Tuesday, June 24, 2008

Apatani weapons of olden days - 1 : daos and swords

Wars and feuds among Taniis, or between Taniis and their neighbours, seem to be a thing of the past. However, old weapons and war dresses are still found in many homes, not only as relics of the past but also as items used during certain rituals and collective ceremonies. Among those are cutting blade weapons, i.e. daos and swords.

Common dao : The Tanii ordinary machete (ilyo) is not a weapon proper, although it could be carried to war or serve as a defensive weapon. This multi-purpose dao is mostly used in daily life. The blade is straight, widens from the hilt to the tip, has a square end, and a single sharpened edge. The blade is fitted into a simple wooden handle (lyoli, kortu) which is tightly bound with cane (today more often white plastic threads). This handle is without a hand guard. Scabbards (hubyu) can be :
  1. - closed scabbards, made from two wooden strips that are bound together with cane. The most usual binding is thin plaited cane strips (tarin) at intervals along the sheath.
  2. - open-faced scabbards, locally called takhe hubyu. They are made of a long, flat piece of carved wood which is hollowed out on one face for the blade. Here, the blade is held in place only by the cane bands.
A strap (aha) made of plaited cane is attached to the scabbard.

An ordinary ilyo and its closed scabbard. On this picture, the single edged blade
is illustrated edge up. A knife and sheath of similar workmanship are also visible

Ilyo is used for every kind of work : cutting and slicing bamboos, cutting up meat, chopping firewood, building houses, reconstructing lapang, ... Iron used to be imported from Assam, and forged by local blacksmiths. In olden days, according to Fürer-Haimendorf locally produced daos and knives "were also articles of trade, and on their trading visits to villages of Nyishis and Miris Apa Tanis usually carried with them dao and knives to be used as exchange goods" (1980 : 62). Ilyo were mostly bartered for agricultural products, cane, or domestic animals. Pura Tado* mentions a better quality type of ilyo known as pare sala, which is said to be much costlier and is rarely seen nowadays.
Using ilyo for making altar ornaments (some, or jompu)

Ceremonial sword : A longer, slimmer sword version known as chiri seems to have been used in olden days for combat. It was originally imported from Tibet, not directly but through barter with neighbouring Nyishis, some of whom were in direct contact with Tibetans. Those located in the Sarli and Damin area of the upper belt of Kurung Kumey District know several passes to cross the Himalayan barrier and were in the habit of trading regularly with the Tibetans. Among the most sought for artifacts of such barter deals were Tibetan swords, whom the Nyishi of this area call sala.

Size and shape differences between ilyo (left) and chiri (right)

Apart from being more elongated and usually lighter, the blade also bears distinctive stripes lengthwise. These are quite similar to stripes found on Tibetan swords. Scabbards can be of both types, open and closed Nyishi scabbards which are commonly covered with monkey furs (the skin of the caped langur is said to be prized for that), scabbards of Tanii chiri are usually plain. Unlike Tibetan, Nyishi and Adi swords also, Tanii swords don't have any hand guard.

The end of a
chiri handle is ordinarily capped with a square-shaped piece of metal
Handle differences between ilyo (left) and chiri (right)

Cane straps of the most expensive chiri are covered with cowries (tahin). Interestingly, this highly valued shell, so commonly found on traditional cloths and ornaments in the highlands of North East India, is used among Taniis for this unique purpose of decorating chiri belts

Source : Ahin Sajain

A feline lower jawbone (ahi hipin) is often attached to the straps of ceremonial swords. This is a feature not only shared by various cultures of Arunachal Pradesh, but also those of Nagaland and northern Burma (2 examples are visible from this link)

Apparently this sword was carried to war, but it has always been a ceremonial as well as a practical weapon. Nyibus are invariably seen carrying a chiri during important rituals. Veteran warriors used to jump brandishing their chiri around the clan altar (nago) into which the monkey skull was kept during Myoko, and today's perfomers continue to do so. Participants to ropi ritual performed after the hunting of some big cat (formerly also after the killing of enemies and culprits) also carry their chiri. Most importantly, chiri were, and are still considered today as precious items. As such, they play a key role in the customary settlement of disputes where they, along with mithuns, serve as compensations for offenses and prejudices. Chiri is also among those valuables destroyed in front of the opponent's house during that form of contest known as yalu, or yalu lisunii, by which individuals may seek to resolve unsettled disputes. Pura Tado* reports 3 types of chiri, viz. hulu, sha and pinji, the two latter being more costly than the first type.

*Pura Tado, "War Dresses and Weapons of the Apa Taniis", in S. Dutta and B. Tripathy, Martial Traditions of North East India, New Delhi : Concept Pub., 2006, pp.220-227.



Rome Mele said...

Another Great work from you guys...

Cool...!! :)

I hope your blog would become the dictionary of apatanis someday.
Keep up the great work... pascal and NP.

PB said...

Thanks Rome. Next posts of this series should come out soon. Keep visiting.

Buru said...

1.Dao: This is an international word-- used not just in NE India but also Chinese, Burmese and Thais!

2.Chiri and sala:
while Chi-ri is 100% Tibetan, I am not sure about sala as it looks totally different in design and aerodynamics. Its interesting to know that Galos have a small version of sword , called Chi-ssa!
Now Nyishis use Sa-la, connect the three!

3.feline lower jawbone (ahi hipin):
It has got both ceremonial and practical uses. In war or in ambush, when the wearer is wrestled down, the enemy is prevented from bearing down by the poking fangs. Also the great magic assoc with feline fangs dissuaded such attempts in the first place. It also deflected sword blows.
One such Bokar Chinese sword with Tiger jaw is exhibited in Shanghai Museum!

4."Chiri is also among those valuables destroyed in front of the opponent's house during that form of contest known as yalu, or yalu lisunii, by which individuals may seek to resolve unsettled disputes"
British officers noted a similar act by Padam headmen from Damroh who came to negotiate a truce with them before the last Anglo-Abor war in 1912-13.They have recorded that one of the Padam warriors was over 6 feet tall!

PB said...

First, thanks a lot indeed for taking time and effort to add all those insighful comments, and at the same time for enlarging the scope of our information on Tani people in general. I cannot reply to each of them, so for today I will select only one :
“Its interesting to know that Galos have a small version of sword , called Chi-ssa!”
Certainly the diversity of Tibetan swords and their names in various Tani languages need further research, as they seem to have been considered everywhere both as prestige items an a kind of currency, i.e. with a specific system of value attached to them. In Tibetan ‘ri’ (transcripted as gri) is the word for knife, blade, sword and functions as root-word in various blade weapon names, ‘gri-ring’ being (as it seems from dictionaries) the more specific word for ‘sword’. So clearly the root-word ‘ri’ in Tanii ‘chiri’ is directly borrowed from Tibetan. But what about ‘chi’ (common to Tanii & Galo) and ‘sa’ (common to Galo, Nyishi & Tanii) ? Since you seem to be at ease with Galo language, maybe could you tell us what are the meaning of ‘chi’ and ‘sa’ in this language ?

Buru said...


ilyo of Tanii is called orok or eyok/oyok in Galo (basically same word, diff pronounciation). Eyok/oyok is also used in Eastern Tani lingo.
Now Chiri is called Rokshe/ Roksa, Yokse/yoksa/yokso. i.e. eyok+sa , oyok+so
Here sa/so/se all are used used to denote a long object or a longer version, and goes waay beyond describing swords in usage.Remember Tanii idiin-dinSA?
So the Nyishi sa-la is obviously a derivative of yoksa/roksa, though I'm not sure of the import of -la;
Now Chissa of Galos is what puzzled me for ages till I saw this post:))
Chi is obviously a corruption of Tibetan ' ke tri' like in Chiri, and put -sa ; It makes no sense otherwise as I cant think of any association between weapons/metals and word ' Chi' in Galo or any Tani languages I'm familiar with!

PB said...

Yes, that could be...Another possibility is that all the various names used by Tanis are more or less corrupted loanwords from Tibetan, acquired by bartering with Tibetans traders or pilgrims from Tsari or Pemakö areas. See for eg. this comment from the Metropolitan Museum of Art : "The different styles of swords found in Tibet can be distinguished by several basic features, which include the type of blade, the form of hilt, the type of scabbard, and how the sword was designed to be worn. Traditional Tibetan texts divide swords into five principal types, each of which has a main subtype, for a total of ten basic types. These are in turn subdivided into dozens of further subtypes, many of which may, however, reflect legends and literary conventions rather than actual sword forms."
Unfortunately I couldn't find those names yet. But comparing various Tani languages is surely a good way to sort this out.

Buru said...


You got a good point: The above is a good candidate for origin of Chissa, where the 'sa' may have both Tibetan and Tani connotations!

PB said...

Hi Buru,
Here is some information I could gather regarding Nyishi sword types, though it has yet to be verified
- Oyo (equivalent to Tanii ilyo and Adi/Galo eyok/oyok)
- Rior oyo (seems to be equivalent to Tanii ‘chiri’, using the same root-word ‘ri’) : the longest, most solid, also most expensive, used in war and as a precious item. It seems to have been bought from Tibet, not made by Nyishis, and bears typical lines (takee) found on Tibetan blades, which greatly condition its value.
- Pop sala : Basically the same as the previous type and of similar value, although of somewhat lesser quality. Possibly a locally produced duplicate of the Rior oyo.
- Sheepay oyo : much cheaper, includes 2 subtypes : Taykay oyo and Paagi oyo (the cheapest). Both are locally made.

Regarding the Tanii word 'chiri', it may be interesting to note that in Bhutan the various names for swords are often formed by using the suffix -dri (which seems to be cognate of the Tibetan 'ri'), for eg. Boe-dri = Tibetan sword, and Ja-dri = Indian sword...
See the link :
Therefore 'chi-ri' may have some specific meaning... Btw, what is the word for Tibet in Tanii, Tagin or Bokar ? ;)

Buru said...

"Btw, what is the word for Tibet in Tanii, Tagin or Bokar ? "

Various dialects even within same group call it Nyim, Nyime, Nyimek .
The word seems to be more or less consistent among all Western Taniis. I am not sure about Eastern Tani lingo.
I suspect It has something to do with the Nying-ma sect which gained supremacy in Tibet?