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Identification. The Garos living in the East and West Garo Hills districts of Meghalaya in northeastern India speak the Garo dialect. They are one of the best-known matrilineal groups in India. Here the Garos are not just another aboriginal tribethey are the major aboriginal tribe. Others are the Hajong, the Koch, the Rabha, the Dalau, and the Banais who reside on the adjacent plains of the neighboring district. There remains an obscurity about the origin of the word "Garo." They are known as "Garos" to outsiders; but the Garos always designate themselves as "Achik" (hill men). The Garos are divided into nine subtribes: the Awe, Chisak, Matchi-Dual, Matabeng, Ambeng, Ruga-Chibox, Gara-Ganching, Atong, and the Megam. These are geographic subtribes, but they are also dialectal and subcultural groups. According to their beliefs and religion, the Garos are divided into the "Songsarek" (those who follow indigenous beliefs and practices) and the Christians.

Location. The two Garo Hills districts are situated Between 25°9 and 26°1N and 89°49 and 91°2E, covering an area of 8,000 square kilometers. The districts border Bangladesh on the south and west and Assam on the north. Hills cover most of the district, with some adjacent fringes of plains bordering the monsoon area, producing thick vegetation on the hills. There are a number of hilly streams and rivers; Except for the Simsang River, which forms a wide floodplain, none is navigable.

Demography. According to the census of India for 1971, Garos numbered 342,474. Christian Garos were 54.3 percent of the total Garo population; now they may be more than 60 percent of the total Garo population.

Linguistic Affiliation. According to Sir George Grierson's classification in The Linguistic Survey of India, Garo belongs to the Bodo Subsection of the Bodo-Naga Section, under the Assam-Burma Group of the Sino-Tibetan or Tibeto-Burman Language Family.

History and Cultural Relations

There remains no record of when the Garos migrated and settled in their present habitat. Their traditional lore, as Recorded by A. Playfair, indicates that they migrated to the area from Tibet. There is evidence that the area was inhabited by stone-using peoplesPaleolithic and Neolithic groupsin the past. After settling in the hills, Garos initially had no close and constant contact with the inhabitants of the adjoining plains. In 1775-1776 the Zamindars of Mechpara and Karaibari (at present in the Goalpara and Dhuburi Districts of Assam) led expeditions into the Garo hills. The first contact with British colonialists was in 1788, and the area was brought under British administrative control in the year 1873.


The population in a Garo village may range from 20 to 1,000 persons. The population density tends to decrease as one moves toward the interior areas from the urban areas of the districts. Villages are scattered and distant from one another in the interior areas. These villages are generally situated on the top of hillocks. The houses are built, together with granaries, firewood sheds, and pigsties, on piles around the slope of the hillock, using locally available bamboo, wood, grass, etc. The approach to the rectangular house is always built facing the leveled surface of the top, while the rear part of the house remains horizontal to the slope. Nowadays new pile-type buildings using wood and iron as major components are being made in some traditional villages also. In addition, buildings similar to those of the neighboring plains are constructed. The villages may remain distant from agricultural fields (jhum ). In order to guard a crop (during agricultural seasons) from damage by wild animals, the people build temporary watchtowers (borang ) in trees in the field. Men's dormitories exist in some villages. They act as places for meeting and recreation for the bachelors.


Subsistence and Commercial Activities. Traditionally, the Garos living in the hills subsist by slash-and-burn cultivation. The iron hoe, chopper, and wooden digging stick are essential appliances. Human hands continue to be the principal tool. Very often in some areas a plot allotted to a family remains underused because of an insufficient number of workers and the low level of technology. To survive the erratic nature of the monsoons, mixed cropsboth wet and dry varietiesare planted. A shifting cultivator plants a wide assortment of crops consisting of rice (mainly dry varieties), millet, maize, and many root crops, vegetables, etc. In addition to these cotton, ginger, and chili peppers are commonly raised as cash crops. All crops are harvested in October. At present the available strips of low and flat land lying between the hillocks or hills are used for permanent wet cultivation. The variety of crops cultivated is like that of the neighboring plains peoples. Such lands are owned individually. Additional production from such plots places the villagers in a better economic condition. The expansion of the modern economy and the steady increase of population are causing constant pressure on traditionally owned plots. The same plot is used almost continuously in some areas, thus leading to a decline in annual production. This trend is evident from the 1981 census report, which estimated that about 50 percent of the Garo people are now solely dependent on shifting cultivation and the rest use a part of a jhum plot permanently for growing areca nuts, oranges, tea (on a small scale), pineapples, etc. In this changing situation a producer may not always be a consumer; and reciprocity and cooperation do not exist as dominant forces in the socioeconomic life of this population.

Industrial Arts. Each family in a traditional context acts as a self-contained economic unit. Modernization has brought some changes in the socioeconomic sphere of this population. The Garos residing in the hills did not weave cloth a few decades back; they used to procure thick cloth known as kancha from the plains Garos. Now that the loom has been introduced in the hill areas, they weave dokmande (a kind of cloth) for commercial purposes as well as for their Personal use. Previously each family used to make pottery for its own domestic use, but nowadays the art is confined to a few families only who either sell it or barter it.

Trade. A few centuries ago the Garos were famous for headhunting. That practice constrained the neighboring Population of the plains from entering the hills. But people must exchange their produce to meet their requirements, and both hill and plains Garos needed such trade. Hence some trade started at border points on a very limited scale. Over time, these contacts grew into organized hutta (weekly markets) under the initiative of the Zamindars, who were subjects of the Muslim ruler. Initially cotton was sold outright or Exchanged for pigs, cattle, goats, tobacco, and metallic tools. In the beginning silent barter was possible because each party understood from long involvement the respective values of their goods. This process has continued to the present, with increasing involvement of traders from neighboring areas, and has now become fully monetized. Cotton, ginger, and dried chilies produced by the Garos are sold to the traders. The Garos in turn purchase pottery, metallic tools, and other industrial goods such as cloth from the traders.

Division of Labor. The division of labor between members of the household is as follows: the males are responsible for clearing jungle and setting fire to the debris for shifting cultivation, while women are responsible for planting, weeding, and harvesting. During the peak of the agricultural operations the men sometimes help the women. Construction and repair of the house are male duties. Men make baskets, while women carry crops from the field and firewood from jungle. Women look after the kitchen and prepare beer, and men serve the beer to guests. Women rear the children and keep the domestic animals. Both men and women sell firewood and vegetables in the market.

Land Tenure. Land for shifting cultivation is owned by the clan. Each village has a traditionally demarcated area of its own termed adok. This area is subdivided into plots that are used for cultivation in a cyclic order. The plots are distributed to the families. Allotment of the general plots is done by common consensus of the village elders, but the flat area for permanent wet cultivation is owned by individuals.


Kin Groups and Descent. The Garos reckon their kinship through the mother. Individuals measure the degree of their relationship to one another by the distance of their matrilineages. For men, children of their sisters or sisters' daughters are very important kin. For women, children of their sisters' daughters are equivalent to those of their own daughters.

Kinship Terminology. The kinship terms used by the Garos form a set, which is broad enough so that each Garo can be assigned a term. The terms are arranged in a system that classifies the kin. This classification is based on nine principles, as follows: (1) sex, (2) generation, (3) relative age, (4) moiety membership, (5) collaterality, (6) inheritance, (7) type of wife, (8) intimacy of relationship, (9) speaker's sex.

Marriage and Family

Marriage. Descent is matrilineal, residence uxorilocal. The mother's brother's daughter type of cross-cousin Marriage is the most widely accepted and prevalent among the people. It is a rigid custom that a man must marry a woman from the opposite chatchi (moiety). The rule of chatchi exogamy stipulates that a man's mother's father will be in the opposite chatchi and a man's wife's potential husbands will be in his own chatchi. After marriage a man keeps up his relation with his machong (clan). His relation with reference to his wife's machong is designated as gachi. Marriage establishes a permanent relation between two machong, known as akim. After marriage, a male moves to the residence of his wife. In the case of a nokrom (husband of the heiress of property), marriage does not create a new household but rather adds a new lease on life to an old household. Even after the death or divorce of a spouse the akim relation continues. It is the responsibility of the deceased's machong to provide a replacement spouse to the surviving partner.

Domestic Unit. The household is the primary production and consumption unit. A Garo household comprises parents, unmarried sons and daughters, a married daughter (heiress), and her husband and their children. In principle a married granddaughter and her children should be included, but in reality grandparents rarely survive to see their grandchildren married. Some households mayfor short periods onlyinclude distant relatives or nonrelated persons for various reasons.

Inheritance. Property among the Garos is inherited in the female line. One of the daughters is selected by the parents to be the heiress. If the couple have no female child, a girl belonging to the machong of the wife (preferably the daughter of her sister, whether real or classificatory) is adopted to be an heiress. She is not considered to be the absolute owner of the property. Decision about the disposal of property is taken by her husband, who is considered to be the household authority (nokni skotong ). After the death of the father-in-law responsibility transfers to the son-in-law. If a dead man is survived by a widow, she stays in the family of her daughter and is sometimes referred to as an additional wife (jik ) of her daughter's husband.

Socialization. Children start helping their mother to look after the infants when their mother is busy with work. Today there are different educational institutionsnamely, the mission schools and other Indian establishmentsthat act as major agents of education.

Sociopolitical Organization

Social Organization. In Garo society the most important social group is the machong (clan). A machong is an exogamous matrilineal descent group wherein a Garo is automatically assigned by birth to the unilineal group of his mother. A chatchi (moiety) is divided into many machong. Each married couple chooses one daughteror, if they have none, they adopt a close relative of the motherto be heiress (nokna dongipika mechik ) of the family. Her husband traditionally is selected from the lineage group of the father and is accepted as the nokrom of the house. He resides with his wife in her parents' house. He has to take on the responsibility of looking after his parents-in-law during their old age, and his wife inherits the property.

Political Organization. Traditionally, the Garos were not a politically organized society, and even today there exists no clear-cut political structure. Chieftainship involves religious functions only.

Social Control. The kinship system, the kinship bond, and the related value system act as an effective means of social control. Formerly the bachelors' dormitories were important agents of social control.

Conflict. Among the Garos most disputes arise over the issues of property, inheritance, and domestic quarrels within the family. Such problems are to a large extent settled by the mahari (lineage) of the offended and the offender. A new situation develops when someone's cattle cause damage to another's crops. In such a situation the nokma (village headman) acts as an intermediary only. If he fails to settle the dispute, the matter can go before the civil court of the district Council.

Religion and Expressive Culture

Religious Beliefs. There are two faiths prevalent among the Garos: native and Christian. People who follow the traditional faith are known as Songsarek. Difference in religion has not brought any split in the population. The traditional world of the Garos includes a number of spirits who behave like human beings but have no shape. They are Saljong, the spirit of the sun and fertility; Gaera, the spirit of strength and the thunderbolt; Susume, the spirit of wealth. Propitiation for each is followed by the sacrifice of an animal and an offering of beer. A Christian Garo is supposed to avoid such practices. Ogres and biting spirits (mite ) also occur.

Religious Practitioners. A Garo religious practitioner is known as kamal. The word is used to mean "specialist"; thus a midwife may be a kamal. A kamal derives neither special privilege nor prestige from his or her service to the society.

Ceremonies. All traditional annual festivals were connected with the different stages of shifting cultivation: Agalmaka, Maimua, Rongchugala, Ahaia, Wangala, etc. Wangala is considered to be the national festival among the Garos, taking place October-December. When a member of a family becomes Christian, he refuses to participate in Songsarek festivals.

Arts. The Garos used to make the following items: carved wooden shields (spee ) ; baskets of different types; different varieties of drumsgambil, kram, and nakik ; pipes (adil ) made of buffalo horn; flutes of bamboo; gonogina (Jew's harp) made of bamboo.

Medicine. They use a variety of herbal medicines for all sorts of ailments, and they claim to have herbal medicine for birth control also.

Death and Afterlife. They believe that after death human beings and animals turn into spirits known as memang ("ghosts"). These memang are considered counterparts of human beings.


Burling, Robbins (1956). "Garo Kinship Terminology." Man in India 36:203-218.

Burling, Robbins (1963). Rengsanggri: Family and Kinship in a Garo Village, Philadelphia: University of Pennsylvania Press.

Dalton, Edward Tuite (1872). Descriptive Ethnology of Bengal. Calcutta: Superintendent of Government Printing. Reprint. 1960. Calcutta: Indian Studies Past & Present.

Das, K. N. (1982). Social Dimension of Garo Language. Ph.D. dissertation, Gauhati University.

Grierson, George A., ed. (1903). The Linguistic Survey of India. Vol. 3, pt. 2. Calcutta: Government of India. Reprint. 1967. Delhi: Motilal Banarsidass.

Majumdar, D. N. (1980). A Study of Culture Change in Two Garo Villages of Meghalaya. Gauhati: Gauhati University Press.

Playfair, Alan. (1909). The Garos. London: Nutt.

Roy, Sankar Kumar (1977). A Study of Ceramics from the Neolithic to the Medieval Period of Assam: An Ethnoarchaeological Approach. Ph.D. dissertation, Gauhati University.

Roy, Sankar Kumar (1981). "Aspects of Neolithic Agriculture and Shifting Cultivation, Garo Hills, Meghalaya." Asian Perspectives 24:193-221.

Tayang, J. (1981). Census of India, 1981. Series 14, Meghalaya, paper no. 1. Shillong: Directorate of Census operations, Meghalaya.


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