By - Tengsrang A Marak & Madhusudan JV
The institution of youth dormitory has been traditionally one of the most important social institutions among the tribal people. Youth dormitory is a place where boys, usually those who have entered into adolescence become members mandatorily. According to Julius Marak (2000), The Nokpante of Garos is also such type of an institution which is the centre of traditional life. The Garos form the major tribal population in the Garo Hills Region of the State of Meghalaya. The Nokpante is a bachelor’s dormitory constructed by the Garos at the courtyard of the village head or at the heart of the village. The word “Nokpante” literally means the house of the unmarried young men. Here, the Garo boys acquire knowledge in the fields of art, crafts, wood carving and basketry, music, culture, physical fitness, medicine, agriculture, defence, sports, moral standard and etiquettes which are propagated by the village elders. It also provides a community life of the youths and inculcates strong sense of unity, discipline and corporate life. Nokpante acts as an institution for acquiring and imparting knowledge through oral tradition.
The Nokpante resident youths are to learn and adapt the rules and discipline of the nokpante. Nokpante in a village is constructed through joint cooperative labours of married and unmarried young men of the village. Depending on the population in the village, Nokpante is constructed separately for each clan. In the bachelor’s dormitory of Marak clan (chatchi) only marak bachelors can sleep and learn the art, while it is the same for the clan Sangma, Arengh, Shira and Momin.
Nokpante Nokdonggaa (Inauguration)
On the very first day of completion of constructing Nokpante, Nokpante Nokdonggaa is performed. Nokpante Nokdonggaa is a ceremony where the bachelors are ready to move in to a new bachelors’ house. The first day of inauguration itself it becomes an introduction of rituals performed by the Kamal (teacher/priest), by the unmarried young men and by the elderly male villagers. The Kamal at this ceremony takes the opportunity to teach the bachelors as he chants out sacrificial songs over the burning incense at the altar in the nokpante. The Kamal chants out doroa (ordinances) on the native rhythmic beat of drums singing on the origin of nokpante. The Kamal inculcates how nokpante started since the era of the Demi-Gods. This ceremony becomes as a seminar where Kamal gives lectures and bachelors act as disciples inside the nokpante.
Nokpante and Semiotics
The basic historical background the bachelors need to know are the totems carved on the posts and pillars of Nokpante. It becomes important for every bachelor to know because as they build Nokpante, they carve the pictures of the stories they have seen in the past of their lives. It acts as an observation, experimental and participatory education system. The important part of the totem in Nokpante is Do.kaku. Do.kaku is carved on a pillar that connects the roof above the entrance which signifies the ‘beginning and salvaging’ of what has been practised in the past shall be redone and remembered through totems and cultural preservation. Do.kaku consists of the symbols of diamonds (miksep) which signifies ‘keeper and the holy eye’, shield (sepi) which signifies ‘protection’, Closed gongs (rang kingkipa) which signifies ‘property’ and Necklace with a precious stone (Ripok dokatchi) that signifies ‘beauty and high status’. These symbols act as the signs to inculcate the bachelors of their origin and the need to preserve their culture through visual communication or traditional media.
Other totems on the woods inside the Nokpante are made for judgment and oath taking. The cause and effect of the crime can be known after having taken the oaths by touching the totems if a person is really saying the truth or lying. The totems consist of the sun, moon, star and all the wild animals and insects that are liable to hurt human beings. Animals and insects like elephant, tiger, alligator, snake, Goral, scorpion, centipede etc, are engraved on the posts. Nokpante at the same time acts as the court for judgement for them. Sun, moon and star refer to as witness and proof both for truth and lie. With fear of these animals groom the bachelors to live a truthful and peaceful life inside the Nokpante and in the society in future.
Education system in Nokpante
The first and foremost practice the bachelors need to do in nokpante is to keep the traditional kitchen, the indoors and surroundings clean. The bachelors are also taught to be well-behaved, show respect and learn the social etiquette they need to show in front of elders and women. Members in the nokpante are led by the eldest bachelor, a leader selected among them to guide the younger bachelors. He makes sure that other bachelors learn and grasp the knowledge in a right way. Boys in the nokpante learn about epic stories, myths, legends, Gods, origin, migration from the elders told by way of reciting poems, ordinances, chanting, mourning and mostly singing. They mostly learn all these through singing, merry making, sharing stories and their experiences during recreation hours after going through a hard labour of the day. The Garo bachelors and other elders mostly pay attention on the knowledge of ritualism. Their practice in nokpante becomes ritual and it gets propagated to the younger generations. Bachelors in Nokpante learn to grasp the information without any attempt to test its validity by argument. The bachelors learn from each other through conversation, songs, dialogues, etc,. It acts as a casual institution of knowledge where nature motivates to groom them through their observation and act of participation.
Today, the Nokpante system is almost dead. There are very few unproductive Nokpante structures still to be seen. Time has relegated it to the background. Modernisation (as in modern education) and Christianity have impacted the Nokpante system. In Garo hills, in 1857 after the British territorialisation and influence of Christianity the villagers themselves destroyed artefacts, musical instruments, metals and structures including nokpante. There are few nokpante preserved and reconstructed in few villages. The nokpante from the year 1800 is still being preserved in Eman A’sakgre, South Garo Hills. Chidaogre village still preserves its old nokpante but abandoned without any renovation. The transmission of oral literature, recitation of sacred texts and texts in performances are like a syllabii in Nokpante where each and every individual besides learning other things can also specialize their own interests through oral tradition and observations. However, construction of Nokpante and the institution itself in villages is now rare in today’s digitized era which once acted as an important oral educational institution.
Songs and Texts
When Garo bachelors, elders and women speak, their conversations and dialogues are in a form of songs and ordinances. The texts are orally executed since there has never been a culture of writing a record in the ancient Garo society. The verbal communication existed since time immemorial where a language itself acts as a song. These are regularly practised inside the nokpante where daily life’s event is sung for the other persons and the other persons reply back in a form of ordinances and other folk form of singing of the Garos such as Doroa, gonda, serinjing, ajea, ahom ring’a, dani doka, ajema ring’a, gogae doka, nanggorere ring’a, harara and many more.
Bachelors, as stated earlier, acquired the sacred rituals and techniques from the village elders in Nokpante. Every action of human and nature are converted into a form of songs inside nokpante. Mistakes committed by the boys are corrected by elders and lines are added to the mistaken line. During few festive occasions the Kamal (priest) recites and sings the history of every living being, nonliving being, origin of mankind etc, for a week long days as they drink and make merry. These are not just festivities but a time to grasp every words and tunes which needed to be carried forward for the upcoming generation. These occasions for gathering knowledge and bachelors listening with an educated ear can become a difficult task as there are beating of drums and gongs being played inside the nokpante. The bachelors strictly follow their own responsibility in completing the characteristics of the institution.
Today, there is a grave risk that much indigenous knowledge is being lost and, along with it, valuable knowledge about ways of living sustainably. This module illustrates ways that indigenous knowledge may be integrated into education and thereby, brings the benefits of helping to ‘sustain’ indigenous knowledge and societies to all. It also encourages teachers and students to gain enhanced respect for local culture, its wisdom and its ethics, and provides ways of teaching and learning locally relevant knowledge and skills. Hence, there is a need to study the indigenous knowledge of tribal people like that of Garos. This knowledge needs to be captured and preserved.
The bachelor dormitory practice among the Garo, emerges at the outset is the centrality of the nokpante institution in the settlements of the community. Another point that became explicit in the linkages of the institution of nokpante with the family organization, marriage system. Concept of manhood and chastity, institutional enabling of parental privacy, mobilizing of youth labour, juvenile socialization and imitation to community polity and so on. Most of the studies on the variety of dormitory practices with or without gender exclusiveness prevailing among the different tribes in India clearly show that the nokpante system also was primarily an arrangement to ensure privacy for the cohabitation of husbands and wives.
The nokpante functions as if it is a club, a place of juvenile happiness, a non-formal school, a training center, and so on for the making of unmarried man to a mature community member. It enables them to get to know how to protect the community by learning the ways of defence against animal raids and enemy attacks, teaches them how to be useful for the community through co-operative labour, enables to know the community rituals and rites and also how to participate in them, provides an avenue to be community conscious and corporate in their feeling and actions thus making them responsible to the community. The nokpante is also function as a common shelter of the community, serving a variety of public purposes like community’s guesthouse, space for convening meetings and conducting political deliberations, and after all a site for community entertainment and amusements. All these features make it obvious that the existence of the nokpante amongst Garos is not accidental. To conclude, nokpante is still a pivotal institution entrenched in the community culture of the Garos.
Julius Marak: Garo Customary Laws and Practices. Akansha Publishing House, New Delhi (2000).
(Sri Madhusudan JV, one of the authors of this article, is serving as Assistant Professor in the Department of Education of North-Eastern Hill University, Tura-794002) and his Co-author Mr. Tengsrang A Marak is a Research Scholar in the Department of Education under the same university)