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Bangladesh

Catholics mourn legendary Garo Sangsarek priest in Bangladesh

Jonik Nokrek remained steadfast to his old faith when all his family members and relatives converted to Christianity

Catholics mourn legendary Garo Sangsarek priest in Bangladesh

Jonik Nokrek, one of the last followers of the ancient Garo religion Sangsarek in Bangladesh, died on Nov. 12 at the age of 107. (Photo courtesy of Alik Mree)

Ethnic Garo Catholics have paid tribute to a legendary priest of an ancient religion who was known as a cultural icon and guardian of his community.

Jonik Nokrek, a khamal (priest) of the Sangsarek religion, died at his home in Chunia village in the Madhupur area of Tangail district in north-central Bangladesh on Nov. 12.

He was 107 years old and one of a handful of followers of Sangsarek in Muslim-majority Bangladesh.

Sangsarek is an animist and nature-worshipping faith that is a mixture of pantheism and Hinduism. Like Hindus and Buddhists, Sangsarek people believe in reincarnation of the spirit depending on his or her sins, according to Garo Journal.

Nokrek left behind five sons, three daughters and about 30 grandchildren. All his family members are Christians like most Garo people in Bangladesh.

He was cremated in his village on Nov. 13 in line with Sangsarek funeral rites and his final wishes in the presence of hundreds of people including family members, relatives and well-wishers, both Christians and non-Christians.

Thanks to him, we have learned and kept alive the culture of Garo people. He was always on the front line in asserting the rights of Garo people

Many paid homage to Nokrek on social media site Facebook, describing his death as the end of an era in the history of the Garo people in Bangladesh.

Eugene Nokrek, a Garo Catholic leader based in Madhupur, hailed the deceased priest as a legendary figure and guardian of the Garo community.

“Jonik Nokrek strongly protested when Sangsarek Garos started converting to Christianity, but he changed his mind when he found Garo people were making considerable progress thanks to efforts in education, health and social services pioneered by Christian missionaries. He held onto the old faith until his last breath,” Eugene Nokrek, president of indigenous rights group Joenshahi Adivasi Development Council, told UCA News.  

Jonik Nokrek was a guardian of the Garo people, torchbearer of Garo culture and protector of people's rights, he said.

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“Thanks to him, we have learned and kept alive the culture of Garo people. He was always on the front line in asserting the rights of Garo people. His death is an irreparable loss,” he added.

Father Simon Hacha, a senior Garo Catholic priest and secretary of the Dialogue Commission in predominantly Garo Mymensingh Diocese, also paid homage to the late priest.

“He was a man with a pure heart and strong faith. His contributions to Garo cultural and social life are remarkable. Even though Garo people are mostly Christian, thanks to great torchbearers like him, we have a strong identity and continue to celebrate our rich cultural heritage,” Father Hacha told UCA News.

According to villagers, Jonik Nokrek was born in 1914 at Udaipur, now in Tripura state of eastern India, during British colonial rule. He came to Madhupur, then a densely forested but sparsely populated region, to live with his relatives. He married and settled there forever.

As a Sangsarek priest, he had thousands of followers until Garo people started converting to Christianity.

In the Sangsarek faith, Garo people worship various gods such as Tatara Rabuga (The Creator), Chorabudi (Protector of Crops), Misi Saljong (God of Sun and Fertility), Goera (God of Strength) and Susime (Goddess of Wealth), according to Garo Journal. 

Once known as a hill tribe relying on hunting in forests for survival, Garo people in Bangladesh are mostly farmers rearing pigs, cows and goats

The Garo are a Tibeto-Burman mongoloid tribe who follow a matrilineal family system where children take the title of their mother and daughters inherit family property.

Once known as a hill tribe relying on hunting in forests for survival, Garo people in Bangladesh are mostly farmers rearing pigs, cows and goats.

According to the 2011 census, there were about one million Garo people in the eastern Indian states of Meghalaya, Assam and Tripura.

In Bangladesh, there are about 200,000 Garo people, mostly Christians, and fewer than 100 practice hte Sangsarek faith, said Sanjeeb Drong, a Garo Catholic and secretary of Bangladesh Adivasi Forum.      

Church sources say Protestant missionaries began evangelizing among the Garo in 1863, while Catholic missionaries arrived in 1910. Today, almost all Garo are Christian with about 80 percent Catholic.

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