Dr. Indraneel Pegu
Assistant Professor, Department of History, Rangachahi College, Majuli, 
Assam, India

The Misings are one of the tribes of Assam and are the second largest group with a population of about seven lakhs. They are one of the offshoots of Mongoloid stock while linguistically they are Tibeto-Burmans most of them inhabited in Upper Assam. The Misings had their own traditional beliefs and practices. The religious beliefs and practices of the Misings fall within the purview of Animism. Animism is the belief that inanimate objects and natural phenomena have souls. Their traditional belief is based on the belief in Do:nyi-Po:lo (Sun-Moon) as their eternal heavenly beings on all animistic rites, but they do not worship them as their deities. It is the lesser supernatural beings i.e. Benevolent and Malevolent spirits that are worshipped or propitiated in general. This is because they believe in the supernatural powers of these spirits. The traditional beliefs and practices of the Misings witnessed changes ever since their migration down to the plains of Assam. The Vaisnavite movement of Assam of the 14th-15th century have gradually influenced the traditional set up of the Misings beliefs and practices. The change is so prominent in Majuli that no any Mising family has been found to be free from vaisnavite influence in one way or other. The objective of this research article is to highlight the traditional beliefs and practices of the Misings of Majuli and the changes that have taken place in their beliefs and practices after the influence of Vaisnavism.

Key words:  Animism, Mising, Traditional, Vaisnavism

The Misings are one of the tribes of Assam and are the second largest group with a population of about seven lakhs. They are one of the offshoots of Mongoloid stock while linguistically they are Tibeto-Burmans (Allen, 1905) most of them inhabited in Upper Assam. In the long back they used to live in the hilly areas in between the Siang and Subansiri districts of present day Arunachal Pradesh (Allen, 1905) and came down to the plains of Assam around 14th -15th century (Pegu, 2004.)  Since then they began to settle on the riverside areas of the Brahmaputra and the Subansiri rivers of Assam. They are now concentrated in the Upper Assam districts of Dhemaji, North Lakhimpur, Jorhat, Sibsagar, Golaghat, Tinsukia, Sonitpur and Majuli. Moreover, a large number of Misings settled themselves on the Majuli Island, which is surrounded by the river Brahmaputra to the South and the Subansiri and Kherkotia in the North. Of the total number of 243 villages in Majuli the Mising dominated village is numbered at 108. Some of the Mising villages of Majuli are- Borpomua, Tamar, Putuki, Besamora, Ratanpur, Cherpai, Kekuri, Daktok, Moyongia chapori, Missamora, Sumoimari, Molual Miri and Korotipar. It needs to be mentioned that in terms of population Misings are dominant tribes in the Island district.

  1. To highlight traditional beliefs and practices of the Misings of Majuli and the changes that have taken place in their beliefs and practices after the influence of Vaisnavism.
  2. To highlight the new practices that have evolved after the influence of the Vaisnavite movement in Assam. 
3. Methodology
Historical methodology has been followed in the research work. Necessary data and information have been collected by consulting both primary and secondary sources. Field study based on interviews and questionnaires have played an important role. Articles in newspaper and research papers on the related topics of the community have been used as secondary sources. Information has also been derived from the website. The survey was conducted in the period between 1999 and 2013.

4.Results and Discussion
4.1 Traditional beliefs and practices of the Misings
The traditional religious beliefs and practices of the Misings fall within the purview of Animism. Animism is the belief that inanimate objects and natural phenomena have souls (Oxford Dictionary and Thesaurus III, 2008).

As per the Mising oral tradition, the creation of the Universe have been described in the Miboo Aa:bangs (Padun, 2005). Thus, the Universe is consisted of one earth and two other ethereal planets in its constellation; namely, Régí-Régam, Dong-Aamong and Ui-Aamong. The heaven is called ‘Régí-Régam’ or the Kingdom of Gods, the earth ‘Dong Aamong’ and the purgatory or ‘Ui Among’ is the abode of spirits. As per the Mising belief these three form the celestial constellation of Kéyum or the Universe. Régí-Régam and Dong Aamong remain within the orbit of the solar fraternity whereas Ui-Aamong exists outside the host of solar panorama and shrouded with clouds of eternal darkness (Pegu, 2011).

i)Se:di-Me:lo: Misings believe that the creator of the universe was Se:di and Me:lo. They are conceived by the Misings as earliest worldly beings representing male and female principles or the ‘Purusha’ and ‘Prakriti’ respectively (Pegu, 1981). They are said to have evolved from Kéyum>Yumkang>Ka:si>Siyan>Anbo>Bomug>Mukseng>Se:di whose identities are unclear (Taid, 2002). It is believed that thereafter Se:di-Me:lo set off the process of creation from Diling>Litung>Tuye> Yepe>Pedong. Pedong is said to be a female (ané) who had given birth to all men and spirits. As a result visibility of the universe started with Pedong- which literally means ‘rain’ and the mother of all.

ii)Do:nyi -Po:lo: Misings believe that Do:nyi  and Po:lo sprang directly from Se:di-Me:lo. And they in turn consider themselves to be the progenies or offspring of Do:nyi-Po:lo.  Do:nyi-Po:lo literally meaning “Sun-Moon”, is followed by many of the tribal groups in Arunachal Pradesh including the Apatani, Adi, Mising, Tagin and Nishi. The believe in Do:nyi -Po:lo has no written scriptures, but has traditionally been passed down orally from each generation to the next. The believe in Do:nyi-Po:lo by the Misings is based on the notion that it acts as the guardian and protector of the people in this universe. They refer to Do:nyi  as ‘Ané Do:nyi ’ meaning mother and Po:lo as ‘Abu Po:lo’ meaning father.  In the words of V. Elwin, Do:nyi-Po:lo: “is the eye of the world; he is as important to man as eye is to the body. It watches everything…Above all he is the lord of truth and an oath taken on his name is most binding of all.” (Elwin, 1993).

Although their traditional belief is based on the belief in Do:nyi-Po:lo (Sun-Moon) as their eternal heavenly beings on all animistic rites, but they do not worship them as their deities (Taid, 2007). These powers like Do:nyi-Po:lo, Se:di-Me:lo, Runé-Péné are not worshipped but instead invoked frequently in primitive rituals. It is the lesser supernatural beings i.e. Benevolent and Malevolent spirits that are worshipped or propitiated in general. This is because they believe in the supernatural powers of these spirits. The Malevolent spirits always look for casting evils while even the Benevolent spirits turns harmful if they are not kept appeased.

Worship of supernatural beings can be distinguished in to four categories: Uie or Uyu, Urom Po:sum, Epom-Yapom and Gu:mín-So:yin (Taid, 2002). Uies are the powerful invisible spirits like the God of thunder, lightning etc. Urom Po:sum are the spirit of the dead who meet  unnatural death. They are malevolent and can harm a person or a family. Epom-Yapoms are forest spirits living in trees capable of causing harm to their human neighbors. Gu:mín-So:yin are guardian spirits of the households and the surrounding, including agricultural fields. All these supernatural beings are commonly referred to by the term Uie and therefore any rituals meant to appease them is known as Uie Inam or Uie Mo:nam

Therefore they perform various rites to satisfy these powers. These rites are performed by the ‘Miboo’- traditional priests. He would try to know the root of the problem with his gifted power through various means, such as egg breaking, reading omens from the livers and entrails of animals or through communication with supernatural beings.

Another characteristic of their belief is offering prayers to their forefathers. In every ritual they take or remember the name of their forefathers of up to ten or more generations. Only after that, they follow other procedures. The basis for this prayer is that they believe that it would not have been possible for them to come to this earth without the blessings of their forefathers. It is due to their hard work, struggle etc they could remain in the present position and therefore offer tribute through their prayers. They believe that the teachings and blessings of their forefathers are more important than anything else. Moreover, forefathers are believed to be as benevolent spirits that guard a family from inflicting evils. However, if necessary rituals are not performed than they are believed to be dissatisfied.

Some of the rituals performed by the Misings are:
  1. Ya:lo La:nganam: Ya:lo literally means shadow. However here it means one’s invisible life preserving spirit, who keeps company in his or her lifetime and whose separation from the body means one’s death (Taid, 2007). It so happens that ya:lo might have strayed away from a person because of a shock or illness and in order to recall back ya:lo la:nganam (calling back the life preserving spirit) is performed. Presided by the Miboo who perform all the animistic rites that require the use of A:pong, meat etc.
  2. Ba:mudnam:It is done for different reasons like if a person is ill for a long time, if he is not good in field of academics or other activities etc. In such cases the Miboo detect the spirit responsible for the problem. Ba:mudnam is also performed sometimes few days prior to ya:lo la:nganam. In such cases a pig or a chicken is dedicated to a particular spirit. It is done by removing a small part of the hair of a pig or feather of a chicken and burns it in the fire thereby dedicating it in the name of a particular spirit. And the concerned pig or chicken is sacrificed on the day of the ritual. At the time of Ba:mudnam the Miboo mention the name of concerned spirit and inform that a particular animal is dedicated in its name and thereby ask it to take away all the evils that is being inflicted upon the family.
  3. Taléng Uie (sky spirit): Taléng Uie is another ritual of the Misings to appease the heavenly spirits. The word ‘Taléng’ means up or heavenly while ‘Uie’ means spirit or ritual. Heavenly objects like air, cyclone, storm, cloud, thunder, lightning etc are believed to have supernatural power which can destroy the universe as per their own will. Therefore these upside-spirits so-called deities were kept appeased by paying occasional sacrifices or offerings through Taléng uie. It is also the most expensive ritual of the Mising community.
  4. Kum:sung Uie (granary spirit): Kum:sung means granary and accordingly it is performed below the granary (traditional granary is raised from the ground). The objective of this ritual is to enable the granary to fill with crops in every harvesting season. In some places Taléng uie and Kumsung uie are both synonymous. Presided over by a Miboo its essentials are same as that of Taléng uie.

  5. Yumrang Uie (forest spirit): ‘Yumrang’ means forests. This is another rituals of the Misings in which offerings are made to the forest spirits to appease them. The Misings are known for their riverside settlement and in early days their places of inhabitants were full of forests infested with various deadly animals thereby threatening their safety. Therefore, to avoid any ill casting of forest spirits Yumrang Uie was performed. It is performed under a tree and all the items are cooked there itself and it is not to be brought back home. Days before ritual, Aag:nam is performed in which an iron rod is dedicated in the name of forest spirit. Aag:nam is especially performed when a person while entering the forest got either attacked or threatened by wild beasts etc It is performed by the Miboo and only the family members along with the affected person are allowed to attend.
  6. Asi Uie (water spirit): Asi means water. Since spirits can be present everywhere therefore the Misings believe that the dissatisfied spirits may cast evil even on water. Their lifestyle is to a great extent depended on water for fishing, crossing river for cultivation etc, therefore it is very important for them so that water spirits remain pleased with them. Accordingly, Asi uie is performed.
  7. Péjab Uie (duck spirit): Péjab uie is another traditional ritual of the Misings. The word péjab means duck and the ritual is so-called since duck is sacrificed for the purpose. This ritual was traditionally performed by a Miboo. Main purpose of performing this ritual is when there is sickness in the family of the type of pain in leg, hand or when one cannot walk due to certain pains etc Instead of house it is performed on a riverside. This ritual is a strictly restricted one and is attended only by the sick person and family members. Items used for ritual are duck, pepper, pipoli (Piper longum Linn), oil etc.
  8. Do:bur: Do:bur is the ritual to Do:nyi -Po:lo, Karsíng-Kartang, Rugji-Merang etc for their well being and prosperity. It was practiced by the Misings since long back. It is of various types but only Do:lung (village for peace and prosperity) Do:bur, Burté (avoid sins after bloodshed) Do:bur and Aríg (paddy for prosperity) Dobur are commonly practiced now a days. Do:bur was performed when they believed that something evil was committed and therefore it might lead to disastrous consequences. This was performed either individually or collectively based on the nature of evils that were believed to have been inflicted upon.
4.2 Brief history on Vaisnavite Movement in Assam   
The Vaisnavite beliefs and practices of different parts of India differ in one way or the other. Schools of Vaisnavism founded by reformers might differ in philosophical niceties and outward religious observances but the fundamental basis of these schools of Vaisnavism did not differ very much (Sarma, 1999). It was accepted with certain modifications by reformers of different regions and within an appreciable length of time it over flooded the whole of India. Based on these, Sankardeva (1449-1568) started the movement in Assam around 15th century and it reached its peak through the combine effort of himself and his disciple Madhavdeva (1489-1596). The demise of these two great propagator caused great setback in the Vaisnavite movement of Assam. There emerged conflict among the Gosāins and Mahantas regarding succession of Madhavdeva. Later on it was divided in to four Sanghatis- Purush Sanghati, Nikah Sanghati, Brahma Sanghati and Kāl Sanghati. It may be mentioned that Satras belonging to all four Sanghatis are found in Majuli district. Auniati, Garamur and Dakhinpat Satra belongs to Brahma Sanghati, Kamalabari Satra belongs to Nikah Sanghati while Bengena Ati and Chamaguri Satra belongs to the Purusha Sanghati. Although Kāl sanghati do not have Satras but at present there are a few villages of the Mayamara sect that belong to that order (Nath, 2009).

At that point, Bhabānipuriyā Gopāl Āta was entrusted with the task spreading Vaisnavism among the communities like Āhom, Chutiā, Kachāri and the Misings of Upper Assam. He did not impose any restrictions on the traditional use of meat (chicken, pork) and wine among these communities but even then encouraged them to embrace Vaisnavism. This section of conversion is known as Kāl Sanghati or Kewaliā group.

Kāl Sanghati has its own different methods in observing prayers. Within this group, there is Kecā and Pokā Bhakat. Kecā means fresh and green, Pokā means the opposite and Bhakat refers to the priest who conducts ritual. Kecā Bhakats are so called since they preside over rituals in which only fresh and green items are offered in time of Nām Kirtan (congregation prayer). While Pokā Bhakat preside over rituals where only cooked items are offered at the time of prayer.

4.3 Influence of Vaisnavism among the Misings
The traditional beliefs and practices of the Misings witnessed changes ever since their settlement in the plains of Assam. They were influenced especially by the wave of Vaisnavism of the 16th century. There is an interesting story as to how the Misings came under the influence of this faith. One day in a Mising village, a female pig was about to be sacrificed as she did not deliver any piglets. Incidentally, a Satrādhikār (head of a Satra) is said to have passed by that way and prevented them from killing the pig predicting it would give birth to piglets very soon. True to his words, the pig delivered half a dozen piglets within few days. Struck by the truth of his words, the Misings believed the Satrādhikār to have spiritual power and they gladly agreed to abide by his words. Realizing the opportunity, the Satrādhikār took advantage of the situation and converted some Misings by formal ‘Saran’ (Pegu, 2005).  It is not clear as to which village the above story refers to but it might have been somewhere in the Mising inhabited areas of Majuli. However, it must be remembered that this story is based on one of those oral history of the Misings and there is no solid evidence to establish its authenticity. And even if it is true, than it is just one part of the contacts of the Misings with Vaisnavism. The untold truth, however, is that ever since their contact with the plain people of Assam there was bound to have an exchange or intercourse of culture, beliefs, practices etc. Intermingling of a society naturally leads to intermingling of culture because it is human nature to get mingled or attracted towards one another’s culture. So, it can be assumed that apart from the influential roles played by the Satras, close inhabitants of Misings with plain people have naturally resulted in gradual transition from their traditional beliefs and practices. It was a result of a long process of acquaintance between the Misings and the plain people. Ever since the influence of Vaisnavism, ‘Nāmghar’ (prayer hall) has become a part and parcel of the Mising society. In most of the villages, ‘Nāmghar’ has replaced even the ‘Mírong Ukum’ (traditional community hall).

With the passage of time Kāl Sanghati group of Vaisnavism got prevalent among the Mising. It divided the Misings into Bhāgavatiā and Kewaliā based on the nature of their practices. However, apart from following the Kāl Sanghati system they continued practicing their own traditional belief system as well. As a result, there are some others that claim themselves to be ‘traditionalist’ but even they are not free from the influence of Vaisnavism. Kewaliā are seen to be more liberal in comparison to the Bhāgavatiās. Kewaliā group of believers can take Āpong and meat and there is no much restriction in the rituals performed by them. Like, even in Nām Kirtan, the Bhakats are offered Āpong and incase of curry, fish is often used. While the Bhāgavatiās prohibits use of fish, meat and Āpong and they preferably wear white dresses in times of rituals. The Bhāgavatiās seem to be more disciplined and they wear white dress for religious activities. Bhakats and Hāttulās (Mising pronounce it as Bokot and Ātulā) became the patrons of religion because all the religious functions came to be performed by them.

The influence of Vaisnavism is only partial in nature. People who are under Vaisnavite influence are seen to practice traditional beliefs and practices. And the same family which performs traditional rituals like Do:bur Pujā, Péjāb Uie and Tāléng Uie are also seen to perform Nām Kirtan, No-Joniā and Sāt-Joniā which are absolutely non-traditional for the Misings. H.K. Barpujari, while describing about the Mising beliefs and practices, observed that, “The Miri (Mising) regard Hinduism as a social rather than a religious system…in most cases…when you ask one of these men why he observes this or that Hindu custom, he will reply: ‘because the Assamese do the same’. There is no doubt, but what gukhis (Gosāins) have some influence over these people, but inspite of all the gukhis in Assam…the Miris sticks to his chicken, his pork and mutton with such a determination that one has said: ‘If the Miri has a god at all, that god is his pet (stomach)’…” (Barpujari, 1986). This same approach towards religious beliefs and practices have been recorded by Birendranath Datta, “Thus the singing of Vaisnava hymns and the performance of ‘tribal worship’ with the sacrifice of pigs and fowls and the consumption of rice-beer (Āpong) exist side by side (Datta, 1992).

Mention may be made of the nature of changes that have occurred in their traditional beliefs and practices. The concept of Do:nyi-Po:lo and Se:di-Me:lo are still known to the Misings as they are invoked in every rituals. Miboo (traditional religious priest) is rare to be found and its position is replaced. Along with him, Miboo Ābāngs (religious utterings of a Miboo) are slowly disappearing. Miboo dāg:nām (magical performance of a Miboo) is a rare occasion now a days and in Majuli Miboo have to be invited from Jonai (Dhemaji district) and very often Ādi Miboo of Arunachal Pradesh are also called upon. Their positions are being replaced by Bhakats (Bokot), Sātulā (Ātulā), Sādu Burhā etc. However, it is seen that Miboo Ābāng are invoked even by these new priests in times of rituals. They believe that Bhakats also have the supernatural power of a Miboo and therefore they allow them to conduct the necessary rituals or to detect the causes of their sufferings, diseases etc.

Urom To:sāg, Bāmud:nām or Aag:nām(all traditional rituals) are still practiced but the difference lies in that it is presided by Bhakats chanting Hari Nām. Yālo gog:nām (another traditional ritual) have also witnessed changes after being influenced by Vaisnavism. “For instance they might start with the Vaisnavite custom of Hari Nām and switch then to the animistic rite requiring the use of Āpong and meat. Both the practices on the occasion purporting to ensure, by praying to Hari (Lord) with the Vaisnavite beginning, followed by prayers to supernatural beings in the animistic part, the all round well being of the family concerned in general and the reunion of Yālo  of an individual member of the family and his or her body, in particular(Taid, 2007).

Do:bur is a ritual to Do:nyi-Po:lo, Kārsíng-Kārtāng and Rugji-Merāng for their well being and prosperity. Now a days only Do:lung (village) Dobur is performed annually in 15 Joistho (May 30). The other two types viz. Burté Do:bur and Āríg Do:bur are almost extinct since in present society it is less relevant in comparison to Do:lung Do:bur. For performance of Do:bur the area is divided into small group based on Nāmghar so as to make it convenient. However, Āríg Dobur, though very rare, is also seen to be performed. This ritual has also to a great extent deviated from its traditional nature and instead are presided by reputed Bhakats with Vaisnavite characteristics.

4.4 Addition of new rituals after influence of Vaisnavism
 Mention may be made of different religious practices of the Misings that have emerged after the influence of Hinduism:

i)Risto or Sāt-joniā: It is performed when someone is constantly sick, absent minded, not good in studies or when he is believed to be unlucky. In such cases astrologer recommends this ritual and he also tells the family whether to perform it with pig, fish or tortoise. In Sātjoniā the necessities for rituals are one diyā and incense stick. For the purpose seven Bhakats are needed and seven Nām Kirtan. Seven Nām Kirtan means seven stanza of hymns either from the Kirtan Ghosā of Sankardeva or from Nām Ghosā of Madhavdev are chanted. Each Nām is followed by pelignām (blessings) in which the host bow down to seek blessings from the Bhakats. It is a restricted ritual and thereby entry is restricted. Especially restrictions are for people in whose family there is birth, death and Urom Āpin not yet performed, menstruation etc. This ritual is a commonly performed one now a days.

ii)No-joniā: It is same as that of Sāt-joniā except for the fact that there is difference in the number of Bhakats i.e. nine, and nine stanza of Nām Kirtan are chanted. Difference in the number is based on predictions made by Astrologers.

iii)Ekoish-joniā: As the name suggests this ritual require twenty-one Bhakats for its performance. It requires heavy expenditure and effort and therefore it is performed mainly by the rich especially business family. Main purpose for its performance is to pray for wellbeing or profit in any field of their activities. Accordingly, 21 Nām kirtan is chanted and one big male pig is required for the purpose. It is not a restricted one and all are welcome for this grand feast.

iv)Nām Sewā:  It is also known as Borgo (annual) Po:lo among the Mising community. It is performed once in a year in the month of Bohāg (April). Its main purpose is to remove all the evils done by a family willingly or unwillingly throughout the year. Evils like unwanted killing of creatures at the time of cultivation, cutting of trees etc. For performing this ritual 3 to 4 Bhakats are required. Twelve stanza Nām Kirtan is sung to represent twelve months of a year. Edible items required are fish of any kind, dal, black pulse, vegetables found in the forests etc. It is an unrestricted ritual and opens to all forms of guests.

v)Dāngoriā: Misings believe that health and welfare of the family is maintained at the blessings of a Dāngoriā. Dāngoriā is a restricted ritual and performed at least once in a year. It is of two types- Ukum (house) Dāngoriā and Yumrāng (jungle) Dāngoriā. And ritual for which Dāngoriā to perform is known through Astrologer. It is performed when there is a sick person in family like back pain, pain in legs, hand and any other parts of the body. Number of Bhakats is not fixed and one Dāngoriā Nām is sung. It strictly requires one male and female chicken. Colour of the male chicken should be red and that of female should be white. And it is performed in a very private manner with only the victim and their family members allowed to be present.

4.5 Different Spirits, God and Guru that the Misings invoke in present day rituals
As has been mentioned, the present religious beliefs and practices are a mixture of traditional, Vaisnavism as well as other forms of Hinduism as has been seemed to be adjusted by the Misings as per their own convenience. Mention may be made of the names that have been prevalent among such families.

Table-1: Different Spirits, God and Guru

Spirits that are invoked in prayers
Guru and God
  • Do:nyi- Sun
  • Sankardev
  • Po:lo- Moon
  • Madhavdev
  • Se:di- Me:lo- Creator of Universe
  • Lord Ram
  • Do:yíng- Creator
  • Lord Krishna
  • Gumín- Race spirit
  • Lord Vishnu
  • So:yin- Community spirit
  • Basudevā
  • Kārsíng-Kār:tāng - Guardian of Cultivator

  • Āmong Āné- Mother Earth

  • Siné Mo:bo and Urom Po:sum- Ancestors

Thus, it has been found that the traditional beliefs and practices of the Misings witnessed changes ever since their migration down to the plains of Assam. The Vaisnavite movement of Assam of the 14th-15th century have gradually influenced the traditional set up of the Mising beliefs and practices. Thus, major changes in the socio-religious and cultural life of the Misings took place. The change is so prominent in Majuli that no any Mising family has been found to be free from vaisnavite influence in one way or other. As a result, many changes have occurred in their traditional beliefs and practices as well.

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  • Indraneel Pegu (2013). Rreligious Beliefs and Practices of the Misings of Assam: A case study of Majuli. Ph.D thesis to Department of History, Gauhati University.
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  • S.N. Sarma. The Neo-Vaisnavite Movement and the Satra Institution of Assam. Guwahati: Lawyers’ Book Stall, 1999.
  • Tabu Taid. The Religious culture of the Misings in Traditional customs and rituals of North-East India. Guwahati: Seminars in Vivekananda Kendra Institute of Culture, 2002.
  • V.Elwin (1958, 1968, 1993). Myth of N.E. Frontier of India. Itanagar: Directorate of Research, Govt of Arunachal Pradesh.
[Notes: a) Oxford Dictionary and Thesaurus III, Oxford University Press, 2008 and    b) ...... Glimpses, Mising Āgom Kébāng, Dhemaji, 2007]

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