A Hundred Years of Solitude

The life of the Lisus in Arunachal Pradesh

01 November 2019
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A MYTH IN LISU FOLKLORE figures two orphan siblings, Lecha and Secha, who live in a forest with other members of their community. In the face of an imminent flood, a bird perched on a tree tells the two to take shelter in a cave and seal its opening until the flood recedes.

They do this, but when, eventually, they emerge, they realise that the flood has swept away their village and they are the only survivors. Deciding to search for other survivors, they go separate ways, but are left alone until they cross paths again, when they are much older, and eventually marry to continue their race.

As the photographer Sharbendu De recounted this myth, he added that it “bears all the archetypal imprints that resonate with the Lisus even today: crisis, loneliness, endless wait and the quest for belonging.” Over the past six years, De has worked extensively on documenting the indigenous Tibeto-Burman Lisu community living deep inside the Namdapha National Park in Arunachal Pradesh, along the Indo-Myanmar border. The Lisu community and its ancestors, who were initially hunters and gatherers, are known to have migrated from the Yunnan province in China and settled in Namdapha long before the international boundary between India and Myanmar was demarcated, in 1969. (Lisus in India have been referred to by the name “Yobin.” One report records their presence since at least the 1940s.) Since then, they have managed without basic amenities and public infrastructure, such as schools, roads, hospitals, phone networks or electricity. The nearest town, Miao, is over a hundred kilometres away, implying that a trek of between three and six days, through dense forests, has to be undertaken if they want to buy essential supplies or medicines. According to De, Lisu society is self-sustaining, which works by being tightly knit. For instance, they often barter produce, extract forest produce and teach the community’s children together, and when one member of the community builds a house, a person from each house in the village volunteers at various points in the construction.

Keywords: Arunachal Pradesh forests Assam Rifles