On People, Language, Food and Dress

It is stated by Pemberton, that Kai is the real name of the people, and Kasia the title bestowed on them by Bengalees. But the truth is the reverse of this. “Kasi” is the only name, which they acknowledge as that of their country and race. The same language, with no substantial difference, appears to prevail in all their villages, though there are considerable differences of accent, &c. especially between the hill and valley men. It abounds in nasal sounds, and is spoken with a peculiar jerking tone, which has a singular effect to a stranger. In the Coptic language, it is said (Edin. Cabinet Library, Egypt, page 377) “genders and cases are expressed by prefixed syllables, and not by terminations like the languages of Greece and Rome.” This is exactly true; of the Kasia tongue, genders, cases, numbers, tenses, and all grammatical changes, are made by prefixing certain syllables. The masculine prefix is ‘u’, the feminine ‘ka’, and the plural ‘ki’. Thus ‘u myau’ ( u miaw) a tom-cat, has his feminine ‘ka myau’, a tabby and the plural ‘ki myau’ cats of both genders. This prefix cannot I think be considered an article, as it is attached to adjectives and pronouns as well as nouns, e.g. “U-ti u kokaráng;” u -bakhrao u sím, that Hornbill (is) a large bird, where the demonstrative, the adjective, and both nouns have the prefix. It is rather the representative of the terminations of Latin, German &c. most of which wear and tear have rubbed from our English tongue.

It is a curious fact, the people in the broken Hindustani in which they converse with us, universally use the future instead of the past tense. Thus to take a very common case, where the ambiguous word ‘Kal’ adds to the puzzle; “Kal ham jaiga,” from a Kasia signifies, not, “I will go to-morrow,” but “I went yesterday.” I never could break my servants of this blunder.

A great proportion of the proper names of men are quaint mono syllables, as Tess, Bep, Mang, Sor, Mir, Bi, reminding one irresistibly of Sir Walter’s Saxon Hig, the son of Snel. But these are generally euphonized by the prefix into Utess, Ubep, Usor, &c (Correct spelling is U Tess, U Bep, U Sor.). They also address each other by the names of their children, as Pabobon (Correct way of spelling is Pa Bobon), father of Bobon! Pahaimon (Pa Haimon), father of Haimon! The salutation at meeting is singular “Kublé ! Oh God.” (Correct spelling is ‘Khublei’ meaning ‘Kyrkhu U Blei’ which means God Bless.) It has been supposed that this is a profane deification of the person addressed. But this is scarcely seems agreeable to the blunt character of the people, and I never could ascertain what they meant by it. It is probably an elliptical expression, the literal signification of which is forgotten. Corresponding to adieu, or like good bye, the derivation of which (God be with you) no one thinks of in using it. They have regular numerals on a decimal scale up to hundreds, but their word for a thousand (chi-hajár – correct spelling is ‘shi hajár’) seems clearly borrowed from ‘hazár’.

In the people perhaps the first thing that strikes a stranger, is their extreme addiction to chewing pawn, and their utter disregard of the traces which its use leaves on their teeth and lips. Indeed they pride themselves on this saying that “Dogs have white teeth.” Every man wears round his neck a thick woolen cord which suspends a fine net of pineapple fibre, a clasp knife, and a pawn-box with sometimes a comb; a little globular silver-box containing lime to smear the pawn, lies in the net which serves as a pocket and contains a medley as any school-boy’s. A traveller arriving at Cherra has asked what were those numerous stains of blood on the road; the innocent traces of Kasia expectoration. Distances are often estimated by the number of pawns that will be consumed on the road. But an answer to the question, “How far ?” once given me by a Kasia with a load on his back, left far behind all this and all other vague estimates, except perhaps a Bengalee “Bãnk pãni.” He said it was ‘arsin leih,’ or two goings; perhaps as far as he could carry his burden with one rest.

The characteristic dress of the people is a short sleeveless shirt of thick cotton cloth, either of the natural colour (unbleached) or striped gaily with blue and red, and always excessively dirty. It has a deep fringe below, and is ornamented on the breast and back with lines of a sort of diamond pattern embroidery, from the edges of which hang certain mystic threads, to the length of which they attach some superstitious importance in purchasing the garment. The shirt closely resembles one figured in Wilkinson’s ancient Egyptians, Vol. III. P. 345. Over this a few wear a short coatee of cotton or broad cloth, and many wrap a large mantle striped or chequed with broad reddish lines. The latter is their most picturesque costume. Some have a strong penchant for articles of European dress, and their potato merchants generally bring a small invoice of these from Calcutta on their return voyage. I was once entertained by the prime minister of a Raja, to the westward, whose sole habiliment, save a cloth round his loins, was a new olive green frock coat (with a velvet collar, if I mistake not). As he threw back the flaps, thrust his thumbs in the armholes, and strutted about, it was not easy to preserve politeness to my host. A very large turban covers the head of the better class; others wear a greasy cap with flaps over the ears or go bareheaded. The fore part of the head is shaven, and the back hair gathered in a clump on the crown. Chiefs, or the heads of villages generally have a neck-lace of large gilt-beads, like our native officers. The women are generally wrapt in a shapeless mantle of striped cotton cloth, with its upper corners tied in a knot across the breast.

The men are seldom tall, generally well made and shew great strength of limb; of leg in particular. Such Doric columns as support a good fourth-part of the Kasia peasantry, are rarely seen in England. By help of these good props many of the coal porters will carry two maunds from the mine to Seria ghat, a distance of 11 miles. In this muscular development, they exhibit a remarkable contrast to some other hill tribes in India. Their features can rarely be called handsome, yet there is often a strong attraction in the frank and manly good humour of their broad Tartar faces, flat noses, thick lips and angular eyes. The children are sometimes very good looking, but beauty in women seldom rises beyond a buxom comeliness, and the open mouth discloses a den of horrors. The females have a full or preponderant share, in out-of-door labour of all sorts. It is a lively scene every morning, when numbers of men, women and children hike to the jungle to cut wood, or forage for a part of the household, almost as important here as in Ireland, – pigs. Nothing is here of the phlegm or dull loquacity of the natives of the plains. All are full of life and spirits, whistling, singing, screaming, chasing one another, and in short, skylarking in all ways. They dislike early hours, and it is difficult to get them abroad betimes even on extraordinary occasions. They have great powers of industry, but are somewhat capricious in exerting it. Frank and independent in manner, and in spirit too, they have much more manifestly a conscience to distinguish between right and wrong, than any of their neighbours below. Whether they always act up to it is another question, but there were those among my Kasia servants, of whose right feeling, truthfulness, attachment, and strict uprightness according to their light, I shall ever have a pleasing remembrance. They are fond of money, and of trading, and are neither wanting in courage, nor given to quarreling. They are apt scholars, and of late have shewn a considerable desire for instruction. The heads of a large village near Cherra invited my good friend, Mr. Jones, Missionary at the station, to reside with them, offering to build him a house, if he would do so. During a tour of part of the hills, in which I had the pleasure of accompanying him in 1842, the people listened to his discourse with decorum, and apparently with attention and interest.

The common food of the people in the vicinity of the plains is rice: in the interior rice, millet, maize, with kuchu, some other roots and grains peculiar to themselves. Dried fish is a universal article of diet, and is brought from below in vast quantities. Those in the neighbourhood of the British settlement are by no means gross feeders. But I once saw labourers who were at work in the garden, carry off a dead leopard to feast on, with great glee; and in some of the northern villages, a species of caterpillar is eaten, and sold in the markets. They all enjoy flesh occasionally, especially pork; there is always hot roast pork for sale in some corner of the bazaar on market day. Some individuals and families have a superstitious objection to different kinds of food, and will not allow such to be brought into their houses. This has a remarkable parallel among a race of Negroes of South Eastern Africa, as the following passage (quoted in the Edinburgh Review for January 1837) from Captain Owen’s Narrative will shew. “It is prohibited in many families to eat certain animals’ flesh, such as in some beef, in others elephants, others hippopotamus. It is said that if any family transgress this rule, and eat of the forbidden flesh their teeth will drop out,” &c. From millet, they make large quantities of spirits, of which I am sorry to say there is great consumption at all the bazaars; and on the evening of Cherra market-day, one may see many riotous parties staggering to the verge of the valley, where in that state they descend the ladders before described, without fear or accident; for the people of the vallies are more addicted to drunkenness than those of the table land. This millet forms the principal grain cultivation in the vallies near Cherra Poonjee. In the end of the cold weather large tracts of the jungle are burnt, and the seed scattered on the stony slopes. The ground gives one or two crops, and then a new tract is prepared in like manner. Under this process the woods in the neighbourhood of Cherra are becoming rapidly thinned.

The Kasias are utterly unacquainted with any art of weaving, nearly all the usual articles of their dress, peculiar as they are, are made for them by other tribes bordering on the Assam valley. They manufacture a small quantity of caoutchouc, which they use principally for smearing baskets in which they keep honey, &c. By the way, the caoutchouc tree answers better than the Banyan to the well known description in Milton (or rather in his authority, Pliny) of the Indian fig. The former can much more reasonably lay claim, to leaves “broad as Amazonian targe” than any which To Indian known In Malabar or Deccan spreads her arms.”

The honey is abundant and of unequalled flavour. A hollowed block of wood forms the hive.

As is the case with some European nations, the houses of the people are by no means so dirty as their persons. Generally they are dry, substantial thatched cottages, built of a double wall of broad planks placed vertically in the ground, and with a good boarded floor raised three feet or more from the earth. As they have rarely anything like a window one sees nothing at first entering, and rarely escapes a bruised head from a collision with one of the massive low beams. The fire is always burning on an earthen hearth in the center. There is no chimney, but one soon gets accustomed to wood smoke. On a swinging frame over the fire is piled the firewood to dry; the veranda, or space between the two walls, is partly stored with lumber, and partly affords shelter to the fowls, calves and pigs, of which last are carefully tended, and attain enormous obesity. The people are unacquainted with the saw, and the large planks (in some of the chief houses more than two feet in breadth) of which their dwellings are built, are tediously and wastefully cut from the tree with an adge.

They use milk in no shape, and it is an article, which a traveler making long marches in the country, must learn to do without. Nor are their cattle, whether goats or oxen, though numerous, applied to any useful purpose in their life time, being kept only for slaughter, and especially for sacrifice. Man is the only bearer of burdens. Their husbandry is confined to the hoe, and their grain is thrashed with the flail. All loads the people carry on the back, supported by a belt across their forehead, and in the rains they and their burdens are protected by umbrellas, in the shape of a large hooded shell of matting, which covers the head and the whole of the back. Wild dogs hunting in packs are commonly reported to exist in some of the vallies; and from the descriptions given me of wild oxen called “U-blé massi,” or the cattle of God, existing in the neighbourhood of the Bara Pani, I have little doubt that the Gour will be found in those jungles