As described in the previous article on the ‘Ramayana Parampara among the Khasis of Meghalaya’, selective amnesia and erasure of the pre-Christian heritage of different groups and communities of people in the North-East has been going on continuously. Among the Garos of Meghalaya too, the Ramayana parampara continues to thrive myriad different forms. There exist five major clans among the Garos – Sangma, Marak, Momin, Areng, and Shira – which are further sub-divided into many different sub-clans.
In terms of the size of their population, the Garos constitute the second largest community of people (almost 1/3rd of the population) in Meghalaya after the Khasis. It is believed that a division of the Garos called themselves by the name of Gara, which became Garo over a period of time. Regarding their original homeland, no one knows exactly as to where they came from, although a popular belief has a very distinct story to tell about the Garos migrating from what is today known as Tibet.
The belief is that Garu, who was the leader of the migrants, gave his name to the community after they settled down in different areas of the Brahmaputra river valley (present-day Assam). Interestingly, in one of the old Garo songs, there is a reference to the country of their origin as Garu – a song or a country of the Garos. Similarities of language, customs and beliefs among a section of the Tibetans and the Garos, do indicate their linkages with Tibet in the olden times.
There are large groups of Garos inhabiting the contiguous plains areas of Habraghat Pargana, covering the present-day district of Goalpara and a few areas of Kamrup district in Lower Assam around Guwahati along the north and the south banks of the Brahmaputra, besides Darrang, Lakhimpur, Sibsagar, and Karbi Anglong districts. The Garos have always shared a close linguistic, religious and cultural affinity with numerous other followers and practitioners of Sanatana Dharma residing in the plains of Assam, including the Koch-Rajbongshis, Kacharis, Dimasas, and Bodos.
It may be recalled here that the American Baptist Missionaries were the first to have come to the Garo Hills after the British occupation of this district was complete in the year 1872. With the aim of propagating their Christian dogma through education as the means, they first learned the A’we and A’Tong dialects of the Garos which were then used to write school textbooks. The Bible was translated so as to make it the standard literature in the Garo language and establish Jesus as the Supreme God in place of Shri Ram and Shri Krisnā.
The rich cultural repository of epic narrations of the Garos known as Katta Agana or Katta Doka and local songs of various kinds, were also translated by the Christian missionaries into the local Garo dialects. Very soon, elements of the Garo traditional religion called Songsarek which the missionaries were not able to comprehend, were dismissed as ‘superstitious’ and ‘irrational’, while the rest were digested into the Christian theological and religious doctrine.
Today, a majority of the Garos have become Christians (with the majority being Catholics) and several ritualistic elements of their traditional theatre forms such as kirtan and sankirtana have been appropriated into the Christian literary and religious framework. The extraordinary rise in the share of Christians among the Garos has implied the near extinction of the followers of their traditional Songsarek belief system. The number of followers of the Songsarek religion declined from more than 88 thousand in 1991 to about 17 thousand in 2011.
The number of followers of the traditional Niam Khasi faith among the Khasis has also declined, but not as drastically as that of the followers of Songsarek. The Hajong, Rabha, and Koch communities are concentrated mainly in the West Garo Hills district, and they are known to have been under great pressure from the majority Christian Garo community to convert. Songsarek in the Garo language implies dakbewalandniam, i.e. the natural way of life, relating to their most prominent agricultural activities during the year.
The chief deities in the Songsarek religious pantheon – Dakgipa Rugipa Stugipa Pantugipa or Tatara Rabuga Stura Pantura and Nokgipa Biambi – are believed to play an important role in the process of creation of life, besides ensuring the survival and protection of the lives and properties of all in the community. The Garo version of the Ramayana shares many aspects in common with the tradition of the Ramayana prevailing among the Hindu Rabha and Koch communities in particular, residing in the state of Assam and also scattered over a few areas of Meghalaya in Tura, bordering Bangladesh.
A traditional dramatic art form called Bhari Gan has deeply influenced the life and society of the Garos. Closely related with the Ramayana, this distinctive art form called Bhari Gan or Bhar Gan is a declining tradition of Sanatan Hindu heritage. Today, it is almost on the verge near extinction and only stray references are to be found. However, it still prevails in a few pockets of Goalpara district in Lower Assam and its adjoining areas bordering Garo Pahaar in Meghalaya. This dance drama tradition is popular among the Pati-Rabha community of the Rabhas as well.
Bhari Gan is a ritualistic play performed by a chorus group of around 30-35 people. The themes of this play are mainly inspired from the Ramayana. Some of its striking features are the use of heavy wooden masks, story-telling through songs that represent a combination of both scripted and extempore plots. There is a chief performer known as the mul, who not only performs the lead role in Bhari Gan plays but also controls and supervises its entire course.
The other constituents of the group include the paalis, or those who play the drums and the cymbals, singers and performers who enact the different roles of the different characters. The paalis are the associates of the mul and are generally eight to ten in number. While the mul or the chief performer leads the recitation with a suanr (whisk) in hand, the group of paalis sits on the ground and repeats the verses sung by their leader.
In a Bhari Gan performance, the rendition of the songs narrates the sequences of the play stage-wise. The various characters of the play appear as per the narration. A majority of them makes their appearances in masks. Some important scenes of the narration are portrayed with characters dancing to the tune of the music. As already mentioned, the subject matter of the Bhari Gan plays is mainly derived from different episodes of the Ramayana such as Raban Badh, Mahi Raban Badh, Sita’r Agniparikha Aru Raban Badh, Meghnath Badh, etc.
An interesting aspect is that while all these plays are based on stories from the Ramayana, Dadhi Mathan, the childhood story of Keli Gopal (Sri Krisnā) is the only play based on one of the episodes from the Mahabharata. Bhari Gan is mainly performed as a part of the different traditional modes of worship and rituals and ceremonies of the Rabhas and the Garos. In a full-fledged occasion of such traditional worship such as Bhar Puja, both the Dadhi Mathan and a Ramayana-based play are performed.
On such occasions, the Dadhi Mathan play is performed during the day, while the play based on the Ramayana is performed at night. The play which is performed in the night continues overnight until dawn. The Ramayana-based plays among the Garos are also known by the name Ratir Gan, meaning ‘the play of the night’. Bhari Gan/Bhar Gan is a beautiful oral tradition of story-telling that has been handed down from one generation to the next and is devoid of any specific record regarding its actual time of origin.
The meaning of the phrase Bhari Gan suggests that the term Bhari might have been derived from Bhau or Bhauria where Bhau means acting and Bhauria means actor. Thus, it seems that the term Bhari implies the nature of the play that depicts stories with acting. On the other hand, the term ‘Gan’ simply means songs. But it has an extended meaning as well which stands for the performances that are presented through the medium of singing. Therefore, the term Bhari Gan implies the kind of performances that are sung with acting and singing both.
The Bhari Gan troupes use handwritten scripts for their plays and these are preserved only in their custody. The language of these plays seems to be a mixture of the dialects used in the locality among both the Rabhas and the Garos and as well as the language of the neighbouring state of Bengal. Although the impact of the language of the neighbouring state seems to be prominent, there is every possibility that the language of the plays has been deeply influenced by Brajabali, which is the most common language used in the Ankiya Nat or one-act plays of Assam composed by Mahapurusā Srimanta Sankardeva.
This also brings to light the cultural similarities which the Garos share with the rest of the Hindu society in the North-East. In some portions of the rendition of the dialogues in Bhari Gan, a certain kind of broken Hindi is also found to be in use. In addition to the primary plays, Bhari Gan troupes of the Garos also perform humorous dance drama performances known as Nakal which are usually an enactment of some humorous scenes from the Ramayana in the form of short comical plays.
The term Nakal literally means imitation or copy, and such performances are full of comic elements like mimicry, parody and jokes, and characters dressed up like cartoons. These Nakal performances are enacted in between the main plays giving a break to the audience from chorus singing. Their main objective is to provide entertainment to the audience while at the same time giving some time for rest to the Mul who has to remain continuously alert and active throughout the main play.
With regard to the costumes of the Bhari Gan performances, except for Ravana, who is the only character that wears royal attire, the other characters in the play wear simple clothing of daily use. The dress of the Mul is generally a little distinctive, since he happens to be the leading performer. He usually wears a long shirt as an upper garment, puts across a Gamocha over his shoulder, a long Gamucha or Dhoti (usually white in colour) as the lower garment apart from adorning his legs with Nupur or anklets.
In some Bhari Gan troupes, the Mul also wears a headgear. It is significant to mention here that Bhari Gan is only performed by the menfolk of the community and never by women. The female characters in the play are also enacted by the male members. While the royal female characters like Sita and Mandodori wear Sari and Kiriti (Garo name for the headgear or crown), the other female characters wear regular, simple traditional clothing worn by the women of their community. There is also no use of elaborate ornaments.
Most importantly, there is no need of a specific type of stage or raised platform to organise the Bhari Gan performances. It can be performed anywhere, in any open space. Traditionally speaking, the Bhari Gan performances used to be organised in the shrines called Thaans dedicated to the worship of various local Devis and Devatas. Before Christianity made inroads, it was customary to hold at least one Bhari Gan performance on different religious occasions of the Garos and the Rabhas.
In various villages of the Rabhas and the Garos adjoining Assam, even today, traditional annual festivals such as Ai Than Mela, Lakhar Thakur Puja, Vanavasi Thakurani Puja, Ma Kali Puja, etc. are organised and as a ritual, a Bhari Gan performance is a must-have for such occasions. Some of the other events where Bhari Gan teams are invited for performances include Thakurani Puja (Bhagawati Puja), Kali Puja, Hamnang Puja, Durga Puja, Rasmela, Sivaratri and Douljatra.
So, without celebrating the life and deeds of Shri Ram, it is almost like every traditional festival or occasion remains incomplete in the Garo and Rabha societies. Characters like Raban (Ravana), Mahiraban (Mahiravana), Patra Mantri, Sarathi (charioteer of Ravana), Ketuwa (associate of Ravana), Hanuman, Sugrib (Sugriva), Jambuban (Jambavan) and Bibhisan (Vibhishana) constitute an integral part of the Ramayana tradition of the Garos. In a Bhari-Gan performance, almost all these characters wear heavy wooden masks.
But, masks are not used for characters like Ram, Lakshman, and Sita. Masks are also used for characters like Mahakali, Shiva, Jham Raja (Yamraj), Vishwakarma, Burha (old man), Burhi (old women), and Bamun (Brahmin priest). Masks for some animal characters like bagh (tiger) and kawri (crow) are also used by some groups. The use of masks in the Nakal plays is also not uncommon, particularly for some animal characters like bagh (tiger) and gahari (swine) and also for asuras and pisachas.
There is a commonly prevalent belief among the Garos that disturbances or conflicts might arise in the family if the masks of two opposite characters are kept together, like for example, that of Ram and Ravana. Hence, the masks of the allies of Sri Ram, i.e. Hanuman, Lakshman, Jambuvan and others, are never kept with the masks of Ravana, Mahiravana, Ketuwa and other associates of Ravana. During the ancient times, it is said that a Bhari Gan play among the Garos took 45-65 nights for presentation of the complete Ramayana.
It needs to be mentioned here that the Ramayana was translated into the Garo language by Redin Momin who was himself a Garo, but it was published years after his death in the year 1992. Just like the Khasis and the Garos, the Jaintias too, still reckon their descent through the female line. They believe that the world is ruled by the supreme goddess called Ka Blai Synshar (Ka meaning ‘She’). There is a popular tradition among the Jaintias that if twin boys are born in any Jaintia household, they are to be named as Ram and Lakhon (signifying Ram and Lakshman).
But more interesting is the belief of those Jaintia families inhabiting the Ri-War area of Meghalaya bordering the neighbouring country of Bangladesh. Ri-War is a famous orange producing area and the oranges that grow here are extremely sweet in taste. A common belief behind this is that the oranges that grow here are believed to have been brought by Shri Ram himself from Lanka after defeating Ravana. So, Ravan and Lanka are an integral component of the Jaintia Ramayana tradition as well. In fact, the presence of good oranges and limestones in the Khasi and Jaińtia Hills of Meghalaya are also attributed by a certain section of the community to the story of the Ramayana.
Among the Jaintias, it is generally believed that the Ramayana traditions came from the area around Chittagong Hill Tracts in present day Bangladesh since the Jaińtia Rajas controlled a sizeable territory in that country. The Karbis of Assam had their own kingdom adjacent to the Jaintia kingdom in Meghalaya. They are among the people who occupy a prominent place in the socio-cultural life of Assam. It was during the reign of the Kachari kings that a significant section of the population of the Karbis was driven to the neighbouring hill regions.
Some of them happened to enter the Jaintia hills, the erstwhile Jaintia kingdom and lived under Jaintia suzerainty for a long period of time. There were several exchanges of cultures and traditions between the Karbis and the Jaintias at this time. There has thus been an overwhelming influence of the Karbi Ramayana, i.e. Sabin Alun, on the Jaintia Ramayana. Among the Jaintias, the story of the Ramayana became much more popular because of the persistent efforts of the Jaintia Rajas who once stood at the forefront of protecting and preserving Sanatan Hindu traditions not just against the Islamic invaders but as well as in the later period against the British and the Christian missionaries.
For the Hindu Jaintias of Meghalaya, even today, the Ramayana is not simply considered a mere performance but it represents the victory of truth over untruth, merits over sins, and permanence over non-permanence. It is respected and worshipped as one of those rare texts which are important to educate both the Rājā and his Prājās. So, there exist certain do’s and dont’s for the characters while performing the Ramayana. E.g. the characters of Ram and Sita were not allowed to consume non-vegetarian food during the performance, and at the end of the performances, it was mandatory for them to worship their respective deities; meaning, the actor who played the role of Ram worshipped Ram.
Stories of birth, marriage, exile, abduction, battle, victory and return are told differently by the Khasis, Garos, and Jaintias. So, Ram may be a nomadic hero (as in the case of the Khasi Ramayana) or a king (in the Jaintia Ramayana). But, Lakshman stands out as the main hero in these tales. He is the most powerful character of the story. He appears as a calm and wise young man, devoid of any aggressive behaviour but ready to take to violence if the situation so demands.
Shri Ram has thus always been an integral part of the vanavasi culture of Meghalaya. There has been varying degrees of influence of those Ram Katha traditions prevalent in the neighbouring hills and plains of Assam and as well the bordering areas of West Bengal on the lives of these vanavasi communities. From being the hero of an epic, Ram is elevated to the position of a divine incarnation. But, unfortunately a certain section of people in our academia and so-called “intellectuals” have been voicing their views, insisting that Shri Ram is a myth especially when we talk about the North-East, because it is an import from “mainland” India.
They validate these arguments by saying that there are no ancient sculptures of Ram found in the North-East. Needless say, these conclusions are based more on inference and a motivated political angle than actual research. About 50 to 60 years from now, the chanting of the story of Ram was a common practice among the villagers of the Khasi and Jaińtia Hills of Meghalaya. In the 16th century, saints like Narottam Ata, a Naga, Govinda Ata, a Garo, Balai Ata, a Mikir, and several others played a pioneering role in spreading the message of the Ramayana in their respective hills which are today known as Nagaland, Garo hills, Karbi Anglong, etc. in the North-East.
All these different stories will be taken up in subsequent articles on this same subject.
- Dr. Subhajit Choudhary and Hemanta Dhing Mazumdar (ed). The North-Eastern Region of India During the Age of the Mahabharata. Bharatiya Itihas Sankalan Samiti, Assam, 2018.
- Hemanta Dhing Mazumdar and Anurag Rudra (ed). The Janajatis of Eeshanya Bharat. Bharatiya Itihas Sankalan Samiti, Guwahati, Assam, 2018.
(A special note of thanks to Late M. Sangma Mama Ji and Bhadreswar Sarma Ji for providing me with materials on the Garos and the Jaintias respectively).
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