He’s been a hunter, farmer, basket weaver, and the head of the local council. Mako Lingi is not notching up bragging points. That’s just the way this elder from Arunachal Pradesh’s Idu Mishmi tribe has lived his life.
Like most members of his generation, he too had to learn several skills in order to survive in the remotest parts of Arunachal Pradesh, the eastern-most state in India.
“We did not buy anything in the village. That was not even an option. We had to produce everything ourselves. We farmed, we hunted and we made things,” Lingi, now over 60, says. As he speaks, his hands are busy weaving a new basket.
The Idu Mishmi community is spread throughout Arunachal Pradesh, and sometimes hamlets only consist of two or three families. Lingi is from Ahunli – which has a population of just 11 people – located in the Dibang Valley near Anini Circle.
He can make a variety of baskets, using only his dao (knife), and his hands and feet. No other tools are required. “There are about a dozen different kinds of baskets that the Idu community uses,” he explains. “Each is designed with a specific weave pattern for a specific use – to carry food, to carry wood, or for hunting. We use different kinds of bamboo and cane for each basket. We go to the jungle, cut down the bamboo or cane, bring it home, cut it into thin strips, and then start working on the basket.” Some baskets are made in a few hours, some in a few days, and others can take weeks.
“Every Idu [still living in the village] is involved in making baskets, mats for the floor, headgear, arrows and so on,” says Dr. Rajiv Miso, an Idu Mishmi himself, and associate professor at the Jomind Tayend Government Model Degree College, Roing, whose PhD focused on the ethno-historical aspects of Arunachal Pradesh, with an emphasis on the Idu Mishmis. “The objects produced are utilitarian – largely for family use and to barter for other necessities. Some members of the community are custodians of knowledge. Their expertise is sought, for instance, while making measurements to construct a house. Their services are voluntary, with no returns in kind.”
The Idu Mishmi have deep connections with their environment, and their system of penance after hunting is intricate. Living in tough, remote conditions has shaped many of their rituals and customs – the type of animals they hunt, the style of homes they build, the bamboo they use. It has also strengthened their sense of community. “Relationships are most important in the Idu community,” Lingi says. “We are all related to each other in some way and we like to work things out ourselves. We never had anything like the police here; we never needed them.”
As a respected Idu elder, Lingi is often referred to as naba (father); he was a member of his village panchayat (local government) for 10 years, and in 1993 began a term on the zilla parishad’s Anchal Samiti (a district-level administrative body). “I wanted to do something to help our people. We did the best we could in Ahunli and the surrounding villages, but the state government didn’t give us real power or any real funding to make better roads or schools. All we received was Rs. 1 lakh. What could we do with that? We can make better roads ourselves.” He shakes his head. “Even when we were able to construct a school, it was destroyed in a landslide.”
If people learn the craft these days, it’s because it is an ‘art’, a concept Lingi finds unusual. “This wasn’t art. It was just life.”
Along with his administrative duties, Lingi also cultivated rice, corn and legumes on his land – spread over some 10-15 acres of mountainous terrain. And he hunted. He even survived a tiger attack decades ago. Lingi grins as he recalls: “My cousin was attacked by a tiger and another family member asked me to go into the jungle to get him out [tigers are not as common here as other big cats]. When I went into the jungle, the same tiger pounced on me, clawing at me, but I was able to shoot and kill it… I was so scared.”