The Future’s in the Past: The Koches and the Worship of Hira Devi

Anuj Choudhury

hira devi
Idol of Hira Devi in the form Kali..Photo: Anuj Choudhury

The Koches are generally theist of pluralist deities. They worship nature with profound devotion. Their deities are known as wai (God or Goddess) according to their Koch language. Religion and belief system of the Koches can be broadly divided into two categories- one form which encourages ‘growth’ of positive elements and the other form which reflects ‘restriction’ of negative elements from the society. In the prior we see religious practices like Hudum, Ranthok, Madam Kam, Kartika, etc which essentially celebrate fertility cult and in the latter we see worship of demigods like Desphura, Raja Thakur, Walk Rabai (Bishohori Devi in Kamatapuri/Koch Deshi), Mashan, etc which are basically worshipped for the wellbeing of community members and protection from any harm or misfortune. Hindus see the belief system of these Mongoloid tribes as continuity with their own ancient pre-Hindu worship in the form of Shaivism and Shaktism. Worship of Hira Devi basically falls under the second category of religious beliefs among the Koches.

Hira Devi is one of the most important deity amongst the plethora of deities worshipped by the Koches and can be found in every Koch household. One can also get a glimpse and seek blessing of the Koch Goddesses at the famous Charantala Temple in Meghalaya. This temple located in the interiors of the state, is one of the most visited religious sites in North East India today. The temple is located at Babedpara village in Selsella block, about 55 kms from Tura in West Garo Hills and about 30 kms from Hatsingimari, district-headquarter of South Salmara Mankachar district, Assam. According to local history, the temple dates back to 1965 when there was a major outbreak of cholera disease. According to folklore, a nearby village which had lost 17 people to the epidemic and another neighbouring village had the same kind of losses, a Goddess is said to have appeared in a dream to one woman wherein she called upon the villagers to venture the Goddess which she would wipe out the suffering. After the end of the outbreak, the women created a small temple in her honour and offered prayers. This spread far and wide leading to a huge number of devotees queuing up to offer prayers. Thus over the years the temple has become an important pilgrimage for not only the Koches but thousands of Hindu devotees around the world.

At the Charantala temple one can see a plethora of deities- Hira Devi, Hawa Devi (Walk Rabai), Chitala and Kali. Also, other than these deities a sculpture of a Koch Man and Women in their traditional attire also finds a place inside the temple premises. The most striking feature among these deities is the portrayal of Hira Devi itself. It is surprising to see how Hira Devi, wife of Hariya Mandal and mother of Koch King Biswa Singha, the founder of 16th century Koch kingdom, has been portrayed by the Koch tribals and worshipped with immense devotion. The image of Hira Devi resembles that of Khorlo Dechok in Vajrayana Buddhism and that of Kali in Hinduism, naked and consuming her own flesh.  This may be in relation to the popular mythological belief among the Koches that Lord Shiva, in guise of Hariya Mandal had one day sexual intercourse with Hira, and in due course she gave birth to Bisu (Biswa Singha), giving the king a divine origin. As, Hira Devi is considered to be wife of Shiva, this may be the reason that Hira Devi is imagined as manifestation of Kali, Shiva’s ‘other wife’. However, the reason why she is portrayed as consuming her own flesh is still unknown, but the rationale might be that, as she has the power to protect and even take away lives, the creator must have visualized that instead of taking lives of others, she should take her own life.

A three day grand ritual at the Charantala temple takes place on Tuesday, sometime in the month of April every year. It attracts over 10-15 lakh devotees from the length and breadth of the country every year. Devotees from as far as Rajasthan, Uttar Pradesh, Bihar, Nepal and Bangladesh flock to the remote Koch village of Babedpara in the month of April to worship the Goddesses. Devotees basically offer sacrifices of animals and birds to please the Goddesses, the belief being sacrificing a life to protect another (human) life. Devotees also stay in make-shift tents, staying awake at night to make their offerings. The holy site also gets festive with the fair (mela) alongside, which is another attraction in itelf.

As Meghalaya being a Christian dominated state, a temple in the interiors of the state has caught the attention of many outsiders.  Huge donations have also poured in for the expansion of the temple. Hindu assimilation in the indigenous religious affairs of the Koch tribes is not new. The professional Brahmin priest has also appeared in the scenario though he has yet to dominate the decay of indigenous deities. The Hindu architectural design of the temple that we see today is not very old, the earlier structure was dismantled and given a facelift in 2016.  The new temple has been designed by an architect from Mumbai and idols have been brought from places as far as Rajasthan.

Thus, what we get to see today, that religious practices observed by the Koches are influenced by two different trends of religious rites and social usages. While some of their observances and festivals have been influenced by the neighbouring Hindu Bengali or the Assamese, others are the reflection of their own traditional beliefs and customs. Even though contact with caste Hindu society brought many religious changes in the Koch community but its influence could not altogether transform the tribal society. In fact the adoption and adaptation of the religious practices influenced by Hinduism can be viewed as an extra addition to the Koches already existing traditional practices.

(Email: anuj@srd.tiss.edu)

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Indigenous allies of the British Raj: The Rajbanshis of North-Bengal

Anuj Choudhury

The history of India has so far remained the exclusive domain of the elites, composed mainly of the Upper Caste. Had the Subalterns penned down their own experience, today the face of India’s history would have be a different one, as the poem expressed above.

What makes poet like Nabadwip Chandra Roy Barma praise the British? If a half-thinking Indian reads this poem, he might get furious on the Rajbanshis. However poem like this is an act of opposition on the ‘great civilization’ that India, over the years has falsely boosted itself to be. In fact, many depressed classes like the Rajbanshis in North-Bengal saw the British Raj as liberators, mainly from the treachery and hegemony of the Upper Caste Hindus.Full Story

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).


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)