History Of the District (Source: Tirap District Gazetteer)

The area occupied by the present Tirap District is a part of the north-eastern extremity of India bordering Burma. It is the only District of Arunachal Pradesh on the southern bank of Brahmaputra, and in early times it was the gateway to India in the east. Placed between the plains of the Brahmaputra on the west and the valley of the Irrawaddy on the east, this area witnessed movement of the peoples from the Patkai ranges from time immemorial. Hordes of migratory tribes of Mongoloids called kirata in the ancient Indian scriptures drifted to Assam through this district. It was in Assam and its neighboring regions that these tribes were absorbed.

Literary and ethnological sources indicate that the early waves of the Mongoloid migration entered India in the East before 1000 B.C. at about the same prehistoric time as the arrival of the Aryans in the West. As no material proves these movements and no ancient settlements of the people have been discovered, we can’t, at the best of our present knowledge, do little more than faintly trace the course of tribal migrations that took place in comparatively later times.

Advent of the Ahoms:

The history of the District emerged from obscurity and dubious traditions in the early part of the 13th century A.D. when the Ahoms came from North Burma through Pangsau Pass over the Patkai, and made steady advance along the course of the Noa-Dihing in Tirap. The Ahoms, who ruled in Assam and its eastern regions for six centuries from A.D.1228 to 1826, left a series of invaluable historical chronicles known as Buranjis, which throw a flood of light on the late medieval history of Tirap. A good deal of authentic knowledge of the people living in this country and their relations with the Ahoms can be gleaned from the Buranjis. Although these sources are scrappy as historical documents, the recorded history, as distinct from archeology, of the District may be taken as beginning from the days of the arrival of the Ahoms.

At the outset of their victorious campaigns, the Ahoms came into contact with the tribal people of the Tirap called Eastern Nagas comprising the Noctes and the Wanchos. The term ‘Naga’ is a generic name applied to a large number of tribes and sub-tribes living in the present-day Tirap District and Nagaland. The Ahom Buranjis refer to them by the general term ‘Naga’ and also by different Assamese names like Khamjangias, Aitonias, Tablungias, Namsangias etc. The Buranjis inform us that their chief Sukapha was the founder of the Ahom kingdom in Assam. On crossing over the Patkai, the Ahoms descended upon Tirap and through this land they forced their way to Assam. Their incursion led to a series of violent clashes in which the Ahoms had to first combat the local Naga tribes, who strongly resisted their advance. According to the Buranjis, a number of Naga villages were destroyed. Although the Nagas remained quite for sometime, they rose in a number of revolts starting from the eighties of the fifteenth century. As a matter of fact, the various tribal groups of the Nagas and the Ahoms were engaged in constant clashes.

History of the Tribes:

Our knowledge of the early history of the District before the advent of the Ahoms is extremely vague, and no connected account of the events that took place in later times is available. Scanty information of various tribes in the district as given in the Ahom and British records is our only source of early history. Though fragmentary, these records give us some factual historical information about the tribal people of Tirap. The major tribes now inhabiting the district are three, and they are settled in different parts of the district- the Noctes and Tutsas in the north and towards the east and center and the Wanchos in the south-west and the south.

The Noctes:

The name Nocte means village people (Noc=village, Te=the people). The Noctes trace their descent from a remote ancestor named Khunbao, a chief. Khunbao had two sons-Khunlang and Kunlai. They were succeeded by Tangthok and Tankam. The claims of the Nocte chiefs to royal descent is based on this genealogy. The Ahom chronicles bear evidence to the fact of Nocte settlements in the District of Tirap as early as the beginning of the 13th century. In the Ahom period and the early British period, the Noctes were referred to as various groups of people known as Bordurias, Panidurias, Jaipurias etc.

Ahom-Nocte-Wancho relations:

The Ahoms, as already stated, came across the Noctes of Tirap on their way to Assam. The salt springs and wells of the Noctes were a source of friction between them and the Ahoms and they clashed with each other over the question of occupancy. According to the Buranjis, the Ahoms seized a salt well in Mohong in 1536 A.D. and in course of time enjoyed either exclusive rights on several such wells or shares in the salt produced by them.

Some of the tribal groups appear to have entered into friendly relations with the Ahoms. “There is a story that a Banfera Naga Khunbao (i.e chief) had made a close friendship with king Supimpha. His name was Karangpa. One day when Karangpa came to pay his tribute to King Supimpha, one of Supimpha’s wives happened to see the Banfera Naga Khunbao from inside the palace and when the king went inside, the queen praised the beauty of the Naga Khunbao in the presence of the King. The latter was so incensed at this that he gave her to the Khunbao who took her to the Naga village. She was pregnant at that time and subsequently gave birth to a son in the house of the Khunbao. In the reign of the next king Suhungmung, the Dihingia Raja, that boy used to come to pay tribute to the Ahom king. Suhunmung was struck by his high-bred appearance and conversation and learning that his mother was already pregnant before Supimpha gave her to the Naga Khumbao, he took him into favour and as he was not the son of a queen of a higher rank so Suhungmung created for him the new post of Barbatra Gohain, which he made equal to those of the Burahagohain and the Bargohain. He named the boy Kangcheng Barpatra. As Kancheng was born and brought up in the Naga village, his family came to be known as Naga Barpatra’s ghar or house. This incident serves as an eg. of intimate friendship with the Ahom king that was established by the Banfera Nagas”. The Friendly relation between the Banfera Nagas and the Ahoms are also borne out by the fact that the Banfera Nagas sought help from the Ahoms repeatedly in 1549 A.D. and 1665 A.D. when they were attacked by another group of the Nagas called Banchang. The help was given and the Banchang Nagas were defeated.

But, some other groups of the Noctes living close to the border of Dibrugarh District of Assam committed occasional raids in the Ahom territory. To keep them in check, the Ahom king Pratap Sinha constructed a rampart called Naga-garh. Scarcity of food was the main reason for the tribal raids. And this fact prompted the King to grant the tribal chiefs ‘khats’ or lands to make up their food deficiency. These estates, known as naga khats, were looked after by some Assamese agents called Naga Katakis. In return for the grant of these cultivable lands, the tribal groups of each duar or pass were obliged to pay annual tribute to the Ahom king in the shape of a mithun, elephant tusks, goat’s hair, cane slips coloured in red, salt and various other articles produced in the passes.

During the reign of the Ahom king Gadadhar Singha the Namsangia Noctes committed a daring raid on an Ahom salt mine in 1692 and killed twenty three persons. A punitive expedition was sent against them and it took a terrible reprisal. Another skirmish between the Ahoms and the Noctes took place in 1701 in the salt mine at Barhat in which both sides suffered casualties. The Ahom King Rudra Sinha sent an army against the Noctes. No blood was however shed. The Noctes compromised and in the rapprochement the king gave them presents. No uprising against the Ahoms during the rest of the 18th century was recorded.

The Moamaria rebellion broke out in Assam in 1769 A.D. and continued till the early part of the next century. It gave a rude shock to the foundation of the Ahom kingdom, which was already on the decline. In the wake of the rebellion came the successive Burmese invasions of Assam. The invading Burmese devastated the land and destroyed the State power almost completely. The Ahoms were a spent up force by now. During this period of utter chaos and disorder, hostilities broke out anew, and we read again a series of raids made by Noctes and other groups of Tirap, and also of retaliatory expeditions sent out by the Ahoms to put them down. The Noctes raided and plundered some villages in the Ahom territory in 1807 A.D. when the reigning king of Assam was Kamaleshwar Singha. After the Burmese invasions, Assam was ceded to the British by the treaty of Yandabo in 1826. Purandar Singha, the last of the Ahom kings was installed by the British as tributary ruler of the whole of Upper Assam except Sadiya and Matak. During his reign Malauthupia Nagas, who were probably Noctes, made a daring raid in the Ahom territory in 1836 A.D. An expedition was sent out immediately and the rebels were eventually defeated. Meanwhile, two groups of the Noctes, the Namsangias and the Bordurias, came into serious conflict in 1837 A.D.and the Borduria Khunbao was killed. The Ahom King interfered and arrested the Namsamgia Khunbao nicknamed Angulikata.

The history of the Ahom-Nocte relationship is, however not only of enmity and friction but also of friendship, commercial and cultural intercourses. The Namsangia, Borduria and Paniduria Noctes traded with the Ahoms for supply of salt to the plains of Assam. A nominal tax was imposed by the Ahoms on the salt brought from the hills. King Purandar Singha further employed his own men to extract salt from the wells in the lower hills. Later the British exempted the Noctes from the payment of salt-taxes. The Noctes extracted salt from a number of brine springs owned by them in their hills, and took keen interest in exporting it.

By the way of trade the Noctes came into close cultural contact with the people of the nearby plains area of Assam. It is believed that sometime between A.D.1699 and 1745, one Lotha Khunbao of the Namsangia Noctes accompanied by his tribesmen came to meet Shri Ramadeva, the Vaishnave saint of Bali Satra near Naharkatiya and prayed for initiation into Vaishnavism. The prayer was granted, and the saint initiated the Khunbao and his men into Vaishnavism religion. Lotha Khunbao was given the name Narottam meaning the best among men. Thus a section of the Noctes came under the influence of Vaishnavism, and it gradually spread out to other Nocte clans as well. The Noctes, however, adopted a very elementary form of Vaishnavism which is said to be a compromise between some tenets of Vaishnavism and the tribal ways.

British-Nocte Relations:

From the middle of the 19th century, the Noctes started coming in large numbers to the nearby tea gardens of Assam as labourers, and also to the markets in the plains for the purchase and sale of timber, bamboo, basket, ivory, hide,skin, bag, shawl etc. In 1841-42, Captain Brodie, the Principal Assistant to the Governor General’s Agent, visited the Nocte area to ensure security of the frontier between the Dikhu and Burhi-Dihing. He met the Nocte groups of Namsangias, Bordurias and Panidurias. He persuaded them to refrain from committing outrages in the plains, and urged them for surrender of offenders and discontinuance of inter-tribal clashes. He also exhorted them to refer to the Government cases of assault on them from outside and give up the practice of sending child slaves to the British territories. The standing cases of feuds which were submitted to him were settled.

The efforts made for maintenance of peace and order were successful only for a short period. Inter-tribal feuds and outrages flared up again. In November 1853, the Namsangia chief demanded tribute from several villages ruled over by the chief of Borduria. In 1872, the Namsangias made a massacre of another group of Noctes called Boralanga. The British Government took several measures for maintenance of peace in this area. The long-drawn feud between the Namsangias and Bordurias was reconciled by negotiation. Capt. Holroyd held a meeting of the chiefs of the two groups, and it was decided that a European officer should be posted to Jaipur to deal with all tribal disputes as and when they might arise. But in 1884, the Namsangias, 6000 strong at that time, were still at feud with the Bordurias. Inter-tribal clashes were reported from time to time, and the Government was compelled to intervene. In 1888, a group of Namsangias, carried away six persons from Dilli village and put one of them to death. The Namsangia chief was ordered to pay a fine of Rs. 1000/- for the offence. By an agreement the chief was also required to let a plot of land in Hukanjuri at an annual rental of Rs. 450/-. By the same agreement the chief of Borduria was allowed to hold bighas of rent-free land near Jaipur. The chief of Namsang was granted license for purchase of arms and ammunition within restricted limits. The two chiefs agreed to send annual reports to the Deputy Commissioner of Lakhimpur District, and pay tribute to the Government and receive gifts in return. They also agreed to bring to the Govt. all cases of feud and settlement. But inspite of the agreement, the two Nocte groups were again engaged in a series of clash in 1900. Consequently the Govt. stopped payment of the rent of Hukanjuri land for two years as a measure of punishment. The chief of Namsang was suspected of a conspiracy. He was summoned at Dibrugarh and detained there for two years. Tribal feuds, particularly between Namsangias and Bordurias, did not however come to a stop, they broke out occasionally and as a result, peace in this area was disturbed till the end of the British rule.

The areas under jurisdiction of the Namsang and Borduria Nocte chiefs were hitherto ‘particularly administered’. The British Govt. was primarily concerned with the security of the frontier, and to ensure this they on the one hand exercised overall administration control in these areas and on the other hand conciliated the tribal groups. The policy was backed by a display of force and authority, but no regular administration was established until, it may be said, the formation of the Tirap Frontier Tract under the charge of the Political Officer in 1943.

The Wanchos:

The Wanchos, like many other tribes of Arunachal, have their own tradition about migrations. According to one tradition, original place from which they came is Nyannu Ofan. Another tradition traces the courses of their migration to the present abode through Tanhnu and Tsangnu both in the Tuensang area of present Nagaland. It is not known when they actually migrated. The Ahom Buranjis and the early British records, however, suggest that they came and settled in the south-western part of Tirap some thousand years ago.

British-Wancho relations:

The hard life of the tribal people living in the mountainous tracts in this area was, in the old days, marked by occasional outburst of inter-tribal feuds and internecine strife. In 1841-42, captain Brodie visited the Wancho villages of Bangera, Joboka, Mulung, Jaktong and Changno. The Wanchos appeared to be less turbulent than the Noctes. It was also reported that they fell victims to the Nocte raids. In April 1844, the Bor-Mithunias, a group of the Wanchos who called themselves Chopnu after their own village name, made an attack on the Banfera village. In Maerch 1853, they committed another murder at a place close to the border of the Sibsagar District in Assam. The outrages continued, and in 1869, the Wanchos were again reported to have carried off three labourers from a nearby tea-garden in the plains.

In 1857, Lieutenant Holcombe, the Assistant Commissioner of Sibsagar District and Captain W.F. Badgley led a survey party to the Wancho area. They reached Ninu, the famous and formidable Wancho village on the right bank of the Tissa river, on the 1st February, 1875. The Wanchos were suspicious of the outsiders. They did not know anything about the survey work, nor did they see any such party of outsiders intruding into their country. And it so happened that the villagers were then mourning the death of their chief who had just died. The dead body was still to be disposed off. Moreover, the sepoys of the party treated the villagers contemptuously. As ill luck would have it, one of the sepoys of the party hit the dead body. This was an offence unimaginable to the tribal people. Enraged at the crime committed, the Wanchos fell upon the survey party in the next morning and killed eighty men of the ill-fated party including Lietenant Holcombe. Captain Badgley escaped with injuries along with fifty other men of the party. A military expedition was immediately sent to avenge the massacre. A strong force under the command of Brigedier Nuthall worked their way to Ninu. Senua was taken and destroyed and the villages of Ninu, Nisa and Longkai were burnt. Another expedition was sent the same year to destroy Ninu, which was rebuilt. The proud Wanchos of Ninu did not give way without a fight. An interesting passage from the description of the encounter given by R.G.Woodthorpe, who carried out survey operations in the Wancho area, is reproduced.

“As we marched along under burning sun, we saw large numbers of Nagas in full war-dress, coming down through the fields on our left from Lonkai. We turned a corner, and found ourselves only half a mile from Ninu, which the long grass had hitherto hidden from our sight. As we continued on our way, a column of smoke rose from houses in front of us; at first we thought that the enemy intended bringing down their own village, and not making any stand, but seeing that these houses were a few detached from the main village, which would have afforded shelter to our skirmishers covering the attacking party, on the very strong stockade which surrounded the village itself, we gave them credit for their military skill, and hoped they made a good defense, a hope which was strengthened by their calling out; ‘come on; we are quite ready for you’, and at once opening fire on us. We had caught of the 42nd approaching us the other spur; they arrived almost as soon as we did, and were received on their side by a body of Nagas stationed outside the stockade with a volley. When we, on our side, were close up to the stockade the firing ceased, and again an ominous cloud of smoke, followed at once by flames, rose again, this time within the stockade, which the Nagas had now abandoned. Had they stood up a little more boldly and fired more carefully, we must have suffered severely, as our advance was necessarily made over open ground, up very steep approaches, very thickly planted with panjies. We clambered over the stockade without delay, but the Nagas were quicker and before half-a-dozen of us were over, the greater portion of the village were in flames, the Nagas dispersing in different direction. After the fierce heat of the sun, the change to the fiercer heat of the burning houses closely built was not a pleasant one, and we ran through the village as rapidly as possible, our pace being accelerated every now and then as some large houses subsided suddenly, threatening to involve us in its fall and covering us with a shower of fire-brands, while the hot, pungent smoke blinded us. At last we were once more clear of the village, and could see the Nagas rapidly retreating along all the slopes in the direction of Nisa, a village four miles from Ninu”.

The retaliation taken for the Ninu massacre made an abiding impression on the Wanchos. The Wanchos, except in Banfera and its adjacent were henceforth shut out from the plains. It is only after the independence of India, the administration has extended to all parts of the Wancho area for their welfare and development.