Gubha Raja and Tiwa People-Meeting a King in the Town Bylane

-Rajesh K. Jha

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Author with Raja Dipsing Deo, the Tiwa King, Gubha Raja

Dipsing Deo Raja is young and handsome. Hardly 25 years of age, fair, short in height, flat nose with sharp shining eyes and a pleasant smile playing on his lips. He looked royal and graceful in his bright red jacket typically worn by Tiwa tribesmen of Assam and Meghalaya. Four wooden chairs were kept in a semi circular arrangement and a table kept in front while he waited for us to arrive. It was royalty minus the flamboyance. The simplicity of the Raja was striking in its elegance and charm. When I arrived at his house in the town of Jagiroad, he presented me a jacket as a mark of traditional Tiwa hospitality. Me and Raja Dipsing Deo sat on the wooden chair, dressed in the same bright red Tiwa Jacket and a white headgear like the short Sikh turban which was looking so regal on him. I could not restrain myself from asking to be photographed.

The house where our meeting took place was no ordinary house. I was told a little later by two of the ministers of the Raja. ‘It is to our kingdom what Delhi is to you’. These two people were the go between for me to help arrange the meeting with Raja in Jagiroad of Morigaon district in Assam as we could not go to meet him at his village a few kilometres away from the town. The mother of Raja Dipsing Deo joined us after some time and sat on the chair kept beside me. The two ministers began with a chant or recitation of praise to the Raja but soon they started telling us about their annual festival named Jonbeel Mela.

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Raja Dipsingh Deo (right) and his mother (left) with the author in the centre at the Jagiroad residence, Capital of Gubha Raja

The Jonbeel mela is the biggest festival of the Tiwas. It is also the occasion to acknowledge the ceremonial position of the Gubha Raja, the royal head of the Tiwas belonging to the Gubha kingdom. It starts on the first Thursday after the Pausa Sankrati month of Hindu calendar. Tiwas believe that this festival has been taking place for 6000 years at the same place known as Dayang Belguri on the banks of a crescent shaped wetland (Jon- Crescent moon, Beel- Wetland) near Jagiroad in Morigaon district. The festival begins with the worship of fire for the wellbeing of mankind. It continues for three days with music and dance galore. Tiwa tribe members from the plain areas of Morigaon and Naogaon in Assam and Karbi Anglong and Ri-bhoi districts of Meghalaya participate in this festival. Considering the fact that Tiwa population is just about 2 lakhs, this festival attracts a large number of Tiwas from across the two states.

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The entrance to the Jonbil Mela at Jagiroad, Morigaon, Assam

Jonbeel is a festival of barter of agricultural goods between the hill dwelling Tiwas and those who reside in the plains. Hill Tiwas come with Black Pepper, Chilli, Ginger etc and exchange it for dried fish, mustard seed, rice Cake and other sweets like Pitha, Jalpan, Khandoh mainly prepared from rice. The Mela takes place in a ground spread across 70 acres for which a rent of about 7 lakh rupees is paid. The entire festival is organized under the leadership of Gubha Raja Dipsingh Deo, his council of ministers and elders of the village. During the festival, Gubha Raja collects taxes from his ‘subjects’. Like most other functions in tribal societies, this event is also organized with material and financial contribution from the Tiwa community. The ministers of Gubha Raja wanted that the government should provide them space free of rent to organize their biggest cultural  festival.

When I spoke to the Deputy Commissioner of the area about the demand of the Tiwa community, he in a very polite manner expressed his doubt about getting so much of land for free, even if it is just for three days. In fact, there are close to 24 kings of Tiwas who are recognized as kings by the community and even by the administration. The kingdom of each Raja extends to a few villages and the Gubha king ‘rules’ over the largest number of villages.He is considered the most important of the kings. As recognition of his status, he is given a pension of Rs. 5000 per month by the government, though one may debate whether it is a royal amount or not.

Majority of the Tiwas declare themselves as Hindus. Indeed they worship god Shiva who is their supreme god, though the hill Tiwas worship stone images which may not have a particular shape. The Shiva temple at Devsal near Jagiroad is their most prominent religious place. This temple is no different from any other Hindu temple that we encounter across the country. It is a typical Shiva temple with some local variations.

Deosal Shiva Than- Jagiroad, Assam
Deosal Temple, the most revered religious place of Tiwas, Jagiroad, Assam

The Tiwas also worship Parvati, Laxmi, Brahma and Krishna and many other animistic gods. However, they don’t consider Vedas or Gita as their sacred text. When I asked Gubha Raja about their deity he gave me the name of ‘Badalmaji’ which does not have a fixed shape or form. It could be an old stone or a tree or anything. I was wondering if the Tiwas have adopted these Hindu gods in the process of cultural assimilation within the dominant culture which is known as the process of Sanskritisation. The Tiwa tribe does not have caste system which is the major and perhaps a fundamental characteristic of the Hindu religion. It would be interesting to know from the census data to find out since when Tiwas have been declaring themselves to be Hindus and how it can be interpreted.

A sizeable chunk of Tiwas believes in the Nava Vaishnava Sect of the Shankar Dev, the 15th century religious saint and social reformer who still commands a big following in Assam. It may be an important fact to know that Sankaradev was born in the village Bordowa Satra in Naogaon district. The Nam-Ghars are also associated with the Nav-vaisnava sect of Sankaradev. Tiwas also construct Nam-ghars to offer prayers. Today, I was told, close to 90 percent of the Tiwas are Hindus while 10 percent of them, mostly in the hill districts of Meghalaya have converted to Christianity.

The community relishes non-vegetarian food and often at community feasts, such as during the Jonbeel Mela, meat is an integral part of the feast. Pork is considered a delicacy but cow meat is prohibited. Killing of cows and eating beef is punished by the community with fine. There are various Gotras among Tiwas namely- Puma, Masrang, Amsi, Loro etc. Marrying within the same Gotra is a strict taboo and never allowed. Tiwas are known to practice 5-6 kinds of marriage rituals. Apart from the arranged marriage with the willingness of the families of boy and the girl, there could also be a secret marriage Poluainiya. It takes place in case the parents of either the boy or girl don’t agree to the marriage. When the boy agrees to stay in his wife’s family it is called Gobhirakha marriage. The death rituals of the Tiwas are also similar to Hindus. In case of natural death, cremation is the usual method. However, those who die an unnatural death are buried. Each gotra has its own cremation ground which is used exclusively for the persons of that gotra only.

Tiwa people have had a long history of revolt against the British rule. One such episode is still remembered in the community as ‘Phulaguri Dhawa’ which took place in 1861. It is considered to be among the earliest agrarian uprisings in Assam. The movement started as a protest against the imposition a number of exploitative taxes like grazing tax, tax on cutting grass and trees in jungles by the British authorities of Naogaon district. The British also imposed a license tax on the cultivation of opium. There was a rumour that the government was going to tax beetle nut and Paan also which enraged the tribal people of the area. When the government refused to listen to the demand of the tribal people, a Raij-Mel (mass meeting) was organized. To disperse the gathering, British police officer J.B. Singer resorted to lathi charge and firing. The tribes got agitated and J.B. Singer was killed by the mob. Brutal suppression followed in which eight Tiwa community leaders are said to have been killed. A large number of Tiwa people were arrested and many of them were later hanged.

Coming so soon after the revolt of 1857 had been brutally put down, it would be interesting to see how the British looked at this agrarian revolt in the eastern part of India. In fact, a few decades later a major event of even bigger scale took place in 1894 in Patharughat in Darrang district where 140 farmers were killed by the British while protesting peacefully against imposition of very high rents on them. Patharughat is quite close to Jagiroad in Morigaon district. Tiwa people also took active part in the ‘Tribal League’ formed in 1933 as well as the Quit India Movement of 1942.

Like many other tribes in the North East, Tiwa tribe also had been demanding recognition of their separate identity and culture. Being small in number and mostly peace-loving, the demand for autonomy for the Tiwa community has met only partial success. The movement for the protection of Tiwa socio cultural and economic rights took a concrete shape in 1967 with the establishment of ‘Lalung Darbar’ under the leadership of Anand Ram Deuri of Jagiroad in Morigaon district. Going through many ups and downs the movement culminated in the establishment of Tiwa Autonomous Council in 1995. The apex council of Tiwas consists of 144 villages of Nagaon, Morigaon and Kamrup districts without any demarcation of boundary. Tiwas consider this only a partial fulfilment of their demand. In fact, the customary laws of the Tiwa tribe are not recognized by the state administration which is considered an important part of Tiwa culture and identity.

There are many stories relating to the origin of the Tiwa tribe. Generally, it is believed that they have migrated from Tibet coming along the Brahmaputra river into Assam. Some folk stories link Tiwas or Lalungs to the mythical king Bali also. Lalung is also associated with the river Nailalung in the Karbi Anglong district where they had settled in the past. Though, there are 16 clans of Tiwa represented by as many kingdoms, Gubha kingdom is the supreme seat of tribal authority for the Tiwas. There are sharp differences in the cultural traits of the hill and plain Tiwas and the Gubha Raja is seen as a mediator between them. The Jonbeel Mela signifies this aspect of reconciliation between the two groups formalised in the process of barter of goods between them.

The head of the Tiwa tribe Gubha Raja is a hereditary post passing from the father to the son. However, it is not an automatic process where the eldest son would become the Raja of the clan. It was interesting to know from the Gubha Raja that he is not the eldest son. He had an elder brother who was not found fit to head the clan and hence the younger son Dipsing Deo was anointed the king of Tiwas. Apparently, like many other tribal communities, among Tiwas too, there is an intricate system of the community granting legitimacy to the king as their ruler before they can claim it by virtue of heredity.

Tiwa language belongs to the Tibeto Burman family of languages. It is not possible for an Assamese speaking person to understand the Tiwa language. Man is Manu in Assamese but Libing in Tiwa. Similarly, Boy is Loda in Assamese and Panthai in Tiwa language. For Namaskar Tiwa says Sheva, for Thank You it is Khrumdong. In fact Tiwa language is close to Bodo, Mishing and Rabha languages of Assam. Over a period of time, the Tiwa language has suffered marginalisation. Majority of the plain Tiwas no longer speak their traditional language but the Hill Tiwas continue to use it. Recently, Tiwa tribe has adopted the Roman script for their language.

The richness of the Tiwa culture is equally evident in dance and music which comes alive during their festivals called Miswa. Spread through out the year, Miswas involve pujas to the goddesses like Laxmi and Kumari. Laxmi Puja is done during the Yangli Miswa while Barat, which takes place during the months of September  October is devoted to Kumari Puja.  Khaplang Rava Miswa is dedicated to the collection of thatch for the roof. Indeed, all the Miswas are accompanied by colourful dance and music performances. Muniari Kanthi Miswa dance is performed during Barat festival. The Langkhun Miswa dance is famous as bamboo dance where people dance with bamboo sticks. Tiwas have a number of special musical instruments which have their distinct presence in their culture. While Khrum is the normal Dhol, Khrumban is the longish Dhol like instrument similar to Mridangam. You can imagine Pangchi as the Tiwa phonetic equivalent for Bansi but Thurang is the long Bansi of the Tiwa repertoire of musical instruments.

The traditional Tiwa dress is as colourful  and rich as their cultural life. The Tiwas weave their own clothes. Over a period of time, the practice has now been restricted to buying the yarn from the market and then weaving the cloth at their houses. Their dress is distinct from the traditional Assamese dresses. They sport Tagla (jacket) and Faga which is a headgear called paguri in Assamese. The Tiwa Women wear Kasong which is like Mekhla and Phaskai– a kind of Chadar wrapped across their shoulders. I can still not forget the striking beauty of the young wife of Gubha Raja when she came to offer tea and snacks to us dressed in her Kasong and Phaskai. That has remained itched in my memory alongside the regal simplicity of the Gubha Raja sitting in his palace at Morigate.

It is rare to find a historical place like a fort associated with ancient tribal people. It is understandable since they live a life much closer to nature and often merge with the surroundings without really altering them with their imposing structures. Among Tiwas too it is the same story. The only person about whom I could hear a story and a place associated with him was the legendary Tiwa king and fighter Jongal Balahu. He was a brave Tiwa king who expanded the Tiwa kingdom in many areas. He also fought valiant battles against the Kachhari kingdom of Assam. The fort of Jongal Balahu which is now only a mound and rest of the area turned into a fishing pond near Roha town in Morigaon district. The tales of his bravery and expeditions against the enemy can still be found in Tiwa cultural traditions. A group of some twelve members called Tiwa Elite Forum is working on a history of Tiwa people. It is hoped that the lost glory of this tribe would come into picture with systematic exploration of the history of this tribe in the north east.

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