Mech, Mechi

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Mech, Mechi

This section has been extracted from


Ethnographic Glossary.

Printed at the Bengal Secretariat Press.
1891. .

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A Mongoloid tribe found in the Goalpara district of Assam and in the Himalayan Terai from the Butan Duars westward to the Konki river. In Northern Bengal they have given their Mechi river, and in Goalpara to the large tract of country called Meohpara, the proprietor of which, however, calls himself a Rajbansi and repudiates all oonnexion with the Mech tribe. 1 Ritter2 identifies them with the Dhimal, and remarks that in point of agricultmal skill they are about on a level with the Garos. Fr. Miiller3 classes them among the Lohitic raoes, and says they are of the same stook as the Kachri 01' Bodo. A good observer' writes thus of the Mech :-" They are probably the original inhabitants of the Dar¬jiling Terai, and are a distinotly Mongolian race, with fair skins and large bones and limbs. Their physical appearance and characteristios are quite distinct frOll the TMru of the Western 'lerai. They are disappearing, absolutely dying out, faster than any race of which I have known or read. The reason is, no doubt, that their distinctive oultivation is by Jhttm, whioh is barred by Government forest conservanoy, and the spread of settled plough cultivation from the South." In another place Mr. Oldham speaks of the Dhimal and Rajbansi as "dark-skinned Dravidians, and lays stress on the contrast between them and the fair-complexioned Mech. The compiler of the A ssam Oensus Repm•t, on the other hand, includes the Mech and the Koohh under the generic term Bodo, and appears to regard both as belonging substantially to the same race. 1 Dalton , Etl!11olog.1J of Bengal, p. 88. : E1•dkunde, iv, 109. 3 Allgemei1le Etlmog1•, p. 406. • Mr. W. B. Oldham, late Deputy Commisioner of Dal'jiling.

A singular reference to both Mech and Dhimal is met with in the Limbu legend that when the three brothers, their ancestors, were first dropped by the gods from Heaven they fell in Benares, whence they wandered northward, seeking the place appointed for them to dwell in. So they came to the Kltrtchal', or mule,cOltntry, as the Nepalese call the tract at the foot of the hills between the Brahmaputra and Kosi rivers. There the youngest brother deter-mined to settle, and became the father of the Kochh, DhimaJ, and Mech ; while the two others went further into the hills, and their descendants are the Limbns and Khambus of Nepal. A third story makes Assam the proper home of the Mech, and seeks to connect them with the Garos. Others, again, say that the Mech and DhimaJ are descended from Nepalese who, being driven out of Nepal for breaches of caste rules, settled in Khachar and manied women of the locality. Without attaching any historical value to these traditions, we may perhaps infer from them that considerable intermixture of blood has taken place between the inhabitants of the hills and the plains, and that types originally distinct may in this way have been greatly modified and to some extent amalgamated . The process of fusion has, however, not yet gone so far as to render it impossible to discern in the Mech traces of a primary Mongolian stock, while the Dhimal tribe appears to be connected by features and complexion with the black races, who may be conveniently designated aboriginal.

Internal structure

The Mech of the Darjiling and Jalpigori district are divided into two sub-tribes'-Agnia-Meeh and Jati Mech which are practically endgamous, seeing that a member of the former group cannot marry into the latter without thereby forfeiting his position in his own group. The Agnia sub-tribe have twelve exogamous septs, which are shown in Appendix I, while the Jati-Mech regulate maniage by the standard formula calculated to three generations in the descending line. The same rule is observed on the mother's side by the Agnia-Mech, who, however, extend the prohil:,ition in the male line to seven generations. The Aguia-Mech admit only Rajbansis into their own group; while the Jati-Mech receive also Dhimals, Dhekras, and Agnia-Mech. In all cases the new member has to give a feast as a sort of entrance¬fee and by way of proclaiming his membership. Such admissions are usually brought about by men of the higher groups taking mistresses from the women of the lower, and thus forfeiting their place in their own society.


Among the Agnia-Mech the usual age for marriage is twelve . years for females and sixteen for males, though MarrIage. here, as elsewhere, the influence of Hinduism shows itself in the desire on the part of well-to-do people to get their daughters married at a still earliel: age.. For the most part, however, the earlier usage of free courtship stIll holds Its ground, and the 1.-Ful'ther east, I unrlerstand, that four sub-tribes are known-Agnia¬Mech, Assam-Mech, Kachra-Mech, and Thampai-Mech. Kachra-Mech are probably the same a the Kachari. consent of the parents is fought only after the young people have arranged matters between themselves. Even then, if objections are raised, the girl often solves the difficulty by going off with her lover and thus compelling her parents to take steps to get her married. The same system prevails among the Jati-Mech, but with them the age for marriage ranges from sixteen to twenty for both males and females, and it is not uncommon to find a woman married to a man younger than herself. The bride-price, called mot/LOrn theM! by Agnia and chumna or 80dM by the Jati-Mech, is upposed to be fixed with reference to the beauty and accomplishments, and may rise in the Agnia sub-tribe as high as Rs. 120 or even more. Among the Jati-Mech it is supposed to be fixed at Rs. 63, but this amount may be, and usuaUy is, reduced by haggling. In both sub-tribes the marriage ceremony is exceedingly simple. Among the Agnia-Mech the essential and binding portion of the rite is the formal washing of the bride's feet in the presence of the friends and relatives of both parties with water poured from a bamboo water-vessel (chul1ga). This being done, she enters a' room where the bridegroom is awaiting her, and consummation is supposed to take place at once. When she comes out a cock and a hen are sacrificed and two betel leaves and areca nuts offered to SivJ1, the latter articles being afterwards eaten by the weddecl pair. Feasting then com¬mences by the bride serving first the bridegroom, and after him the other guests, with meat and boiled rice. 1,'he Jati-Mech do not wash the bride's feet, but make the pair betel leaves and areoa nuts. This is held to be the essential rite, and is followed by the sacrifice of a cock and hen to Siva.! A widow may marry again, but if Rhe has obildren it is deemed more respectable for her to live as a widow with her late husband's relatives, to whom in any case bel' children belong. If, however, she determines to contraot a second marriage, she may not marry any relative, whether elder or younger, of bel' deceased husband, but must retUl'n to her parents' house and get married from there by an informal ceremony called nika, in which the bridegroom makes with his little finger a single pot of vermilion on the bride's forehead. Fowls are saorificed as in the regular form, but the bride's feet are not washed, nor does she exchange betel leaves and areca nuts with the bridegroom. The bride-price for a woman marrying a second time is reduced to one-half of tho original amount, and if she marries a third time to one-foUl'th. In the presumably rare case of a woman marrying for the fourth time, no bride-price at all is paid. A remarried widow is deemed to be socially the inferior of a woman I Some of my correspondents di tinguish three modes or forms of marriage: thus-ell the ordinary marriage, in which the parents' conent is obtained before the girl goes to hoI' husband; (2) the dakuri marriage, in which the bride elo])o or is carried off, and may be reclaimed by hoI' parents if the bride-price is not paid; (3) the ghm' sundi marriage, when a girl tako~ a fancy to a man, go~s to his house of bel' own aocord, and SitS as a suppliant by the symbol of the gha1•.devi, whi~h stands in the comoI' of the chiof room. In .such ea OS, aytor refusin" the girl 8S a matter of form, tho man I bound ultImately to ylOJd to her oportunity. Clearly, however, theso aro not so much forms of marriage as modes of pro po ing marriage. mal'1'ied as a virgin, and is not entitled to serve boiled rice to the gue ts assembled on any public or ceremonial occasion. Divorce may be effected, with the sanction of the panchayat, at the wish of the parties or on the ground of the wife's adultery. In the latter case the seducer is liable to repay the bride-price to the injUTed husband, and cannot marry the woman until he has done so. Divorced wives oan only be remarried by the curtailed ceremony in use at the remarriage of a widow, and they hold tbe same social status as the latter. Their children also belong to the father. It would seem at first sight that the unrestricted comtship permitted by the Mech can hardly promote a high standard of female cbastity, and in fact sexual intercomse before marriage, though not expressly recognized, is virtually tolerated, it being understood that if a girl becomes pregnant her lover will at once come forward and marry her. H,egarding married women, however, a different order of ideas prevails, and as soon as a girl has finally pitched upon a husband, she is required to be strictly faithful to him. A cmious usage, to which parallels may be found in European folklore, deserves notice iu this conuexion. In the comtyard of every Mech house a sij plant (Euphorbia Indica) is carefully tended as the abode of the god Siva and as the emblem of conjugal fidelity. Should the leaves of the plaut wither, this is supposed to show that somethiug is wrong with oue of the women of the household. Rice is deposited under the tree, and on the next day a pauohayat is called, before whioh all the women are summoned and a handful of rice is given to each to chew. She who fails to masticate her portion is held guilty of unchastity, And if married is at once turned out of the house. If it is an unmarried girl who breaks down in the chewing ordeal, she is called uuon to disclose the name of her paramom, so that arrangemeuts may be made to get her married at once.


The religion of the Mech, like that of the Dhimal, is still in . . an early stage of transition from animism to Hinduism. They describe themselves as Hindus of the Saiva sect, and worship Siva under the name of Batho, and bis consort Kali as Bali Kbungri. To the former tbe Agnia¬Mech sacrifice buffaloes, goats, and pigeon ; while his wife has to put up with the less respectable offerings of pigs, fowls, and goats, which the Hti-Mech offer indifferently to either. 1'he Jati-Mech also reverence as a household goddess (ghar-devi) , a nameless personage, supposed to be the mother of Siva, who is represented by a lump of sun-dried clay set iu the corner of the chief room. Pigs, fowls, plantains and parohed rice are offered to her on any day iu the week except Sunday, Tuesday, or Wednesday. Among their other deities may be mentioned Tsimising, Tista Burhi (Buchanan's' old lady of the Tista'), Mahesh Thakur, Sonnisi and Mabakal. They have no Brahmans, and priests (dhiulli or oJha) chosen from among the tribe to serve them for religious and ceremonial purposes.

Disposal of the dead

Those who can afford a funeral pyre prefer to burn the dead, while the poorer members of the tribe bury, placing the corpse face upwards with the head pointing towards the south. In the latter case a small fire is kindled upon the grave, in which food and drink are burned for the benefit of the deceased. The Agnia-Mech perform a meagre propitiatory riLe on the eighth day, and the Uti-Mech on the fourth day, after death. With both the important part of the proceedings is the feast which is given to the friends and relatives of the deceased. Some repeat the ceremony every year after the manner of the Hindus, but this is unusual.

Social status

Judged by the Hindu standard, the social status of the Mech is extremely low. Both Rajbansis and Dhimals look down upon them; and they themselves, while claiming higber rank than Garos, Lepchas, and Tibetans, admit the social superiority or the Rajbansis. Dhimals they appear to look upon as standing on much the same level as themselves, though the former profess to be stricter in matters of food and drink, and strenuously disclaim kinship and social intercourse with the Mech. They eat pork, fowls, all kiuds of fish, lizards, and the il1tph16 silk-worm, but abstain from beef, the flesh of the long. tailed sheep, snakes, field-rats, and the leavings of other people. Buffalo flesh now ranks as beef, at any rate with the Agnia.Meoh; but this seems to be a comparatively modern reform, for some Mech are said to eat buffalo flesh, and those who do not seem to pride themselves on their asceticism. Spirituous liquors are indulged in without stint. A curious story is told in the Terai to account for the fact that the Nepalese will Lake water from the hands of the Mech. It is said that some twenty years ago Jang Bahadur, then Prime Minister of Nepal, while shooting in the 'l'erai, fell in love with a Mech girl, the daughter of Ujir Singh J amadar, of Dhulabari, and took her with him to Nepal as his mistr ss. As the price of her person, and in accordance with the wishes of the tribe, he issued an edict that in future no subject of Nepal should refuse to take water !rom a Mech, or, as my informant adds, from a DhimiH also. I am unable to ay what amount of truth there may be in this tale, but if such an edict were ever actually published, it can hardly have done more than recognize and confirm a practice already existing. Even J ang Baha¬ dur's despotic power must have yielded to popular prejudice if the Nepalese had really deemed the Mech unclean. The fact, however, seems to be that there is a considerable strain of Nepalese blood among the Mech, and other facts may be mentioned which go to confirm this view. Like the Nepalese, for example, the Mech have much greater liberty in matters of food before marriage than after, so that an unmarried man may take rice from people who are not deemed pure enough to give food to a married man. Both observe the Tihar festival; both call the bride-price sod/u], or tltekd. 'l'hese coincidences may of course be due merely to that transfusion of custom which is everywhere observable; but taking all the circum stances into consideration, I think it more likely that they have arisen from intermixture of the two races.


Husbandry by the jhum method is regarded by the Mech as their original Occupation. but of late years many have taken to settled cultivation as raiyats of jots in the Terai. The rearing of the imphu silkworm, which spins the silk used in the chequered cloths worn by the Mech, was at one time a regular industry, but bas fallen off notably within the last generation. Tbe following statement shows the number and distribution of the Mech tribe in 1872 and 1881 ;¬

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