Garos are a well-defined ethnic group of people having common culture and language of their own. A Garo village is a well-knit unit. Generally one finds the similar type of arts and architecture in the whole of Garo Hills. They normally use locally available building materials like timbers, bamboo, cane and thatch.
In the rural areas, people 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 is of the simplest types, and may be limited to a number of sitting blocks or basketwork seats.
The Garos are one of the few remaining matrilineal societies in the world. The individuals take their clan titles from their mothers. Traditionally, the youngest daughter (nokna) inherits the property from her mother. Sons leave the parents’ house at puberty, and are trained in the village bachelor dormitory (nokpante). After getting married, the man lives in his wife’s house. Garos are only a matrilinear society, but not matriarchal. While property of Garos are owned by the women, the men folk govern the society & domestic affairs and manages the property. This gives a solid security to the Garo women folk. Garo also have their traditional names.
However, the culture of modern Garo community has been greatly influenced by Christianity. Nokpantes are glory of the past and all children are given equal care, rights and importance by the modern parents.
The Garo language belongs to the Bodo branch of the Bodo-Naga-Kachin family of the Sino-Tibetan phylum. As the Garo language is not traditionally written down, customs, traditions, and beliefs are handed down orally. It is also believed that the written language was lost in its transit to the present Garo Hills.
Garo language has different sub-languages, Viz- A-beng, Atong, Me-gam, Dual,ruga,A’we,chisak, matchi,matabeng,gara,ganching Chibok etc. In Bangladesh A-beng is the usual dialect, but A-chik is used more in India. The Garo language has some similarities with Boro-Kachari, Rava, Dimasa and Kok-Borok languages.
However, the modern official language in schools and government offices is English and the modern generation is more inclined towards English.
The Garos are a tribe in Meghalaya, India and neighboring areas of Bangladesh, who call themselves A-chik Mande (literally “hill people,” from a-chik “hill” + mande “people”) or simply A-chik or Mande. They are the second-largest tribe in Meghalaya after the Khasi and comprise about a third of the local population
The Garos are mainly distributed over the Kamrup, Goalpara and Karbi Anglong Districts of Assam, Garo Hills in Meghalaya, and substantial numbers, about 200,000 are found in greater Mymensingh (Tangail, Jamalpur, Sherpore, Netrakona) and Gazipur, Rangpur, Sunamgonj, Sylhet, Moulovibazar district of Bangladesh. It is estimated that total Garo population in India and Bangladesh together were about 2 million in 2001.
There are also Garo in the state of Tripura. They numbered around 6000 in 1971. In the recent survey by conducted by the newly revived Tripura Garo Union found that the Garos have increased to about 15000, spread over all the four districts of Tripura.The president of Tripura Garo Union was Mr.Girish Chisim The founder and the reviver of the organisation.Its General Secretary was Mr.Kulendra Marak.
Garos are also found in minority number in Cooch Behar, Jalpaiguri, Darjeeling and Dinajpur of West Bengal.Garos are also found in minority number in Nagaland but many of the young generations are unable to speak the garo mother tongue.
MUSIC & DANCE
Group songs may include Nangorere, Serejing, Pandu Dolong etc. Dance forms are Ajema Roa, Mi Su-a, Chambil Moa, Do-kru Sua, Kambe Toa, Gaewang Roa, Napsepgrika and many others.
The traditional Garo musical instruments can broadly be classified into four groups.
- Idiophones: Self-sounding and made of resonant materials – Kakwa, Nanggilsi, Guridomik, Kamaljakmora, all kinds of gongs, Rangkilding, Rangbong, Nogri etc.
- Aerophone: Wind instruments, whose sound come from air vibrating inside a pipe when is blown –Adil, Singga, Sanai, Kal, Bolbijak, Illep or Illip, Olongna, Tarabeng, Imbanggi, Akok or Dakok, Bangsi rosi, Tilara or Taragaku, Bangsi mande, Otekra, Wapepe or Wa-pek.
- Chordophone: Stringed instrument – Dotrong, Sarenda, Chigring, Dimchrang or Kimjim, Gongmima or Gonggina.
- Membranophone: Which have skins or membranes stretched over a frame – Am-beng Dama, Chisak Dama, Atong Dama, Garaganching Dama, Ruga and Chibok Dama, Dual-Matchi Dama, Nagra, Kram, etc.
The common and regular festivals are those connected with agricultural operations.
Greatest among Garo festivals is the Wangala, usually celebrated in October or November, is thank-giving after harvest in which Saljong, the god who provides mankind with Nature’s bounties and ensures their prosperity, is honored.
Other festivals: Gal-mak Doa, Agalmaka, etc.
Wangala of Asanang: There used to be a celebration of 100 drum festival in Asanang near Tura in West Garo Hills, Meghalaya, India usually in the month of October or November. Thousands of people especially the young people gather at Asanang and celebrate Wangala with great joy. Beautiful Garo girls known as nomil and handsome young men pante take part in ‘Wangala’ festivals. The ‘pante’s beat a kind of long drum called dama in groups and play bamboo flute. The ‘nomil’s with colorful costume dance to the tune of dama’ ‘and folk songs in a circle. Most of the folk songs depict ordinary garo life, God’s blessings, beauty of nature, day to day struggles, romance and human aspirations.
Christmas: Though Christmas is basically a religious celebration, in Garo Hills the month of December is a great season of celebration. In the first week of December the town of Tura and all other smaller towns are illuminated with lights and celebration goes till about 10th of January. The celebration is featured by worship, dance, merry-making, grand feasts and social visits. People from all religions and sections take part in the Christmas celebration.
Tallest Christmas Tree of the World: In December 2003 the tallest Christmas tree of the world was erected at Dobasipara, Tura by the Baptist boys of Dobasipara. Its height was 119.3 feet and BBC television had come to take coverage and broadcasted. The tree was decorated with 16,319 color electric bulbs and it took about 14 days to complete the decoration. The Christmas tree had attracted several tourists and journalists from outside of Meghalaya, India.
Traditionally, the Garos living in the hills subsist by slash-and-burn cultivation. The iron hoe, chopper, and wooden digging stick are essential appliances. Human hands continue to be the principal tool. Very often in some areas a plot allotted to a family remains underused because of an insufficient number of workers and the low level of technology. To survive the erratic nature of the monsoons, mixed crops—both wet and dry varieties—are planted. A shifting cultivator plants a wide assortment of crops consisting of rice (mainly dry varieties), millet, maize, and many root crops, vegetables, etc. In addition to this cotton, ginger, and chili peppers are commonly raised as cash crops. All crops are harvested in October. At present the available strips of low and flat land lying between the hillocks or hills are used for permanent wet cultivation. The variety of crops cultivated is like that of the neighboring plains peoples. Such lands are owned individually. Additional production from such plots places the villagers in a better economic condition. The expansion of the modern economy and the steady increase of population are causing constant pressure on traditionally owned plots. The same plot is used almost continuously in some areas, thus leading to a decline in annual production. This trend is evident from the 1981 census report, which estimated that about 50 percent of the Garo people are now solely dependent on shifting cultivation and the rest use a part of a jhum plot permanently for growing areca nuts, oranges, tea (on a small scale), pineapples, etc. In this changing situation a producer may not always be a consumer; and reciprocity and cooperation do not exist as dominant forces in the socioeconomic life of this population.
Weaving: Weaving is one of the most important vocations in the economic life of the Garos. The Garo Hills have for long produced short-stapled cotton and the weavers of Garo Hills are known for their exquisite skill in weaving various types of fabrics.
The principal products still are the Dakmanda and Daksaria. These are famous for their texture and their variegated colourful designs.Besides these, the artisians also produce other articles like gamchas, bed covers etc. Training centers for artisan weavers are located at Tura, Resubelpara, Baghmara, Williamnagar and Shyamnagar (Phulbari) in all the three districts of Garo Hills.
Sericulture: Sericulture can be a very important source of subsidiary income for those families which are engaged in shifting cultivation, provided they can be persuaded to take up settled agriculture. Mulberry and other plants suitable for rearing Eri and Muga Silkworms grow well in the Garo Hills though most of the plantations are in the interior hills and forests. The Eri silk-growing centers are located at Samanda and the Muga silk-growing centers at A’dokgre. Like the cotton industry, this industry also faces problems as dearth of trained technical personnel, inadequate landholdings and dearth of rearing accommodation for individual silk-worm rearers and absence of research facilities.
Handicrafts: Garos are well known in north-east India for their handicrafts and textiles, specially for handloom industries. However, they produce only for local consumption and not in large scale. Most of the Garo handicrafts are Am (Mat), Kera or Kok (Conical basket), Ruan (winnowing fan), Gitchera (winnowing net), Chokki (chair), and domestic items such as Bamboo-spoon, rice stick, bamboo mug etc. The household furniture are made out of cane, bamboo and wood
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.
Their traditional religious system, Songsarek, is generally described as animist, but from the latter part of the 19th century American Baptist, and later Catholic missionaries opened schools and hospitals in the Garo Hills, and now most Garos are Christians, with the majority belonging to the Garo Baptist Convention, smaller numbers of Roman Catholics, and also some Seventh-day Adventists and Anglicans.
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 at Tura (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 term 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 honored 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 honored 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.
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.
According to one such oral tradition, the Garos first came to Meghalaya from Tibet about 400 (BC) years ago under the leadership of Jappa Jalimpa, crossing the Brahmaputra River and tentatively settling in the river valley. It is said that they were later driven up into the hills by other groups in and around the Brahmaputra River. Various records of the tribe by invading Mughal armies and by British observers in what is now Bangladesh wrote of the brutality of the people.
The earliest written records about the Garo dates from around 1800. They “…were looked upon as bloodthirsty savages, who inhabited a tract of hills covered with almost impenetrable jungle, the climate of which was considered so deadly as to make it impossible for a white man to live there” (Playfair, 1909: 76-77). The Garo had the reputation of being headhunters.
In December 1872, the British sent out battalions to Garo Hills to establish their control in the region. The attack was conducted from three sides – south, east and west. The Garo warriors confronted them at Rongrenggiri with their spears, swords and shields. The battle that ensured was unmatched, as the Garos did not have guns or mortars like the British Army.
Togan Nengminja, a young man was in command of the valiant Garo warriors. He fell fighting with unmatched heroism and courage.
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 Gaors 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.
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.
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.
A Garo woman wears a piece of cloth around her waist and a blouse or vest. A Garo man wears traditional clothes and a turban. Irrespective of the sex, Garos wear head outfits with beads stuck with feathers of hornbill, bangles and earrings. With adoption of modernization Garos have started wearing western outfits also.
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 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.
- Official Homepage of Meghalaya State of India
- Gan-Chaudhuri, Jagadis. Tripura: The Land and its People. (Delhi: Leeladevi Publications, 1980) p. 10
- Academic study about personal names in Garo villages
- Culture section in the official Garo Hills area