Nyishi Language : The Crisis of Existence & Identity

Poems Composed in the Nyishi Language: The Crisis of Existence and Identity


There is no doubt in denying the fact that many poets have contributed to writing poems in Arunachal Pradesh.

In the regional language of the area, we come across poetry written in local dialects as well as the language of that particular region.

But, there is hardly any discussion of that poetry by scholars and academicians.

The language variety and the spoken form in the state are no doubt, really diverse and of their own kind.

The idea of translating these poems written in the regional language did not come into the mind of any writer.

That means the idea of translation was totally unknown.

Every writer was indifferent to this conception.

Keywords: culture, era, script, identity, language, dialect.


In a radio lecture series in 1998, Namvar Singh, a well-known critic of Hindi literature, says, “In the era which we are going through, the danger is on the culture itself.

Culture is not one but many.

It is always plural, now the plurality is in peril.

Diversity and plurality are not dreams but are real.

Diversity is the source of wisdom.

Culture being destroyed is worrying, and we have to find the necessary sources for thought. The globalized market is also a reason for spring of such cultures, wherein the diversity is in threat.”

Many poems have been composed and are being composed in Arunachal Pradesh.

There are many poems in the local languages ??and dialects too.

But there has never been any discussion at academic level.

These were written in their own dialect using the Nagri/Roman scripts much earlier.

Since there are many languages ??and dialects in this state, all are different and unique.

As such, it’s hard to understand each other’s language.

No one paid any attention even to the translation.

Therefore, their scope remained limited.

Moreover, there is no script of its own.

So, the poems were not published in form of any book.

If at all there were any poems, it was only for singing.

From the literary point of view, no magazine in Hindi or English gave it a place.

For this, translation work has to be done. Opportunities have to be created.

If there is a curiosity to know a society or culture in its true form, then it is more expedient to study the compositions composed in the languages ??of that particular society.

It is more reliable.

Here words, sentences etc are available in their original form.

From this point of view, such compositions have their own importance.

It is hard to know history without the study of literature.

It is not that unpublished or works not included in the literature discourse of that period is inferior in standard.

Nor are the works composed in any big and established languages are superior or the best.

To know this, one has to read and understand the literature of other languages ??as well.

When it comes to Indian culture, it means; diversified cultures.

It is the supremacist mentality to deny the diversification and patronage the major itarian organized religions and languages.

The world’s great poet Rabindranath Tagore has called India –“Ocean of ??the demigod”.

The ocean accepts innumerable rivers and the existence of the river is never in danger because of it.

That is why the importance of the ocean increases even more.

Before discussing poems, it is important to know that there are more than a hundred tribal communities, which coexist in Arunachal Pradesh.

Even if they are economically backward from other societies, each tribe has its own rich language, culture, faith-belief, traditions, and literature.

Here we find ancestral history in folk literature and this has been passed down since time immemorial to generations.

Now the preservation of oral folk literature is being done in written form by all tribal communities. 

We should see the standing of tribal culture in the context of ‘Indian culture’.

We have to see, if all the cultures in the Indian society are being given equal importance as an egalitarian society?

We have to know, what is the status of our literature and identity in the political, economic, educational and constitutional framework of the government?

For this, we too have to understand our own importance.

If we are getting uprooted, it is not always right to point fingers at someone else.

We have to let others know the importance and specialities of indigenous culture by which we can be a stake holder to make the world a more beautiful place!

The social and cultural circumstances prevailing at a given time ignites creative mind and their work are deeply influenced by it.

Pain creates them.

It would be unfair to give critical analysis without looking at the time and circumstances of these poets, which were written in early seventies, eighties and nineties.

For the convenience of study and in view of the different religious aspects, the tribes of Arunachal Pradesh can be divided into four groups.

(a) Monpa, Sherdukpen, Memba, Khamba, khamti – These people follow the Mahayana and Hinayana branch of Buddhism.

(b) Tani community – Adi, Tagin, Gallo, Apatani, and Nyishi with the sub-communities comes under it.

These people follow Doni-Polo, which means the followers of Nature and ancestors.

There are People, who follow a system of worship called ‘Nyedar Namlo”, which is newly influenced by other religious system.

The Tani community also resides in Assam, Tibet, and China.

(c) Mishmi, Nockte, and Wangchu – They follow the ancestral belief systems but these tribes have come under the influence of Vaishnavism(Hinduism), so there is tilt towards the system of Vaishnavism.

(d) Christian –Many people from the above three communities have converted to Christianity. A major chunk belongs to the Tani community. Some Nyishis have understood to be converted to Islam also.

Being embraced into other religions by the tribal are to be blamed at the removal of aboriginal/tribal/animist words from the census since 1951.

As per research, the Tribal became confused as to what has to be mentioned in the religious column of population census and their number declined every ten years since 1951; as they were converting to other religions.

Religious conversion deeply influences society and culture.

It not only affects the lifestyle, philosophy, language, etc but also changes the history and political discourse of the society.

To adopt other philosophies and get influenced by any organized religion is not a crime and the Individual liberty must be respected.

But when such conversion takes a shape of mission mode to completely adopt other cultures is detrimental to the existence of the tribal.

There can be interactions and exchanges among the culture in the society.

But, it is a fact that there are certain aspects of culture, traditions, and rituals we cannot exchange or deviate from; for example, the tribal can never wear Mangal sutra, idol worship, perform church marriage, and put Sindoor, etc.

It is not about right and wrong practices of any other Tradition as quoted above; but, when we see the tribal philosophy, the above practices cannot be assimilated in the tribal society, because this will shake the very foundation of our Philosophy.

When the culture is used for religious conversion, then it should be considered as social crime.

It is a crime to attempt to erase the history of people by gradually including them in their social systems with the help of their culture.

Usually, we think that we have only adopted the temple, mosque, church, their gods, rituals or symbols, etc.

But when we gain consciousness; we have already adopted the socio-cultural systems of other societies.

It cannot be considered under academic, scientific study, and constitutional aspects of society.

As per record the British did not pay much attention to the education sector and after independence three government schools were opened in the state; at Pasighat in 1947, Doimukh in 1948 and Zero in 1960. Establishment of these schools created awareness about the importance of education in the society.

Whenever any transformation is faced in society it creates doubts and many unseen fears start arising in the minds of the people.

People were apprehensive about the schools, so they gave more importance in agriculture, which resulted in very less enrolment of students. Few educated people started to create awareness on the need to go school for betterment of the society and self.

The Poets started composing poems to create social awareness, this was done with compassionate feeling for the society.

Since people were mostly illiterate. This is the reason why all poems were rhythmical and it was written in own dialect. So that the poems could be listened to by all. There was a new revolution/awareness in the society wherein, these poetry also played a major role.

The poems carries relevance in every phase and time of society though such poems might have been written in any time, circumstances, country and situation etc. if the poems fails to stand the test of time than it cannot be called as poetry.

We can see below a poem written by Late Tadar Tang, a politician and social reformer of Nyishi society wherein he speaks about the importance of education.

                                                          Kuzu Kata Ju;

                               Kuzu – kuzu kataju nayee  apung pungku be

                               “Kuzu – kuzu kataju nario, apung pungku be

                                      Pakam saja Zachari, sw-rwso sochari

                          Changping Tayinw Jachari, Doping Tayinw Jachari

                               Nungki Himi Pazuk Do, Bomi Himi Lebik Do 

Here the poet says –that the bird of knowledge is flying towards the hills and mountains. Children of the world are dancing with joy. Nayee and Nario (Wild flowers) are also blooming; celebrating the festival of their freedom. Come let us welcome this change with song and dance.

This poem shows the compassion and utmost love of the poet. This is the soulful, tender and affectionate call of the poet. It’s difficult to ignore such calls. The poet is full of pure emotion. Here the bird depicts the advent of education. The wings of knowledge lead men towards liberation and freedom.

For this, it is necessary to go to school. With this change, the wild flower is blooming in its freedom which means education will not separate us from our connection with nature rather it will teach us to coexist with it. The balance will not be disturbed.

Dance-songs and festivals are an integral part of the tribal lifestyle. In this lies our wealth of knowledge and ancestral wisdom of life-philosophy. Therefore to see education with dance and song carries a special meaning.

Adivasi thinker Jaipal Singh Munda says, “Nachi to baachi,” which means that dance can save our identity. Dance and song is a way of manifestation of nature. Just as our soul is manifested by the touch of our hands, so is the spiritual touch of nature in song-dance. Tribal share happiness and sorrow with nature. It can be seen directly in their songs, dance, stories, idioms, proverbs, rituals, traditions etc.

Since it is not possible for me to talk about the poets and poems of all community together; therefore, for convenience, I have taken only four poets from the Nyishi community. But these are the voice of whole Arunachal.

Despite some geographical, socio-cultural, religious differences, political, economic, educational, etc., conditions and problems are the same for other tribes too. Infused with this unity and collectively, we can see late Tassar Teshi‘s beautifully written social poem – “sol ngul”

                                      Sol ngul arunachal ge opu ngey

                                      Sol ngul arunachal ge amin ne 

                                              Opu ngey Pusa-Pusa, 

                                                 Swn Ne Nesa-Nesa

                                         Swneg Opu ngey Lusa Pudan

                                          Twrig Opu ngey Lusa Pudan

                                            Isig Opu ngey Lusa Pudan

                                           Yorneg Opu ngey Lusa Pudan

                                             Habzakam gwda takin ge

                                                   Opu ngey ngul sol…..

Core meaning of the above poem is that – Today we are the flowers of Arunachal Pradesh. The same flower blooms and smells in different forms at different places like in mountains, plains, and also in varied weather conditions. The diversity of flowers is beautifully arranged by nature, which cannot be amplified more. We are also part of this.

The simpler the poem, the more is effort needed to understand it.  When things cannot be said directly, poetry is born and the message is conveyed through it. Here nature is not used as a mere example, but it depicts the tribal philosophy.

Humans are an integral part of nature. The poet does not say about the beauty of flowers but indicates that we are the flowers and can bloom up in any part.

This indication of the poet must not be taken as acceptance of rebirth because there is no such concept as rebirth in tribal philosophy.  There is an indication of the journey by seeds through birds, winds, etc.

People talk much about the meaning of the word Nyishi. To my understanding, its direct meaning is “Nyi” which means Humane being, and when we go in depth about the life philosophy of ‘Tani’ tribes; they are deeply connected to nature and ancestors.  Each symbol is seen connecting us to our ancestors and the nature.

The people of the Tani clan create a new name word by adding the last letter of their father’s name to any other word. For example, Tatam to Tamram, tamto, from Tado to Dolang, Dohuetc. The word Nyishi would also might have been formed in the same way. This system is a very important source for research our history. According to the place, the pronunciation is also varies – Nysang, Nasang, Nysi, Bangni etc.

Because of the diversity in pronunciation; words with definite pronunciation can be recognized and it is convenient in official documents. Hence the word ‘Nyishi’ has been coined by the knowledgeable people of this community.

The Nyishis were called Dafla by Britishers, which meant robbers, barbarians, rude and this was derogatory for the community. It was herculean task to replace the word Dafla to Nyishi in the constitution of India.

For this, a long struggle was carried by the community which involved; legal and research based presentation in the Parliament of India. Under the guidance of Nyishi elite Society (NES), the lead was taken by Shri Nabam Rabia, MP (RS) Shri Kiren Rijiju, MP (LS) and Union Cabinet Minister. They together were successful with constitutional amendment wherein word Dafla was replaced by “Nyishi”. It’s not just word but, it’s our identity. Identity starts with the name itself.

Jesus Christ said, “Never transgress, for that is offence.” In Gita, Lord Krishna says, “Swadharma”, which means know your own nature and do not trespass other people’s territory. There is a Nyishi saying, “Gangte atu ngam pvpe humje dvneyu, isi ayu ngam pola harje dvneyu”, which means the owner of the land, forest and rivers should be offered the best wine and eggs. We should respect ‘Dapo’ (seen/unseen boundary) and remain within it.

There are physical, social and mental boundaries between all human being and the elements in the nature. Any disrespect or imbalance of ‘Dapo’ is a crime against socio-cultural identity, because it is against the law of nature. 

Tribal is not against development work in society, and they are also not against any enlightened gurus. We respect them. We learn knowledge from them, but it should not be at the cost of erasing our own identity and history. After all, what does the world or humanity gets back by erasing own identity? How does it benefit us by assimilation of one superstition with another? Rather this replaces our ancestral history.

There are many options to resolve the deficiencies in our society which can be done through education, science, and with the help of constitution. When there is a drastic change in the socio-cultural and religious set up in the society, it creates more problems than providing a solution.

Tribal sees spirit in every living and non-living things of existence. The Niya Tani (Human being) and Wuyu Tani (spirits of nature) both are Tani, which means the brothers, the family. At times, we do fight and protect each other. We offer animals through sacrifices and in return we are blessed. We have a give and take relationship.

We don’t accept these spirits as God. There is no concept of God, heaven or hell in our culture. The Trees, plants, animals, mountains, rivers never needed God, Allah etc to survive. For centuries, our ancestors survived with the help of the nature.

They manifested many rituals to coexist with the spirits. When we die our ancestors welcomes our soul with love and affection. This wisdom is called ancestral identity.  Why is this community becoming so timid now?  Let us see the deep root in to the consciousness of a poet Nabam Tata’s poem – ‘Reb Doma Lo’:

                                         Rvb doma lo svn ne sinyi do

                                       Svrv Doma Lo Name Danyi Do

                                            Nyishi doma lo Nyokumdonyi do

                                            Nyokum doma lo Nyishisinyi do

                                             Pvb doma lo lapang donyi do

                                             Aab Loma Gey bal Patu ngam

                                             Aat niya gey gomlah betuham

                                             Hingab NyalakaMvgab Nyalaka

                                             Jwt aane gey lechi kunam mey

                                             Swgw  secho gey toonmey gey

                                           Yej motu nge mokar moyo ju

                                               Yal nyogak gakar moyo ju.

The poet says that–A tree does not stand without roots. It is the roots that should be strong as there cannot be a house without strong foundation pillars. The Nyishis and the Nyokum are complimentary to each other. Without Justice Society will not survive, so we have to follow the teachings of our ancestor Aab loma and Attu Niya; who taught us the importance of the art and culture. They taught us to create logical question in an intelligent way. Jwt Aane taught us the rearing Animals and governance of family. To forget them means to be cut off from our own history. It means the death of the senses. How can one live a life of self-respect by cutting them off? Even when trees and plants are uprooted from the ground, they do not leave the soil easily. It also has pain. And we are still human!

The religious and cultural invasions started gradually. The threat of existence loomed large. Language, ancestral history, ancestral memory all began to be ravaged, in such a situation, the poet’s heart must have been tormented by unfathomable pain. Their anguish must have erupted into voices. The root of poetry is compassion. It would come out like the water finds its way from anywhere. It has the power to strip us all naked. Poetry is the dream of an awakened eye.

In Hindi literature, the period from 1850 to 1900 A.D. is called the Renaissance period. The pioneer of this period, Bharatendu Harishchandra worked to awaken the Hindu society and culture through literature. That is why it is also called the ‘Bhartendu period.’ He says, “The language is the root of all progress”. It is more so important when it is said by a person who brought revolution in society through Hindi literature. What he said is equally relevant for all society, culture, and language.

When Tribal languages ? are dying every day, it is natural for anyone to worry and question. The loss of a language means the disappearance of a knowledge stream. Language carries the history, philosophy, etc of society as a whole. Bengia Tolum is a social thinker and also a good poet. He says, “Why should we disappear like this?” Let us see the hymn of his poem ‘Dugupp Keechupp’:

                                            Poro Lug Hurab Gadool

                                        gutu gora ho yubdu buam

                                      Moo-dub Nyodiye Hachi Paku

                                         Nitin Hormin Nityam Bo Ne

                                Mekar Chuml Pechum Ale Hachi Paku

                         Aatu apagey oz amvr ram chumdu ale hapakoo 

                                 No chuma balo hiyekam svka keram

                                      Beg Bejam Ud Bea Namlo Gey

                                         Kutu doma b ruda doma b

                                                   Tabato tad ku

                                          kutu tudur la dabdi boo a

                                         Nyishi Tudi Yami Nulu na 

                                      Nyem Nypak Kam Sagv yul

                                         Dodu Deb nyikama Sol

                              Khera dedi bam baam sllaam kuchu yab

                            Ngulug athug sappi gyeppi nitin hormin ne

                                    chegur dogur garlin hick-hoke

                                        Dogin Ging Kenam Mey

                                    Nyishi Nyub gey Akh Sokhiyub

                                           Ui Dikhiyub Dijo Kebe

The poet says – O Nyishi young men and women! Wake up like chickens in the morning and awaken us. ‘Dugupp-Keechupp’ means don’t be an energy less as the children of untimely born dogs; who neither bark nor go hunting with the owner. Don’t die like them. Use your consciousness. The ancestors who have conveyed the mystery and beauty of life to us through idioms, proverbs, and riddles, have made life beautiful. Now that heritage is dying. Look for people who know the nuances of the language. Language connects us with our ancestors, which is our roots, our foundation. Without it, our house will fall apart. Our languages ??have originated from the mountains and the depths of lakes. When the sun-moon, earth-sky took birth, it also came into existence with them. The Nyubs (mystics) have imbibed these in every particle of their blood, and have passed them on to us. Now it is our responsibility to preserve the memories of our ancestors for the next generation. Stop relying on someone else for it, or else, everything will be messed up.

Addressing the youth is of specific importance. If the youths get confused and become directionless, it is a huge loss to the country and the world. It is necessary to keep the spirit of touching the sky only by staying connected to the ground. He who has no passion, no dreams, and do not have the courage to break social stereotypes and dead traditions. If he does not aspire to recognize the beauty of ancient but living traditions and take the initiative to preserve them, even he is physically young, but will be called old by his mind.

The poet’s suffering is –that we are born out from the purest womb of the nature; Then why is there so much guilt towards ourselves? If we can enjoy reading the stories of others, we can draw inspiration from them; so the world will take inspiration from our stories too. Being like someone else brings love, respect and being protected by their god and goddesses; this is untrue. The world isn’t such a bad place that they like carbon-copy; rather it has always welcomed originalities. 

In all the above cited poems the nature comes as a magnificent co traveller of the humans. The ancestors are also remembered. The language used is simple and natural. Here Bengia Tolum uses very difficult vocabulary but such words carry a valuable in meaning. These words are symbolic and open avenues for more research works. In these poems the plural word “We” is used instead of “I”. This depicts the collectively of the tribal community and shows the common consciousness of the society.

I would like to take a break here with a poem composed by me –

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  1. Bradley, David. “Tibeto-Burman languages and classification.” In David Bradley, Tibeto-Burman languages of the Himalayas. Canberra, Australian National University Press, 1997.
  2. Blench, Roger. Fallen leaves blow away: a neo-Hammarstromian approach to Sino-Tibetan classification. Presentation given at the University of New England, 2014.
  3. James A. Matisoff.  The Handbook of Proto-Tibeto Burman: System and Philosophy of Sino Tibetan Reconstruction. Berkeley: University of California Press, 2003.
  4. Sun, Tianshin Jackson. A Historical-comparative Study of the Tani (Mirish) Branch in Tibeto-Burman. Berkeley: University of California, 1993
  5.  Edward Thompson, Rabindranath Tagore: Poet and Dramatist.  Oxford: Oxford University Press, 1926.
  6.  E.P. Thompson, Introduction to Tagore’s Nationalism. London: Macmillan, 1991.

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