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The Dimasa Kacharis of Cachar District: An Overview

Identity

The Dimasa Kachari tribe in Cachar District of Assam is a sub-group of the Dimasa community spread across Assam and Nagaland. According to Bathari (2014:13), ethnically the Dimasas are known to be part of the Bodo group, but in the history of Assam they are mostly referred to as Kachari. The Kacharis belong to the Indo-Mongoloid peoples and the Tibeto-Burmese linguistic family (Choudhury 2006:18). The term ‘Kachari’ is commonly used for the group of ethnic communities that includes Bodo, Rabha, Mech, Koch, Dhimals, Saraniya, Dimasa, Hojai, Lalungs, Garo, Hajong, Hill Tippras, Sutiya and Morans (Endle 1911:5). Believed to be among the earliest inhabitants of North-east India, the Kacharis are spread across North Bengal, Assam and Tripura (Endle 1911:3–4).

 

An early history of Assam by Sir Edward Gait (1963 [1933]) suggests that Cachar district might have got its name from a Sanskrit word meaning a ‘broadening region’ or from the main tribe of the region. He further argues that the Kacharis themselves could not have got their name from Cachar district, as they are known by the same name in many parts of Assam far from Cachar, and were thus known long before they settled there: the earliest known record being ‘in a letter of appointment by Raja Kirti Chandra, dated 1658 Sak (1736 CE), in which “Kacharir Niyam”, or the practices of the Kacharis, is referred to’ (Gait 1963: 299–300).

 

The term ‘Dimasa’ means ‘children of the big river’: in the Dimasa language, ‘di’ means river, ‘ma’ means big and ‘sa’ means children (Guha 1910:52). According to U.C. Guha, here the ‘big river’ indicates river Brahmaputra, but Thaosen suggested that it is the river Dhansiri, and the ‘Dimasa’ refers to the people living on the bank of  the Dhansiri (Thaosen 1962:44). As no early records written by the Kacharis are found, it is very difficult to come to a conclusion about the origin of the term ‘Dimasa’.

 

The Dimasa language is known as ‘Grao-Dima’. There is no official script, but Bengali, Assamese and English scripts are normally used. According to the 2001 census report, the total population of Grao-Dima speaking people is 1,10,957.

 

 

Geographical location

Large Dimasa Kachari settlements are in Dima Hasao, Karbi Anglong, Nowgong and Cachar districts of Assam. A small number of Dimasa people have settled in Nagaland too. The Dimasa Kacharis of Cachar district are known as Barmans.

 

Cachar District is situated in the lower and southern part of Assam. It is situated between 92°15” and 93°15” East and 24°8” and 25°8” North (Bhattacharjee 1977:1), covering an area of 3,786 square kilometres (Srivastava 1910:1116). The lower half of Assam extends southwards through the region of North Cachar Hills and Barak river. Barak is the main river of this region and the valley is named after it. The region is surrounded by North Cachar Hills (Dima Hasao District) and Jaintia Hills (Meghalaya state) on the north. Manipur state is to the east of Cachar, Mizoram state to the south, Tripura state and Sylhet district of Bangladesh to the west (Bhattacharjee 1977:1). Barak Valley consists of three districts, Cachar, Kariganj and Hailakandi.  Silchar, headquarters of Cachar district is the most important social-cultural and economic centre of the region.

 

Key to understanding the region is the way new social relations have emerged with the interaction of different ethnic communities. Bengalis form the largest segment of the population. The regional inhabitants include the Dimasa Kachari, Rajbanshi, Meitei, Bishnupriya, Rangmai Naga, Khasi, Karbi and tea garden tribes. Marwari and Bhojpuri-speaking peoples also live here in fair numbers. According to the 2011 census, Cachar district has a population of 17,36,617, with a growth rate of 20.19%, the sex ratio is 959 and literacy rate is 79.13%.

 

Dimasa villages in Cachar District (Source: Barman 2013)

  • Kumachera area: Kumachera, Dipu, Kalinagar, Jembru North, Jembru South, Mudri/ Putachera, Nagar Basti
  • Dalaichera area: Dalaichera, Sanpur, Thaipunagar, Railung, Dharampur North, Dharampur South, Mashab/Krishnanagar
  • Joypur area: Jaipur North, Jaipur South, Oatiling/Muliura, Langlachera, Laduma North, Laduma South, Laduma Baudai, Gerai/Thailu Basti, Khil North/Salamatpur, Khil South, Egraling/Narainpur, Lodi Kachari, Rajahatai/Rajabajar, Poilapul, Kanakpur, Dighali North, Dighali South, Karaibil I, Karaibil II
  • Khaspur area: Thaligram, Bagerkona, Tikalpar, Shiberband, Noarband, Guabari, Binodpur/Thapa, Ratanpur/Jairap, Madhupur, Chalitachara/Thapa, Endogram/Sanatanbasti
  • Barkhala area: Barband North, Barband South, Dhumkar, Leburband, Ujannagar, Marua, Bijoypur, Chandrapur, Dalu
  • Bikrampur area: Garerbhitar, Balirband I, Balirband II, Naturband, Andorgol, Choto Nunchuri, Baro Nunchuri, Kurkuri, Telichara
  • Kalahaor area: Hadabama, Jainagar, Panchara, Mohanpur, Dhalakhal, Khulichara, Dhanipur I, Dhanipur II
  • Sheorartal area: Bagheyala, Lailapur, Sheorartal North, Sheorartal South, Sheorartal II
  • Ganganagar area: Kanla, Nikama, Darmikhal, Chekercham, Methnathal, Smithnagar
  • Dhalai area: Sadagram, Lantugram, Debipur/Punikhal, Jibangram/Jembru I, Jibangram II, Gajalghat, Barmannagar/Bhaudumanlai
  • Lakkhinagar area: Lakkhinagar, Lakkhichera, Jaliura/Raidiling, Alubajar, Shantipur, Rakhaltila, Brajanagar
  • Silchar area: Tarapur, Itkhala, Malugram, Rangirkhari, Pulish Riserve, Rangpur
  • Bilaipur area: Bilaipur I, Bilaipur II, Dhalchera, Barthal

 

 

History

A popular legend among the Dimasa people says that their ancestors were living at the confluence of the rivers Dalaobra and Sangibra. In that beautiful place, there was a huge banyan tree, the shade of whose foliage covered the land entirely. The tree was the abode of many birds and animals. That very fertile land was situated on the coastline, lush with profusely growing maize and reed plants. As a result the place was perfect for establishing a territory and finally a kingdom. Gradually it became overpopulated and the native tribe decided to leave the place and settled in adjoining areas as well as places far apart. Some of the people stayed back, but most of them undertook a journey towards the Nilachal with the upstream flow of the Tini-Sangibra (Brahmaputra) river (Guha 1910:49–50).

 

Tracing the history of the Kacharis, Sir Edward Gait says:

 

The Kachari may perhaps be described as the aborigines, or earliest known inhabitants, of the Brahmaputra valley. They are identical with the people called Mech in Goalpara and North Bengal. These are the names given to them by outsiders. In the Brahmaputra valley the Kacharis call themselves as Bodo or Bodo fisa (sons of the Bodo). In the North Cachar Hills they call themselves Dimasa. (Gait 1963:299)

 

The Kacharis who ruled Kamarupa in ancient times were later overpowered by Pushyavarman, the founder of the Varman dynasty in the fourth century C.E. Subsequently they established their kingdom at Sadiya, where they reigned for several centuries and extended their territory beyond the river Dishang up to Namsang in the Naga Hills, including modern North Cachar Hills under their jurisdiction. Their headquarters was at Dimapur on the bank of the Dhansiri river. In 1228, the Ahoms invaded the Brahmaputra valley of Assam. The Dimasas have a long history of conflict with the Ahoms. In the initial years the Dimasa defeated the Ahoms. But gradually, the repeated attacks by the Ahoms weakened the Dimasas, and they were defeated by them.  After a battle in 1536, the Dimasas deserted Dimapur and the valley of Dhansiri, and moved south and established their new capital in Maibong (Bhattacharjee 1977:5).

 

The ruins of the Dimasa kingdom in Dimapur show their fondness for and fine taste in art and culture. Advanced architecture and city planning are indications of the refinement of the rulers. Sir Edward Gait describes this:

 

Dimapur was surrounded on three sides by a brick wall of the aggregate length of nearly two miles, while the fourth or southern side was bounded by the Dhansiri River. On the eastern side, was a fine solid brick gateway, with a pointed arch and stones pierced to receive the hinges of double heavy doors. It was flanked by octagonal tassels of solid brick, and the intervening distance to the central archway was relieved by false windows of ornamental moulded brick-work. ...... There are several fine tanks at Dimapur, two of which are nearly 300 yards square. (Gait 1963: 301–02)

 

During the regime of Jasanarayan (early 17th century), the Dimasas defeated the Ahoms and Jasanarayan declared himself an independent sovereign. He claimed that he was a descendent of Ghatotkacha, the son of Hidimba and Bhima in the Mahabharata, and the Dimasa kingdom was named the Heramba kingdom. He issued a silver coin where he titled himself ‘Herambeswara’ or ‘Lord of Heramba’, and worshipper of Hara-Gouri, i.e., Siva and Durga. This is the earliest coin of the independent dynasty, and represents the first evidence for the use of the term ‘Heramba’, which afterwards occurs frequently in inscriptions, coins and other chronicle records (Bhattacharjee 1977:9–10). No historical evidence has been found supporting the Dimasa tradition that they are descendants of Ghatotkacha (Bhattacharjee 1977:5).

 

Moving on a century, the Dimasa kingdom was shifted to Khaspur in around 1750 (Endle 1911:6), and here the Dimasas gradually came under Hindu influence. Raja Krishna Chandra and his brother Govinda Chandra performed a public ceremony for Brahmins, and they declared themselves Hindus of the Kshatriya caste and took on the surname ‘Barman’ (Guha 1910:95).

 

After the demise of Raja Krishna Chandra in 1813, his brother Govinda Chandra became the king. During his rule the Burmese made repeated attacks and captured Assam, Manipur, Jayantia and Cachar. This was a period of great suffering for the people who had to live in hiding for long periods, and is known as ‘Barmar Bhagan’. Raja Govinda Chandra sought protection from the East India Company (Guha 1910:107), and in 1824, signed a treaty with David Scott, Agent to the Governor-General of the Eastern Frontier . According to this, the Company would not interfere in internal matters of the state, but the Raja was obliged to ‘attend to at  all times to the advice offered for the welfare of his subjects by the Governor General in Council’. The Company would protect the territories of Cachar from external enemies, and in return the Raja would pay an annual tribute of 10,000 rupees, failing which, the Company was at liberty to occupy as much territory as would be needed to realize the sum due (Guha 1910:122–26).

 

In 1830, Raja Govinda Chandra was assassinated by the Manipuri army in Haritikar. As he did not have any heir, the Dimasa or Heramba dynasty came to an end with his death and  Cachar came under British rule on August 18, 1832 (Guha 1910:132–35).

 

 

Socio-cultural and economic life

Though Dimasa society is one of the patriarchal communities of India, yet it has prominent matriarchal figures. Males and females have equal status. Endle had commented on how the relation between the sexes was of a more ‘sound and wholesome character’ than in many countries claiming ‘higher civilization’ and that child marriage was not practised (Endle 1911:2–3). A Dimasa man regards his wife as an equal and an inseparable companion of his life. In both early and conjugal life, a Dimasa woman receives respect and freedom from her partner and society. Monogamy is strictly followed by the Dimasas, contributing to equality between male and female, and the birth of boys and girls are celebrated equally (Endle 1911:23).

 

Dimasa society follows the clan system: there are 40 male clans (known as Semphong) and 42 female clans (known as Julu). Marriage within the same clan is forbidden. A boy can on no account marry a girl belonging to his mother’s clan and a girl cannot marry a boy belonging to her father’s clan (Guha 1910:89). 

 

Correspondingly, family property is divided equally among sons and daughters. Generally, the belongings of the father—real estate, weapons, cash money and cattle—are inherited by sons. On the other hand, properties of the mother such as ornaments, clothes and handlooms are inherited by daughters or the nearest female kin (Barman 1992:93).

 

The Dimasas consider themselves devout followers of Hinduism though most of their rituals are blended with animism. Their belief is that they are the children of Bangla Raja and the divine bird Aarikhidima. It is said that the ‘six sons’ of Bangla Raja and Aarikhidima, namely, Sibrai, Doo Raja, Naikhu Raja, Waa Raja, Ganyung-Braiyung and Hamiadao are their ancestral gods. They call those ancestral gods Madai; the Madai look after different parts of the Dimasa settlement, and have their own areas of jurisdiction, known as daikho (similar to sacred groves). It is believed that the Madai or spiritual being residing in a particular daikho protects the people in the vicinity and controls their destinies. The Dimasa worship the daikho once a year. They do not have any image or idol representing the deity, but denote an earthen mound as the deity at the time of worship (Bordoloi 1984:70–73).

 

Agriculture is the main source of livelihood in Dimasa society. In hilly areas they still practice jhum (slash-and-burn) cultivation. Along with rice and maize, they also cultivate castor, sesame, cotton, chilly, pumpkin, gourd, ginger, brinjal, mustard, pineapple and orange. In the plains areas, they follow the same farming practices as non-tribal people (Bordoloi 1984:79–82). Their main festival, Bishu, is in January, when they celebrate the winter harvest with religious rituals, traditional dances, music and cuisine. They wear traditional attire, hand-woven by the Dimasa women, and it is a custom to present hand-woven cloths to relatives and friends on such occasions (Bordoloi 1984:92–97).

 

Rice is the staple food of the Dimasa. Among vegetables, banana flowers, bottle gourd, pumpkin, squash, bamboo shoot, tapioca and wild herbs are common in their daily diet. Khari, a type of alkali, produced domestically, is one of the main ingredients of their cuisine. Khari with kalai daal is a common food item. Different varieties of fish and dried fish, namely, nagraing and naplam are their favourite food. Eri pupa is also a delicacy. Among meat, they usually take chicken, mutton and pork. Zu or Judima, a type of rice beer is their favourite beverage. Chewing of betel nut and betel leaf is very common among them. They drink tea. Milk is not much preferred (Guha 1910:86, Bordoloi 1984:76–77, Endle 1911:14–15).

 

As in other tribal societies of North-east India, handloom weaving is a women-centred craft in Dimasa society. It is a popular saying among the Dimasa that their women are born experts in weaving. Agriculture, food and weaving are so closely connected in their society and culture that one is not complete without the other. Cultivating castor plants to rear the eri cocoon (the eri pupa eats the castor leaf) and developing it into fibre, reeling and spinning the fibre into yarn, and finally weaving the cloth is an age-old tradition of Dimasa Kacharis. The eri cloths woven by Dimasa women are much finer in quality than those woven in other parts of Assam (Endle 1911:19–22).

 

Dimasa textile motifs take inspiration from their surroundings, and include simplified forms of flora and fauna. The motifs are introduced in extra weft technique on plain-weave cloth, with colourful yarns—mainly orange, green, yellow, blue, red and black.

 

Dimasa women weave cloths for domestic use and ceremonial functions only. Weaving is not generally done for commercial purposes or profit; but sometimes, after fulfilling domestic needs, they sell the spare fabrics. This way, they generate an additional income.

 

Early historians like Endle refer to eri rearing and making eri cloth as a very important and profitable small-scale industry among the Kacharis (Endle 1911:19). Guha also mentioned that Dimasa women are very hard-working, and after doing all household chores, they rear eri cocoon and weave cloths for their entire family (Guha 1910:88). The process of weaving, right from cultivating silk plant to making cloth was a holistic process. But of late, this tradition is gradually fading away as they use mainly synthetic yarns procured from the market.

 

 

References

Bathari, Utham. 2014. ‘Memory, History and Polity: A Study of Dimasa Identity in the Colonial Past and Post-colonial Present’. PhD thesis. Department of Folklore, Gauhati University. Online at http://hdl.handle.net/10603/115353 (viewed on April 8, 2018).

 

Barman, Mukul Raj, ed. 2013. Rmaolai Praphang. Silchar: Nikhil Cachar Haidimba Barman Samiti.

 

Barman, N.K. 1992. Queen of Cachar of Herambo and the History of the Kachchhari. Cachar.

 

Bhattacharjee, Jayanta Bhushan. 1977. Cachar Under British Rule in North East India. New Delhi: Radiant Publishers.

 

Bordoloi, B.N. 1984. The Dimasa Kacharis of Assam. Guwahati: Tribal Research Institute.

 

Census of India. 2001. ‘ Assam: Data Highlights: The Scheduled Tribes’. Online at http://censusindia.gov.in/Tables_Published/SCST/dh_st_assam.pdf (viewed on October 12, 2017).

 

Census Population Data. 2011. ‘District Census 2011’. Online at http://www.census2011.co.in/district.php (viewed on October 12, 2017).

 

Choudhury, Sujit. 2006.  Shrihatta Cacharer Prachin Itihas. Silchar: Dinkal Press Limited.

 

Endle, Sidney. 1911. The Kacharis. London: Macmillan and Co Limited.

 

Gait, Sir Edward. 1963 [1933]. A History of Assam. Calcutta: Thacker, Spink and Co.

 

Guha, Upendrachandra. 1910. Kaccharer Itibritta. Calcutta: Hemendranath Dutta.

 

Srivastava, Dayawanti, ed. 2010. ‘States and Union Territories: Assam: Government’, in India 2010: A Reference Annual (54th ed.). New Delhi: Publications Division. 

 

Thaosen, S.R. 1962.  ‘Dimasa Kachari’ in Asomor Janajati ed. P.C. Bhattacharya. Gauhati: Asom Sahitya Sabha.