Skip to main content
Select Source:






Identification. The Garia live in southern Madang Province of Papua New Guinea. "Garia" is their own name for the language they speak, which is called "Sumau" by linguists after a prominent mountain peak in the area.

Location. Garia territory includes 80-110 square kilometers of land between the coastal plain of Madang and the Ramu River Valley, with central coordinates of 145° 2 E, 5° 28 S. The region consists of rugged, low mountain ranges, with the highest peaks reaching about 920 meters. The most important of these is Mount Somau, the mythological origin place of the Garia. Three principal rivers arise in these Mountains and provide the routes of a major regional transportation and communication system. Most of the land is covered with dense jungle, broken up by occasional patches of savannah and secondary vegetation. The dry season (February-October) is one of high humidity and intense social and Religious activity. During the rest of the year there is regular afternoon rain and people spend much of their time making and repairing implements and tools.

Demography. In 1950 the population consisted of about 2,500 people; by 1975 the resident population included slightly over this number, but another 700 or so Garia were away for employment elsewhere in Papua New Guinea.

Linguistic Affiliation. Sumau is classified with its nearest neighbor, Usino, in the Peka Family of Non-Austronesian languages. There is a high degree of multilingualism in the population, and since 1949 most Garia have been fluent in Tok Pisin and many also in English.

History and Cultural Relations

According to Garia oral traditions, they originated to the west of their current location as the first human beings, given birth to by a boulder assisted by a snake goddess. Following the political annexation of northeastern New Guinea by Germany in 1884, exploratory expeditions skirted Garia territory but had little direct contact with the people. These first Foreigners were associated by the Garia with Nikolai Miklouho-Maclay, an earlier Russian explorer of the coast to the east, and they were considered deities called magarai (masalai in Tok Pisin) after Maclay. The most direct Garia contact with Europeans began with labor recruiters during World War I. Between the wars such recruiting intensified and a three-year term in European employment became routine for young Garia men. In 1922, Lutherans established a mission station and schools in the area, and by 1936 the Garia were considered fully "controlled" by the Australian administration, with government-appointed headmen, courts, head tax, consolidation of the population into villages, and abolition of tribal warfare. Although the Japanese occupied the Madang coast during World War II they had little direct impact on the Garia. However, during this period the missionaries were evacuated and several cargo cults swept through the region, one of which originated locally. At the close of the war plantations resumed operation and the missionaries returned to find much of the traditional religion reestablished amid the cargo-cult activity. The 1950s saw administrative attempts at economic development of the region, including the introduction of coffee as a cash crop, and in 1964 the Garia voted in the election for the first House of Assembly. Garia are now incorporated in the Usino Local Government Council and Lutheran and Seventh-Day Adventist missions are well established.


Traditionally the Garia lived in small, scattered hamlets, each having fewer than fifty residents. There were three kinds of houses: men's dwellings; those for women and children; and clubhouses where adolescent males slept. All had earth floors and either leaf thatch on a beehive framework or slit-log walls with a palm or grass roof. In the 1920s Australian administrators introduced and enforced the coastal style of stilt houses, with bark walls, raised floors of black palm, and a palm or grass thatch roof. During the period of the 1920s-1950s People were required to concentrate their residence in fourteen large villages of up to 300 people each. Each village consisted of wards or sections named after the small areas of associated bush. Since the 1950s the Garia have largely gone back to their preference for intermittently shifting hamlets. In any case the population of a hamlet or village is unstable, consisting simply of those people who have, for the time being, Common economic interests in the same area or who want to associate with a particular leader.


Subsistence and Commercial Activities. The Garia practice shifting cultivation; fencing assists in soil retention on the steep slopes of gardens. Each stage of garden work employs both secular and religious techniques, with garden Leaders' magic necessarily preceding any other activity. Traditional staple crops include taro, yams, native spinach, pitpit, bananas, and sugarcane; in recent decades these have been supplemented with Xanthosoma taro, corn, coconuts, and European vegetables, all introduced by Europeans. The wet season is a time of food shortage, but the dry season is a time of plenty. Limited wild game in the region restricts hunting to a casual and individual pursuit. Fishing, using arrows and spears, is done mainly in the wet season. Chickens and dogs are kept, but domestic pigs are few and saved for ceremonial occasions and as items of bride-wealth and exchange at feasts.

Industrial Arts. Everyday items manufactured locally include net bags, conical clay pots, wooden plates, round wooden bowls, digging sticks, axes and adzes, bows, arrows, spears, cassowary-bone daggers, betel lime gourds, bamboo smoking tubes, and hand drums. Traditional stone tools have now been replaced by steel, and other Western implements are also popular.

Trade. Garia have long been linked with the Madang coast to the east and Usino and the Ramu Valley to the west through trade networks. Pots are the main item of export, being traded to the east for shell valuables and to the west for sorcery medicines, tobacco, wooden plates and bowls, stone axes and knives, and bows and arrows. Individual men make special trips for the purpose of trade or engage in barter in the course of pig exchanges. Nowadays there are trade stores in the area selling Western goods, but the networks of trade partnerships remain active.

Division of Labor. A sexual division of labor governs everyday activities, with males taking the responsibility for heavier garden work and construction. Net bags are made and used exclusively by women. In the work of producing pottery, the main trade item, women are charged with collecting the clay while men are the actual potters.

Land Tenure. All useful land is said to be owned and each demarcated area bears the name of the cognatic stock and human proprietors associated with it. All members of a cognatic stock have permanent rights of personal usufruct and the responsibility of collective guardianship over landholdings bearing its name. In the north, the holdings of a cognatic stock may be scattered within a general locality and rights are vested in individuals, while in the south land plots tend to be concentrated in huge tracts, rights to which are allocated to a group of agnates within the cognatic stock. Temporary Usufructuary rights are usually granted to most members of a man's "security circle" (see the later section on social organization) . Rights to land are inherited by male agnates, but they can also be purchased by male enates, especially sisters' sons.


Kin Groups and Descent. Kinship is traced cognatically, but patrikin and matrikin are distinguished in everyday conversation and there is a marked bias toward patriliny. Patrilineages are the cores of cognatic stocks, maintaining exclusive corporate rights of guardianship of the land belonging to the cognatic stocks. The kindred is not a defined local group and all political allegiances are expressed in terms of interpersonal ties rather than group membership. In general, the kinship system may be said to be highly flexible and individualistic.

Kinship Terminology. The system is basically of the Iroquois type, but father's sister and mother's brother's wife are equated with mother, and both father's sister's husband and mother's sister's husband have a special term and are treated almost as affines.

Marriage and Family

Marriage. "Close kin," that is, cognates linked by Marriages up to the second ascending generation, are forbidden to marry; more distant kin living within one's own political Region are the preferred marriage partners. Usually a man, when he is in his early twenties, selects a wife (in her late teens) from potentially hostile people, and his subsequent behavior toward his affines is marked by extreme respect. All men aspire to polygyny, but marriage entails a major and prolonged economic burden for a man, with bride-price payments that must be tendered to his immediate and close affines for many years. During the first year of marriage the wife lives apart from her husband in his mother's house, after which time the couple may cohabit. The rules for second marriages, especially those involving widows, are more complex. Ideally, there should be no close consanguineal or affinal links Between the parties, and bride-price must be paid by the new husband unless the couple elopes.

Domestic Unit. The basic domestic unit is an elementary or compound family, although families are not tightly knit and residential segregation of the sexes is maintained. Women are thought to be inherently dangerous to men; thus it is believed that men should not spend much time with women, and from adolescence until marriage a male is absolutely forbidden to associate with any female of child-bearing age. A husband and wife may work together at a garden site (with adolescent children usually planting on separate sites), but they will rest in separate groups formed on the basis of sex. Garden teams are socially irregular, formed around those men who wish to associate with certain middle-aged leaders, who supervise all gardening land.

Inheritance. Land rights are inherited by male agnates, ideally by sons but, when they are lacking, by true brothers and brothers' sons. Daughters rarely inherit land because they are considered to be the responsibility of their husbands.

Socialization. Parents and older relatives are the main Socializing agents, frequently indulging and rarely disciplining children. When a child is able to walk and talk it is taught the basics of kinship terminology and associated duties. It learns that cooperation and support are earned by correct behavior and that one cannot survive as a socioeconomic isolate. Young children sleep with their mothers, which girls will continue to do until they marry. Young boys form play groups, while girls spend most of their time with their mothers. At about the age of 10, a boy begins a sequence of initiation Ceremonies and moves into a clubhouse (sometimes leaving his parents' settlement), where he is segregated from all nubile women until he marries. Adolescent girls go through a first-menstruation ceremony but they remain living in their mothers' houses.

Sociopolitical Organization

Social Organization. The most important component of social organization is what anthropologist Peter Lawrence calls the "security circle," a (male) Ego-centered network based on kinship, descent, affinity, and special interpersonal relationships such as those arising from common economic interests, coresidence, trade partnerships, and coinitiation. Close kin constitute the core of the security circle, within which one may not marry; nor may one eat animals raised by other members of one's security-circle or engage in any violent behavior. While security-circle members are invariably dispersed across the landscape, they are obligated to cooperate with and provide support to one another.

Political Organization. While government-appointed headmen, and now elected officials, represent Garia in formal provincial and national assemblies, at the local level all social action, including pig exchanges, initiation ceremonies, Gardening activities, and the establishment of settlements, is set in motion by the decisions of big-men. A man becomes such a leader by attaining a reputation based on his self-confidence, oratorical powers, and ability to assemble wealth for exchanges and to coordinate and supervise group activities. It is also essential that he demonstrate effectiveness in the superhuman realm, for he is depended upon to perform rituals as well as to be the catalyst for other events. A bigman's power rests on popular approval and he has no judicial authority.

Social Control. As a child learns at an early age, the withdrawal of cooperation and support are powerful Garia sanctions, and they are combined with shame and local criticism as ways to redress secular offenses. Garia emphasize self-regulation and when disputes do ariseover theft, invasions of gardens by pigs, homicide, adultery, or sorcerythey are expected to be settled in moots with the aid of neutral kin whose aim is compromise, which might involve compensation, retaliation, or, nowadays, a football match between the security circles of the respective parties. Most disputes are thus resolved or gradually fade into oblivion. The Garia say that in the past women were put to death for witnessing men's initiation secrets, but in general, and certainly in recent decades, breaches of taboos usually just result in moral condemnation and stigma. Punishment is left up to ghosts and the gods, who might visit the guilty party with crop destruction, bad luck, illness, or death.

Conflict. Garia never united in war against their Neighbors, but on rare occasions intragroup warfare erupted over an unresolved sorcery feud.

Religion and Expressive Culture

Religious Beliefs. Traditional Garia religion was regarded as the cornerstone of the universe, an essential background to all social and technological activities. A pantheon of gods and goddesses was posited. These deities were believed to have shaped the physical environment, created human beings, and invented social and material culture. According to myths, after teaching people how to make things and engage in social affairs, the deities disclosed their secret names and the esoteric spells required to invoke their aid in making things happen. These creator deities were believed to live on, in corporeal form, in sanctuaries in the bush. Other entities in the traditional cosmology included hostile demons and personal doubles, who inhabited the bush but associated freely with people and could be either friendly or hostile. Finally, ghosts or spirits of the dead were the ultimate custodians of patrilineage estates, whose role primarily was to protect their living kin. The Garia perceived the relationship between human and superhuman beings as one of reciprocal moral obligations, and they saw religion as the primary operative force in life. Following early, partially successful attempts by Lutheran evangelists to convert the Garia to Christianity, much of this traditional religion was revived during World War II, when cargo cults swept through the area. In these cults, God (like traditional deities) was viewed as the ultimate source of material wealth (Western goods), and, if properly invoked through ritual, He would send these goods from Paradise using spirits of the dead as emissaries. While the cults as such lost favor and had disappeared by 1949, today Garia religion manifests the same kind of syncretic blend of old and new elements.

Religious Practitioners. Ultimately, Garia religion was and is individualistic, with each person required to win the moral commitment and support of the gods through performance of ritual, including invocations and food offerings. For joint undertakings, human and superhuman beings were mobilized through the conduct of ritual by big-men, whose knowledge of myths and spells is regarded as essential.

Ceremonies. During the dry season the most important ceremonies are held in the form of pig exchanges. These might be initiated by only a few people who use them to extend or buttress their security circles. Guests are invited from distant settlements and after an all-night dance to honor their hosts they receive pigs and food the next morning. The pig exchange is the most important occasion for paying ritual honor to the dead, who are also important allies in human affairs. A series of three separate initiation ceremonies marks a male's passage from puberty to marriage, during which he is taught the names and spells required to extend his security circle to include the deities and spirits of the dead. Also, those who are initiated together form special relationships based on this common experience and become members of each others' human security circles, however they may be Otherwise related.

Arts. Ceremony provides the main context for Garia artistic expression, which focuses on: body ornamentation with floral decorations, shell and bone ornaments, and ornate bird-plume headdresses; music, employing hand drums, bamboo stamping tubes, and bamboo flutes; and dancing.

Medicine. The spirits of the dead are major allies in warding off disease and promoting good health, but grave illnesses may also be interpreted as retribution by ghosts or the gods for breaches of taboos. Otherwise illness is generally attributed to sorcery and treated by divination and extraction, skills learned by males during their initiation sequence.

Death and Afterlife. Three lands of the dead are postulated by Garia; while regionally based, they are believed to be supervised by Obomwe, the snake goddess who gave birth to mankind. The life of the dead is thought to replicate the life of the living, with ghosts living in settlements with their kin and visiting living relatives in dreams. If death has resulted from physical violence, the spirit of the deceased is believed to haunt the land of the living in search of revenge. Traditionally, the dead were exposed on tree platforms and the sons of the deceased would collect and preserve their bones as relics. Since the 1920s, under administrative and mission influence, Garia have buried their dead in village cemeteries or in the bush near the land a person was working when he or she died. At funerals, all of the security circle of the deceased assemble and comfort the bereaved as they express respect for the dead and help the soul on its road to the land of the dead. Garia believe that after two or three generations spent in the land of the dead, spirits are transformed into flying foxes (fruit bats) or bush pigeons.

See also Usino


Lawrence, Peter (1964). Road Belong Cargo: A Study of the Cargo Movement in the Southern Madang District, New Guinea. Manchester: Manchester University Press. Reprint. 1979. New York: Humanities Press.

Lawrence, Peter (1971). "Cargo Cult and Religious Belief among the Garia." In Melanesia: Readings on a Culture Area, edited by L. L. Langness and John C. Weschler, 295-314. Scranton, Pa.: Chandler.

Lawrence, Peter (1971). "The Garia of the Madang District." In Politics in New Guinea, edited by Ronald M. Berndt and Peter Lawrence, 74-93. Seattle: University of Washington Press.

Lawrence, Peter (1984). The Garia: An Ethnography of a traditional Cosmic System in Papua New Guinea. Manchester: Manchester University Press.


Cite this article
Pick a style below, and copy the text for your bibliography.

  • MLA
  • Chicago
  • APA

"Garia." Encyclopedia of World Cultures. . 17 Aug. 2017 <>.

"Garia." Encyclopedia of World Cultures. . (August 17, 2017).

"Garia." Encyclopedia of World Cultures. . Retrieved August 17, 2017 from



ETHNONYM: Assamese Muslims

Assam is an Indian state located between 26° and 28° N and 90° and 94° E. Muslim Assamese speakers number 2 Million out of a total Muslim population of about 5 million in Assam. Although the basic values of the Assamese Muslims are Islamic, they share some Hindu customs and practices, which are contradictory to Islamic conventions. While intermarriage with Hindus is rare, many Assamese Muslims identify more strongly with other Assamese who are Hindu than with other Muslims. Their identity is inexorably connected with the Asamiya language and the region of Assam. Asamiya (Asambe, Asami), the native language of the Assamese, is derived from Sanskrit and is the official language of Assam State. There are two important dialects, eastern and western, which are very different in linguistic structure from each other. The language is rich in borrowed vocabulary from Hindi, Persian, Arabic, English, Portuguese, and regional tribal languages. The language uses the Bengali script.

The Asamiya-speaking Muslims of Assam developed their culture through continuous contact between Islam and native regional cultures. They have many cultural traits in common with Assamese Hindus and are less orthodox than other Indian Muslims. Assam first came into contact with Islam in 1206, when Muhammad bin Bakhtar led a military expedition to Tibet through the region. In 1532 Turbak invaded Assam with a Muslim army and was defeated by the king of the Ahoms. Those taken prisoner were settled in the region and married Assamese women, losing all their Islamic culture within a few generations and adopting local customs. In the 1630s, the Muslim saint Shah Milan, also known as Azan Faqir, opened the way for Islamic missionaries, by winning the patronage of the Ahom rulers. Between 1910 and 1931, thousands of Bengali Muslim peasants from eastern Bengal, now Bangladesh, settled in the riverine tracts of the plains. Their descendants today have adopted the Asamiya language and identify themselves as Assamese. In the last forty years, thousands more Bengali Muslims have migrated to Assam, settling there as rice farmers. Many local non-Muslims resent them because they have kept their language and customs. Many more Indian Muslims have immigrated from other regions, especially Bihar and eastern Uttar Pradesh. Most of them are urban nonfarmers.

Agrarian Assamese Muslims inhabit clustered hamlets and villages surrounded by their fields. Hindu and Muslim Assamese generally live separately; some do live together, however, keeping their separate identities but sharing some common institutions. Approximately 70 percent of Assamese Muslims are farmers by occupation. The principal crop of the region is paddy (rice) of several different local varieties. Other important crops include, maize, wheat, oilseeds such as mustard, jute, and sugarcane, and various seasonal vegetables. Many farmers also engage in small commerce, trade, and work as wage laborers. The Marias are traditionally brass workers. Most urban Muslims pursue varied occupations Including the professions.

Assamese Muslims combine many Islamic and Hindu customs. Assamese Muslim families are patriarchal and patrilineal. Women are allowed to inherit one-eighth of their father's property. The kinship terminology is very similar to the Hindu. Avoidance relations between father-in-law and daughter-in-law and between husband's elder brother and younger brother's wife are practiced among both Muslims and Hindus. Marriage among Assamese Muslims entails two separate events: the ring ceremony, which is followed by the actual marriage. After the negotiations are fixed, the future groom's parents and kin visit the bride's home. The entourage brings a gold ring, silk clothes, and sweets as gifts. The marriage ceremony is consummated with the reciting of verses from the Quran by a Muslim cleric. Cross-cousin Marriage is not encouraged.

Components of the Hindu caste system are present among Assamese Muslims. They are divided into a three-tier system: the Sayyids, who hold the highest status and claim to be descendants of the prophet Mohammed; the Sheikhs, composed of the local peoples, who are second in social Status; the Marias, who hold the third social slot and are the descendants of the Muslim soldiers captured in the Muslim invasion of 1532.

The vast majority of Assamese Muslims are Sunni of the Hanafi juridical rite; however, they observe many local Hindu rites that put them at odds with Islamic practice. For example, many are attracted to the Vaishnavite philosophy preached in Assam by the sixteenth-century philosopher Sankaradeva.

See also Muslim; Sayyid; Sheikh


Ahmad, Imtiaz (1976). "For a Sociology of India." In Muslim Communities of South Asia, 172-178. New Delhi: Vikas Publishing House.

Ali, A. N. M. Irshad (1979). "Hindu Muslim Relations in Assam." Man in India 9:261-381.

Das, B. M., and A.N.M. Irshad Ali (1984). "Assamese." In Muslim Peoples: A World Ethnographic Survey, edited by Richard V. Weekes, Vol. 1, 58-63. Westport, Conn.: Greenwood Press.


Cite this article
Pick a style below, and copy the text for your bibliography.

  • MLA
  • Chicago
  • APA

"Garia." Encyclopedia of World Cultures. . 17 Aug. 2017 <>.

"Garia." Encyclopedia of World Cultures. . (August 17, 2017).

"Garia." Encyclopedia of World Cultures. . Retrieved August 17, 2017 from