Food and Social Boundaries in the Foothills of Northeast India
Locating the Foothills
On a clear day from the foothills in Upper Assam, it appears as though the Naga Hills are embracing the Brahmaputra Valley. On cloudy days, the mist eats up the mountains and one’s horizon is limited to wet rice fields, coconuts palms and betel nut trees in the valley. The foothill is recognized as a physical and legal border, separating hill from valley both politically, through the creation of provincial borders in Northeast India, and culturally. However, the historical, political and cultural interaction amongst residents of the foothill border between the federal units of Nagaland (a hill state) and Assam (a valley state) in Northeast India reveal how limited this geopolitical demarcation is.
The distinguishing of hill from valley in Northeast India is not just a technical exercise tied to administrative or farming practices. Indeed, one of the most compelling ways of asserting this distinction is to invoke sensory perception by classifying the taste of food as belonging either to the “hills” or to the “plains”. When I met Mr Kithan, a Naga farmer from the federal unit of Nagaland, he explained how food grown in the hills and plains was distinct because, “the air and soil is different”. According to Kithan, rice grains from the hills could be distinguished from rice from the plains by taste. Even though certain vegetables grew in the hills and the plains alike, “In the hills, the vegetables are tasty but in the plains vegetables are bitter and tasteless. Take oranges: they taste different when grown in the plains and hills!” The following day, I met Mr Phukan in a neighboring village who chewed his tamul paan, a blend of areca nut, lime, and betel leaf, popularly known as the paan leaf, and explained why he could not eat the paan leafthat grew in the plains of Assam. He opened his mouth wide and pointed his finger towards his red tongue specked with areca nuts for a visual explanation, “It has to do with my tongue,” he explained. “My taste buds demands produce from the hills. Everything in the mountains taste so good.”
Developing a Foothill Taste
While taste was used to maintain distinctions between the hills and the plains, such attempts to police taste fell apart in the foothills. As the climatic conditions of the hills and the valley integrate and create an ecotone zone, residents in the foothills carry out farming practices that transgress social structures and taboos attributed exclusively to societies in either the hills or the valley. Inhabited by diverse ethnic groups, the foothill topography and the daily practices of its inhabitants challenge the dominant “hill” and “valley” classifications. This is most visible in the ways foothill inhabitants negotiate taboos and transgressions around dietary and other food practices. While spatializing identities, population, and practices is an important project of the state, the social life in the foothill border illustrates how deeply political dietary practices are (Douglas 1966). Political and cultural boundaries such as social status, solidarities and identities are constantly “made and unmade” through dietary practices in the foothills.
While anthropological scholarship on dietary taboos and transgressions has allowed us to understand the role food and consumption play in establishing social order and physical and social boundaries (Douglas 1966, Durham 2011), the dietary practices of the residents in the foothill borders of Northeast India, revealed that the daily practices around food taboo, transgression, and boundary were not necessarily set in stone. Why did the foothill residents embrace and transgress food taboos regularly, often blurring the boundaries between clean/unclean and sacred/profane? Unlike pork or beef or other kinds of food, which occupied an unambiguous position in the world of dietary taboos, the ecotone ecology of the foothills offered a diverse range of livestock and aquatic life that disrupted the dominant categories through which people understood dietary proscriptions. Here, the concept of food changed according to the season. In summer, the red ant nests and woodworms were a delicacy; during the monsoon the frogs in the paddy fields became part of everyday cuisine, and during winter the streams and rivers supplied an array of insects, crabs and snails for sumptuous feasts. Food and dietary practices, according to Deborah Durham are perceived as “relational ways of being” (Durham 2011. 148). The abundant varieties of food that occupied a position of ambiguity in existing dietary proscriptions made daily mundane activities like eating and drinking a moral battleground. Some foothill residents established new boundaries of hygiene and taboos while others challenged these new categories on the grounds that it reinforced the existing caste and class hierarchies.
Locating Taboo in the Foothills
In many cases, dominant food taboos were observed. Hindu groups, especially the Brahmins generally had strict food taboos against eating beef, pork and wild animals. Still, there were groups who frequently broke these dominant food taboos as an act of resistance against the Hindu caste system or as a sign of friendship and affinity towards individuals and networks from different ethnic groups in the foothills. For foothill residents taste and food were deeply political and serious matters and dietary practices became a political project here (Douglas 1966). This resonated with historical accounts of migration, conversion, and settlement in the foothills and plains where dietary conscriptions and transgressions were used as moral measurements to describe the society and its practices.
Girin Phukon, a local historian from the foothills describes how the Tai-Ahom rulers who ruled parts of Eastern Assam and the foothill areas of the Patkai range converted to Hinduism during the 17th century, yet they and their subjects continued to eat beef, pork, and buffaloes during their feasts and social functions like funerals and weddings (Girin Phukon, 2010). He quotes from the notes of a Persian writer named Shihab-ud-din Talish who visited the Ahom kingdom in 1662–63 and observed, “They eat whatever they get, and from whomsoever it be, following the best of their uncivilized minds. They will accept food from Muhammadan and other people; they will eat every kind of flesh except human, whether of dead or killed animals”. Phukon brings our attention to the 1908 Encyclopedia of Religion & Ethics that described the food habits of an Ahom village in the following manner; “Pigs and fowls abound in the Deodhani villages. Ahoms who have not been hinduized, sometimes even those who have become the disciples of Vaishnavite gossains, eat pork and fowls, and drink rice beer and rice spirit, much to the scandal of their sanctimonious Assamese Hindu neighbour, who regard them with horror” (Phukon 2010: 160).
Breaking food taboos is always scandalous when a group’s identity is centered on it. But a majority of the foothill residents often embraced and transgressed such taboos and adopted a “foothill” way of tasting and experiencing the place. Here, the concept of food changed according to the season. Residents in foothills were often tempted, compelled or convinced to try out particular kinds of food in the sticky foothill landscape created by the melting of multiple boundaries. At the same time, the foothills also emerged as a space where people underwent extreme tests to preserve their religious and social convictions by keeping away from certain kinds of food. For some groups the list of taboo foods continued to expand to include new items such as insects and ants, while for others, these food taboos were at best tactical practices that matched the sensibilities of the environments they moved in.
Residents developed a “foothill” sensibility from everyday practices in the entangled foothills where rigid boundaries like ethnicity and physical borders melted together. By foothill sensibility I refer to the manner in which residents established relationships and associated with neighbors on the basis of sharing an unstable and precarious landscape. Gogoi, an Ahom resident from a foothill town in Assam who had helped his Naga friends from Nagaland to establish a new village in the foothills described how he celebrated his bonds of friendship and kinship with the Nagas. He said the Naga village showered him with gifts for his help, but he lingered when describing the dishes his Naga friends laid out for him during the feast inaugurating the village. “There was an elaborate meal: pork, jungle fowl, deer, mushroom, vegetables! Ayah Ayah…there was so much food. We ate and ate and ate”. As a devout Hindu, his proud declaration and celebration of pork and game meat was a particular trait of foothill residents whose adventures and misadventures with the state authorities and existing classifications enabled them to experience the social world through what might best be translated as a foothill sensibility.
During my fieldwork, when I traveled with foothill residents, I observed how they adapted to a wide array of tastes and often said, “I eat everything, I drink everything”. It appeared that foothill traders and travelers who frequently toured the hills and the plains generally had to adopt a certain dietary flexibility. For instance, Assamese traders in the foothills shared how they often encountered dietary interrogations such as, “Do you eat pork?” when they entered a Naga village in Nagaland. According to the Assamese traders, these questions about one’s dietary preference were windows into the worldview of the guest’s social and political sensibilities. These tactical practices developed into a sensory practice, a way of tasting and thinking about food, which played a significant role in establishing ties—as trader, kin member, friend, or lover—and creating networks with different social groups, and helped them interrogate and challenge the existing classification and spatialization of identity and social practices.
Dolly Kikon is a doctoral student at the department of anthropology, Stanford University. Her dissertation examines how kinship, trade and labor relations are refracted through new state projects, and re-emerge as expressions of friendship, affect and morality in the frontiers of Northeast India.