One day during my volunteer term at a school in the Garo Hills, I overheard two of my colleagues chatting in the teachers’ room before classes. One of these teachers was a Garo, and she informed her non-Garo fellow teacher that the Garos had originated in Tibet, and “plenty Garos” still lived there.
I do not know where this bit of cultural memory originated—whether it came from modern anthropology or the Garos’ own oral traditions. In any event, both the social sciences and Garo traditions claim that the Garos migrated from Tibet into the area that would become northeast India. In the absence of formal historical records (the Garo language did not have a written form until the late nineteenth century), we can nevertheless learn something of the Garos’ origins in the distant past.
The Garo language bears a striking resemblance to Tibetan. I first became aware of this similarity when I heard a Tibetan monk counting at a monastery in Darjeeling; I could almost have thought he was counting in Garo. Alan Playfair, district commissioner of the Garo Hills in the early twentieth century, compared Garo and Tibetan vocabularies in The Garos, the first thorough ethnography of the tribe. In an appendix to the book, Playfair identified fifty similar words between the two languages, such as the word for water: chi in Garo and chhu in Tibetan.1 In addition to linguistics, Playfair also identified a handful of other similarities between Garos and Tibetans, notably the Garos’ use of gongs and imported yak tails in their ceremonies.
On the whole, Garo tradition tells the more compelling, if less reliable, story of origins. In one legend, the Garos departed from Tibet and migrated across the mountains into the plains of Bengal. The local king allowed the Garos to reside in his country only temporarily. Once they had outstayed their welcome, they trekked up the right (western and northern) bank of the Brahmaputra River, until they reached the Manas River, which joins the Brahmaputra at Jogighopa.2 The local Assamese king was attracted to the daughter of one of the Garo chiefs. To save the girl, the Garos attempted to hide her in a cave, but the Assamese king attacked, defeated, and subjugated the wandering band. At length, the Garos managed to escape across the river on rafts made of banana stems. The Assamese army followed and attacked, but the Garos won the day and continued their wanderings. After further encounters with an Assamese king on the right (southern) bank of the Brahmaputra, the Garos wandered back westward, broke into several groups, and settled in the hills and the nearby plains.3
Playfair notes that it is impossible to match this legend with historical records. The legend mentions a Garo woman’s marriage to a member of an invading Muslim army, but it is unclear whether this was an invasion in the late fifteenth century or Mir Jumla’s invasion in the seventeenth century (see my blog post “Soldiers of Misfortune”). Whatever the case, Garos were already territorially established during the period of the Ahom kingdom, because they appear on the margins of Ahom history. For instance, in 1671, the Garos came to the aid of the Ahom king as he successfully attempted to drive the Muslim invaders out of Kamrup.4
Once established in Garo-Land, the Garos developed a distinctive culture that shared elements with neighboring tribes, and also had some unique elements. Like the Khasis and Jaintias in the neighboring hill districts of the Meghalaya plateau, the Garos were—and for the most part still are—matrilineal and matrinomial. In the matrilineal social structure, inheritance of family property passes through the daughter. Similarly, in the matrilineal culture, women pass their clan names to their children. Thus, if a man named Ranjit Sangma and a woman named Tekchi Marak were to get married, Tekchi would retain her clan name Marak, and all of the children by the marriage would bear the name Marak rather than Sangma. Note that, while Garo society is matrilineal and matrinomial, it is not matriarchal. Men serve as nokmas (village chiefs), holding on to patriarchy.5
The clan names Marak and Sangma, used in the foregoing example, were not chosen at random. They are, in fact, the two overwhelmingly common exogamous clan names in Garo society. (The third clan name, Momin, is considerably less common.)6 Even though the Marak and Sangma clans both have hundreds of thousands of members, marriage within the clan is almost unthinkable. In addition, each of the clans is divided into dozens or hundreds of sub-clans. These sub-clans are usually used as middle names, and Garos often include the initial of their clan subdivision when they give their full name (as in the case of Williamson A. Sangma, whom we will meet in a later blog post). On occasion, families will choose to distinguish themselves from the Marak/Sangma mass by using their sub-clan name as their last name.7
At the same time as they were developing their culture, the Garos also developed their own distinctive technologies that matched the climate and topography of Garo-Land. Most or all of these technologies are still in use in the Garo Hills. The rivers flowing out of the hills provided opportunities as well as obstacles. The Garos exploited the fish populations for food, building ingenious dams and weirs to trap fish. They also diverted river waters into channels to water their crops. On the hillsides, they practiced jhum (slash-and-burn) cultivation.8
The Garos made extensive use of various species of bamboo for construction, weapons, tools, fuel, and food. They even used enclosed segments of rhino bamboo (Dendrocalamus hamiltonii) as cooking vessels. They placed rice and water inside the bamboo and turned it until it charred. Then they split the bamboo open and extracted the rice.9 Woven together, bamboo could be made into matting that was used for hut walls; the hut frames were betelnut tree trunks and the roof was grass thatch. The Garos also used wood and bamboo to construct bridges and boats for crossing their country’s many streams.
Having thus adapted to life in Garo-Land, the Garos had few needs that their own handicrafts could not satisfy—save for the yak tails and gongs used in their festivals. Although some Garo farmers grew cotton for trade at Assamese markets, most Garos kept aloof from the market economy.10 The Garos appear only on the margins of the histories of pre-colonial Assam—which is hardly surprising, because that was where most of them seemed content to stay.
- A. Playfair, The Garos (1909; repr. Guwahati: Spectrum Publications, 1975), 165-66. [↩]
- Jogighopa is the site of a combined road and rail bridge across the Brahmaputra, the last of only three crossings over the river in the state of Assam. It was completed in 1998. In some seasons, the river swells with rainwater or snowmelt, so that it looks like an endless sea from the vantage point of the bridge. [↩]
- Playfair, The Garos, 8-11. [↩]
- Edward Gait, A History of Assam (1906; repr. Delhi: Surjeet Publications, 2006), 161. [↩]
- Playfair, The Garos, 71-73. [↩]
- One Garo folk tale describes the origins of the clan names. Sangmas are descended from the first person to live in a house with a raised floor. The first Marak was a woman who refused to commit incest by marrying her cousin. The Momins descend from the marriage of a Garo women with a Muslim invader of Assam. Sonaram R. Sangma (storyteller) and Dewan Sing Rongmuthu, “Origin of the Garo Phratries,” in The Folk Tales of the Garos, edited by Dewan Sing Rongmuthu (Guwahati: University of Gauhati Department of Publication, 1960), 293-95. [↩]
- Playfair, The Garos, 66-67. For a partial list of clan subdivisions, see Ibid., 155-56. [↩]
- Ibid., 34. [↩]
- K.C. Sahni, The Book of Indian Trees (Mumbai: Oxford University Press, 1998), 190. [↩]
- Playfair, Garos, 57. [↩]