Elephants in Ethnicity and Folklore of Rabha tribes of Assam


 Topic: Elephants in Ethnicity and Folklore of Rabha tribes of Assam

 Introductions to the Rabha Community:

Rabhas are among the nine plan tribe and fourteen hill tribes of Assam.1 The Rabhas belong to the Indo-Mongoloid group of people and have similarities with other members of Bodo group such as Garos, Kachari, Mech, Koch, Hajong and others.2 According to Dr. Francis Buchanan- Hamilton, the aspects of socio-religious and material life of the Rabhas have similarities with those of the Pani-Koch. E. Dalton on the other hand, argues that the Rabhas and the Hajongs are the branches of Kachari race and connected with the Garo.3 According to B.H. Hodgson the Rabhas belong to the Great Bodo or Mech ft Pani-Koch and the Rabhas have the same lineage and the latter has their connection with the Garo. 4 A. Playfair also has pointed out some linguistic and cultural similarities between the Rabhas and the Garos. He also remarks that there exists a striking linguistic affinity between the A’Tong language and the Rangdania (Rabha) dialects. This led him to think that, at some point of time they lived in contact with each other. The Rabhas are scattered in the districts of Goalpara, Kamrup, Dhubri, Nalbari, Darrang and Kokrajhar in assam and parts of Garo hills of Meghalaya.6 The Rabhas of West Bengal and Assam generally speak the local Bengali and Assamese dialects. The Rabhas who live in the forest villages have retained their original Rabha dialect to a great extent. The Rabha dialect, as stated by George Abraham Grierson, belongs to Bodo group of languages of Assam-Burmese branch.Though the Mongolian people, the Rabhas, came to northeast India in 2000 BC or so, they were not conscious of their language and literature for a long period of centuries. Their language was found to be in only a few books in the 19th century and early 20th century. The Rabha oral literature can be classified into three major groups- namely (1). Folk songs, (2). Proverbs, riddles, sayings and charms, and (3). Folk-tales. The total population of Rabhas in comparison to the total state population of Assam was 0.63% and 10.31 to the total ST population of Assam according to 1971 census

Rabha Culture:

The Rabha community have a rich, multi-faceted and distinct culture of their own. The agricultural practices, food habit and belief systems of the Rabhas reflect a conglomeration of features from both the Aryan and Mongoloid culture. The Rabha society is matriarchal. The village economy is based on agriculture and both men and women work in the fields. The  women love to wear colorful clothes that they weave themselves and they wear a lot of beads and silver ornaments. The Rabhas celebrate three main festivals and also observe Farkanti in remembrance of the dead kings of their clan. In the various festivals, both men and women sing and dance to the local instruments like the karra, flute and singa. The Rabhas are nonvegetarians and rice is their staple food. They brew a local beer called junga, which is consumed, not only is religious festivals, death, birth and marriage but also on a daily basis. The Rabhas prepare as many as ten different varieties of beer. This is one of the characteristics that distinguish the Rabhas from other tribes of the region.  The traditional economy of the Rabhas in general, is based on agriculture, forest based activities and weaving. In the past, the Rabhas used to practice shifting cultivation. They continued to cultivate the land with Gogo or bill-hook. Later they took up the job of settled cultivation and started cultivation with plough. Besides cultivation, hunting was also an old practice of Rabha people. Weaving was a traditional occupation of the Rabha women.

The Rabhas have a rich tradition of festivals. The festivals or ceremonies can be classified into seasonal and religious. Rabha people traditionally practice a few animistic rituals. However, today they more often follow a faith, which is a blend of some Hindu and a few animistic rituals. There are considerable differences in ritual practices among forest Rabhas who still live in the forest villages and the Rabhas that live in the villages as cultivators. The forest Rabhas follow traditional animistic practices tinged with some rituals of mainstream Hinduism. On the other hand village Rabhas have merged with local Hindus as far as their religious practices are concerned.

The research questions of the Proposed Study:

I) The cultural tradition of the community elder/artist I seek to study and document is specifically related to sub them of Indigenous Knowledge Systems. The main set of research questions central to my proposed project includes i)What is the place of Elephant in folk culture of Rabha society?

ii) How the traditional systems of Rabha to protect elephants?

iii) What are the traditional knowledge of Rabha community about management and catching of elephants?

iv) How the ethno medicinal knowledge help Rabha mahuts to keep their elephants healthy?

 Methodology of the Study:

 The research and documentation methods I seek to follow are no other than the two major methods for folklore and other social science researches, namely, Observation and Interview methods. However, I would like to collect data from both primary and secondary sources. So, I’ll try to follow the method(s) which will be appropriate for the contexts where I will collect my data from. Moreover, as I’m going to work on oral literature, I’ll try to well equip myself with necessary audio-video equipments and other research tools.

Important in the collaborative undertaking between you and the other community:

Elephant training throughout Asia is an ancient tradition and has its roots many millennia ago in Assam. Like the training of any ridden animal such as horses, donkeys and camels, elephant training techniques are entangled in folklore and legend, handed down from generation to generation. Interestingly, in all ridden species, the prevailing view of the recipe for successful human-animal interactions arises from mankind’s historical preference for hierarchical relationships since hunter-gatherer times – a fixed linear hierarchy where rank is maintained by ritualized aggression. In other words, mankind has embraced systems of dominance and submission hierarchies where one individual is made to respect the one above. The tribal population has a well connected system with these animals in Assam. The Rabha tribes, which is scattered along the continuous forest tracks of western Assam in the south bank of the river Brahmaputra bordering Garo hills. They are very close to nature and wildlife of these regions. Traditionally they worship the forest taboos too. Rabha have tradition of sacred groves locally called than. According to Karlsson (2001), British ‘scientific forest’ policy forced some tribal communities (e.g., the Rabha – a tribal community of the Duars area) of Sub- Himalayan Bengal (currently known as West Bengal) to change their aboriginal lifestyle and to stop their practices of shifting cultivation. To protect forests and for the collection of forest products (mainly timber), some tribal people had been used as permanent forest laborers. To accommodate these labors a number of ‘forest villages’ were set up within reserved forests.11The vegetation in this tract is dominated by moist and dry Sal Shorea robusta forests, interspersed with tropical dry deciduous forests. It is also a prime habitat of a critical population of Asian Elephant. Under Goalpara Elephant Reserve dominated by Rabha community, a total of 74 elephants were during the estimation of 2008 while 25 individuals were counted in 1993.12 The Rabhas of this region had been associated to the elephants since pre-colonial time. Traditionally, they were recognized as an expert Mahut and elephant keepers. Their folk knowledge harbor tremendous knowledge about elephant management technique, catching methods and ethno-medicinal aspects. The collaborative efforts of the proposed study will help us to know the basis of elephants in Rabha ethno-culture. It will help to document the folklore, songs and ethno-medicine of elephants used by Rabha community. As the development of global modernization had push the tribal culture and folk-medicines towards a vanishing trend. Moreover, Rabha folk tales and songs also added elephants as a prime subject. Durnig colonial period Rabhas of these regions play a vital role in the Khedda operations to catch elephants. There are several records of using the Rabhas by the Zamindars of Mespara to get access of wild elephants of those regions. 

The tentative monthly work plan (November 2012 to October 2013):

 The tentative monthly work plan of the proposed project for the period of one year  (November2012 to October 2013) is given below

i)November 2012: I’ll meet my community elder/artist and start a detail literature review of the work on the Rabha folklore with special reference to the Mahut culture and traditional community interaction with elephant.

ii) December 2012: I’ll meet my community elder/artist to discuss in detail about the Rabha folk Knowledge on elephant management and herbal medicines, at least five times. Then I’ll study the work on the Rabha folklore till date with special eye on the authenticity of the data analysed in that work, the techniques of collecting data and the tools for data analysis and project writing, the amount of research work already done and left for further research, etc.

iii) January 2013: The preceding same work will continue.

iv) February 2013: I’ll decide the places for fieldwork and start the fieldwork for the proposed project and collect adequate primary and secondary data from different Rabha dominated areas where elephants share a major part of Rabha social life.

v) March 2013: The preceding same work will continue.

vi) May 2013: I’ll take a backup of the collected folklore material and start converting the data into text form if necessary, and categorize the data, so that I can go through it systematically.

vii) June 2013: The analysis of the collected data will continue.

viii) July 2013: The preceding same work will continue.

ix) August 2013: I’ll start documenting the data. I’ll avail myself with necessary suggestions of my community elder/artist.

x) September 2013: The preceding same work will continue.

xi) October 2013: I’ll go through the document several times and send a copy of it to my community elder/artist for his further suggestions. And, several final touches will be made to finalize it.

xii) November 2013: The document will be made ready for submission and scrutinization.

The proposed output and impact of the project including how the documentation can be used in teaching programmes.

Countries with cultural continuity and ancient traditions have a rich legacy of folk science and Traditional Knowledge Systems. The folk material of a community represents its age old rich culture and identity. There should be a collaborative aspect of natural science representing the wide canvas of life forms and their related social issues. It involves the scientific understanding of living beings and their inter-relationship. Human appears to have been a practical biologist, systematizing his knowledge of natural history of different life forms from long before the dawn of the era of history.13 Anjaria (1987) described that at around 3000BC horses, elephants, and other animals were highly regarded and were in good association with man and could be treated with Ayurvedic medicine. This specialized knowledge of treating animals in various diseases is called Ethnoveterinary. Systematic concept of such ethno-veterinary medicine as the dealing with the folk beliefs, Knowledge, skills, methods and practices pertaining to the health care of animal has been defined. The Hastividyarnava written by Sukumar barkayath in 1743 AD and Ashwanidan written by Surjyakhari Daibagya in 1806 BC were the classic vernacular evidence of applied animal knowledge of Ahom period (AD 1228-1826) from Assam.14 Even if we compare the Traditional Knowledge Systems with the modern science, we see that the former knowledge systems can also be very demanding on human mental faculties. Folk knowledge was generated through millennia of hands-on experimentation, observation and trial and error methods, and is more eco-friendly a system of knowledge, in which humans are part of nature, as nature is part of their being. As a result, in this system there is no exploitation of nature but a symbiotic relationship with it. Perhaps they are better preserved in the isolation of the tribal communities. These knowledge systems need to be studied, documented, preserved, and used for the benefit of both humankind and animal life, before they are lost under the onslaught of Western Science and development projects based on them. Especially, for ecofriendly and sustainable development of the nation, these Traditional Knowledge Systems would prove very valuable. The project I’ve proposed to take up will have several outcomes that could be used in teaching programmes. To mention a few, it would help as- a folk material, a reference to the study of folk medicine, particularly, for animals, a way to get introduced to the Rabha folklore etc. besides this the conservation approach of elephants as a endangered animal will take much attention of this study. As far as I know, except in ethnobotany, and tribal cultures of Rabhas, nothing has been done for systematic study folk knowledge about elephant’s management systems of tribal communities of Assam. The above points are based on my individual plan. If there is a guideline of NFSC readily available for the project, I assure to follow it.

Please video record the answers for the following questions in a CD/DVD and send it along with the application:

 1. Describe your project and your scholarly and technical ability to undertake your project.

I have been working as a conservation worker of Assam since last 10 years. My basic academic training is also on environmental science and now I am perusing my PhD studies in Humanities and social sciences. My research topic is a multidisciplinary study on elephant. It’s about their cultural identity, ecological history and conservation. I strongly believe on the conservation of wildlife based on community approach. As our rich tribal culture had a strong link with the outer biological world through its folk culture. The ethnic knowledge of Rabha community on elephant through their folk culture had a wide approach in development of a sturdy management plan and folk material of their rich culture. My proposed work will help to bridge the modern science with traditional folk culture in terms of conservation and management of elephants. As a student of social science with a pure scientific background, it will be easy for me to test both the approach. My ability to work extensively in remote areas with different tribal communities will also enhance the prospect of the study.

2. Why do you think that this project requires the fellowship support?

The proposed project needs extensive field study, tours and interviews of the particular tribal community. The community elder, whom I had selected to collaborate, will help me to retrieve the ethnic knowledge and other folk materials on the subject. As a full time self finance research student of IIT Guwahati, I don’t have any other financial support to carry out the project. The financial support will help both me and my collaborator to work smoothly on the objective. The fellowship will help me to develop a strong study without any constrain. The full time engagement of the community elder through his monthly fellowship will further help the whole study towards a great success.

3. What are the expected output and impact of your project?

The vast traditional knowledge systems of our tribal communities need to be studied, documented, preserved, and used for the benefit of both humankind and animal life. This study aims this primary objective of folklore research. For sustainable development of the nation, these Traditional Knowledge Systems would prove very valuable. The project I’ve proposed to take up will have several outcomes that could be used in teaching programmes. To mention a few, it would help as- a folk material, a reference to the study of folk medicine, particularly, for animals, a way to get introduced to the Rabha folklore etc. besides this the conservation approach of elephants as a endangered animal will take much attention of this study.

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