Lhoba Ethnic Minority

“Lhoba” simply means “southerners” in Tibetan, and refers to the approximately 3000 inhabitants in Mainling, Medog, Lhunze and Nangxian counties. Lhoba people are the smallest of the 56 ethnic groups in China and live in South-eastern Tibet. Most people designated as “Lhoba” within the modern-day Tibet Autonomous Region (“TAR”) actually refer to themselves via a diverse set of endonyms, speak different languages, and do not traditionally self-identify as a single entity. The two main tribal groups which fall under the designation “Lhoba” in the TAR are the Mishmi people, who speak the Idu Mishmi language, and the speakers of the Bokar dialect of Abo Tani, who are found in far greater numbers inside Arunachal Pradesh, a state of modern-day India claimed by China. Other groups identified by Chinese authorities as “Lhoba” include the Tagin people, who speak the Bangni-Tagin language.


Not much is known about the history and origin of Lhoba people. The area nowadays inhabited by the modern Lhoba people was known in medieval texts as Lhoyu. Lhoyu is now the name of an area in Tibet, while Lower Lhoyu is part of the Indian state of Arunachal Pradesh. Luoyu came under the control of Tibet from the 7th century onwards. It is not currently known whether modern-day Lhoba peoples in fact inhabited Luoyu at the time of Tibetan conquest, nor whether languages spoken by modern-day Lhoba peoples are indigenous to this region or not. 


Lhoba tribes people living in Chinese Tibet speak at least three mutually unintelligible Tibeto-Burman languages: Idu Mishmi of the Digaro family, Bokar (Adi) of the Eastern Tani branch, and Nah (tagin) of the Western Tani branch. These languages are far more widely spoken in Arunachal Pradesh. Lhoba people do not have any written script. In the past, when there was no writing, the Lhobas kept track of history through telling their descendants and tying knot codes about their past.


Many Lhobas have converted to Tibetan Buddhism in the recent years as they traded with the Buddhist monasteries, thus frequently mixing with their indigenous animist beliefs, which had traditionally deep roots in the tiger. Others remain animistic, more commonly among those in Arunachal Pradesh, and their pilgrim centre of the community lies at Atho-Popu in the Dibang valley. The stories about immigration is mentioned along the banks of twelve rivers in the Dibang valley, the clustered area known as Cheithu-Huluni. Among the Yidu, they traditionally believed that “Inni” is their supreme god. Lhoba religion practices include shamanism, spiritual healing, fortune-telling and wizardry. The Lhoba fortune-telling practice is quite unique as they read patterns (colour, shape and blood vessels) in a freshly harvested liver. Oddly shaped blood vessels on this freshly harvested liver are bad omens.


Largely farmers, Lhoba men and women are skilled at making bamboo objects and other crafts. They bartered such objects and animal hides, musk, bear paws, dye and captured game for farm tools, salt, wool, clothing, grain and tea from Tibetan traders. Their pilgrimages to monasteries were good opportunities for bartering. Hunting is essential to the Lhobas. Young boys start early to join adults on hunting trips. They wear knee-length, sleeveless, buttonlessblack jackets made of sheep’s wool with hats made from bear skin or bamboo stripes. Both men and women are bare foot. Women’s status in their families, as well as in society, was particularly low, and they had no inheritance rights. The society practices monogamy and polygamy. Many suffered from goiter, an endemic disease caused by lack of salt. Conditions improved for the Lhoba people after the liberation of Tibet in 1951. People’s living standards and general health has improved.  Education, transportation and communication have been improved too.


Annual Lhoba Ethnic Custom Festival of Nanyigou Township is the best way to experience Lhoba culture. Attracting large number of tourists, many dance and song teams in traditional costumes perform during the festival.  Xudulong Festival is the most special Lhoba festival which is celebrated on the second month of Tibetan calendar. Most Lhoba people also celebrate The New Year Festival but their celebration date and style is different than typical Tibetan. The new year is celebrated three times, as each harvest is seen as a different year (on November the 1st, December the 1st and January).