Brahmaputra   studies



Introduction - The Project among the Sherdukpens - How to write Sherdukpen ? - Sherdukpen society, a brief description - Sherdukpens and their neighbours - The road to the North, Tawang, Tibet and Bhutan - The road to the south, to Kachari country and Assam - Rupa, a fascinating history Language.

(updated 28th June 2012)

Sherdukpen society, a summary description

The word Sher-duk-pen (or rather: Sher-tuk-pen) is probably a recent coinage for the inhabitants of Sher village (Shergaon) and Tukpen, the old name for the Rupa area as far as Jigaon. The two regions are distinct and, though people may marry "above the border", the Tukpen Village Council is not responsible for affairs in Shergaon, although they speak almost the same language.

Map of Sherdukpen villages (marked by a black dot) Wangho is a Bugun village,
while Kelong and Domkho are Western Monpa villages

Sherdukpen society is fundamentally divided into two socially differentiated and hierarchized groups - the Thong and the Chao. The Thong are regarded as the descendants of the mythical ancestor Asu Gyaptong and form the upper group. The Chao, in the other hand, are considered to be the progeny of the porters and servants who accompanied Asu Gyaptong on his way to Rupa. They form the lower group. Both the Thong and Chao are ascribed statuses i.e. a status that people are either born with or have no control over.

A Sherdukpen house in Thungri
A stone basement, a main wooden structure, a upper storey made of cane and a wooden roof

In the past—say one or two generations ago—the Chao were supposed to act as workers or servants for Thong people. The situation has certainly changed. We now find some rich Chao, and some elderly Thong gentlemen (not all of them) complain about the Chao's rude behaviour today. Yet, whatever the changes that have taken place and emerge from many legal decisions, the land still mostly lies in the hands of the Thong clans, together with some of the trade. Nevertheless, Indian government jobs are open to everybody and in some cases important positions are attributed to families that not long ago were servants.

While children of both sexes inherit from their father's clan, only men can pass this clan on to their descendants and inherit their ancestors' land and property. When married, women belong to their husband's clan. Neither men nor women can marry into their own clan (and sub-clans) or into their related clans.

Tukpen people are divided into a number of exogamous clans, rung, but a social barrier separates the Thong or Upper clans: Thongdok, Thongchi, Thongon, Musobi, Thongdok Chung, Khrime; and the Chao or Lower clans: Dingla, Megẽji, Mejiji, Monoji and Sinchaji.

As mentioned earlier, each Thong clan is associated with a Chao clan, which is expected to carry out menial work as well as ceremonial duties for the former. The Thongdok Akhao (or Eldest Thongdok) and the Thongdok Chung (Middle Thongdok) are thus related to the Megẽji, the Thongchi and Thongon to the Mijiji and Monoji, the Khrime to the Dingla and the few households belonging to the Musobi clan are related to the Sinchaji. As people point out, in the past when wars and razzias frequently occurred, the officers were Musobi and the soldiers were Sinchaji.

A Khiksaba singer at the gate of a Clan House

Today belonging to a clan still determines both social and ceremonial activities. It governs marriage, funerals and most religious rituals. Certain functions or roles are reserved exclusively for one group, or even for a specific clan. For example, Gaonburas or village chiefs are only chosen from Thong clans, while local priests, Khikzizi, have to belong to Dingla or Megẽji clans.

Women at a funeral anniversary in Jigaon

One challenge that still exists – when seen from a modern perspective – is the status of women. Women are excluded from nearly all social or religious activities, and all positions in the local administration. One of the authors of this report, who happens to be a woman, was the only person of her gender at all the official and/or religious events we attended. Though the Sherdukpens never drew attention to this fact, on the contrary welcoming her presence, she herself noticed it, and sometimes voiced remarks.

Another aspect that divides the Sherdukpens, but in a very different way, is the taxation groups or Chkok. These groups are different from clans, but they are not local: for instance, they are not distributed according to Rupa's quarters. The reason for this is that the Tukpen authorities, namely the Blu or Council, ensure that all Chkok have approximately the same number of members. So that when a chkok looses members because the latter have died, priority is given to appointing new members to this chkok. This is important for us, for instance because computing chkok members is one of the quickest ways of finding the number of Sherdukpen houses, and then of arriving at a closer approximation of the number of Sherdukpens.

Sherdukpens and their neighbours

The Sherdukpen language is not intelligible to their neighbours, although most languages in the surrounding area also belong to the Tibeto-Burman linguistic group. This is nothing unusual in the region: it is striking how different the languages of these small ethnic or cultural groups are in the great system of valleys that links Tibet to Assam. Even the very few Buguns, who number less than 2,000 individuals, have a language of their own, which is absolutely incomprehensible to any "tribal group" living nearby.

Yet in the case of the Sherdukpens, there is in fact one exception that leads us into their convoluted history. A group of villages to the north (the most prominent being Khoina and Rahung) also speaks a Sherdukpen dialect, follows many Sherdukpen customs, including a sort of Khiksaba festival, and in a not too distant past appeared in some Rupa ceremonies. It is said that in the olden days priests, Khikzizi, were from Rahung. Nowadays, these northern villages are considered to be 'Monpa', not Sherdukpen; but learned Sherdukpen people (that is, Sherdukpen people who love comparing and analysing their elders' souvenirs) know perfectly well that there was a link between the Rahung-Khoina valley and present-day Sherdukpen country. It is even said that the Sherdukpens came from these villages. In fact, it is somewhat of a surprise that these villages came to be considered as distinct from the Sherdukpen community.

A Sherdukpen elder in Thungri village

If we examine, not the names, but the political disparity, one particular thing stands out from the period ranging from the nineteenth century with its British political reports to Independence: the threatening presence of the Aka "tribe". The Akas lived in Jamiri and in the area north-east of this little town. They were terrifying warriors, expecting services to be rendered, and crops and cash to be handed over to them whenever they wanted. They raided villages or simply "promenaded" (as the British did later on) through them, and villagers had to give them what they wanted for fear of reprisals. The Akas came across as haughty warriors plundering the trading routes (Tawang to Bomdi-La to Rupa to Assam) and the relatively rich villages. Those that suffered the most were the Buguns, apparently because they were a very small group, or because they settled there in difficult times or (perhaps on the contrary) because they were the oldest inhabitants of the area. During the nineteenth century, all British administrators systematically took sides with the poor Buguns against the wicked Akas.




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