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Origins of the Garos

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.

  1. A. Playfair, The Garos (1909; repr. Guwahati: Spectrum Publications, 1975), 165-66. []
  2. 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. []
  3. Playfair, The Garos, 8-11. []
  4. Edward Gait, A History of Assam (1906; repr. Delhi: Surjeet Publications, 2006), 161. []
  5. Playfair, The Garos, 71-73. []
  6. 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. []
  7. Playfair, The Garos, 66-67. For a partial list of clan subdivisions, see Ibid., 155-56. []
  8. Ibid., 34. []
  9. K.C. Sahni, The Book of Indian Trees (Mumbai: Oxford University Press, 1998), 190. []
  10. Playfair, Garos, 57. []

A Short History of Garo-Land

Before departing for a year as a volunteer teacher at a school in the Garo Hills of northeast India, I tried to learn about the place I was soon to visit. I managed to come up with a few facts from reference materials in my library and books I got through interlibrary loan. The Internet—this worshipful medium through which all things may be known—was hardly any help at all.1 I learned that the Garo Hills are inhabited by the Garo people, and that it rains heavily there. I didn’t learn much else.

None of the sources I was able to find seemed to have any sense of the history of the place and the people that lived there. The brief references to Garos I was able to find mentioned their having been converted to Christianity by American missionaries in the nineteenth century. Where the Garos had come from and what they were doing in their pre-Christian days, I couldn’t tell. And since their conversion to Christianity, the Garos seemed not to have done much of anything.

Over the course of my volunteer term, and in the years since, I have been able to gather some information about the Garos and the land they inhabit. It appears that a complete history of the Garos has not been written—or in any event, has not been translated into English. My intention here is not to write such a history. Rather, in this and the next several blog posts, I intend to historicize the Garo Hills, to provide some of the context that I was unable to find before I visited the place.

Except in accounts by foreign missionaries—which present their own difficulties for interpretation—Garos typically only appear on the margins of other people’s history, if at all. They deserve to be at the forefront of their own history. The Garos offer a case-study of a people on the margins of a nation-state, both literally and figuratively. The Garo Hills, along with the rest of northeast India, are isolated geographically from the mainland of India. Culturally and linguistically, the Garos are distinct from the majority of the Indian population: they have no Hindu heritage, and they do not speak an Indo-Aryan or Dravidian language. Studying the Garos can help us see how minority peoples respond to marginalization in modern nation-states.

The Garo Hills comprise the western end of the Meghalaya Plateau, which rises between the Brahmaputra River Valley and the flatlands of Bangladesh. The predominantly limestone hills catch a significant portion of the monsoon that sweeps in from the Bay of Bengal. The rains nourish forests that grow thickly on uncultivated hills. The seasonal rains feed rivers that flow out into the plains; the rivers are low in the winter months and subsequent dry season, but high in the summer monsoon. The highest portion of the Garo Hills is the Tura Range, which reaches its climax at Nokrek Peak.2 Most of the land in the Garo Hills has been encroached upon by human settlement, but a few places are set aside as protected areas. The ecologically diverse Nokrek National Park, near Tura, was designated a UNESCO World Biosphere Preserve in 2009.

The modern-day Garo Hills are divided into three districts (West, East, and South Garo Hills) of the state of Meghalaya. The ethnic and linguistic majority population in these hill districts are the Garos. Some Garos live in adjoining districts of Assam and Bangladesh, and thus I use the term “Garo-Land” when I wish to refer to the ethnolinguistic region straddling state and international borders. The population of the Garo Hills is overwhelmingly rural. The largest settlement in the Garo Hills is Tura, which is the district headquarters for the West Garo Hills district. Situated on a hillside at 1200 feet, Tura has a population of barely 60,000. Important market towns line the few highways that run into the hills; smaller settlements are dispersed throughout the backcountry of the hills. The 2011 Indian census reports that 88% of the 1.1 million inhabitants of the three Garo Hill districts are rural.3

In the next four blog posts, I will attempt to place the Garos and their land in historical context. After discussing the historical background of the Garos, I will conclude with an analysis of a recent event in Garo history: the September 30, 2005 shooting of students in Tura and Williamnagar, an event that has since become known as Black Friday.

References

  • Playfair, A. The Garos. 1909. Reprint, Guwahati, India: Spectrum Publications, 1975. The new introduction of the reprint, by Parimal Chandra Kar, provides the most useful postcolonial history of the Garo Hills that I have yet seen.
  • Taher, M, and P. Ahmed. Geography of North-East India. 4th ed. Guwahati, India: Mani Manik Prakash, 2007.
  1. On Google Books, I found a very dated Garo grammar, which I got printed and bound into a book. I brought the book with me to India and tried to study it, but the language—especially its written form—had changed so much between 1874 and 2009 that I found the book useless. []
  2. Published sources give varying figures for the elevation of Nokrek Peak, ranging from 4633 feet (1412 meters) on US Defense Mapping Agency Charts, to 5016 feet (1529 meters) in Taher and Ahmed, Geography of Northeast India. []
  3. The 2011 Census has a useful interactive interface: http://censusindia.gov.in/2011census/censusinfodashboard/index.html. Only 132,000 inhabitants of the Garo Hills live in urban areas, which were defined for the purposes of this census as places that fulfilled all of the following conditions: 1) population 5,000 or greater; 2) at least three-quarters of male workers employed in non-agricultural professions; and 3) minimum population density of 400 per square kilometer. []

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