Assamese farmers dot the horizon, harvesting rice crops so they can plant mustard greens as autumn comes to an end. Waves of amber paddy fields sway goodbye to us as we leave Guwahati and the yellow-billed egrets that keep a watchful eye over the land. In the taxi, I’m accompanied by Julie Kagti of Curtain Call Adventures and our local guide, Bibhob Asangma, as we swerve along the curvy roads rounding deep into Meghalaya’s humid hills filled with thickets of lush vegetation. My view morphs into a tangle of sprawling ferns, tall palms, stalks of bamboo, and creeping pepper vines as we enter the district of West Garo Hills, the heartland of the Garo tribes.
The people that inhabit this region were once hunter-warriors of Tibetan-Burmese origin and their lifestyle revolved around cultivation in both the highlands and wetlands of Meghalaya. Traditionally, followers of Songsarek, an animist faith, the majority have turned to Christianity over the past century. However, some traditions have persevered. As Asangma tells us, “Only the religion is different. The Garo customs are the same, and will remain.”
We’re here to witness exactly that. Our car pulls up to the thumping bass of drums harmonising with chants, marking our arrival at the Wangala festival in the village of Tura. The Garo people have also wrapped up their harvest, and the celebrations begin with a ritual to take pause and give thanks to the gods of harvest, enticing them to return again next year with produce from the fields and tangy rice beer.
But to truly understand this relationship between the Garo deities and their people, we must first travel to the dawn of time.
As legend has it, the first Wangala was performed by the river serpent, Sangkni, who is said to still inhabit the lakes of the East Garo Hills. Now that humans have taken charge of the festivities, a field in Rongram hosts the two central pillars of the merrymaking.
A dance competition between 10 clans kicks off the first act of revelry. What’s truly special about these dances is that the movements themselves are based on aspects of daily Garo life, rituals, and even courtship. Booming over a loudspeaker, the moves are dictated as the clans enact them in spectacle. Spectators marvel as the themes change from ‘rejoicing in harvest of citrus fruit’ to ‘sowing of rice plants’ to ‘search for crabs’ and even ‘scaring bad spirits away.’
The latter part of the celebration is the Wangala performance, otherwise known as the Festival of a Hundred Drums, in which all the clans come together for a final grand display. Each clan elder leader is proudly dressed in the tribe’s colours, adorned with a shield and sword, a remnant of their warrior time. He rallies the male and female dancing pairs, their long hair wrapped in plumed headdresses accompanied by metal earrings, in a synchronised dance with the thrum of drums, wooden flutes, and horned trumpets.
Their stamina is astounding, proudly drumming and nimbly dancing the entire day (and then again in the villages well into night). The entire affair is loud, crowded, and chaotic, but it also evokes a calming, temporary displacement from time and place. Sitting there among the crowds of foreigners and locals, we’re witnessing not just a celebration, but a passing on of wisdom. For a culture that existed without a written form, these dances served as transfer of knowledge amongst the community: a treasured art celebrated yearly, rather than yellowed books gathering dust on shelves.
We depart early the next morning (painfully running on what’s dubbed ‘garden time’— the premature sunrise of the hills), travelling deeper into the Ranggira mountain range. Along our journey we see the fauna transition to local crops, such as rice, green beans, cotton, and ginger. The Garo community once relied on jhum, or slash and burn cultivation. Given the tribe’s small population and vast access to land, they would clear areas, plant crops, and then after the harvest shift onto another patch of land, returning to the originals after eight to 10 years. But with the advent of environmental education they have turned to permanent farm plots. Well that, and the rising economic reliance on cash crops, like cashews, pineapples, tea, and rubber.
We pass by the Pelga Dare falls where a bamboo bridge dubbed ‘The Gateway of Tura’ was once the only connecting path the tribes travelling by foot had to the markets. Luckily, we’re travelling by car to the Sadolpara village. The clan here are now local celebrities, winning the Wangala dance three years running, and 26 times in all since 1976.
As we approach the village the occasional calls of gibbons echo from afar. The settlement is made up of intricate, criss-crossed bamboo partition walls bound to the thatched roofs. All the homes we pass rest well above the ground on stilts. The Garo people are among the three matrilineal tribes of Meghalaya, in which the youngest daughter inherits the family property. The patriarch of the village, known as the nakma, or headman, is still very much in charge. We drive deeper into the village, passing a group of men playing carom to bide away the Sunday afternoon.
Garo cuisine has witnessed much change over the years. Although the festival has come to an end, the celebrations continue with feasts in these tribal homes. As hunters, meat is still central to the tribe’s diet, but the days of wild animal hunting (the likes of elephants, deer, and tigers) are behind them. So their diets now mainly comprise chicken, pork, and fish. One of the dishes we’re preparing today is wak brenga, or pork, prepared with a local herb, sam-sweng (meaning ‘smelly’ or ‘pungent’), green chillies, ginger, and salt stuffed into a bamboo pipe with water. Noticeably oil isn’t often used, most dishes are boiled or steamed.
Medicinal herbs are also an important part of the local cuisine as they are added to dishes to help treat ailments like headaches and high blood pressure. For example, an important ingredient in local cooking is kalchi. It is a natural alkali obtained from banana or cotton ash and is typically used in dishes such as do’o kappa, a popular chicken gravy. These meaty dishes are sometimes paired with sides of green beans or eggplant, served with preserved fish and accompanied by minil, sticky rice steamed in banana leaves. Yet during times of celebration rice beer just might be the most important staple—the party will go on for as long as the beer flows. We fill ourselves to our hearts’ content, and depart saying, ‘mithela,’ a much deserved ‘thank you’ to our gracious hosts.
Something I often wrestle with when travelling to tribal communities is a schism in expectations versus reality. What we experienced during our short time there is not representative of their norms of life. The indigenous clothing and ceremonies are largely reserved for special occasions (as with Delhiites and our weddings). The food, customs, and dances of the festival were once the ways tribal elders would teach the rising generation how to live. Today in Tura, they are for preserving the traditional practices of a society transitioning into modernity.
Varud Gupta has gone from being an existentially lost soul, to a culinary vagabond/spy in household kitchens, and now author of 'Bhagwaan Ke Pakwaan' a cookbook-cum-travel narrative through the faiths and foods of India.