One of the many marginalised and oppressed tribes of Northeast India, the Koch-Rajbongshi are also among the oldest aboriginal ethnic groups of South Asia, living mainly in India, Bangladesh and Nepal. In Bihar and Assam, the community has been classified under Other Backward Classes (OBC) category, in West Bengal as Scheduled caste (SC), and in Meghalaya under the Scheduled Tribe (ST) category.
While the Koch-Rajbongshi people have their own unique culture and language, in today’s age, many belonging to the community do not know the language and have adopted the culture, values and social behaviours of society’s majority groups. Over time and with greater cultural assimilation, many descendants of the Koch can no longer be found wearing traditional attire or communicating in their own language.
Oral history can go a long way towards empowering marginalised communities. The past holds many lessons and stories if one simply opens themselves up to remember and take note. To that end, objects are gems that can weave history and memory together into magic, and such items and details need to be archived.
Oral history and material memory can be powerful reminders that the number of stories that need to be heard is infinite.
The story of my great grandmother
My grandmother – Aita, as she is known to me – once showed me a trunk full of jewellery which belonged to my great grandmother (Aju Aita). The trunk held beautiful silver utensils, hairpins, earrings, coins and pearls. I was enchanted by what I saw and was curious to know more. So, one day I finally went to my mother and asked her about the trunk.
My mother then narrated the story of my great-grandmother.
My great grandmother, Pratibha, belonged to a Koch royal family in Panga, a town which is now a part of Bangladesh. Her father, Raja Debendra Narayan, had three children. My great-grandmother was the eldest and the only daughter.
The Raja had lost power in a gamble with the Bhagyakul Roys – a royal family originally from Munshiganj district of Bangladesh – around the year 1919. But while the Raja still held the reins, he appointed ministers to look for a suitable match for his only daughter. Bhupendra Narayan was an honourable magistrate from Assam, who also belonged to a Koch royal family. He was a charming and well-educated man, and was chosen as a match for the Raja’s beloved daughter.
When my great grandmother was married, her father bought a land for her in Mangaldoi, Assam. Many essential items made up her wedding wedding trousseau, from utensils and carpets to jewellery, clothes and more. This was a part of the custom, and each object has a sense of honour attached to it. Her name was engraved on all of it.
A year after getting married, my great-grandmother became pregnant. Due to the lack of proper medical facilities in Assam during that time, she went back to her hometown but had a miscarriage. The doctor told her that she should not get pregnant again for at least two years. But just after a year, when she came back to Assam, she got pregnant again and have birth to a boy. She passed away three months after my grandfather (Koka) was born in 1927.
My grandfather spent his childhood with his maternal family in Panga. They spoke ‘Rangpuri/Rajbangshi’ language. When my grandfather moved back to Assam he learnt to speak Assamese and later, he also started his own business in Guwahati. Some of his relatives migrated from Bangladesh due to the political unrest that took place before the Bangladesh Liberation war.
During that time, many houses were burnt and looted, forcing families to immigrate. As my grandfather’s uncle and other relatives came to Assam, all that was left was divided among the remaining brothers. Since my great-grandmother had passed on, all her belongings were given to my grandfather. In 1961, my grandfather got married, that was when my great-grandmothers wedding trousseau was passed on to my grandmother.
Many of my great-grandmother’s belongings were acquired by the family at great pain and expense. My grandfather’s aunt tied the jewels around her waist to hide it under the drapes of her sari and this is how some of these jewels were carried across the border. Many items, which were marker of the wealth and stature of the family, were sold in order to meet the needs of the family in Assam.
All these possessions sold at these turbulent times tell a story of the family hardship. Some of her wedding trousseau still remain as material memory and the story of my great grandmother (Aju Aita) and my great grandfather (Aju Koka) became a part of conversations at family gatherings. Even after the partition, families still visit each other on either side of the border and the memories, the strong bond between the members of the family, still remain unchanged.
Such inherited stories, embedded memories, exchanges and narratives give us a peek into the lives of some of the people who belonged to this community before the partition and how things changed after they were displaced. The objects and material memory are central to establishing the character of the people who owned them over time.
There are very few archives on the history of the Koch-Rajbongshis and archiving stories through material memory can help us preserve a diverse range of personal experiences that are not well documented. These stories unfold narratives about tradition, customs, language and culture and it shows how cultural assimilation has taken place, providing an insight into the impact that various historical events have had on people over the years.
The Koch dynasty was established around the year 1515. Biswa Singha, the king of the Koch dynasty of the Kamata kingdom, had 18 sons. Among them were Nar Narayan and Chilarai, whom we have all read in our history textbooks. It is very difficult to trace the genealogy of these families, because at that time, kings would have many children and they in turn held political power over small areas. There is no record of this in the history books. We know very little about the descendants of these royal families.
Many stories were passed on orally and the only proof we have is the history, photographs and material possessions.
These objects, which have completed one cycle of their lives, are now the bearers of many complex histories in their afterlife.
Anushikha Devi has completed her Masters in Sociology from Delhi School of Economics, Delhi University. She is currently preparing for her PhD application and her interest lies in qualitative research. She is particularly interested in the field of ‘Historical Sociology’. She has also conducted research on topics as diverse as religion, food, culture, Indian legality, identity and belongingness.
All images have been provided by the author.