Marngars - the Assamese speaking tribe in Meghalaya
Originally published in The Assam Tribune titled Mystery of the Marngars by Abhishek Chakravarty
"Marngar bhasha aaru Asomiya bhasha eke ase (Marngar and Assamese languages are same)," says Rutoh Sylliang. Rutoh, a manager at a government-run restaurant at the Marngar Lake comes from the least known tribe of Meghalaya, the Marngars.
The Marngars are an Assamese speaking tribe which inhabit nearly nine villages near the Marngar Lake, just a few miles east of Nongpoh town in the Ri-Bhoi district of Meghalaya. The Marngars are divided into 13 clans, namely. Syiem, Lyngdoh, Sylliang, Marwet, Makdoh, Majhong. Sohkhwai, Damlong, Binong, Pator, Barka, Umbah and Giri. Although a number of their clans are the same as that of the Khasis, the tribe is considered Assamese and the government had even denied them ST Stab is till 2011. The population of the tribe is estimated to be roughly around 2,000.
A close look at the Marngars will reveal a contrasting picture. On one hand they speak Assamese, wear mekhela and use gamocha, while on the other hand they also use Khasi clan names. The Assamese spoken by the Marngar people also contain a few Tibeto-Burman words which cannot be associated with any of the neighbouring languages, be it Karbi or Tiwa. They mostly inhabit a flat and gradual undulating land behind the Nongpoh bazaar, cultivating paddy, along with several herbs and spices.
At the heart of the Marngar habitation is the Marngar Lake which has become a popular tourist spot in recent times. However, the tourists visiting the place hardly know about the presence of this Assamese speaking tribe in the region. The names of the Marngar villages are also different from those of the Khasi tribe: Nalapara-Joigang, Lalumpam, Borkhatsari, Purangang, Borgang and Adgang are a few Marngar villages. The villages have their own Syiems (chiefs) and there is also a Marngar Raja (king) who is said to be the head of the nine villages, also known as Raid Marngar.
On my visit to the region. I had an opportunity to visit the gaonburah (village chief) of Adgang village. The gaonburah's house was like any other house. While speaking to him, I tried to enquire about the socio-economic issues of the Marngar people and he revealed how the Khasis discriminated against them for being Assamese speakers. Although they introduce themselves as the Bhois (a sub-tribe of the Khasis) In public spheres, the Khasi people denote them as Bhong. The Khasi Students' Union is still opposing the ST status that was eventually conferred upon them in 2011.
An enquiry into their origins couldn't reveal much, but according to some assumption, they most likely are Koch people from the plains of Morigaon and Kamrup, who moved into the Hills during the Burmese invasion and adopted Khasi clan names, but also preserved their identity and language. It has been written by several early British explorers that a large number of Koch people had gone up the Hills during the Burmese invasion and stayed back. Some got assimilated into the Karbi tribe, while others into the Hill Tiwa Tribe.
The Marngars, however, could maintain their culture and the Assamese Identity till this date for a period of nearly two centuries. The scenario, however. changed after Meghalaya attained Statehood, Khasi became the official language of the region and, therefore, the young generation has now started switching to Khasi for their own benefits and the Marngar culture is gradually fading and giving way to Khasi culture.
The religion of the Marngars is even more interesting. Although the tribe has been following a mixture of Hinduism and Animism, recently, a large number of them converted to Christianity. 'Lukhimi,' which more or less corresponds to Goddess Lakshmi, is an important deity for the Marngars and they also have a traditional dance in Her honour. The Marngars also celebrate a festival similar to Bihu which they call Domahi. Similar to the Assamese ritual of Goru Bihu, the Marngars too wash their cattle during Domahi.
An island of Assamese speaking people in the heart of Khasi country, the Marngars are an interesting case. Although there is no evidence of their history but thorough research may reveal their origins from the plains of Assam as they moved up the hills during the Burmese invasion. Not much research has been done on the community and, therefore, there is a lot to be learnt about them. Their case shows the interconnection between the different tribes of the North-East and also, the different events in our history that have had a deep impact on our society and culture.
Writer email: email@example.com | Photo courtesy: Rituraj Sarma (Facebook) - the Marngar Lake