Culture & Heritage
Legend has it that the Garos originally inhabited a province of Tibet named Torua and left Tibet for some reason in the distant past under the leadership of the legendary Jappa-Jalimpa and Sukpa-Bongepa. They wandered in the Brahmaputra valley at the site of present day Jogighopa in Assam and gradually moved up the Assam valley for centuries in search of a permanent home. In the process, they survived the ordeals of wars and persecutions at the hand of the kings ruling the valley.
They then branched out into a number of sub-tribes, and the main body under the legendary leader, Along Noga, occupied Nokrek, the highest peak in Garo Hills. A’Chik is the general title used for the various groups of people after the division of the race. The title is used to denote different groups such as the Ambeng, Atong, Akawe (or Awe), Matchi, Chibok, Chisak Megam or Lyngngam, Ruga, Gara-Ganching who inhabit the greater portion of the present Garo Hills. But the name applies also to the groups of Garos scattered at the neighbouring places in Assam, Tripura, Nagaland and Mymensing in Bangladesh.
Though the main feature of their traditional political setup, social institutions, marriage systems, inheritance of properties, religion and beliefs are common, it is observed that as these units were isolated from one another, they have developed their own separate patterns. They also speak different dialects. Also their traditional songs, dances, music differ from each other. The song, dances and music are mostly associated with traditional religious functions and ceremonies.
The Garos have a matrilineal society where children adopt their mother clan. The simplest pattern of Garo family consists of the husband, wife and children. The family increases with the marriage of the heiress, generally the youngest daughter. She is called Nokna and her husband Nokrom. The bulk of family property is bequeathed upon the heiress and other sisters receive fragments but are entitled to use plots of land for cultivation and other purposes. The other daughters go away with their husbands after their marriage to form a new and independent family. This aspect of family structure remains the same even in urban areas.
The Garo household utensils are simple and limited.
They consists mainly of cooking pots, large earthen vessels for brewing liquor, the pestle and the mortal with which paddy is husked. They also use bamboo baskets of different shapes and sizes. The Garos have their own weapons. One of the principal weapons is two-edges sword called Milam made of one piece of iron form hilt to point. There is a cross-bar between the hilt and the blade where attached a bunch of cow’s tail-hair. Other types of weapons are shields, Spear, Bows and Arrows, Axes, Daggers etc.
Christian work inside Garo Hills having started about 1878 with the American Baptists who had, however, started their work among Garos in Goalpara since 1867. The Roman Catholics began their work in the plains areas first around 1931 -32, following it up with the establishment of a base atTura (1933); since then it has extended to other parts of the Garo Hills.
Between 1961 and 1971 the number of people returned as Songsarek underwent a decline and it would appear that their decrease has largely been due to the advance of Christianity. It can indeed be stated that the vast majority of Garos profess only these two beliefs that is , they are either Songsarek or Christian.
In earlier works on the Garos, as indeed on all the tribes of the North-East, the tenn Animism , was applied to the tribal faiths. This was perhaps oversimplification of a complex subject. It is true that much of Garo religious practices relate to Nature. They attribute the creation of the world to the Godhead, Tatara-Rabuga. Next in rank but more intimately concerned with human affairs is Saljong, who is the source of all gifts to mankind. He is honoured with the Wangala celebrations. Another benign deity is Chorabudi, the protector of crops. The first fruits of the fields are offered to him. He is also honoured with a pig sacrifice whenever sacrifices are offered to Tatara-Rabuga.
Living so close to Nature, the early Garo people the world around them with a multitude of spirits called mite, some of them good and some of them capable of harming human beings for any lapses they might commit. Appropriate sacrifices are offered to them as occasions demand.
In all religious ceremonies, sacrifices were essential for the propitiation of the spirits. They had to be invoked for births, marriages, deaths, illness, besides for the good crops and welfare of the community and for protection from destructions and dangers. Like the Hindus, the Garos used to show reverence to the ancestors by offering food to the departed souls and by erection of memorial stones.
Like other religions, the Songsarek religion ascribes to every human being the possession of a spirit that remains with him throughout his lifetime and leaves the body at death. There appears to be a belief in reincarnation, people being reborn into a lower or higher form of life according to their conduct in their lifetime. The greatest blessing a Garo looks forward to is to be reborn as a human being in his or her original ma’chong or family unit.
Garo society is entirely casteless.
Property & Inheritance: Garo society is matrilineal, and inheritance is through the mother. All children, as soon as they are born, belong to their mother’s ma’chong. The Garo tribe is divided into five exogamous divisions called Chatchis (sometimes rendered as Katchis). Two of these are relatively unimportant in that they include an insubstantial part of the population.
The important ones are the Chatchis named Marak, Momin and Sangma. Of these again, the Marak and the Sangma Chatchis have a wider membership; it has been estimated that more than half of all the Garos belong to one or the other. The earlier practice of Chatchi exogamy is to a large extent still strictly observed. The majority of Garos still hold that a member of a particular chatchi should not marry a member of the same Chatchi. For example, most Sangmas would shrink from marrying olher Sangmas. The practice may be crumbling to some extent in urban society. Marriage within a Chatchi subdivision, or ma’chong as it is called, is on the other hand, scrupulously avoided, such a marriage being tantamount to incest. This, to a Garo, is a serious breach of moral laws which will draw upon the guilty persons divine punishment, like being killed by wild animals or struck by lightning. These ma’chongs are very numerous. For the present purpo.se, a few may be named as examples under each Chatchi e.g…
Sangma : Agitok, Am’ptomg, Koksi, Manda, Rongmitu, Rongrokgre, Snal, etc.
Marak : Chada, Chainbugong, Ka’ma, Koknal, Raksam, Rangsa, Rechil, Re’ina, etc.
Momin : Cheran, Gabil, Ga’rey, Megimggare, Mrencla, Wa’tre, etc.
Although a modernized Manda Sangma may not shrink from marrying an A’gitok Sangma, he will not think of marrying another Manda Sangma. The several Chatchis are subdivided into a large number of ma ‘chongs. As far as is known, no one has attempted to list the names of all the ma’chongs.
In the matrilineal society of the Garos, property passes from mother to daughter. Although the sons belong to the mother’s ma’chong, they cannot inherit any port ion of the maternal property. Indeed, males cannot in theory hold any property other than that acquired through their own exertions. Even this will pass on to their children through their children’s mother after they marry. Among the Garos any of the daughters, even the eldest, if there are many, may be chosen as the nokna ,or heiress, having proved her fitness to occupy this privileged position by her dutifulness to her parents. In case there are no daughters, the family can adopt any other girl, usually one having the closest blood relationship to the adoptive mother, first preference being given to one of the “non-heir” daughters (a’gate) of the woman’s sisters, who are, of course, among the closest female relations a woman can have.
Inheritance of property among the Garos is generally linked with matrimonial relations, and although men may have no property to pass on, they have an important say in deciding to whom it should pass.
Marriage & Morals As has been stated earlier, the broad divisions of Garo society, the chatchis, are traditionally exogamous. Although the restrictions are probably weakening, particularly among urban Garos or those living in cosmopolitan settings, we can say that the overwhelming majority of Garos still observe them. Even in sophisticated society, however, the harsher restrictions in regard to marriage within the same ma’chong are still scrupulously observed. Broadly speaking, we can say that a man who belongs to the Sangma Chatchi will look for a bride among the other chatchis like the Marak or the Momin and vice-versa. The initiative in any move towards marriage is usually taken by the bride’s family, perhaps even by the girl herself. When the girl is the heiress, the father, with an eye to the property she will inherit, may as staled earlier, get his own sister’s son, that is, his own nephew, as her prospective bridegroom. Among the Songsareks or non-Christians, the practice of’ bridegroom capture, particularly in rural areas, still goes on. A girl may express her interest in a young man and ask her male kinsmen to get him for her. This may involve an arduous chase, especially if the boy is not interested because, perhaps, he still cherishes the freedom of bachelor life, and the matter may not end with his capture and his being brought to her house. In the circumstances, the captured bridegroom will try to escape but generally after a few such attempts, he becomes reconciled to the idea of settling down. In spite of the comparative freedom enjoyed by young people in Garo society, the standard of morality is generally high and even those who may have been guilty of youthful indiscretions settle down to a stable married life. Home Life: In the urban areas, the types of buildings are generally what are called the “Assam type”, with plank floors, plastered walls, ceilings of cloth or matting and corrugated iron sheet roofs. Buildings of this type are of particular advantage in earthquake-prone regions like the Garo Hills, being able to stand up to a high degree of stress. In the rural areas, people still prefer their old-fashioned houses which, besides being comparatively easy and quick to erect, are also cool since the thatch roofing is comparatively non-conducting. The houses are not necessarily built on level ground. They are often long, although the size may depend on the size of the family. The front generally faces the village “square”, and a section of it rests on the ground. This is used for storing odds and ends and even for cattle. The rear portion may, on unlevel ground, rest on long beams which are propped up on numerous posts of varying length, and the farthest end may thus be several feet off the ground. The walls and flooring are of lengths of split bamboo which are secured to their wooden frames by thongs of bamboo or cane. There are no windows, and this fact explains the darkness and the smoky atmosphere of the interior of the house. There may be only three doorways, the front one connecting with the outside, another with a side balcony or verandah (a’leng) and the third with the privy at the back. Next to the storage room is the main living room which generally has a hearth in the middle, made inside a rectangle filled with earth, to contain the fire which is kept burning continuously, This fire provides all the illumination needed. Bamboo shelves (onggare) suspended above the hearth are used for storing articles that need to be kept dry, including articles of food, utensils etc. Along the sides, away from the openings, there are racks where the inmates keep their belongings. There may also be a separate room behind the main room where the parents may sleep. The other members of the household use the main room which is also the place where visitors are received. For convivial purposes, the inmates may use the verandah. Here they may also take out their portable looms or perform light chores. To reduce risks of loss by fire, granaries are usually constructed away from the residential houses. In elephant infested region, the Garos construct tree-top houses which are accessible by means of a bamboo ladder. These houses also serve as look-outs during the daytime for crop-watchers. The furniture are of the simplest types, and may be limited to a number of sitting blocks or basketwork seats.
The Garos normally do not use many ornaments. The common ones are strings of beads and earrings worn both by men and women. The latter ornaments are considered to be very essential as they serve as guarantees of the safe journey of the soul to the other world, being offered to the spirit Nawang should he try to prevent the soul from going to the land of the dead.
Contact with people from outside has greatly modified the dress of the Garos. Both men and women affect dark clothes, either black or dark blue, and men may wear shorts instead of the traditional loin-cloth. Turbans are generally worn by both sexes. On festive occasions all the family heir-looms including the fine clothes and ornaments for men and girls are taken out Food The Garos prefer simple food. They generally avoid spiced food, and usually with rice they take boiled meat and vegetables. They boil this curry quite plainly, adding a kind of alkaline kalchi vegetable ‘salt’ to it just as it comes to the boil. It has been suggested that this practice accounts for the comparatively low incidence of gastric ailments in these hills.
In areas where rice is in short supply, or during lean years, millet usually forms part of their staple food. Millet is also greatly used in the preparation of rice-beer which the average Songsarek family uses. The drink has a low alcohol content and constitutes the staple beverage of the Garos and most hill tribes of the North-East. In recent years, however, there has been an increase in the use of country spirits which not only lack the nutritive value of rice-beer but also tend to have a demoralizing effect upon those who drink it in great measures. Among the urban population, the attraction of the so-called “Indian Made Foreign Liquor” has also been strong, the person drinking it deriving a misplaced sense of satisfaction since he attaches to it prestige of a sort. The price that society has had to pay in terms of broken homes and alcoholism, especially among the youth, and other deleterious consequences has been seriously felt.
Addiction to gambling is a malady that is not peculiar to any district. State Lotteries and recently, legalized ‘teer’ are among the more common ones. By and large, the majority of Garos, particularly in the rural areas, are comparatively impervious to their attractions as they are satisfied with a simple, uncomplicated way of life. It is among the urban population that this has become a problem.
The attraction of great wealth, not tempered by any intelligent assessment of the probabilities of winning huge prizes, has made many people improvident and in most cases has detracted from their economic well-being. Festivals There are no organized games as such among the Garos, though this does not imply that they have nothing to amuse themselves with. Games are generally played occasionally. Jumping contests and other competitions are indulged in more as tests of strength. The young males, members of the Nokpantes or Bachelors’ Dormitories, may organize themselves into groups and engage in such contests as the wa’pong sika, the Garo version of the tug-of-war, in which a stout bamboo pole replaces the rope and the contesting teams try push each other beyond a marked line instead of pulling. Again, the villages may turnout in strength to take part in communal fishing.
The common and regular festivities are, of course, those connected with agricultural operations. Greatest among Garo festivals is the Wangala which is more a celebration of thanksgiving after harvest in which Saljong, the god who provides mankind with Nature’s bounties and ensures their prosperity, is honoured. There is no fixed date for the celebration, this varying from village to village, but usually, the Wangala is celebrated in October. Preparations take place well before the date; items of food are among the first to be collected. The Nokma of the village takes the responsibility to see that all arrangements are in order. Rituals in his house and in the individual fields precede the feasting at which guests are literally force-fed by the hosts. A large quantity of food and rice-beer must be prepared well ahead. The climax of the celebrations is the colourful Wangala dance in which men and women take part in their best clothes. Lines are formed by males and females separately and to the rhythmic beat of drums and gongs and blowing of horns by the males, both groups shuffle forward in parallel lines. Variety is added by the performance of a skilled dancer who ties a large fruit to the end of a string about half a meter in length and by a skilful manipulation of his body sets it swinging round and round behind him. This part of the dance usually wins enthusiastic applause.
A Garo village is a well-knit unit, the population consisting of one domiciled ma’chong >or lineage of a chatchi or clan which has proprietary rights over the entire land of the village or a ‘king, as it is called. In the matrilineal society of the Garos, of course, we must assume matrimonial relations with other clans with which marriage ties are permissible. In the case of the principal family, the husband of the heiress becomes the nokma. The nokma manages his wife’s property and allots plots to different families for cultivation, besides carrying out other duties. Girls generally stay in their own village; their husbands, if not cross-cousins, may be from other villages. Some degree of relationship may, therefore, be said to exist between most households in the village and the principal clan.
The people are industrious, and both men and women participate in the normal duties in the fields and in the home. Some tasks, naturally, belong to the males, like jungle-clearing, house building and all other work demanding greater physical labour, though basketry is also largely man’s work. Planting of most crops, ginning of cotton as well as weaving, cooking and making of rice-beer, are usually done by women.
A Garo village ordinarily has its Bachelors’ Dormitory or Nokpante in which the male youth and unmarried men over a certain age live. In the past, these dormitories had a more specific role to play. Besides performing civic tasks, they also served as watch-houses whose inmates were entrusted with the task of guarding the village from unforeseen dangers and of hostilities. Even today, the members of a dormitory are bound together by ties of loyalty. Guided as they are by the tribal code of conduct, a high degree of discipline is noticeable in their way of life and behavior.