Northeastern India is the passageway between the ‘Indian world’ and the ‘Chinese world’ but the border zone changed with the centuries, as changed the notion of border itself.
Barbarians ► Both civilizations – the Indian one and the Chinese one – have considered for a long time (and still now…) the passage as a rather perilous buffer zone, ► peopled by backwards mountainers.
This traditional concept is sometimes ridiculed, sometimes relished by local peoples themselves. Photo from A. Stirn & P. van Ham’s The Hidden World of the Naga, 2003
Munda and Mon-Khmer often grouped as : Austro-asiatic The Munda group is typical of Eastern India while most Mon-Khmer languages are spoken in South-east Asia
Munda and Mon-Khmer languages in our area Munda Mon-Khmer
The Austro-asiatic bridge If Munda and Mon-Khmer are really to be grouped into an Austro-asiatic concept, we cannot but remark the bridge-like shape that unites Southern and South-eastern Asia. The scattered pieces of it now suggest that this bridge is an old feature and was later split by new languages.
The later languages that split the Austroasiatic bridge : 1. Tai In two distinct cases, we know what happened. The Tai languages were spoken in Southern China and spread in the south, shaping for instance the modern Thailand and Laos (1 - 2), but also forming the Shan confederation (3) in Northern Burma and the Ahom group in Assam (4) – about which more later. 1 2 3 4
The later languages that split the Austroasiatic bridge : 2. Tibeto-Burmese Tibeto-Burmese languages (TB) have ancient and strong links with Chinese languages (CH). Even if we focus on TB only, it covers a huge area, often sharing the land with other groups like Tai or Mon-Khmer. Within Tibeto-Burmese, subgroups can be recognized. Many of them appear in our area. TBCH
Sinitic and Tibeto-Burmese, southwards Chinese languages (Sinitic) certainly developped in the north of present day China, and later expanded to the south. If Sinitic has ancient links with Tibeto-Burmese, it is likely they date back to that Northern Period. But we do not know what kind of relationship existed, nor how it developped. Since Chinese people are famous for wet-rice agriculture and live in the plains, while many Tibeto-Burmese populations are herders (for instance Tibetans) or slash-and-burn agriculturalists – both ways of life often implying mobility -, it is not easy to be sure how the language relation and the social relations superimposed.
Tibeto-Burmese in our area is represented by a collection of at least 10 sub-groups. Most are consistent enough, some are hardly more than provisional labels. This diversity is also significant for the history of the populations. But how ?
Indo-aryan languages. ► ‘Indo-aryan’ is the name given to those Indo-european languages that eventually spread through most of northern India. ► The first appearance of these languages (which were in the beginning sounding very much like ancient Iranian languages) in India is still hotly debated. ► The first written evidence is late : the emperor Açoka’s inscriptions, 3rd c. BCE. ► But it is clear they had been spoken in different places of northern India for several centuries before.
Indo-Aryan Assamese Bengali The spreading of Indo-Aryan languages
Indo-Aryan dialects such as Assamese or Bengali were latecomers in northeastern India. Archaeology seems to show that there is no evidence of Indo-aryan culture east of the river Karatoya border before CE. Brahmaputra valley : Assam
Relative weight of the language groups n the past ? ► It is certain that before the Indo-Aryan languages crossed the Karatoya border, that is before CE, ► the languages spoken in the Brahmaputra valley were Tibeto-Burmese. ► We can be more precise: they belonged to this specific sub-group which is still present in the valley : the Boro- garo subgroup. ► How do we know? On the Brahmaputra river
Importance of toponyms ► We know because the majority of river names in Upper Assam still begins with di- : the noun for ‘water, river’ in Boro-garo languages. The main valley is the Brahmaputra valley All rivers with thick lines have names beginning with di- These names survived the Indo-aryan influence, and the expansion of Assamese, even in places where no Boro-garo language is spoken to-day. Assamese
Chronology of arrivals in the Brahmaputra valley ? The Austroasiatic « bridge » dates unknown Tibeto-Burmese before CE Indo-aryan languages Christian era Some older layers were not erased; this is why we know of their earlier importance. The Tai-Ahom episode
The Tai-Ahom episode ► Ahom – a Tai dialect - is now dead. We know of its past existence because people tell about it, and because we have manuscripts in this language. ► Some important manuscripts are preserved in the Department of Historical and Antiquarian Studies in Gauhati (Assam). Many other ones are still in the old Ahom families.
One famous Ahom manuscript : an extract about king Suhummung, in the 16th c.
Ahom kings ► From the Tai-Ahom chronicles, named buranji, we learn that a Tai group passed from Upper Burma into Upper Assam, probably in the 13th century. ► In the 16th century this Tai group, then locally named Asam (Ahom is the modern pronunciation), was reinforced and conquered most of Upper Assam, ► over two local powers, named in Ahom tiora and timisa – two names that were translated as Chutiya and Kachari in the Indo-Aryan Assamese language. ► It is possible to show that these 16th century local powers were speaking Boro-garo languages, and probably an earlier form of the present Dimasa language.
Ahom language ► The Ahom kings reigned for 6 centuries over parts of Assam, and eventually on the whole of it, fighting back the Great Mogols from central India. ► Yet, the grasp of the Ahom language does not seem to have reached the local populations. ► Ahom was the court language only, and the medium of a specific kind of literacy. ► The Ahom language slowly ran out of use during the 17th century, ► and was more or less preserved in priestly formulas. ► Some priests could still read the language well enough about 1900, and could help Edward Gait writing his History of Assam.
One general lesson of the Ahom episode ► Were it not for the manuscripts, we could easily doubt, now, of the reality of the Ahom language – which completely passed away. ► More recently some small groups of Tai-speaking people reached Assam from Upper Burma, for instance the Khamti. ► Because Assam is the passageway we described, many populations came, and went, or were absorbed in some shifting game of power or influence. ► For recent periods, we may know what happened; for older periods, we may prudently refrain from believing that only what we see now did exist.
Ahom heritage One Ahom tomb, in the kings’ necropolis at Charaideo – Upper Assam.
Before the Ahom conquest ► Tiora and Timisa were in power in Upper Assam, according to the Ahom buranji. ► Timisa is the Tai rendering of the name of an important Boro-garo population, the Dimasa. ► The Ahom chronicles tell us how the Dimasas fled to a refuge province they had in the south, on the river Dima. ► But their new capital city there was conquered by the Ahoms in the 1530s, and to-day the happy few who visit Dimapur can wonder about the ‘stone mushrooms’.
A general view of the ruined Dimasa ‘palace’, in Dimapur.
Gurdon’s paper about the Morans How do we know the 13th century situation ? ► From the detailed analysis of the Ahom chronicles, ► And thanks to a unique study of the Moran dialect, published in 1909 by P. R. T. Gurdon. In Upper Assam, not far from Sibsagar, live people who call themselves Morans. Since the name Moran appears in the old chronicles, Gurdon visited them and discovered that a handful of Morans still spoke a specific dialect. He published the result of his study in his 1909 paper. And to-day we can compare Moran with the living languages.
Moran and Boro-garo languages ïi / i ai / i au / o ïu /o « to die » « tongue » « oil » « snake » Garosi-sre to, to-či či-pu Rabhasi-khu²-tlai tu-či tu-pu²/-puk Tiwathi-silithawču-bu Boro tïi- salai²tau ži-bïu Dimasati- sïlai taožu-bu Moranthi-selaithautu-bu Kokborok tïi- bï-slai tokči-buk Deuriči- [žiba < Ass.] tudu-bu We compare Moran and other languages with 4 criteria, by using diagnostic words : Result : Moran is closer to Dimasa, and can be considered as a Dimasa dialect.
Tai-Ahoms TIMISAS = Dimasas Before 13th c., the older Dimasa language is spoken in Upper Assam. Then the Ahoms, who arrived in the 13th c., begin expanding. The conflicts worsen, until the Ahoms are able to push the Dimasas westwards Dimapur C. 1900, the Moran « relict group » keeps on speaking the language in Upper Assam. C. 1530, the Ahoms sacked Dimapur, The capital of the Dimasas, Who had to flee farther west.
In the Hills ? Thanks to archaeologists who discovered the monuments, and to the philologists who read the Ahom historical texts, and to the linguists who study the Boro-garo languages, we know something of the history of populations down in the Brahmaputra valley and around it. But It is far more difficult to understand what happened with the numerous other Tibeto-Burmese speaking groups in the Hills.
Upper Brahmaputra, from a NASA shuttle, 200 km from the earth. The Hills The disputed China – India border.
► We noted earlier that many distinct subgroups of Tibeto- Burmese languages can be found in N.E. India. ► The Boro-garo subgroup is dominant in the valleys, ► except for the Dimasas who now live in the North Cachar Hills, but we know why, and we know that they were living in the plains also, before the 16th century. ► Most of the surrounding language subgroups are spoken by people who live in the mountains.
Languages in the hills around TANI MISHMI Northern NAGA KUKI-CHIN
The Naga / Tani contrast ► Since we cannot describe all these groups, we will choose two of tem, ► which form an interesting contrast: ► The Naga and the Tani people. N N T T
Parameters of contrast NagaTani Territory (km²) 27 000 40 000 Population density (p. / km²) 254 Person / village 20040 Number of languages 251 Territory : a nowadays estimation. Population density and person/village rate are based on the 1931 census. NB : the data below concern only the Indian side, and exclude the Burmese side.
The context for the contrast : Tani ► Tani people are a very sparse population. ► They live in tiny villages and have to walk long distances to meet other people. ► They tend to be conservative, because they have to maintain the communication medium over time and space. ► Innovations of course do occur but they are kept to a lower level of realization. ► They speak close dialects, which form a dialect chain : over a huge and difficult terrain, relative neighbours can communicate, but the farther you go, the stranger the dialect sounds, and if you go further still the dialect slowly becomes another language.
The context for the contrast: Naga ► Nagas live in densely populated villages, on top of hills. ► Traditionally, the villages were like strongholds, surrounded by fences, and defended by stone gates; ► Murderous snares were disposed in the surrounding area. ► Groups of villages, within reach of one day’s walk, formed labile federations, against other groups, and ► Head hunting was rampant. ► Certainly risky to lag behing on the path… ► Naga languages, as other Naga customs, split off in sensitive systems of self-identifications. ► Every possible innovation was welcome, and most of them were immediately circulated within the group to underline its cultural integrity.
The speed of language change ► For language, as for other means of keeping distinct or – on the contrary – of maintaining a wider communication, ► Tani and Naga people offer a striking contrast. ► Clearly, the sparse Tani people try to slow down the speed of change, ► While the dense Naga populations stress all opportunities for distinction. ► Although Tanis speak a homogeneous dialect chain, and Nagas about 25 sharply distinct languages, it is not certain that the historical development of the Naga complex is older than the equilibrating process of the Tanis.
Acknowledgements ► All photos, except the first 3 ones about the Nagas and the NASA shuttle photo, are by the author. ► All mobile maps have been devised for this presentation. ► The audience is kindly reminded that such presentations do not always do justice to the details of ethnic sensitiveness, and may appear rough to some local people, or some Indian citizens. ► On the other hand, we tried to remember the very numerous historians, philologists, museum people, linguists and artists philologists, museum people, linguists and artists who contributed in storing and organizing the knowledge for this part of the world. The author thanks, once again and with an ever growing pleasure, the very numerous « tribal » people, young and old, who gave him their time. numerous « tribal » people, young and old, who gave him their time.
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