Vol. 4 Num 213 Wed. December 31, 2003  
Front Page

Reviving a lost culture

The unmistakably wild drumbeat thumps on the eardrum. And the strange trumpeting noise of a wind instrument.

Then the warriors appear, their swords flicking in the air against the backdrop of rolling Garo hills. They come in all colours and ages. They come dancing to the rhythm of music. And a culture lost for the last 70 or so years under the weight of Christianity wakes up from slumber.

The Garos, thought to be in Bangladesh for the last 1,000 years or so, now want to get back to their roots they lost in the advance of Christianity. In their quest, they celebrated Wanna or the Garo thanksgiving on December 29 in Askipara by the side of the Garo hills in Haluaghat, over 200 kilometres northeast of Dhaka.

"We want to resurrect the Garo people," Sanjib Drong, a Garo activist, says. "We want to find them together with our lost culture. And so, we decided to hold Wanna this year."

But that was not an easy job. The rituals are long forgotten. The people who had ever witnessed it are all gone. Gone are even traditional ornaments and musical instruments.

"Christianity had done the culture in," Sanjib says. "When the fathers came to convert us, they had little regards for our culture. They asked us to change our way of life and we followed them."

"But we need to get back to our culture," says Haripada Marak, one of the eldest villagers. With hearing ability going down and bifocals getting thicker, some say, he is well past 90. "We should not forget we are Garos. We should not forget the spirits of our forefathers. It's good the village youths are organising it."

The Garos, simple as they are, were fierce warriors -- the reason even the British rulers wanted to tame them by tramping their culture.

"We had the last Wanna in Don Barga village," says Haripada. "But then the British sent police on elephants and stopped the function."

But on December 29, the mood at Askipara was different. Indigenous people in their hundreds flocked to the open air stage set up on a just harvested paddy field. Straws provided a cosy cushion against the chill blowing off the Garo hills, making a blue frill to the set-up.

The dancers come in groups, lay down their offerings -- fruits, vegetables, rice and of course, chu, their home-brewed spirit -- on the stage.

A Garo woman puts thapa or mark of goodness on the objects. Women go around with bowls of rice and water mixture, putting thapa on everyone's forehead and cheeks. Hosts come with fong or long pipes made of gourd, and treat people to chu.

The ceremony picks up in wild frenzy. More drumbeats, more dancing feet, more swirls of colours, more chu and more fun.

At night, the Garos stage a traditional drama -- the story of a Garo girl living in the hills. Lanterns burn brightly in the peach black night. A mournful Garo song wafts in the dark.

Against the lamps, dark shadows dance on thin cloths that make the walls of the stage.

Next comes rain and wind, blowing away half of the stage, as the elderly Garos said early that day that Wanna brings rain and goodness with many returns.

With traditional sword and shield, a Garo warrior leads a procession to Wanna, the conventional thanksgiving day function, at Askipara in Haluaghat on December 29. The Garos observed the day for the first time in 70 years. PHOTO: Syed Zakir Hossain