Beads of Arunachal Pradesh: Emerging Cultural Context describes the cultural importance of different beads among the people of North-East India in general and Arunachal Pradesh in particular.
The tradition of beads has been embedded in the lives of the people of North East from time immemorial. The continuing popularity of beads have led to the manufacturing of spurious products. Despite the onslaught of globalisation even in rural areas, the popularity of beads has not diminished among the people. Beads are used as a bartering item and usually take the place of money even now.
The book describes the economic, cultural and ritual significance of beads; their historical relation to migration and popular beliefs; classification mechanism; legends and history around them; and ethnic specifications. The oral history, gender questions, social dynamics, and even inter- as well as intra-tribal relationships have been described in detail in the book.
With a number of beautiful images the book makes for an interesting read and acts as a guide for those who are interested not only in beads but also in the history and culture of the North East.
About the Authors
Sarit K. Chaudhuri is Director of National Museum of Mankind, IGRMS, Bhopal. During 2003-05, as a postdoctoral fellow he worked in a collaborative project of SOAS, British Museum, CCRD, and Rajiv Gandhi University, Arunachal Pradesh.
Earlier he also worked with AnSI, Shillong, as well as with Rajiv Gandhi University, Arunachal Pradesh as Professor and head, Department of Anthropology. He has published 9 books and 52 research papers.
Sucheta Sen Chaudhuri is Dean of the School of Cultural Studies. She is also head of the Centre for Indigenous Culture Studies in Central University of Jharkhand, Ranchi. She has worked in AnSI for seven years.
During 1999-2011 she worked in the Arunachal Instituted of Tribal Studies, Rajiv Gandhi University, where she was also the Founder Director, Women Study and Research Centre. She has published four books and several research papers.
Our interest in the culture of Arunachal Pradesh, particularly beads, emerged from interactions with the state's tribals and Verrier Elwin's seminal book on NEFA. Our first exposure was in Tirap where the Wanchos and the Noktes use magnificent beads. These tribes are perhaps the most profuse bead-users in the state. Later, we lived among several other tribes. We slowly understood the significance of beads in the life of the tribes. This is in spite of the current trend in modernisation or globalisation, which pervade their lives at least in urban and semi-urban areas. The oral history of the tribes, gender questions, social dynamics, and inter- as well as intra-tribal relationships can be understood through the study of beads which reveal the separate identities in spite of having similar materials, colour, and mode of use.
This study reveals the process of negotiation in the domain of tangible culture, which is deeply embedded in the intangible terrain and intricately linked with wider socio-political processes, which regulates everyday nuances of life. We have tried to narrate the multilayered realities without getting into the theoretical domain. We hope this book may lead to further research in the topic. This book may be of interest to art historians or fashion designers. There are several versions of nomenclatures of beads even among the villages of the same tribe spread over large territories. This is apparently due to linguistic norm. Variations may also be found in the context of changing identities of the tribes or accepting new identities following oral historical tract in Arunachal Pradesh.
Beads have been among the most ancient and widespread of human ornaments. In some parts of Africa, especially in Libya and Sudan, beads fashioned from ostrich egg shells were made as early as 10,000 BC (Sciama, 2001: 1). Glass beads found by archaeologists in coastal areas of southern and eastern Africa were imported from Egypt and Rome through Sahara desert since 4th century AD, while opaque Indian glass beads probably date back to 3rd century AD. However, most of the glass beads used in Africa since the 15th century, imported from Italy, Bohemia, and the Netherlands, are examples of prayer beads (Geary, 1994: 1-4, Carey, 1986 and 1991).
Traditional Use of Beads
Beads are associated with the prayer tradition of major religions. Tomalin (2001: 301) mentions that Hindu mala (necklace with beads), for example, is a specimen of prayer beads. Similar practice of counting beads are traceable among the Buddhists and Tibetans. He adds that the Christian paternoster, or rosary and the Muslim tasbiah have the same function.
Beads are also used to mark gender in infants. Meisch (2001: 149) reports: Baby girls have their ears pierced almost immediately after birth. A loop of string, sometimes with beads, is inserted in the hole. Baby girls often wear bead necklaces. In those communities where wrist wraps are common the babies sometimes wear its tiny versions. The only beaded item worn by both males and females is a small, red, seed bead bracelet, usually with a charm attached. These bracelets are sold in markets throughout central Sierra to protect babies against the evil eye.
Meisch further adds (ibid: 147):
One of the pleasures of attending the weekly markets in the highland Ecuador is admiring (or buying) strands of antique and contemporary beads that are heaped on tables, hung from market stalls or piled on cloths on the grounds .... Today males of such indigenous groups as the Cofan in the northern Ecuadorian Amazon wear glass and natural seed bead necklaces and sometimes glass beads, headbands and bracelets, but basically beads are considered as a feature of indigenous female dress in the orient and specially in the highland of Ecuador and are worn in the form of necklace, perhaps of pearls, or faux pearls; masses of beads in a necklace signify indigenous ethnicity.
Numerous historians and anthropologists have observed that with the help of systematic interaction between distant and separate societies, trade maintains a 'trans-cultural' networks of relationship, with their own rules and conventions, which may be viewed as cultures in their own right. Their study sheds light on the history, particularly social groups or village communities that earlier ethnographies may have left in obscurity, conveying an exaggerated idea of areas described as 'Third World' (Cohen, 1965; Wolf, 1982; Curtin, 1984 and Appadurai, 1986). Graeber (1996) mentions about the symbolic monetary value of beads as reflected in various anthropological literature such as Mauss (1967) and Malinowski (1922). He further illustrates (ibid: 4-5):
Admittedly, beads fit most of the standard criteria, economists usually attribute to money. They are roughly commensurable and highly portable, and they do not decay. But same could be said of any number of other objects that have never been used as a means of exchange. What sets beads apart seems to be nothing more than that they are articles of adornment. In this, at least, they are in much larger company. It is remarkable how many of the objects adopted as currency in different parts of the world have been objects otherwise used primarily, if not exclusively, for adornment. Gold and silver are the most obvious examples. One might also cite the cowries and spondylus shells of Africa, New Guinea, and the Americas, the feather money of the New Hebrides, or innumerable similar 'primitive currencies'. For the most part, money consists of things that otherwise exists only to be seen.
Such observations apply equally to the tribal populations of south-east Asian countries. As far as the Indian tribal population is concerned, undoubtedly the North East is one of the prime areas where beads are profusely visible.
The North East is a sort of ethnological transition zone between India on the one hand and China, Tibet, Burma, and Bangladesh on the other. Yet the ancestors of many ethnic groups living here hailed from far flung regions, as may be surmised from the languages spoken and the myths prevalent among the tribes here (Stirn and Ham, 2000: 1).
Beads have multiple implications and functional values. They are deeply rooted in their aesthetic sensibility, cultural codes, trade mechanism, economic structure, social status, and gender specificity displaying the essential elements of their traditional as well as cultural identity. Beads continue to be an important part of traditional dress of women as well as men as reflected in Nagaland (Ganguli, 1993). Chakrabarti (2003: 7) argued that Angamis and Ao Nagas of Nagaland use wooden and metal pendants or necklaces with human head motif as a symbol of head hunting status. In Arunachal Pradesh (earlier NEFA), similar cultural practices were found among the Wanchos and Noktes who inhabit Tirap district bordering Nagaland. In fact, this is true in many parts of the world (Meisch, 2001; Adelson and Tracht, 1983; Eicher and Barnes, 1992; Dubin, 1987; Eicher, 1995; Wilbert, 1974; Orchard, 1929). A careful study of the tribes will reveal how profusely they used beads.
The North East, particularly Arunachal, has a special place so far as the beads tradition is concerned. The geo-political location of this frontier state, having 26 major and several smaller tribes and their innumerable migration stories, added a new dimension to the beads tradition. Beads are part of the oral tradition of every tribe. Beads talk about their historic linkages across the political and cultural boundaries through trade, economic status of an individual in a society, as well as medium of exchange, and obviously help to identify the tribe to a great extent. Colonial writings and administrative reports on the then Assam reveal how beads were used by the tribes and remained an important item of trade between the people of the hills and the plains. It also constitutes an important element in bride price or marriage gifts. Beads even represent the hierarchy within the tribal social structure. Sacred beads also have tremendous value in their minds. Several tribes use such beads to ward off evil spirits or to protect children from unseen malevolent forces.
Beads also represent property and follow rules of inheritance, especially those considered highly valuable in the society. Some Arunachal tribes have the tradition of burying the belongings of the deceased in the graveyard or leaving those on the burial place with the body. In essence, traditional beads, which people today perceive as authentic, came mainly through trades with Tibet, Burma, and other neighbouring countries as well as through the plains of Assam. With the closure of such border trades obviously those old or pure or authentic are in circulation within the tribes _ and are passed on from one generation to the next.
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