Imagine arriving at a remote village in the foothills of western Assam and finding yourself surrounded by nothing but tall faded bamboo sticks and abundant greenery peeking from behind. The muddy roads are immaculate with dustbins made out of bamboo placed every mile or so. You don’t see a single speck of dirt anywhere on the road.
And to your surprise, you even find food being cooked in bamboo tubes. Fascinating right?
Such a place exists, and it's called Umswai Valley. Umswai Valley is a village in Western Assam inhabited by a tribal group known as the Hill Tiwas.
The Hill Tiwa culture has opened my eyes to wider possibilities of leading a sustainable life. It is one of the most fascinating cultures of India and I believe that the whole world can benefit from the practices of the Hill Tiwa tribe.
Who are the Hill Tiwas?
The Hill Tiwas are an indegenous community who inhabit the foothills of the West Karbi Anglong district in Assam, India. They speak a type of Tibeto-Burman language of the Bodo-Garo group.
They’re internally divided into two subgroups - the Hill Tiwas and the Plain Tiwas. Each of these groups has its own distinct culture.
We visited the Bormarjong village of Umswai Valley. This post is an account of my experience at the Bormarjong village. If you wish to visit the village, please contact Root Bridge Foundation.
The Ubiquitous Use of Bamboo
As soon as we arrived at the village, we found tall bamboo sticks dangling against one another, hung from the top. These are supposedly gates to the entrance of a Hill Tiwa house!
The gates were constructed this way so that if anybody enters the house, the sticks jostle against one another and make a pleasant sound. That’s how the inmates know that somebody had entered the house. The walls of the Hill Tiwa houses are constructed using bamboo too.
Bamboo tubes find their way in cooking at a Hill Tiwa house. Large bamboo tubes, tender in nature, are filled with food, and placed on the fire to cook. Rice, gravy, chicken, etc are wrapped in large leaves (known as “lai”) and inserted into the tubes.
As the bamboo tubes are heated, they release an earthy flavor to the wrapped food inside. We got a chance to savor their food, and could taste the hint of bamboo in it.
Bamboo is also used to make dustbins. The dried bamboo strips are woven into a conical structure, and mounted on a stick for support. These dustbins are placed on the street every mile or so, to keep the roads clean.
Bormarjong is one of the cleanest villages I have ever seen!
Bamboo is also used to make toys for children.
Bamboo forms an integral part of the Hill Tiwa culture. The Hill Tiwa community follows a sustainable model as is evident in their practices.
The Traditional Attire of the Hill Tiwas
Women drape themselves in a phaskai and a kashong. Phaskai is used to cover their upper body while Kashong is used to cover their lower body.
Men wear a Thagla which is like a jacket to cover their upper body, and a slender piece of cloth called Thenash to cover their lower body.
A Hill Tiwa's Source of Income
Agriculture continues to remain the primary source of income for the Hill Tiwa people. Crops like rice and bamboo are predominantly grown.
Broomstick trees are also grown in the village and the Hill Tiwas sell broomsticks for their livelihood.
Weaving is practised by the women of the Hill Tiwa tribe. They use looms to weave their own clothes.
The Stone Monoliths of Amsai Pinu
The Hill Tiwas perform a puja known as Chongkong at a village named Amsai Pinu. Amsai Pinu is another village in Umswai Valley.
The Chongkong puja is performed every year by a handful of men from the Hill Tiwa tribe. As a part of this puja, a stone monolith is erected. In total, there are about 3000 monoliths, which implies that the village is 3000 years old!
The Dark History of the Twin Banyan Tree
Umswai Valley has a dark history to it. The twin banyan tree in Amsai Pinu was a place of human sacrifice.
Many years ago, during the reign of the Gobha king, the Hill Tiwas practised human sacrifice. Once, when the British encroached their land, the army of the Gobha king subjugated three British officers, and later sacrificed them under this tree.
Human sacrifice was practised in earlier times to bring prosperity to the villages and cure diseases of the people.
Male Dormitories for Training Young Men
An interesting practice of the Hill Tiwas is the training of young men in their male dormitories.
The male leaders of the Hill Tiwa tribe train young men on how to behave around women, and how to keep alcohol consumption in check. The young lads are required to sleep at the male dorm every night, and away from their homes.
I found this practice to be highly evolved, and something that is absolutely necessary in today’s society.
The Hill Tiwas surely have a lot to teach us in terms of their cultural practices; be it their social responsibility for maintaining cleanliness or their sustainable approach towards life with the use of bamboo.
My trip to Umswai Valley was not just of cultural immersion but also of cultural education. :)