A living tradition- A peek at the customary ornaments that Karbis wear
If you travel by road from Assam’s first city Guwahati towards the rest of the North East on the National Highways 37 and 39, a picturesque district of the State presents itself in the form of verdant valleys bordering on a line of blue hills.
The district of Karbi Anglong is close to one of the most globally well-known addresses of Assam – the Kaziranga National Park, the prime habitat of India’s one-horned rhinos. Needless to say then how well ensconced Karbi Anglong is in nature.
The Karbis, largely populating the district, is an important tribe of Assam. The Karbi people have a distinct visual identity that comes through not just the colourful dresses they weave and wear but also an array of ornaments made to complete the quintessential Karbi look.
To throw the spotlight particularly on the ornaments that Karbis wear, one will have to keep in mind certain basic rules that the tribe follows. For instance, Karbi women are usually not allowed to wear gold ornaments, only their men are. Since women wear more ornaments than men, silver is abundantly used, unlike the use of gold in jewellery by many other Indian communities.
A distinct piece of ornament that Karbi women wear around their necks in silver is Lek. Leks are made of coins and colourful beads too and are locally known by the name of Ser Alek Pongting, Lek Pengkhara, Lek Bonghom, Lek Waikom, Lek Jingjiri, etc.
Men too wear Leks – in gold. The traditional names of lek sthat men wear are called Lek Ruve, Lek Sobai and Lek Manduli. Many of these ornaments are unfortunately no longer commonly found.
Like women in any other community, Karbi women too wear bracelets, called Roi. A variety of Rois are in use such as Roi Pengkhara, RoiKe-er, Roi Kelok, etc.
The ornaments that women wear to adorn their ears are called No Thengpi. Again, there are different types of No Thenpis, such as Thengpi Angrongkatengbai, Angrong Kangchim, etc. Men of the tribe too wear ear ornaments. They are called Norik, made in gold or silver.
The rings that Karbis wear are called Arnan. ArnanKe-et, Arnan Kelop, Rup Bonda, Ser Bonda and Vokapardon Arnan are some of the rings that Karbis commonly flaunt on their fingers. Interestingly, Karbi priests wear arnans only made of copper.
Both Karbi men and women traditionally carry a small knife. The one that women carry are called Nokek or Tari. These weapons usually have handles made of ivory or buffalo horn and are decorated with coins. The knives that men carry are larger in size than those used by women. Called Nokanti, they also have ivory handles and are also decorated with silver coins, etc.
Like all other tribes of Assam, Karbis too are betel nut eaters. The older women use a small mortar to grind the nuts to suit their weak teeth. Since most old women carry such a mortar called Kove Longtok, the usual definition of ornaments can be widened to include this ubiquitous accessory. Some old women use silver Kove Longtok for the purpose too.
Silver also is used to store limes. Karbi women carry a small silver box called Saini Hem to store lime. A small spatula is attached to it with a chain for the ease of taking out lime when taken with betel nut.
Going back to talking about Karbi ornaments, it should be mentioned here that the topic is incomplete if the ancient tradition of Duk Keduk is not included in it.
Duk Keduk is a tattooed line on the face of women from the forehead down to the chin. There are various theories explaining the origin of the tattoo, one being a deterrent for other invading tribes to take away the beautiful womenfolk. However, it slowly became a mark of fashion though the practice has more or less vanished from the Karbi society now.
Yet another fashion that Karbi women practiced in the olden times was that of blackening their teeth. The practice was called So-ik. The wood of a tree called phar-ik was burnt to extract a sticky juice which was used for blackening the teeth. It was commonly believed to prevent tooth decay too.
With modern methods of preventing tooth decay now commonly available, this ancient practice has disappeared from the Karbi society, like so many other things used by them then. Those customary things that continue to be used in a Karbi household have also undergone changes over the years as per their use and need. Their slight variations can be seen in different parts of the State for such reasons. The variations can be seenin attires and ornaments too.
Since, all of these elements come together to represent the Karbi identity, there is now an increased sense of awareness among Karbis that effort must be on to maintain their continuity and usage. This sense of preservation rests on the important understanding that if they are lost, the identity of the community can get lost too.
( Kache Teranpi teaches English at Rangsina Junior College, Donkamokam. She co-edited Karbi Studies Vol. 4 with Dharamsing Teron)