Between Tibet and Assam

Cultural diversity in the eastern Himalayas

23 October 2008 – 13 April 2009
Room 91    
Admission free

The mountainous region of Arunachal Pradesh in India is located in the eastern Himalayas between Assam, Bhutan, Burma and the Tibet Autonomous Region of the People's Republic of China. An unresolved border dispute between India and China is still a feature of life in the area. Until recently access to the region was restricted, and it was little known or studied. However, a collaborative research project undertaken by the School of Oriental and African Studies (SOAS) and the British Museum, and funded by the Economic and Social Research Council, has been shedding new light on this area of great cultural diversity.

The exhibition, which forms part of the research project, illustrates the cultural diversity of the region. Arunachal Pradesh has a population of around 1 million, drawn from 35 tribal groups speaking 25 languages and practicing a variety of belief systems. Two tribal groups from different parts of the state form the focus of the exhibition: the Monpa from the northwest who practice Tibetan Buddhism and the Apatani from the centre who are animists. The exhibition will feature a mixture of fascinating historical objects from the British Museum’s collection – most never before displayed - contextualized by contemporary objects acquired during the project. Ritual textiles, such as handwoven woollen shawls, jackets and headdresses worn by shamans will be displayed as well as wooden masks used in Buddhist monastic dance. The cultural variety of the state is evident from a display of four types of visually unusual headgear– two made of felt and two of woven cane – textiles and woven cane/ bamboo feature particularly in the exhibition.  These objects illustrate the fact that these cultures have been influenced for many centuries by both the Assam plains to the south and the Tibetan plateau to the north.

Photography is a key feature of this exhibition in a way that is unusual in the British Museum.  Photographs from the archives of the outstanding anthropologists Christoph von Fürer-Haimendorf (1940s) and Verrier Elwin (1960s) are shown alongside contemporary images from the project’s photographer, Michael Aram Tarr.  In the Apatani section, there is a sequence of objects relating to the sacrificial ritual of Murung, with both contemporary and older items as well as rare archival and exceptional new photographs. In the Monpa section items acquired more than a century ago but without information are contextualised as a result of the project research.  Also in this section the transition from block-printed to computer-generated Buddhist ritual texts is illustrated. Change and continuity are clearly evident in Arunachal Pradesh. This exhibition provides a rare opportunity to engage with this remote and mountainous region of Asia.

For public information or 020 7323 8299

For further information or images please contact Hannah Boulton on 020 7323 8522 or hboulton@britishmuseum.org

Notes to editors

  • A book to accompany the exhibition, Through the Eye of Time: Photographs of Arunachal Pradesh, 1859–2006 by Michael Aram Tarr and Stuart Blackburn, is available in the Museum’s shop.
  • A seminar related to the exhibition, Tribal Transitions: New Research in the Eastern Himalayas, will take place on Friday 24 October, 10.30–16.00, at SOAS (Room 116). For more information, visit www.soas.ac.uk/events/event45864 Open to all, admission free
  • Tribal Transitions is a unique collaborative project between the School of Oriental and African Studies, the British Museum, Arunachal University, the Government of Arunachal Pradesh, the Centre for Cultural Research and Documentation and the British Council in New Delhi. The project is funded by the Economic and Social Research Council, UK