• GLIMPSES INTO SOCIO-CULTURAL LIFE OF THE GAROS


    Social Life

    Ethnological studies on the Garo tribe were taken up by the British from the last century. Dalton’s Ethnology of Bengal devotes a section to the Garos. Major A. Playfair, Deputy Commissioner of Garo Hills at the turn of this century, was commissioned by the Government to write a monograph on the tribe (already referred to). For a detailed account of various aspects of Garo Society the reader may refer to this book. In 1963, an American scholar, Robbins Burling, published his study of family and kinship and a Garo village. Though he chose only one village for his study, he his study, he dwelt on aspects common to Garo society in general. Dr. Milton S. Sangma’s book, History and Cultural of the Garos also offers in handy volume first-hand knowledge of his own tribe.

    • Property and 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, where Dalton’s Motherhood.

      Before we deal at length with this point, we need to know that 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 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 other Sangmas. The practice may be crumbling to some extent in urban society. 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 purpose, a few may be named as examples under each Chatchis e.g.,

      Sangma: Agitok, A.phang, Koksi, Manda, Rongmutu, Rongrokgre, Snal, etc.
      Marak : Chada, Chambugong, Kama, Koknal, Raksam, Rangsa, Rechil, Re.ma, etc.
      Momin : Cheran, Gabil, Ga.rey, Megonggare, Mrenda, Wa.tre, etc

      Although a modernized Manda Sangma may not shrink from marrying an A·gitok Sangma, he will not think marrying another Manda Sangma. The several Chatchis are subdivided into a large number of ma.chongs may not be so numerous as the Khasi clans or kurs (see Khasi Hills Gazetteer, Ch, III). The practice of kur exogamy is more rigidly observed by the Khasi people.

      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 portion of the maternal property. Indeed, males cannot in theory hold any property other than acquired through their own exertions. Even this will pass on to their children through their children’s mother after they marry. It would appear that the Garos are less rigid then the similarly matrilineal Khasis in their system of inheritance. Whereas among the Khasis the youngest daughter is the principal heiress and the older daughters, if any, may or may not be given any share of the maternal property, among the Garos any of the daughters, even the eldest, if there are many, may be chosen as the nokna or heiress, having provided her fitness to occupy this privileged position by her dutifulness to her parents. In case there are no daughters, the family can adopt any girl, usually one having the closest blood relationship to the adoptive mother, first preference being given to one of the non-heir daughters (agate) 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. If the nokna is unmarried, as she often is since selection generally takes place before she gets married, the father will try to get a young man from his own lineage, commonly the son of his own sister, as the husband of the heiress. Such cross-cousin marriages are common. The nephew thus becomes in a sense the co-heir (a.kim) with his prospective bride, and the father’s ma.chong retains the right of control over his wife’s property. Of course, he cannot sell it or dispose of it, but he has every right to make full use of it. Paradoxically, this apparent elasticity of the Garo System of inheritance, vis-à-vis that of the Khasi, seems to contribute to greater stability in their society.

    • Marriage and 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. People who belong to the same ma.chong though they may live in different parts of the hills and may not be aware of each other’s existence, are considered as brothers and sisters, as in fact, they are, being descended from the same ancestral mother, and marriage between them is unthinkable.

      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 stated earlier, get his own sister’s son, that is, his own nephew, as her prospective bridegroom. It has often been suggested by earlier writers in such cases that when the father of the heiress predeceases the mother, the son-in-law inherits not only the right to the use of wife’s property but also the widow. Burling in his study of the social system in Rengsanggre village seems to think differently and suggest that the new head of the house looks after his widowed mother-in-law. This observation is probably correct, as the natural feeling of delicacy, even awe, existing them would preclude any more intimate relationship.

      Among the Songsareks or non-Christians, the practice of Bridegrooms 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 interest 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 setting down.

      The accepted practice is, of course, that of resorting to proper negotiations in which the male relations of the woman will play an important role. This is especially true where property is involved. On both sides, the principal members of each family, the maternal uncles, the older brothers, and the parents have their part to play. This is true to some extent with Christian families, though among them the choice of the young people themselves is an important factor. The principle of katchi or ma.chong exogamy is, of course, always kept in mind.

      Occasionally, marriage may follow elopement, but these un-negotiated marriages are frowned upon, as they are regards as likely to be unstable.

      Garo women are economically independent. Apart from the fact that they are the owners of landed property, they do much of the work in the fields and even compete with men in trade, and in the rural areas many of them posses skills that the help them to be self reliant. Women are, moreover, comparatively free from the vices that their men folk succumb to, like excessive drinking.

    • Home Life

      In the urban areas, the types of buildings are generally what are called the Assam type with masonry plinths, plank floors, plastered walls, ceilings of cloth or matting and corrugated iron sheet roofs. Buildings of this type are particular advantage in earthquake-prone regions like the Garo Hills, being able to stand up to high degree of stress. As in all other urban areas in the hills, the houses are divided into rooms used for various purposes according to the choice of the owners. The face of Tura town has undergone considerable changes since the early 50’s, a large number of multi-storied buildings of R.C.C. construction having been erected, particularly in the business area. In fact, RCC buildings are quite common today even in other developing parts of Garo Hills.

      In the rural areas, however, even in places quite close to Tura, 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 for storing odds and even for cattle. The rear portion may, on unleveled ground, rests 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 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 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 country, 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.

    • Decorations, Dress, Ornaments

      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 effect dark clothes, either black or dark blue, and men may wear shorts instead of the traditional lion-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 (see Section on Amusements etc. below).

    • 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 low alcohol content and constitutes the staple beverage of the Garos and most hills 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 tent 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 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.

    • Amusements and Festivities

      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 to push each other beyond a marked line instead of pulling. Again, the village may turn out 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. 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 pf 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 metre 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.

    • Communal Life

      A Garo village is a well-knit unit, the population consisting of one domiciled ma.chong or lineage of a chatchi (q.v.) 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, as we have seen, becomes the nokma (a term which is loosely equivalent to headman though the suffix Ma has a feminine connotation). The nokma manages his wife’s properly 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 ordinary has its Bachelor’s Dormitory or Nokpante in which male youth and unmarried men over a certain age live. In the past, these dormitories had a 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.


    • Changes in Society

      Here, again, we must draw a distinction between life in the rural areas and in the urban areas. The acceleration of development work in recent years, particularly after 1950, has contributed greatly to the material progress of the people everywhere, though the impact has naturally been greater in the town areas. The rapid spread of education has inevitably brought about a change in the vocational pattern, with many young people turning away from agriculture and taking up other types of work, either with Government or in business undertakings. The trend is bound to have an effect on cohesion in the foreseeable future.

      The change in the status of the Nokma came about over a century ago, but although he has lost much of his old authority in administrative matters, his position being positively subordinate to that of the Government-appointed Laskar or Sirdar, he still plays the dominant role in the social life of a village.

      In short, the Garos today face the same challenges that tribal communities elsewhere have to face, bur in spite of the rapid shift of influence to the urban elite, the backbone of the tribe is still the rural population and many of the rural folk are shrewd enough to appreciate what is best for them. This fact may help to balance the swing from one extreme to another-from generally conservative form of society to an ultra-modern one.