The Garos people live in the northeast of India, in the state of Meghalaya. They are distributed over a hilly area, hence the name Garo Hills. After territorial partition that created modern India and Pakistan, well over one hundred thousand live over the border, in northeastern Bangladesh. Those living in Bangladesh generally prefer to call themselves ‘Mandis’.
Many cultural traditions enrich these people’s lives. Garo’s cultural heritage is well represented by the Wangala festival, one of the most outstanding and peculiar events among this group.
Wangala is considered to be the national festival among Garos; it takes place between October and November, after the rice harvesting. The date of celebration is set at different dates in different villages, so neighboring groups can participate in others villages celebrations. Wangala is mainly a celebration of thanksgiving after harvest, in which Saljong, the sun-god of fertility, the Great Giver, is honoured.
In the past, from rice sowing to harvesting, it took almost eight months. During the months of January and February, the village chief, a woman, referred to as the Nokma, chose the most suitable areas inside the forest for rice cultivation. The local shaman sacrificed a rooster to the gods to purify the land and chase away evil spirits; the rooster’s blood was supposed to fertilize the field. Then, people using a heavy axe, called Atte, cleared the land of weeds, plants and bushes. Twigs then were left to dry under the March and April hot sun’s rays to be burned later and the ashes were used as fertilizer. The rice sowing was also preceded by the sacrifice of another rooster offered to the deity and its blood poured onto the ground, again to guarantee a plentiful harvest.
In the Rhythm of dance
The Nokma performs a ritual, a day before the start of the festival during which freshly brewed rice-beer, called Bitchi or Ciù; cooked rice, and boiled vegetables are offered to the Misi Salong as thanksgiving for a rich harvest season. The brewed rice-beer is mixed with the rooster’s blood that the Nokma has previously sacrificed. The day after, the incense-offering ritual marks the beginning of the Wangala celebrations that takes place at the village chief’s house. Wangala rites are generally held close to the village chief’s house to emphasise his authority in the community. In the past, the festival lasted one week, nowadays it is for three days and in several villages just one day.
Dances, songs and jokes create the right atmosphere for matchmaking. Once, on this occasion, girls and young men, had the opportunity to find a husband and a wife.
The rhythmic beat of drums, accompanied by the sound of the traditional ancient flutes made of buffalo horn create a surreal atmosphere. The sounds and movements of the dances are inspired by the voices and movements of the animals of the forest, such as monkeys, tigers or snakes, while some repetitive gestures of the dance evoke the effort of rice planting and harvesting. In this hectic rhythm of sounds and symbolic gestures, people feel united to their deities.
The Wangala dances are mostly group dances. The dancers make two lines in parallel, in one of which is girls and in the other young men. All participants dance in lines while the drums are played in a cadenced manner. Young men wear the dhoti, a turban adorned with rooster feathers and carry a drum with shoulder strap, the dama. Girls wear colourful dresses, and their hair is adorned with coloured plumes.
According to a preset sequence, dance groups move along with all participants from house to house singing and dancing. Every family is supposed to offer food and drinks… and drinks… and drinks… for everyone, all night long.
Wangala: from thanksgiving celebration to political
The Wangala celebration has varied over time. The Garos’ life has changed too. Nowadays, many of them leave their villages in search of a job in urban and industrial areas far from their regions. The introduction of compulsory education among these groups, once excluded, obliges many boys and girls at an early age to leave their villages to integrate themselves into different realities where they meet peers from other cultures and religions. The number of Garo girls marrying non-Garo young men is increasing. Nowadays Garo indigenous people have to deal with big changes.
Over the past few years, both India’s and Bangladesh’s governments have placed particular stress on traditional festivals, called tribal. National and regional governments try to send, through traditional dances, songs and costumes, a political message aimed to draw attention to ethno-religious minorities. Keeping alive their traditions could be the last chance for minorities to reassert their identity and their dignity, often denied by majorities, within national boundaries.While in the past Wangala dances, rites and songs celebrated harvest, fertility, divinity; nowadays they have become an instrument for minorities to make their presence known, and to assert their rights, where majority rule prevails. (P.L.)