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Language: Garo
Source: English-Garo dictionary of 1905

Description

The milam is a peculiar sword of the Garo people who call themselves A'chik Mande or "hill people" today. They are a matrilineal society that originally mainly inhabited the Garo Hills in Meghalaya, India.

The milam sword of the Garo people of Assam is easily one of the stranger swords around. Typically forged of a single piece of steel, it has a nearly straight double-edged blade with a broad, peaked tip. The hilt is recurved, has a crossguard, and a fish-tail-shaped pommel. In addition, there are usually two chisel-like protrusions on the portion of the hilt between guard and blade.

The crossbar is often adorned with hair or fibers. Those of yak tails were most prized. The swords are only described in use by the Garo but were said to be bought from the Megams in the Khasi Hills.1

The word milam first appears in the English-Garo dictionary of 1905 by the American Baptist Foreign Mission Society.An earlier, late 18th-century account provides the word dig'ree for a sword in the Garo language.3

The earliest provenanced milam I am aware of is in the British Museum, accession number As.8968. It was collected in Goalpara district in Assam and incorporated in the Henry Christy (1810-1865) collection. It was exhibited at the London International Exhibition from April to October of 1873 and was presented to the British Museum by Sir Augustus Wollaston Franks in November of that same year.

Milam in the British Museum

Milam sword of the Henry Christy collection, before 1865.
British Museum, accession number As.8968.

Milam sword of the Garo people

A typical example of a Garo milam.
Mandarin Mansion inventory 2022.

 

 

Garo man in war dress

A Garo man in war dress.
From Playfair; The Garos, 1909. Page 57.

 

Garo Jungle book

From William Carrey, a Garo Jungle Book. 1919.
 

The peculiar shape of the sword begs for comparison with the rather similarly shaped parang pandat of Celebes and northern Borneo.

 

Notes
1. Major A. Playfair; The Garos. David Nutt, London. 1909. Pages 31-32.
2. Members of the Garo mission; English-Garo dictionary. American Baptist Foreign Mission Society. 1905. Page 164.
3. John Eliot; Observations on the Inhabitants of the Garrow Hills, made during a public deputation in the years 1788 and 1789. Published in Asiatic Researches; or, Transactions of the Society, instituted in Bengal, for inquiring into the History and Antiquities, the arts, the sciences and Literature of Asia. London/Calcutta. Volume III. 1799. Page 36.

 

In period sources

The first detailed description of the Garo people appears in John Eliot; Observations on the Inhabitants of the Garrow Hills, made during a public deputation in the years 1788 and 1789. Published in Asiatic Researches. Volume III. 1799. Apart from depicting a Garo warrior with his sword, see below, it doesn't go into any details on their most peculiar swords.

The next mention, again only by illustration, appears in John Butler's; A Sketch of Assam of 1849.

 

 

Assam dao in Sketch of Assam

From Jonh Bulter; Sketch of Assam, 1849. Page 184.
Garrow is an older name for Garo.

 

"The object of Government seems to be an experiment to tame the savage, and thus put a stop to the annual raids into the plains after Bengali heads. Their looks are against them, and I observed that the men always went armed; that, as I passed through the fields they were cultivating, they all had a sword or spear in the ground nearby."

-Doctor Stoddard, 1868
Quoted in William Carey; A Garo Jungle Book or the Mission to the Garos of Assam. Philadelphia, the Judson Press. 1919
Page 126

 

The most detailed account I have found so far comes from Major A. Playfair, published in 1909:

"The principal weapons of the Garos are swords and spears, without one or other of which they are rarely seen. The sword is very quaintly designed, and would be found awkward to use by anybody but a Garo. It varies from 3 to 4 ft. in length; has a straight blade about 2 ins. broad, a blunt, arrow-shaped point, and from hilt to point is made of one piece of iron.

The grip is very thin, and instead of being straight, is curved, and ends in a fiat, sharp-edged, rounded head. This sharp hilt is supposed to enable the owner to stick his sword into the ground by his side when he halts, so as to have it always ready to his hand. At each end of the crossbar is attached a bunch of cow’s-tail hair, or what is more greatly prized, part of a yak’s tail.

The sword is always carried naked, and is never placed in a sheath or fastened to the body, it is a most useful possession to the Garo on the march, for with it he can clear jungle which bars his way, split firewood and cut up his food, besides using it for the main purpose of defence. These swords are purchased from the Megams in the Khasi Hills district, and appear to be of Khasi origin. The ordinary weapon can be purchased for two or three rupees, but an heirloom is much prized and cannot often be bought." 

-Major A. Playfair, 1909
The Garos. David Nutt, London
Pages 31-32

 

 

A Garo jungle book

Illustration (left) and photo (right) of Garo men with milam swords.
(The illustration is misquoted and actually appears in Vol III of that publication. Page 17.)
From A Garo Jungle Book, 1929. Pages 4-5.

 

William Carey on the above, left, 1789 depiction:

"The shield is the usual sepi made of bamboo or wood, and the sword cannot be mistaken. It is the genuine Garo melam, long and narrow, with a slight curve, double edge, and blunt point. It lacks, however, the usual hilt- guard or crosspiece, ornamented with black tufts of hair, as seen in the later photograph, and among the weapons." 

William Carey, 1919
A Garo Jungle Book or the Mission to the Garos of Assam. Philadelphia, the Judson Press
Page 8

 

"So through the years strange tales are whispered abroad, such as make the flesh creep, tales of the impish wild men lurking in these hill fastnesses, and ever and anon coming forth to slay and steal. Rumors followed of more daring exploits, of annual incursions and raids on the unprotected plains, far afield, till that jungle lair at the gate of the valley, and so near the throne of Bengal, became an object of terror to the province, and everywhere the Garo’s name was spoken with bated breath. Soldiers and merchants, whose business took them up the river, and strings of wayfarers and pilgrims, tired with dust and heat of the road, shuddered as they must needs bivouac almost under the shadow of the listening hills, and crept closer together as they thought of that demon-haunted darkness, and fed their fires through the long anxious night. If they slept, it was to turn uneasily in their dreams, haunted by the fear of a Garo’s sword."

William Carey, 1919
A Garo Jungle Book or the Mission to the Garos of Assam. Philadelphia, the Judson Press
Pages 12-13

 

"The imagination of the Garos is contantly darkened and terrorized by the presence of evil spirits, malignant and powerful, whose sole occupation is to trap and hurt mankind. To appease them is the one hope of existence. Every field, foot-path, and fence has its bamboo shrine or clump of sticks, smeared with blood, and decorated with feathers, egg-shells, cotton, flowers, and cornstalks. In the center of every village is the great sacrificial fork, in which the heads of strong bulls are pinned, to be cut off with a single sweep of the Garo sword." 

-William Carey, 1919
A Garo Jungle Book or the Mission to the Garos of Assam. Philadelphia, the Judson Press
Page 23

 

"The altar of sacrifice is a little mound of earth in a square enclosure. A pit is dug in front, and the animal is sacrificed over it. The manner of it is this: Grass is strewn on the ground; the bull bends to eat, and the priest raises his sword; then, as the animal lifts its head, the sword cleaves through the neck; at the same moment an assistant cuts the hamstrings from behind, and the beast falls lifeless where it stood. The blood is collected in a pan and placed with the head and a lighted lamp under a sort of canopy near the altar. All present bow themselves to the ground. A white cloth is then drawn over the arch, and all is left undisturbed for an hour that the demon may come and take what he desires. When the veil is lifted cooking begins for the feast." 

-William Carey, 1919
A Garo Jungle Book or the Mission to the Garos of Assam. Philadelphia, the Judson Press
Page 25

 

"The danger is imminent. They know what a raid means ; the stealthy approach at dead of night, the sudden shout and swoop, the firing of the houses, the prod of the spear and the hack of the sword, before the victims are half awake, and the ghastly sawing at the throat. They know that no one is spared, man, woman, or little child. So they set a watch both day and night. Fires are lighted all around the small circle of huts. Every precaution is taken. But how few they are, how feeble and defenseless! If the Garos attack in force they will be overwhelined in a moment. For three days no one can sleep. All night they watch and listen. Every sound makes them start. The strain on body and mind is great." 

-William Carey, 1919
A Garo Jungle Book or the Mission to the Garos of Assam. Philadelphia, the Judson Press
Page 25

 

 

 

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