Away From The Winds Of Change

In Yangkholen village, Manipur, the Zeme tribe has seen its traditional culture exceptionally preserved.

India is home to a countless tribes, each with distinctive cultures and dialects. This constitutes an outstanding cultural richness that is today increasingly under threat. Indeed, in a context of rapid modernization and globalization, many of its unique cultures are slowly fading away, with their dialects, beliefs and folklore being gradually lost and forgotten. The Indian government and civil society seem largely unaware of how rich this cultural heritage is, as very few actions are undertaken to preserve unique cultural heritage.

Yet, some tribes still live in relative isolation, and so their traditions may survive future decades. Learning about them gives a beautiful glimpse into alternative ways of living, believing, conceiving life and the self. The Zeme tribe of Yangkholen, in the hilly state of Manipur, offers its visitors such a precious experience.

The Zeme Tribe is a sub-group of the Zeliangrong community – also comprising the Liangmei, the Pongmei and the Mpuimei tribes – who span the states of Nagaland, Manipur, and Assam. Each of these tribes maintains a distinctive dialect, but are also able to communicate between tribes. Most have been exposed to modernity in all its forms, and watch as their culture evolves and transforms. But in Yangkholen, the traditional Zeme lifestyle has been largely kept intact, due in large part to the geographic isolation. Thus, more than 3000 villagers in Zeliangrong have been perpetuating pre-colonial forms of folklore. Whereas many tribal people have converted to Christianity in the North Eastern state, the Zeme have retained their indigenous, animist forms of worship and belief. Their modes of dressing, their knowledge of herbal medicines and even agricultural methods remain unchanged. Also, the stone structure of the city, inherited from a time when wars and conflicts with neighboring tribes were frequent, remains intact.

On a less positive note, patriarchal power relations have also perpetuated within the tribes, with women being banned from certain spaces, and barred from any voice in the village decision-making process. Similarly, the power structure remains largely undemocratic, with the village chief position being held by inheritance.

Beyond these limitations, what is particularly striking among the Zeme tribe in Yangkholen is that what could be seen as backwardness, actually results from a voluntary intent. For example, if youngsters travel outside the state to study, they are forbidden from bringing back any signs of modernity into the village, such as mobile phones. It is difficult to trace the origins of such wariness about the outside world. Perhaps it is because the Zeme tribes are subconsciously aware of the threat that bears on their culture, and the risks of watching it vanish.

But how long can a culture remain isolated from the rest of the world? Every culture grows and enriches itself from mutual encounter, be it conflict or alliance. Isn’t a culture that isolates itself from the rest of the world already perishing?

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