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January 9, 2004

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The Return of the Ancients:

Garos Celebrate Wanna
After Seventy Years

Mustafa Zaman
PHOTO: Sayed Zakir Hossain

What the Garos lost with the advent of missionary efforts in Christianisation are now seeing a revival. After a seventy year long slumber, the community woke up with the thumping of drums and stepping of feet belonging to the contingents of dancers in consort with the rhythm. The celebration of the Wanna, the Garo thanksgiving on December 29, 2003, in Askipara at the foot of the Garo hills in Haluaghat, over 200 kilometres northeast of Dhaka, marked a cultural rebirth.

Kendua of Netrokona used to be a strong outpost of the Garos, an indigenous group of people who has a history that goes back more than a thousand years. There is this Chiran union of Kendua that is a strong reminder of a subgroup of the Garo people named Chiran who used to reside in the area. The Garos of Bangladesh are the last remaining factions of the indigenous people who made Bengal their home. They are also the last few tribes with a social system based on matriarchy. The distinct cultural characteristic that stemmed from Garo life and beliefs are now at crossroads. The consequences of conversion to Christianity and modernisation left in its wake a community in cultural crisis. Now the wild and the pristine has risen again, the Garos are out to reclaim their past.

We want a resurrection, we want to see the Garos together with their long lost culture," said a Garo activist to a Daily Star journalist. With the complete lack of understanding of Garos and their culture, the Christian missionaries simply wanted to turn them into faithful in their own fashion. Remodeled through conversion, the Garos had long been forced to live in absence of Garo sensibility.

With the 98 percent Christians among them, the bond and the fellow feeling that found its expressions both in community living and rituals have long been in the road to erosion. Their songs and dances were taken over by Rabindra sangeet, Nazrulgeety and even pollee-geety, claims Shubhash Changchum, who wrote an article on Garo culture in the booklet published to mark the occasion of Wanna. But he also provide the examples of practices that covertly went on side by side; though any such activities often aroused the Missionaries’ scourge upon discovery. "The last Wanna too was trampled by the then British rulers," remembers Haripada Marak, a Garo who is way past his 90.

December 29 was altogether a new beginning. As the Garos flocked to the freshly harvested paddy field turned open-air ceremonial ground to sing and dance, and to offer fruits, vegetables, rice and of course, chu, their home-made distilled beverage, to the deity, the ritual returns as does the belief that it will bring rain and goodness.




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