Jìr’ìk nàngchárvàk pàmé
Lasā kán dùnjí menē....

(Tonight is the night of Chomangkan, Hanbong is so beautiful, her lovely hair too is so beautifully plaited; she has worn a matching black scarf, isn’t she taking part in the dance?)

Lílí lít...
Torlíng toróle lembé
Toró ínglòlò toróle ùmbé
Toró ínglòlò oré orót
Kokdáng amorí

Kòngkòng dòi-kòngdīr
Dòidòi dí thedùng thedùng
Thedùng dūng longkísō tā
Thedùng dūng kethék kerè
Pamán dùn thedùng dūng
Kòngkòng dòi....

Krongchui was used by unmarried youths of opposite sexes to serenade each other – girls would ask their male friends to make the instrument as the initial gesture to express their love. Youth in their prime in older days would carry as essential items in their ‘jambílí’ (unsewn sling bag) such as mori (flute), krongchui (jew’s harp), ìngthī (woven comb), mori aso (reed) etc. Girls also thrust krongchui into the tuft of their hair when they go out into the wild venturing for vegetables or fire wood in older days.

A very particular wood is selected for making Chēng. Most preferred wood is Phàng (Gmelina arborea) which is free from moth attacks. A salutation called ‘bàntā’, which consists of five betel nuts and equal number of leaves wrapped in a banana leaf, is placed at the feet of the tree and a sacred prayer offered before cutting the tree.

Chēng performs two different and opposite roles – 'a) Arong a’chēng' which is played without any reference to death, and the other - 'b) Kàrhì a’chēng', which is performed exclusively for the dead at a Chomangkan or funeral festival. Both the two types of rhythms are played at a funeral festival but the former can and is played at occasions such as welcoming of dignitaries etc. But it is taboo to play Karhi a’chēng on occasions other than funeral festival and it is performed only in the host village where such a festival is performed.

Arong a’chēng performs a set of rhythms which are different from those performed for the dead. Ranges and depth in the funeral rhythms of Karhi a’chēng carry pathos and agony.

The different types of 'Chēng' are given below:
'a)' Chēngpī – is a double-headed laced drum, made of a hollow or hollowed out trunk of Phàng (Gmelina arborea) or similar other wood. The drum has a bigger head (amahang) and a smaller base (aling) with a slight bulge in the middle which gives the drum a conical profile. It is covered and tuned by laces ‘joining the striking head to a ring around the much smaller head’. Chēng Kindar (stout bamboo stick, thicker at the head which slims towards the base) and Chēng Baiko/Beko (wooden chisel with broad head and sharply tapered base) are used to tune the drum. A cane stick carved at one end called Chēngbe is used to hit the face and the rear is stroked by left hand to produce at least 7 (seven) basic sounds, such as— krong, klur, kret, klek, (front face) and chong, cherok and Dip (rear face). There are various interesting legends of the origin of Chēngpī which is played by master drummer Duhúidì during funeral festivals called Chomangkan. A rhythm called ‘kepalodok’ is played to the accompaniment of ‘Nimso Kerung’ dance at the funeral festival.

'b)' Chēngsō – is the smaller version of the Chēngpī and its use is limited to accompanying its larger cousin. Its most important function however is at the funeral festival as a medium of communication with the spirits of the dead.

'c)' Chāmburūksō achēngsō - is a pair of tiny cymbals played by Uchépī, a designated female cook of the dead at a funeral festival, to the accompaniment of the rhythm of drums.

'd)' Cheng-burup – is a pair of wedge-laced drums shaped like inverted ‘burup’, a bamboo basket traditionally used for storing minor items of a Karbi household. The burup’s cone-shaped body is carved out of wood which is the drumhead or sound box covered with goatskin or other animal hides. The drum is tuned by tightening a network of laces covering the lower body as it tapers. According to scholars, ‘this type of head-fixing is not common in NE India, but it is widespread in island SE Asia and parts of Africa.’

Cheng-burup is not played during funeral ceremonies. According to folklore, the youth dormitories made extensive use of the instrument as a means of communication and authority.

'e)' Chēngkumbāng – is a Karbi version of the ‘struck idiochord tube-zither’ common in South East Asian cultures. It is made from a single internode of a large sized bamboo with its outer skin lifted up and two small bridges inserted beneath the strings so as to prevent the strings striking the wall of the bamboo tube which serves as the resonator.

A piece of wood or bamboo is sliced to fit between the strings, which vibrate when hit by two small sticks to produce a sound. Chēngkumbāng is not played at funeral festivals but this instrument is used at another version of funeral ritual called ‘Tiso Chomangkan’ which is performed rather arbitrarily without observing the usual religious procedures.

'f)' Chēnglāngpōng - is made of ‘bamboo’ (lāngpōng) with one node removed, which is played to amuse kids and does not have any ritual or religious purposes. The open end of the bamboo tube is covered with rodent skin.

'g)' Chēngtúmtùm– it is so called because of the ‘túmtùm’ sounds that this drum produces and is made of a long shell of a large size. Both ends of the ‘túmtùm’ is covered with goat skin and laced by one piece of rope. It is a Karbi version of biconical drum ‘where the drum swells in the middle and curves down towards the skin at either end.’ It is played together with Chēngphùlē to produce a dance rhythm performed by unmarried boys and girls at traditional funeral festival. The player hangs the drum around his neck by a cord and beats both heads with palms.

'h)' Chēngphùlē - it is a laced single-headed conical drum and derives its name which resembles the shape of a pot or a bowl, phùlē, hollowed out from wood. It serves as the treble drum and pairs with Chēngtúmtùm (bass) and the two instruments are played separately by two players to produce the funeral dance rhythm.

'a)' Kùmdèngdōng– is a two-stringed lute played by fingering on the two strings alternately to produce the ‘deng-dong’ sounds. The strings pass over a sound box made of coconut or wood across the lengthened neck or finger board from a string-holder at the base to the head. The strings are made from the tough fibre of a plant called mengsuri (Sterculia villosa) is stretched from the pegs to the soundbox over a bridge, which is covered with goat skin. Scholars call this type of lute as ‘quite different...where the body is a separate resonator made of coconut.’

'b)' Kùmli’eng – it is named so because the one stringed fiddle (or viol) played using a bow produces ‘eng eng’ sounds. The resonator is made from a gourd shell and resembles the typical spike-lute. The player rests the base of the instrument on the ground steadied by his left or right toe. The string is traditionally made of a strong fibre of mengsuri. It is a very versatile and creative instrument which gives an absolute ease and freedom to a folk artiste to play his mood.

According to a legend, a certain ancestor avenged the death of his younger brother by defeating the culprit, a magical wild entity, known as ‘Tiso Jonding’ (the Tall Tiso), in a duel of Kùmlì’èng.


The Karbis traditionally practice jhum cultivation (Slash-and-burn cultivation) in the hills. They grow variety of crops which include foodgrains, vegetables and fruits like rice, maize, potato, tapioca, beans, ginger and turmeric. They are quiet self-sufficient and have homestead gardens with betel nut, jackfruit, oranges, pineapple, etc. which fulfill their nutritional as well as food needs. However, with the integration of the traditional lifestyle with the market economy, many of the traditional institutions and way of life has been left damaged, bringing about unending sufferings on the people.

Karbi people have the highest HPI (Human Poverty Index) value of 33.52, indicating that this tribe has the highest number of people in human poverty. (Assam Human Development Report, 2003).


  1. http://www.censusindia.gov.in/Census_Data_2001/Census_Data_Online/Language/Statement1.aspx
  2. http://www.indiantravelportal.com/assam/tribes/karbi.html
  3. Ethnologue profile
  4. Meaning of Mikir « Karbis Of Assam
  5. Karbi Anglong District At A Glance
  6. "Less than 50 per cent Assamese speakers in Assam". The Hindu. Chennai, India. 9 January 2008.
  7. Census of India - Socio-cultural aspects, Table ST-14 (Compact disc), Government of India, Ministry of Home Affairs
  8. Blench, Roger (2011). A Guide to the Musical Instruments of NE India: Classification, Distribution, History and Vernacular Name. Cambridge, UK: Kay Williamson Educational Foundation.

External links

Coordinates: 40°19′52″N 44°22′35″E / 40.3311°N 44.3764°E / 40.3311; 44.3764

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