Rabhas, struggling to preserve their identity

Posted by Kaahon Desk On October 2, 2017

A number of groups, who speaks a more or less common dialect or language and share a common mythical history, are grouped under a generic term called the “Kachari”. Many scholars regarded the Kachari as aborigines, or the earliest known inhabitants of the Brahmaputra valley which included the whole of modern Assam, North Bengal and parts of Bangladesh. The Kacharis ruled the whole of Assam up to the 12thcentury A.D. and moved to the western part of the Brahmaputra valley to escape from the Ahom exploitations. Later, as time passed by, they got distributed over a larger area. Eighteen groups of people, who speak Bodo language, can be found, such as Bodo, Dimasa, Lalung, Madani, Mech, Rabha, Saraniya, Hojai, Garo, Rajbanshi or Koch, Chutiya, Moran, Hajong, Tippera, Mahalia, Dhimal, Solaimiya, Phulgariya. Being Indo-Mongloid, the Rabhas are concentrated mainly in the southern banks of the Brahmaputra River. The Rabhas are mostly found in the undivided districts of Goalpara, Kamrup and Darrang parts of Assam, Meghalaya, Manipur, West Bengal, Bangladesh and Nepal.

The term Rabha has been thought to originate from the term Raba, which means ‘to bring’. The Rabha mythology says that the Rabhas were brought from Rankrang (the Heaven) by their supreme God Rishi Bai and he gave the Rabhas all the fertile lands on the earth and was advised by him to settle there and plough the lands to cultivate their food. Lord Rishi’s daughter Rhuntuk is believed to have taught them all the details of their domestic life such as the art of winemaking, the art of spinning of thread, weaving, cloth designing and the art of cooking.

Rabhas are animists. To them, they have their spirits and deities, some of them are benevolent and some are harmful. Diseases and natural calamities are believed by the Rabhas to be the manifestations of their activities. They invoke these deities to be cured and to appease them, even blood sacrifices of animals is very common. Rabhas are excellent agriculturalists, weavers, herbal hermeneutics and many more. In short, they are completely dependent on the forests and the abiding valley land for their survival. Be it their history, their society or their knowledge of the botany for medicinal purposes, is a lesson to be learnt for the modern men. When they extract forest produce for their survival, or they sacrifice animals for their magico-religious beliefs, they respect their nature like anything, and that makes their approach sustainable.

Home brewed rice beer is a must in the items of diet of the Rabhas. The Rabhas think, that this indigenous technology has been transferred to them by their divine Rishi. This brewing makes them to survive amidst extreme cold and hunger, while they strive in the forests as primitive aboriginal people. As time passed by, this local wine turned out to be a curse for them than a boon. Rabha men and women as a group became addicted to this intoxication which stretched them towards even extinction. This was the pathway, according to many scholars, when the non tribal religions like Christianity and Hinduism even Islam entered their belief system, which through a kind of moral policing and through the concept of ‘sin’ forced them to get rid of their drinking habits and get introduced to a modern disciplined civic life. Some scholars are also of the view that this trend is also the cause for which a homogenization of culture and ethnicity wiped out many ethnic characteristics of the Rabha Tribe.

The Rabha community is politically and socioeconomically suppressed and is perhaps considered to be the most backward tribal group in North Bengal as well as North-East India lacking proper socio-economic development as well as proper representation. In the recent years Rabhas have gained education through missionaries but have probably moved away from their indigenous culture and beliefs. But in some pockets of North Bengal Rabhas are still trying to preserve their traditional ways of life. It is a struggle to maintain the age-old practices of their forefathers without turning away from the fruits of modernity.

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