The Bawms of Bangladesh

The Chittagong Hill Tracts of Bangladesh are well known for the diverse ethnic groups who have lived there for countless generations, with many of their traditional customs unchanged by modern progress. There are eleven ethnic groups residing in the area – Marma, Tripura, Chakma, Tanchangya, Chak, Mru, Khumi, Pangkhua, Khyang, Lushai and Bawn – the latter being one of the largest tribes in numbers. The Bawm live primarily in the districts of Bandarban and Rangamati. They are part of the Chin indigenous group known as “Lai”, and this has resulted in the group being erroneously referred to as Lai. Other names the Bawm have been referred to by authors, researchers and authorities in the past include Kuki, Zo, Bonjugi, Bonzogi, Bom, Banzu, Banjoos and Bawmzo.

One of the meanings of the name Bawm is that of being united, sharing or combined. Another meaning that has been put forward is that of being a basket, bag or pocket, although it is generally agreed that this meaning is less likely. Oral traditions passed down through generations attribute the Bawms with being resolute warriors who would capture their enemies and use them as slaves. Before their captives could assume the duties of slaves, it was required that the family sacrifices a cockerel, wiping its blood on the feet of the slave, thereby making him a member of the family, although in a subservient position.

It is believed that the Bawm’s ancestors originated in China, with the group migrating through Myanmar and eventually settling in the Chittagong Hill Tracts. There are similarities between the Bawm and Kuki tribes, most notably the custom of the men wearing their hair in a knot on top of their heads. During British rule many Bawms were incorrectly categorized as Kuki by the authorities.

The Bawm were a nomadic tribe with a very simple lifestyle and social structure. They cultivated the land using a slash and burn approach in the densely forested areas. The Bawm have become more settled now, farming the land to produce rice, ginger and a variety of fruit and vegetables. The ancient culture of song, dance, rites and rituals among the Bawm underwent quite a change when Christianity was introduced to the community, with Christian beliefs and ancient customs sometimes being blended. But in recent years there has been a return to the original customs, much of which has reportedly been motivated by the younger generation of the tribe. In 1985 the Bawm Social Council was formed to promote and protect these customs for future generations.