Tuesday, August 19, 2008

Tanii beads-Introduction

Jewelry in the form of necklaces and beads has always been of great importance among the Himalayan people, and the Taniis are no exception. They cherish beads as family heirlooms, especially those they assume to be of Tibetan origin, some of them being enormously valued. Necklaces made with those beads are not only objects of pride for their owners, but also objects of public display : on festive days Tanii women wear up to 7 heavy necklaces of different compositions and sizes. Although originally acquired through barter or trade, necklaces were (and still are) normally passed down from mother to daughters, therefore some of the beads may be quite old. Necklaces are occasionally made for family and friends but generally not for business, although beads coming from Assam, Nagaland or Delhi can be bought from a few commercial stands at Hapoli market.

Most valued beads are thought to have originally come from Tibet. But the Tibetans were involved in the trade, not the manufacture of beads, and in most cases the ultimate origin of those little glass, stone, porcelain or even metal products is quite remote from the Himalayan region. The production centre for carnelian beads has been Gujarat since Harappan times (Kanungo, 2006). Glass beads originated from China (especially the so-called "padre", "Peking" or "melon" beads), or Europe (esp. Venetia). Conch and cawrie shells came from the Indian Ocean, either the Gujarat coast or the Bay of Bengal... Indian and European beads usually crossed first the Himalayas northwards from Western India, Nepal or Bhutan, where they entered Tibet. After that they could be traded or bartered back to the Himalayan southern slopes through transactions with the Tibetans, as were also Chinese beads.

One of the trading points for West Arunachal, through which undirectly a great quantity of Tanii beads and other precious items must have been acquired prior to 1959, was Taksing in Upper Subansiri District. For once every 12 years, the Tibetans and the Monpas of this area used to undertake a great pilgrimage around the Takpa Siri mountain, a near to 6,000 meter sacred peak in the Tsari district of Southeastern Tibet. The pilgrim route known as the 'great ravine circuit' (Rongkor Chenmo) started from Chosam in Tibet, entered the Indian territory at Maja, followed the Tsari Chu valley (an tributary of the Subansiri) then the Subansiri river valley upto Taksing. The whole pilgrimage lasted 3 months, during which around 20,000 Tibetan pilgrims circled the mountain. For 10 to 15 days, in the southern tip of their circuit, they had to cross the territory inhabited by the Tagins. A safe passage and some assistance had to be negotiated from them by agents of the Tibetan central Government which was directly supporting the pilgrimage (Huber, 1999). The agreement to proceeed was obtained through a formal peace treaty and the Tagins were paid yearly tributes of food and various semi-precious goods. In addition, swords, tibetan bells and beads could be acquired through barter from Tibetan pilgrims along the way. From the Tagins the beads passed to the Nyishis, who in turn bartered them to the Taniis.

Today the Taniis possess a wide array of beads, each of which is described by a separate term and often has a story or belief attached to it. In coming posts I will try my best to describe them one by one in a very succinct way, according to the information collected during my recent visit to Ziro. Keep visiting.

References :
- Huber, T., The Cult of Pure Crystal Mountain. Popular Pilgrimage & Visionary Landscape in South East Tibet, New York, Oxford university press, 1999.
- Kanungo, A.K., 2006, "Indian Ocean and the Naga Ornaments", Bulletin of Indo-Pacific Prehistory Association 26 (2006), pp. 154-162. (text in Pdf)



Rome Mele said...

Nice pictures. I simply wonder sometimes, how our elders have been able to keep these things in such a good condition for all this long. We certainly didn't require any musuem for that.
Good work, like as usual.

PB said...

Thanks Rome. Those beads and necklaces are not necessary as old as they seem to be, maybe for some of them a few decades only, and you can see also from the pictures that some beads are not in very good condition. What affect them more is to wear them permanently as daily ornament, because of the abrasion process, and because sunlight may also modify their colours over time. But this is not the case for Tanii necklaces as they are mostly worn only on festive occasions. And don't forget that broken or decayed beads were probably replaced regularly, if possible. Anyway, just storing stones and glass beads in baskets at home quite enough. No museum required !