Updated: May 8, 2021
Translated from Kokborok by Hamari Jamatia
April is a festive month in Tripura. The hills and forests come alive with colourful flowers which bloom in the shades of white, orange, and pink. The days are hot but the nights still cling on to the remnants of winter making it cool and pleasant. It is also the time when every indigenous home erupts in a flurry of activities as they prepare for the biggest celebration of the year—Hari Buisu followed by Garia Puja.
Women get busy pounding rice and making rice beer, men continuously throng the markets to make purchases and in the evenings both men and women gather to practice their songs and dances for the season. For children, the days are filled with good food as they indulge in various sweetmeats available in every home. It is not uncommon to see children go through spurts of sugar rush and then drop down for a nap with the happy knowledge that more sweets await when they wake up.
Garia is the greatest deity among the indigenous communities of Tripura especially among the Kokborok speaking tribes. The Jamatia, Debbarma, Reang, Kalai, and Tripura tribes pray to him in their own unique ways. The Jamatia community, however, celebrates it in the most lavish manner where the rituals are conducted for one month and a big fair is held for one week leading up to the day of the puja.
A unique feature of the Garia deity and the celebration is that the Garia “idol” made by them has a face made of gold. One side of the face is a man, the deity Baba Garia and the other side is a woman, a deity called Ama Hakwchar where Ama means “mother”. Baba Garia’s face has a moustache and Ama Hakwchar is donned by a hair bun engraved on the gold disc. The two-faced disc has been in existence for centuries but every year the “body” is constructed out of new bamboo called “wathwi”. Once the body is constructed and attached to the face, the bamboo is donned with clothes meant for both men and women. This includes, dhoti, shawl, risa, rignai, and rituku. This inclusivity of gender defines the way in which one ritual in particular celebrates masculinity and femininity during the month of Garia Puja.
Garia Puja celebration starts a month before the date of the actual puja. It is a time when the idol of Garia made of the gold face and the bamboo body is carried to every Jamatia village. The idol is accompanied by a coterie of followers and worshippers. These followers are people who have made a vow to Garia and Ama Hakwchar to follow them for a month in return of their blessings be it in the form of children for a childless couple, or wealth for a poor person. Among this coterie of people is a sect called the “boglas” who represent the fluidity of gender. They are men who dress up as both male warriors and as women and wear jewellery and make-up for the entire month. The “women” are worshippers of Ama Hakwchar, the female deity companion of Baba Garia. This team of more than a 100 people tour the state for 30 days on foot only stopping for food and sleep. Everywhere they go, the villagers prepare a big feast for them. The devotees of Ama Hakwchar can enter any home they want without barriers. The rest of the group is forbidden from entering homes of the sick or homes with menstruating women.
The history of Bogla
Once upon a time there lived a widow called Nuktungti who gave birth to twins whom she named Sukungdrai and Makundrai. Considering she had no husband, the villagers ostracised her when she became pregnant and she was forced to live in a hut outside the village boundary. Overcome by sadness and shame, Nukhungti’s father’s yaar* asked her how she conceived the babies. To this Nukhungti replied, “Father, if I tell you the truth I will die, but if you swear to raise my two sons after I am gone, I will reveal it to you.” The father agreed to take care of the twins and Nuktungti told him the story of how, God Bubagra, the oldest deity, came to her and blessed her with the babies.
After Nuktungti’s death, her taloi took in the two boys and took care of them. But as he was already very old and poor, he decided to look for someone else to adopt the orphans. After some search he found out that in another village, there lived a rich childless couple called Loktai and Hachukti who had been trying to have children for years. The taloi took Sukungdrai and Makundrai to that village and handed them to the couple who were overjoyed to receive them. Thus for some time, the parents as well as the children lived a life of happiness and contentment. However, this did not continue for long.
One day, one of the twins got sick and lay in bed with fever. Soon after, the other twin also got sick. According to Jamatia mythology, it is said that from then on, whenever twins are born in this world, they fall sick together. Anyway, the couple Loktai and Hachukti were filled with pain and sadness to see their two boys sick and dying and tried every possible treatment to cure them. However, both the boys died from their illnesses.
The death broke the heart of the mother who began to pray to Bubagra to bless her with at least one child considering he took away two. Hearing her heartfelt pleas, Bubagra appeared to her in a dream and said, “Mother, do not worry for I will be born as your child”. Soon after that, Hachukti got pregnant. Her gestation period lasted 10 months and 10 days after which she gave birth to a baby boy. However, Hachukti and the rest of the village was shocked to notice that the baby had a stiff spine which made him unable to move much. Thus the child was named Singhkwrak or “the one with a hard spine”. In keeping with the belief that a child becomes the word he is named after, some villagers began to call him Narasingh which means “the one with the soft spine” just to see whether it will work. It didn’t.
Singhkwrak began to grow up with a stiff spine and he reached a marriageable age. Hachukti found a girl for him and got him married. However, since Singhkwrak was a god, the woman could not live with him for long and left him after a few years. According to Jamatia beliefs, a God and a human cannot lead a domestic life of husband and wife. And so, whereas Hachukti kept finding wives for Singhkwrak, none of the marriages lasted. It is said that he married seven times.
Noticing how every wife left him, the villagers got very frustrated with Singhkwrak’s inability to be a good husband. Thus his brother-in-laws in the village dressed up as men and women to teach him the ways of married life and ideal domesticity. From that day onwards, Garia puja sees men dressing up as men and women. For the one month of festivities, the Boglas can only be referred to as “brother in law” and “sister in law” depending on their dress no matter their age and kinship. In return they also refer to every person they meet as “brother in law” and “sister in law”.
Singkwrak began to be known as Garia because the village, frustrated with his inability to live with women, called him “goroya” which means a “misfit”. That word evolved into Garia and today he is known as Baba Garia Raja.
The Boglas are headed by a priest called Mohanta. The chief Bogla is called Bogla Raja. They are entrusted with the task of carrying arms for Baba Garia in the form of air guns and swords. In other words, they are seen as the army of God. With changing times, some Boglas also dress as Police officers. In all, their presence gives the congregation a carnivalesque touch. They add mirth and joy to the gatherings as they are not bound by any rules of civility. They are allowed to crack lewd jokes, and dance in the courtyard of people’s homes when they visit the village.
Note: The story of Baba Garia’s birth and the custom of Bogla was narrated by Bishnu Sadhan Jamatia, who is the Kherphang of Hakwchak village. Kherphang are people who serve as priests for Baba Garia in their respective villages.
*The concept of yaar refers to the friendship between two men. When two men become such good friends that they see each other as a significant part of their lives they form a ritualistic bond. The children of such men refer to both as “father” or “taloi”.
This article has been created as a part of the Adivasi Awaaz project, with the support of Misereor and Prayog Samaj Sevi Sanstha.