By Dr B K Gohain
I was curious to learn as to why children were lifted and who were the miscreants doing this heinous crime. I was aware; there are many superstitions amongst the traditiol societies of Assam which cannot be removed so easily. I tried to contact some local headmen but even if they came, they would not tell me everything. Then I bought a small tape recorder. Then I invited through my gang-men some headmen (except the one who was involved in the incident) and some Karbi old men ,the chief amongst them the local L.P. School teacher med Bajong Phura. After giving them cups of tea and scks, I went to the open space in front of the Verandah of my rBungalow and would ask them to sing a song. They blushed and said, 'Thekthey' meaning 'Do not know'. Then I silently recorded our conversions and when they were bidding farewell, I ran the tape recorder. Lo! Their voices floated in the air to their surprise and then they stopped and came back near the tape recorder placed on the top of the bonnet of the jeep near which we were discussing. Then one of the old men came and said, 'Sir, I can sing a song'. Breaking the barrier of tradition, I could hear them singing their hearts out one by one. The Teacher Bajong Phura then told me that he knew the Sabi Alun, the song of Sita ( Ramaya) in Karbi. Thus I got a small group of old Karbi men who were very friendly with me. I was largely benefitted by my association with Bajong Phura, the elderly teacher and his friends who gave me a taste of Karbi culture by singing songs and taking me to attend pujas observed by the hill Karbis. Due to their publicity that after a long time, a good man had come to Hamren as S.D.O.( Civil) who was very sympathetic to them. One good thing I learnt from Bajong Phura who, one evening, on my request, came to my residence and sang the Karbi Ramayan or Sabi Alun which is the song of Sita. I tape-recorded the entire singing of the verses. Later on, at about 5 A.M. next day, we had a cup of tea and breakfast. Then Bajong Phura told me that he had not sung the Lanka Kanda part as it was believed that if the Lanka Kanda of Ramaya was sung, there would be quarrels in the village. With a mischievous smile ,he said, " I do not want Sir to quarrel with his wife." Later on, I translated the Sabi Alun into English in verse and presented it before the august gathering in the Intertiol Ramaya Conference in Lucknow in 1986. When I sang the first stanza of Karbi Ramaya, : Obong Sabi mir lori .." reading out my verse, the scholars ,both tiol and intertiol applauded it. It was Mamoni Roisom Goswami who, after seeing my article in Prantik invited me for presenting the tribal version of Ramaya. The Thai scholar who was present later met me and said, " The story of creation of Kusa by the sage Valmiki by his mental powers when he found the child Laba not being present in spite of search is the same as the Thai version." He gave me a book "Thai Ramaya" in English saying that Ayudha was situated in Thailand and there is a city med Lubpuri after Lab. The mes of a line of Thai kings were Rama. Hanuman was a funny character. I gave a copy of my translation in verse to him for his reference. Then coming back to Dispur, I translated the Thai Ramaya into Assamese in 1986 which is record of sorts as it is the first book on Thai version of Ramaya.
After some months, when the rainy season was over and winter set in, I called Bajong Phura and asked him, without reference to the incident of murder, why they were afraid of the child lifters and who lifted the children and why. What he told me saddened my heart at the level of ignorance of the hill tribes and their strong superstition in believing that the sacrifice of a child would make some tribes rich. He told that as the Karbi are living near the Jaintias and the Khasis who believed that they would get rich if they appease the Serpent god by offering blood of a child on a platter which would be taken by a serpent. The Karbis have no such superstition. But, in the past during the rule of the Jaintia kings and Khasi Siems, they were to fall an easy prey to the child lifters. Then I started reading about the Serpent god belief amongst the Jaintias and the Khasis. It was found that they believed that U Thlen, believed to be a huge ske required appeasement by human sacrifice. To get rid of the ske god reared by the keeper, the householders used to throw their money, orments and valuables so that the ske god (thlen) did not enter into their houses. The ske-keeper used to collect all these and get rich. No other person could collect any such money or valuables. The keepers of ske gods increased in order to get rich. Such ske-keepers would lift children so that they could offer blood to the ske on a platter by cutting their fingers.
The Karbis, who were, for some time, domited by the Jantia kings used to fall an easy prey to the child lifters ( Phrangkodang) as there are Karbi people living near the Jaintia hills. There were several fights against the Jaintias by the Karbi Recho ( Karbi King) and one Karbi hero whose me is enshrined in the hearts of the Karbis was Thong Nokbey who was so courageous that he defeated the Jaintias. Many big stones lying here and there in the Hamren sub-division were said to be lifted by Thong Nokbey who was a great Karbi hero.
The S.P. of the district, who came with the D.C. Karbi Anglong to enquire into the case suspected the cause of killing the labourers to be a suspected case of sodomy. In course of enquiry, it transpired that it was a 12 year old Garo boy, the son of a Chowkidar of the PWD Office, Hamren who being frightened informed the boys of the school that some labourers of Agricultural Farm were luring him to go with them by offering him some sweets to him in the tea stall near the PWD office and the Agriculture farm. He reported excitedly to his fellow students in the School that he was about to be lifted by them for sacrifice. He escaped their clutch by refusing to take sweets and running away. Although the S.P. suspected it to be a case of sodomy, I was uble to accept it. By this time, I came to learn that the fear of lifting of a child by the Serpent worshippers for getting rich is ingrained in the psyche of the Karbi people. In the past, they suffered at the hands of such child-lifters so much that the Council of Elders headed by the local King ( Karbi Recho) and his counsellors ordained that the child lifters should be punished by death. So when the local Headman ( Habai in Karbi) was consulted, he along with some elders decided that the child lifters be punished with death. So the labourers were stoned to death. I was surprised that such a cruel thing like killing a child for wealth by worshiping the serpent god was there in the ancient time and the fear was ingrained in the minds of the Karbis still now although no such thing took place and the Jaintias and the Khasis who were mostly Christian do not.
This laid the foundation of my research on the Karbis of the hills. I found that the hill Karbi is peace-loving people and during my four years of stay in Karbi Anglong, not a case of theft or robbery was reported. They are strongly patriarchal and only the male members inherit the lands and properties. They prefer MBD (Mother's brother's daughter) type of marriage and never allow FSD (father's sister's daughter) and being strongly exogamous prohibit marriage in the same clan. In Hamren subdivision, it was seen that the traditiol Local Council used to enforce the social rule of exogamy very strictly. The couple was compelled to separate and the girl was married to a young man of a different clan. One old gentleman confided in me saying that in the ancient time, the couple which did not obey the orders of the traditiol council was called to the community fishing and the man and the woman were speared to death. He added that such killings did not take place now-a-days and the couple was separated from each other even forcibly. Although the preferred marriage of the son of a family is with the materl uncle's daughter, the family may pay fine to the materl uncle if some other girl is chosen by the son or by the family for him. There is an interesting system of apprenticeship for one year for the would be bridegroom to test his capacity for running a family and doing the jhum( slash & burn) cultivation.
Strange is the way they look at life. While rains during the marriage ceremony in the plains are a good omen, it is a very bad omen for the Karbis. They even postpone the ceremony if rains fall on that day. Their belief that they are reborn in the same clan is so strong that a Karbi gentleman who took me to his village pointed out to me a bamboo groove proudly saying that it was planted by him. When I told him that the bamboo grove is very old, he promptly replied that it was planted by him in his earlier birth in the said village. He explained that he was the re-incartion of his grandfather Hemari Ronghang as it was found out during his ming ceremony that he, as a child stopped crying when the me Hemari was called out from the list of his forefathers. I enjoyed my stay there so much that I studied both Karbi and Lalung the tribes.
The only duty all the Magistrates loved was to go out to the headquarters of the Development blocks fixing dates for renewal of gun-licenses. I fully enjoyed such outings as I could visit the interior villages to see for myself the way of life of the aborigil people. The day fixed for renewal of gun licenses of the villagers always was a festive day for all. The villages of different villages belonging to various tribes came to the place notified donning their colourful dresses with great joy and enthusiasm. Even the womenfolk used to come carrying food for their men-folk. All the adult male members of the hills love to possess a gun especially for hunting. So the only request made by them was to issue gun licenses to buy single barrel or double barrel guns. There are tigers, deer and other games like birds of all hue and colour that they want to kill. The Karbis have the tural fear for tigers as they think that if a person is killed by a tiger, his me is totally deleted from the list of mes which they prepare for ming a child after their birth. The tradition is to invite a deuri (medicine man or diviner) to me the child, male or female by throwing twelve cowries (conch shells) on the ground. If the throw is even numbered, the me called out from list of the forefathers or dead women-folk of the family, then that me is not correct. If throw is odd numbered, then it is repeated and if three throws are odd numbered, that is, with the faces of the cowries up, then that me is given. The ming ceremony is held after the umbilical cord dries off. However, if there is a mistake in the ming ceremony, the child will cry when the diviner will repeat the performance and stick to that particular me hearing which the child stops crying. It is the same in the case of a girl child also when the mes of the women of the family who died are taken and the child stops crying when a particular me is uttered. The ming ceremony is conducted by a deuri( medicine man) who is an expert in conducting the rituals of the traditiol religion of the Karbis and also is a fortune teller.
Another attractive custom amongst the hill Karbis professing traditiol religion is the engagement of professiol mourners and singers in a household in which a person died recently. I had the opportunity of seeing the process of collective crying and wailings of ladies in the house of Dhaniram Rongpi whose wife died. When I entered the house, I heard the crying of the ladies and saw many ladies crying out in lamentation. I thought that they were the close relatives of the family. Then I was told that they were professiol mourners. The ladies singing are called Lunchepi and the mourners are called Uchepi. They take the lead in the Chomangkan (death ritual) followed by Duhuidi (the chief drummer) and the Duhijang (assistant to the chief drummer) who follow them beating their small drums. It was much later when I saw the film 'Rudali' in which such professiol lady mourners of Rajastan were shown in the film.
The Chomangkan ritual which is nothing but ancestor's worship it is observed after three to four years by the members of the general public as per their convenience and immediately after the death of a person by a wealthy family. The Uchepi and the Duihidi (drummer) control the ritual. The higher forms of the ancestor's worship are called lantuk and harne chomangkan. The persons holding high positions in the social hierarchy in the traditiol system merit a langtuk chomngkan or a harne chomangkan is performed for the persons who occupied highest position in the society. For Langtuk and Herne chomangkan, (a well called lagtuk in Karbi) is dug. In both these types of ritual, a flat stone and a tall upright stone are placed. The use of a jambili athon, a cultural symbol of the Karbis near the well marks the difference between the ordiry chomangkan called kanphlaphla. Erection of such a monolith in the form of upright stone symbolising the burial and the flat stone for offering food have similarities with other traditiol cultures.In the dancing for Chomangkan,I saw the boys and the girls dancing with the girls covering their faces. A row is formed for dancing with a boy followed by a girl covered with a scarf hiding her face. When I wanted to tape-record the songs, one elderly politely desisted me from doing so. Later on, I collected a song of Chomangkan which was translated for me by a Karbi boy. The words are unprintable as they speak of sex. An elderly man told me that the spirit of the dead man gets pleased when it hears those words of intimate human emotions.
It is interesting how I stumbled into the truth that the Tiwas (Lalungs) of the hills are matrilineal. In Karbi Anglong, the Executive Magistrates have to try crimil as well civil disputes in the spirit of the Code of Crimil Procedure and Code of Civil Procedure as it is a Six Scheduled area. One day, I was hearing a case of inheritance when a lady from Amri Block claimed inheritance of the parental property vis-a-vis a gentleman who was her close kin. I was hearing both the parties and when the lady claimed inheritance of her parental property, I asked her how it could be so as the Karbis and the Lalungs are patriarchal. The Headman of the village wanted to meet me in my office chamber to discuss some social rules. I retired to my office chamber and heard him in presence of both the parties. The Headman informed me that the society of the hill Lalungs is matrilineal and so her male kin cannot inherit the landed etc. property of the family. Thus I came to learn that the hill Lalungs are matrilineal unlike their brethren of the plains. Thus a grave mistake was averted. After this, I went to Barmarjong village of the Hill Lalungs in the Amri Block nestled in the hills one sees from Nelli. After interacting with the villagers, I decided to do research on the Lalungs of the hills. Indersing Deuri, an Executive Member of the then District Council, Karbi Anglong became my friend and together we visited most of the hill Lalung villages and attended the religious rituals and festivities Once he showed me the Lukhumi Than( place of worship of goddess Lukhumi or Lakhsmi ) and pointed at the large heap of round stones, some large and some of medium size saying that in the ancient time, there used to be human sacrifices every year before the goddess to appease her. He proudly declared that a white man was captured and sacrificed before the goddess. Every year, a human being was sacrificed and as a token , a stone was put. He related that every year, a person from the plains used to come to Barmarjong village to become the king there. The village elders tested him if he was the chosen one by giving him a piece of areca nut with betel leaf without lime. They would see the spit the man he spat out. If the colour was red, they would take it that a man had come here for offering his life before the goddess. The person was given all the physical comforts till the night of the Lukhumi Puja. He was donned in new clothes. Then he was taken to the Than and offered as a sacrifice before the goddess. He proudly said that even a white Sahib was offered as a sacrifice before the goddess. I laughed at the impossibility. Later on, I saw an administrative report t in which one Captain Singer was killed by some tive people in the undivided gaon district near the hills when he went to control a mob. It was, however, not mentioned whether he was found in the village. I took the story with a large pinch of salt.
I even stayed in the Boys' dormitory in Barmajong village to have a close look at the youth and their youth organization and suggested to them to allow the Government to open an Adult Literacy centre in the Dekachang (dormitory). The hill Lalung families do not allow the male guests to stay in their homes and send them to the dormitory to which the admission of girls and women is strictly prohibited.
One interesting incident took place in the weekly market day at a place near Barmarjong village. I was visiting the market when I saw some young lads carrying a young man on a bamboo carrier with his hands and feet tied to the poles of the carrier. When I stopped the young lads, one old Lalung man whom I used to know came forward and told me that the boys were simply following a tradition of their society. Describing it further, he told me in presence of the young man and others that the particular young man from a neighbouring village took fancy at a girl and started visiting her in the evenings. The family allowed this as they thought that he would, one evening, stay for the whole night with the girl in the backyard and become the resident husband. But now the young people learned that he was avoiding the girl and seeing another girl in another village. So they caught him and were taking him to be married to the girl in their village as it is the custom in the hill Lalung society.
There being no Fire Service Station at Hamren, I used to get apprehensive when I saw the people burning the trees and shrubs while clearing for Jhum (slash and burn method) cultivation. As fire used to spread from one area to another and even was there during night, I tried my best to persuade the hill men to extinguish the fire during the day itself. As there are few areas of flat lands in the hills of Hamren and those are also high lands, it is useless to ask them to go for wet paddy cultivation. There was some timber merchants at Lumding, Hojai and Diphu, there were random felling of trees in Karbi Anglong district. I feared that one day, all the trees would disappear one day what with the then District Council Authorities of Karbi Anglong giving allotment of areas in the reserved forests as well as the village forests for cutting the trees and selling them after processing in their modern saw mills. The Forest Authorities used to say that they sold only the wind felled trees but the permits issued by the District Council Authorities were very large. Not that the felling of trees was there in the hills of Karbi Anglong and N.C. Hills, there were large scale felling of trees in the Brahmaputra valley and all the areas having the reserved forests had to bear the brunt of such illegal felling of trees. The large scale felling of trees in the plain areas on the North Bank of the Brahmaputra began after the formation of the Government in Assam by the Jata Party. The end result is the total ban of felling of trees by the Hon'ble Supreme Court of India which was a great service to ture.
One day, I was informed by some villagers near the small township of Hamren that a house was on fire. Hearing this, I sent a magistrate with police to try to control the fire. After coming back, the Magistrate related the funny side of the incident saying that the owner of the house who was there rushed into the house which was burning and tried to pull out two bamboo posts without caring a hoot for other belongings. Of course, all the dwellers were safe. With the help of his kin, he could take out the posts and with an axe, he cut the bamboo posts and it was found that many gold and silver coins came out of the posts and he heaved a sigh of relief. I laughed and said that in our village also, people stored the silver coins inside the bamboo posts for safe keeping.
One important event which remained memorable for the people of Hamren was the visit of the Governor of Assam for iuguration of the newly constructed office building of the Sub Divisiol Officer ( Civil) Hamren in 1982. When I was instructed by the Government to make preparation for the iugural ceremony of the building and Hon'ble Governor of assam had agreed to grace the occasion, I made preparations for the same. The date was communicated to us. I was informed by GAD that there would be a trial landing and I should prepare a field as a temporary helipad, I was highly elated. I chose the open field in the vicinity of my office in which the tiol Days like the Independence Day and the Republic day used to be celebrated with much fun-fare to the delight of the people of the Sub Division who gathered in large numbers. A date was fixed for trial landing. We made the preparations. On the day, we were waiting for the arrival of the helicopter. At the appointed time, we saw the helicopter flying over us when we observed that already a large number of people gathered there. As we posted policemen and encircled the field with bamboo fencing, we warned the people not to cross the lines. The helicopter landed and we had a discussion with the pilots. They informed that the helicopter would land on the field with the Governor at 11 O and we should make the necessary sign of 'H' on the ground in white and make arrangement for smoke sigls when we heard the sound or see the copter. Then some Karbi elders beckoned me. When I went to meet me, they made a request which was but the tural response of simple villagers at the sight of such a new thing for the first time in their life. They wanted a ride in the helicopter. Smilingly I told that it was not permissible. When the captain asked me what they said, I told him about their request. He smiled and patted my back and then went away in the helicopter.
Early morning, next day, a gang-man came running to tell me that already thousand of Karbis from all over the Sub Division had come and were sitting around the field. I went there and found that it was so. I saw many people from far-away places. My gang-man informed that all people came with packets of cooked rice and other eatables. I called the local elders who approached me with the same request. I requested them first go to the pandal and attend the meeting. They agreed to go. After the helicopter landed and we escorted the Hon'ble Governor to the meeting place. He first unveiled the iugural stone and then attended the meeting. I came in his vehicle to the helipad. He was impressed at the sight of thousands of Karbis ,ma le & female, in colourful costumes. They cheered for the Governor. I then told him about the unusual request of the local elders. He smiled. Then when we were taking him to board the helicopter, he talked to the head pilot and then he asked me if those elders were present. I saw them near the fencing and told the Governor. He asked me to come with them near the helicopter which I did. They came with great jubilation. The Governor told them in Hindi that they could come near the helicopter and feel it. They were overjoyed and did it. Thus the Karbis of Hamren had a field day and the group of five elders got a cheering.
One secret rite which is observed by the hill Karbis is Rongker. I was once invited by the Karbi Recho to attend the ritual in Niz Rongkhang, the village in which the Karbi Recho lives. I went there with my friend and neighbour Hemari Ronghang as it was his birth place. On way, I was told that in the ancient time, a human being used to be sacrificed. The person came himself to the village on his own. On the day of Rongker ritual, he was fed and dressed well. Then he was taken to the sacred place near the slope of the hill. The priest ,after, chanting his incantations, the man was prepared for sacrifice. He was not beheaded but his leg was slashed with a dagger and the bleeding man was pushed down the hill and a tiger appeared and took the living man into the jungle. This practice was stopped long ago and five goats are sacrificed. We reached the house of the king and went with him and the elders to the site. I saw many tall trees. As the females are not allowed, we saw only gentlemen and elders. It was a very sacred ritual and I was fortute to observe it. It is believed that the goddess Rasinja comes riding on the tiger to accept the sacrifice. She is the Mother goddess and can be equated with Durga. The presiding deity is Hemphu who, with a trident, made of bamboo may be identified as Lord Siva. Mukrang is another god who is the son of Hemphu.
The hill Lalungs, however, treats the tiger as the progenitor of a clan. When a tiger dies or gets killed, a particular clan observes mourning as though one of their kin died. They have no particular fear for the tigers.
The beauty of the tribes like Karbis, Lalungs in Karbi Anglong is that they have a vast collection of folklores and folk songs as each and every ritual has songs and dances associated with it. They even have songs to sing while working on the fields for jhum cultivation and every step of cultivation is tinged with songs. Some of the Karbi folk songs were got recorded by Mr. Prafulla Saikia of Diphu and our most respected, beloved and late lamented Bhupen Hazarika added magnitude to the beauty of these songs by singing them. How I wish I could go back to Hamren and collect the songs and get them sung recorded by eminent artists who have the feel for the tribes and how these songs could be translated into Assamese and get them sung together with the origil ones. I miss you, my little town Hamren as I miss Sadiya and Majuli which are the places of ture's beauty..
In 1984 I wrote a book on the Hill Karbis in English which was edited by Rong Bong Terang who found it interesting. This led me to proceed further in the pursuit of knowledge and I did my research on the Hill Lalungs ( Tiwas) who, unlike their brothers of the plains are strongly matrilineal. I got my Doctorate in Anthropology in 1991. Thus Karbi Anglong and particularly the Karbis of Hamren subdivision became my first love in the field of my research and I could gradually accept their theology as a part of the greater Hindu Philosophy. Thus the Government of Assam unwittingly did me immense good by posting me as the S.D.O.( Civil) Hamren and then Additiol Deputy Commissioner, Karbi Anglong. The people and ture there always beckon me as they left an indelible impression on me and led me to love the various tribes of Assam which are colourful and highly attractive. The entire North East is an ethnic mosaic, full of mystery and attractions.