Friday, November 7, 2008

The Bon of the Bongs, Part I: East or West, East is the Best (Sometimes)

If one asks - and one should not - for the origin of the people of India, many of our early scholars from the upper Aryan castes answer “It’s in the Rig Vedas”. It reminds me of an early college mate, Rajasekharan, from Loyola College in Madras, who put up his hand enthusiastically and irritatingly insistently for any question that was asked in his minor Science class for his major Economics course (those were the days). When asked for the answer he would always keep a serious face and say “Sir, it is in Einstein’s theory of Relativity”. He would not go beyond that. As the class howled in laughter, Rajasekharan would be asked to leave the class; which he did to join his other friends in the car park.

It now seems that the question: “Which was the pre-rig-veda civilization that gave the rig-vedas?” is not often asked leave alone being answered, at least in India. It is not the purpose of this blog to ask this question. Instead, as a Bengali or bong, I ask the question, as I must, “Where did the bongs come from?” Where indeed did the bon of the bongiyo bhasa and the bongo of the Jano Gano Mano come from? The answer that I get is a little surprising especially as far as the bon is concerned. It also helps resolve some identity crises.

There are two major contradictions that confront a young Bengali. I will take up others in other blogs. The first crisis is that he has to know whether he is a ghoti or a bangal; the second is whether he is kulin or not. I will address myself first to these two aspects, before I go to the bon of the bongs.

The ghotis (predominantly from West Bengal) and the bangals (predominantly from East Bengal or what is now Bangladesh) have distinctly different culture, traditions, cuisine (see blog on Jhol and Jhaal at by Ms Sushmita Sadhu) and accent. Simply put, the ghotis like prawn, mustard, and Mohan Bagan club while the bangals like hilsa, tamarind (tetul, if you are good people a small tetul leaf can accommodate nine) and East Bengal club.

The ghoti Bengalis of the learned kind that I know quibble about trivia, giving rise to the irritating (for the ghotis) saying that three of them would form three communist parties. Indeed, it is possible that their unique style of reasoning could have led to the well-known (Bernard Shaw?) arguments on why ghoti is actually to be pronounced as fish (gh = f as in laugh; o = i as in women; ti = sh as in nation). I have no problem with that. Being a little garrulous could be a good way of burping or whatever after a good meal.

But it should not be as simple as that. The point of interest is that East Bengalis (bangal) should be identified phonetically more with the Bengali name than the ghoti name is for west Bengalis. There must be a lesson in that.

The kulin/non-kulin division of Bengal into West/East Bengal is perhaps more serious. The kulin system is unique to Bengal. It is, to be safe, at least in my reading of it, part of the ethnic cleansing resorted to by Aryan invaders. A little condensed history (there is no exact history) is required and obtained from the net.

As far as Bengal is concerned, it has always been regarded as the last post for resistance against Vedic invaders. The early ‘Kol’ (root of the name Kolkata?) dark-hued people of Austrasian origin lived in water-logged areas and cultivated rice. They are different from Dravidians and are related to Kolerian tribes in Chattisgarh, Orissa, Madhya Pradesh, and Jharkhand. They were replaced by or intermixed with Tibetan mongoloid people about two-three thousand years ago. Some sort of Buddhism flourished in this region for more than a thousand years resisting all Aryan or Vedic influences. A kind of Hinduism prevailed around 4th century AD.

Because of this lack of Aryan influence unlike the region westward, the region of present day Bengal did not have the rig-Vedic caste system, unlike the regions westward. Bengal became the final place for long drawn confrontation between Vedic Brahmanism and Buddhism. Nearly anarchaic conditions prevailed around 750-850 AD. The Buddhist controlled the south and south-eastern Bengal and the non-indigenous Aryan Guptas colonized north and West Bengal.

The lack of Brahmins was felt by the kings of that region on some pretext or other. Five Brahmins were imported from Kanauj (in UP) apparently at different times. The exact dates are uncertain. According to one source, five Brahmins (Moitro, Sanyal, Bagchi, Bhaduri and Lahiri) were imported by one Adisura (of uncertain origin) in 8th-9th century AD while the five Brahmins (Chatterji, Banerji, Mukherji, Ganguly and Ghosal; Bhattacharya is a title given to Pandit Brahmins) were imported by king Ballalsen in the middle of the 12th century.

If the above chronology is correct (there does not seem to be a consistent description or reliable chronology on the net), the Adisura Brahmins were imported during the reign of the Pala kings of Bengal. The Palas, being indigenous to the region, were benevolent rulers giving fresh lease of life to the Buddhist reign for nearly four centuries, renovating during this course important centres of learning such as Nalanda and creating new centres of learning such as those at Vikramasila. It was during this rule that Muslim contacts were made through the arrival of sea-faring Arab traders at the flourishing port of Chittagong. These Arab traders and the accompanying Sufis spread the first words of the newly emerging caste-less religion of Islam that struck a friendly chord with the local people.

The weak point of the Pala kings was that they became dependent on the powerful landed and official Brahminical influences that were carried over from the Gupta period without the intermediacy of other castes such as Kshatriyas and Vaisyas. The Brahmins also usurped traditionally kshatriya posts in the royal court and the army. When the non-Bengali Senas finally took over under Ballal Sen, it was considered to be a great triumph for the Aryan/Vedic rulers. The Senas behaved as invaders and would not follow the liberalism of the indigenous Palas. They oppressed the Buddhists and encouraged vedic Brahminism.

It was during this time that the Kanauj (kanya kubjya) Brahmins as well as other non-Brahmin imports were given the kulin name. For nearly seven hundred years, till the middle of the nineteenth century, the kulin populace had the sole and very profitable function of a stud or Shiva’s bull, marrying hundreds of girls and raising their progeny according to Manu Smruti and thereby increasing the arya vamsha.

It is of interest, as an aside, that there were rules about the way marriages could be made including one in which the persons being married should be the same number of generations down from the original members of the list. This led to the maintenance of extended family trees in kulin houses.

Ballal Sen, it is said, divided the Bengal region into four for establishing the Kulin system. Two of these were under the kanauj Brahmins. The region of East Bengal continued to be called as Vangal or Vanga. The population in the east especially was frustrated by the tyrannical rule of the foreign Sena invaders.

As they do so often in Bengal, mystic poets such as the Baul singers who have many songs in their memories but cannot read or write, express themselves in poetry with verses that resemble the Haiku poetry of Japan. There is no way you can appreciate the baul music, however, if you do not sing it, “… for thereby its movement and colour are lost and it becomes like a butterfly whose wings have been plucked.” (Tagore). I have written two such poems expressing frustration (see Islam in Bangladesh, by Razia Aktar Banu, p11) in forms that could resemble Haiku (5-7-5 syllables, each poem in one line)

My house is in town, No neighbour no rice in pot, I must serve always.
He who will be wise, Is foolish and must be thief, To be seen honest

The indigenous kulin-ised people could not go back to Buddhism. They accepted the Sufi preachings and converted to Islam voluntarily without the initial help of Muslim invaders. The baul Fakir singer would continue to sing of Radha and the Vaishnav singer sing in praise of Allah. It is said that because of their long Buddhist ancestry the muslim retained their shaved heads – nede muslims.

The West Bengalis on the other hand had the weight of the kulin system on them. The vedic Brahmins only begat them leaving their mothers to bring them up in what they deemed to be an upper strata but to which they did not really belong. There was no way that the ghotis could be called bangal.

This would explain the residual but persistent hostility between ghotis and bangals even today.

Of interest, as far as the new point of this blog is concerned, is a possible interpretation of the origin of the phonetic sound used for bongs. I have not read or heard this description elsewhere. So I suppose this interpretation is new. This interpretation comes from my readings of the pre-Buddhist Tibetan bön religion, which is now followed with renewed interest outside India.

The bön religion is still very much in practice in modern Tibet and among Tibetan exiles despite ( ) Chinese restrictions. It is claimed to be the origional religion of the Tibetan people being founded by one Tonpa Shenrab 18,000 years ago, so it has been said.

Just like Gautam Buddha, Tonpa Shenrab also gave up his worldly life style at the age of 28 or something like that, sat under a tree, and achieved enlightenment or Buddha. It seems many other Buddhas followed with almost identical enlightenment history. There may have beeen a long line of Buddhas of which Gautam Buddha was the last; just like there is a long line of Vishnu-avatar of whom Kalki is the last (Buddha was the last but one?); just as Mohammed was the last of the prophets (Christ was the last but one).

The history of the Tibetan bö religion is very similar to that around Bengal. In the early days the bön religion was thought to be shamanistic and animistic. This feature is common to East India also. The point that I will try to make in this and following blogs is that the mongoloid people who were in Bengal two-three thousand years ago were the bönpo or the people who followed the bön religion.

There are many aspects of the bön religion that strikes a chord with the bangla idiom. The word bõn is pronounced as bun so that the phonetic connection with the bun of bangla should be immediately apparent. I suppose one would require more convincing. I will try and outline them in blogs that follow. For the present, two features are of interest.

One may take the viewpoint that the bön people (bõnpo?) took roots in bongo where they lived securely and spread in different directions. Later, their excursions to the west would have been curtailed by the Aryan and other settlers. Their excursions eastward, say, into present day Burma was safer. There would have been influences after Gautam Buddha from Nepal which would have mixed with the bön language. The word ‘bhikku’ for monk in the Pali language appears as ‘pongyi’ in Burmese which is closely related to the word ‘bonze’ a priest in the bön religion.

The other “evidence” could be a little more speculative and no such connection is made in the net. It came from my examination ( of John Vincent Bellazza. In this site one sees a rock-carving of a kiang (a horse to Chinese and a Ghor-Khar of West India (half-ass half-horse) described by Blyth (“… I published the picture in a sports magazine because I got five pounds for them.”) in his correspondence with Darwin in 1885. Bellaza’s picture of the rock-carving of the kiang is given on the left of the figure on top. The straight tail is typical of the kiang or a wild ass. The pointed ears, the shape of the body and a straight tail is also typical of the Panchmura terracotta (figure on right) bankura horse. These clay figures played a ritualistic role being offered as tokens of devotion to Hindu gods as well as being places on tombs of Muslim saints in Bangladesh.

So now we should know why the East Bengalis were called Bangals.

It is quite simple! They just refused to be identified by any other name! The boundary-less (religion or caste) bön of Bongo has to be the bon (good) thing about them.