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date: 05 February 2023

Indigenous Religions in the Asian Uplands: Perspectives on Landscape in Northeast Indiafree

Indigenous Religions in the Asian Uplands: Perspectives on Landscape in Northeast Indiafree

  • Claire ScheidClaire ScheidDepartment of Religion, University College Cork


Indigenous religions in the Asian uplands comprise a broad spectrum that includes a variety of unique site-specific practices, rituals, and beliefs. Just as the Asian uplands are a vast territory home to multiple cultures, they are also home to multiple indigenous religions. It is important not to conceptualize indigenous religions as homogeneous or static; rather, they are specific, organic systems particular to a given community that may vary even from household to household in design, praxis, and content.

Similarly, it is tempting to presume that all indigenous religions in the Asian uplands must integrate the hilly or mountainous terrain around them into their cosmologies, ontologies, or eschatologies; this is also a fallacy. While some indigenous religions do worship or deify the topography that surrounds them—such as the Lepcha and Lhopo (Bhutia) of Sikkim, India, whose veneration of Mount Khangchendzonga is central to their understandings of the cosmos—others—such as the Adi of Arunachal Pradesh, India, and the Khasi of Meghalaya, India—consider certain upland sites in nature as sacred but do not incorporate them into the framework of their religious conceptualizations or practices in a primary way.

To illustrate the variety of indigenous religions found in the Asian uplands, and their independent relationships with, and conceptions of, nature and landscape—and to highlight the diversity extant even between those in close proximity to each other—examples can be found in four ethnic communities (the Adi, the Khasi, the Lepcha, and the Lhopo [Bhutia]), all classified as “scheduled tribes” under the Constitution of the Indian Republic and located in Northeast India. Through a survey of these four groups, it becomes apparent that “indigenous religions” vary greatly in upland (and other) areas—and practically, and ethically, cannot be effectively generalized. It is easiest to glean a working comprehension of the characteristics of indigenous religions in the Asian uplands through recognizing the distinctive qualities of a sampling of individual ethnic communities that reveal great differences despite their geographical similarity.

Indigenous religions do not exist in sterile isolation from other “mainstream” religions; boundaries between indigenous religions can be permeable, even if the religions themselves are very different; globalization is changing how indigenous religions are articulated, as they take on new structures for the sake of preservation; and while a mountain may be the center of an upland Northeast Indian religion, equally, it may not be.


  • Borderlands
  • Religion
  • South Asia

The Terms “Indigeneity” and “Indigenous Religions” in a Northeast Indian Context

Ideas on what constitutes “indigeneity” and questions about what qualifies as an “indigenous religion” have been explored by researchers since the 1990s.1 Indigenous peoples in India have been subject to centuries of persecution and forced assimilation; in the early 21st century, promoting the status of “indigenous” has also, conversely, come to carry certain cultural and political capital, interwoven as it is with select benefits granted to those of the “scheduled tribe” (ST) designation.2 A thorough exploration of the politics, dynamics, and complications of contemporary indigeneity across the subcontinent reveals a fraught, fragile—and varied—web of identity issues, environmental crises, and contested ontologies.3

The region of Northeast India is tethered to the Indian “mainland” only by a small strip of West Bengal, and each of its areas has a rich and contentious territorial history. Today, Northeast India comprises the “Seven Sisters”—the states of Arunachal Pradesh (granted statehood in 1971), Assam (in 1947), Manipur (1971), Meghalaya (1972), Mizoram (1987), Nagaland (1963), and Tripura (1971)—as well as Sikkim (1975). Though the external classification method employed for categorization may vary, and internal disagreements raise further questions about ethnic demarcations, it is fair to estimate the number of STs in Northeast India to be a little above two hundred.4 In all ways—language, custom, ritual—each of these communities is unique and must be viewed as such; while there are cultural echoes and folkloristic patterns across the lands that may draw threads among disparate peoples, indigenous groups in this area are more united by their being “indigenous” than by any other characteristics. Indigeneity may be the common ground, but, in this instance, it does not ensure similarities between groups. This point is contextualized by the official criteria for recognition of ST status by the Indian government, which prioritizes cultural specificity for the designation “tribe” rather than “indigeneity” or claims that a people are the original inhabitants of a given location.5

While some STs are understood to have lived in a certain area as far back as community memory allows such claims to be made—the Adi, the Khasi, and the Lepcha, for example—the migration from elsewhere of other STs is documented, as in the case of the Lhopo (Bhutia), who are generally accepted to have come to present-day Sikkim from Tibet in the 13th century.6 Thus, attempts to tie prerequisites for “indigeneity” to primary and historical residence on the land are not entirely suitable, which slightly problematizes (at least in this respect) harmony with the United Nations’ definition of “indigenous,” which refers to “traditional lands, territories and natural resources.”7 The term “traditional,” here, is imprecise, because temporality impacts its definition in relation to land occupation—a statement which in no way attempts to deny the indigeneity of the Lhopo.

Academic definitions of indigeneity are multiple and sometimes conflicting.8 “Indigeneity” in Northeast India is—as, perhaps, it should always be—most easily defined by self-identification; second to this, it is documented in ST entries in the Indian census, which may shift by decade. It is only in a third sense that the actual English-language term “indigenous” takes a role in the discussion, and the waters are already muddied before its arrival. In sum, “indigeneity” is not a straightforward concept; it is especially not so in Northeast India. Because of this terminological ambiguity—which is additionally applicable to the term “religion”—“indigenous religions” of this (or any) geography are equally challenging to define as a whole, and it is most precise to approach each community empirically to allow belief patterns to manifest so that they maintain their site-specificity.

The term “indigenous religions” has been scrutinized and assessed for its potential as a label, a genre, and an analytical category.9 The phrase can function as a rallying point for activism and aid in the preservation of endangered belief-worlds and practices.10 Community leaders in some Northeast Indian ethnic communities, such as the Adi, have drawn distinctions between “indigenous faith” and “indigenous religion,” arguing that the (English-language) term for the latter refers exclusively to indigenous belief systems and practices after globalization has revolutionized the means of worship.11 This is most applicable to reformations of the past century that have restructured religious expressions into more “formal” frameworks—that is, through the creation of tangibles including prayer books, prayer halls, and leadership parties, where previously this structure was absent from practice and ritual. These movements include the Donyipolo reformation in Arunachal Pradesh among the Tani groups, Seng Khasi in Meghalaya among the Khasi, and Rangfraa among the Tangsa: The Donyipolo reformation has served as a kind of cultural renaissance for Tani indigenous faith, as did Seng Khasi for indigenous Khasi practice before it, and, arguably, Rangfraa for the Tangsa after it.12 However, employing either term—“indigenous faith” or “indigenous religion”—also runs the risk of drawing false parallels between independent traditions and grouping dissimilar ontologies together simply because they may be practiced by indigenous peoples.

When considering indigenous religions in upland Northeast India, there are four main points that must be remembered: (a) some, but not all, indigenous religions in the region are “syncretic”; that is, they are practiced very closely alongside, or are interwoven with, a “dominant” religion such as Tibetan Buddhism (Lepcha indigenous religion, Lhopo indigenous religion), Hinduism (Rangfraa among the Tangsa, the Heraka movement among the Naga), or—in rarer cases—Christianity, particularly Catholicism (Khasi indigenous religion, Tangsa indigenous religion; [sometimes] Lepcha indigenous religion); (b) the ontological boundaries separating territories that are home to residents practicing certain indigenous religions can be porous, and religious narrative develops, mutates, and spreads across different communities so that geographically and culturally separate ethnic communities might share, for example, one aspect of an indigenous faith (e.g., the Lepcha and the Lhopo both worship Mt. Khangchendzonga), or aspects of one creation narrative (e.g., the Khasi and the Adi both have celestial origin stories that include the rooster and the sun), but not more; (c) as the world becomes increasingly globalized, many Northeast Indian indigenous religions are mobilizing to preserve their practices; this changes the “shape” of some indigenous faiths, leading to formalization processes that often mimic those of more mainstream religions (through, for example, the introduction of holy texts into previously oral cultures, the construction of places of worship where before there were sacred spaces only in nature, and the development of governing bodies that assist in preservation initiatives; examples of this type of reformation include the Donyipolo movement among the Tani groups, Seng Khasi among the Khasi, Rangfraa among the Tangsa); (d) the presence of hills or mountains does not guarantee that a given indigenous worldview will significantly incorporate elevated places into worship or promote their sanctity over that of lower lands; while it may be that a mountain peak becomes the center of an entire faith, or even that worship of a peak is so widespread that it becomes secularized, integrated into the “nonreligious” sphere of a culture (such as Mt. Khangchendzonga in Sikkim), not all indigenous religions in upland Northeast India incorporate the landscape in this manner, and it should not be assumed that they do.13

That is: Indigenous religions do not exist in sterile isolation from other “mainstream” religions; boundaries between indigenous religions can be permeable, even if the indigenous religions themselves are very different; globalization is changing how indigenous religions are articulated, as they take on new structures for the sake of self-preservation; and a mountain may be the center of an upland Northeast Indian religion, but equally, it may not be.

Case Studies from Northeast India

The Adi

The Adi (population approximately 100,000; lit., “hill” or “mountaintop” [Adi]) are one of the Tani groups—as are the Apatani, the Galo, the Mising, the Nyishi, and the Tagin—who collectively trace their heritage to Abo-Tani (lit., “Father-man” [Adi]).14 They speak Adi, a Tibeto-Burman language, and can be divided into subgroups, although these categories are fluid and contested internally as ethnic community identities are in flux. A basic division includes the Ashing, the Bokar (sometimes classed with the Ramo and the Palibo); the Bori; the Karko; the Komkar; the Milang; the Minyong; the Padam; the Pangi; the Pasi; and the Simong.

While Adi areas encompass the Siang districts of Arunachal Pradesh, which include the high peaks of the Eastern Himalayas, elevation is not a focal point of Adi ontology.

The Adi, like all Tani groups, practice site-specific varieties of Donyipolo (lit., “Sun-moon” [Adi]). (It is important to write [and to conceptualize] Donyipolo without a hyphen or space between the two terms [Donyi, Polo], because it is the intertwining of the two celestial bodies [sun, moon] that is at the core of the religion).15 Donyipolo is performed sometimes in tandem—side by side, and, more rarely, intertwined with—manifestations of Christianity (and, arguably, Hinduism) in the southern areas, and with Tibetan Buddhism in the northern areas.16 Donyipolo refers to a wide spectrum of ideas, practices, and beliefs with local articulations. It is the “common but flexible sacred frame” of other-than-human and “supernatural” praxis among all the Tani group of communities.17

Donyi, the sun, is female, warm, abstract energy; Polo, the moon, is male, linear, time-keeping energy. It is the synergy of these two forces working together that is considered sacred, and worship of Donyipolo is representative of worship of the unknown creator god.18 Tutelary deities such as Kine Nane, the god of agriculture; Dadi Bote, the god of animals; and Doying Bote, the god of stories (and of humankind, as each human life is a story), are understood to be representative of this unknown creator and are also worshipped and celebrated individually. While these three are the most prominently invoked of the deities—particularly following the Donyipolo reformation, which prioritized their display in prayer halls through works by Adi artist Komeng Dai (1948/49–1993/94)—there are numerous other tutelary deities (e.g., Gumin Soyin, the deity of the home; Boke Mone, the deity of entertainment, song, and dance; Yidum Bote, the deity of wind and creativity; Kongki Komang, the god(s) of fate; etc.).19 These deities are mentioned in the abangs (metaphysical oral narratives) and some correspond to certain festivals at which they are celebrated (e.g., the Solung festival celebrates, in part, the narrative of Kine Nane). In Donyipolo, it is believed that all came from nothingness (keyum, the void), proceeding in stages until the universe and world were formed.

Adi life is greatly influenced by other-than-human entities (“spirits”) known as uyu, who can be divided, in scholarship, into five categories:20 genealogical (those directly descended from an ancestor different from Abo-Tani, the first man); agricultural (those who inhabit specific plants or jungle flora); companion (those who exist on the uyu plane but are tied directly to a human life); post-mortem (uyu who do not pass on to the other-than-human realm following death, also known as urum); and unclassifiable (nonhuman entities for whom a category is not immediately apparent).21 There exists significant overlap between categories, and it is the uyu that shape much daily life among the Adi. In many ways, the uyu represent the “natural” world around the Adi, which they themselves simply inhabit, and thus uyu must be constantly acknowledged, continuously propitiated—and usually avoided.22

Mediation with uyu is the role of the ritual specialist. There is not one independent process that constitutes ritual specialist selection or consultation. What is widespread, however, is the transitioning of a layperson to a ritual specialist role via a process of dreams or visions.23 This includes the various types of ritual specialists, usually known as miri, which translates literally as “song” (also known, depending on their skills, as leni or tabe [interchangeably], or myibu [a particular form of miri found among the Minyong Adi]; the term tabe has also taken on a second meaning in the Donyipolo reformation, as a sort of “ordained priest” in the reformed religion). There is not a set “gift” that a given ritual specialist is assumed to have; rather, there are varieties of talents that arise naturally and inherently as the process takes hold. Uyu miri (or ait miri) are miri who communicate with the “spirit” world, sometimes “keeping” uyu-ko (lit., uyu-children, though the “spirits” are not always [nor usually] children); elig miri are miri who “heal” by touch manipulation. Abang miri are those who can recite in priestly language the oral narratives and are more specifically divisible into ponung miri (referring to the female ritual dance), dolang miri (referring to the male ritual dance), and so on, depending on which recitation is most common to their performance.24 Some abang miri know more than one recitation; some abang miri, but not all, are also ait miri.

The past decades have seen great changes in the articulation of Donyipolo, as new ways of presenting the faith have taken hold under the leadership of Talom Rukbo (1937/38–2001), an activist, writer, and visionary who was the innovator and, later, the muse behind the Adi Donyipolo Yelam Kebang (Donyipolo Faith Council, also known as the DPYK), founded in 1986, in Pasighat, East Siang, Arunachal Pradesh.25 These changes are considered to have begun in the 1980s following local movements (as early as a meeting between the Adi and Galo communities in 1968, which resulted in the construction of the Donyipolo Dere [community hall] in the early 1980s) and the participation of founders in the International Association for Religious Freedom (IARF) conferences.26 The changes include: (a) the canonization of religious narratives and the composition, printing, and distribution of prayer books; (b) the construction of official “sacred spaces” in the form of prayer halls; (c) the introduction of anthropomorphic iconographical depictions of deities (previously represented only by straw, bamboo, or twig structures); (d) the creation of new roles for ritual specialists; (e) the institution of holy days and holidays; and (f) the organization of public cultural awareness campaigns and festivals.

It is necessary here to introduce two more concepts central to understanding Donyipolo and its reformation: “Hinduization,” and “indigenous faith” (versus “indigenous religion”). Contemporary Donyipolo among the Adi is often misclassified as the result of “Hinduization”; Hinduism inherently allows for the inclusion of local deities and has long integrated site-specific indigenous Northeast Indian beliefs into its canon, but its encompassing of indigenous belief can still be considered the “monopolizing” (for political gain) of an “indigenous faith” by the imposition of the structure of Hinduism.27 While Hinduization is a real and extant phenomenon, and select parts of the reformed Donyipolo are considered by some to be “more Hindu” than they were prior to the reformation, this is counter to the intent of the Donyipolo movement.28 As Talom Rukbo—the “Father” of the movement—explained to his protégé Kaling Borang in 1985, the “traditional” Adi religion (prior to formalization) was a “faith,” and, if it was to be preserved, it was necessary to change it into a “religion.”29 In Rukbo’s definition, “faith” seems to imply a series of beliefs and actions that operate without the framework (prayer books, prayer halls, iconography, etc.) of a mainstream religious structure; “religion” is, instead, to be considered “faith” housed within—or expressed through—that framework. It was this idea that led to the implementation of new forms of articulation of Donyipolo.

The choice to institutionalize Donyipolo and consciously make it a “religion” was deliberately made by activist Rukbo and the Donyipolo Yelam Kebang (Faith Council) with the aim of preserving the Adi worldview and religious beliefs, in the hopes that more people external to the community could then better understand and respect Donyipolo in its new “structured” form. While the roots of Donyipolo’s transition from “faith” to “religion,” based in the examples of mainstream religions, can be examined, the revival’s conversations with dominant religions should not overshadow the movement’s creativity, and should instead be presented alongside histories of Rukbo’s works, the Donyipolo Yelam Kebang, and the myriad of inventive institutionalization processes currently embraced within Tani communities.

Both before and after the restructuring of Donyipolo, mountains were generally associated with two things: the uyu (other-than-human entity) known as Dimu Thaying, the “mountain lords,” who are understood to live in high and snowy places; and the gathering of emo (poison, usually for arrows) from the peaks in the Mariyang region (usually by the Milang Adi sub-group), itself an annual event that often includes tales of Dimu Thaying and is recounted in dance, ritual, and narrative.30

There is a whole population of Dimu Thaying, and they are understood to have families and homes of their own in a similar “parallel society” to humans and to Epom, the “jungle lords.”31 (The Epom is particularly significant as the entity reacts against changes to the terrain; as modernity reaches Adi communities, the Epom becomes more aggressive.32) Some legends depict Dimo Thaying as an entity without feet who kidnaps (and usually kills) travelers by grabbing them before flying away. Direct connections have been drawn by some Adi between Dimu Thaying and the Western idea of the “yeti,” though this does not seem to be a widespread association.33 Dimu Thaying is a feared entity and cannot be negotiated with in the same manner as the Epom, with whom humans have a long and storied history, and an ongoing relationship. One of the first Dimu Thaying and his magical family appear in narratives that chronicle the creation of the Adi world and the determination of its regulations; for example, Dimu Thaying’s bride-to-be bestows twig attire made of tai, tachap, and taso trees on one of the first Epom, which Epom uses to give antlers and horns to jungle animals; the first human, Tani, envies these animals, and Epom agrees to share some creatures with humans, provided humans continue propitiation.34 Dimo Thaying (along with Epom, Lada Layo [the lord of the Siang river], and Nipong [a malevolent uyu, usually understood as a water “spirit”], and eight (or so) (super)natural beings), were born to Pedong Nane (lit., “Rain Elder” [Adi]).35

Additionally, the Ramo Adi near Mechuka (in the high northern peaks, who live alongside Tibetan Buddhist communities) are notable in that they incorporate some aspects of Tibetan Buddhist ritual into Donyipolo ritual, such as circumambulation around a sacred nature site.36

However, to attempt to incorporate elevation into any significant comprehensions of Donyipolo or to use it as a lens to understand Donyipolo would be a stretch, with the caveat that mountains feature in Adi art, design, and narrative—as do the jungles and plains and the rivers. Mountains are important and feature in Adi conceptions of how the world was made and what is to be found in it, but they are no more central than other natural wonders. Donyipolo is a vast, rich, and nuanced tradition that paints narrative portraits of the landscape; following its novel reformation, mountains remain as they ever were: present, acknowledged—propitiated, even—and sibling to man, but no more and no less than this.

The Khasi

The Khasi (population approximately 1.5 million) include, among others, the Bhoi, Khynriam, Lyngngam, Maram, Marnagar, Muliang, Pnar, and War communities. They inhabit the state of Meghalaya (the districts of East Khasi Hills, West Khasi Hills, South West Khasi Hills, West Jaintia Hills, East Jaintia Hills) and the surrounding areas (Ri-Bhoi district, Garo Hills in neighboring Assam). Unlike the majority of other Northeast Indian ethnic communities, they are matrilineal, with the youngest daughter inheriting custodial duties regarding the family properties and generational responsibilities.37 A married man will join his bride’s family and reside in the house of his in-laws.

Khas translates to “hills” in the Austroasiatic Khasi language. The Khasi hills are part of the Garo-Khasi-Jaintia range, which is itself part of the Purvanchal range, a subrange of the Himalayas; a separate Khasi phrase, Ki Lum Mankashang, refers to the Himalayas as a whole.

The Khasi indigenous religion is known as Niam Tynrai (or, in Pnar, Niam Tre)—meaning “Root Ritual,” “Original”—or Ka Niam Tip Briew, Ka Niam Tip Blei (“Man-Knowing, God-Knowing Ritual”).38 It is preserved, in one fashion, in the practices of Seng Khasi, founded in 1899 by sixteen Khasi men in Shillong in an attempt to protect the historical indigenous faith from the influence of Christianity, which, today, is practiced in some form by up to 85 percent of Khasi peoples.39 Catholicism is the largest and most “syncretic” of these, incorporating a great amount of indigenous ritual and belief. Presbyterianism is the second most popular faith, followed by a number of minority Christian sects.40 Relations between the church(es) and the indigenous Khasi faith are nuanced: sometimes amicable, sometimes neutral, and sometimes problematic, they vary by place and person.

According to modern-day Khasis, the duty for all humans living on this planet is to acquire “righteousness” through following a “good life” and meeting all clan duties.41 This requires careful and deliberate interactions not only with the divine but with one another. At the core of Khasi ontology is the clan; human and other-than-human beings directly impact the well-being of the clan. A successful life and death (bam kwai ha dwar u blei [lit., “to chew betel nut at the doorway of God”]) involves reunification with ancestors and the Supreme upon death, which can only be achieved after this “good life” is completed.42

Divination (usually by rice, eggs, or fowl entrails) is central to indigenous Khasi understandings of how this “good life” might be achieved—though sometimes it is necessary to invoke jutang (lit., the agreement between human and the Supreme, or between humankind and other-than-humankind)—ka ieng rangbah u briew, ka ap jutang u blei (lit., “God waits for man to fulfill the covenant”).43 Ritual divination (ka khan [lit., feminine denominator, “cause”]) is performed with rice grains; causality is embedded in the Khasi worldview, which is inextricably intertwined with action and effect. If wrong actions are taken without appropriate and sufficient counteractions, illness will manifest in the mind and body.44

It is worth examining indigenous conceptions of the self in Khasi ontology. A human being (longbriew) consists of body, ka met, which is in turn powered by a second component, breath, ka mynsiem, but also by a third aspect, ka rngiew, which is gifted by U Blei (the Supreme) to select sentient entities, including humans. It is this third aspect, the rngiew, that shape-shifts, changing humans into animals (from human into tiger, gecko, mouse, snake, snake-cat). On occasion, the human rngiew shifts from longbriew (human being) to fauna (e.g., were-snake) to flora (e.g., living bridge; that is, the were-snake form then shifts into a plant-like entity that allows for humans to walk on the living bridge form, facilitating the crossing of rivers and streams), a three-part process.45

For the Khasi, “nature” is not inherently sacred; rather, places in nature are understood to be the dwellings of various guardian deities, hill and water gods, and other entities. The quality of a place that renders it sacred is called Ryngkew. Ryngkew refers to a class of divinities, often guardian deities, sometimes associated with human–animal transformation traditions.46 Belief in Ryngkew is, in most cases, discouraged by church authorities, who associate the spiritual kinship found in site lore with the indigenous Khasi religion; this is not to say, however, that Niam Tynrai cannot be found in vernacular expressions of Christianity across the Khasi and Jaintia hills. Law Kyntang (sacred groves); Law Sang (taboo forests); and Ryngkew Basa (special stones, caves, hillocks, or rivers) are all spaces understood to have entities that protect them.47 Thus, they are the location of sacrifices, rituals, and celebrations; however, these tutelary deities are not equated with U Blei, the Supreme.

Khasi society is also known for its monoliths, which are worshipped as representatives of ancestors or fallen community heroes. Groves that house monoliths, including Mawphlang, the Sacred Forest home to the deity Labasa, are understood to be doubly sacred for their terrain and for their stones. One must not remove anything at all from Mawphlang; narratives abound of the ill luck—or even death—that befalls those who take from the land, engage in adultery in its confines, or otherwise disrespect its sacred state.48 Other charged spaces—pertaining to horizontal space rather than vertical; that is, not to elevation—include, for example, “syncretic” Catholic and indigenous groves; “haunted” or “dangerous” roads; and sites where the other-than-human cause unease.49

In addition to the multitude of sacred spaces found in Khasi lore, there are also demon deities in Khasi indigenous religion, such as Thlen, an often-destructive creature “kept” by a family for the purposes of wealth accumulation.50

Indigenous Khasi belief is particularly manifested through human–animal transformation.51 There are entire communities of ritually transforming peoples. The sangkhini, were-snakes, for example, have family lineages; sangkhini can shift from human to snake to bridges that allow their clan members to cross swollen rivers during the monsoon. In this way, sangkhini may serve a function much more practical and mundane than mystical (to become bridges for people to cross over rivers). Additionally, they establish and uphold social order and justice—sometimes killing community members by “divine decree”; allow for gender inversion—some humans assume opposite gender while in sangkhini form; and facilitate play, such as water races between sangkhini.52 Since sangkhini travel in rivers—and, in some cases, become part of the river structure (log bridges)—changes to the river as a result of development initiatives can impact complex engrained means of Khasi expression.

Khasi indigenous religion can be viewed, for example, through the lens of water as an analytical tool and research methodology.53 However, despite the etymology of Khasi (khas, the hills), the same cannot be said for peaks in the Khasi landscape; elevation simply does not play a central role in Khasi understandings of the world, and it cannot even be used as a mechanism to further comprehend the complex web of vernacular religion that is Niam Tynrai.

This is not to say that there are no sacred or mythic peaks, just as there are sacred groves, locations, and monoliths: some peaks such as Lum Sohpetbneng and Lum Shyllong—Shillong Himself is considered a deity—are indeed considered sacred and are the sites of pilgrimages; the hill of Sophet Bneg is the site of a legend about a door between heaven and earth, which ultimately birthed all the nations of earth.54

Further, in creation tales, the eldest of three goddesses, Ka Ding, ultimately used her power of fire to perform the death rites for her mother (the world), after Ka Sngi (Sun) could not conceal the mother’s corpse, nor could Ka Um (water). Ka Ding lit great flames that changed the earth—once a flat plain—into a mountainous surface riddled with valleys and peaks; in this way, elevation came to be.55 Here, the origin of elevation is equated to the necessity for female corpse concealment, and its creation is enacted by the daughter, the most sacred familial role among the Khasi. Elevation fits neatly into the sacred rules of Khasi ontology, from which it was born, but it is central to the Khasi worldview only insofar as it shapes the terrain; elevation is not a prominent factor in cosmology or eschatology.

The Lepcha and the Lhopo

The Lepcha (who call themselves Róng, Mútuncí Róngkup [“Children of the Snowy Peak”] or Rúmkup [“Children of God”] in the Tibeto-Burman Lepcha language) (population approximately 80,000 in Sikkim; some also found in Nepal and Bhutan) and the Lhopo (lho pa, people from the south, in Tibetan language; also known as the Bhutia, although this term is sometimes considered ethnically broader than Lhopo) (population approximately 42,000 in Sikkim) both worship Mt. Khangchendzonga; Khangchendzonga, at 8,586 meters, is the world’s third-highest peak.56 Located on the border of India and Nepal, it is a prominent mountain of the Himalayas. Veneration of Khangchendzonga is so central to both ethnic communities that its deification has become secularized in Sikkim, and the mountain is acknowledged as sacred by most residents of the state, including the Nepalese (who currently constitute 80 percent of the Sikkimese population and who are mostly Hindu), and is celebrated in festivals such as Chu Rum Fat (“Worship of the Mountain God”) and Pang Lhabsol (“Worship of the Gods of the Higher Ridges”). Pang Lhabsol is a celebration of the merger of the two ethnic communities (Lepcha and Lhopo) at Kabi Longstok, which featured the invocation of the Buddhist deity Dzonga (Khangchendzonga).57 The deity Khangchendzonga has become decidedly “Sikkimese,” appreciated by all, and the focus of multiple communities of the state.

Both the Lepcha and the Lhopo believe that Mt. Khangchendzonga houses a hidden land that can be accessed and that will open in a time of need—although these narrative constructs differ between the two ethnic communities.58 Contemporary Lepcha narratives about this hidden land sometimes reflect the influence of Tibetan Buddhism, which some Lepcha follow alongside the indigenous Lepcha religion; most Lhopo narratives about this hidden land echo “revealed” Tibetan Buddhist classical “treasure texts” of the Nyingma school that describe a beyul (“hidden land,” Tibetan) in the mountain.59 Political and topographical changes in Sikkim—due to the unrest in Tibet and development initiatives that impact the land—also affect narratives about Mt. Khangchendzonga.

The Lepcha

Lepcha indigenous religion in the Dzongu Valley, which is considered in many ways the “heart” of Lepcha land, is inextricably tied into the land and the mountain. Lepcha clans trace their origins and names to particular peaks and water bodies of the mountain. Their indigenous faith, presided over by mun or bóngthing ritual specialists, is practiced alongside Nyingmapa Tibetan Buddhism, presided over by lamas.60 Contemporary Lepchas say that this marriage of dual practice is equivalent to holding “traditional” Lepcha religion in one hand and Tibetan Buddhism in the other.61 Many Lepcha today are also Christian, though this subsection of the population is somewhat more likely to eschew historical Lepcha ritual; however, Christianity is also sometimes practiced in tandem with historical Lepcha faith.

The Lepcha worldview (and its lúngten sung, mythology) is predicated on the existence of rúm (helpful, benevolent entities) and múng (dangerous, malevolent entities). These other-than-human beings inhabit areas in “nature” and can manifest to assist (for example, to bless a clan lineage) or to harm (for example, to bring about illness). The Lepcha believe that the first humans were born from the mountain’s snow, with clans originating from particular lakes, caves, and hills. At the core of most modern variants on Lepcha origin is that the Mother Creator, known as Itbu-Mu, created Fodong-Thing and Nazaong-Nu, the first man and woman, from the snows of Khangchendzonga. They were meant to live as brother and sister, but they fell in love and instead lived as man and wife, which led to their fall from the mystical paradise of Máyel Lyáng. Another variation on this narrative has Nazaong-Nu born from the body (or, sometimes, the rib) of Fodong-Thing.62 In addition, there are some alternate tellings of Lepcha origin that involve a great flood or deluge in which Khangchendzonga, with its tall peak, was the only haven; still another has Khangchendzonga being born from the canine tooth of a deer.

Máyel Lyáng is the term for this world as well as a “hidden land” in the mountain. The unseen Máyel Lyáng is a parallel “paradise” located within Khangchendzonga. A common Lepcha saying is Alyu arong linba, Long nu paruk dongba, Mayel kyong ka thisyong re, which translates as “When cats grow horns and the rocks sprout shoots, we will reach Máyel country.” Máyel Lyáng can be found a number of ways, depending on the narrative: by following bird feathers, finding branches identified as those from Máyel Lyáng, traveling along “the black river,” or tracing wild pig footprints; or by avoiding salt for three months.63 The land can also be found by marrying a Máyel Lyáng resident; known as Máyel-Mu, these residents are sometimes described as immortal and are of small stature (anywhere from miniature to five feet tall). Narratives almost invariably describe Máyel Lyáng as difficult to reach; some say that the entrance is blocked by a great rock; others that it is guarded by large dogs; even others that there are three particular “spirits” (rúm) who look after the entrance.64

Some narratives about Máyel Lyáng state that the land houses seven brothers with daily life cycles (that is, they grow up and age each day, only to begin again the next day); similarly, sometimes stories describe seven aging couples as the Máyel-Mu. Myths from the early/mid-twentieth century also describe how each spring the Máyel-Mu travel to Tibet to sell eggplants, chilis, cucumbers, and pumpkins.65 In Máyel Lyáng, there is, depending on the account, no death; gardens continuously in harvest; large pigs. It is also occasionally described as the haven of Mun Salong, the Lepcha priest who guarded Khangchendzonga before the arrival of Guru Rinpoche Padmasambhava (who brought Buddhism to Sikkim).66 After death, it is understood that the apil (“soul”) returns to Khangchendzonga, either to Máyel country or to a clan site (depending on the narrative).

One common theme is that Máyel Lyáng is inhabited by Lepcha forefathers. The worship ceremonies for Máyel Lyáng, therefore, generally pay homage to these forefathers, who sometimes are represented by the deity of food or depicted as “mother-aunties” who look after the Lepcha who remain here on earth. At one time, the Máyel-Mu commonly interacted with the Lepcha of this world, but, because of the dispersion of Lepcha peoples and the challenges facing the ethnic community, they confined themselves to the hidden land. It is generally believed that the Máyel-Mu can communicate with Lepchas of this land through birdsong, and that these communications help indicate agricultural cycles, such as when it is time to harvest.67

There is also belief in a “yeti”-like entity who lives on the Lepcha high peaks. These beings are known as jumpi mung and are forms of the Lepcha hunting deity. Both male and female entities of this type are believed to inhabit the mountain jungles of Dzongu. Jumpi mung are identifiable by their eerie whistles, and they can be summoned by whistling; like many Himalayan jungle entities, jumpi mung require that humans follow the “rules” of the jungle and navigate it appropriately or risk repercussions, which can include death. Lepcha belief holds that jumpi mung like sugarcane, beer, and beetroot, but dislike dogs.68 Some narratives also describe that interaction with jumpi mung can occur when locals reach a certain high level of meditation in the jungle; jumpi mung, then, will bring them food.69

As Khangchendzonga has become increasingly popular with tourists, Lepcha activists are fighting for the preservation of the environment.70 One notable example of how damming has impacted Lepcha perceptions of the sanctity of the land is the traditional romantic phrase said to couples, “May you run together like the Teesta and the Rangit,” the two main rivers in Dzongu, which are believed to be in love. In addition to causing the loss of necessary resources like fish and the senseless deaths of multiple animals, damming the flow of the rivers impacts sayings such as this—if the rivers do not flow, the saying is rendered obsolete.

The Lhopo

The Lhopo, whose worship of Khangchendzonga has its roots in 14th-century Tibetan Buddhist terma (“treasure”) texts, blame construction projects, development initiatives, and tourism for the “spiritual illness” of the land and the deaths of their people.71 It is perhaps acceptable to shorthand Lhopo indigenous faith to a form of bön—a term that refers to the religion indigenous to Tibet, prior to the arrival of Tibetan Buddhism—so long as this form of bön is considered to be very alive, very mutable, and very site-specific.72 The Lhopo indigenous religion can be found in vernacular expressions within the framework of Tibetan Buddhism; place-lore and site-specific belief (e.g., place gods; in Tibetan, yul lha) reveal an ontology rich in entity-life wherein even poison (dhuk lha) can be viewed as a living being.73 Multiple “supernatural” entities inhabit multiple places; their behavior changes based on place.74

The most significant articulation of this site-specific indigenous belief is worship of Dzonga, the mountain Khangchendzonga. The Lhopo believe, following the Tibetan Buddhist narrative, that this indigenous deity was itself converted to Buddhism by Guru Rinpoche Padmasambhava; today, the deity Khangchendzonga is depicted in human-esque form riding atop a snow lion. As a deity, Dzonga is no longer thought to inflict pain on humans, but, instead, is the “chief” of a network of “nature” entities whom he can continue to control if properly propitiated.75 Khangchendzonga as an indigenous Lhopo deity is also celebrated in the nesol, a hymn composed by Lhatsun Chenpo (1597–1650); in this text, the author describes meeting Khangchendzonga in the form of a wild goose or white vulture.76

Among the Lhopo, Khangchendzonga is also the location of a beyul. Within Tibetan Buddhism, a beyul is a “hidden land” filled with mystical Buddhist riches and stores of resources—along with, sometimes, mystical tools and magical creatures.77 Among the Lhopo, Khangchendzonga houses Beyul Dremojong—the Hidden Valley of Rice. Beyul guidebooks are a form of terma (“treasure”) text that appeared in pieces of the sky, in rocks, and in nature sites to predetermined mystic receivers as designated by Guru Rinpoche Padmasambhava, who left these teachings to be found at later dates.

The Lhopo (Tibetan) translation of Khangchendzonga is “snow”—“great”—“treasures”—“five.” The five repositories believed to be found in the mountain vary by narrative, but include, for example, (a) salt; (b) gold and precious stones, turquoise; (c) sacred scriptures; (d) ammunition, invincible armor; (e) medicine and grain.78 It is understood that when the world ends, the beyul will open, filling Sikkim with material and spiritual wealth.

High priests receive communication directly from Khangchendzonga, and it is normal to ask Khangchendzonga for protection when leaving Sikkim and make offerings of chang (beer) and khada (scarves). In keeping with conceptions of “sacred geography,” there are inner, outer, and secret understandings of Khangchendzonga; the “secret” comprehension may, or may not, align with the opening of an external hidden land. However, physical travel to this hidden land is understood to have become hampered by the pollution in Gangtok, Sikkim’s capital city, and by commercial development in sacred places such as Tashiding; even though Tashiding—often compared to the holy Buddhist site of Bodhgaya—is protected by the prohibition of smoking and drinking, road construction and the breaking of rocks is understood to have released nagas (mythical snakes) that have brought death and illness.79 However, the ground itself is understood to be mobilizing and fighting back against development initiatives, which suggests that Lhopo comprehensions of the land reflect the land’s sentience and struggle for survival.80

Expeditions to open Beyul Dremojong continue to be organized. Notable examples include a group in 1959 led by Terton (“treasure receiver”) Tulshuk Lingpa, who had discovered a terma (“treasure text”) in a rock in Northern Ladakh with instructions to open Beyul Dremojong; his expedition was not successful.81 Nor was the group organized in 1966 by Kunzang Yunzag and Lama Tulshug Rinpoche: an avalanche killed Tulshug Rinpoche and other members of the party. The years 1959 and 1966 correspond with significant events in Sikkim’s recent history: 1959 was the year of the Tibetan uprising and the Dalai Lama’s flight from his home country; 1966 was the beginning of the Cultural Revolution in China. This suggests that narratives about the opening of the hidden land in Khangchendzonga align with times of political upheaval. Today, lamas and searchers periodically continue to arrive from Tibet (and elsewhere), often searching for Beyul Dremojong because of global changes that threaten climate and nature.

For the Lhopo, the land is alive and inhabited by site-specific (e.g., mountain pass, la tsen) entities; these entities—which sometimes include adopted Lepcha entities—are under the rule of the subdued (formerly indigenous, now Tibetan Buddhist) mountain deity Khangchendzonga.82 The mountain is central to navigating the ontology of the multiple realities daily inhabited by Lhopo people. It is also celebrated, acknowledged, and propitiated; though the Lhopo worldview is significantly influenced by Tibetan Buddhism, place-specific lore—centering on the world’s third-highest peak—occupies a central place in indigenous Lhopo ontology.

On “Nature,” Mountains, and Indigenous Northeast Indian Communities

Comparisons of indigeneity are inherently fraught, as are comparisons of mountain cultures. It is fair to say that certain ethnic communities that grow and flourish in the shadow of a particularly large peak (the Lepcha, the Lhopo) will frame their indigenous religion around this peak. However, it is also important to note that other communities in hilly areas—who also have high peaks in proximity—might develop extremely different religious beliefs (the Adi, the Khasi).

Further, since “nature” is a contested concept, it is helpful to remember that mountains exist as only one aspect of “nature.”83 The relationships between indigenous peoples in Northeast India and “nature” are nuanced, reciprocal, and often contentious. In this time of rapid globalization and development initiatives, as land is commodified and resources extracted, “nature” is becoming increasingly polluted and desecrated. Thus, indigenous perspectives on “nature” can change as the landscapes themselves do.

For all these upland Northeast Indian ethnic communities—the Adi, the Khasi, the Lepcha, and the Lhopo—belief systems and daily lives are inextricably woven into the terrain around them. But each conceives of nature—its enchantedness, its mundanity, its hidden lands—in community-specific ways. Further, environmental issues impact engagement with the “natural world(s).” It can be concluded, therefore, that: (a) the idea of “nature”—and of the mountain—among indigenous Northeast Indian peoples is not homogeneous, but rather delicate, specific, and contextual; (b) as “nature” is altered by modernity, indigenous narrative reacts, changes, and evolves accordingly; and (c) preservation of the land must be viewed as preservation of ontology; conversely, destruction of the land must be viewed as destruction of ontology. As “nature” is threatened, it becomes increasingly threatening in return, as is particularly evident among the Adi (Epom) and the Lhopo (the land).

In studying indigenous Northeast Indian relations with nature, insights are gained into the complications of globalization, the ingenuity and adaptability of belief-worlds, and the time-sensitive issues facing some of the world’s most vulnerable peoples. To simplify these nuanced ontologies: (a) The Adi view themselves as one small part of the complex web of sentience that is “nature”; the mountain, too, is one part of this complex web. (b) The Khasi view “nature” as mundane terrain with select sacred places; they themselves can transform into “nature.” The mountain is one of many sacred “nature” sites. (c) The Lepcha and the Lhopo view the pinnacle of “nature” to be the mountain, Khangchendzonga, though each have their own conception of a hidden land within it. Place deities found in both religions relate to the deity of the mountain.

Elevation—and its importance—is viewed variably across indigenous groups, even those in the same area (Northeast India); “nature” is not understood the same way across these indigenous groups, either. Destruction of ecology can be equated with destruction of ontology; without the land, the other-than-human entities may be orphaned—or even become malevolent. “Indigeneity,” “religion,” and “nature” are all overly simple terms that are used to discuss complicated ideas and realities; even when qualifying them, it is not possible to represent the richness of changeable ontologies.

Both “indigenous religions” and “upland religions” are terms that do not directly refer to anything truly tangible, but through examining case studies of belief-worlds from communities identifying as “indigenous” and those living in the shadows of mountains and hills, and the cross-section between these two qualifiers, sketches of “indigenous upland religions” emerge.

Discussion of the Literature

Early anthropologists such as Verrier Elwin (1902–1964), Christoph von Fürer-Haimendorf (1909–1995), and Grace Jolly (1926–2017) laid the groundwork for field research on religion in Northeast India.84

For an introduction to the exploration of “indigenous” and “indigenous religions” as terms and categories, see first the work of Bjørn Ola Tafjord.85 Attempts to define “faith” versus “religion” have become significant when examining reformation movements.86 The field of indigenous Northeast Indian religious studies is attempting to be sensitive to terminological definitions, including the word “nature.”

New lines of enquiry also include investigations into “congruent geographies,” an emerging concept (of Scheid and Lyngdoh) that is used here to refer to simultaneous, parallel worlds that may be accessed deliberately, accidentally, or unwillingly by all of, or an aspect of, a human or other sentient being.87 Commonly understood as “mirror realms,” these conceptual territories allow for situations in which one’s personhood—the “soul,” the “spirit,” or a third facet—acts independently of, or within, the body in a landscape that exists congruently with the mundane terrain. Examples of engagement with these “spirit topographies” include the journeys of shape-shifters, in which a person may assume animal form and move across, or even become, the land; “shamanic warfare,” in which ritual specialists may battle on another “spiritual” plane, bringing about injury and even death in this one; and “soul traveling,” in which the human “soul” may journey in the alternative landscape, potentially affecting the body that remains behind.88 “Congruent geographies” are found in most indigenous religions of Northeast India.

Modern research investigations also often attempt to incorporate the idea, impact, and space of liminality.89 Additionally, current scholarship attempts to navigate indigenous religions from a post–ontological turn viewpoint; radical empiricism can be employed to allow organic data sets to arise and to paint nuanced, context-specific illustrations of individual ontological frameworks.90

Research on contemporary vernacular religion in Northeast India has been carried out by researchers including Alexander Aisher (Nyishi); Ambika Aiyadurai (Mishmi, Meyor); Iliyana Angelova (Sumi Naga); P. T. Abraham (Adi); Vibha Arora (Lhopo); Anna Balikci (Lhopo); Meenaxi Barkataki-Ruscheweyh (Tangsa); Kikee D. Bhutia (Lhopo); Stuart Blackburn (Apatani); Kaling Borang (Adi); Pascal Bouchery (Apatani); Sarit K. Chaudhuri (Idu Mishmi, Adi); Jyotirindra Nath Chowdhury (Adi); Bani Danggen (Adi); Soihiamlung Dangmei (Donyipolo communities in Arunachal Pradesh); Sharmila Das Tulakdar (Pnar); Jagdish Lal Dawar (Tani groups); Pai Dawe (Nyishi); Pascal Dollfus (Sherdukpen); Oshong Ering (Adi); Toni Huber (Eastern Himalayan communities); Michael T. Heneise (Angami Naga, Konyak Naga); Vibha Joshi (Angami Naga); Desmond Kharmawphlang (Khasi); Nicolas Lainé (Khamti); Charisma Lepcha (Lepcha); Arkotong Longkumer (Zeliangrong Naga); Margaret Lyngdoh (Khasi); Erik de Maaker (Garo); Tamo Mibang (Adi); Meripeni Ngully (Lotha Naga); Philippe Ramirez (Tiwa, communities in Arunachal Pradesh and beyond); Talom Rukbo (Adi); Claire S. Scheid (Adi, Lepcha and Lhopo); Monimalika Sengupta (Chakma); Jelle Wouters (Naga); Ülo Valk (communities in Assam, particularly in Mayong); and Mélanie Vandenhelsken (communities in Sikkim).91

Much research is concerned with recording data in a world that is being quickly globalized; with reformation movements, development initiatives, and the influx of missionaries from various dominant faiths, the religious landscape of Northeast India is constantly evolving. The documentation of indigenous religious narrative is valuable in any form, for the sake of the preservation of endangered and rapidly shifting cultures.

Primary Sources


In Pasighat, Arunachal Pradesh, the Ering family has private archives chronicling many Adi folk narratives and the works of family patriarch Oshong Ering. Similarly, the Donyipolo Yelam Kebang (Faith Council), currently led by activist Kaling Borang, has internal archives chronicling parts of the history of the formalization of Donyipolo, though these may not be open to the public. The International Association for Religious Freedom (IARF), which both the early Donyipolo movement and—before that, Seng Khasi—interacted with, houses its archives for public access at the University of Southampton Library, UK.

Khasi and Other Ethnic Communities of Meghalaya and Arunachal Pradesh

A relevant archive to the study of the Khasi—and Northeast India in general—is the Ivan Martin Simon Archive, owned by Avner Pariat, currently housed in the North Eastern Social Research Center in Guwahati, Assam. These archives house the manuscripts of Ivan Martin Simon (1921–2011), prominent Khasi scholar and philologist. Documents date from the 1940s to the 2000s. Simon succeeded anthropologist Verrier Elwin as Director of Research, North East Frontier Agency (NEFA, today known as Arunachal Pradesh), and was a graduate of the School of Oriental and African Studies, University of London. He carried out extensive, valuable fieldwork in Meghalaya and Arunachal Pradesh. The collection encompasses much of his work and includes notes from field research, academic papers, compilations of folk narratives, writings on linguistics, personal and professional correspondences, creative endeavors, and his personal diaries. Additionally, it includes books and academic journals found with his papers. Visits to the archive can be arranged by contacting Claire S. Scheid.

Lepcha; Lhopo

In Gangtok, Sikkim, the Namgyal Institute of Tibetology undertakes research projects—both historical and contemporary—and is a great asset to anyone searching for primary sources about the Lepcha and the Lhopo.

Other general resources that might be helpful to researchers are the State Archives in Itanagar, Arunachal Pradesh; the Special Collections at the School of Oriental and African Studies, London; the online resource Digital Himalaya[]; the online resource Tibetan and Himalayan Library; and the online resource Brill’s Encyclopedia of the Religions of the Indigenous People of South Asia Online.

Further Reading

    Ethnography of Northeast India
    • Balikci, Anna. Lamas, Shamans, and Ancestors: Village Religion in Sikkim. Leiden, The Netherlands: Brill, 2008.
    • Barkataki-Ruscheweyh, Meenaxi. Dancing to the State: Ethnic Compulsions of the Tangsa in Assam. New Delhi: Oxford University Press, 2017.
    • Blackburn, Stuart. The Sun Rises: A Shaman’s Chant, Ritual Exchange and Fertility in the Apatani Valley. Leiden, The Netherlands: Brill, 2010.
    • Blackburn, Stuart, and Toni Huber, eds. Origins and Migrations in the Extended Eastern Himalayas. Leiden, The Netherlands: Brill, 2012.
    • Heneise, Michael T. Agency and Knowledge in Northeast India: The Life and Landscapes of Dreams. London: Routledge, 2019.
    • Longkumer, Arkotong. Reform, Identity and Narratives of Belonging: The Heraka Movement in Northeast India. London: Continuum International, 2010.
    • Lyngdoh, Margaret. “Landscapes of Enchantment and their Usage: A Critical Case-Study from the Khasi Ethnic Community, Northeast India.” In Religion and Senses of Place. Edited by Graham Harvey and Opinderijt Kaur Takhar, 160–176. Sheffield, UK: Equinox Publications, 2021.
    • Scheid, Claire S. “Desires of the Recently Dead: Preliminary Notes on Post-Mortem Possession among the Adi of the Eastern Himalayas.” Irish Journal of Anthropology 18, no. 2 (2015): 101–120.
    • Vandenhelsken, Mélanie. “The Enactment of Tribal Unity at the Periphery of India: The Political Role of a New Form of the Panglhabsol Buddhist Ritual in Sikkim.” European Bulletin of Himalayan Research 38 (2011): 81–118.
    Theory and Context
    • Descola, Philippe. Beyond Nature and Culture. Chicago: The University of Chicago Press, 2013.
    • Ellen, Roy. Nature Wars: Essays around a Contested Concept. New York: Berghahn Books, 2021.
    • Heywood, Paolo. “Ontological Turn, The.” The Cambridge Encyclopedia of Anthropology. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 2017.
    • Holbraad, Martin and Morten Axel Pedersen. The Ontological Turn: An Anthropological Exposition. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 2017.
    • Kraft, Siv Ellen, Bjørn Ola Tafjord, Arkotong Longkumer, Gregory D. Alles, and Gregory B. Johnson. Indigenous Religion(s): Local Grounds, Global Networks. London: Routledge, 2020.
    • Tafjord, Bjørn Ola. “How Talking About Indigenous Religion May Change Things: An Example from Talamanca.” Numen 63, no. 5–6 (2016): 548–575.


  • 1. James L. Cox, From Primitive to Indigenous: The Academic Study of Indigenous Religions (London: Routledge, 2017).

  • 2. This is not to imply that “Scheduled Tribes” have been allowed to integrate or benefit as fully as those who are not designated as “Scheduled Tribes.” See Virginius Xaxa, “Protective Discrimination: Why Scheduled Tribes Lag Behind Scheduled Castes,” Economic and Political Weekly 36, no. 29 (2001): 2765–2772. See also André Beteille, “The Idea of Indigenous People,” Current Anthropology 39, no. 2 (1998): 187–191; Adam Kuper, “The Return of the Native,” Current Anthropology 44, no. 3 (2003): 389–402. For references on “classificatory struggles in India,” see Alpa Shah and Sara Shneiderman, “The Practices, Policies, and Politics of Transforming Inequality in South Asia: Ethnographies of Affirmative Action,” Focaal: Journal of Global and Historical Anthropology no. 65 (2013): 2–12. Relevant ethnographic studies that address this topic include the works of Sara Shneiderman, Townsend Middleton, and Mélanie Vandenhelsken.

  • 3. Marine Carrin and Lidia Guzy, eds., Voices from the Periphery: Subalternity and Empowerment in India (New Delhi: Routledge, 2012).

  • 4. See, for example, the varying subgroups identified as “Scheduled Tribes” among the Adi in the 2011 census (Adi, Adi Bori, Adi Gallong, Adi Padam, Adi Pasi, Adi Minyong): Census of India 2011, Office of the Registrar General and Census Commissioner, India Ministry of Home Affairs. Many Galo identify as their own ethnic community and should be treated as such, despite being identified on the 2011 Census of India as the Adi Gallong; this is an example of how the census may not accurately reflect ethnic community delineations. See also D. Singh Grewal, “Identity Establishment Amongst the Tribes of Arunachal Pradesh,” Resarun 1/2 (1993, 1–15. This estimate of 200 (by Scheid) may be on the higher side but attempts to allow for self-identifications, which are often more specific than what the census reflects.

  • 5. For an exploration of the term “tribe” by the Indian government, and the response to official policy on this topic by indigenous peoples of India, see Virginius Xaxa, “Tribes as Indigenous People of India,” Economic and Political Weekly 34, no. 51 (1999): 3589–3595.

  • 6. Lhopo migration to Tibet is addressed in the section “The Tibetan Migration Narrative” (beginning page 36) in Saul Mullard, Opening the Hidden Land: State Formation and Construction of Sikkimese Identity (Leiden, The Netherlands: Brill, 2011). See also Anna Balikci, Lamas, Shamans, and Ancestors: Village Religion in Sikkim (Leiden, The Netherlands: Brill, 2008), 6. For Lhopo identity exploration, see Vibha Arora, “‘We are the Lhopo of Sikkim. We do not have Tibetan Origins. The Tibetans are the Refugees’: Changes in the Perception of Bhutia and Tibetan Identities in Sikkim, India” (127–156) and Anna Balikci-Denjongpa, “Ritual in Sikkim: Expressions of Cultural Identity and Change Among the Lhopos,” in Tibetan Borderlands: Proceedings of the Tenth Seminar of the IATS, ed. Paul Christiaan Klieger, 2003, Volume 2 (Leiden, The Netherlands: Brill), 157–180.

  • 7. Definition from Indigenous Peoples at the United Nations: “Indigenous peoples have sought recognition of their identities, way of life and their right to traditional lands, territories and natural resources for years, yet throughout history, their rights have always been violated.” Indigenous Peoples at the United Nations.

  • 8. See Bjørn Ola Tafjord and Arkotong Longkumer, “What Do We Mean by Indigenous Religions?,” (Podcast) The Religious Studies Project, October 2, 2017. Also see response by Claire S. Scheid, “Complications and Contradictions in the Usage of ‘Indigenous Religions,’” The Religious Studies Project, November 9, 2017. Additionally, see Cox, From Primitive to Indigenous; Marisol de la Cadena and Orin Starn, “Introduction,” in Indigenous Experience Today, ed. Marisol de la Cadena and Orin Starn (Oxford: Berg, 2007): 1–30; Laura R. Graham and H. Glenn Penny, “Performing Indigeneity: Emergent Identity, Self-Determination, and Sovereignty,” in Performing Indigeneity: Global Histories and Contemporary Experiences, ed. Laura R. Graham and H. Glenn Penny (Lincoln, NE: University of Nebraska Press, 2014): 1–31; Greg Johnson, “Ronald Niezen, the Origins of Indigenism: Human Rights and the Politics of Identity,” History of Religions 46, no. 2 (2006): 164–167; Mary Louise Pratt, “Afterword: Indigeneity Today,” in Indigenous Experience Today, ed. Marisol de la Cadena and Orin Starn (Oxford: Berg, 2007): 397–404; Janet C. Sturgeon, “Pathways of ‘Indigenous Knowledge’ in Yunnan, China,” Alternatives: Global, Local, Political 32, no. 1 (2007): 129–153; Bjørn Ola Tafjord, “How Talking About Indigenous Religion May Change Things: An Example from Talamanca,” Numen, 63, no. 5/6 (2016): 548575; and Bjørn Ola Tafjord, “Indigenous Religion(s) as an Analytical Category,” Method and Theory in the Study of Religion 25, no. 3 (2013): 221–243.

  • 9. Tafjord, “Indigenous Religions as an Analytical Category.”

  • 10. Claire S. Scheid, “Talom Rukbo and the Donyipolo Yelam Kebang: Restructuring Adi Religious Practices in Arunachal Pradesh,” Internationales Asienforum 46, no. ½ (2015): 127–148. See also Scheid, “Complications and Contradictions in the Usage of ‘Indigenous Religions.”

  • 11. Scheid, “Talom Rukbo and the Donyipolo Yelam Kebang.”

  • 12. Claire S. Scheid, “Literacy as Advocacy in the Donyipolo Reformation of Northeast India,” in The Brill Handbook of Indigenous Religion(s), ed. Siv Ellen Kraft and Gregory B. Johnson (Leiden: Brill, 2017), 279–293; Meenaxi Barkataki-Ruscheweyh, Dancing to the State: Ethnic Compulsions of the Tangsa in Assam (New Delhi: Oxford University Press, 2017); Meenaxi Barkataki-Ruscheweyh, “Best of All Worlds: Rangfraism, the New Institutionalized Religion of the Tangsa Community in Northeast India,” Internationales Asienforum 46, no. 1/2 (2015): 149–167; and Meenaxi Barkataki-Ruscheweyh, “Fractured Christianity Amongst the Tangsa in Northeast India—Bible Language Politics and the Charm of Ecstatic Experiences,” South Asia: Journal of South Asian Studies 41, no. 1 (2017): 212–226.

  • 13. See, for Rangfraa, Barkataki-Ruscheweyh, Dancing to the State; Barkataki-Ruscheweyh, “Best of All Worlds”; Barkataki-Ruscheweyh, “Fractured Christianity”; for Heraka, Arkotong Longkumer, Reform, Identity and Narratives of Belonging: The Heraka Movement in Northeast India (London: Continuum International Publishing Group, 2010); for Khasi indigenous religion and Christianity, Margaret Lyngdoh “Khasi,” in Brill’s Encyclopedia of the Religions of the Indigenous People of South Asia Online, ed. Marine Carrin (Leiden, The Netherlands: Brill, 2021); for Tangsa indigenous religion and Christianity, Barkataki-Ruscheweyh, “Fractured Christianity.” For the Donyipolo movement, see Scheid, “Talom Rukbo and the Donyipolo Yelam Kebang”; Sarit K. Chaudhuri, “The Institutionalization of Tribal Religion: Recasting the Donyipolo Movement in Arunachal Pradesh,” Asian Ethnology 72, no. 2 (2013): 259–277; Talom Rukbo, Directive Principles of Donyipolo Yelam (Faith): (The Code of Conduct) (Pasighat, India: Central Donyipolo Yelam Kebang, 2002); Talom Rukbo, “Donyipolo Faith and Practice of the Adis,” in Indigenous Faith and Practices of the Tribes of Arunachal Pradesh, ed. M. C. Behera and Sarit K. Chaudhuri (New Delhi: Himalayan, 1998); Talom Rukbo, Donyipolosim Through Questions and Answers (Pasighat, India: Adi Cultural and Literary Society, n.d.); Oshong Ering, “Philosophy of Donyi Polo,” in Understanding Tribal Religion, ed. Tamo Mibang and Sarit K. Chaudhuri (New Delhi: Mittal Publications, 2007): 35–38; P. T. Abraham “Donyi-Polo: Expression of an Indigenous Religion,” in Understanding Tribal Religion, ed. Tamo Mibang and Sarit K. Chaudhuri (New Delhi: Mittal Publications, 2007): 47–52; Kaling Borang, “Golgíboté: His Thoughts and Deeds,” in Én-Géna Pu:né (The Leading Star): A Commemorative Volume on Golgíboté Talom Rukbo, ed. Kaling Borang (Guwahati, India: Heritage Foundation, 2013); Kaling Borang, Golgi Bote Talom Rukbo: His Thoughts and Deeds (Pasighat, India: Central Donyipolo Yelam Kebang, 2002); Jyotirindra Nath Chowdhury, A Comparative Study of Adi Religion (Shillong, India: North-East Frontier Agency, 1971); Bani Danggen, A Comparative Study of Bon Religion of Ancient Tibet with Donyi-Polo Faith of the Adis of Arunachal Pradesh (Itanagar, India: Preety, 2007); Soihiamlung Dangmei, Religious Politics and Search for Indigeneity: A Study of Donyi-Polo Movement in North East India (New Delhi: Akansha Publishing, 2014); Jagdish Lal Dawar, “Politics of Religious Identities in Arunachal Pradesh since the 1950s: A Case Study of the Tani Group of Tribes,” in Political Roles of Religious Communities in India, ed. Jayanta Kumar Roy and Arpita Roy (Singapore: Institute for Security and Development Policy, 2008); Jagdish Lal Dawar, “Religious Conversion and Contending Responses,” in Understanding Tribal Religion, ed. Tamo Mibang and Sarit K. Chaudhuri (New Delhi: Mittal Publications, 2007): 159–172; Understanding Tribal Religion; Ruma Roy, “The Donyipolo Cult of Arunachal Pradesh: A Study in Textualizing Oral Religion,” (DPhil thesis, North-Eastern Hill University, 1995); Pascal Bouchery, “Apatani,” in Brill’s Encyclopedia of the Religions[], ed. Marine Carrin. For the Seng Khasi movement, see Scheid, “Literacy as Advocacy”; Lyngdoh, “Khasi”; For the Rangfraa movement, see Barkataki-Ruscheweyh, Dancing to the State; Barkataki-Ruscheweyh, “Best of All Worlds”; Barkataki-Ruscheweyh, “Fractured Christianity.” For an exploration of the role of Khangchendzonga in Sikkim, see Anna Balikci-Denjongpa, “Kangchendzönga: Secular and Buddhist Perceptions of the Mountain Deity of Sikkim Among the Lhopo,” Bulletin of Tibetology 38, no. 2 (2002): 5–39; and see also Mélanie Vandenhelsken, “The Enactment of Tribal Unity at the Periphery of India: The Political Role of a New Form of the Panglhabsol Buddhist Ritual in Sikkim,” European Bulletin of Himalayan Research 38 (2011): 81–118.

  • 14. As earlier explained in endnote 4, many Galo identify as their own ethnic community and they should be treated as such, despite being identified on the 2011 Census of India as the Adi Gallong.

  • 15. Kaling Borang, Personal communications, 2013–2015.

  • 16. Some view the recent changes in the articulation of Donyipolo as the influence of Hinduism; however, most Adi practitioners of Donyipolo do not identify as Hindu.

  • 17. Mibang and Chaudhuri, Understanding Tribal Religion, 2.

  • 18. Some Adi (e.g., Oshong Ering) consider the creator god to be Sedi, the creator of the Earth, but others draw a distinction between the ultimate creator god and Sedi. See Scheid, Talom Rukbo and the Donyipolo Yelam Kebang.

  • 19. Komeng Dai (1948/49–1993/94) was the artist who created the images for the Donyipolo movement. See Claire S. Scheid, “The ‘Father’, the Intellectual, and the Artist: The Lives of Three Indigenous Adi Activists of the Donyipolo Movement, Northeast India,” in Marginalised and Endangered Worldviews: Comparative Studies on Contemporary Eurasia, India and South America, ed. Lidia Guzy and James Kapaló (Berlin: LIT Verlag, 2017), 181–206.

  • 20. Claire S. Scheid, “The ‘Jungle Lord’ and the Natural Order: Adi Narratives about the Epom. [Il ‘signore della giungla’ e l’ordine della natura: Narrative della tribù Adi sull’Epom.],” in Monsters, Ghosts, and Demons of the Himalayas: An Ethnographic Survey of Myth and Folklore. [Mostri, Spettri e Demoni dell’Himalaya: Un’indagine etnografica fra mito e folklore.], ed. Stefano Beggiora (Turin, Italy: Hieros, 2016), 223–266; and Claire S. Scheid, “The ‘Jungle Lord’ and the Natural Order: Adi Narratives about the Epom,” Irish Journal of Anthropology 24, no. 1 (In press, 2022).

  • 21. Claire S. Scheid, “Desires of the Recently Dead: Preliminary Notes on Post-Mortem Possession among the Adi of the Eastern Himalayas,” Irish Journal of Anthropology 18, no. 2 (2015): 101–120.

  • 22. “I will here explain my use of the terms ‘nature’ and ‘natural order’ . . . so as to acknowledge their contested status as part of and following the ontological turn (see Roy Ellen, “Introduction,” in Nature Wars: Essays Around a Contested Concept, ed. Roy Ellen (New York: Berghahn Books, 2021). I employ these words interchangeably to refer to the living, sentient, and complex system of life (and death—and continuance) which surrounds the Adi and of which they are a part. Because all has descended from the same source in Adi cosmology (keyum), the world around the Adi is intimately related to the Adi experience of being. Simultaneously, there is an ‘othering’ by the Adi of the terrain beside them; the terrain is viewed as equally alive as the Adi, but is often a dangerous force, something that must be negotiated with in an ongoing manner. The Epom manifests sometimes as the voice of the jungle itself, and this jungle is conceived as separate from the plain and separate from the Adi identity—(the Adi live in the plain, the Epom live in the jungle). ‘Nature’ is social; the Adi are of it, working with it, and at war with parts of it all at one time. The ‘natural order’ is the design by which all things have evolved from the same source of keyum, nothingness; this lineage includes the ‘supernatural’ and humans comprise only one very small part of it. The coherence, or order, of the earth, including the ‘supernatural,’ is at the same time entirely ‘natural’; everyone and everything conceivable is intertwined in ecological ‘spirit’ lineages preserved in Abang, oral narratives. Of all the ‘supernatural’ entities and deities chronicled in Adi cosmology, only Donyi (the sun) and Polo (the moon) appear to be outside of the laws of ‘nature’—unlike others, they cannot be tricked, beaten, or overruled—only appealed to. Apart from Donyipolo, the Epom are the closest regulators of this natural order for the Adi (themselves part of this ‘nature’), as the Epom control the jungle (in the same manner that Dimu Taying, the ‘mountain lords,’ control their territory); the Adi rely on the jungle for their livelihood (e.g., hunting) and are thus inextricably engaged with it. I am not employing the term ‘nature’ in a binary way; rather, I am attempting as best as I can to offer portraits of different Adi narratives about the Epom using the language that they use to better comprehend the relationships between the Adi and the sentient world(s) in which they live.” Quote from Scheid, “The ‘Jungle Lord’ and the Natural Order.”

  • 23. When a layperson becomes a ritual specialist, the change that he or she undergoes is generally permanent, unless he or she takes great pains to avoid this transition, which can generally only be achieved through conversion to a religion other than Donyipolo, such as Christianity.

  • 24. “Priestly Adi’ is different from “vernacular” Adi, though it is not understood by many Adi nor is it well studied. Scheid, “Talom Rukbo and the Donyipolo Yelam Kebang.”

  • 25. Scheid, “The ‘Father’, the Intellectual, and the Artist”; and Scheid, “Talom Rukbo and the Donyipolo Yelam Kebang.”

  • 26. Dawar, “Politics of Religious Identities in Arunachal Pradesh,” 164; and Chaudhuri, “The Institutionalization of Tribal Religion,” 263; and See Scheid, “Literacy as Advocacy.”

  • 27. See Arkotong Longkumer, “Is Hinduism the World’s Largest Indigenous Religion?” in The Brill Handbook of Indigenous Religion(s), ed. Siv Ellen Kraft and Gregory B. Johnson (Leiden: Brill, 2017), 279–293.

  • 28. An example of some viewing the Donyipolo reformation as “Hinduization” of the indigenous religion is the addition around 2012 of the chanting of the word keyum (meaning void, from whence the entire universe was formed) at the beginning of official Donyipolo Yelam Kebang ceremonies. Some community members in Pasighat consider this to be uncomfortably close to the Hindu chanting of om. See Scheid, “Talom Rukbo and the Donyipolo Yelam Kebang.”

  • 29. Scheid, “Talom Rukbo and the Donyipolo Yelam Kebang.”

  • 30. Scheid, “The ‘Jungle Lord’ and the Natural Order.”

  • 31. Scheid, “The ‘Jungle Lord’ and the Natural Order.”

  • 32. Scheid, “The ‘Jungle Lord’ and the Natural Order.”

  • 33. Personal communications, 2013–2018.

  • 34. Tani Folk Tale Collection [n.d.], Ivan Martin Simon Archive, North Eastern Social Research Center, Guwahati, Assam.

  • 35. For Nipong as water spirit, see Verrier Elwin, A New Book of Tribal Fiction (Shillong, India: North-East Frontier Agency, 1970), 31–32; Scheid, “The ‘Jungle Lord’ and the Natural Order”; for the origin of these nature entities as children of Pedong Nane (“Rain Elder”), see Sudhamahi Regunathan, “Conversations with Nature,” India International Centre Quarterly 27–28 no. 1 (2001): 41–52.

  • 36. Personal observation, 2015.

  • 37. Lyngdoh, “Khasi,” informed much of this section. Additionally, other Northeast Indian groups such as the Garo—and Pnar (exonym Jaintia), generally categorized as a Khasi community—are also matrilineal.

  • 38. Lyngdoh, “Khasi.”

  • 39. Lyngdoh, “Khasi”; and “Seng” means foundation, association, union, and, in some contexts, conception (Margaret Lyngdoh, Personal communication, 2022).

  • 40. “. . . [I]ncluding the Church of God, the Seventh Day Adventists, Assembly of God, Church of Jesus Christ, the Baptist Church, Church of Northeast India” (Lyngdoh, “Khasi”).

  • 41. Lyngdoh, “Khasi.”

  • 42. Betel nut is areca nut, which is actually the seed of a berry, commonly chewed across Northeast India; see also Lyngdoh, “Khasi.”

  • 43. Lyngdoh draws a connection between fowl entrail divination and the narrative “Ka Krem Lamet, Ka Krem Latang” (“The Cave of the Leaves of Oak”), in which the rooster ultimately succeeds in coaxing the sun back into the sky and is rewarded with plumage. She also notes that this is why the Seng Khasi symbol is a rooster (Lyngdoh, “Khasi”). This story is reminiscent of am Adi Donyipolo narrative in which the animals must similarly negotiate with the celestial bodies to provide light.

  • 44. Lyngdoh, “Khasi.”

  • 45. Lyngdoh, Personal communications, 2013–2022.

  • 46. Lyngdoh, “Khasi.”

  • 47. Lyngdoh, “Khasi.”

  • 48. Lyngdoh, Personal communications, 2013–2022.

  • 49. Lyngdoh, “Khasi.”

  • 50. Margaret Lyngdoh, “Thlen, Demonization and the Other among the Khasis,” Internationales Asienforum 46, no. 2 (2015): 169−186.

  • 51. Margaret Lyngdoh, “Tiger-Transformation within the Khasi Community of North Eastern India: Belief Worlds and Shifting Realities,” Anthropos 111 (2016): 649−658.

  • 52. Lyngdoh, Personal communications, 2013–2022.

  • 53. “Indigenous research methodologies” is a new paradigm proposed by Margaret Lyngdoh; she uses water as an analytical tool to understand the Khasi. Lyngdoh, Personal communications, 2013–2022.

  • 54. Mrs. Rafy, Folktales of the Khasi (London: Macmillan, 1920). “The Goddess who Came to Live with Mankind (A Legend of the Shillong Peak)”, 18–23; and Rafy, Folktales of the Khasi: “The Legend of Mount Sophet Bneng”, 8–9.

  • 55. Rafy, Folktales of the Khasi: “The Formation of the Earth,” 24–25.

  • 56. Vibha Arora designates the term “Bhutia” as acceptably self-referential (“‘We are the Lhopo of Sikkim. We do not have Tibetan Origins. The Tibetans are the Refugees’: Changes in the Perception of Bhutia and Tibetan Identities in Sikkim, India” in Tibetan Borderlands, ed. Paul Christiaan Klieger [Leiden, The Netherlands; Brill, 2006], 31); Anna Balikci-Denjonpga (“Ritual in Sikkim: Expressions of Cultural Identity and Change among the Lhopos,” in Klieger, ed., Tibetan Borderlands, 128) and Mélanie Vandenhelsken (“Secularism and the Buddhist Monastery of Pemayagantse in Sikkim,” Bulletin of Tibetology 39, no. 1 [2003]: 57) state that “Bhutia” is larger in its designation, as noted in Claire S. Scheid, “Hidden Land and Changing Landscape: Narratives about Mount Khangchendzonga Among the Lepcha and the Lhopo,” Journal of the Irish Society for the Academic Study of Religions 1, no. 1 [2014]: 66–89; 1 [footnote 3]. Kikee D. Bhutia uses Bhutia (“Death by Poisoning: Cautionary Narratives and Inter-Ethnic Accusations in Contemporary Sikkim,” Journal of Ethnology and Folkloristics 15, no. 1 [2021]: 65–84) and Lhopo/Bhutia (Kikee D. Bhutia, “'I Exist Therefore You Exist, We Exist Therefore They Exist’: Narratives of Mutuality Between Deities (Yul-Lha Gzhi Bdag) and Lhopo (Bhutia) Villagers in Sikkim),” Folkore: Electronic Journal of Folklore 75 [2019], 191–206).

  • 57. See Vandenhelsken, “The Enactment of Tribal Unity at the Periphery of India,”; also Scheid, “Hidden Land and Changing Landscape,” 71 (footnote 20)

  • 58. Scheid, “Hidden Land and Changing Landscape.”

  • 59. “Treasure texts” (Ter) are Nyingma Buddhist teachings that have been “revealed” to mystic receivers who have been designated in time and space to receive these teachings. On the Terma (treasure) tradition, see Janet Gyatso, “Signs, Memory, and History: A Tantric Buddhist Theory of Scriptural Transmission,” The Journal of the International Association of Buddhist Studies 9, no. 2 (1986): 7–36. On “Earth Treasures” in the political context of the Ter movement, see Melvin Goldstein and Matthew Kapstein, Buddhism in Contemporary Tibet: Religious Revival and Cultural Identity (Berkeley: University of California Press, 1998), 73–76 (as noted in Scheid, “Hidden Land and Changing Landscape,” 71, footnotes 21, 24).

  • 60. Indigenous Lepcha faith practiced alongside Nyingmapa Tibetan Buddhism is at least found in Dzongu. Dasangmú Lepcha monasteries in Kalimpong, West Bengal, are Kagyupa Tibetan Buddhist, as noted by Brigitte Steinmann, “Mountain Deities, the Invisible Body of the Society: A Comparative Study of the Representations of Mountains by the Tamang and the Thami of Nepal, the Lepcha and Bhotia of Sikkim,” in Reflections of the Mountain: Essays on the History and Social Meaning of the Mountain Cult in Tibet and the Himalaya, ed. Anne-Marie Blondeau and Ernst Steinkellner (Vienna, Austria: Osterreichische Akademie der Wissenschaften, 1996), 179–218, 194 (as noted in Scheid, “Hidden Land and Changing Landscape,” 69, footnote 7.

  • 61. Scheid, “Hidden Land and Changing Landscape,” 69.

  • 62. As is obvious, there is a possible influence of Christianity in this narrative.

  • 63. For the tale including the “black river,” see Kerry Little, “Lepcha Hunters’ Narratives of their Hidden Landscapes,” Bulletin of Tibetology 43, no. ½ (2007): 81–98; 83 (as noted in Scheid, “Hidden Land and Changing Landscape,” 74, footnote 34.) For accounts of the other mentioned ways to find Máyel Lyang, see Scheid, “Hidden Land and Changing Landscape.”

  • 64. See Scheid, “Hidden Land and Changing Landscape,” 75, footnote 39.

  • 65. See Geoffrey Gorer, The Lepchas of Sikkim (1938; repr., New Delhi: Gyan Publishing House, 1996).

  • 66. Guru Rinpoche Padmasambhava is believed to have brought Buddhism to Tibet and Tibetan areas in the 8th century.

  • 67. Scheid, “Hidden Land and Changing Landscape.”

  • 68. Personal communications, Sikkim, 2005, 2007.

  • 69. Personal communications, Sikkim, 2005, 2007; this narrative of the jungle entity rewarding meditation may have a Lhopo source and reveals Tibetan Buddhist influence.

  • 70. For examples of the large volume of literature on the resistance to damming by the Lepcha, see Amelie Huber and Deepa Joshi, “Hydropower in Sikkim: Coercion and Emergent Socio-Environmental Justice,” in Water Conflicts in Northeast India, ed. Partha J. Das, Chandan Mahanta, K. J. Joy, Suhas Paranjape, and Shritu Vispute (Pune, India: Forum for Policy Dialogue on Water Conflicts in India, 2013), 102–110; Mibi Ete, “Hydro-Dollar Dreams: Emergent Local Politics of Large Dams and Small Communities,” in Geographies of Difference: Explorations in Northeast Indian Studies, ed. Mélanie Vandenhelsken, Meenaxi Barkataki-Ruscheweyh, and Bengt G. Karlsson (London: Routledge India, 2017), 109–127.

  • 71. Scheid, “Hidden Land and Changing Landscape.”

  • 72. Balikci-Denjongpa, “Kangchendzönga,” 9.

  • 73. See Bhutia, “Death by Poisoning,”; see for interesting comparison (with Khasi) Margaret Lyngdoh (“Thlen, Demonization and the Other among the Khasis”); consider further for comparison (with Karbi) the bap entity (Kareng Ronghangpi, “Wealth on the Hearth: Power, Magic, and Authority in Karbi Community,” University of Tartu, Estonia, April 14, 2022).

  • 74. Balikci-Denjonpa, “Kangchendzönga: Secular and Buddhist Perceptions of the Mountain Deity of Sikkim among the Lhopo,” 8.

  • 75. Balikci-Denjonpa, “Kangchendzönga,” 12.

  • 76. In the form of a wild goose: George Kotturan, Folk Tales of Sikkim (New Delhi: Sterling Publishing Private Limited, 1976), 86; In the form of a white vulture: Hamid Sardar-Afkhami, “The Buddha’s Secret Gardens: End Times and Hidden-lands in Tibetan Imagination” (PhD thesis, Harvard University, 2001), 136.

  • 77. There is a large volume of academic work on the idea of beyul and Himalayan sacred spaces. See in particular Toni Huber, The Cult of the Pure Crystal Mountain: Popular Pilgrimage and Visionary Landscape in Southeast Tibet (New York: Oxford University Press, 1999); Hildegard Diemberger, “Beyul Khenbalung, the Hidden Valley of Artemisia: On Himalayan Communities and Their Sacred Landscape,” in Mandala and Landscape, ed. Alexander William Macdonald (New Delhi: D. K. Printworld, 1997), 287–334; Hildegard Diemberger, “Gangla Tsechu, Beyul Khenbalung: Pilgrimage to Hidden Valleys, Sacred Mountains and Springs of Life Water in Southern Tibet and Eastern Nepal,” in Anthropology and the Himalaya, ed. Charles Ramble and Martin Brauen (Zurich: Volkerkundemuseum der Universitat Zurich, 1993), 60–72; Franz-Karl Erhard, “Political and Ritual Aspects of the Search for Himalayan Sacred Lands,” in Sacred Spaces and Powerful Places in Tibetan Culture, ed. Toni Huber (Dharamsala, India: The Library of Tibetan Works and Archives, 1999), 240–257; Charles Ramble, “Patterns of Places,” in Reflections of the Mountain: Essays on the History and Social Meaning of the Mountain Cult, ed. Anne-Marie Blondeau and Ernst Steinkeller (Vienna: Osterreichische Akademie der Wissenchaften, 1996), 141–153; Charles Ramble, “The Politics of Sacred Space in Bon and Tibetan Popular Tradition,” in Sacred Spaces and Powerful Places in Tibetan Culture, ed. Toni Huber (Dharamsala: The Library of Tibetan Works and Archives, 1999), 3–33.

  • 78. Scheid, “Hidden Land and Changing Landscape,” 78.

  • 79. Scheid, “Hidden Land and Changing Landscape,” 82; see footnote 64.

  • 80. Scheid, “Hidden Land and Changing Landscape.”

  • 81. Oral narratives about Tulshuk Lingpa currently circulate in Sikkim. For a full account see Thomas Shor, A Step Away from Paradise: The True Story of a Tibetan Lama’s Journey to the Land of Immortality (New Delhi: Penguin India, 2011). For an analysis of treasure-revealers and the search for hidden lands, see Franz-Karl Erhard, “The Role of ‘Treasure Discoverers’ and Their Search for Himalayan Hidden Lands,” in Sacred Spaces and Powerful Places in Tibetan Culture, ed. Toni Huber (Dharamsala: The Library of Tibetan Works and Archives, 1999), 227–239.

  • 82. Balikci-Denjonpa, “Kangchendzönga,” 8.

  • 83. For an exploration of “nature” as a contested concept, see Ellen, Nature Wars.

  • 84. Seminal works of Verrier Elwin include Elwin, A New Book of Tribal Fiction; A Philosophy for NEFA (Shillong, India: S. Roy on behalf of the North-East Frontier Agency, 1960); Verrier Elwin, The Art of the North-East Frontier of India, Volume 1 (Shillong, India: North-East Frontier Agency, 1959); Verrier Elwin, India’s North-East Frontier in the Nineteenth Century (Oxford: Oxford University Press, 1959); Verrier Elwin, Myths of the North-East Frontier of India, Volume 1 (Shillong, India: North-East Frontier Agency, 1958). Seminal works of Christof von Fürer Haimendorf include Christof von Fürer-Haimendorf, Highlanders of Arunachal Pradesh: Anthropological Research in North-East India (New Delhi: Vikas Publishing House, 1982); Christoph von Fürer-Haimendorf, “Religious Beliefs and Ritual Practices of the Minyong Abors of Assam, India,” Anthropos 49, no. 3/4 (1954): 588–604. For a summary of the works of Grace Jolly, see Rebecca Tamut, “The Life and Work of Grace Jolly,” in Crossing Boundaries: Tibetan Studies Unlimited, ed. Diana Lange, Jarmila Ptáčková, Marion Wettstein, and Mareike Wulff (Prague, Czech Republic: Academia Publishing House, 2021), 247–252.

  • 85. Tafjord and Longkumer, “What Do We Mean by Indigenous Religions?”; Tafjord, “How Talking About Indigenous Religion May Change Things”; and Tafjord, “Indigenous Religion(s) as an Analytical Category.”

  • 86. Scheid, “Talom Rukbo and the Donyipolo Yelam Kebang.”

  • 87. Abstract book: Claire S. Scheid, “The Dangers of Transdimensional ‘Soul’ Travel Among the Adi of Arunachal Pradesh,” (paper [to be] presented at “Religions and States of Freedom,” European Association for the Study of Religion Annual Conference, Cork, Ireland, June–July 2022); and Margaret Lyngdoh, “How to Traverse the ‘Congruent Geographies’ of the Shapeshifters and the Guardian Deities Among the Khasi: A Manual” (paper [to be] presented at “Religions and States of Freedom,” European Association for the Study of Religion Annual Conference, Cork, Ireland, June–July 2022).

  • 88. Panel: “‘Congruent Geographies’, ‘Spirit Topographies’: Entangled Landscapes in Northeast India and Beyond,” convenor Margaret Lyngdoh, “Religions and States of Freedom,” European Association for the Study of Religion Annual Conference, Cork, Ireland, June–July 2022.

  • 89. Ülo Valk and Daniel Sävborg, eds., Storied and Supernatural Places: Studies in Spatial and Social Dimensions of Folklore and Sagas (Helsinki: Suomalaisen Kirjallisuuden Seura, 2018); and Claire S. Scheid, “‘Liminal Ontologies’ in Anthropological Enquiry: The Value of Instability in Practice and Theory” (video lecture contribution to “‘Indigeneity,’ Orality, and Liminal Ontologies: Methodological Pluralisms and Approaches to Culture,” organized by the Department of Estonian and Comparative Folklore, University of Tartu, and the Centre for Karbi Studies, Diphu, Assam, India, January 2020).

  • 90. Attention to the dangers of describing indigenous cultures using only external concepts and etic terminology follows what has been called the “ontological turn” in anthropology; see for example, Philippe Descola, Beyond Nature and Culture (Chicago: The University of Chicago Press, 2013) [Par-delà de la nature et culture (Paris: Gallimard, 2005)]; Philippe Descola, “Societies of Nature and the Nature of Society,” in Conceptualizing Society, ed. Adam Kuper (London: Routledge, 1992): 107–126; Martin Holbraad and Morten Axel Pedersen, The Ontological Turn: An Anthropological Exposition (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 2017); Eduardo Viveiros de Castro, “Cosmological Deixis and Amerindian Perspectivism,” The Journal of the Royal Anthropological Institute 4, no. 3 (1998): 469–488. This approach reflects the struggles of contemporary scholars contemplating new academic approaches to the subject (e.g., Siv Ellen Kraft, Bjørn Ola Tafjord, Arkotong Longkumer, Gregory D. Alles, and Greg Johnson, Indigenous Religion(s): Local Grounds, Global Networks [London: Routledge, 2020]; Tafjord, “How Talking About Indigenous Religion May Change Things,”; Tafjord, “Indigenous Religion(s) as an Analytical Category”) and urges researchers to devise new, context-specific, and nonhegemonic methods of articulating the conceptual nuances extant in indigenous “beliefs” without reverting to dated anthropological categories; and Claire S. [Stacy] Scheid, “Talom Rukbo and the Donyipolo Yelam Kebang: Restructuring Adi Religious Practices in Arunachal Pradesh, Northeast India” (PhD thesis, National University of Ireland-University College Cork, 2016), 30.

  • 91. Alexaander Aisher, “Voices of Uncertainty: Spirits, Humans and Forests in Upland Arunachal Pradesh, India,” South Asia: Journal of South Asian Studies 30, no. 3 (2007): 479–498; also “Through ‘Spirits’: Cosmology and Landscape Ecology Among the Nyishi Tribe of Upland Arunachal Pradesh” (PhD thesis, University College London, 2006); Ambika Aiyadurai and Claire Seungeun Lee, “Living on the Sino-Indian Border: The Story of the Mishmis in Arunachal Pradesh, Northeast India,” Asian Ethnology 76, no. 2 (2017): 367–395; Ambika Aiyadurai, “The Meyor: A Least Studied Frontier Tribe of Arunachal Pradesh, Northeast India,” The Eastern Anthropologist 64, no. 4 (2011): 459–503; Iliyana Angelova, “Sumi Naga,” in Brill’s Encyclopedia of the Religions, ed. Marine Carrin; Abraham, “Donyi-Polo,”; Arora, “‘We are the Lhopo of Sikkim”; Vibha Arora, “Just a Pile of Stones! The Politicization of Identity, Indigenous Knowledge, and Sacred Landscapes Among the Lepcha and the Bhutia tribes of Contemporary Sikkim, India” (DPhil thesis, University of Oxford, 2004); Vibha Arora, “Roots and the Route of Secularism in Sikkim,” Economic and Political Weekly 41, no. 38 (2006): 4063–4071; Balikci, Lamas, Shamans, and Ancestors; Balikci-Denjongpa, “Ritual in Sikkim: Expressions of Cultural Identity and Change Among the Lhopos,” Tibetan Borderlands: Proceedings of the Tenth Seminar of the IATS, 2003 2 (2003): 157–180; Balikci-Denjongpa, “Kangchendzönga,” 5–39; Barkataki-Ruscheweyh, Dancing to the State; Barkataki-Ruscheweyh, “Best of All Worlds”; Barkataki-Ruscheweyh, “Fractured Christianity,”; Bhutia, “Death by Poisoning,”; Bhutia, “I Exist Therefore You Exist,”; Stuart Blackburn, Himalayan Tribal Tales: Oral Tradition and Culture in the Apatani Valley (Leiden, The Netherlands: Brill, 2008); Stuart Blackburn, The Sun Rises: A Shaman’s Chant, Ritual Exchange and Fertility in the Apatani Valley (Leiden, The Netherlands: Brill, 2010); Stuart Blackburn and Toni Huber, eds., Origins and Migrations in the Extended Eastern Himalayas (Leiden, The Netherlands: Brill, 2012); Borang, “Golgíboté”; and Borang, Golgi Bote Talom Rukbo; Bouchery, “Apatani,”; Sarit K. Chaudhuri, “Idu Mishmi,” in Brill’s Encyclopedia of the Religions, ed. Marine Carrin; Chaudhuri, “The Institutionalization of Tribal Religion,”; Chowdhury, A Comparative Study of Adi Religion; Danggen, A Comparative Study of Bon Religion; Dangmei, Religious Politics and Search for Indigeneity; Das Talukdar, Sharmila, “Pnar,” in Brill’s Encyclopedia of the Religions, ed. Marine Carrin; Dawar, “Politics of Religious Identities in Arunachal Pradesh”; Dawar, “Religious Conversion and Contending Responses,”; Pai Dawe is a Nyishi activist who publishes locally (in Arunachal Pradesh) on Nyedar Namlo, the equivalent of the formalized Adi Donyipolo among the Nyishi. See Pai Dawe, Donyi Game: Gospel of Almighty Mother Sun (Seppa, India: Pai Dawe and Family, 2010); Donyi Gungri Song of Mother Sun (Seppa, India: Nyedar Nalo, 2011); Pascal Dollfus, “Sherdukpen,” in Brill’s Encyclopedia of the Religions, ed. Marine Carrin; Ering has written extensively on Adi folklore and identity; his works are preserved by his family in Pasighat. See, for example, “Philosophy of Donyi Polo,” For a profile of Ering’s contributions to Adi society and the Donyipolo movement, see Scheid, “The ‘Father’, the Intellectual, and the Artist,”; Blackburn and Huber, eds., Origins and Migrations; Toni Huber, “The Iconography of gShen Priests in the Ethnographic Context of the Extended Eastern Himalayas, and Reflections on the Development of Bon Religion,” in Nepalica-Tibetica Festgabe for Christoph Cüppers, ed. Franz-Karl Ehrhard and Petra Maurer (Andiast, Switzerland: International Institute for Tibetan and Buddhist Studies, 2013): 263–294; Huber, The Cult of the Pure Crystal Mountain; Vibha Joshi and Michael T. Heneise, “Angami Naga,” in Brill’s Encyclopedia of the Religions, ed. Marine Carrin; Michael T. Heneise, Agency and Knowledge in Northeast India: The Life and Landscapes of Dreams (London: Routledge, 2019); see also Michael T. Heneise, “The Naga Tiger-Man and the Modern Assemblage of a Myth,” in Anthropology and Cryptozoology: Exploring Encounters with Mysterious Creatures, ed. Samantha Hurn (London: Routledge, 2016): 91–106; Michael T. Heneise, “Konyak Naga,” in Brill’s Encyclopedia of the Religions, ed. Marine Carrin; Joshi and Heneise, “Angami Naga,” in Brill’s Encyclopedia of the Religions, ed. Marine Carrin; Desmond Kharmawphlang, “The Ka Lukhmi: A Khasi rice myth,” India International Centre Quarterly 32, no. 2/3 (2005), 122–136; Nicolas Lainé, Living and Working with Giants: A Multispecies Ethnography of the Khamtis and Elephants in Northeast India[] (Paris: Publications scientifiques de Muséum, 2020); Charisma K. Lepcha, “Lepcha,” in Brill’s Encyclopedia of the Religions, ed. Marine Carrin; Arkotong Longkumer, “Zeliangrong Naga,” in Brill’s Encyclopedia of the Religions, ed. Marine Carrin; Lyngdoh, “Khasi”; Margaret Lyngdoh, “Dealing with the Dead: Vernacular Belief Negotiations Among the Khasis of North Eastern India,” in Contesting Authority: Vernacular Knowledge and Alternative Beliefs, ed. Marion Bowman and Ülo Valk (Sheffield, UK: Equinox, 2021): 339–360; Margaret Lyngdoh, “Landscapes of Enchantment and Their Usage: A Critical Case-Study from the Khasi Ethnic Community, Northeast India,” in Religion and Senses of Place, ed. Graham Harvey and Opinderjit Kaur Takhar (Sheffield, UK: Equinox, 2022), 160–176; Margaret Lyngdoh, “Water Spirit Possession Among the Khasis: Representation of Fear through Narrative,” IQAS: International Quarterly for Asian Studies 49, no. 3/4 (2019), 81–102; Margaret Lyngdoh, “Transformation, Tradition, and Lived Realities: Vernacular Belief Worlds of the Khasis of Northeastern India” (PhD thesis, University of Tartu Press, 2016); Margaret Lyngdoh, “An Interview with a Goddess: Possession Rites as Regulators of Justice Among the Pnar of Northeastern India,” Religious Studies and Theology, 36, no. 1 (2017): 55−78; Erik de Maaker, “Garo,” in Brill’s Encyclopedia of the Religions,ed. Marine Carrin; Mibang and Chaudhuri, Understanding Tribal Religion; Meripeni Ngully, “Lotha Naga,” in Brill’s Encyclopedia of the Religions,ed. Marine Carrin; Philippe Ramirez, “Tiwa,” in Brill’s Encyclopedia of the Religions[], ed. Marine Carrin; Philippe Ramirez, “Enemy Spirits, Allied Spirits: The Political Cosmology of Arunachal Pradesh Societies,” The NEHU Journal 3, no. 1 (2005): 1–28 (2005); Philippe Ramirez, People of the Margins: Across Ethnic Boundaries in North-East India (Guwahati, India: Spectrum, 2014); Rukbo, Directive Principles of Donyipolo Yelam (Faith); Rukbo, “Donyipolo Faith and Practice of the Adis”; Rukbo, Donyipolosim Through Questions and Answers; Scheid, “Talom Rukbo and the Donyipolo Yelam Kebang”; “Talom Rukbo and the Donyipolo Yelam Kebang” (PhD thesis); Scheid, “Desires of the Recently Dead”; Scheid, “The ‘Jungle Lord’ and the Natural Order”; Scheid, “Il ‘signore della giungla’ e l’ordine della natura: Narrative della tribù Adi sull’Epom”; Scheid, “The ‘Father’, the Intellectual, and the Artist”; Scheid, “Literacy as Advocacy”; Scheid, “Hidden Land and Changing Landscape,”; Monimalika Sengupta, “Chakma,” in Brill’s Encyclopedia of the Religions,ed. Marine Carrin; Jelle J. P. Wouters and Vibha Joshi, “Naga,” in Brill’s Encyclopedia of the Religions, ed. Marine Carrin; Ülo Valk, “Shrines, Stones, and Memories: The Entangled Storyworld of a Goddess Temple in Assam,” in South Asian Folklore in Transition: Crafting New Horizons, ed. Frank J. Korom and Leah K. Lowthorp (London: Routledge, 2019), 105−119; Ülo Valk and Neelakshi Goswami, “Generic Resources and Social Boundaries of Magic in Assam: Fieldwork Notes from Mayong,” Journal of Folkloristics 1 (2013): 5−13; Ülo Valk, “Conceiving the Supernatural Through Variation in Experience Stories: Assistant Spirits and Were-Tigers in the Belief Narratives of Assam,” Shaman 23 (2015): 141−164; Mélanie Vandenhelsken, “Indigenous People of Sikkim,” in Brill’s Encyclopedia of the Religions, ed. Marine Carrin; Vandenhelsken, “Secularism and the Buddhist Monastery of Pemayagantse”; and Vandenhelsken, “The Enactment of Tribal Unity at the Periphery of India.”