Tiwas or Lalungs are one of the most well-known tribes of the Northeast. Already recognized as a Scheduled Tribe, this tribe found in Assam and Meghalaya had a population of 1, 71,000 as per the 2001 census. However, despite a large population and adequate political representation after the formation of the Tiwa Autonomous Council (TAC) in 1995, a large section of the Tiwas don’t have any connection with their language and culture. While in the hills, the Tiwas are still in touch with their tradition and language, in the plains, Lalungs have become oblivious to their language since many generations now In fact, in the 2001 census, it was found that only 26,481 people speak the Tiwa language.
In the Lalung language, Ti means water and Tiwa actually refers to people who reside near water bodies. Once upon a time, there was a Lalung kingdom named Gobha comprising areas like Nellie, Khola, Topakusia, Raha, Barapujia, Ranee, and Lokee. But the ruler had to pay taxes to the Ahom king. The Lalung king of Gobha though initially was under the dominion of the Jayantia king, and later shifted his allegiance to the Ahom kings. Though the Tiwa people came under the control of the British, yet they acted against British imperialism and prepared for a revolt against the British Government.
In 1861, they revolted against British imperialism which is popularly known as ‘Phulaguri Dhawa.’ The Phulaguri Uprising of 1861 was the first agrarian revolt in Assam against the British Raj. The active participation of the Tiwa people of Assam in the freedom movement was seen in the Quit India Movement in 1942. Tiwas, under the denomination of ‘Lalung’, have been recorded as a Scheduled Tribe since the first Constitution Order (1950) for the State of Assam. In 2002, the ST status was extended to Karbi-Anglong district and thus to the Hill Tiwas. Tiwas still do not benefit from ST status in Meghalaya.
Struggle for Revival
Attempting to know more about Tiwa culture, we visited Barapujiya, a village on the border of Morigaon and Nagaon district with a pre-dominantly Lalung population. The village has a population of around 4000 and Tiwas with a population of 1500 form almost 1/3rd of the village’s population. However, we found out that Lalungs do not speak their language even at home. In fact, they haven’t been doing so for almost five decades.
Binod Senapati, Secretary of Tiwa Sahitya Sabha says, ‘The Tiwa people have merged with the greater Assamese culture. However, this has also resulted in them forgetting their own language. Over the span of many generations, they have not spoken the language at all. We are now trying to revive the language through coaching centres which teach the language to youngsters.’
Rohin Bangthai, a school teacher residing in Barapujiya is teaching in one such centre. ‘Initially, it was tough to find teachers who can teach the language. We had to import teachers from the hills and later, when some of our students learnt the language, they taught others. Another problem is that our language doesn’t have its own script. We have to write in the Roman language.’
Bangthai, who is also the Secretary of Tiwa Bhasha Charcha Samiti is trying hard to revive interest in the language and his efforts are also bearing fruit. ‘Students are now taking interest in the language. We have told the students to speak in Tiwa language at home and also teach others.’
Vibrant Tradition and Society
Tiwas have a vibrant and open culture. Traditionally, Tiwa society was ambilineal, which means children could belong to both father and mother’s lineage. As per their customs, a groom had to work for six months at the bride’s house and only once he completed that tenure could they get married. Dulen Chandra Deuri, a resident of Barapujiya however says that now this custom doesn’t take place anymore.
Tiwas have their own bonxo comprising of families which can vary from 9 to 90. The person heading the bonxo is called jela. Jelas of seven such bonxos form a khel who serve justice in the village. While bigger crimes are always reported to the police, in case of smaller crimes, it is the khel who deals with it. Deuri says, ‘If someone hits his elder brother, then the entire village abandons that person. They accept him only when he apologizes publicly with paan-tamul and Cho (local liquor of the Lalungs).’
The majority of the Tiwa population in the plains is concentrated in Nagaon and Morigaon district. However, a small population of around 5000 is also found in Lakhimpur and Dhemaji district. Over the years, the Tiwas in the plains have lost much of their ethnic identity, mainly language. A Tiwa youth, on condition of anonymity says that he doesn’t remember hearing any conversation in the Tiwa language in his household since childhood and so he doesn’t feel any attachment to the language as such. In such a scenario, it is the efforts of people like Bangthai who are keeping the tradition, culture and language of the Tiwas alive.
Festivals of the Tiwa Community
- Jonbeel Mela- Jonbeel Mela is a three-day fair held at the Magh Bihu weekend at Dayang Belguri, 5 kms from Jagiroad. The Gobha King along with his courtiers visits the mela and collects taxes from his subjects.
- Langkhon Misawa- Some of the Tiwa groups celebrates a puja which is known as Langkhon Puja in the month of October. In this puja, a dance is performed by holding Langkhons (bamboos).
- The Lalungs or Tiwas are a separate tribe with their own dialect. Their society is generally matrilineal like the Khasis and Garos. In the plains, Tiwas have accepted Assamese culture and Hinduism; while in the hills, they have mingled with the Khasis and Karbis and taken to Christianity.