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Karbi people

Total population
419,534 (Assam, 2001[1])
Regions with significant populations
Karbi language
Animism, Christianity
For the place in Armenia, see Karbi, Armenia.

The Karbis(Assamese:কাৰ্বি), mentioned as the Mikir in the Constitution Order of the Government of India, are one of the major ethnic groups in North-east India and especially in the hill areas of Assam. The great artist-scholar Bishnu Prasad Rabha used to refer to them as the Columbus of Assam.[2] They prefer to call themselves Karbi, and sometimes Arleng (literally "man" in the Karbi language). The term Mikir is now not preferred and is considered to be derogatory.[3] The closest meaning of mikir could said to be derived from "Mekar".[4]


  • Overview 1
  • History 2
  • Religion 3
  • Culture and tradition 4
  • Economy 5
  • References 6
  • External links 7


The Karbis are the principal tribal community in the Karbi Anglong district of Assam, a district administered as per the provisions of the Sixth Schedule of the Constitution of India, having an autonomous district of their own since 17 November 1951.[5] Besides Karbi Anglong district, the Karbi-inhabited areas include Dima Hasao, Kamrup, Morigaon, Nagaon, Golaghat, Karimganj, Lakhimpur, Sonitpur and Biswanath Chariali districts of Assam; Balijan circle of Papumpare district in Arunachal Pradesh, Jaintia Hills, Ri Bhoi and East Khasi Hills districts in Meghalaya, and Dimapur District in Nagaland. Apart from Assam, the Karbis are also recognised as Scheduled Tribes in Meghalaya, Mizoram and Nagaland. With a population of around 4 lakhs 6 thousand (406,000) as per 2001 Census, the Karbis constitute the third largest tribal community in Assam after the Bodos and the Mishings.[6]


The Karbis linguistically belong to the Tibeto-Burman group. The original home of the various people speaking Tibeto-Burman languages was in western China near the Yang-Tee-Kiang and the Howang-ho rivers and from these places they went down the courses of the Brahmaputra, the Chindwin and the Irrawaddy and entered India and Burma. The Karbis, along with others entered Assam from Central Asia in one of the waves of migrations.

The folk-lores of the Karbis, however, indicate that during the long past, once they used to live on the banks of the rivers the Kalang and the Kopili and the entire Kaziranga area, the famous National Park situated in Assam, was within their habitation. During the reigns of the Dimasa Kachari kings, they were driven to the hills and some of them entered into Jaintia hills, the erstwhile Jaintia Kingdom and lived under Jaintia suzerainty.

While a section of the Karbis remained in the Jaintia kingdom, others moved towards north-east by crossing the river Barapani, a tributary of the Kopili and entered into the Rongkhang Ranges. There they established their capital at a place called Socheng. The Karbis who migrated to the Ahom Kingdom had to face the Burmese invasion.

The Burmese who invaded Assam perpetrated inhumane oppression on the people. The Karbis took refuge in the deep jungles and high hills leaving their hearth and home in the sub-mountainous regions. In order to save themselves from the greedy eyes of the Burmese invaders, the young Karbi girls started to use a black line from the forehead to the chin which is known a “DUK” with a view to making them ugly looking. While some of the Karbis migrated to Western Assam, some had crossed the Brahmaputra and settled in the north bank.


Religion among Karbi[7]
Religion Percent

Culture and tradition

The Karbis are a Patrilineal society and is composed of five major clans or Kur. They are Engti (Lijang), Terang (Hanjang), Inghi (Ejang), Teron (Kronjang) and Timung (Tungjang) which are again divided into many sub-clans. These clans are exogamous, in other words marriages between members of the same clan are not allowed. The traditional system of governance is headed by the Lindok or the king, who is assisted by the Katharpo, the Dilis, the Habes and the Pinpos. The Lindok is based in Ronghang Rongbong in the Hamren subdivision of the district. These posts of administration, however, are now merely ceremonial with no real power.

The Karbis celebrate many festivals. Rongker is one such festival held around January–February by the entire village as thanksgiving to the various gods and for the prosperity and the well-being of the community. The Chomkan (also known as "thi-karhi" and Chomangkan) is a festival unique to the Karbis. It is actually a ceremony performed by a family for the peace and the safe passage of the soul of family members who died recently.

Most of the Karbis still practice their traditional belief system, which is animistic called "Hemphu-Mukrang", however, there are also Karbi Christians (some 15% according to census of India, 2011). The practitioners of traditional worship believe in reincarnation and honour the ancestors.

The Karbi women are expert weavers and they wear home-made clothes. Their main attire consist the pekok, a piece of cloth with designs wrapped around the upper part of the body and tied into a knot on the right shoulder, the pini, similar to a sarong and a vamkok, a decorative piece of cloth tied around the waist over the pini. The men's traditional dress consist of the choi, a sleeveless shirt with a 'V' shaped neck and loose threads at the bottom, a rikong, which looks like a dhoti and a poho, a turban.


The Karbis traditionally practice jhum cultivation (Slash-and-burn cultivation) in the hills. They grow variety of crops which include foodgrains, vegetables and fruits like rice, maize, potato, tapioca, beans, ginger and turmeric. They are quiet self-sufficient and have homestead gardens with betel nut, jackfruit, oranges, pineapple, etc. which fulfill their nutritional as well as food needs. However, with the integration of the traditional lifestyle with the market economy, many of the traditional institutions and way of life has been left damaged, bringing about unending sufferings on the people.

Karbi people has the highest HPI (Human Poverty Index) value of 33.52, indicating that this tribe has the highest number of people in human poverty. (Assam Human Development Report, 2003).


  1. ^
  2. ^
  3. ^ Ethnologue profile
  4. ^ Meaning of Mikir « Karbis Of Assam
  5. ^ Karbi Anglong District At A Glance
  6. ^ "Less than 50 per cent Assamese speakers in Assam". The Hindu (Chennai, India). 9 January 2008. 
  7. ^ Census of India - Socio-cultural aspects, Table ST-14 (Compact disc), Government of India, Ministry of Home Affairs 
  • More information on Karbis of Assam

External links

  • Karbi-Anglong district information
  • Ethnography of Karbis
  • Ethnologue profile, old profile [1]
  • MEETING THE THREAT OF CONVERSION: The Emerging Healthy Trends
  • Indian Catholic, Christian leaders gather warring ethnic groups for peace
  • The Mikirs, cultural treatise by Edward Stack, Indian Civil Service, 1908, at Project Gutenberg
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