Tribal transitions: cultural change in Arunachal Pradesh

Project team

  • Richard Blurton, project leader
  • Brian Durrans (advisor)

Department of Asia 


  • Dr Stuart Blackburn, Director of project; SOAS (University of London)  
  • Moji Riba, Centre for Cultural Research and Documentation, Itanagar, Arunachal Pradesh
  • Dr Sarit Chaudhuri, Department of Anthropology, Arunachal University, Rono Hills, Arunachal Pradesh
  • Government of Arunachal Pradesh
  • Michael Tarr, independent scholar and photographer, San Francisco
  • British Council, New Delhi, India  

Supported by

  • Economic and Social Research Council, UK government (main funder)
  • Rockefeller Foundation (planning conference October 17-24 2002 at Bellagio Centre, Italy)
  • British Museum Friends (initial finance for collections)
  • Carpenter Foundation (funding for publications, initially the book by S. Blackburn (text) Tribal Transitions: Arunachal Pradesh through Photographs, 1860-2006 with M. Tarr (photographs) (Leiden, Brill, forthcoming)

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The Tribal Transitions project starts from the premise that tribal people are not only guardians of culture but also initiators of change.  Cultural change in Arunachal Pradesh, a remote Himalayan state in northeast India (see project website for map) is the subject of our investigation.  Here the research team are documenting contemporary culture in three domains;  oral traditions, material culture and ritual practices  among five tribes, the Adi, Apatani, Idu Mishmi, Monpa and Nyishi.  They are using fieldwork (interview and object collecting), photography and film, along with archival material held in the UK and in India. 

This project is important from the perspective of the British Museum as the material culture record which can still be noted amongst these groups is significant for collections already held within the Museum; this is especially true for the culture of the Monpa (northwest Arunachal) and the Apatani (central Arunachal).  Amongst the Monpa, Tibetan-style Buddhism, dominated by the Gelugpa sect, is still very prominent and its material culture provides comparanda for studying BM collections where there is frequently no collections data.  Some of the items collected for the Museum as part of Tribal Transitions are relevant to existing holdings in the BM that date variously from the nineteenth century to the fifth century AD.  Meanwhile, information gathered amongst the Apatani throws light on collections made in the 1940s.

Other team-members are film-maker, Moji Riba; photographer, Michael Tarr; anthropologist, Sarit Choudhuri; language historian and folklorist, Stuart Blackburn (director of project).


The main objective, working collaboratively with Indian colleagues, is to produce written, photographic and film records of the rapid cultural change in this strategic part of South Asia and to make collections that illustrate this change.  These cultural changes are now taking place at an unprecedented rate and are visible in the religious, economic, social and political spheres.  Recent record work by the Museum has concentrated on the stupa at Gorsam, the trans-Himalayan trade route via Zemithang and the Karmapa shrine at Kibnas.

The research team  are also keen to make the existing BM Arunachal collections better understood.  Two researchers have now studied these, producing a database with images which can be taken to the field for identification and discussion with the communities from which the items came more than sixty years ago.  This new information is then being used to update the Museum’s Merlin collections database.

It is hoped that a display/small exhibition illustrating the project will also be produced, thus demonstrating international and inter-institutional research.  Such a display would be made up of archival and contemporary photographs along with items from the collections (newly acquired and older items).

Objectives realised include an exhibition of archival and contemporary photographs illustrating the project work.  This was organised in 2006 in conjunction with the British Council and was shown in Delhi (Crafts Museum) and in Calcutta (Victoria Memorial); see below for press comment.  Also with the British Council, a Museums Skills Workshop has been organised at the State Museum in Itanagar, the capital of Arunachal Pradesh (2004).

Further information

The School of Oriental and African Studies, University of London 


Brill Publishers in Leiden will publish three books, resulting from our research, in 2007. The first is a photographic history of Arunachal Pradesh (Stuart Blackburn and Michael Aram Tarr). The second is a collection and study of oral stories (Blackburn). The third is an analysis of an extended shaman's chant and its performance context (Blackburn).

S. Blackburn, Colonial contact in the 'hidden land': Oral history among the Apatanis of Arunachal Pradesh, (2003)

S. Blackburn, 'Memories of Migration: Notes on legends and beads in Arunachal Pradesh, India', European Bulletin of Himalayan Research, vol. 25/26 (2003/4)

S. Blackburn, 'The Journey of the Soul: Notes on Funeral Rituals and Oral Texts in Arunachal Pradesh', to be published as 'Die Riese der Seele: Bemerkungen zu Bestattungsritualen und oralen Texten in Arunachal Pradesh, Indien', in J. Assmann, F. Maciejewski and A. Michaels (ed.), in Der Abschied von den Toten. Trauerrituale im Kulturvergleich (Göttingen: Wallstein, 2005)

R. Blurton,  'On The Borders Of Tibet', British Museum Magazine, no.45. (PDF) (Summer 2003)

The forthcoming Brill volumes mentioned in para 1 have the following titles:

1 – S. Blackburn, (text) Tribal Transitions: Arunachal Pradesh through Photographs, 1860-2006 with M. Tarr (photographs) (Leiden, Brill, forthcoming)

2 – S. Blackburn, Himalayan Tribal Tales: an Oral Tradition in Arunachal Pradesh, India (Leiden, Brill, forthcoming)

3 – S. Blackburn, The Rising Sun.  Ritual Chant and Sacrifice in the eastern Himalayas (Leiden, Brill, forthcoming)