In the nineteenth century, the Garos finally began to appear as main characters in histories, rather than just as supporting characters in other people’s histories. People of European descent—primarily British colonialists and American missionaries—came into contact with the Garos and left records of their encounters. These explorers’ accounts and mission stories are not without their own problems—but at least Garos had finally begun to appear on center-stage in historical accounts.
By the beginning of the British Raj in 1858, the British had annexed territory completely surrounding the Garo Hills, but not the hills themselves. The Garos at this time were broken into countless disorganized tribes, who engaged in constant warfare with each other for the purpose of headhunting. As long as the Garos kept to themselves, the British were happy to leave them alone. Sometimes, though, groups of Garos found it easier—if less sporting—to take heads of Bengali and Assamese peasants from the plains below.
In 1822, the colonial government issued Regulation X, which brought the haats (market towns) at the base of the hills under direct colonial control, thus removing them from the control of the zamindars (landlords). David Scott, a colonial officer who had already been involved in the annexation of the Khasi Hills, was the first Special Commissioner of the border haats. The system of maintaining the border areas of the hills worked reasonably well until the 1860s, when raids by Garo groups from the interior hills threatened the lowlanders once again. A more hands-on administrative approach was in order. The Raj government formally annexed the entirety of the Garo Hills or Garrowana, in 1866. The following year, Lieutenant W.J. Williamson established his administrative headquarters at Tura, just below the central, highest range of the hills. Local chiefs began to pay tribute to him, and to refer disputes to him for arbitration. Williamson visited villages throughout the hills, where he convinced the Garos to submit to British administration and burn their collections of trophy skulls. Finally, in 1872 and 1873, a military expedition brought the Garo Hills firmly under British control.
Equally important, in the long run, to the history of the Garos was the introduction of Christianity to the hills. The Christianization of the Garos was not a simple matter of foreigners imposing their own beliefs and values on a native people; much of the work of evangelism was performed by missionaries who had converted on their own. Although the missionaries who worked with the Garos were products of their times, they were not merely imperialists by another name. Mission work was its own distinct phenomenon, historically linked—but by no means identical in goals and outcome—to imperial conquest.
The first Garo converts to Christianity were Omed and Ramke Momin, two cousins from the northern Garo Hills. Both found their own way to the religion during the 1850s; neither was directly converted by missionaries or evangelists. Omed, a sepoy, happened across Bengali evangelical tracts in the garbage swept out of a bungalow in his military camp. Ramke, for his part, had a rather more mystical discovery. Scared of demons and hoping to find a way out, he went into the jungle and prayed fervently for guidance. He had a vision in which he saw a tall man who told him, “Thy prayer is heard.” At first, Ramke thought this man was the Hindu god Rama; only later, under Omed’s guidance, did he identify the man as Jesus.
View of the Brahmaputra River at Sukheswar Ghat, site of the first Garo baptisms in 1863.
Miles Bronson, an American missionary stationed at Nowgong (Naogaon), met Omed and Ramke in Gauahati in 1863. After satisfying himself that the young men understood the Gospel, he baptized them on February 8 in the Brahmaputra River at Sukheswar Ghat. The young Garo converts returned to their villages and attempted to convert them to Christianity. Despite fierce opposition from village elders, the first Garo evangelists began to make converts. They requested that professional missionaries be brought in from the the West. Dr. and Mrs. Stoddard, a middle-aged couple from New York state, responded to the call and set up the first Baptist mission to the Garos in Goalpara in 1867. In order to be closer to the population they intended to serve, the missionaries shifted their base of operations to Tura in 1876.
Dr. and Mrs. Stoddard, first permanent foreign missionaries to the Garos. (Source: Garo Jungle Book)
Aside from the spread of Christianity in the Garo Hills—which remains a significant part of Garo identity and social life to this day—the missionaries’ most significant legacy was the development of a written form of Garo. In addition to simply assigning sounds to letters and identifying standardized spellings for words, the missionaries had to develop a new literary dialect of the Garo language. This dialect was a hybrid of several different existing hill dialects, and today it serves as the lingua franca for the Garos—in spoken as well as written forms. Literary Garo was originally written in the script used for Bengali and Assamese, languages spoken and written on three sides of the hills. By the turn of the twentieth century, the missionaries had abandoned the use of the Bengali script, and instead adopted the Roman script.
An example of modern written Garo: a Bible verse posted on a tree in Bajengdoba. (The text reads, in KJV: “For what is a man profited, if he shall gain the whole world, and lose his own soul? or what shall a man give in exchange for his soul?” Matthew 16:26.)
Despite the political, religious, and cultural changes brought about in parts of Garo-Land by the imposition of British rule and the introduction of Christianity, by 1900 life continued forth in most of the Garo Hills much as it had for centuries. The colonial authorities adopted a policy of partial exclusion, thereby restricting unauthorized persons from entry into the hills. Until the 1930s, Christianity had not spread much beyond the Garo foothills fronting Assam. Despite the missionaries’ dreams that the Garos would harness their mountain streams to power mills, most of the Garos continued to rely on the traditional technologies that had served them for centuries.
A Garo church, a common sight in the hills.
Christianity and tribal customs meet: Traditional Garo drums are now used to celebrate the Nativity on Christmas Day.