On the Singpho Community
The Singpho community comprises one of the ancient communities of Upper Assam. There are around 25 Singpho villages in the vicinity of Margherita. Though we know of the earlier presence of a much larger population of the Singpho community in different parts of Margherita, today many places bear but merely the memories, these people having left behind no other trace of their presence. These memories are reinforced by the 'traces' in the form of the names of the different places-Lajum, Sir, Maase Gaon, Faltu (today Faltu Basti), Lid (Ledo), Hagun, etc. When the British first came to these wooded areas in search of oil and coal, they got acquainted with the Singphos living at the foothills of the Patkai mountains. These people lived in Chang-ghars (traditional bamboo house with raised platform). When they interacted with these people, the Britishers realized that the Singphos were indeed a brave, warrior race. It was from the Singphos that the British discovered the history of tea and initiated the tea industry in Assam.
Some traces of the Singpho community are still extant in two villages - Dighali and Ouguri - in the Sivasagar district of Assam. In neighbouring Arunachal Pradesh, there are about 25,000 people from this community in the Changlang and Lohit districts. The Singphos are however not confined only to India's north-east. They have a marked presence in Myanmar (Cachin province) and in the Kunming province of China. Of course at different places they are known by different names. While in the north-east they are known as 'Singphos', in Myanmar they are called 'Cachins' and in China, 'Jingpho'. Today, Singphos have emigrated to different parts of the world - particularly the developed countries. Their presence is known in about ten different nations the world over. Yet they consider Myanmar, China and India to be their places of origin. In fact, there is an autonomous region allotted for about one and a half lakh Singphos living in China. It is worth mentioning here that despite national boundaries and geographical divisions, they continue to share similar language and culture. They belong to the Tibeto-Burmese language group. The Singphos believe their ancestry originated from 'Majoisingra Boom'-which, it is speculated, is an unknown plateau in Tibet, from whence, the Singphos have today segregated and set up lives in different parts of the world.
Marriage is one of the fundamental institutions of the human race. Owing to its presence and prevalence the world over, marriage is considered (from the social scientists' perspective) a worldwide global institution. Of course the wedding procedures, rites, rituals and traditions and customs vary in accordance with ethnic, cultural, religious considerations across different societies. Yet the underlying ideas are very much the same.
In the Singpho society, bigamy or polygamy are accepted though monogamy is the accepted norm for an ideal marriage. However, one woman cannot have more than one husband. Given that the Singphos are a patriarchal race, the wife after marriage goes to live in her husband’s home and takes up her husband’s surname. In the Singpho society one cannot marry from within the same clan. The same is the tradition with many other communities, including the ‘Tai-Ahoms’ It is in fact an important commonalty in all the traditional communities of India – Sagotra marriages do not take place/are socially boycotted].
The Singpho marriage can be of four kinds—
a) Marriage out of mutual consent
b) Marriage after elopement
c) Horon Bibaah i.e. marriage conducted after carrying the bride away
d) Jowai Khatoni Bibaah i.e. marriage out of pleading to the son-in-law (or groom)
There is no bar on a widow remarrying. In fact, upon mutual consent, a younger brother can marry his sister-in-law upon the death of his elder brother. In case, the widow is not remarried, her in-laws have the responsibility of supporting and looking after her. If her in-laws are not able to or are not in a position to support her, she may proceed to her mother’s house.
In the Singpho society, a young man can or should marry his maternal cousin (i.e. his maternal uncle’s daughter). In the earlier times, this was a rule or a norm that had to be followed or complied with. Children of the families too had to comply to such a marriage in order to keep the earlier tradition alive. Here it is worth mentioning that in case, a young man desired to marry another girl, from another family/clan and not his maternal uncle’s daughter then he had first to seek the permission of his uncle. Otherwise he would have to be prepared to face punishment from his uncle. Similarly, the uncle too had to marry off his daughter to his nephew.
There are certain traditions and norms in the Singpho society that enable them to retain their individuality (and the purity of blood). Thus, the family from which a daughter is married and brought home, can retain marital links with the other family by bringing other daughters of the same family for their sons. The bride’s family is ‘Miyu’ and the groom’s family is Siwi or Dama. According to the Singpho lore, just as it is possible to fish from a pond and eat that fish, so also it is possible to bring in brides from the Miyu for generations. This way, relation between the two families or clans is only strengthened.
The Singphos have a unique tradition of marriage that can be represented by the following diagram:-
Supposing A, B and C are three families. Family A marries off a daughter to Family B. Family B marries off their daughter to Family C and Family C in turn gives off a daughter in marriage to Family A. This closed circuitous forging of marital links is given the name Khouwang in Singpho society. This Khouwang can extend to four or even more families.
The proposal for marriage is first made through a Khungmang (a mediator or messenger). Generally, the groom’s family sends the Khungmang to the bride’s family. Once the girl’s family assents to the proposal, the marriage process progresses accordingly. A day is fixed and the two families get together to discuss various issues related to the marriage. However, instead of discussing face-to-face, the process is initiated through the mediator. If the alliance is to be between two families who have hitherto not entered into any relationship, then a manoni or offering, called Khou Baga is to be made to the bride’s family prior to the initiation of the relationship. This offering comprises a certain amount of money, and it is offered as a sign of initiation of a new relationship. After this, another sum of three rupees is offered as a sign of seeking permission from the bride’s family to enter its premises. This is called Boymong Boysang Gowen. After this, Fifaga or the main offering of the marriage proposal (or ‘asking for the girl’) is formally presented to the bride’s family. After the formal assent from the bride’s family, the discussion moves on to the bride price or Fu (of course the term bride-price here does not have the negative connotation as in many other societies in other parts of the country; nor does it imply a lowering of the bride’s or girl’s respect). Though there are instances of marriage taking place without the tradition of offering the Fu the Singphos lay great emphasis on bride-price . Therefore, this offering is among its most ancient traditions related to marriage.. This Fu again comprises—
c) animals (basically domestic animals).
The bride’s family can even demand the Fu as joi. One joi is one hundred and forty rupees or the equivalent currency. When the marital alliance is between affluent families, the amount offered as bride-price naturally increases. The amount offered as bride price is not definite or fixed.
The goods offered as Fu include— bao (a bell-metal gong), kisikaili (a kind of beads), yang fulong (a regal shirt), busung (clothes), sinat (gun) etc. Likewise, the animals that offered are of three kinds—
a) nat-nga (buffalo offered in the name of the deity)
b) fu-nga (buffalo offered as bride-price)
c) sum sang malay-nga or buffalo offered for the bride.
It is interesting to note that the Singphos who have adopted the Buddhist religion -both in Assam and Arunachal Pradesh—have given up the earlier tradition of buffalo sacrifice, for they do not believe in such (animal) sacrifices.
At the end of the parleys regarding the Fu or the bride-price, the gumbang jon ceremony takes place. The groom’s family has to give one Joi as ‘gumbangja’; which means that the groom’s family has pledged its avowal to this relationship. After this, it is the norm for the bride’s family to offer a feast to all the relations of the groom’s family. In this feast, the bride’s family formally offers a dao (a large knife made of iron), a ‘saador’ (shawl) and a ‘mudra’ (coin). This implies the girl’s family’s formal assent to the marital alliance. At the same function, the bride’s family distributes a portion of the ‘gumbangja’ offered to its own relations, and thereby formally announces its final assent to the marriage.
After this, preparations are afoot at both the bride’s and the groom’s homes. With the bride’s family’s permission the groom’s family decides upon a date for the wedding. On that day, both the families invite their respective relatives, as well as acquaintances and neighbours. The relatives too arrive, bringing along with them a mugunsingnoy (basket). In this basket they bring a certain amount of money, a special dish prepared with and dried fish, a few bamboo tubes of liquor, and a ‘dao’.
On the day of the marriage, the groom does not go to the bride’s house. Instead his family members and other relatives proceed towards the bride’s house. Two mugunsingnoy (mentioned above) are already kept ready to be offered to the bride’s family. When the bridegroom’s party reaches the bride’s home, they are suitably entertained and given a sumptuous feast . After the communal feast, the bride is bid farewell and accomapnied by several of her family members, the bride or Khumbangwon ja arrives at the groom’s place. In the bridal party a senior woman assumes leadership and (with a jathi or spear in her hand) she undertakes the responsibility of taking the bride and leaving her at the groom’s place.
The ritual of dowry too exists in the Singpho community. The items offered as dowry include—ningri (spear), dao, the bride’s necessary items, gold and silver jewellery, clothes, besides necessary household items, cow(s), buffalo(es), elephant(s) etc. which are all offered as gungdon.
Once the bridal party arrives at the groom’s house, gumwang or nol-khagori (a kind of reed) is planted on the ground on either side (of the entrance to the premises) and the bride is made to walk in through these gumwang. The purohit or the dumsa in the meanwhile begin chanting the mantras (i.e. lingi). Eventually, a special ceremony called khoyado is performed, wherein the guests from the bride’s family is presented with a manoni or an offering. The bride and groom then, pay obeisance to all the elders and seek blessings for conjugal felicity. With this, the formal wedding ceremony too draws to a close. Amongst the Buddhists, there are certain religious ceremonies after the formal ceremony is over, which include paying obeisance to the religious head or ‘dharma guru’.
Changes with time:
The Singpho community has not escaped the swirls of change that has engulfed the broader society. The life styles of the Singphos too have undergone changes to varying degrees. Quite some changes in the sphere of marriage especially attracts our attention. From antiquity, the woman has enjoyed great respect and a high stature in the Singpho society. Till date (as has been the tradition), greater emphasis is given to the Fu or ‘bride price’ than to the dowry. (This assumes great significance especially at a time where brides are harassed and even burnt over dowry). Of course instead of coins, money is offered as Fu in the wedding today. Likewise, instead of gun or other such items, money is preferred by most families. Even the jathi i.e. spear has become a mere formality because today, use of such implements is obsolete. Even the religious rituals associated with the Singpho marriages (amongst the Buddhists) is something which came into vogue after many from the Singpho community converted into Buddhism. Further certain other (apparently non-religious) rites too have been inter-woven into the Singpho marriage system, which are a fall out of the Buddhist influence. Despite this, the Singpho marriage system and Singpho society in general have managed to elude the tentacles of materialism that seem to have gripped the entire world. Even instances of divorce are few and far between. Though, again there is provision for divorce in the Singpho society: a public meeting is held where judgments are passed over such matters. Owing to the disciplined social set-up, this community runs with a great degree of order.
The touches of modernity are evident over all aspects of individual and social life. This cannot be avoided; on the contrary this change is something that is to be accepted, even if reluctantly at times. However it is to be seen that the changes are accepted keeping in mind the ancient customs, rites and traditions that have been in prevalence since time immemorial. That is the sign of a progressive society.