MARRIAGE RITUALS OF THE JAINTIAS OR THE PNARS

The Jaintias who are the descendants of the Mongolian race are related to the Shaan tribesmen of Manipur. The Jaintias are said to have migrated to the present habitat from South East Asia and in all probability from Mongolia via West Asia. They appear to be the earliest waves of migrants to North East India leading more or less a settled way of life. The early history of the Jaintias, Pnars or the Syntengs as they are also known as, are extremely sketchy as they are also known not to have any recorded history. Even the British officials had considered both the Khasis and the Jaintias as one tribe. Though the two tribes possess a lot of common traits but there are a number of distinguishing cultural traits between the two as well. Scholars believe the existence of a kingdom called Jaintiapur now in present day Bangladesh. Jaintia hills was the name of predominantly Pnar inhabited area, and Jaintia was the substitute of the term called Pnar. The word Jaintia was the term referred to all these hill people. The tribal inhabitants of Jaintia hills district call themselves as Pnars. The language they speak are from the Mon Khmer origin and they are said to belong to the Austro – Asiatic linguistic group. The social structure of the Jaintias are a matrilineal one where the line of decent is traced from the mother to the youngest daughter. The social and the organisational system in this matrilineal structure however does not ignore the man who also plays a crucial role especially in social, economic and political sphere of the society. Family, kinship, religion, customs, traditions, economic institutions all play a vital role in the maintenance of the social harmony and the cohesive nature within the Jaintia society.

Marriage is the foundation of the family unit. Marriage among the Jaintias is an elaborate system. The Jaintia marriage is a socially approved and arranged union. Marriageable relations is very carefully observed among the Jaintias. There are also limitations and prohibitions on the selection of a mate. Like the Khasis, among the Jaintias too there is prohibition to marry within the same clan and marriage with a paternal uncle or aunt. Marriage within the same clan is a taboo and if this happens a couple is excommunicated from the land and the society. In case of death the widower can marry the younger sister of the deceased wife but not the elder sister. Marriage among the Jaintias is strictly monogamous. Though the Jaintias are strictly endogamous but these days endogamy is not rigorously adhered to.

The Jaintias are unique and they have traditionally an altogether different system of marriage. There exists the ‘night visit marriage system’, in which the husband comes to the wife’s house after dusk and leaves for his mother’s house before dawn. This practice is maintained as long as the marriage bonds remain. However with the advent of Christianity, urbanisation and modernisation this system of marriage is losing its ground. Traditionally the Jaintias are animists. Their traditional religion is known as Niamtre. Though there are a good number of people who practice the Christians faith, many Jaintias since earlier times have been converted to Hinduism under the patronage of the Jaintia kings. They are specially found in a village called Nartiang. Marriage among the Jaintias is a pre-arranged one. Even though the boy and the girl may have known each other and consented to marry yet, their marriage would have to be arranged by their clans. When the boy reaches a marriageable age the parents or the uncle would make efforts to find a suitable girl for him. When a suitable match is found through friends and relatives a formal proposal or I Kyllat Kurim is made. The family of the girl looks into all aspects of the boy and the suitability of the match before they accept the proposal. If the proposal is accepted a suitable date and time for an engagement is arranged. On engagement day a ring made of brass or gold is presented to the girl. Once the engagement ceremony is over, the engaged couple is not permitted to meet each other till the day of the marriage. However very few abide by this traditional rule any longer and couples these days usually do spend time with each other prior to the marriage. In case the engagement is broken or breached a taboo is established between the two clans and no marriage ever takes place between the two clans.

A day before the marriage is solemnised, the groom’s family provides a sum of money to the bride’s family for the special mat called U chylliah chlain on which the groom sits on the night of the wedding day. Traditional marriages among the Jaintia is held in the night though these days marriages are also held during the day. In the afternoon of the marriage day there is an exchange of cooked food between the groom’s and the bride’s family. In the same afternoon, two bunches of firewood are prepared by both the sides to serve as torches of flames at night when the marriage ceremony would take place. Relatives, friends and guests who visit the bride and the groom’s house are all served with feasts. Feasting consisting of different items of fish and meat continues well past sunset.

Just after sunset on the same evening the torches are brought to the bride’s house where the marriage is to be solemnised. One of the two bunches of firewood is lit and taken by the maternal uncle or U Kni of the bride while the other bunch is taken by the bride’s brother in law without being lit. On reaching the groom’s residence the two bunches of firewood are kept along with the two bunches prepared by the groom’s side in the room called I Tre Thlong. All the four bunches are now lit. Thereafter they sit together for some time while chewing betel nuts offered by the groom’s family. After this, the Kni or the maternal uncle of the bridegroom along with the groom starts the procession to the bride’s residence with the four torches. One of the two torches from the groom’s side takes the lead followed by one of the torches brought by the bride’s party. The second torch from the groom’s side is in the third position while the third torch is carried by the bride’s brother-in-law in the rear position. The torches of flames signify to the people that the couple are becoming husband and wife from the night after the marriage. On the way, the marriage party shouts ‘he has come’ repeatedly. When the marriages are held during the day torches are still used just the same.

On reaching the bride’s house the procession is given a cordial welcome and all of them thereafter take their seats in a room arranged for the purpose. The four pinewood torches are kept in the room for some time and then removed outside. A gourd of fermented rice beer are kept near the Kni of the bride and another gourd with rice beer near the Kni of the groom. After this there is an exchange of betel-nuts between both the parties of the bride and the groom. After the chewing of the betel nuts, plate full of meat and dishes of dried fish are brought and each person eats to the heart’s content. The Knis from both the side pour the fermented rice beer in two to three bowls made of brass. The rice beer or the Kiad is then served along with the meat to all present in the room. After the meat, dried fish and the beer is consumed by all, an important ritual is conducted.Water in a basin is brought to wash the feet of the bridegroom which is dried and anointed with oil. This task is performed by either the brother-in-laws or the uncles from the mother’s side. In the meantime the mother or the mother’s sister spreads the ‘special mat’ or U chylliah chlain where the bridegroom would sit. Care is taken not to touch the mat with the foot. After the groom sits on the mat, the solemnisation of the marriage takes place.

The dress of the bride usually consists of clothes with white raiment. She wears a bunch of flowers on her head and uses a wrapper. A groom on the other hand wears a sleeveless coat, a turban and a dhoti looping down the waist. During the solemnisation of the marriage the appointed Knis from both the bride and the groom recite the marriage contract one after another. The Kni of the bride begins the recitation. Before doing so, he solemnly appeals to the Gods in a short prayer for the prosperity of the couple. He then continues to exhort the groom that he would take great care towards the bride. When the Kni of the bride has finished with his recitation, the Kni of the groom recites in the same manner as the Kni of the bride had done. He urges upon the bride and the family not to listen to any gossip against his nephew or the groom from any sources. After the marriage ceremony is over, friends, relatives and the guests all leave for their respective homes. Thereafter the bride’s family including her parents, brothers, sisters and other close relatives, sit together and there takes place a round of introduction and exchange of pleasantries. When this is over all the relatives and guests depart and the bride enters the room where her husband is seated and stays with him the whole night.

A week after the wedding, the bride accompanied either by the grandmother or the aunt, pays a visit to the house of the husband. She brings along with her a gourd of fermented rice beer. This visit is called I Lie Kiad Pynche. On reaching the husband’s house the rice beer is received by the groom’s mother or either of the aunts. The relatives who accompanied the bride thereafter leaves after the chewing of betel nuts offered. Subsequently the male members of the groom’s family start drinking the rice beer after invoking the blessings of God on the couple and their off-springs. The bride remains in the husband’s house till the evening after which both return back to her house.

It may be mentioned that some local variations in the marriage ceremonies with regard to the details and formalities do exist depending upon the village they come from. However excluding minor variations, the marriage ceremony has the same religious and socio-civic significance. Though traditional marriages are on the decline because of the larger population following the Christian faith, however it is noticed that most times the Christians too follow the customary laws of marriage as described above. The concept of marriage among the Jaintias is not just an institution for procreation and legalising children but it is also considered a social and religious institution that is revered by all. However the legalisation of such customary and traditional marriages among both the Khasis, Jaintias and the Garos would go a long way to preserving the good elements of the traditional custom of marriages among the people of Meghalaya.

MARRIAGE RITUALS OF THE GAROS

The Garos are the second largest tribe in Meghalaya after the Khasis. Garo hills are one of the constituent districts of the state of Meghalaya. It is bounded on the north and west by the districts of Goalpara, on the east by the Khasi Hills and on the south by the Mymensing district of Bangladesh. Ethnically and linguistically, the Garos belong to the great Bodo family. The Garos have a number of dialects and cultural groups. Each of them originally settled at a particular area of the Garo Hills and outlying plain lands. But though Garos are ridden with dialectical groups and varied cultural traits, their roots are basically the same and all of them have the same tribal consciousness. There are five clans or exogamous steps called chatchi among the Garos, with a number of sub-clans called Ma’chong. Originally there were only two clans namely Sangma and Marak. Later, Momin, Arengh and Shira have been evolved out of the two original clans. Each of these clans has a number of sub-clans called Ma’chong or motherhood. Literally ma’chong means a group of people descending from one common mother. Ma means ‘mother’ and Chong means a ‘heap or group’.
The Garos also have a matrilineal system of society though in its practice the system slightly differs from that of the Khasi-Jaintias. The individuals take their clan titles from their mothers. Traditionally, the younger daughter or Nokna chik is the heiress who inherits the property from her mother. But these days the ancestral property can be inherited not necessarily be the youngest daughter as among the Khasi-Jaintias but any of the daughters that the parents who they think can serve them best. The decision to choose the Nokna is largely therefore on the parents specially on the mother. The other daughters go away from the parents’ home with their husbands after their marriage to form a new and independent family. Though property is owned by the daughter, yet the men in the family do play an important role both within the family and in the management of the property. Traditionally sons would leave the parents’ house at puberty, and trained in the village bachelor dormitory known as the Nokpante. However, today the culture of modern Garo community has been greatly influenced by Christianity. Nokpantes are the glory of the past and in the modern family structure, all children are given equal care, rights and importance by the modern parents. Among the Garos the smallest kinship group is the nuclear family, and the family is initiated with marriage. Among the Garos, although marriage regulations are determined by the clan level, and ma’chong or sub clan has nothing to do with it, yet ma’chong is the basis of the Garo social organisation.

Traditional Garo culture gave ample opportunity to the young people for meeting each other in annual festivals such as the Wangala and other social occasions, however this freedom in selecting a mate was not open to all young men and women. Marriage among the Garos is regulated by two important laws namely, exogamy and Akim. In the hills as well as in the plains, the Garo marriage is a contract between the clans, whereby the husband is from one clan and the wife from another clan. According to the law of exogamy no marriage contact may be made between people belonging to the same clan. Thus a ‘Sangma’ is not permitted to marry a ‘Sangma’, or a ‘Marak’ to another ‘Marak’. Like the Khasis and the Jaintias if marriage takes place between the same chatchi or clan they are looked down upon by the society as Bak dong or marrying his or her own relation. Bak means ‘a part of the relation’ and Dong meaning ‘to live together’. Though no ostracism takes place, however they tend to lose their prestige and respect in society. Though marriage is regulated at the level of the clan, however marriages within the ma’chong are much less regulated. Through marriage a permanent bond is established between the clans of the spouses, that is, between the husband and the wife. The bond is known as A’kim which remains intact even after the death of a spouse since the replacement of the deceased are found among the same clan members for the second marriage.

Like other communities of the world, marriage is an important occasion in the Garo social and cultural life. In the Garo community the mode of selecting a mate however may differ from place to place. Both love and arranged marriages exist among the Garo community. Among them the most popular type of marriage is the arranged marriage. All Garo marriages are often arranged with the boy whom the girl discloses as her choice for a life partner. In traditional Garo custom, it is the girl who proposes a match to the boy but this too has changed with time. Parents can also look for a suitable match for a girl to marry.
It may be of interest to know that before conversion to Christianity, the Garos were practicing the Songsharek rules of marriage in which there was a traditional practice of ‘bridegroom capturing’. The Garo girls desiring to enter into marital bond with their loved ones often influenced their parents to seek him as their son-in-law. Once the choice is made clear to her parents and relatives, they then wait for an opportunity to get hold of the boy and capture him. This process known as bridegroom capture is considered as the only proper way to invite a man to become a husband. The boy who is to be captured remains ignorant of their motive till the time when he is actually kidnapped and brought before the girl’s family. But his family must be consulted if he is to marry an heiress. The father of the girl takes the help of certain youth of the village who are often referred as brothers of the bride. In most cases they belong to the girl’s chatchi though exceptional cases may be there. In the groom capturing event married men occasionally take part but young unmarried and energetic males are more involved in this process. The first attempt of suddenly attacking or kidnapping might not always result in marriage as the captured boy may put up an elaborate display of reluctance and escape from captivity. Only after the boy finally agrees for the marital bond can a marriage take place. He may however also show his reluctance and is then free to enter any other marital bond. Once the boy is captured he is brought to the house of the bride by late afternoon or a little earlier for the ceremony to be held while everyone drinks rice beer. The ritual is performed by a person called Kamal who acts as the priest. The ceremony is held in the presence of the bride’s parents, relatives and friends. The parents of the boy are conspicuous by their absence. The girl’s father and the Kamal sit on one side of the fireplace while the boy sits opposite to the fireplace, against the wall. All this while his captors guard him to prevent his escaping. The men assemble at the rear of the house while the women gather at the front in order to help with the cooking. As per custom, the bride cooks both rice and curry in order to serve the first meal to her prospective husband. A pig is slaughtered only if the girl’s family is confirmed about the alliance. Three fowls of which one must be a hen and other roosters are put in a basket before the priest. While chanting incantations the priest strikes on the back of the boy and the girl with the roosters and the hen, respectively. Then the priest cuts the neck of the chickens and eventually the entrails of the fowls are studied through divination in order to predict the future of their union. After this event the girl cooks the third fowl and serves to the boy along with rice. The boy might refuse to accept the food if he is not interested in the alliance. The other fowls sacrificed are also cooked and served to the guests. Thereafter the captors take the ‘new man’ around the village and return to the girl’s house. The ‘groom’ is taken to the girl’s room where he has to spend the night with the girl under the watchful eyes of his captors lest he escapes. Those consenting to be the husband finally settle down thus ending the supervision by the bachelors. At this juncture it is considered as a permanent marriage. The newly wedded couple visits the husband’s parents in his village. On the way back the husband takes his personal belongings and tools. A boy who marries an heiress stays with his wife’s family. However, non-heirs couples shift from the parental house of the girl after a few months to a separate plot of land assigned to them.
Despite this traditional practice of marriage that had existed once upon a time among the Garos, it is pertinent to mention here that in present times, the Songsharek solemnization of marriage is extremely rare and may exist in isolated cases in the rural villages. In recent decades, the Garo people have been influenced by many factors such as conversion of large number of Garos to Christianity, occupational diversification, exposure to the Hinduized culture of the plains etc which have brought comprehensive changes in many aspects of the Garo lives, their traditional practices and attitudes, including their traditional marriage system and rituals. Marriages now among the Garos are mostly held in the church according to the Christian rites in the presence of the Pastor or Priest, the relatives such as the Mamatang or the uncle, Adatang or the brother and Pajong or Awing or the elderly relatives of both the bride and the groom and the well wishers. A wedding is generally followed by a large feast involving all the relatives from both the bride and the groom and plenty of merry making. Some couples however may also include a few traditional rituals along with the rituals of a church wedding. Today among the Christian Garos marriage has taken an institutionalized form.
Other features of customary marriages are also changing. For instance, while the proposal is still initiated by women, it is usually through an exchange of letters especially among the Christian Garos. The practice of bridegroom capture-escape-recapture has been replaced by the girl proposing more than once, and the boy initially refusing before accepting. Divorce continues to be common among those who are not converted. The Christian Garos are governed by the Indian Divorce Act of 1869, under which divorce involves court proceedings and is therefore difficult to obtain. Adultery while tolerated among the non Christian Garos is not accepted by the Christians.
Thus the Garos like the Khasis and the Jaintias of Meghalaya have their own unique customs and rituals which have transcended over time and space. Though a considerable portion of the distinctive traditional practices have eroded with time specially after the coming of Christianity in the hills but nonetheless it has to be admitted that just like the amazing natural beauty of the land, the Garos are rich in their distinctive tradition which makes them stand tall among the tribes of the North East India.

Notes and References:
Tribal Institutions of Meghalaya, Edited by S.K Chattopadhyay, Spectrum Publication, 1985
The History and Culture of the Khasi People, Dr Hamlet Bareh, Spectrum Publication, Guwahati, 1997
Readings in History and Culture of the Garos: Essays in Honour of Milton S Sangma, Edited by Mignonette Momin, Regency Publication, New Delhi, 2003
History and Culture of the Garos, Milton S.Sangma, Books Today, New Delhi, 1981
Social Institutions Among the Khasis with Special Reference to Kingship, Marriage, Family life and Divorce, Mrs Helen Giri, from Tribal Institutions of Meghalaya, Edited by S.K Chattopadhyay, Spectrum Publication, 1985
Marriage among the Jaintia Tribe of Meghalaya by P Passah, from Tribal Institutions of Meghalaya, Edited by S.K Chattopadhyay, Spectrum Publication, 1985.
Garo Music and Musical Instruments: Socio Cultural Implications by Iris Watre Thomas, Readings in History and Culture of the Garos: Essays in Honour of Milton S Sangma, Edited by Mignonette Momin, Regency Publication, New Delhi, 2003

Dr. Moushumi Dey: Presently an Administrator of Women’s College (Higher Secondary) Shillong. Has been a Radio Jockey in All India Radio and a News Reader and Moderator of Doordarshan Shillong for over 25 years. Also the Co-Convener of Indian National Trust of Art and Cultural Heritage INTACH, Meghalaya Chapter.