Tuesday, 18 May 2010

Eating cham and drinking phelap with the Tangsas

Some observations about the food habits and life-style of the Tangsas

I have always stayed with my Tangsa consultants during my field-trips in the last years. Although the Tangsas live not far away from big towns like Margherita, Ledo and Jairampur, their style of living and their food habits are very distinctive. I am rather cross with myself for not having really bothered so far to learn to cook a few typically Tangsa dishes. But, as often happens in the field, there always seems to be something more important to do, and later, it is just too late.


The Tangsas are a small hill tribe who have migrated to India from Myanmar probably within the last couple of centuries and have settled in the north-east Indian states of Assam (mainly in the Margherita area of Tinsukia district) and Arunachal Pradesh (in the Changlang and Tirap districts). Most Tangsas today regard themselves as Nagas, but as a distinct group within them. The Tangsas in India comprise over 30 different sub-tribes , with considerable linguistic diversity, and although the cultural or linguistic difference between some groups may not be very large, there is a large amount of variation, allowing for further re-grouping of the Tangsa sub-tribes into Pangwas and Tangwas. Most of what I describe below is based on my observations and documentation of the food and life-styles of three Pangwa subtribes – namely Cholim, Lochhang and Rera, using the names they use for themselves – or alternatively, Tonglum, Langching and Ronrang, using the names others use for them.

I have been working with the Tangsas since 2008 and have spent a few months in the field, both as part of a team with the other project-members and also on my own. What struck me most about Tangsa food when I first arrived in ‘Tangsa-land’ were the timings and the menu -- huge mounds of plain boiled rice (cham) formed the major part of every meal; and there were two main meals per day – the first rice meal was served around 7 a.m. – rice with a bland and very watery ┼Ťak-soup , sometimes with a very hot and spicy chutney (basically a paste of tomatoes and chilles), sometimes with a spicy vegetable item and every few days a few pieces of roast or fried meat (mostly pork). My colleague Stephen, who is an egg-etarian, sometimes got a couple of boiled eggs instead. Another meal, with roughly the same items but even less elaborate, was repeated at dusk, around 4 p.m.

In the morning we got milk tea sometimes with a few biscuits when we got up which was usually early, say around 5:30 a.m.; then in between the two main rice meals separated by nearly 10 hours, we got almost nothing -- sometimes at around noon we got black tea (see more about it below) with a piece of boiled ‘simon-alu’ (a sweet potato-like tuber), or a couple of cookies, or a slice of bread, if we were lucky. For anything more than this, we needed to go visiting other people’s homes (where we could be sure of being offered a cup of black tea at least) or were at the mercy of the occasional guest: for we would also get a cup of tea if we happened to be around when the guests were being served their tea. But otherwise that was it. It took me a few days to get used to this new regime – I was not used to eating so much rice at a time, that too so early in the morning, was not used to the very long gap in between, and the food was either too bland or extremely spicy for me. But I quickly adjusted...

The first Tangsa word I learnt almost automatically, out of sheer necessity, because I am somebody who cannot survive for long without tea, was phelap. Phelap is the black and bitter tea that the Tangsas left ‘cooking’ (more appropriately ‘smoking’) in a black and sooty kettle on a tripod over the hearth (not the inner kitchen hearth but the one in the adjoining outer area where the men usually sat) most of the time. Except for the one cup of milk-tea served in the morning (which was usually served sweet), the rest of the day one got mostly phelap. I was completely fascinated by the self-made and much-used bamboo mug which our host used to drink his tea from. Home-made wooden ladles, spoons etc. were also regularly used in the kitchen.

They rarely used sugar in their tea, and even otherwise they had no idea of a dessert, did not cook anything sweet in all the time I was there, and also very rarely used milk or milk-products. Even the one cup of milk-tea we got in the morning was usually made with milk powder. I wondered about the children, but never saw a child being given milk to drink, probably a consequence of the fact that traditionally Tangsas did not rear cows. After mother’s milk, they moved straight on to drinking phelap, I guess. And their diet did not include fruits either, apart from a few, like bananas and papayas, that grew locally.



Another omission was potatoes, simply because they did not grow it in the hills – Tangsas seldom eat potatoes even today. They eat cho (arum; kasu in Assamese) instead. The food is mostly boiled and roasted, they use hardly any oil for their normal cooking , nor our normal spices. But they did use chillies and some other herbs that made certain items of the menu really eye-wateringly spicy.

One special vegetable that I encountered was called ‘khi-mo-jak’, which is a kind of vegetable they got from the jungles (called ‘nefa-phool’ in Assamese, I was told); although they ate it in the winter it turns very bitter in summer. Another herb which was commonly used at least in Balinong was called ‘nge-tang-pe’ (see picture above). Another vegetable, that I encountered for the first time in Balinong, was called, not surprisingly, 'sari-kona-sabji' or 'four-cornered-vegetable' (see picture below). It can also be eaten raw.



Rice and arum were the staples, and there were various things that they made out of these two basic ingredients. Of course rice was used also to make rice-beer (chhai, lao-pani in Assamese), while various some types of arum served as fodder for pigs. For ceremonial and festive occasions, the rice would be wrapped in koupat(a kind of big flat and thick leaf, that grew wild and abundantly in the jungles) in the form of rice-balls, and this not only kept the rice warm for longer and facilitated distribution but also when opened the koupat served as a plate to eat from. Bamboo sungas (containers) would normally be used for serving water or for rice-beer. A very good lesson in environmental-friendliness to be learnt there...

While women did most of the usual cooking at home, at big festive occasions, it was usual to see the women in charge of making the rice, wrapping them in koupat and brewing the rice-beer (and also cutting tomatoes, onions and cucumber to make a sort of salad, which I assume is a modern addition) while the men were in charge of cutting, cleaning and cooking the meat – be it pork, beef, or of any other sort. I have often wondered about the reason for this obvious division of labour, but don’t have any clear notions yet.



In the picture is a locally-made container for storing and serving rice-beer.
What surprised me very much in the beginning was the amount of rice-beer the Tangsa women could drink – although they did not drink regularly, on festive occasions they did not lag behind the men at all as far as drinking and making merry were concerned. Equality, I guess, even in such quaint forms...

And as one dug deeper, there were amazing facts that one discovered related to food: for example that in the Hakhun language the verbs for preparation of different foods are different: so for example: the verb ‘to make’ in English can take different forms in Hakhun: to make vegetables (phom) the Hakhuns would use the verb ‘abbi’, but to make tea (phelap) they would use the verb ’lomlo’ for rice (cham), the verb ‘poilo’ and ‘limlo’ for meat (gnam) and so on. Stephen, our linguist, told me that among the Pangwas there are three words for the verb ‘ingest’. One, sah means ‘to eat rice, bananas, fish, eggs’, a second phak means ‘to eat meats and vegetables and other solids’ and a third nying or something like it means ‘to drink’ but would also be used for smoking. Our Cholim host often said mitha (sweet) to me in Assamese when he actually meant ‘salty’ – it took me a long time to figure out how salt could taste so sweet ...

Soon it was clear to me why the meal times were the obviously natural ones – the Tangsa villagers, who are predominantly farmers, try to work and sleep according to the sun (and that, given the very erratic and unreliable power situation in most villages, is a very sensible thing to do in any case). They get up almost before dawn, and the women start cooking the morning meal while the men tend to the pigs, the poultry and other animals. Soon after the morning meal, almost every able adult member of the house – men and women alike – leave for their tea-gardens , paddy fields or their vegetable patches where they work during the day. Some older member of family – usually a grandfather or a widowed grandaunt -- remain at home and took care of the kids, if any, left at home.

The women return home only around 3 p.m. often carrying loads of fire-wood on their heads, while the men follow a little later, carrying leafy arum stems for pig fodder from the forests. Then the women begin with cooking the evening meal in the main kitchen, while the men cut up the arum stems and put them to cook in the outer hearth. By the time the animals are fed, the meal is eaten and the dishes done, it is well past 6 p.m. – and soon after it is normally bed-time for the Tangsas.

Despite the over-consumption of rice at the price of under-consumption of almost everything else, the Tangsas are remarkably healthy and strong and hardy. And they have incredible stamina – especially the women, who never sit idle for a minute, and do not wait for their men to do the heavy work – I have often seen young Tangsa women running up the narrow wooden ladder of their chang-ghars carrying a full sack of rice (mostly half quintal sacks but often heavier too) on their backs, after having carried it from the fields on their bicycles for several kilometres.

When I marvelled about this many Tangsas told me that the secret lay in their preference for boiled and bland food. Many older Tangsa men told me that the fish, water and rice from the hills were tastier and healthier, and the air was purer there. But times were changing. Mr. H.K. Morang from Nampong maintained that the earlier way of life and food habits of the Tangsas was much healthier and better – for example, earlier they used to drink the juice of raw fish called ‘psa’ which was very good for health – now they eat unhealthy fried fish instead . Today they don’t drink home-made rice-beer which never did anybody much harm but drink cheap rum and brandy instead! And of course there is still the problem of opium addiction – the British introduced opium in the hills with the hope of keeping the hill people quiet – but the Tangsas seem to have adopted it for their very own now and show no sign of letting go...

Of the various other facets related to food I tried to find out more about the use of food items for other purposes – such as for performing rituals, for doing augury and even for sending messages. In the village of Jengpathar in Arunachal Pradesh I was shown how messages were sent in olden times. As people were illiterate, the Tangsas would normally send little packets (called ‘gyeng-fit’) through messengers. Chillies and coal would mean bad news (usually war, in which case the fellow-tribe-members would make haste to come armed with guns and rifles ready to go and fight the enemy), rice for good news (like a birth or a marriage) and tea-leaves to express anger or unhappiness (as it was bitter).

It will take me much longer to figure out in detail the ritual use of food, but one thing that was very clear to me at the end of already my first field trip was that rice is not just the staple food of the Tangsas, it is also an essential element of a lot of other activities that define Tangsa life and culture. But to be able to say more a lot more work will have to be done... not just in this one aspect but in many other aspects as well. For besides their very healthy food-habits and egalitarian lifestyles, besides their almost involuntary environmental friendliness, besides their ability to live much closer and yet in complete harmony with nature, I believe there is a lot more about the Tangsa way of life that we would do well to emulate...

Volkach, 15th May 2010









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Thursday, 6 May 2010

The Tangsas and the Asamiyas

Some instances of cultural misunderstandings, some illustrations of Tangsa simplicity and integrity, and some reasons why the Tangsas can’t like the Asamiyas

I have been working with the Tangsas since 2008 and have been spending a lot of time in the field, both in a team with the other project-members and also on my own. And in this time, I have discovered a whole new world of wonderful people, living right around the corner from where I have lived most of my life but with whom I had had absolutely no contact with before. Did I say I learnt a lot about the Tangsas, I think I learnt as much if not more about us Asamiyas as well.



The Tangsas are a small hill tribe who have migrated to India from Myanmar and China probably within the last couple of centuries and have settled in the north-east Indian states of Assam (mainly in the Margherita area of Tinsukia district) and Arunachal Pradesh (in the Changlang and Tirap districts). Although probably of the same stock as the Nagas, most Tangsas consider themselves to be a distinct and separate ethnic group.

I am an Assamese living in Germany and although I have visited Tinsukia and Dibrugarh and have also been to Margherita in the past, as is most often the case, I have only visited my own relatives and friends in those places and have never had much to do with people from other ethnic communities who also live there. Therefore I wanted to work with a minority community in Assam to get to know at least one such group a little better. That chance came my way when I was offered a job in a DOBES -project documenting the music, song and dance of three communities (including the Tangsas) of Upper Assam.

And even as I got to know the people better, I realised how easy it was for me to make mistakes, to misunderstand and to misinterpret, all the more because we Assamese tend to look at things through our own coloured lenses. A good example of this was the time when a senior Asamiya journalist, when called upon to speak at a meeting held to celebrate the Wihu-kuq festival of the Tangsas declared with great elan that the word ‘Wihu’ was derived from our Assamese ‘Bihu’, without giving any reason whatsoever why it should be so (and why, for example and using the same logic, it could not be the other way around). He even went so far as to question the sense of celebrating the festival already on the 5th Jan. when our Bihu was still 10 days away! Why do we Assamese believe that we always know better? It seems that even after having paid the price so many times over for our patronising attitude, we have still not learnt our lessons. And I wouldn’t mind so much if we at least had our facts right.

In that sense it can be even better to be a complete outsider and arrive with an unprejudiced and neutral mind and take it from there. In that sense I did envy my foreign project-colleagues, as they did me, because I could start talking to everyone almost immediately as most of the Tangsas can speak Asamiya. But the mistakes were not all in one direction. All through my long stay last year, I had noticed that my informants were always careful and very polite whenever they mentioned the Ahoms. I wondered why, but could not find any plausible reason. It was not until almost the very end of my trip that I could get to the end of that – we were talking about languages and the Tangsa gentleman I was talking to accused me of having forgotten my own language and adopting Asamiya instead – suddenly it dawned on me that for some unknown reason the Tangsas seemed to believe that because I was Assamese, I must be Ahom, and hence had made every effort not to offend my Ahom sentiments!

The funniest incident happened however, when I arrived in Nampong. Our host while politely welcoming me, kept looking behind me, as if expecting someone else to come too. Later he told me that he was a bit puzzled when he first saw me because he was expecting a German guest! The cloud cleared much later when I asked the person who had made the arrangements for me at Nampong – for him it was clear that I was German since I was married to one! Such are the rules of the Tangsa world. And of the rest of the world as well, he claimed. For according to him, Benazir Bhutto who was allowed to rule over Pakistan, since she was married to a Pakistani and hence one herself. But the same did not apply to the Burmese opposition leader Aung San Suu Kyi as she was married to an American. So much for our naive assumption that the tribal people are ignorant and completely unaware of the big wide world!

They are not only well-informed, they are also incredibly knowledgeable and wise. Since their languages are oral, and most of the older people are completely illiterate, they simply had to ‘remember’ everything. But it was mind-boggling to realise just how much they could remember. Just to illustrate my point, let me tell you a story: Phulim Hakhun, completely illiterate, aged about 75 years, is our principal informant in Malopahar near Ledo town. One time when I was there, we arranged that he would come for a chat with me at 3 p.m. one afternoon. He came around that time but looked rather troubled and disappeared quickly, telling me that he had to go to the village first. When he came back a couple of hours later, I was really annoyed and asked him why he had kept me waiting for so long. It took me a while to understand that the problem was that he had forgotten a line from the song he wanted to sing to me that afternoon – so he went to ask if anyone in the village could tell him the missing line! But nobody knew it (which was not surprising given the fact that he was the eldest in the village), so he had come back, only to tell me that he would have to go all the way to Burma to find some old man who could fill in the missing line!

Since I do not know the Hakhun language, I would certainly not have noticed anything missing – and I told him so. But that didn’t matter to him – he told me that if he was singing something he had to sing it right – whether I understood it or not was not his problem. After a lot of coaxing he finally agreed to sing the song for me (and hum the line he didn’t know) – he went on to sing, from memory, for a full 45 minutes! It was not only his powers of memory but Phulim Hakhun’s pride, his honesty and his integrity that shone through that evening and made me feel lucky to be there. To have the strength to speak the truth and to be able to say it simply, without fuss, is something that we probably need to learn from the Tangsas.

And there were times when one just couldn’t help loving and feeling sorry for them – like the other time when I was working with another old gentleman, Mohen Ronrang, nearly 90 years old but still fit and active. We had worked out a pattern of starting work early every morning. One morning, Mohen Adu came looking very crestfallen and unhappy. He kept muttering ‘Kot je herai gol’ (don’t know where it is lost) to himself. I was still not quite awake and not quite ready with my equipment and didn’t pay much attention at first. But I asked him what he had lost when he continued distractedly, ‘bisari to powa nai’ (have not found it) ‘kot bisarim’ (where should I look)… Without replying to my question he kept muttering to himself ‘sabate salu, katu nai’ (I have looked everywhere, it is nowhere to be found) and looked really upset. My first thought was that probably his cow or pig or hen had gone astray overnight, but he shook his head when I asked. The real story was nothing that I could have figured out by myself: while going home the previous evening Mohen Adu had remembered a very nice story. He decided he would tell me the story the next morning, and went to bed happily after having thanked Jesus for having reminded him of the story – he was sure it would make me very happy when he told it to me. But the next morning, he could not remember the story anymore and he did not know where to look for it, and where it had hidden itself again!

Before we left Phulbari, Mohen Adu pestered me to arrange some way for him to record the story, should he happen to remember it again between now and our next visit, because he was terrified he could lose it again. It made me sad to see how helpless he felt. But his sweet child-like simplicity and innocence was simply out-of-the-world. I tried to make sure that someone would write it down, next time he remembered. For, he had told me some wonderful stories already, ancient stories about where they came from, from the time of the beginning of creation, full of beauty and wisdom. I was constantly amazed at how willingly and how ungrudgingly they shared their knowledge with me, and I took it as a sign of their trust and their incredible generosity.

There were many times, however,when they were not sure what to do with me because even though I was not quite a Tangsa, I was not a complete outsider either; what is more, I was a woman, that too, a woman, apparently claiming to have a husband but one that none of them had ever met, roaming around all by myself, or with a bunch of men, none of whom was my husband! Of course I got adopted as a daughter and a sister into many households very quickly but still I am sure many of them must have wondered, if I was not a government spy or some undercover agent, at least in the beginning. I did take pains to explain what we were doing to everyone who asked, but I am not entirely sure they believed me – after all, why should Germany pay for an Assamese woman to go and hang around with the Tangsas for months on end, with apparently no other job but to just chat with people and make free video recordings of village events for them.

That much suspicion is unavoidable, and even understandable, under the circumstances. But it was the reaction and the conclusions drawn by other Asamiya men, who did not know me and who happened to run into me accidentally in Tangsa-land, that were much more annoying. Most of them never bothered to come up to me and ask me who I was and what I was doing – they already ‘knew’, it was absolutely clear to them that I was a journalist, especially if I happened to be filming with my video-camera at that time. After looking around in vain for a heavy-duty vehicle of the sort normally used by media-personnel, the only question they deemed fit to ask was which television channel I worked for! And if I happened to be with any of the foreign project-members, then I was equally clear that I was their interpreter! I am not sure what it is about us Assamese that makes our minds work in this fashion, and why we are so incapable of coping with anything more than a few standard categories – I wonder if it is simply a lack of imagination, or if it is just a complete disregard for womenkind beyond a certain level. Not very complimentary, in either case.

But many of even those who knew me and also knew what I was doing, among them quite a few of my high-flying and modern convent-educated friends in Guwahati and elsewhere, did not lag behind in making clear their incredible ignorance of and their complete disdain for their tribal neighbours – do they still eat snakes? do they wear any clothes at all? Many would beg me to tell them more only to scream and squeal to express their utter inability to cope with any of that; many of them were ready to swoon when I described a Tangsa toilet to them – how can they live like that, and how can you call them human when they live like that? None of them asked me to tell them the ancient stories (full of beauty and wisdom) that I had heard from the old men in the villages, nor was anyone interested in finding out the secret behind how the incredibly hardy but beautiful Tangsa women could work so hard all day in the fields and then come home to do all the house-hold chores, and then find time to sing to their children or weave intricately beautiful patterns on their looms. We were such a pathetic lot, I was beginning to lose my self-respect. Did I also behave like this a few years ago? I wondered. Who was more human? I asked myself.

What was it about us that made us so blind, so lacking in curiosity, so lacking in respect... It did seem to me that we had deliberately built a wall between us and them – a wall that kept them out, a wall that only spoke of our insecurity. And it was not only the rich and spoilt Asamiya lot living in cities that behaved like this, even those who lived nearby, who were forced to come in contact with the tribals on a daily basis, wanted to pretend that the tribals did not exist, that at best they were unavoidable nuisances which one should not suffer a moment longer than absolutely necessary. In the field, I often witnessed the absolute arrogance and total disregard for the local people demonstrated by many of the Assamese bureaucrats, police officers and civil servants posted in that area . The very hospitable tribal people on the other hand treated them like royalty. I will never forget the time when a young Asamiya SDO, gracing a public function organised by the Tangsas as the honoured Chief Guest, spent all the time that he was not speaking into the mike to deliver his lecture , talking into his mobile phone, paying scant attention to what was going on around him. I was very ashamed and did not dare to think what the dignified tribal people themselves must have thought of such outrageously bad behaviour. I never could understand why the Asamiya officers behaved the way they did – to think that these people had this wonderful opportunity to get to know the tribal people better and that they just couldn’t be bothered...

Nor will I forget the occasion in the last field season when after a long wait, the local BDO and SDPO arrived at a cultural event organised by one of these groups, more than an hour later than promised – nevertheless they were given an incredible welcome and a ceremonial guard of honour accompanied by the beating of gongs and drums and the showering of flower petals. There were many older and distinguished guests (like the much-liked Singpho veteran leader Bisa Raja and the highly respected Tangsa leader Lukam Tonglung) in attendance (who were the real VIPs if you ask me) who got barely a namaskar as greeting

It was already well past noon then but since the organisers had arranged for tea to be provided on arrival to the VIPs, the two officers (and their attendants) were first treated to a lavish round of tea and a large assortment of home-made snacks typical of the host community, while the Bisa Raja who had arrived much earlier had to do with a little cup of tea. After this the VIPs did a round of the stalls, inaugurated the exhibitions and and stayed maybe in all for about half an hour. Then they declared they had to leave – this made the programme go hay-wire as the organisers felt obliged to offer lunch to the VIPs (and their huge security entourage) before they left, as a result of which the open session, in which the VIPS were supposed to participate, got postponed by more than a couple of hours. The ones who came and stayed on to participate in the Open Session had to either wait on an empty stomach or wait till the VIPs had left and hope that someone would let them partake of the left-overs. I have never felt so outraged by the behaviour of my fellow-Asamiyas and so ashamed at being Asamiya myself ever before in my life.

Mercifully, there were a few redeeming exceptions – like the old retired Asamiya school-teacher who had spent all his life trying to educate Tangsa children, and who knew no other way to refer to the Tangsas but in terms of equality and respect. And I tried to learn from that humble but great teacher and made an extra effort to behave properly with my Tangsa hosts, hoping that I could make up in some small way for the offence and hurt that the arrogant Asamiya officers must cause to these proud but helpless people.

For I felt very lucky to have the love and affection of these wonderful people, despite the fact that I was also a wretched Asamiya. Proof that they had accepted me as their own came on the very last day of my last field trip: I was doing my final rounds of farewells when an old Tangsa lady, who lived in the village but with whom I had not had much to do came up to me and asked me whether I had been there ‘all the while’ – yes, I said. You mean, since that time a few months ago when you first came here? Yes, I said again, since then. She went away but came back a few minutes later looking very troubled, didn’t you say you were just recently married? she asked. Yes, I said a third time. Where is your husband? At home, I said. Who is cooking for him? I’m not sure, perhaps he is cooking himself, I replied. Will he be angry with you for being away for so long? I hope not, I said. The other women tried to reassure her that there would probably be no problem. But she cut them short saying, with men, you never know; if you are lucky well and good but if not then it can be bad. Then turning towards me she said, in case your husband is cross with you and misbehaves with you then you come right back here – you can stay with me in my house, you are my daughter. Saying this she gave me a hug and walked off.

I came away happy and secure in the knowledge that the ice had been broken – that although I had begun with a disadvantage – the disadvantage of being an Asamiya – I had managed to make it to level ground, and that next time, it will be much easier for me, not only to go deeper into the amazing world of the Tangsas but also to not get so worked up and hassled about the outrageous misbehaviour of my fellow Asamiyas... next time I promise to tell you more about the Tangsas and not just about why it is important to work with the Tangsas in order to find out why they cannot like the Asamiyas...

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