Tribes of Terai
Tribes of Terai
THE foothills of the Himalayas known as Terai and other parts of Jalpaiguri are famous for hundreds of tea gardens. They are also home to aborigines. Their ethnic identity, linguistic plurality, physical variations, food habits, rituals, mores, lineage, ethos all have drawn researchers, both at the national and international levels. Their origin, socio-cultural traits and religious beliefs are documented by anthropologists.
A Study of Contemporary Tribal Predicament in Bengal by Abaya Dasgupta documents not only the mesmerising beauty of the Terai and Dooars tea gardens but the life patterns of these poor aborigines who have withstood centuries of oppression. The tradition of life these tribes mirror has always attracted the author and he deals with their life’s struggles and their sociological evolution. The Toto tribe in Jalpaiguri, for instance, is facing extinction due to a variety of internal and external forces, and their life and customs has been the subject of brilliant anthropological research.
Tribal people are inherently nature loving and are closely related to the forests in Terai and Dooars. Their religious practices remain almost intact in the face of drastic changes in their culture, economy and social order. It is amazing that they have maintained their cultural identity despite the universal forces of cultural onslaught and erosion in the world outside. Technological invasions — the television and the cell phone; economic transition and subsequent liberalisation of social mores; and the political tribulations of a post-colonial, post-industrial society have left them virtually unscathed. Not only has their cultural practices remained static they have remained perennially poor.
Dasgupta depicts characters like Bircharan Narjinary, Ganesh Bhagat, Eshai Bara, Budhen Ishwarari, Shet Ekka, Gazen Rabha, Jairenda, Tejaladi and others with great care to reveal the plurality inherent in their society.
Tribal people are generally known for their peaceable, suave and soft-spoken temperament. They are mild and soft-tempered. Arrogance, anger, jealousy, greed, mutual enmity, envy, bickering, feud are the hallmark of modern societies. It is no less amazing that with such traits and qualities the hostile world of greed couldn’t engulf these aborigines. Researchers have dwelt extensively on the life of the tribal populace residing in lower Assam and North Bengal. For example, Dasgupta has referred to the Mech — a community reflecting an inherent ethnic homogeneity. The Mech in North Bengal is known as Bodo in lower Assam. The term originated from mleccha meaning untouchable. But according to another group of researchers the community was named after the Mechi river flowing across India and Nepal around which they built their settlements. But the North Bengal Mech people prefer to introduce themselves as Bodos and communicate in Bodo language. Some anthropologists believe that the Mech are the descendents of the Kachari sub-tribe of North-east India. Mech people first built their settlements in Jalpaiguri in the seventh century.
Therefore, if a single ethnic group like the Mech invites so many conflicting interpretations then hundreds of ethnic groups with their different identities present a perplexing picture.
Oroan, another tribal conglomerate, is the second largest tribe in Bengal. According to the 1991 census, it constituted about 3, 18,658 out of total 5, 36,919 people in the region. Kuruks is their mother tongue. They were brought from the Chotonagpur plateau at the time of creation of the tea gardens and laying of the rail lines in the hilly terrains of the north. Legend has it that they descended from Ramchandra’s vanar sena. They changed their title to Kujur, or Ekka, or Lakra, or Tirkey, or Bakhla, or Panna, or Kishpota, or Minz, or Tigga or Kerkatta.
The Mundas are the third largest community after the Oraon. The term is derived from Munda which, in Sanskrit, means the head. Some believe that the term has come from horoko, meaning man. They also migrated from the Chotonagpore region to work in the tea gardens of North Bengal. The majority of them are at present engaged in agriculture.
The most important tribes of the North-east are the Ravas. Nearly 98 per cent of the Ravas reside in lower Assam, Jalpaiguri and Cooch Behar. They resemble the Garo, Kachari, Mech and Koch tribes. The dialect of the Ravas is Koch Krow. Nong Utung Mung, in their language means, “what is your name?” They comprise both Christian and non-Christian tribes. The Ravas are expert in warfare, dancing and fishing. Around 15, 200 Ravas reside in Bengal, while Assam has 2,36,931 Ravas according to the 1991 Census.
The Saontals are the third largest tribe in our country. They mostly reside in West Midnapore, Bankura, Birbhum, Purulia, Bardhaman, Malda, North and South Dinajpore. They constitute 52.44 per cent of the total tribal population in the country
The term Kharia originated from khar khar in Oriya. It is believed that the Kharias have descended from the Kol. Kharias stay in the Vanvasti in North Bengal and can be divided into the hill Kharias, dudh Kharias and dhelki Kharias. Gulgu and Hembram belong to the hill Kharias, while Soreng, Kiro, Toppo and Kulu belong to the dudh Kharias.
The Garos are largely concentrated in the Garo Hills in Meghalaya. They migrated from Maimangsingha in Bangladesh. According to the Garos, Tibet was their original land and they migrated to Meghalaya under the leadership of a man known as Garu — the origin of the term. According to the 1991 Census, the Garo population in Meghalaya stood at 4,449 while in Jalpaiguri they numbered 1,217.
The Bhumij tribe migrated from Ranchi, now in Jharkhand. They reside mainly in West Midnapore, Purulia, Bankuara, Birbhum, Darjeeling and Jalpaiguri and are famous for having fought the British at Manbhum in Purulia during 1832-33 under the leadership of Ganganarayan Singh.
References to the Aashur can be found in Athara Veda. They were classified into Aiyen, Minj, Mendhak. The Aashurs are generally found in the tea gardens of North Bengal. They speak a mixture of Sadri and Hindi many believe they have descended from the original Aryans. During the Durga Puja the aashura in the tea gardens are seen with tearful eyes as the war with the almighty signifies their permanent subjugation.
This theory gained currency in the hands of the researchers and historians in recent times. In the Ramayana Ramchandra arranged a puja of Devi Durga before killing Ravana. Most tribes consider Ravan as their ancestor.
It is believed that the Aasuras migrated from Netarhat in Ranchi. They are divided into different class like the Tirkey, Toppo, Soma, Baroa, Indowar and Baghowar.
During the early part of the 19th century tribals of all hues popularly known as Madheshiya came to Dooars and Terai. The British regarded them as the most “dependable labour force” because of their strong physical make-up. The tradition of engaging them in tedious jobs continued after Independence. By tea garden labourers we invariably mean Madheshiya. But by such pragmatic and convenient classifications we usually blur the distinguishing features of different tribes.
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