Koch and Rajbongshi: Confusion or fusion

Anuj Choudhury

Recently there has been a lot of confusion regarding the usage of the term ‘Koch’ and ‘Rajbongshi’. People have raised questions on the validity of the usage of the term Koch and Rajbongshi together. Such question has mainly been raised in Assam and Meghalaya where Koch and Rajbongshi is used interchangeably and even used together as ‘Koch-Rajbongshi’.

The Koches of India are presently inhabitants of states- West Bengal, Assam, Meghalaya and Bihar. In West Bengal and Bihar they the community is mainly referred as ‘Rajbongshi’, in Assam as ‘Rajbongshi’, ‘Koch’ and ‘Koch-Rajbongshi’ and in Meghalaya as ‘Koch’. Even though the community is referred as ‘Koch’, ‘Rajbongshi’ and ‘Koch-Rajbongshi’ in different states, but the origin of the community is one i.e, KOCH. The Koches are said to be of Mongoloid race, who were early immigrants from the Tibbetian region.

Now a question may arise, why are the Koches referred to as Rajbongshis then?
The ‘Rajbongshi’ term was first used instead of Koch mainly in the later-half of 1800’s. Such developments mainly took place in Bengal region when the Koch people came in contact with the Caste Hindu Society. The reason behind such a move was that the so called ‘Bengali Bhadraloks’(Upper Caste) considered the Koches to be of Lower Caste. The Koches belonging to a royal and princely linage could not accept themselves being placed lowest in the Hindu Caste system by the Bengali Bhadaloks. Thus, a process of Sanskritization began among the Koches to find a respectable place in the Hindu hierarchical social order. The term Rajbongshi came to be used more fluidly instead of Koch to show direct linkage with the princely class (Rajbongshi- Rajar Bongsho). Also, the original term Koch passed through more 3 distinct identities in different censuses in North Bengal- Rajbongshi to Bratya Kshatriya (1891), Bratya Kshatriya to Kshatriya Rajbongshi (1911, 1921) and Kshatriya Rajbongshi to only Kshatriya (1931).

The process of sanskritization by the Koches reached its peak under the Kshatriyazation Movement led by Panchanan Barma(1866-1935) in Bengal. The objective of the movement was to prove the Rajbanshis were Kshatriyas with a royal lineage and not Sudras as regarded by the Bengali Bhadraloks. In support of this claim the movement involved a ceremonial kshatriyaization process – brahminical rituals were performed to convert thousands of Rajbanshis to ‘Kshatriya Rajbanshi’ in the villages of North Bengal. Panchanan Barma’s movement was so influential in Bengal that the usage of the original term Koch almost vanished from the region.

However, where the process of sanskritization was not so strong among the Koches, the term Rajbongshi or Kshatriya-Rajbongshi did not replace the original term Koch. In Assam (from Barpeta onwards to Upper Assam) and Meghalaya the term Koch is still in usage. Interesting, the surname Rajbongshi is found in those areas, where this community identity themselves as Koch. Thus, the Koch and Rajbngshi are not two different communities but they are same. ‘Koch’ or ‘Rajbongshi’ or ‘Koch-Rajbongshi is used to indicate people from the same community.

Recently, in 2011 in a case between Hem Chandra Borah v. State of Assam a similar concern was raised by the National Commission for Backward Classes (NCBC). There was confusion regarding which term to use – ‘Koch’ or ‘Rajbongshi’ or ‘Koch-Rajbongshi for the community in Assam. The Government of Assam in a letter to NCBC replied that the tem “Koch-Rajbonshi” should be used for the community, which is now a constitutionally recognised term.

(The witter is presently pursuing MA in Social Work at ‘Dalit and Tribal Studies and Action Center for Social Justice and Governance’, Tata Institute of Social Science, Mumbai. He can be reached at : anuj@srd.tiss.edu)

*(Sanskritization is a particular form of social change found in India. It denotes the process by which castes placed lower in the caste hierarchy seek upward mobility by emulating the rituals and practices of the upper or dominant castes).

The Wali who bailed CilaRai from prison

Syed Miraz Ahmed

Events in history influence the mental scape of the inhabitants of a place for generations and even become reasons for an admixture of love and hatred. In medieval Assam several stages of inner and outer conflicts has given rise to a number of identities with each essaying and reporting events and prejudices apparent from their vantage points. Though instances of subjectivity and exaggeration cannot be altogether ruled out, biographical leniency towards the royalty or an ideologue surfaces off and on.

From the earliest of times Assam acted as a cauldron for a number of belief systems and with the progression of time absorbed the changes once subtle eventually into a noticeable magnitude. Cultural criss crossings apart rampant inter community marriages have build up a population separated and distinguishable only by belief systems. In short the gene pool is quite mixed up then otherwise comprehended.

AD 1540: Malla Deb the eldest son of the brave Hinduised Koch King Biswa Singh assumed the name of NarNarayan and took over as King of the Koch Kingdom which constituted western portions of the Kingdom of Kamrupa comprising the Brahmaputra Valley, parts of North Bengal and present day Bangladesh and portions of presentday South Assam. His brother Sukladhwaj known to history as CilaRai the Brave was appointed the Commander-in-Chief.

Meantime in Mughal India, Emperor Akbar (AD 1556-1605) ruled his expanding empire from Delhi while Bengal (East and West) and Orissa were under the last of the Kararani Afghan brothers; Sulaiman Karrani – a Mughal vassal who served as the Governor (Nawab of Bengal) from AD 1563-1572 and was reputed as the King (Sultan) of Gaur. His upleap was becoming a grave matter of concern for Emperor Akbar.

Gaur also termed as Gauda – the medieval name of Bengal is the ruined city in the Malda District of presentday West Bengal on the west bank of the River Ganges 40 kilometres downstream from Rajmahal. Gaur lies on the Eastern Bank of the rivers Bhagirathi and Pagla. Sulaiman Kararani during his reign programmed to expand his territory towards the neighboring Koch Kingdom of NarNarayan more than once.

In a village near Rampur of the Koch Kingdom lived a few Brahmans (men of priestly Hindu class). Once while meditating they learnt of the presence of another Brahman in the forest when they proceeded en masse to welcome him to the village. The cordial reception of the Brahman into the village was termed in the vernacular as ‘Bamun bori ona’ and thenceforth the name of the village Bamun Bori. Historian Rofiul Hussain Baruah in his book Historical Background of Assam’s Significant Followers of Islâm has recorded this examplerary event which escaped mention in the Koch Chronicles and the later recorded histories of Assam that followed suit. The Brahman who took to live in Bamun Bori eventually became popular as a Wali (friend and helper). Named Syed Yar Muhammad Ansari he bore Caucasoidal features and is identified as a native of Baghdad by Rofiul Hussain Baruah in his book.

Sir Edward Albert Gait in his widely read A History of Assam made good with available facts when it came to describe CilaRai’s imprisonment and release by Sulaiman Kararani. According to Gait’s collected version CilaRai gained the favor of Sulaiman Kararani’s wife, eventually obtained his freedom and returned home. It is very much debateable a fact in history as to the kind of agreement that led to such an outcome and cannot be brushed aside as a minor oversight.

According to Guptajit Pathak in Assam’s History and its Graphics CilaRai obtained the favor of the Nawab of Gauda by curing the latters mother from snake bite. It is also written into history that the Nawab even gave his daughter in marriage to CilaRai alongwith the Parganas of Bhitarb, and Bahirband, Gayabari, Sherpur and Dasakaunia.

Sulaiman Kararani undoubtedly proved mightier than CilaRai the Barve capturing him back when he resorted to flee the battlefield. Sulaiman in about AD 1568 advanced to annex portions of the Koch Kingdom and circumvented its Capital when news of rebellion from Orissa forced him to stop beleaguering. He rushed to Orissa imprisoning CilaRai at Gaur. On returning Sulaiman learnt that his mother was bitten by a snake. CilaRai on getting wind of it from Sulaiman’s wife assured the revival from snake bite if Syed Yar Muhammad Ansari of Bamun Bori could be summoned from the Koch Kingdom – a fact disappearing in prevalent history.

According to Rofiul Hussain Baruah on an advice from CilaRai Sulaiman Kararani sent for Syed Yar Muhammad Ansari who actually healed Sulaiman’s mother. As agreedupon CilaRai was freed from prison and soon after his return to his homeland, King and elder brother NarNarayan granted 100 Bighas (40.05 acres) of la khiraj land (free from Government rent and public taxes) to Syed Yar Muhammad Ansari.

Sulaiman feared an impending confontration with the mighty Mughal Emperor Akbar but much before he decided to release CilaRai as a dire diplomatic need of having the Koch Kings as ally, CilaRai through the services of Syed Yar Muhammad Ansari earned his release. Protagonist Syed Yar Muhammad Ansari was not written into the Koch Chronicles and instead CilaRai was further portrayed the hero he was with another major achievement up his sleeves.

The 100 bighas of la khiraj land granted to Syed Yar Muhammad Ansari is in the possession of his descendants who sprang forth form the natives. The inhabitants of the Koch Kingdom were very inclined to Ansari’s way of life and a good number of them realised themselves in Islâm. Ansari lies buried in the compound of a Mosque built by him at Bamun Bori. The four stone pillars erected by King NarNarayan still stands firm as testimony to time and history. The Copper Plate Inscriptions however were stolen much later and the thief reported to have attempted to cross the River Brahmaputra with it, drowned and died. Ansari’s way of life influnced the people he lived among. With time the tenets of Islâm gradually spread under the successive tutorial governance of his descendants and contributes to the native bulk of today’s Moslem population in the Northern and Southern Banks of the River Brahmaputra.

Unpublised written accords of Syed Yar Muhammad Ansari are in the custody of his great-great-grandsons. NarNarayan made a number of grants which are summarised in history but surprisingly the incident that led to the allowance of a land grant to Syed Yar Muhammad Ansari escaped mention even figuratively. A jubiliant NarNarayan found it just too befitting to reward and retain the person who played the most vital role in his brother’s ultimate release beacause CilaRai was most indispensable to NarNarayan for the expansion and military strength of the growing Koch Kingdom.

Rampur Bamun Bori even today retains its former name and is situated about 10 kms from Mukalmua in the Nalbari District of modern Assam.

(Syed Miraz Ahmed is one of the great-great-grandsons of Syed Yar Muhammad Ansari and lives in Guwahati. This article was published in the bilingual Luit to Thames Volume XIII: Issue XIII 2012 edited by Dr. Karuna Sagar Das and published by Smt. Arundhati Das, West Midlands, U.K. CKRSD  thanks Mr. Ahmed for giving permission to republish the article in CKRSD’s website. The writer can be reached at syedmirazahmed@gmail.com)

My mother tongue is not Gaolia

  • Anuj Choudhury

Just the other day I met a guy on the train. As he sat just next to me, I introduced myself and so did he. We started our initial conversation in Assamese. Through our conversation I came to know that he too was a Koch-Rajbangshi. To this, I shifted by dialect of conversation to our mother tongue- Kamatapuri or Rajbangshi (whatever you may call it). To my changed dialect the guy replied ‘aapuni pura gaolia kotha koi dekhun’ (You speak completely rural tongue). I was not surprised to hear this, as many times the ‘gaolia’ (‘rural tongue’ mostly referred as the language of uneducated people) word is used as synonyms to Kamatapuri or Rajbangshi language. But this time it made me think real hard why one would call one’s own mother-tongue as ‘gaolia’.

Today the word gaolia has become a popular synonym for Kamatapuri or Rajbangshi language especially in Assam. But has anybody ever tried to question why our dialect is called ‘gaolia’? If Kamatapuri or Rajbangshi language is ‘gaolia’ language than which language is ‘townia’? For the majority, who has been blind to this language-politics would definitely say the so called ‘Assamese’ language as ‘townia’.
Yes, there is no doubt that language-politics have been very well played by some of the mainstream communities of Assam to suppress other communities. Language is the pillar of a community. Culture, lifestyle, food habits, dress, religion, etc comes later. If a community has no well established language than the very whole foundation of a community’s identity is shaken. And this suppression of one’s language has been very well understood and practised by some of the mainstream communities in Assam. Domination and suppression of languages have been an ongoing project for a long time by one community over another, mainly by some mainstream communities. This mainstream community or these economically rich class who handles the ‘production of knowledge’ had produced so much of grand narratives through literature, media, verbal and non-verbal communication, etc over the years that communities who has not been a part of this knowledge production has been submerged and blinded to accept whatever the mainstream ‘Assamese’ produced as true. Thus, a man calling his own mother-tongue as ‘gaolia’ is a classic example to this.

Also, the most surprising thing is that a language which used to be language of the great Koch kings who had their influence over Assam and ruled the territory for several centuries, how can the Kamatapuri or Rajbangshi language be a ‘gaolia’ language?
Terming Kamatapuri or Rajbongshi language as ‘gaolia’ is terming someone’s language as inferior. Who has the right to decide whose language is superior or inferior? Terming one’s language as ‘gaolia’ is a humiliation to a particular community. This is a very clever politics played by the mainstream class to assimilate other communities to theirs by showing other communities as inferior and their mainstream community as superior so that there is an upward movement by the inferior language speaking groups towards the superior language speaking groups. This is also the prime reason why today many Koch-Rajbangshi people try to hide their identity and call themselves as ‘Assamese’.
However, this strategy of ‘Assaminization’ by the mainstream Assamese is starting to fail because it’s very foundation build on false premises. Spread of education and the so-called inferior communities trying to produce their own set of knowledge and unveiling their own history which is in contrary to the earlier ‘Assamese knowledge’ is loosening the ‘Assamese’ knot now. Also, more and more ethnic communities disagreeing to the false notion of ‘Assamese’ and demanding their own reorganization of language in the 8th Schedule of the Indian Construction is indeed a revolution in itself today.

(The witter is presently pursuing MA in Social Work at ‘Dalit and Tribal Studies and Action Center for Social Justice and Governance’, Tata Institute of Social Science, Mumbai. He can be reached at : anuj@srd.tiss.edu)


By Capt. Nalini Ranjan Ray

Are we all aware of the fact that Koch empire had actually unified whole of north east with India during sixteenth century?  Are we all aware of the fact that Koch Behar empire never allowed foreign powers to rule north-eastern part of India absolutely?   Are we all aware of the fact that Rajbanshi communities are original Indians ? Are we all aware of the fact that Cooch Behar should have been given the status of No.1 State after independence?  Read Full Story

Chilarai Kebol Itihaxar Adhyai Nohoy

On Chilarai’s birth anniversary, Arup Jyoti Das writes about the Koch legend with a completely different perspective. Rather than emphasizing on his wars and battles, Das has talked about Chilarai’s capability of conquering people’s heart rather than territories. The article shows how Koch Rajbanshi had emerged from an ethnic based identity to nation during the time of Chilarai, as well as importance of knowing Chilarai in the present time. Click Chilarai kebol Itihaxar adhyai nohoy to read the article