The Case of Hasha: Why Koches are son of the soil

Jajang Kama Koch

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Photo: KNC

Present day Rajbanshis of Bengal and Koch-Rajbanshis of Assam are originally Koch. This claim can be affirmed through several evidences, scattered throughout the linguistic, cultural and other social practices. As such, requiring a critical evaluation and closer inspection of the documents available.

In the year 1837, Martin had published a report, in which it is written “…in the Sanskrita language of the Tantras, the Koch are called Kuvacha, and by the neighbors they are called Hasa (Martin. Eastern India. Page-538; 1837 Vol-5). This calls attention to the fact that Koch have been addressed as ‘Kuvach’ in Tantras written in Sankrita whereas the local Kacharis have addressed them as ‘Hasha/hasa’.

A similar discourse has been reiterated by another colonial ethnographer named Hodgson. Hodgson  writes, “…They are called Kuvacha in Tantra, just named Hasa by Kacharis or Bodos of Assam, Kamal by the Dhimals, and Koch by the Mech or Bodos of Mechi (Hodgson B.H., Essay First on Koch, Bodo and Dhimal. Page- 145: 1847). Hence, an analogous conclusion can be drawn, that the  Koches  are referred to as Kuvacha or Kuvach in Tantric texts, whereas the Kacharis address them as Hasa. On the other hand,  the Dhimals inhabiting the area around Mechi river call them Kamal, and the Bodos living in the same area  addresses them as Koch.

The Case of Hasha

The word Hasha (ha nifisha) in Bodo language means ‘son of soil’. This can be easily discerned from the following Bodo linguistic pattern; ‘dawnifisa’  is pronounced as  dawsha meaning baby chick, ‘daw’ meaning hen ‘fisha’ meaning child , again ‘boronifisha’  means child of Boro, which is pronounced as borosha, similarly ‘ha nifisha’ pronounced as hasha, means child/son of soil, ‘ha’ referring to land or soil.

A notable phenomenon in this respect is that the Koch, Mech and Tharu  communities have lived together concurrently for a large  period of time. In which case, the usage of the term ‘Hasa’ to refer to a Koch logically points to the fact that the Meches residing in the Mechi valley and the Bodo Kacharis of Assam are not the same. Because the Meches of Mechi river valley use the term Koch whereas the Bodo Kacharis of Assam use Hasa referring the same group of people (ethnic/linguistic group).

Such appellative variations used for Koch by Meches/Bodos of Nepal and Bodos of Assam also

 suggest that the Meches have lived/socialized with the Koches longer than the Bodo communitywho have migrated from Kachar region at a much later point in history, and have thus come to refer the natives or indigenous Koch as ‘hasha’ or son of the soil. Regarding the migration theory of the Bodo Kachari community Dr. Francis Buchanan, had mentioned that:

“… The Kacharis are from a tribe, of which few families are settled in two eastern divisions of this district, and a great many in the lower hills of Bhotan, an in Assam.Indeed, they allege that their prince was sovereign of that country, when it was invited by its present rulers, and he still retains the sovereignty of a considerable extent of hilly country south from Asam, and east from Silhet (Cachar). It is perhaps from his territory that they derive the  name usually given to them, for my informants say that the proper name of the people is Boro.

Although long separated from their prince, and scattered through dominions of more powerfulsovereign, they allege that they still retain their loyalty and every year contribute to give him to support, its family wherever settled, gives from one to five  Rupees. Which are collected by persons regularly deputed from Kachhar the number of families in this district may be about 200.”

The land in which the Bodo community of Assam had later migrated was hitherto inhabited by the native Koch community and likewise referred to as Hasa by the Bodo community. The same land or the geographical area is now claimed by them as their homeland, ‘Bodoland’. While historical evidences reveal the otherwise, that they were merely migrators, in the post-colonial period.

In a pamphlet (or book) titled ‘Why Separate State’ published by All Bodo Students Union (ABSU) referring to the history of Bodo Kachari State and its authenticity, they cited Dr. S.K. Bhuyan stating:

” According to him the kingdom Cachar or which TamrodhwajNarayan was the ruler in the reign of swargodeo Rudrasingha and Govinda Chandra at the time of British occupation is only one of the numerous states brought to existence by political generous of Kachari people. Because the name, after which the district is called at present time the superficial observer is led to suppose that the habitant of Kacharis is ‘Cachar’ and that is only in ‘Cachar’. That the Kacharis experimented in the arduous task of state building”

Oral Perspectives

 Litterateur Raghunath Choudhury confides the same thing “Bodo people call the Koch-Rajbangshis Hasa, Muslim are called Bangal, Bengali as Bengali, Kolita as Kholta, Santhal asSantthal, Bhutanese as Ganga and Nepali as Nefal. They use the word Hasa even in their wedding songs…

Dawgabochoi aaoi dawgabochoi

Jingya dawcchi aaoi jingya dawcchi.

Hasa hobawnoi horawthoi

Gangya hobawnoi horawthoi.

 Translated-

Don’t cry daughter don’t cry

Don’t worry daughter don’t worry

We have not married you to a Hasa (koch-Rajbanshi)

We have not married you to a Bhutanese.

(Ashar Bati Alochona, MareyaDipak Kumar Roy, First year, third edition, May 1999, Shakti Ashram, Kokrajhar page no. 7-8)

Belated Jamini Kumar Barua too has confided that the Rajbangsi are known as Hasa. He has stated “we are the old inhabitants of this region. Previously only Koch-Rajbangsi and Bodo communities were to be found in Kokrajhar. Only after the British invasion other communities started migrating here. When Koch-Rajbanshis and Bodos were present here, the latter referred to them as Hasa… Hasa means son of the soil, we are the indigenous of this region” (Housh Alochona, sixth year first edition, 2016 page- 15).According to British documents, the Assamese  Bodo Kacharis called the Koch as Hasa. Also, the Bodo refer to the present-day Koch Rajbanshis or Rajbanshis, as Hasa. Emphasizing on the fact  that the present day Rajbanshi is a new ethnonym used for the Koch.

There are several references scattered which indicate that the Rajbanshis are Koch. A detailed study can help explain and specify the truth better. The Koch residing along the banks of Mechi river have mostly adopted the Rajbangsi identity. For which Koch are very hard to be found in this region.

(Translated from the original by Noya Koch, The views of the article is of the Author. The writes is a Guwahti based Activist and Researcher)

Sumi Pegu’s dream-like yarn

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Sumi Pegu’s Loom. Photo Credit:author

Rini Barman

Every winter Sumi Pegu, a fifty year old Mising woman runs the single ply yarn into exquisite horizontal patterns. A narrow paddy field in Gohpur’s Mising-gaon (about 230 kms from Guwahati in Sonitpur District, Assam) leads me to her loom. If you walk some kilometres further, you can get a serene view of the hills of Arunachal. The sound of working looms takes over the chirrup of tiny local sparrows looking for some grains to chew. The grain providers, mostly neighbours of Sumi, have to tend to the poultry and pigs regularly. Their children go to the nearby primary schools and have picked up the dominant Assamese tongue fluently—yet, all through the year, there is someone or the other tending the fibres of the loom.

Formerly, Sumi’s children would weave using a back-strap loom (xoru-xaal) which is a dying practise— alive perhaps only among the state’s ethnic groups. They are taught the basics in their Mising language, which mellifluously they use to recall, remember and revive an entire ancestry. “I gave it to my daughter as a plaything, so she could wrap it around her waist. Once the fingers are stronger and the grab steadier, it makes her job easy at the future xaal”, Sumi says. Womenfolk in this village believe that the one who cannot weave among them may bring bad luck. A grandmother herself, Sumi has seen the Ege (lower garment worn from waist to ankle level with a minimum of two-three pleats) go through decades of changes in terms of designs, superstitions and thread quality.

The traditional Mising loom is a wonder made out of bamboo and tree wood—both these raw materials are sacred in a poignant way. When they show signs of wearing out after years of usage, they are not broken down to ignite the kitchen fire. Even the poorest of Mising houses will tell you that. Special care (like placing the loom constituents on top of the dhuasang-clay stove) is taken to drive termites away. “When we spin the yarn, it is considered inauspicious for small boys to cross it. It not only puts the thread at risk but tears off the wheel and we have to redo all over again”, she says before pointing at me.  “You see this hunchback? It is testimony to my dedication towards the most meticulous of designs. I regret I cannot go to the wild now to collect plants that were used to naturally dye our threads. The artificially dyed reels in the market are not to be trusted entirely”, she sulks.

Machines over all else

Over the last six-seven years or so, there has been a massive mechanisation of handloom in this village. The mass entry of mill-made Ege has gradually influenced the aesthetic appeal of fabrics. The signature Mising diamond pattern for instance, is getting indistinct and smaller. The butties, on the other hand are chaotically mixed with tree motifs and they no longer carry artistic finesse. Clothes that are transported to the urban areas with their ubiquitous synthetic assemble reveal these modifications very well. Sumi shares, “I am not competitive by nature, but the generation of my daughters-in-law are, they want to make a few more bucks. I really cannot blame them, as they sincerely manage the fields, household and the loom single-handedly. They hardly get any praise from their spouses”.

As Sumi plays around with the maku (weaver’s shuttle), her granddaughters try to help around the sang ghor.  “In the summers, young girls are seen rowing rice saplings and due to the humidity, weaving takes a backseat somehow. The ideal time begins end autumn, though we weave in every season. These fingers are so accustomed to the loom that they begin to hurt if unused”. Sumi’s grandchildren had inherited textile memories passed through orally retold stories. They tell me that the colours represent nature in the clothes their granny weaves. The geometrical designs come paired with a range of motifs—fish heads, animals, flowers, butterflies, trees, stars and others. “It does not matter whether you are working on zero ply or single ply—if your hands are efficiently experienced, you can ace the motifs. My own grandmother used to weave one Gasor (upper garment) a day, probably the pace is reduced when one has to multitask and has fewer hands to help”, shares Sumi.

The expiry of older designs and motifs is not simply because of the tribeswomen being overburdened with other work, but also due to the soft cultural appropriation by the dominant Assamese elites. It has created a cold war kind of situation over who owns the “authenticity” in this craft. “My Ege do not yet have the “silk mark”, so they probably won’t do very well in the market. But the silk has been reared from scratch by me and the motifs are distinctly Mising”, Sumi complains. Literary thinkers like Nilamani Phukan in his collection of essays (?) had mentioned that tribal motifs like diamond, triangle and square and the configuration of star/fern motifs into dominant Assamese weavers came through years of borrowing. Isn’t it ironic that once any dominant identity labels a particular textile as their own, the ‘other’ stories of the weavers, their ethnic evolution etc, recedes to the background?

Bodices, boundaries and tradition

There are differences in the way married and unmarried women among the Mising community dress up. According to Sumi, “The old ladies at home use Segreg to wrap around their busts. The girls who attained puberty wear finely textured Ku: Pobis to wrap around the body beneath the armpits covering the upper part of the body. Married women on the other hand pull the Ege till their breasts and tie a firm methoni.” Talking to Sumi informed me that when we mention the traditional wear of Assam as a “three piece” mekhala sador, the above mentioned nuances are forever lost. These inadequate translations, in their attempt to ease out meanings for the one outside the region end up causing semiotic damage. The supposed “three piece” of women’s wear has a long folk history.

Among the Koches/ Koch Rajbanshis in Assam, the traditional weave Patani used to be worn in Tin-Tekia format (3 parts/layers–Agran, headgear, Patani). The Riha which is now worn as a sador was initially a breast cloth, it had different types: boroi-loga, gariyali, gunakata etc. It is interesting how diverse forms of breast clothes were replaced by blouses and brassieres and marked as “traditional” “civil” components of attire by the upper caste women. I myself recall one such incident in Jalukbari, when a local fish-seller in her late 30s was donated blouses as she would not cover her breasts. The women were convinced they were doing something very noble and “bhadra” for the seller whom they perceived to be poor. When I asked her few years later, she went on to say how nobody in her native village ever wore blouses. She would tell, “It wasn’t a taboo at all in Belxor, Nalbari district. Even men wouldn’t bother us—be it public or private spaces. When I was nursing my children, it was rather helpful. I still am uncomfortable with blouses.”

Policing and standardising the “three-piece” as the traditional wear had its micro and macro context. Nandana Dutta in Questions of Identity in Assam (2012) makes careful note of one such example in Assam Engineering College in 2007. Speaker Ismail Hussain had made dangerous associations with one’s cultural affiliations and one’s attire. It was reminiscent of Assam Andolan days (1979-1985) when there was tremendous insistence for the females to adopt mekhala sador as daily wear. “It was declared and implemented by self-appointed leaders of protesting groups, especially those carrying out dharnas and strikes or taking part in processions”, Dutta writes. What happened as a result of this is its continued (secret) abuse in spaces like college hostels, primary schools and so on. My aunts who were born in the late 60s recall vividly how ragging sessions in their educational institutes would comprise of whether or not they know how to wrap the mekhala sador with propriety. The tribal students were worst hit as humiliating remarks were made on their preconceived “barbaric” ways of dressing up.

It was during the same time that mekhala sador draping rules (full sleeve red blouses) for female dancers of Bihu (a folk form) were laid out. Gradually, as these folk forms were standardised, they began to represent the dominant Assamese attire in all its rigidity. Around May 2017, this debate fuelled up yet again, when the State Govt employees were urged to wear traditional dress (mekhala sador for women and dhoti kurta for men) on third and first Saturdays every month. Chief Minister Sarbananda Sonowal in the current BJP-led Govt had hoped that such a move might enhance the spirit of regionalism and unity. It was rightly opposed on the grounds of exclusion—as it limited traditional wear of so many ethnicities in the state to the mekhala sador. In the midst of these contentions, what was missing was the life of a handloom weaver. Her weaves become agents of the identity battle, but she is effectively erased from that discourse.

Evil Twins

 Gayatri Das, seller of mekhala sadors at Beltola thinks that the future of handlooms is very bleak. “The common people, who used to weave eons ago, have forsaken the looms for the dream of white collar jobs. The women now have to think economical viability first and foremost. When I was a kid, I remember my mother from Sirajuli would set the loom for two attires simultaneously. Among the final products, one would be hers and the other would be sold at Rs.1000 for example. This sustainable practise is no longer present, not even in rural areas”. Ms Das herself has to convince customers with half-truths about the weaves that they buy as traditional wear. “In my ten years of having met so many female buyers in Guwahati, only three have enquired about the raw materials of their clothing. Rest were in a rush and enamoured by the glittery threads that make up their mekhala-sador sets, which they finally chose”.

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Weaves of the Mising Tribe. Photo Credit:author

The politics of threads and lack of knowledge of the same has created a huge gap among the weavers, sellers and the buyers. While hand-woven cloth may speak of the tedious hours spinning the wheel, the duplicates replace them only because a class of the society choose to make accessories out of them. The craft then recedes to the background for the minute designs of creepers, flowers etc when imprinted with bulkier machine technology fails to create that magical effect. It is important to interrogate why hand-weaving isn’t empowered via local methods and readily replaced by a faster, capitalist mechanism. Rita Barua, an intermediary between the weavers and urban sellers from Gohpur says, “The problem lies in the inequity of distributing income here. As opposed to the popular notion that “middle men” eat up all money, I earn very negligible. To transport crafted goods is a hectic affair, and when floods hit, I alone have a lot to manage. During festivities, the pressure increases, and consequently, the weavers have to readily produce twice the number of sets. It leaves them little time to weave something of their own. Time is money”.

Rita also informs that plenty of things have changed post the notorious GST was imposed on handloom items recently. It might have been uplifted now, but the fears still gnaw weavers from the within. “Though I don’t know of any impactful protest against it in Assam, sellers of traditional items have developed innovative ways to resist. Many have taken down hoardings across the highway, it’s their bread and butter, let’s not forget”. Today, the Govt. showrooms also sell duplicates under the banner “traditional handloom”—it is a sign of major insecurity and shall put an end a very rich culture of weaving one’s identities.

Sumi as Hambreelmai: Will the erased weaver be heard?

From Gohpur’s Mising gaon to state funded art and crafts showrooms in Guwahati, handlooms clearly are a vulnerable industry today. As older motifs and stories about them keep falling from the weaves, one wonders if women like Sumi will be remembered in another decade. The folk memory of the Mishmi tribes of Arunachal Pradesh retells one such story—about their first weaver, Hambreelmai. “Hambreel” is, in Mishmi, a species of little fish, and it is said that the nature around her—butterflies, birds and fishes were so attracted to her weaving that when her loom broke, the broken parts metamorphosed into varied forms of life. Every single day, looms of weavers like Sumi and Hambreelmai are being replaced and wiped away in Gohpur. Some remain glorified in folk tales and legends while most are made to look pretty in glossy magazine covers so that businesses are lured into the region. In the words of Mrs. Pegu, “These photographers, they come and they go. My daughters are now accustomed to posing for them, though we never make the headlines of any local daily. The spinning wheel goes round and round, just the usual”.

(The author is a Guwahati-based researcher and independent writer).