Keot an ethnic group working in the tea gardens of Moulavibazar and habigAnj districts. They earn their living as tea garden labourers. In the past, they were professional boatmen and inhabitants of South Bengal. They used to ply ferryboats across the river. They also introduce themselves as 'keotmalla' or keot boatmen. It is possible that the labour hungry British tea planters took them from the riverine south to tea gardens in the northern hilly region. In course of time, they became habituated with the new environment. At present, there are four thousand Keots in Sylhet region.
Ethnic Keots are divided into four classes Khorhat, Chaimalla, Suraiya and Lohoboria. Intra-line marriage in their society is prohibited. They perform birth and death rituals of their ancestors upto the seventh generations. They claim themselves as members of shudra caste. Their society is patriarchal. Male children inherit all property.'
Keots use Bangla as their social language. However, they speak mixed Hindi among themselves. The rate of literacy among them is very low. Because of economic hardship they cannot afford to send their children to school. Keot parents encourage their children to work in the tea garden and earn for the family.
Rice is the staple food of keots; they also take vegetables, meat, fish, egg, pulses. They do not eat beef and pork. Tea is their favourite drink. They often drink wine, but they do not brew it. They are fond of cigarette, bidi, betel leaf, nut and tortoise meat. Every family prepares cake in their homes on the day of 'poush sangkranti' or 'Alonti'.
The Keots are are worshippers of Shiva. They consider Kali as the goddess of protection and worship her collectively in case of any crises. Moreover, they worship many other gods and goddesses like Laksmi, Saraswati, Kartick, Shoni, Gonesh, Shatya Narayana. Durga puja is their largest religious festival. They also offer pujas to Janmashtami, Rathajatra, Rasjatra, Holi, Gazon, Baruni and Ashtomisnan. They believe in re-birth and try to perform rituals for the eternal peace of the souls of their ancestors by visiting holy places.
When their sons and daughters cross the age of 23 and 17 respectively, the parents take initiative for their marriage. The father of bride generally gives an amount of money to the groom as dowry in a pre-marriage ceremony called Sekna. Later, another ritual called Tilok is held. Then green turmeric powder and mustard oil are massaged on the body of bride and bridegroom in separate functions. The worship of Satyanancyan is held at the bride's home in the morning on the wedding day. After the worship, sacred water is offered in memory of both the ancestors of bride and bridegroom. In the evening the bridal party along with the groom comes to the bride's house. The mother of bride welcomes and receives the groom through various rituals. Then light refreshment is served to the member of bridal party. Then a priest administers the rituals of marriage. The ceremony ends with a heavy feasting by the fathers of the grooms.
Keot males are very skilled in preparing bamboo and cane crafts specially baskets of different shapes, sizes and designs. They make these during their leisure period after working in tea gardens. These attractive baskets are sold in fairs during festivals and markets. Keot women are highly competent in rendering songs and dances. Their performance is an integral part of all leading festivals including holi and doljatra. [Subhash Jengcham]