Brahmaputra   studies


Languages, Cultures and Territories in Northeast India

We propose to study a variety of human groups in a complex geographic, ethnological, and linguistic situation: how they form, how they are defined and identified by themselves and by others, how and why they merge and separate. We have chosen a region which has been remarkable for the mixture and the confrontation of different populations throughout its recorded history and which remains so today: North-East India or Greater Assam.

  1. Objectives and Context
  2. Three Disciplinary Approaches: Linguistics, Geography, Anthropology

Examples of case studies :

In the proposed project, field research in different disciplines will be focused on this region. It is well established that in a contact situation of this kind the borders - religious, linguistic, ethnic, economic - rarely coincide, so that it is impossible to define groups unambiguously (Boas, Sapir, Meillet, Leach). Recognition of the plasticity of group characteristics has been decisive in the critique of racist theory, according to which physical, moral, and cultural traits combine to define homogeneous and impermeable identities. Our objective is to investigate the extent to which the malleability and the possibilities of recombination of such traits are exploited and controlled by the groups in question, to what ends and with what results. North-East India is an ideal site for research into this question.

Our investigations will follow three major axes:

Each of these approaches will provide a picture of the group concerned, from its own perspective and from that of outsiders, whether neighbors or scholars, present and past, inasmuch as, in a very labile social situation, the "same" group can be said to have endured through time. The present project aims to confront the pictures that emerge from these various approaches.

In addition to being interdisciplinary, the project is resolutely international. Fieldwork in Northeast India will be conducted in close collaboration with local Indian scholars. Several of the French participants have previous experience in the area, and have established fruitful relations with colleagues in the various institutions which will participate in the project. Consolidating individual cooperations and friendly relations into a joint project will hopefully establish the basis for a durable relationship between French and Indian scholars and their institutions.

1) Objectives and Context

The project will consist in collecting and analysing the linguistic, anthropological, and geographical data essential for the understanding of societies and their interactions in a complex and little-known region, North-East India. It will be carried out by researchers of the CNRS laboratories “Oral Tradition: languages and civilisations (LACITO)”, “Environments, Cultures and Societies of the Himalaya”, of the CNRS-EHESS “Center for Indian and South Asian Studies (CEIAS)”, and of the interdisciplinary research programme “Anthropology and Linguistics” of EHESS. The participation of three students is planned on the French side, as well as that of three University researchers and some ten students on the Indian side.

North-East India has recently become accessible to foreign researchers. Its study is important for understanding the interaction between the Sino-Tibetan, Indian, and Southeast Asian regions. It is extraordinarily rich from the geographical, anthropological, and linguistic points of view, with roughly 100 languages belonging to four language families. These languages, and the broad range of social and economic systems of the people who speak them will be studied in the light of local conditions and of influences both internal and external to the region. It is a zone of high seismicity and monsoon rainfall, giving rise to periodic natural disasters, and of extreme gradients in population density, giving rise to migrations and to multiple conflicts which often take on an ethnic coloring. It is a key region for the geo-strategic future of Asia.


We will study the social dynamics of the region, made of settlement and movement, mergers and separations, and the remodeling of group identities. Such an entreprise can only be pluri-disciplinary. Cooperation will help each discipline refine and solidify its analyses by confronting them with observations in other domains, leading to a richer understanding of the emergence, spread, and contacts of linguistic, territorial, and social entities. A group may present its identity in terms of language, but when asked to explain the inclusion of subgroups speaking other languages will resort to historical arguments, implying, in fact, a variable group geometry. Real-world group identities are composed of sets of traits some of which may be put forward in a given situation, temporarily obscuring the others without obscuring them. This plasticity requires study from a variety of angles.

We propose a multidisciplinary study, but our objective is not a unitary “theory of everything”, but rather the recognition of the interplay of different factors. This perspective allows for an understanding of seemingly incomprehensible events where a society suddenly emerges into the light of history, seemingly fully formed and convinced of its perennity. The linguists, anthropologists and geographers of the project will take the historical dimension fully into account, using existing sources and data collections (Please refer to other web pages by following links).

Naturally, the project will not be able to cover the whole of this complex region; the compilation and use of secondary sources will serve to enrich and restrain generalizations based on a small number of field sites. It will also serve as an irreplaceable research experience for the student participants in the project, both French and Indian.

The international context

During the ten years since it has become accessible to foreign researchers, North-East India has become an outpost for research in human and environmental sciences as both Indian and Western researchers open up new fields of enquiry. A dozen European, Japanese, Australian and Thai students are currently engaged in doctoral research on related topics. An international conference on North-East Indian languages took place in Guwahati in February 2006, organized by young researchers. In fact, the region has long interested geographers, linguists, and anthropologists working in India, China, and South-East Asia. After an initial period of familiarization with the region, it is time to consolidate our position in this promising and rapidly expanding field.

The personal relations we have already formed with researchers in local universities are very promising: an agreement has been signed with the North Eastern Hills University in Shillong, and collaborations are under way with the University of Assam. French researchers contribute the experience acquired during many years of research in Nepal and the Western Himalaya to these collaborations, as well as a long practice of interdisciplinary research, which will be continued in the present project. We also expect the present project to contribute to the experience and motivation of a number of French students who already work in the region or who plan to do so. There exist in France at present a number of relevant graduate programs and a pool of interested students, some of them sufficiently advanced that we have planned to include them in the project.

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2) Three Disciplinary Approaches :Linguistics, Geography, Anthropology


The map below presents a schematic view of the linguistic situation.

1/ In the center, in red, “residual” Mon-Khmer (MK) languages.
2/ Around them, the various Tibeto-Burman (TB) languages.
3/ Everywhere in the lowlands, Indo-Aryan languages, Assamese and Bengali.
4/ Other existing groups are not marked on the map: Tai languages in spots, and Munda languages spoken by some tea-garden laborers.

B,K,T and Z are areas referred to in the following pages

A/ Language description

Only a dozen languages of the region have been described, including Deuri by one of us (Jacquesson, 2005). Our Indian colleagues and their students in the local universities are eager to participate in fieldwork. Together we can start to answer some of the intriguing questions which these languages present on all levels of description: (a) phonological: systems with from zero to five tones are attested in this area (Mazaudon 1977); word formation with iambic or trochaic syllabic structure; nature of agglutination; (b) morphological: degree of the noun/verb opposition, emergence of an adjective category, incorporation of a classificatory element in compound nouns (Jacquesson 2004). Agreement patterns should be compared e.g. Kiranti suffixal morphology (Michailovsky 1999, 2005) vs Kuki morphology. (c) syntactic: this is the domain where we know least, but it is of course essential to explore it for typological comparison, but also to understand older texts.

B/ Typology

In each category, the relevant features, of which we have just mentioned a few examples, need to be place on maps of the region (Michailovsky 1988, Jacquesson 2001). Cartography will help to study in detail the phenomena of contact, loans, and linguistic convergence which have been noted since British colonial times.

C/ Linguistic history

Linguistic history can be viewed from the angle of language classification or from that of diachronic typology. Classification seeks to reconstruct the history of shared or partly shared linguistic traits in terms of divergence or convergence between languages or speaker groups. Diachronic typology examines them as examples of types of changes (Jacquesson 2000, 2006): why do the Nagas have extreme language diversity in a small area while the Tani groups show local intercomprehension over a large area which is even more geographically fragmented? These are questions which require collaboration between linguists, geographers and anthropologists.


Geographical research is recent in the region. Indian researchers have produced panoramic views, and a few socio-economic or thematic case studies (Das 2001, Saikia 2002, Sundriyal et al., 2002, Taher & Ahmed, 2002). Foreign geographers seldom visit the region, in spite of its importance for the understanding of the Himalaya.

Among the specificities of the region, we may cite the extreme mobility of populations. This is inherent in shifting cultivation, but it is also often the result of violent upheavals, both political (partition in 1947, ethnic rebellions, the successive carving out of ethnically-based states from the earlier Assam, language agitations) and environmental (the great earthquake of 1950, frequent floods, the impermanence of riverine terrain). As a result, villages disappear or are relocated.

More regularly, the Brahmaputra and its tributaries shift in their beds, flooding old fields and uncovering new ones which are quickly occupied by needy populations until they are flooded again. Such land, called sapori, is the object of violent conflicts between cultivators, or with the administration of natural parks. Cultivable land is a key resource in the region: the gradient of population density, from 10/km² in Arunachal to nearly 500 in Assam and over 1000 in neighboring Bangladesh speaks for itself. Barriers are erected, but with limited success: dikes on the Brahmaputra; a wall, begun in 1985, running the length of the border with Bangladesh.

Mobility is inherent in the way of life in the hills, dominated by shifting cultivation (jhum). This is regulated by religious and social practices peculiar to the region. Governmental agencies are working toward its elimination in favor of fixed cultivation and irrigated terraces, a movement with deep environmental, economic, and social consequences.

Finally, communities are confronted with a wide variety of legal environments. Forest regulations differ from state to state and from place to place. Many communities have a special legal status: this is the case of the Rabha in the “forest villages”; of the “tea tribes” in the plantations, closed worlds with their own regulations; of the Mishing, who are rice-growers and fishermen on the banks of the river; of the Karbi, whose lands, exploited by shifting cultivation, are forbidden to members of other groups; and of the Adi, Nyishi, Aka, etc., of Arunachal. These different territorial arrangements and their evolution will be studied in the context of India and the Himalaya generally.

We will study the extent to which ethnic revivalism, and particularist demands appear in reaction to the modern conditions of pressure on land, folklorisation, the beginning of tourism, and mass Christianisation.

We will give particular attention to the vocabulary of economic organization, of techniques, and of the environment. What is shared across groups? What is communicated from group to group, and in what language?


The closure of North-East India was long a source of frustration for foreign researchers. South Asia specialists were unable to confirm their theories on the continuity between caste and tribe; South-East Asia specialists were blocked in their investigations into exchanges between India, China, and the hinduized states of Indochina. Indian research progressed during this time, but there was much to be done, and the political context was not favorable to anthropology.

Today, the region can be restudied in the light of documents of the colonial era. The region has undergone change, territories and identities have been and continue to be redefined, but the overall richness is not diminished. A vast palette of kinship patterns, political systems and economic organizations can be studied in an area of a few thousand square kilometers. In India, where positive discrimination and affirmative action are the rule, the seven states of the North-East have seen more than their share of ethnically motivated explosions.

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