By Sankar Kumar Roy





The Garos living in the East and West Garo Hills districts of Meghalaya in northeastern India speak the Garo dialect. They are one of the best known matrilineal groups in India. Here the Garos are not the only aboriginal tribe--they are the MAJOR aboriginal tribe. Others are the Hajong, the Koch, the Rabha, the Dalau, and the Banais who reside on the adjacent plains of the neighboring district. There remains an obscurity about the origin of the word 'Garo.' They are known as 'Garos' to outsiders; but the Garos always designate themselves as 'Achik' ('hill man'). The Garos are divided into nine subtribes: the Awe, Chisak, Matchi-Dual, Matabeng, Ambeng, Ruga-Chibox, Gara-Ganching, Atong, and the Megam. These are geographic subtribes, but are also dialectal and subcultural groups. According to their beliefs and religion, the Garos are divided into the SONGSAREK (following their indigenous beliefs and practices) and the Christians.

The two Garo Hills districts are situated between 25 degrees, 9 minutes and 26 degrees, 1 minute north latitude and 89 degrees, 49 minutes and 91 degrees, 2 minutes east longitude, covering an area of 8,000 square kilometers. The districts border Bangladesh on the south and west and Assam on the north. Hills cover most of the district, with plains along the fringes. There are a number of hilly streams and rivers; excepting for the Simsang River which forms a wide flood plain none is navigable. The monsoon area produces a thick vegetation on the hills.


According to the census of India for 1981, the total population of the districts was 505,003. Other groups such as the Koch and Hajong constitute a tiny percentage of the total population. According to the census of 1971 Christian Garos were 54.3 percent of the total Garo population; now they may be more than 60 percent of the total Garo population.


According to Sir George Grierson's classification in the LINGUISTIC SURVEY OF INDIA, Garo belongs to the Bodo subsection of the Bodo-Naga Section, under the Assam-Burma Group of the Sino-Tibetan or Tibeto-Burman Language Family.


There remains no record of when the Garos migrated and settled in their present habitat. Their traditional lore as recorded by Major Playfair points out that they migrated to the area from Tibet. There is evidence that the area was inhabited by the stone-using peoples—Palaeolithic and Neolithic groups—in the past. After settling in the hills, Garos initially had no close and constant contact with the inhabitants of the adjoining plains. In 1775-76 the Zamindars of Mechpara and Karaibari (at present in the Goalpara and Dhubri districts of Assam) led expeditions onto the Garo hills. The first contact with British colonialists was in 1788, and the area was brought under administrative control in the year 1873.


The population in a village ranges from 20 to 1,000 persons. The population density tends to decrease as one moves towards the interior areas from the urban areas of the districts. Villages are scattered and distant from one another in the interior areas. These villages are generally situated on the top of hillocks. The houses are built together with granaries, firewood sheds, and pig sties. The houses are built, together with granaries, firewood sheds, and pigsties, on piles around the slope of the hillock, using locally available bamboo, wood, grass, etc. The approach to the rectangular house is always built facing the leveled surface of the top, while the rear part of the house remains horizontal to the slope. Nowadays new pile-type buildings using wood and iron as major components are being made in some traditional villages also. In addition, buildings similar to those of the neighboring plains are also constructed. The villages may remain distant from agricultural fields (JHUM). In order to guard a crop (during agricultural seasons) from damage by wild animals, the people build temporary watchtowers (BORANQ) in trees in the field. Bachelor dormitories exist in some villages for meetings and recreation.



Traditionally, the Garos living in the hills subsist by slash-and-burn cultivation. The iron hoe, chopper, and wooden digging stick are essential appliances. Human labor continue to be the principal source of energy. Very often in some areas a plot allotted to a family remains under-used because of an insufficient number of workers and the low level of technology. To survive the erratic nature of monsoons, mixed crops--both wet and dry varieties--are planted. A shifting cultivator plants a wide assortment of crops consisting of rice (mainly dry varieties), millet, maize and many root crops, vegetables, etc. In addition to these, cotton, ginger, and chili peppers are commonly raised as cash crops. All crops are harvested in October. At present the available strips of low and flat land lying between the hillocks or hills are used for permanent wet cultivation. The variety of crops cultivated is like that of the neighboring plains peoples. Such lands are owned individually. Additional production from such plots places the villagers in a better economic condition. The expansion of the modern economy and the steady increase of population are causing constant pressure on traditionally-worked plots. The same plot is used almost continuously in some areas thus leading to the decline in annual production. This trend is evident from the 1981 census report, which estimates that about 50 percent of the Garo people are now solely dependent on shifting cultivation and the rest use a part of a jhum plot permanently for areca nut, oranges, tea (on a small scale), pineapples, etc. In this changing situation a producer may not always be a consumer; and reciprocity and cooperation do not exist as a dominant force in the socioeconomic life of this population.


Each family in a traditional context acts as a self-contained economic unit. Modernization has brought some changes in the socioeconomic sphere of this population. The Garos residing in the hills did not weave cloth a few decades back; they used to procure thick cloth known as KANCHA from the plains Garos. Now that the loom has been introduced in the hill areas, they weave DOKMANDE (a kind of cloth) for commercial purposes as well as for their personal use. Previously each family used to make pottery for its domestic use, nowadays the art is confined to a few families only who either sell or barter it.


A few centuries ago the Garos were famous for headhunting. That practice constrained the neighboring population of the plains from entering the hills. But people must exchange their produce to meet their requirements, and both hill and plains Garos needed such trade. Hence some trade started at border points on a very limited scale. Over time, these contacts grew into organized HUTTA (weekly markets) under the initiative of the Zamindars, who were subjects of the Muslim ruler. Initially cotton was exchanged in silent barter for pigs, cattle, goat, tobacco and metallic tools. This trade has continued to the present, with increasing involvement of peoples from the neighboring areas, and has now become fully monetized. Cotton, ginger and, dried chilies produced by the Garos are sold to the traders. The Garos in turn purchase pottery, metallic tools, and other industrial goods such as cloth from the traders.


The division of labor between members of the household is as follows: the males are responsible for clearing jungle and setting fire to the debris for shifting cultivation, while women are responsible for planting, weeding and harvesting. During the peak agricultural operations the men sometimes help the women. Construction and repair of the house are male duties. Men make baskets, while women carry crops from the field and firewood from the jungle. Women look after the kitchen and prepare beer, and men serve the beer to guests. Women rear the children and keep the domestic animals. Both men and women sell firewood and vegetables in the marketplace.


Land for shifting cultivation is owned by the clan. Each village has a traditionally demarcated area of its own termed ADOK. This area is subdivided into plots that are used for cultivation in a cyclic order. The plots are distributed to the families. Allotment of the general plots is done by common consensus of the village elders. But the flat area for permanent wet cultivation is owned by individuals.



The Garos reckon their kinship through the mother. Individuals measure the degree of their relationship to one another by the distance of their matrilineages. For men, children of their sister or sister's daughters are very important kin. For women, children of their sister's daughters are equivalent to the children of their own daughters.


The kinship terms used by the Garos form a set, which is broad enough so that each Garo can be assigned a term. The terms are arranged in a system that classifies the kin. This classification is based on nine principles, as follows: (1) sex, (2) generation, (3) relative age, (4) moiety membership, (5) collaterality, (6) heirship, (7) type of wife, (8) intimacy of relationship, (9) speaker's sex.



Descent is matrilineal, residence uxonilocal. The mother's brother's daughter type of cross-cousin marriage is the most widely accepted and prevalent among the people. It is a rigid custom that a man must marry a woman from the opposite CHATCHI (moiety). The rule of chatchi exogamy stipulates that a man's mother's father will be in the opposite chatchi and a man's wife's potential husbands will be in his own chatchi. After marriage a man keeps up his relation with his MACHONG (clan). His relation with reference to wife's machong is designated as QACHI. Marriage establishes a permanent relation between two machong, known as AKIM. After marriage, a male moves to the residence of his wife. In the case of a NOKROM (husband of the heiress of property), marriage does not create a new household, but rather adds a new lease of life to an old household. Even after the death or divorce of a spouse the akim relation continues. It is the responsibility of the deceased's machong to provide a replacement spouse to the surv iving partner.