The Karbi constitute the third largest tribal community in Assam, residing especially in the hill areas. Apart from Assam, they are also recognised as Scheduled Tribes in Meghalaya, Mizoram and Nagaland. They are known for their folk-tales and their love for dance and music.
Karbi History and Traditions
There is no written history of the Karbi people. Linguistically they belong to the Tibeto-Burman group, and it is believed that they entered Assam from areas of Central Asia that are now in present-day western China. The Karbis follow a patrilineal system of society. Their tribe comprises of five major clans; Ingti, Terang, Inghi, Teron and Timung. These clans are again divided into many sub-clans. The Karbi clans are exogamous – marriages between members of the same clan are not allowed.
According to folk-tales, the Karbi people faced constant threats from Burmese invaders, forcing them to take refuge in deep jungles and high hills. In fact, it is said that the tradition of Karbi girls drawing a black line called “Duk” from their forehead to their chin, dates back to this time of oppression by the Burmese, as they believed it made them less attractive and hence safe from the invaders.
A typical Karbi hut is built on a platform, several feet above the ground, using bamboo, timber and thatch. Cattle are generally kept under the bamboo platform. Typically, the houses are divided into two parts lengthwise – the first part serves as a guest room and the inner part as a private place for the family.
Most of the Karbis still practice their traditional animistic belief system, called “Hemphu-Mukrang.” They believe in reincarnation and highly honour the ancestors. The Karbis are very fond of their several festivals. Rongker is performed in January-February, to worship the different deities for the well being of the entire village. Although, the Karbis perform the funeral ceremony at the time of the cremation of the deceased, they also perform the death ceremony called “Chomangkan” for the eternal peace of the deceased. Everybody is welcome to the four days and four nights of non-stop festival.
Karbi Artisan Crafts
The Karbi women are expert weavers and they wear home-made, artistically designed clothes. Their clothes are famous for distinctive textures, designs and conspicuous colours. The Karbi women and girls are very fond of their traditional dresses and they have been using them even in the face of a strong competition of modern trends. The traditional dress consists of a decorative piece of cloth tied around the waist.
Traditionally, the Karbi people used three colours in weaving white, indigo black and red, prepared from natural wild herbs. Today they also use green and blue in the designs. The traditional designs reflect the socio-psychological significances of their tribe, nature and animals. While the “Jambili Athan” design reflects the five clans of the tribe, a cock signifies the morning wake up, a goat means purity, an elephant reflects strength, and a butterfly signifies freedom and joy.