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Garos and their colourful world

Given that diversity is India’s second name, it is no surprise that our country is home to a multiplicity of ethnic and social groups, cultures and faiths.

Garos and their colourful world

Dance is integral to Garo celebrations.



Rashmi Gopal Rao 

Given that diversity is India’s second name, it is no surprise that our country is home to a multiplicity of ethnic and social groups, cultures and faiths. India is home to a whopping 635 tribes, a majority of whom have their own unique beliefs and customs. With a distinctive social identity and order, the world of these tribes is a revelation indeed. One of these intriguing groups, Northeast’s Garo tribe is among the handful of matrilineal societies in the world. It’s a social system wherein the women folk of the family own the property, while men govern the overall affairs and manage the property.

Tibet-Burma roots

An ethnic group believed to have originated from Tibet, the Garos migrated to the Garo hills as early as in 400 BC. The earliest recorded history of the Garo tribe dates back to 1800. While they originally settled in Meghalaya and the foothills of Arunachal Pradesh, they also migrated to Assam during the British rule. They are, in fact, the second largest tribe in Meghalaya after the Khasis and comprise a large part of the population. In the Garo world, children take their clan titles from their mother and the daughters are entitled to inherit the ancestral property. The boys generally leave home after adulthood and live in the lady’s house after marriage.

Traditional practices

The original language of the Garos belongs to the Tibeto-Burman language family. There is, though, no formal script of the language that exists today. Most of the age-old customs, beliefs and traditions were passed down from generation to generation orally. Their traditional religion, Songsarek, is on the decline, practised only in some remote pockets. Replete with various beliefs, it practises animal sacrifice to appease the deities.

The traditional dress of both men and women is colourful and they adorn themselves with elaborate jewellery, which includes chunky necklaces made from the elongated beads of cornelian or red glass called ripok, earrings made from silver, waist bands made from conch shells and headgear made from feathers called pilne. The headgear is worn by women during festive dances. They used weapons like spears, swords, bows and arrows, which were all useful during hunting.

Living in the present 

While Garos have retained their identities, many of the age-old customs and traditions are fading away with most of the population converting to Christianity. In Assam, they speak an Assamese dialect of the original Garo language and many of them are even proficient in Hindi. They dress differently, too, with the traditional attires reserved for festive occasions. They practise agriculture and fishing, and largely follow sustainable practices by living off the land they are a part of. Rice is their staple food; they prepare a number of specialities including desserts and sweetmeats made from rice that is hand pounded into flour. They rear goats, pigs, fowls as well and feed on their meat.

They celebrate several festivals, including Christmas, which has today become an integral part of their culture. Wangala, a harvest festival, is held annually during October-November with great pomp and show. It is celebrated in the honour of harvest god Saljong and is a form of thanksgiving. The Wangala dance performed during this time is the highlight of the festival.

Handicrafts

Most of the women are into weaving, with many houses having a backstrap loom. The woven fabrics are coloured using vegetable dyes and organic methods. For example, yellow is obtained by using turmeric, while shades of pink are extracted from the peels of onions. Leaves are boiled and used for various shades of green. The cloth is embroidered by hand and their signature design includes a geometric pattern done at the borders. Shawls, bags and cushion covers thus produced by them are a great way to showcase, preserve and propagate their native crafts.

In order to preserve the rich cultural heritage of the Garos, organisations like the Balipara Foundation have trained and facilitated the tribal folk to open up their homes for tourists as home stays in the Sonitpur district of Assam. This exercise aims to benefit both tourists as well as the local tribal population. While guests get a firsthand experience of the traditional tribal lifestyle by participating in activities like weaving, farming and also sampling the local cuisine, the extra income strengthen the community’s economic independence, and help in their overall socio-economic development.

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