Last of the Igu

  • Written by  Antonia Bolingbroke-Kent
  • Published in Explorers
The Idu shamans, or igu, chanting at the reh festival The Idu shamans, or igu, chanting at the reh festival Antonia Bolingbroke-Kent
23 Oct
2017
While travelling across the northeast Indian state of Arunachal Pradesh, travel writer Antonia Bolingbroke-Kent finds herself asked to a sacrificial tribal festival in a remote village on the Indo-Tibetan border

Being a vegetarian, I don’t typically begin my days with an orgy of animal sacrifice. But dawn had only just spilled its light down the mountainsides and already the chill morning air steamed with blood and butchery. Men in cane helmets squatted around fresh bovine carcasses, hacking off limbs and pulling out armfuls of slimy intestines, while around them the village curs gathered expectantly. As much as I’d felt it polite to watch, the sight and smell of it tore at my meat-averse sensibilities: I could feel the bile rising in my throat, my stomach churning in revolt. Gagging, I slipped away and vomited quietly behind a tree.

Three weeks into my two-month journey across Arunachal Pradesh, a confluence of luck and chance had led me to this bamboo-and-thatch settlement deep in the Mishmi Hills; the tangle of vast, trackless ranges which make up much of the eastern section of the state. Normally home to just a handful of Idu Mishmi families, now several hundred Idu had congregated in the village for reh, a rare clan gathering involving five days of shamanic chanting, animal sacrifice, feasting and drinking – all in the name of bolstering clan ties and garnering the good favour of the spirits.

Tibeto-Burman animists who probably migrated here from China some 800 years ago, the Idu Mishmi were known to early British explorers of the region as a savage, quarrelsome bunch none too fond of foreign interlopers. Colonel Frederick Marshman Bailey, the British soldier, spy and explorer, who tramped this way in 1913 in search of the fabled falls of the Brahmaputra, called them ‘troublesome and unpleasant,’ while the Tibetans went as far as to brand them cannibals who feasted on the bride’s mother at wedding celebrations.

But from the outset I adored the Idu, and none more so than my host Sadhu Mihu. An exceedingly polite 30-something with broad Tibetan features, he couldn’t have been further from the Victorian depiction of his people as ferocious savages. ‘Madam, the guest is god,’ he said solemnly as we arrived at his hut the night before the festival. ‘I am honoured to have you here.’

Inside his simple bamboo-and-wood abode the festival warm-up party was in full swing. A roistering, garrulous crowd were huddled around a central fire, the light of the flames falling upon half-drunk whisky bottles, the brims of cane helmets, bandoliers of bullets, pistols, strings of beads and the tips of elephant-bone knife handles. Unable to speak any English, they welcomed me with curious looks and smiles while one, bolder than the others, his long ebony hair tied in a knot under a wide-brimmed cane helmet, thrust a glass of whisky into my hand with a mischievous grin. If you’d parachuted me in blindfold, not for a second would I have thought this was India.

Several whisky sodden hours later, I unrolled my sleeping bag on the floor of the communal bedroom and fell happily asleep, the sound of voices and laughter drifting through the wall.

explore 3Antonia at home in the communal living area(Image: Antonia Bolingbroke-Kent)

The following morning, Sadhu led me to a nearby hut where three male igu, or shamans, were chanting beside a fire, watched by a half-cut crowd. They sang in strange, contorted voices, offering up the souls of the soon to be sacrificed mithun – semi-wild oxen native to this region – to the spirits; their trance states achieved through no more than chanting, the beat of small hand-held drums and the power of their guiding spirits.

After a while the chief igu – a bronze-skinned older man with a particularly fine cane helmet and a leopard’s jawbone sewn into his sword strap – walked to where six male mithun were tied to trees, brushing the back of each one with a leafy branch to signify the moment had come. Then, in turn, each animal was led into the sacrificial area, tied to a wooden post, and slaughtered, men taking it in turns to bring swords down on the back on the muscular necks with sickening thwacks. The beasts fell silently to the ground, their necks split open in a crimson slush, but it was an agonising 20 minutes before each one let out a final rasping breath and died.

Amid much laughter and jollity the mithun were immediately sliced, chopped, skinned, dismembered and carried away. Everywhere men were elbow-deep in blood and innards - in the midst of it Sadhu, my quietly spoken host, squatting as he cut out the tongues and strung them onto sharp threads of bamboo. As bloody a scene as it was, at least nothing would be wasted: everything would either be eaten at a feast or divided between all the attendant families of the clan.

Meanwhile the women stood under make-shift shelters stirring great vats of rice and mithun meat, or handing around bamboo flagons of lethally strong rice wine. Still feeling a little queasy, I joined a crowd of them and self-medicated with some of the milky-coloured wine. By noon I’d had several flagons and was communicating in fluent nonsense with a diminutive, puckered old lady who had an uncanny resemblance to ET. She sucked her toothless gums and chortled at everything, lost in happy senility.

The rest of the day passed in a sunny orgy of drinking, butchery and carousing; an Idu version of Glastonbury, just with more blood and gore. At around 4pm, by which time so much rice wine had been consumed it was a miracle anyone was still vertical, a prodigious feast was served. Several hundred Idu sat in rows on the ground while lines of men and women handed out palm-leaf plates, then piled them with armfuls of boiled mithun, greasy chunks of fat and heaps of rice. Taking my place at the end of a row, I settled for just an armful of rice.

After nightfall everyone crammed into the shamans’ hut to watch the chief igu dance: a slow, shuffling movement with his head bowed and his bare feet turned out at angles. Now he wore a richly embroidered red skirt, a headpiece of cowrie shells hung with tufts of yak’s tail and a sadly magnificent bandolier of yellowed tiger’s teeth, some six inches long. At his feet sat a rapt audience, their faces lit up by wide, joyous smiles.

explore 4Processing the mithun meat onto bamboo strips ahead of the feast (Image: Antonia Bolingbroke-Kent)

I later heard that these igu – men and women who play such a vital role in Idu Mishmi society – are a disappearing breed. Not only are their numbers dwindling but the younger generation aren’t interested in learning the art. Sadhu told me that the chief shaman had four children, none of whom wanted to learn. Or maybe it works both ways. Maybe the creeping influences of television and mobile phones and modernity are tuning the Idu to a different frequency and severing their contact with the spirit world. After all, it’s said that you can’t choose to become an igu, but that the spirits choose you, so perhaps it’s the spirits who are losing interest.

More sacrifice and feasting following the next day, although this time it was the turn of four black pigs who, unlike the docile mithun, sensed there was murder afoot. They squealed and ducked and dived in frantic bids to evade capture, and it was half an hour before they’d been wrestled into the mud and trussed by their legs to lengths of bamboo. I couldn’t watch it this time, but I heard the hellish cacophony of squeals that erupted as the men pushed sharpened bamboo stakes into the animals’ chests, and it was minutes before it ended. Give me tofu sausages any day.

Over the course of the festival I’d been struck by how intact Idu culture appeared to be. Unlike many other tribes in the region, Christianity has made far fewer inroads here and the Idu still inhabit a complex world of spirits, both good and evil. But I could see that life here was changing rapidly, and that Sadhu’s generation of Idu are caught between worlds. Sadhu had a truck, a motorbike, a large cardamom plantation and several homes. He played computer games on his mobile to ‘time pass’. But he’d had to give his father-in-law a mithun and two pigs to seal his arranged marriage and had settled a recent village dispute by ordering the payment of two pigs to the victim. It’s no surprise suicide is becoming increasingly common among young Idu torn between the taboo-laden worlds of their ancestral society and the tsunami of globalisation.

‘Madam, I am going to miss you,’ said Sadhu as he left me in the nearest town the next day. I’d miss him too. Despite the horror of the sacrifice, my affection for the Idu was undimmed and I’d felt blissfully content and at home among these exotic, smiling people. How fortunate I was to have been there.

Antonia Bolingbroke-Kent is a travel writer, freelance TV producer and director of Edge Expeditions. Her book, Land of the Dawn-Lit Mountains: A Journey Across Arunachal Pradesh – India’s Forgotten Frontier, is out now. To find out more about her books, travels and talks check out theitinerant.co.uk or follow her on Twitter and Instagram: @AntsBK.

 

explore 5Image: Antonia Bolingbroke-Kent

 

THE HIDDEN LAND

The Indian state of Arunachal Pradesh is the most northeasterly point of the subcontinent; a little-known Himalayan land that lies folded between the Tibetan Plateau, Burma, Bhutan, Nagaland and Assam’s Brahmaputra Valley. The largest and least populous of the Seven Sisters – the septet of states that make up India’s turbulent, tribal northeast – its 1.4 million people come from 26 tribes and around 100 sub-tribes and follow a range of religions, namely animism, Buddhism, Hinduism and – increasingly – Christianity.

The British annexed this wild frontier from the Burmese in 1826, and in 1873 – to protect the valuable tea, coal and oil trades in the Brahmaputra Valley – introduced a strict permit entry system which cordoned it off from the outside world. Complications with China and a rash of post-colonial tribal independence movements meant that foreigners were not allowed in until the late 1990s. Nowadays, with the state classified as a ‘Restricted Area’ and Delhi and Beijing nowhere nearer to settling their border disagreement, all foreign visitors must still apply for permits.

All this means that Arunachal has remained a curiously hidden land – almost unheard of outside India and little known by those within it.

 

TEN OF THE BEST

For Antonia Bolingbroke-Kent weather conditions were the biggest concern in Arunachal Pradesh. Clothing and baggage that could withstand heat, cold and sudden downpours, but didn’t add to the weight or the budget were vital. Also essential was making friends with the people she would meet, so unobtrusive camera gear and the odd bottle of alcohol also wouldn’t go amiss...kit

 

1. Jacket

Snugpak SJ12 – £179.95; 800g

Arunachal Pradesh is a land of extremes and although this isn’t the lightest jacket to travel with, I needed to be equipped to deal with spring temperatures as low as -15ºC. Reversible and extremely cosy, I couldn’t have done without it.

2. Sleeping bag

Snugpak Softie 12 – £149.95; 2kg

Since I’m a wimp with the cold I needed a sleeping bag that was going to keep me warm in all conditions. Synthetic rather than down, this packs down fairly small and has an excellent the cocoon-like design around the head. 

3. Base layers

Icebreaker Everyday – £34.99; 454g

I never leave home without these on an expedition: not only do they add an extra layer of warmth but, when you’re sleeping communally, they’re ideal as pyjamas too. Plus the anti-odour fabric means you can wear them for an indecent amount of days without smelling like a badger’s armpit.

4. Walking Boots

North Face Verbera Backpacker Gore-Tex – £90; 588g

Mud and mountains featured heavily so I needed boots that were sturdy, waterproof and comfortable. While these might not be the most stylish looking, they proved an excellent choice and gave me support without being leg-wearingly heavy.

5. Headtorch

Petzl Tikka – £27; 100g 

I’ve had my trusty Tikka for eleven years now and couldn’t live without it when travelling. In this case I was staying in a hut with limited solar powered electricity so a torch was vital after dark.

6. Rucksack

Vango Freedom 60 + 20 – £64.99; 3.05kg

I have an aversion to carrying too much kit so opted for this versatile 60-litre rucksack over anything bigger. I love its well-thought out compartments, removable day pack and that it has a flight cover to zip all its straps into when in transit. And it doesn’t break the bank!

7. Water filtration

Water-to-Go Water Bottle (75 cl) + spare filter – £24.99; 138g

This expedition was the first time I’d used a water filter bottle such as this and I was thrilled how good it was. I could fill it up from any old river or tap and drink it immediately, safe in the knowledge it wouldn’t make me ill. Gone are the days of drinking water that tastes of iodine.

8. Dry bag

Exped 80 litre – £28; 220g

Arunachal Pradesh is one of the wettest places on Earth so a dry bag was essential. As I was on a tight budget and wanted something that packed away to nothing, I went for this, rather than a heavier-weight Ortlieb. This was the perfect size for putting my whole rucksack inside.

9. Trews

Montane ‘Terra Ridge’ trousers – £85; 370g

Since it’s inclined to rain in this corner of India, I needed trousers that were vaguely water resistant and quick to dry. These Terra Ridges also have a handy amount of pockets, zip-open thigh vents for hotter weather and popper ankle adjustment to seal around your boots. Reinforced, articulated knees mean they’re good for scrambling up mountains.

10. Camera equipment

Canon 70D and Rode VideoMic Pro – £599/£139; 755g/85g

As I was making a short film about my journey I needed to carry a certain amount of electronic clobber. The Canon 70D is an affordable DSLR with superb filming capabilities while the impressively compact Rhode microphone records excellent sound. Such a small set-up also meant it wasn’t intimidating for people who hadn’t been filmed before.

 

DON'T FORGET...

…Several bottles of cheap local whisky. I always like to travel with presents for people I meet or stay with, and in this part of India, a bottle or two of whisky goes down a treat. I called it ‘whisky diplomacy’!

This was published in the October 2017 edition of Geographical magazine.

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