In the CRC 1266, we are looking at social transformations in the Patkai Mountains and the wide plains of Assam from an ethnohistorical and ethnoarchaeological perspective. This case study helps us understand how societies in northern India lose their traditions or preserve them through adaptation and adoption of new ideas. Northern India is not alone this respect — after all, our own European societies are in a state of constant change.

Between tradition and modernity

North-east India is a melting pot marked by different landscapes, countless languages and dialects, and cultural diversity. The challenges of colonialism and of the founding of the Indian nation state has forced a confrontation between tradition and modernity. Both experiences brought profound social, economic, ecological and cultural transformations.

We ask what happens when Christian missionaries are confronted with animist traditions or when millet, rice and meat are exchanged not for one another but for cash.

  • Excursion

    The betel nut – an allrounder and its economic significance

  • In north-east India, the betel nut is an integral part of hospitality and other ritual practices. Visitors to houses in Assam will almost invariably be offered paan-tamul to chew.

  • Chewing betel nut is as popular in many parts of Asia as chewing gum is in Europe or America. The nuts are chopped up, mixed with slaked lime (calcium hydroxide) and wrapped in betel leaves to form a small pouch. Spices such as peppermint may also be added according to taste. Chewing the bitter preparation has a slight stimulant effect as well as causing red saliva.

  • Betel nuts are a cash crop, one that is so profitable that many small farmers have taken to growing them instead of cereals and vegetables. This means that they have ceased to be self-sufficient and have instead become traders. A cash-based market economy spells new forms of dependence.

Subduing the earth: cash crops

Urbanisation and modernisation are the forces driving change in the hill country of Karbi Anglong, in the centre of north-east India, today. A desire for profit and the dominance of cash crops have taken hold in many villages, changing the livelihoods of many. Traditional jhum agriculture has been displaced by the profitable cultivation of betel, pineapples, rubber and sandalwood.

Only in remote hill regions do farmers still support themselves by traditional terrace farming and jhum cultivation, operating outside the cash economy. By contrast, cash crops are sold to urban centres for money – money that can only be spent in cities and towns. Cities have a fascinating, pulsating rhythm of their own. Impressions formed there are taken back to villages, changing traditional dances, songs and celebrations.

Shifting fields: traditional jhum cultivation

Shifting cultivation — known locally as jhum — is practised in many parts of the north-east Indian hill country, where it plays a key part in many people’s livelihoods. In February or March, woodland is cleared by fire and then, during the summer months, given over to cultivation. A variety of crops are grown, including rice, millet, potatoes, squash and other vegetables. These crops can support a household and are augmented by hunting and gathering in the forest as needed. This method of cultivation does not, however, produce a surplus for sale, as the size of the fields is limited by the delicate ecosystem of the hill forest. Once cleared, the fields can only be used for one year and then at intervals of five to ten years; in the meantime, families move on to clear further woodland.


  • Many villagers took an active interest in recording the stones.

  • Creating a photographic record of the monuments was a key aspect of the work.

  • Each stone was carefully measured.

  • In some villages, hundreds of stones were scientifically catalogued.

  • Not only visual features were recorded. Most important were the stories associated with each particular stone.

  • Village elders and members of the research team discussing the rituals and traditions associated with the erection of the stones.

Nagaland today

New transitional worlds

Old traditions and new influences may be mutually exclusive or mutually inspiring. Today, stones are erected in Nagaland only when new churches are built. These churches, and not the memorials to the ancestors, now form a village’s focal point. The symbol-laden decoration of houses and the colourful village gates have become insignificant. Meanwhile, new traditions are born. Once a year, the hornbill festival brings together people from across Nagaland for several days of dancing, song and games.

Transformation is ubiquitous across north-eastern India and affects celebrations, houses and agriculture. Yet some traditions do survive. Village councils and ancient monuments have retained their place even in changing societies.