Halam one of the ethnic minorities in Bangladesh, is a branch of the Tibeto-Burman community. They came from the Indian state of Tripura in the mid British period. At present they are mainly living in the districts of Sylhet and Habiganj, and they work there as tea garden labourers. They earn their livelihood by in Sylhet and Habiganj. The size of their population is no more than 5,000.
Bangla is their main language and they use it at schools and in everyday communication. However, old people are seen to speak the tribal Kokborok language with which the young generation are not conversant. Literacy rate among them is very low, about 15%. Parents do not send their children to school mainly for economic difficulties.
Halams eat meat, fish and vegetables. They do not eat beef or buffalo meat. They use mainly vegetable alkali and very limited oil in cooking. They are very fond of mangoes (thaithai in their language), jackfruits and rambal, a variety of potato. They are not very fond of milk and milk products. Smoking is quite widespread in their society, and betel leaves and nuts are very important items for them when entertaining guests. They drink tea and rice-fermented, homemade alcohol, both men and women are used to drink this alcohol, which they call Jukhla. Many of them do not take non-vegetarian food or drink alcohol on Thursdays.
The Halam community are divided into 12 groups, Bongcher, Charai, Hrangkhol, Kaipeng, Kalja, Kaloi, Langkai, Machafang, Migli, Mitahar, Molsom and Rupini. Children use the clan name of their father. Women's clan affiliation changes after marriage. Father is all in all in the family and his decisions are deemed to be final. However, women have freedom in society to some extent and their status is strongly consolidated. Women have the right to give their opinion on social matters and men do not ignore that. Grandparents and great-grandparents enjoy immense respect in society and are looked after very well in the family, and they hold prestigious position. The elders take a leading role in resolving social disputes.
Halams believe in the ancient form of Hinduism. They have their traditional deities that they worship along with Hindu gods and goddesses, such as: Laxmi, Saraswati, Sani, Kartik, Ganesh, etc following their own method. While worshipping Hindu gods and goddesses, they rituals are administrated by the Hindu Brahmins and while worshipping their own traditional deities by their own priest called Achai. Some of their ancient deities are: Matlikuchang, Toikeltang, Bakla, etc. They have a special guardian deity called Oipumangoi that they have to worship regularly and once in a year collectively. Their biggest puja is Kher puja and they do not allow any outsider to enter their locality during the ritual. If anyone enters it is said that they kill him. While observing pujas for their own deities, they sacrifice he-goat, duck, chicken, etc and drink a lot alcohol. They do not have any idea of re-birth, pilgrimage and offerings of food to the deceased ancestors like Hindus. The caste Hindus consider them as a lower caste and generally do not maintain any relations with them.
Intra-clan marriage is prohibited among the Halams. Boys and girls become eligible for marriage when they attain 20 and 16 years respectively. Marital relationships are facilitated through the intervention of parents, guardians or third parties (Pilai). Moreover, love marriage is also possible in their society if the couple can earn the consent of their parents or guardians and social approval. The bride applies vermilion or any red material on the parting of her hair on the day of marriage. Monogamy is the norm in Halam society, but for unavoidable reasons man can be polygamous with the prior consent of the first wife. Dissolution of marriage is allowed among them and they call it ortroi. The most common reasons for divorce are adultery or domestic discord. If a husband or wife seeks divorce, they have to approach the social council with proper evidences and the council has the right to give them permission to separate. Children remain with the father after divorce and both the husband and wife can marry again. Widow-remarriage is also allowed in Halam society. For at least one-year after marriage, the couple have to stay in the house of the bride's father. During this period, the groom has to work for his parents-in-law without any monetary remuneration. After that the couple move to the house of the groom's father.
When a marriage proposal is finalised parents or guardians of both the parties meet and fix a date of marriage. The groom and his retinue come to the house of bride's father. The couple stand next to each other in the yard and the priest (Achai) sprinkles holy water on them. They call this water arthangatei, as it is offered in the name of the tutelary deity arthangtei. The Achai then reads out some pieces of advice for the couple and concludes the marriage ceremony that is followed by entertainment with betel leaves and nuts and dancing and singing.
The Halams cremate their dead bodies, and they call their crematorium Thaan. Before carrying the dead body to a crematorium, they observe a rite called thibupek in which they slaughter a chicken by one stroke and offer its curry with rice for the departed soul. Once the corpse is taken to the crematorium, old people who are present organise fuel wood in the pyre and complete the funeral rites, which the Halams call mangruchakrang. The bereaved family observe mritasauch (mourning period). Once it is over, relatives and neighbours are entertained with food.
In every village the Halams have a social council that settles social disputes through arbitration. The head of the council is called Chowdhury who is assisted by few elders. Each council has two messengers that the Halams called khondal. Khondals' job is to publicize the date of arbitration, to supply tobacco to the people present during the arbitration and to collect money for feasts. Moreover, there is a higher council comprised of leaders representing few villages. The villagers nominate the head of this council and his assistants. The head of this council is called Roy and his assistants hold different posts such as: Kanchon, Chapilatham, Korma, Sengia, Tar and Planta. Their task is to maintain discipline and peace in society, prevent wrongdoings and to ensure social security. If a party is not happy with the verdict of the village council, they can appeal to the higher social council whose ruling will be final. The guilty party is given different punishments: financial penalty, excommunication, beatings, etc. In case of inter-communal disputes, the Halams go to the Panchayat.
Halams are skilled in making baskets with bamboo slips and canes and in knitting fabric material. Besides, they are also proficient in drawing different types of paintings in the yard on different social occasions. They have many folktales. Humorous remarks, lyrics and riddles are very common in their social conversations. [Subhash Jengcham]