The Garo tribe of Western Meghalaya celebrates the winter harvest with a three-day festival. Pheroze L. Vincent watches the Garos climb oiled poles, burst into war cries, and perform dances inspired by crabs and swaying plants.
Appearances are deceptive. The mobile phones of bus conductors play Bob Dylan and Eminem booms in the Mi Dokan roadside restaurants (literally “rice shop” in Garo). Pamphlets of local rock bands jostle for space alongside those of the election commission and the health department. And every winter, Garo youth shed their leather jackets and jeans for colourful hand-woven Dokhmanda skirts and Gando loin cloth.
Winter is the main harvest season in the Garo Hills of Western Meghalaya. Since 1976, a traditional three-day festival called the Hundred Drums Wangala has been held at Asananggre (about 15 km from Tura, the largest town in the Garo hills and the cultural capital of the A’chik people) to celebrate the occasion. It was held from November 7 to 10, this year.
Public transport to Asananggre is infrequent partially due to the lack of vehicles, but primarily due to a running turf war between owners of cannibalised SUV share taxis and government bus and van drivers.
Alva Sangma, the editor of Achik Songbad, a Garo weekly, offered this reporter a lift from Tura. Alva, a former rally driver, drifts past the hairpin bends through the hills with terrifying ease. Rod Stewart keeps her company from the stereo. “Garos are confident drivers and musicians. We know how to celebrate and Wangala is the next big festival after Christmas,” she says. “We Garos are tuned into world music and culture. But outsiders do not know how attached we are to our culture. We may not continue to live in traditional wooden houses, but we know our dances and our culture. Wangala is party time. We dress up in our finest dokhmandas — they are expensive (Rs.2,500 to 3,000) — and show off.”
During the festival, the Garo — indigenous residents of the sub-tropical hills in Meghalaya, Assam, Tripura and Bangladesh — offer produce from the first harvest to Misi Saljong, the giver or the Sun God, in a ritual called Rugala. Nokmas or village chieftains lead troupes of male drummers and female dancers in a parade, accompanied by buffalo-horn trumpets and flutes.
Garos outside the hills come home for the Wangala. There are quite a few civil servants from the tribe and many of them are home on annual Leave Travel Concessions. Salgira R. Marak, director of printing and stationery in the capital, Shillong, is the choreography co-ordinator for the Wangala. “I am unwell, still I could not miss this for the world,” he says. “This is a homecoming for me. It’s also a natural responsibility that comes to us. No one asks anyone to help. Our society is different. I love this dance and I am here to help youngsters perfect their performance.”
With the advent of Christianity, Wangala celebrations were confined to a smattering of Songsarek (unconverted) hamlets in the hills. Garos call themselves A’chik Mande or “people of the hills”. L.K. Marak, one of the founders of the Hundred Drums Wangala, says, “There arose a need to preserve our culture. Christianity turned us away from head-hunting and education taught us to live alongside the rest of humanity. But we began losing our identity gradually. Our culture is rooted in these hills. The rituals are all inspired by nature. We felt that an annual festival would keep our younger generation aware of who we are and where we are from.”
According to Garo historian Milton S. Sangma, a retired professor of history at the North Eastern Hill University Tura Campus, most animist rituals and ethnic practices were discontinued after the 1930s. “Only a few customary laws and the land tenure system are left. Here, we have clan lands. A Nokma heads a clan but he becomes Nokma only through marriage. The real owners are the women of the clans.”
He further explains that the presiding deity of Songsarek Garos is Tatara Rabuga, described in the oral tradition as “one so high that he cannot be reached”. His deputy is Misi Saljong, to whom peasants give thanks and ask for blessings during the Rugala for the next jhum or cultivation cycle. The jhum or slash-and-burn method is the traditional method of cultivation in these parts.
Songsareks do not have idols and the Rugala takes place in front of the Nokma’s house or in a stilted bamboo shed built for this purpose. An undistilled rice brew known as Chu is given in offering along with cooked rice from the periphery of the field. Sangma says that these symbolise rain and hail and are an offering to Rokime, the mother of rice.
“Legend has it that Wangala was the dance of the inhabitants of water bodies. Humans were invited but they did not know how to dance. So the crabs showed them how to dance on land. The original styles and moves are inspired by the crab and the girls swaying and waving their hands symbolise plants rejoicing in the rain,” says Sangma.
Themes of romance, weddings and pastoral activities in the Wangala are later additions, according to Sangma. The brewing of Chu, he says, was frowned upon by the Church. So was the Rugala. In Bangladesh — where the Garos are found in Mymensingh, Tangail, Sylhet and Netrokona — Christ replaces Misi Saljong in the Rugala.
Along with music, the Wangala also features A’chik sports like climbing oiled bamboo poles and carrying boulders. It is also a fair for selling weaves, floral decorations made of fish scales, woodwork and farm implements.
The name “Hundred Drums Wangala” was derived from the 10 participating troupes chosen every year from different settlements. Each troupe has 10 drummers, wearing feathered turbans called Kotips and colourful cotton scarves called Pandras. The oblong drums they play, called Damas, are made of wood from the Gambare tree (Gmelina arborea) and the membrane and chords are of cow hide. The Nokma leading them bears a Milam or Garo dagger and a shield. His dance is aggressive with war cries and celebratory yells to boost the morale of his troupe and clan.
The dances are a riot of colour. In slow, halted movements and subtle gestures the girls describe the movements of centipedes, the brewing of Chu and the weaving of the Dokhmanda. Though most of the audience are youngsters, only a small number of them ever participate in a Wangala. Jering Sangma, a Dama drummer, says that his grandparents pushed him into the Wangala. “The elders look at it as a place for matchmaking. Nowadays we don’t need a Wangala for matchmaking. We meet girls whenever we want. Besides, all the girls will look nice here. But ordinarily they do not look so nice,” he says.
Auslia R. Marak, Director of Tura’s Music, Art and Cultural Academy, says that her students prefer the violin and piano to the Dama or buffalo horn. “Only 15 out of 100 students want to learn folk songs. Even when they compose, only one out of 20 may compose a folk tune. We are tuned to western pop. It is in our blood,” she says.
Andy Marak, a lecturer at the Tura College of Information Technology, has invented an electronic Chigring, an instrument made of a short stump of bamboo. When pickups and microphones didn’t work, Andy used a mic from a mobile handset. Connecting it to an amplifier, he was finally able to amplify the soft notes of the Chigring. Andy sings too but, unlike the Dani choral poetry of the Garos, there are no gentle cadences. Andy raps to the notes of the Chigring, singing about unemployment, violence and greed. His tunes are definitely western but his instruments and lyrics are Garo. “We know how to rock. So why not take modern themes and use it with our traditional music. Rock is about representing,” he says.
The festival is dear not only to Garos, there are also pickle stalls run by Marwaris, Bihari candy floss makers and Nepalese-origin police personnel, who are almost as ubiquitous as the dancers. They are often out of regulation uniform, donning South Korean camouflage army jackets with large black bandanas covering their faces. Garo Hills is facing a low intensity separatist insurgency and the troopers are armed to the teeth. They flock to the blacksmith stalls, when their shifts end, to check out the Khukris (curved daggers) on sale. At night, after the crowds leave, some of their kiosks reek of Bitchi, a stronger Garo rice brew.
Requesting anonymity, an officer told this paper, “We’ve lived here for generations and we speak Garo as well as any Garo. They don’t trouble us but we are made to feel like outsiders. I have attended this festival since I was young. Earlier I wanted to participate, but there aren’t too many migrants like me in the cultural troupes. Now I just enjoy watching.”
The Wangala is also an occasion for the government to stage plays and music performances to spread awareness on health, crime and other issues. Chief Minister Mukul Sangma said that the government will support the Wangala as a longer event. “In Meghalaya, there are a number of festivals that take place after the monsoon. November and December are the most pleasant months. These include the indigenous dances festival in Ampaty, the Autumn and Winter Festivals in Shillong and Williamnagar respectively, all culminating in Christmas. We want to develop a circuit in which tourists can visit all these festivals and also participate in other activities like trekking. If we can make them stay longer, it will generate a lot of employment,” he says.
L.K. Marak, one of the few survivors of the original team, is happy that Garo youth find the Wangala a place to congregate. “Eating, drinking and dancing continuously for days; we don’t do that any more in the modern world. At least here the young can do that for three days. If the coming generations continue to enjoy like this, then we have succeeded.”