Reworking Culture: Relatedness, Rites, and Resources in Garo Hills, North-East India

Somoshree De

Reworking Culture focuses on the Garo ways of living with change in the West Garo Hills of North East India, especially at Sadolpara village in the state of Meghalaya. It is based on ethnographic fieldwork conducted between 1999 and 2019, comprising about thirty months in total, enabling a diachronic perspective and revealing how changes take place over time. Garo people, who have been deemed by the state as an indigenous tribe since colonial times, are mostly assigned with notions of ‘timelessness.’ Their lived practices of tribal life are generally seen as a culture of the ‘other,’ away from the mainstream socio-economic and religious milieu. However, missionary activities since the colonial era have been successful in converting the majority of the Garo community across and beyond the Garo hills to Christianity, leaving behind very few places where the traditional Garo community religion is still being practiced. Sadolpara is one such place where the majority of the Garo people still follow the traditional religion; thus, the traditional ways of living can still be found to be in practice. However, this does not mean that there have been no changes in the ways the people define their culture.

There has been both resistance and assimilation of new practices within the Garo culture as de Maaker observes in his study of the people of Sadolpara. Unlike his predecessors, the author does not merely attempt to document the so-called ‘timeless tribal way of living,’ as has been the general practice of studying the ‘other’ culture. He rather tries to observe and articulate the reasons why the people feel no need to follow Western ways or accept the so called ‘modern practices’ of living and are rather comfortable shaping their lives in accordance with ideals, practices, and material conditions that are valued in their local context.

De Maaker, through this ethnographic account, makes a credible attempt to understand the nuances that create the vibrancy and adaptability of Garo culture’s local configurations. These in turn shape the question of cultural homogeneity and cohesion among the Garo communities beyond the limits of religion, differences in dialects, and places of belonging. Thus, de Maaker takes into account how ritual practices (e.g., funerals, marriages, etc.), traditions or customs ­ (niam), and resources such as land come together in manifesting the Garo culture beyond the standard stereotypes projected by the State. De Maaker takes ritual practices as the starting point in his book to chart experiences of relatedness and community that shape both the songsarek (followers of traditional Garo community religion) and non-songsarek (followers of Christianity) ways of living. For Garo, the authority that underlies cultural practices rests with niam, which is imparted orally at the village level. It is niam that sets them apart from non-Garo communities. However, niam can encompass anyone who agrees to submit to it. There are, however, “common denominators, interpretations of Garo niam that differ from context to context as well as from place to place” (p. 12). There are differences between rural and peri-urban contexts as well as between religious orientations. De Maaker thus takes ‘observance’ as the apt translation of the term niam than the much more common ‘customary law.’

Marital bonds play a crucial role in resource distribution as well its maintenance across generations, especially in the context of land ownership. The author observes how increasing integration of rural West Garo Hills into a monetary, market-oriented economy, fueled by a growing need for cash, is creating departures from the core traditional ways of living. The development projects implemented by the State also fail to recognize the traditional hierarchal structures of the Garo society, causing a shift in economic and political relationships. However, at the same time, it can be observed that the people are making significant efforts to continue some traditional practices, such as shifting cultivation and kin relations, both at the rural and urban level, while also trying to strike a balance with changing land use patterns (e.g., the growing of cash crops and mining activities). Thus, the author shows how “traditional normativity can be invoked to facilitate and legitimize the revision of economic and political relationships” (p. 4). By emphasizing the creation and continual transformation of shared norms, values, mutual obligations, and rituals like the Wangala festival of Garo society, de Maaker “forces a rethinking of the all too often taken for granted assumption that upland societies are characterized by cultural homogeneity and strong internal cohesion” (p. 21). This book does not cover the entire spread of the Garo community; however, it does make a credible starting point for future research projects on Garo people, in particular in other regions and the so-called tribal communities spread across the north eastern region of India or Himalaya.