Kuki Tradition and Shifting Cultivation

Published on May 15, 2009

By George T. Haokip

Kukis living in northeastern states of India and Chin Hills of Myanmar have rich custom and tradition. Their traditions have relation with their shifting cultivation in the hills. In fact, their rituals have its sources from the practice of shifting cultivation. In that case, it is deeply rooted in Kukis’ psyche and it influence the tribe mindset. Shifting cultivation for the Kukis is more than sustenance, it is a way of life, the foundation from which emerged their economic and social tradition.


In India for many decades shifting cultivation (locally known as Jhum) has been construed as a major challenge to the development of tribal. According to the tenth fifth year plan, shifting cultivation has remain as one of the unresolved issues of planning for tribal development in India. (Govt of India, 2001)

The origin of shifting cultivation is recorded to Neolithic period dating back to 7000 BC. It is rain-fed agricultural practice for economic sustenance. It is characterized by rotation of fields rather than of crops by short periods of cropping alternating with long fallow periods and by means of slash and burn. Crocklin (1961) described shifting cultivation as use of human labour, use of stick or hoe, short periods of soil occupancy alternating with long fallow periods. Shifting cultivation served as the economic mainstay. The tribals were totally dependent on it for survival. It is widely practised in the northeastern states of India. In India about 10 million hectares of tribal land stretched across 16 states is under shifting cultivation. Based on satellite image, Forest Survey of India estimate 1.73 million hectares of land is affected by shifting cultivation.

In Manipur, the main reason for fast removal of forest are burning of the forest which constitute 90 percent due to shifting cultivation and hunting of animals whereas felling of tree by the local people for fuel wood hardly constitute 1 percent of forest removal in the state.

Study Areas and Objectives: Study area covers the entire hill areas of Manipur which cover 20,082 square kilometres (92 percent) out of the total land area of the state which is 22,327 square kilometres. Kukis are found in the entire four hill districts of Manipur. Kukis concentrate mostly in Churachandpur, Chandel and Senapati districts. Hill areas have cool and pleasant climate. The rainy season starts from June and lasts up to September, and the winter makes its presence felt from November to February. Eventually, the state receives adequate amount of rainfall, its distribution is higher in the hill area than valley. An objective of the study is to investigate and analyse the traditional land use pattern of the Kukis and their relation with the tribal mindset and custom.

Kukis’ Shifting Cultivation: Kukis are agriculturalists and rice is the staple food, from it reckoned wealth besides food and drink. A Kuki farmer is a careless sower and weeder, but the long gentle slopes with their thick covering of soil gives him excellent crops, famine is rare. The cultivator uses the land for 2 or 3 years and then leave the site with enough trees standing to regenerate the jungle and the land is cultivated at the interval of about 7-10 years, the jungle then grows up on the abandoned jhums, preventing the soil from erosion by rain.

Shifting cultivation is practised throughout the hills of Kuki region and their village economy too is more or the less dependent on it. It is a well organized and regulated social system of cultivation in the Kuki region. The following stages are adopted in jhum cultivation:

1. Selection of land with ceremonies
2. Jungle are cleared spreading out the cutting and drying for burning
3. Burning of dried forest
4. Dabbling and sowing of seeds/crops
5. Weeding the crops
6. Watching and protecting the crops
7. Harvesting and threshing the crops
8. Village celebration
9. Following the land

Kukis were one of the earliest to practice wet-rice cultivation. In 1918, Kuki villagers from Lalpani, Bongbal Khullen, Liwapokpi valley, Vungkok and from the northwest sub-division had excellent wet-rice cultivation. They had, besides rice, also cultivated pineapple, ember, plantains and jackfruit trees. Later in the 1930s, the Kukis from Khuga valley started wet-rice cultivation.

The Kuki Chief (Haosa), who is the owner of the village land and responsible to the welfare of the villagers assisted by his council of ministers, earmarks the site for cultivation. The villagers go to the forest and locate a site and each family would mark by cutting portion of its trunk or tie bunches of grasses in the border of his fields making ‘Louchan’. The villager for using the Chief’s land are obliged to pay one or more baskets of paddy.

There are also other tax given to the Chief and they are sale tax, bird tax, forest tax, etc. Every year cultivation begins in the month of Tolbol-Lhakhao (January-March). After clearing the ground field house for shelter, ‘Lou-buh’ is built for resting during the weak of toil. The Kukis practiced multi-cropping since the beginning and it is still prevailing. They have also practiced fallow type of cultivation, and as a result, frequently change the site. Rice, beans, millet, job’s tear, maize, chillies, turmeric, guards, sesame, cucumber, pumpkin, gingers, etc are popular crops usually cultivated.

Tools and implements used for cultivation were simple and required a small numbers. Chempong, heicha, tupeh and tucha are commonly used implements. They had clearance, weeding and harvesting tools. They did not have any idea of scientific technologies. The burnt down ashes serves as manure. In some fields due to the fertility seeds were sown without digging but in the case of less fertile land, about 2 to 3 inches deep is dug and mixed with ashes. Women were involved in almost all important activities of shifting cultivation.

Ceremonies Linkages

The Khe-Lhai-Khai ceremony: This is a test for suitability of land and took place before cultivation began with rice ladder. It is the first test in the new field and performed by the priest, called Thiempu. This was followed by the villagers cutting the trees and clearing the jungle the next day.

The Ahtuisan ceremony: It is done to ascertain if the proposed cultivation land would yield good harvest. In case, the omen is bad the proposed cultivation is abandoned. It is usually done during night time. The Khe-Lhei-Khai and Ahtuisan ceremony were done to test if the land would yield good harvest.

The Tuilutna ceremony: This ceremony was done to appease the water god if there was spring or rivulet within the site of the cleared land, requesting the god who is the owner of the site, to descend seven layer of the earth and the cultivators shall be on the surface so that cultivation can be carried on. After the ceremony, sowing of the seed begins.

The Muchitu ceremony: The village chief and villagers would go to the site and inaugurate. The Chief’s wife would sow the seed first, followed by the ministers and the villagers.

The Kuts: Kuts are associated with the various stages of shifting cultivation. Mim Kut, Lolhun Kut, Chapchar Kut, etc. are special ceremonies/festivals of the Kukis and Mizos. It is a tradition handed down from their forefather. Today it is celebrated at the State level in Manipur and Mizoram.


Shifting cultivation is deeply rooted in the Kuki psyche, having evolved through the year, and being rooted in customs, belief and folklore. It influences the the tribe’s mindset. It also influences the cultural ethos of its agrarian society and social fabric. Their observation of various ceremonies/festivals is related to nature. They have given due respect and appreciation from the dwellers for it is the provider of their sustenance and livelihood. Their traditional way of living and the tribal mindset have given respect for environment. Jhum for the Kukis is more then sustenance, it reflects, the reason for existence.

The writer is a research scholar at Manipur University, India.