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Why the Mithun Must be Saved

Understanding Arunachal’s State Animal

The mithun’s significance among the tribes of Arunachal Pradesh is widely known. In this article, the author explores the vicissitudes in the socio-economic importance of the mithun and why efforts should be made for their preservation. 

Due credit is given to the interview respondents Dibo, T, Kani, T, Kula, N, Nabing, K, Pilya, H R, Pombo, K, Ranko, T, Sulu, T, Takha, T, Talyang, N, Tama, P and Yubbey, D (2014), Ziro, Arunachal Pradesh and Haimendorf, C v F (1962; 1980 & 1983); whose responses and works respectively helped this author in properly understanding Yelu and its immediately-related matters.


Arunachal Pradesh is home to 20 major tribes and about 55 subtribes. The Apatani, one of the major tribes, reside in the Ziro valley, the district headquarters of Lower Subansiri in Arunachal Pradesh. Legend has it that the forefathers of the present Apatanis had migrated to their present place from the Tang Sang-Pho valley in Tibet. Although, the tribe is officially known as “Apatani” the tribesmen refer to themselves simply as “Tanw” during their conversation1. It is said that the Apatanis have the highest rate of literacy among tribes in Arunachal Pradesh and have a fair representation in government employment2.

The Importance of Mithun

A bovine species mithun (Bos frontalis) is intricately related to the mythology of Arunachal Pradesh. This bovine is found in Arunachal Pradesh and other North East states like Nagaland, Manipur and Mizoram besides Bhutan (Heli 1994). In Arunachal Pradesh, mithun is akin to gold because it commands the highest value in the barter system3. It is an essential part of festivals and dispute settlements in the society among Tanw people5. Mithun is sacrificed in religious ceremonies and rituals as offering to the (supernatural) gods and goddesses (the saviour of human beings).

The divine is supposed to bless the tribe to increase the productivity of the crops and livestock, and save the human race from unnatural catastrophes like famine, epidemics and diseases. Mithun is believed to be (the) symbolic representative of peace and communal harmony; the Adi tribe observes Solung festival annually to commemorate the birth and arrival of the sacred animal on this earth. Traditionally, the ownership of mithun is considered to be a sign of prosperity and social status of an individual.

The Origin of Yelu

Yelu literally means “dispute (of any kind)” and yelu lisunw or lisunw refers to “wealth or property-destruction challenging race.” Yelu lisunw/lisunw originates from yelu; in other words, yelu degenerates/snowballs into yelu lisunw/lisunw. However, yelu, yelu lisunw and lisunw are synonymous and are used interchangeably in this article.

The origin of yelu or yelu lisunw/lisunw is mythical in nature. Yelu or yelu lisunw/lisunw originated from the activity of two mythical men called Dulu Tadu and Kangu Hari.

Kangu Hari used to own one mithun. Dulu Tadu was its caretaker called dulu kanw (in Apatani)6. Meanwhile, someone seized the mithun of Kangu Hari on the ground that he (Kangu Hari) was not repaying a loan. Kangu Hari and Dulu Tadu were angry about this and Dulu Tadu seized the mithun from this person. By and by, the myth of the initial quarrel between Kangu Hari and Dulu Tadu and his adversary gave rise to yelu lisunw/lisunw or simply yelu.

Yelu as a System

A rich and influential Apatani resorted to yelu lisunw to reestablish his prestige when his personal honour was slighted by a fellow villager. Somone who initiated yelu lisunw would start by killing some mithuns and cows (as a challenge) in front of his rival’s house. The meat would be left there to be distributed among the relatives of his opponent.

Precious personal articles like Tibetan bell, bronze plate and sword, etc were also damaged and raided during this confrontation. If his adversary took the challenge he had to kill at least the same number of mithuns and smash other personal properties like bronze plate of equal value in front of the initiator’s house. As the next move the initiator slaughtered even a greater number of mithuns and damaged more articles.

In lisunw there was coercion, but it was not of a physical kind but a moral one. The challenger did not destroy his rival’s property but compelled him to carry on the destruction under the threat of loss of prestige.

Yelu and the Buliang

Yelu lisunw had many causes—land dispute, paddy field dispute, matrimonial dispute, dispute over mithun, theft accusation, slave ownership controversy, an insult and other individual or group clashes.

The Apatanis used to govern themselves traditionally through an institution consisting of wise elders, called buliang. Buliangs (an individual member of the council is also called buliang) are meant to uphold peace, harmony and social solidarity, expressing the collective will of the community. They might allow minor disputes to run its course, but ultimately it is they who restore communal harmony.

This tale dates back to 1920. Punyo Tamer was a rich and influential man in Hong village. A man, who was an erstwhile slave, used to live in his premises. Someone from outside the village had started living in the freed slave’s house as his guest. This man had cooperated with someone to seize a mithun belonging to Bullo Lampung a few years back. That offended Lampung, who was another rich and influential man of Hong.

For one full year the guest was living in the freed slave’s house unaware of any danger in store for him. Then one day, when that guest was on his way to a nearby jungle to cut firewood, Bullo Lampung seized him and kept him as a hostage in his own house for one night. Punyo Tamer considered this an insult to himself, as a guest in his former slave’s house was captured. Punyo Tamer offered five mithuns as ransom to release him. But Lampung did not agree to the offer of ransom and maintained that only killing of “that person” would satisfy him. Next morning along with some of his clansmen, he mercilessly executed him to exact revenge.

Punyo Tamer felt enraged.  He seized two cows of Lampung and slaughtered both the cows close to his house. Lampung was apparently not keen on taking the challenge of lisunw against the rich and influential Punyo Tamer and ignored his action. But Punyo Tamer being extremely hurt over the insult to himself and his house was out for a fight and continued challenging Lampung. He made another move by killing three of his own mithuns in front of Lampung’s house and, smashing one Tibetan bell, one bronze plate and one sword.

Lampung could no longer tolerate and killed four of his own big mithuns in front of Tamer’s house. Next Tamer killed 10 mithuns and Lampung challenged in turn by killing 20. The following day, Tamer slaughtered 30 mithuns, and Lampung topped it by gathering 60 mithuns and slaughtering them in a single day. Thereupon Tamer sent a request to all his relatives and gathered 80 mithuns (60 his own and the rest those of his kiths and kin) and was just about to slaughter them when the buliang decidedly intervened and persuaded him to kill only 60, so as to just match Lampung’s last bid (without outstripping him).

A settlement was effected by the buliang on the basis that yelu lisunw ended without a declared winner. Lampung was urged and persuaded to pay a fine of one mithun-cow to Tamer for killing a guest staying in the house of one of his dependants7.

Yelu and the Students

The Apatani students started looking at their society with a critical eye when they were exposed to education. Thus they found the yelu an inappropriate custom (realising its several demerits) and started a strong movement in mid-1960s to abolish it. Those (intelligent and) enlightened students carried out the movement by applying various tactics. One such tactic was that they used to destruct the ritual structure called sogyang (erected for the purpose of yelu)8 to prevent/stop yelus. The other was to impose hefty fines9. The students formed an association called AYA (Apatani Youth Association) in 1973 to carry on their activity, which survives till today.

Yelu in New Forms

The youth movement against yelu has rendered the buliang obsolete. People have adopted the administration, judiciary and police as its alternatives. Proliferation of lawyers, presence of educated persons within the same family and improvement in economic and financial conditions has made the entire job of litigations through the new forums easier. Alternatively, the wealthy Apatanis have made increased use of their excess capital to perform the festival/feast of merit locally called murung; with a view to, (among others) enhance their prestige and show off their social and economic powers (may be also to humiliate morally) to their poorer/equal adversaries10. They also utilise this excess capital to contest elections or to further their own business interests.

With no more politico-judicial functions to perform, the buliang now confines itself to socio-religious (ritualistic) roles in myoko and murung festivals.

Present Situation of Mithun

The situation of the mithun in the state on the whole is worse now.

Certain prosperous and so-called educated people are indiscriminately killing the mithuns uncontrolled in social and ceremonial functions just to show off their economic and social powers and influence. There are some who slaughter 50-60 numbers of the helpless animal in a marriage ceremony of their children though this is not a norm of the tribal culture. Actually, this is a new kind of trend set by extra earnings group of people who are misleading the younger generation and are diluting the culture” (Garam 2013).

Besides, in marriage ceremonies, elections and on every possible pretext mithun is slaughtered indiscriminately. It is sold as meat. However, a clarification might be made that except as done in yelu, the Apatanis do not kill the mithuns indiscriminately or uncontrolled by any corner (other than Abo-Tani tribes doing this) because their religion (indigenous faith) does not permit it.  

The mithuns in Arunachal Pradesh are till now under traditional and primitive method of rearing and are suffering and dying unreported in the forest every year being affected by the common diseases like Foot-and-Mouth Disease (FMD) and hemorrhagic septicemia because the animal populace remains unvaccinated against the same. Similarly, many bacterial, viral, fungal and parasitic diseases affect the mithuns but they are left to suffer and die. The sufferings and deaths faced by this species due to diseases, killings and violent thefts need to be minimised. This can be done by improving and expanding the veterinary infrastructure and its services/facilities by adopting and applying the best technology and scientific management system. Mithun rearing and caretaking is a tough, tedious and complicated task and very few are ready to do it. The mithun population is diminishing day by day; its growth rate in numbers is far below its slaughter every year.

The Food and Agriculture Organization of the United Nations (FAO) definition of animal genetic resources eligible for conservation includes animal populations with economic potential, scientific use and cultural interest. Mithun fulfills all of these criteria (Mondal, Baruah and Rajkhowa 2014). But no conservation policy (which should be adequate and robust one) exists in favour of the mithun, a species of pride in Arunachal Pradesh.


1 “Apa” is actually a very tender and affectionate term used for expressing one’s love and affection prefixed before any male name. For example:

Apa + Gambo (male name)                   =          Apa Gambo

Apa + Kumar (male name)                    =          Apa Kumar

Apa + Rehman (male name)                  =          Apa Rehman

2 Known as such because of early exposure (of the tribe) made to the world outside by anthropological writers like Dr Christoph von Furer Haimendorf.

3 Cost of one grown-up mithun is up to Rs 70,000 at the current market price.

4 In this, usually one mithun from each person or clan is sacrificed and then, the meat share is distributed to all the villagers. In due course, the dispute gets settled and friendship develops between the disputants after the mithun sacrifice.

5 The Tanw people/the Tanw Tribes/the Tanw society; also referred to as the Abo-Tanw tribes/the Abo-Tanw group of tribes consist of Adi, Apatani, Nyishi, Tagin, Galo and Mishmi tribes of Arunachal Pradesh. Here Abo means father/forefather/ancestor  and Tanw a proper name and the Abo-Tanw tribes/the Abo-Tanw group of tribes is known as such because these tribes believe themselves to be the descendants of Abo-Tani whom they regard as their earliest (mythical) known ancestor.

6 Traditionally, an owner appoints a required number of caretaker/s called dulu kanw for his mithun/s. Dulu kanw is given award in form of mithun; number of the award being dependent upon number of baby mithun/s born. Besides normal activities of caretaking, a dulu kanw has to, for instance, locate the mithun if it dies and inform the same to the owner for arranging to fetch the dead mithun home for meat. If the mithun dies and its dead body is not serviceable for meat, then at-least he has to carry its horns to the village and show and give them to the owner as evidence and for preservation. However, at times an owner chooses to care-take himself.

7 This yelu’s story is familiar to all old men in Hong (village).

8 Two strong wooden posts erected in cross as sogyang in a designated place each by both the yelu contestants so that the mithuns and cows were tied to it before its slaughter. When sogyang is destructed, religiously it renders a yelu indulger helpless from proceeding further.

9 It was Constitutional provision of AYA to penalize with a fine of Rs 900 (1973) to anyone who initiated an adversary to yelu.

10 Murung is a festival/feast of merits performed by an individual and celebrated by the community as a whole for the welfare, peace and prosperity of the society in general and the performer in particular; where-in mithuns and cows are slaughtered in larger number and their meats distributed for public consumption. It is reported that, to perform this significant festival at-least an expense of rupees twenty five lakhs in total has to be made by the conductor. It may be noted that besides capital, huge manpower and its man-hours are necessary to successfully conduct this mega festival which lasts for more than one month and active preparations of at-lest one year duration are needed.


Haimendorf, C v F (1962): The Apa Tanis and Their Neighbors, London: Routledge & Kegam Paul.

Haimendorf, C v F (1980): A Himalayan Tribe: From Cattle to Cash, New Delhi: Vikas Publishing House.

Haimendorf, C v F (1983): Himalayan Adventure: Early Travels in North-East India, New Delhi: Sterling Publishers.

Garam, G B (2013): “Mithun Needs Love, Care and Respect,” Arunachal Times, 9 February.

Heli, T (1994): “Mithun: Pride of Arunachal Pradesh,” Echo of Arunachal, 20 April.

Mondal, M, Baruah, K K and Rajkhowa C (2014), “Mithun: An Animal of Indian Pride,” Livestock Research for Rural Development, Vol 26, No 1, accessed on 30 October 2015,

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