The Karbi constitute the third largest tribal community in Assam, residing especially in the hill areas. Apart from Assam, the Karbi are also recognised as Scheduled Tribes in Meghalaya, Mizoram and Nagaland. The Karbi are known for their folk-tales, love for dance and music.
There is no written history of the Karbi. Linguistically they belong to the Tibeto-Burman group, and it is believed they entered Assam from Central Asia, from present day western China. According to the folk-tales, the Karbi faced oppression from the Burmese invaders, forcing them to refuge in the deep jungles and high hills. It is said that it from this period of the time, when the Karbhi girls started to use a black line from the forehead to the chin which is known a “DUK” with a view to making them less attractive, to be safe from the invaders.
A typical Karbi hut is built on a platform, several feet above the ground, using bamboo, timber and thatch. Cattle are generally kept under the bamboo platform. Generally the houses are divided into two parts lengthwise – the first part serves as a guestroom and the inner part as a private place for the family.
The Karbis are a patrilineal society and is composed of five major clans; Ingti, Terang, Inghi, Teron and Timung. These clans are again divided into many sub-clans. The Karbi clans are exogamous – marriages between members of the same clan are not allowed.
Most of the Karbis still practice their traditional belief system, which is animistic called “Hemphu-Mukrang.” They believe in reincarnation and highly honour the ancestors. The Karbis are very fond of their several festivals. Rongker is performed in January-February, to worship the different deities for the well being of the entire village. Although, the Karbis perform the funeral ceremony at the time of the cremation of the deceased, they also perform the death ceremony called “Chomangkan” for the eternal peace of the deceased. Everybody are welcome to the four days and four nights non-stop festival.
The Karbi women are expert weavers and they wear home-made, artistically designed clothes. They are famous for distinctive texture, designs and conspicuous colours. The Karbi women and girls are very fond of their traditional dresses and they have been using them even in the face of a strong competition of modern trends. The traditional dress consists of a decorative piece of cloth tied around the waist.
Traditionally, the Karbhi used 3 colours in weaving: white, indigo black and red, prepared from natural wild herbs. Today the Karbi also use green and blue in the designs. The traditional designs reflect the socio-psychological significances of their tribe, nature and animals. While the “Jambili Athan” design reflects the 5 clans of the tribe, a cock signifies the morning wake up, a goat means purity, an elephant reflects strengths and a butterfly signifies freedom and joy.