While it was my first time in Garo hills, it was not that I did not know about the place. My friend from Tura would often bring cashew grown in Garo hills and another friend had contracted malaria while he was doing fieldwork there. But the one event that puts them in the map of India is the Wangala drum festival which is celebrated every year in the month of November. It is a post harvest festival as they play their drums and give thanks to the gods for their harvest. Though it is celebrated in every village on a smaller scale, it is now a state-organized affair as a hundred-drum festival with participants joining from all over. It has also become a symbol of Garo identity as their drum performance has also been taken to the Republic Day parade in New Delhi.
Garos call themselves ‘A-chik’ and have been of interest to scholars and anthropologists since the colonial times as the first observation was made in the late eighteenth century by John Eliot who wrote ‘Garrow’ for the Garos. Though the earlier studies were mostly done for administrative purposes, it was the beginning of the introduction of Garos to the rest of the world.
One of the most fascinating aspects for people has been the matrilineal form of descent among Garos. Like the Khasis, the Garo children take the mother’s last name and the husband usually goes to the wife’s family after marriage. But what is more interesting about the Garos is a form of marriage called ‘marriage by capture’ that is practiced in their society. Besides the regular marriage pattern that takes place everywhere, Garo women are also able to choose their man of interest as she would tell her brother/ uncle, who in turn goes and captures the man of her choice and brings him home. However, the man can try to escape if he doesn’t want to end up in the family and the whole process is quite amusing for people like us.
With a few of these ideas about Garos, we headed to Sadolpara, a typical Garo village on a Wednesday morning and found ourselves transferred to a world of simple living at its best.
We entered a Garo house made of thatch and bamboo and went through the main room where there is a traditional hearth and they sleep around it. Then we headed towards the end of the house which was like a kitchen and a terrace where they could eat and socialize. We were served the traditional rice beer as we reached there and neighbors started pouring in, curious to see the new people who have arrived in the village.
The Garo rice beer locally known as ‘chubitchi’ is judged the best, among rice beers served in different tribes of Northeast India and I remember my friend bringing a bottle for our teacher every time she came from home. We were enjoying the drink but didn’t realize that they would keep pouring as our glass was being emptied. So, before we got too comfortable in our bamboo terrace in the mid-day sun we decided to take a walk around the village.
One of the first things I noticed was a wooden post in memory of the deceased in front of their homes. In case there has been a death in the family, they would build a wooden post called ‘kimla’ and adorn it with the clothes, accessories and items owned by the dead. It is part of the death rituals of this community whose traditional religion is called ‘Songsarek’. It looks like a scarecrow but it was a good reminder of the one who left as it was also one of the most prominent features around the village.
As we walked around, we noticed the red earth and the tall green betel nut trees against the clear blue sky. We had indeed been transported to a world away from our concrete urban dwellings as there was a house under construction too. The bamboo poles and wooden frame was almost ready as it awaited the roof and outer walls. We asked how much time it takes to build a house and they said, three days. We couldn’t believe our ears but when the whole village comes together, it was a probable task.
The people we met along the way were friendly and stopped by to shake hands. As we neared the headman’s house, we noticed a huge gathering discussing some family dispute in the village. Each member of the household was expected to be present and contribute a vessel of rice beer.
The daughter of the house we visited earlier was also on her way to the headman’s place with their family’s share of rice beer as we got back. The settlement could take all day and all villagers were expected to be a part of the decision making process leisurely drinking and listening to both sides. A lady stopped by saying she was trying to avoid going to the headman’s because she did not have the rice beer. We weren’t sure if she was avoiding because she didn’t have rice beer or had not had time to prepare the same.
But we were now being served rice beer once again. This time we sat inside the house and were also served local yams as appetizers before the meal that afternoon. The bamboo floors were comfortable and practical as we were served rice and local chicken for lunch. It was such a generous giving for strangers to whom they owned nothing.
Our hearts were overwhelmed as we bid goodbye and headed out of the village. On our way out, we met an elderly lady and I quickly put a hundred rupee note in my hand as I tried to shake her hand. When she shook my hand and found that I had slipped some money, she held it and asked, ‘why is she giving me money?’. I felt embarrassed. She didn’t need money. She had everything. Her village had everything. It was me who needed what she had.