Unrecognized South Asia: An introduction to the Tripuri people

India is home to over 1.21 billion people, roughly 18% of entire human population. Indians speakAustroasiatic, Dravidian, Indo-European, and Tibeto-Burman languages (as well as two language isolates) and there are over 2,000 ethnic groups in the vast country. India’s considerable diversity, however, tends to be simplified or overlooked in the west, where Hindi language Bollywood cinema becomes metonymic for the entire Indian film industry and North Indian cooking (rather than being subdivided into Awadhi, Bihari, Bhojpuri, Kumauni, Kashmiri, Punjabi, Rajasthani, or Uttarpradeshi) becomes shorthand for the cuisine of an entire subcontinent.

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Tripuri kids

THE TRIPURI

One of the less-widely recognized or discussed ethnic groups in India are the Tripuri (also known as theTipra or Tipperah). They are believed to have migrated from somewhere in Western China to theBrahmaputra Valley at least 2,000 years ago — which may sound like a long time ago but is relatively recent in a subcontinent believed to have been first settled by humans at least 70,000 years ago and another hominid species, Homo heidelbergensis, perhaps as many as 800,000 years before them.

Debbarama Tribe

Tripuri refugees

Members of the Debbarma Tribe of Tripuri (image source: Northeast Indian People) and
Tripuri refugees of interethnic conflict (image source:
Intercontinental Cry)

Exactly when the Tripuri Kingdom arose is an unresolved question. The Rajmala — a chronicle of Tripuri kings — was written in the 15th Century and lists 179 rulers but the accuracy of its claims is in question. At various times, the borders of the Tripuri Kingdom reached south to the Bay of Bengal, north to the boundary of the Kamarupa Kingdom in Assam; and east to Burma. Muslim invasions occurred from the 13th century onward and exerted considerable influence on the Tripuri government. During Britain‘s occupation of India, Tripura became a princely state. In the 19th Century, still under the British, the capital was moved to Agartala.

Map of Tripura state The kings of the Tripura princely state had long encouraged Bengali immigration — which contributed to improved agricultural techniques, an englarged administrative sphere, and a linguistic shift in courtly literature. However, after the Tripuri kingdom joined the newly independent India in 1949, Bengali immigration increased and the Tripuri became a minoriy in their own homeland, which unfortunately contributed to a rise in interethnic violence. Today Bengalis represent roughly 69% of Tripuri’s population whereas the Tripuri make up just 17%. The modern state is the third-smallest state in the India. In the past there have been organizations who’ve sought to restore Tripuri’s independence including the Tripura National Volunteers (TNV), the National Liberation Front of Tripura, the All Tripura Tiger Forceand at least nine others.

The Tibeto-Burman language of the Tripuri is sometimes known as Tripuri but more often as Kókborok. Kókborok was recognized as an official language of Tipura state in 1979. Religiously speaking, most Tripuri are Hindu and believe in a patron goddess, Tripureshwari. Several regionally-observed festivals represent confluence of several tribal traditions, such as Ganga puja, Garia puja, Kharchi puja, and the Ker puja, which honors the guardian deity of Vastu Devata, “Ker.”

The traditional cuisine of Tripura is known as mui borok. Rice is the staple food. A key ingredient in many dishes is berma, a type of dried and fermented fish. Vegetarianism is actually rather rare and in addition to fishchickens, cows, crabs, frogs, pigs, sheep, shrimp, and turtles are all likely to be found on the menu. Popular dishes include chatang (a millet or sorghum flour mush) and mosodeng (a dish prepared with chiles, berma, meat, and vegetables). A popular drink is chuak, a sort of rice beer.

As mentioned earlier, it is inaccurate to equate Mumbai‘s Hindi Language musicals – Bollywood – with Indian Cinema. Andhra Pradesh, Assam, Bihar, Gujarat, Haryana, Jammu and Kashmir, Jharkhand,Karnataka, Kerala, Manipur, Odisha, Punjab, Rajasthan, Tamil Nadu, Telangana, Uttar Pradesh, andMandakranta Debbarma West Bengal all have their own cinematic cultures. Despite a rich theater tradition, Tripura has not yet emerged as major film-producing center. It has produced at least one filmmaker who’s garnered a degree of international recognition though, Father Joseph Pulinthanath. In 2004 he completedMathia (The Bangle), which was well-received at home. Yarwng (Roots), completed in 2008, concerned the displacement of large numbers of Tripuri by the construction of a dam and played in cities in Asia, Europe, North America, and Oceania and was honored with several awards. Both were released by Sampari Pictures.
There have been a few Tripuri who’ve gained exposure within the Indian entertainment industry. Mandakranta Debbarma was a contestant on MTV Splitsvilla, an Indian reality show modeled after Flavor of Love.

Hemanta Jamatia

The folk music of the Tripuri uses a variety of indigenous instruments including thechongpreng, dangdu, kham, sarinda (a lute-like instrument played with a bow), sumui (a bamboo flute), and cymbals.

One musician, Hemanta Jamatia, gained attention in 1979 when he used his musical talents to compose and perform the revolutionary soundtrack to the separatist struggle of the TNV, with which he was then affiliated. He renounced violence in 1983 but continued to fight for the Tripuris right to self-determination through his songs, which number over 200 in number. In 1996 he became the first Tripuri folk musician to be honored by India’s Sangeet Natak Academy.

In 2009, Tripuri singer Sourabhee Debbarma (born 1985 in Agartala, Tripura) became the first female contestant to win on Indian Idol.

Tripuri musician Borkung Hrangkhawl (born 1987 in Kamlacherra), performs his raps as BK. His father is president of the Indigenous Nationalist Party of Twipra.

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Eric Brightwell is an adventurer, writer, rambler, explorer, cartographer, and guerrilla gardener who is always seeking writing, speaking, traveling, and art opportunities — or salaried work. He is not interested in writing advertorials, clickbait, listicles, or other 21st century varieties of spam. Brightwell’s written work has appeared in AmoeblogdiaCRITICS, and KCET Departures. His work has been featured by the American Institute of Architects, the Architecture & Design Museum, the Craft & Folk Art MuseumForm Follows FunctionLos Angeles County StoreSkid Row Housing Trust, and 1650 Gallery. Brightwell has been featured in the Los Angeles TimesHuffington PostLos Angeles MagazineLAistEastsider LABoing BoingLos Angeles, I’m Yours, and on Notebook on Cities and Culture. He has been a guest speaker on KCRW‘s Which Way, LA? and at Emerson College. Art prints of his maps are available from 1650 Gallery and on other products from Cal31. He is currently writing a book about Los Angeles and you can follow him on FacebookInstagram, and Twitter.

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