The Garos constitute the majority in the East Garo Hills district as is evident from the name of the district. The district also is home for a sizeable population of Rabhas, Hajongs, Koches, Dalus, Banais and Boros.
The Garos are the second largest tribe after the Khasis in Meghalaya. The Garos refer to themselves as A'chik or Mande and their language belongs to the Bodo branch of the Bodo-Naga-Kachin family of Sino Tibetan phylum. The Garos are distributed over the three Garo Hills districts of Meghalaya, the Mymensingh district of Bangladesh and the Kamrup, Goalpara and Karbi-Anglong districts of Assam. They are also scatterred in a few numbers in Tripura and Nagaland.
Since the Garos are scattered far and wide, and since these scattered units were in isolation from each other over time, they have developed their own separate identities and dialects. Still, features like their traditional political setup, social institutions, marriage systems, inheritance of properties, religion and beliefs are common between these groups. Moreover, these groups are endogamous generally. The various dialect groups that comprises the Garos are the Ambeng, Atong, Akawe (or Awe), Duals, Matchi, Matabengs, Chibok, Chisak Megam or Lyngngam, Ruga, Gara-Ganching. The most significant difference is that between the groups who live closer to the plains and the hill dwellers who constitute the remaining groups. The Garos of the hills practice slash-and-burn agriculture or jhum-cultivation while the Garo of the plains practice wet-rice agriculture and live in a cultural and ecological environment entirely different from that of the Garo of the hills
The Garo Society
The Garo society is entirely a casteless society. It is matrilineal and inheritance is through the mother. All children, as soon as they are born, belong to their mother’s Ma’Chong, whence Dalton’s Term "motherhood". Inheritance of property among the Garos is generally linked with matrimonial relations, and although men may have no property to pass on, they have an important say in deciding to whom it should pass. The hieress is generally, the youngest daughter or the Nokna. If the nokna is unmarried, as she often is, since selection generally takes place before she get married, the father will try to get a young man from his own lineage, commonly the son of his own sister, as the husband of the heiress. The nokna's husband is called the Nokrom.
The Garos live in semi-permanent villages varying in size from 10 to 60 houses. Village populations rarely exceed 300. There are five named, exogamous, matrilineal phratries called chatchi. Only two of these, Sangma and Marak, are found throughout. The other three viz. Momin, Shira & Arengh are not widely distributed. The phratries are divided into many named, matrilineal sibs, each of which is restricted to a specific locality. The sibs are divided into unnamed lineages referred to as mahari. Each village is built around one or two of these lineages, and most of the lineage women, with their husbands, live in the village, as do some of the men with their wives. One household is usually considered to be the most senior, and the other houses are thought to have branched out from it. This household holds all the village land, and the husband of the heiress is considered to be the headman of the village or the Nokma.
Historically, the Garos did not own land - whatever land they hold in possession, they do so without any ownership documents and the land belonged to the tribe as a collective property, cultivated under a cooperative system. Theoretically, land is owned by the Nokma, and new sections are distributed among the households each year. Among the hill Garos, all subsistence is based on jhum cultivation. Dry rice is the primary crop, and millet is also important. In addition, bananas, papaya, maize, manioc, taro, squash, large-pod beans, sorrel, gourds, and many other vegetables are grown to supplement the diet. Important cash crops are cotton, chili peppers, and ginger. Wet rice has been grown more recently in some of the low areas, and this has changed the land tenure system to one of individual ownership, a situation which has had profound implications for the social structure.
The Garos traditionally follow their own religion known as Songsarek, which has roots in agriculture. They also have a belief system with an underlying principle of fear and dread of the supernatural powers, which led many scholars and researchers to wrongly think that the Garos are animists. The Songsarek belief is presided over by the Godhead known as “Dakgipa Rugipa Stugipa Pantugipa or Tatara Rabuga Stura Pantura”, or the Creator. Saljong is another deity which is more intimately concerned with human affairs. He is basically a sun god, the source of all gifts to mankind. Saljong is honoured with the Wangala celebrations. Another benign deity is Chorabudi, the protector of crops. The first fruits of the fields are offered to him. He is also honoured with a pig sacrifice whenever sacrifices are offered to Tatara-Rabuga.
Living so close to nature, the early Garo people the world around them with a multitude of spirits called mite, some of them good and some of them capable of harming human beings for any lapses they might commit. Appropriate sacrifices are offered to them as occasions demand.
In all religious ceremonies, sacrifices were essential for the propitiation of the spirits. They had to be invoked for births, marriages, deaths, illness, besides for the good crops and welfare of the community and for protection from destructions and dangers. The Garos also show reverence to their ancestors by offering food to the departed souls and by erection of memorial stones.
Like other religions, the Songsarek religion ascribes to every human being the possession of a spirit that remains with him throughout his lifetime and leaves the body at death. There appears to be a belief in reincarnation, people being reborn into a lower or higher form of life according to their conduct in their lifetime. The greatest blessing a Garo looks forward to is to be reborn as a human being in his or her original ma'chong or family unit.
The Garo normally do use many ornaments. The common ones are string of beads and earring worn both by men and women. The latter ornaments are considered to be very essentials as they serve as guarantees of the safe journey of the soul to the other world, being offered to the spirit Nawang should he try prevent the soul from going to the land of the dead.
The Garo prefer simple food. They gradually avoid spiced food, and usually with rice they take boiled meat and vegetables. They boil this curry quite plainly, adding a kind of alkaline Kalchi vegetable "salt " to it just as it comes to the boil. It has been suggested that this practice account for the comparatively low incidence of gastric ailments in these hills
Amusement & Festivities
There are no organized games a such among the Garos, though this does not imply that they have nothing to amuse themselves with. Games are generally played occasionally. Jumping contests and other competitions are indulged in more as tests of strength. The young males, members of the Nokpantes or Bachelor’s Dormitories, may organize themselves into groups and engage in such contests as the wa’pong sika, the Garo version of the tug-of-war, in which a stout bamboo pole replaces the rope and the contesting teams try to push each other beyond a marked line instead of pulling. Again, the villages may turn out in strength to take part in communal fishing.
The common and regular festivities are, of course, those connected with agricultural operations. Greatest among Garo festivals is the Wangala which is more a celebration of thanksgiving after harvest in which Saljong, the God who provides mankind with Nature’s bounties and ensures their prosperity, is honoured. There is no fixed date for the celebration, this varying from village to village, but usually, the Wangala is celebrated in October. Preparations take place well before the date; items of food are among the first to be collected.
The Nokma of the village takes the responsibility to see that all arrangements are in order. Rituals in his house and in the individual fields precede the feasting at which guests are literally force-fed by the hosts. A large quantity of food and rice-beer must be prepared well ahead. The climax of the celebrations is the colourful Wangala dance in which men and women take part in their best clothes. Lines are formed by males and females separately and to the rhythmic beat of drums and gongs and blowing of horns by the males, both group shuffle forward in parallel lines.
Variety is added by the performance of a skilled dancer who ties a large fruit to the end of a string about half a metre in length and by a skilful manipulation of his body sets it swinging round and round behind him. This part of the dance usually wins enthusiastic applause