The Tribe near River Siang
The Siang River that reaches the town of Pasighat originates as the Tsangpo in China and is called the Siang once it enters India through the upper Siang district. Further downstream it joins the Lohit and Dibang to form the Brahmaputra. It is one of the fiercest rivers that I have seen. My first visit to this river was in 1973 when it took me an overnight halt to reach my campsite at a place called Penang, around 60 kms further upstream from Pasighat. It was proving extremely difficult to fish from the riverbank near the campsite as the approach downhill was very steep and treacherous. However, there were a number of small hamlets further along the bank and we could fish from these places. But the problem was the inquisitive locals who invariably came out in large numbers: around 30 or 40 people of assorted ages and all shouting and making a din. They wanted to see how we used our equipment and how we hoped to catch fish with small spoons and hooks. They used to fish by spearing and laying out traps in the shallow rapids which they traversed on their bamboo rafts using poles for navigation.
They were also very adept swimmers and could dive deep into the pools in search of some big fish that could be hiding there. These tribes were the Adis and they have a number of sub tribes under them.
I made it a point to try and come to this river at least once in the season as it was very far and difficult to come more often. After visiting this river for five years alone I decided to come with my entire family group and we made an elaborate plan similar to an expedition. My family and young kids were joined by my brothers and their kids as well as my elder sister and nephew. We had planned to make this trip in November after a late season Kali Puja night as the whole family was visiting our garden for this annual festival. We camped on the first day in a dark bungalow in a small town after crossing the Subansiri River. My nephew who had some good contacts at Pasighat had got us special permission to camp in two small towns having inspection bungalows.
The whole trip lasted for 4 days of fishing and we caught a number of small size mahseer and broker fish. As usual the local people watched us intently and we also shared some food that we had carried for lunch. They accepted the same gratefully and in return some of them offered us their local tit bits like black beetles, flies and larvae of honey bees. Naturally none of us could eat the same but they did not press us much. I remember one woman was impressed by the stout legs of one of my nephews and I learnt later that this was an attractive asset in a man to be able to walk long distances up and down mountains!
On our last day we had gone further upstream in search of a better place to fish. One small river had joined the Siang and such confluences are always good for fishing so we tried late at this spot. Luck favoured us and my brothers caught some real beauties: three golden mahseer all between 6 and 8 kgs. It got a bit late and we had to drive back to our camp site with the jeep lights on. Reaching the place our four camp boys and the cook who we had left behind were waiting for our return and agitatedly informed us that the local villagers had come and eaten up all our dinner and wanted more as the amount of food was less. They also took back with them a major portion of our dry rations. Hungry and tired, we were all disappointed at this turn of events. The camp boys revealed that they had come in good humour and one of the villagers told them that it was a custom that visitors who came in a large group like ours had to throw a meal for the local villagers. They would also invite us for a return feast. Anyway there was no option but to nibble on some biscuits and fruits.
We were due to return the next morning for Pasighat and we thought we may also get some food in a small town that we had crossed on our way up. After cleaning up we poured ourselves some drinks, thankfully as this was kept under lock and key, the visitors did not find them and we were preparing to sleep. It must have been around 9 pm when suddenly some people came again. They had seen our vehicle lights and knew that we had come back. So they came over to call us to their village for the return feast the next morning. We then had to convince them that it was all right they had come in our absence but we would not be able to enjoy their kind offer as we would be leaving the next morning. However they said that they would report to their headman, the Kebang who would be very sorry to hear that we would be leaving without meeting him. They must have found out from one of the camp boys that we had nothing left to eat.
Next morning when we were packing our vehicles there was a sudden commotion as some local villagers had come calling led by an impressively dressed man in a red coat above his tribal attire and they had brought a lot of food for us - fried pork, rice cooked in bamboo, a lot of Apong and some packets of leaves which contained crushed dry maize mixed with a little jiggery. He was the village Kebang and moreover the headman, for which the government paid him the princely sum of Rs 1000/- annually along with the red coat he was wearing. As we were famished we all sat down together and ate the food hungrily though a little worried about a possible tummy problem later; the best was the maize and a little Apong helped the digestion. We spent some time talking to the headman who told us that they had originally come from Tibet and had settled there in the hills. It was only the British who entered their area first and in a skirmish they had killed one of the first administrators they had set up near their village as they were afraid that their land would be taken over. The British retaliated by sending a troop of around 100 soldiers who plundered their hamlets and burnt them down. A lot of them were captured and made to work as slaves and over time they were subdued. Now, after Independence, they were being slowly inducted into the mainstream and though wary of outsiders in general and people with cloth wrapped around their heads (probably a Sirdarji operating heavy machinery) who were cutting roads and making bridges they were quite happy. After the meal we had to say good bye and left. The headman was an interesting personality and I was sure he would have had many more tales to tell.
About three years later I got the opportunity to meet the Kebang again. This time I made it a point to walk up to his village which was slightly below the IB and found him in the courtyard. He recognized me at once and promptly went inside to wear his red coat of authority and asked me to come inside his house by climbing up a small ladder. All their houses were built on stilts to avoid snakes and some deadly insects that scurry around. His wife, the third one I later found out, came out to offer the customary Apong and dried maize laced with jaggery which I quite relished. We talked for a long time and he was very happy at the genuine interest I showed in his life story. He told me of the long and arduous trek their ancestors made across the mountains from Tibet where they were persecuted by a rival chieftain and it took them a number of decades to move slowly over the treacherous hills and raging rivers mainly in the winter months guided by their medicine man and his occult wisdom. The Adis moved on to become semi-nomadic tribes and their chief i.e., the Kebang had to be an intelligent man to guide them and keep them safe. The current Kebang, whose name I learnt later was Kaaling Borang, was around 50 years old, born as he said about two mountain ranges behind the river. It was getting late and he blessed me in a ceremonious manner as I said good bye to him and the tribe members present. The next day I did some fishing in the Siang River and it must have been his blessings as I caught a beautiful 6 kg Chocolate Mahseer which is a rare species in the mahseer family.
It is now more than 30 years since I last met this venerable man and even though I am planning to visit that area again next winter I doubt whether I would meet him. But I am sure his spirit has kept his tribe safe and sound.