Arunachal Pradesh is a land of beautiful green hills among the lower Himalayas and is home to the Mishmis tribes. A vast network of small rivers, subsidiaries of Brahmaputra, one of the largest rivers in the world, have made this region extremely fertile. Around 800 years ago, the tribes of northern dry planes of Himalaya started migrating towards the green southern valleys. Over the centuries, their languages and lifestyles evolved according to the paths they chose. These settlers were the Mishmis, who now have about 72 different clans.
Mishmis are one of the rare tribes for whom silver is more valuable than gold. The Mishmis historically used to trade their yak leather, wool and tree fibers for silver and salt, among other things. Therefore, silver became a symbol of how well travelled one was and was highly prized for the status it gave its wearer.
Mishmi silver ornaments are unique and fascinating. The men wear a strap across their chest, laden with silver coins. The coins were used for their ornamental value, and post-independence; the small 25p coins replaced the rare silver ones.
Mishmi women are also bedecked in silver, wearing a silver band over their heads, silver bodkins and a pair of dumbbell shaped earplugs, all of them finely embossed. Thin silver forehead plates and large ear plugs are characteristic of Mishmi women, and rich girls often wear numerous silver hoops round the neck.
These earplugs, known as Krupei, or Eingsut consist of two parts, a dumbbell and a cap. The dumbbell is made of silver with dotted pattern embossed over the flat face. It is locked from behind using another embossed copper cap. Even though the women can get their ear-lobes slashed because of the weight of the ornaments, this does not stop them from adorning themselves with this fascinating piece of jewellery and they wear it by attaching the ear plugs below the ear lobe with strings.
The use of ornamental silver does not end at jewellery; a Mishmi is incomplete without his silver smoking pipe. This intricately ornamented three piece pipe consists of a cup and two or more additional tubes. The length of silver pipe represents the seniority level and social status of a Mishmi man. Usually younger people fill up the pipe for older ones in meetings.
Earlier, the silver ornaments were made by traditional craftsmen by the technique of wax moulding. The Mishmi silver smith craft was much more intricate and artistic than the present day. The business of making silver ornaments has shifted to modern jewelers, who use the process of embossing on silver sheets. The designs are simple; traditional units like four leaf flower are embossed by compositions of dots and simple curves.
The traditional Mishmi ornaments are now worn only by the older people. The beautiful Mishmi silver smithing craft is now almost obsolete, the exceptional technique fading but remnants of which still survive in the lives of the people.