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South Garo Hills
Particulars
Description
Area
1,887 Sq.km
Population
1,42,574
District Head Quarters
Baghmara
Language
Garo
History And Geography

Introduction

The almost complete absence of written records prior to the coming of the British leaves the past history of the Garos very far from certain. For the past, we have to depend entirely on their legends and oral traditions, their folklore and folksongs, and other circumstantial evidences .

Early Migrations and Settlements

We cannot be certain about the length of time the Garos have been in the hills that bear their name. "According to their own traditions, the Garos came originally from Tibet and settled in Cooch Bihar. From where, they were driven to the neighbourhood of Jogighapha, where they remained 400 years but were again compelled to fly towards the south by the king of that country and his ally the ruler of Cooch Bihar. Their next wanderigs were to Gauhati where they were enslaved by the Assamese, but released by a Khasi prince who settled them in the neighbourhood of Boko. The place was, however, infested with tigers and the Garos then moved into the hills". (as recorded in Gazetteer of Bengal and North-East India by B.C. Allen, W.E.A.. gait, C.H.G. Allen & H.P. Howard). Another tradition ascribing some support to this theory, maintains that the Garos are descended from their forefathers in Asong Tibetgori. The Garos in the Kamrup plain, recount a tradition that their forefathers came eastward from the Himalayas and reached Gondulghat where they made a brief halt, and on leaving that place, traversed to Sadiya, from where they trekked on into the north bank of Brahmaputra. After a long westward trail, they reached Amingaon. There in the north bank their life was not secure, they crossed the Bahmaputra river and came to occupy Kamakhya. They occupied it for some generations until the Koches came to invade the Garo Kingdom. From Gauhati, wave after wave of westward migration poured to the Garo outer hills, and later on penetrated the interior hills of their present abode. If critically examined, the ancient history of Garos would seem to have been a period marked by persistent and tenacious internal warfare and many blood-feuds seem to have occurred between families or villages and between neighbouring Chiefs or Nokmas.

Medieval Period

During the Mediaeval period and the Mughal era, the more important estates bordering the Garo Hills were Karaibari, Kalimalupara, Mechpara and Habraghat in Rongpur district, Susang and Sherput in Mymensing district of Bengal and Bijini in the Eastern Duars.Early records describe the Garos as being in a state of intermittent conflict with Zamindars of these large estates.

With the passage of time in the medieval period, while the Garos in the hills were still divided into a number of petty Nokmaships, the plain tracts along the fringes at the foot of the hills came to be included in the many Zamindari Estates, which eventually developed into fewer but larger complexes.

Modern Period

The contact between the British and the Garos started towards the close of the 18th Century after the British East India Company had secured the Diwani of Bengal from the Mughal Emperor. Consequently, all the estates bordering upon Garo Hills, which for all practical purposes had been semi-independent were brought under the control of the British. Though political control had passed from the Mughals to the British, the latter, like Mughals, had no desire to control the Estates or their tributaries directly. The Zamindars were not disturbed in the internal management of their estates. In fact, they were entrusted, as they had been by the Mughals, with the responsibility of keeping the hill Garos in check with help of their retainers. Thus in the beginning, the intermittent conflict between the Zamindars and the Garos went on unabated until the situation deteriorated to the extent that the British were forced to take notice. This development led ultimately to the annexation of the Garo Hills in 1873. Captain Williamson was the first Deputy Commissioner of the unified district. The district was bifurcated into two districts viz. East Garo Hills and West Garo Hills districts in October 1979.The West Garo Hills district was further divided into two administrative districts of West and South Garo Hills on June 1992. The district headquarters of South Garo Hills is Baghmara.

People

Legend has it that the Garos originally inhabited a province of Tibet named Torua and left Tibet for some reason in the distant past under the leadership of the legendary Jappa-Jalimpa and Sukpa-Bongepa. They wandered in the Brahmaputra valley at the site of present day Jogighopa in Assam and gradually moved up the Assam valley for centuries in search of a permanent home. In the process, they survived the ordeals of wars and persecutions at the hand of the kings ruling the valley.

They then branched out into a number of sub-tribes, and the main body under the legendary leader, Along Noga, occupied Nokrek, the highest peak in Garo Hills. A'Chik is the general title used for the various groups of people after the division of the race. The title is used to denote different groups such as the Ambeng, Atong, Akawe (or Awe), Matchi, Chibok, Chisak Megam or Lyngngam, Ruga, Gara-Ganching who inhabit the greater portion of the present Garo Hills. But the name applies also to the groups of Garos scattered at the neighbouring places in Assam, Tripura, Nagaland and Mymensing in Bangladesh.

Though the main feature of their traditional political setup, social institutions, marriage systems, inheritance of properties, religion and beliefs are common, it is observed that as these units were isolated from one another, they have developed their own separate patterns. They also speak different dialects. Also their traditional songs, dances, music differ from each other. The song, dances and music are mostly associated with traditional religious functions and ceremonies.

The Garos have a matrilineal society where children adopt their mother clan. The simplest pattern of Garo family consists of the husband, wife and children. The family increases with the marriage of the heiress, generally the youngest daughter. She is called Nokna and her husband Nokrom. The bulk of family property is bequeathed upon the heiress and other sisters receive fragments but are entitled to use plots of land for cultivation and other purposes. The other daughters go away with their husbands after their marriage to form a new and independent family. This aspect of family structure remains the same even in urban areas.

The Garo household utensils are simple and limited.

They consists mainly of cooking pots, large earthen vessels for brewing liquor, the pestle and the mortal with which paddy is husked. They also use bamboo baskets of different shapes and sizes.

The Garos have their own weapons. One of the principal weapons is two-edges sword called Milam made of one piece of iron form hilt to point. There is a cross-bar between the hilt and the blade where attached a bunch of cow’s tail-hair. Other types of weapons are shields, Spear, Bows and Arrows, Axes, Daggers etc.

Religion

Christian work inside Garo Hills having started about 1878 with the American Baptists who had, however, started their work among Garos in Goalpara since 1867. The Roman Catholics began their work in the plains areas first around 1931 -32, following it up with the establishment of a base at Tura (1933); since then it has extended to other parts of the Garo Hills.

Between 1961 and 1971 the number of people returned as Songsarek underwent a decline and it would appear that their decrease has largely been due to the advance of Christianity. It can indeed be stated that the vast majority of Garos profess only these two beliefs that is , they are either Songsarek or Christian.

In earlier works on the Garos, as indeed on all the tribes of the North-East, the tenn Animism , was applied to the tribal faiths. This was perhaps oversimplification of a complex subject. It is true that much of Garo religious practices relate to Nature. They attribute the creation of the world to the Godhead, Tatara-Rabuga. Next in rank but more intimately concerned with human affairs is Saljong, who is the source of all gifts to mankind. He is honoured with the Wangala celebrations. Another benign deity is Chorabudi, the protector of crops. The first fruits of the fields are offered to him. He is also honoured with a pig sacrifice whenever sacrifices are offered to Tatara-Rabuga.

Living so close to Nature, the early Garo people the world around them with a multitude of spirits called mite, some of them good and some of them capable of harming human beings for any lapses they might commit. Appropriate sacrifices are offered to them as occasions demand.

In all religious ceremonies, sacrifices were essential for the propitiation of the spirits. They had to be invoked for births, marriages, deaths, illness, besides for the good crops and welfare of the community and for protection from destructions and dangers. Like the Hindus, the Garos used to show reverence to the ancestors by offering food to the departed souls and by erection of memorial stones.

Like other religions, the Songsarek religion ascribes to every human being the possession of a spirit that remains with him throughout his lifetime and leaves the body at death. There appears to be a belief in reincarnation, people being reborn into a lower or higher form of life according to their conduct in their lifetime. The greatest blessing a Garo looks forward to is to be reborn as a human being in his or her original ma'chong or family unit.

Garo society is entirely casteless.

Social Life

Property & Inheritance

Garo society is matrilineal, and inheritance is through the mother. All children, as soon as they are born, belong to their mother's ma'chong. The Garo tribe is divided into five exogamous divisions called Chatchis (sometimes rendered as Katchis). Two of these are relatively unimportant in that they include an insubstantial part of the population.

The important ones are the Chatchis named Marak, Momin and Sangma. Of these again, the Marak and the Sangma Chatchis have a wider membership; it has been estimated that more than half of all the Garos belong to one or the other. The earlier practice of Chatchi exogamy is to a large extent still strictly observed. The majority of Garos still hold that a member of a particular chatchi should not marry a member of the same Chatchi. For example, most Sangmas would shrink from marrying olher Sangmas. The practice may be crumbling to some extent in urban society. Marriage within a Chatchi subdivision, or ma'chong as it is called, is on the other hand, scrupulously avoided, such a marriage being tantamount to incest. This, to a Garo, is a serious breach of moral laws which will draw upon the guilty persons divine punishment, like being killed by wild animals or struck by lightning. These ma'chongs are very numerous. For the present purpo.se, a few may be named as examples under each Chatchi e.g...
Sangma : Agitok, Am'ptomg, Koksi, Manda, Rongmitu, Rongrokgre, Snal, etc.
Marak : Chada, Chainbugong, Ka'ma, Koknal, Raksam, Rangsa, Rechil, Re'ina, etc.
Momin : Cheran, Gabil, Ga'rey, Megimggare, Mrencla, Wa'tre, etc.

Although a modernized Manda Sangma may not shrink from marrying an A'gitok Sangma, he will not think of marrying another Manda Sangma. The several Chatchis are subdivided into a large number of ma 'chongs. As far as is known, no one has attempted to list the names of all the ma'chongs.

In the matrilineal society of the Garos, property passes from mother to daughter. Although the sons belong to the mother's ma'chong, they cannot inherit any port ion of the maternal property. Indeed, males cannot in theory hold any property other than that acquired through their own exertions. Even this will pass on to their children through their children's mother after they marry. Among the Garos any of the daughters, even the eldest, if there are many, may be chosen as the nokna ,or heiress, having proved her fitness to occupy this privileged position by her dutifulness to her parents. In case there are no daughters, the family can adopt any other girl, usually one having the closest blood relationship to the adoptive mother, first preference being given to one of the "non-heir" daughters (a'gate) of the woman's sisters, who are, of course, among the closest female relations a woman can have.

Inheritance of property among the Garos is generally linked with matrimonial relations, and although men may have no property to pass on, they have an important say in deciding to whom it should pass.

Marriage & Morals

As has been stated earlier, the broad divisions of Garo society, the chatchis, are traditionally exogamous. Although the restrictions are probably weakening, particularly among urban Garos or those living in cosmopolitan settings, we can say that the overwhelming majority of Garos still observe them. Even in sophisticated society, however, the harsher restrictions in regard to marriage within the same ma'chong are still scrupulously observed.

Broadly speaking, we can say that a man who belongs to the Sangma Chatchi will look for a bride among the other chatchis like the Marak or the Momin and vice-versa.

The initiative in any move towards marriage is usually taken by the bride's family, perhaps even by the girl herself. When the girl is the heiress, the father, with an eye to the property she will inherit, may as staled earlier, get his own sister's son, that is, his own nephew, as her prospective bridegroom.

Among the Songsareks or non-Christians, the practice of' bridegroom capture, particularly in rural areas, still goes on. A girl may express her interest in a young man and ask her male kinsmen to get him for her. This may involve an arduous chase, especially if the boy is not interested because, perhaps, he still cherishes the freedom of bachelor life, and the matter may not end with his capture and his being brought to her house. In the circumstances, the captured bridegroom will try to escape but generally after a few such attempts, he becomes reconciled to the idea of settling down.

In spite of the comparative freedom enjoyed by young people in Garo society, the standard of morality is generally high and even those who may have been guilty of youthful indiscretions settle down to a stable married life.

Home Life

In the urban areas, the types of buildings are generally what are called the "Assam type", with plank floors, plastered walls, ceilings of cloth or matting and corrugated iron sheet roofs. Buildings of this type are of particular advantage in earthquake-prone regions like the Garo Hills, being able to stand up to a high degree of stress.

In the rural areas, people still prefer their old-fashioned houses which, besides being comparatively easy and quick to erect, are also cool since the thatch roofing is comparatively non-conducting. The houses are not necessarily built on level ground. They are often long, although the size may depend on the size of the family. The front generally faces the village "square", and a section of it rests on the ground. This is used for storing odds and ends and even for cattle. The rear portion may, on unlevel ground, rest on long beams which are propped up on numerous posts of varying length, and the farthest end may thus be several feet off the ground.

The walls and flooring are of lengths of split bamboo which are secured to their wooden frames by thongs of bamboo or cane. There are no windows, and this fact explains the darkness and the smoky atmosphere of the interior of the house. There may be only three doorways, the front one connecting with the outside, another with a side balcony or verandah (a'leng) and the third with the privy at the back. Next to the storage room is the main living room which generally has a hearth in the middle, made inside a rectangle filled with earth, to contain the fire which is kept burning continuously, This fire provides all the illumination needed. Bamboo shelves (onggare) suspended above the hearth are used for storing articles that need to be kept dry, including articles of food, utensils etc. Along the sides, away from the openings, there are racks where the inmates keep their belongings.

There may also be a separate room behind the main room where the parents may sleep. The other members of the household use the main room which is also the place where visitors are received. For convivial purposes, the inmates may use the verandah. Here they may also take out their portable looms or perform light chores.

To reduce risks of loss by fire, granaries are usually constructed away from the residential houses.

In elephant infested region, the Garos construct tree-top houses which are accessible by means of a bamboo ladder. These houses also serve as look-outs during the daytime for crop-watchers.

The furniture are of the simplest types, and may be limited to a number of sitting blocks or basketwork seats.

Dress and Decoration

The Garos normally do not use many ornaments. The common ones are strings of beads and earrings worn both by men and women. The latter ornaments are considered to be very essential as they serve as guarantees of the safe journey of the soul to the other world, being offered to the spirit Nawang should he try to prevent the soul from going to the land of the dead.

Contact with people from outside has greatly modified the dress of the Garos. Both men and women affect dark clothes, either black or dark blue, and men may wear shorts instead of the traditional loin-cloth. Turbans are generally worn by both sexes. On festive occasions all the family heir-looms including the fine clothes and ornaments for men and girls are taken out

Food

The Garos prefer simple food. They generally avoid spiced food, and usually with rice they take boiled meat and vegetables. They boil this curry quite plainly, adding a kind of alkaline kalchi vegetable 'salt' to it just as it comes to the boil. It has been suggested that this practice accounts for the comparatively low incidence of gastric ailments in these hills.
In areas where rice is in short supply, or during lean years, millet usually forms part of their staple food. Millet is also greatly used in the preparation of rice-beer which the average Songsarek family uses. The drink has a low alcohol content and constitutes the staple beverage of the Garos and most hill tribes of the North-East. In recent years, however, there has been an increase in the use of country spirits which not only lack the nutritive value of rice-beer but also tend to have a demoralizing effect upon those who drink it in great measures. Among the urban population, the attraction of the so-called "Indian Made Foreign Liquor" has also been strong, the person drinking it deriving a misplaced sense of satisfaction since he attaches to it prestige of a sort. The price that society has had to pay in terms of broken homes and alcoholism, especially among the youth, and other deleterious consequences has been seriously felt.

Addiction to gambling is a malady that is not peculiar to any district. State Lotteries and recently, legalized 'teer' are among the more common ones. By and large, the majority of Garos, particularly in the rural areas, are comparatively impervious to their attractions as they are satisfied with a simple, uncomplicated way of life. It is among the urban population that this has become a problem.
The attraction of great wealth, not tempered by any intelligent assessment of the probabilities of winning huge prizes, has made many people improvident and in most cases has detracted from their economic well-being.

Festivals

There are no organized games as such among the Garos, though this does not imply that they have nothing to amuse themselves with. Games are generally played occasionally. Jumping contests and other competitions are indulged in more as tests of strength. The young males, members of the Nokpantes or Bachelors' Dormitories, may organize themselves into groups and engage in such contests as the wa'pong sika, the Garo version of the tug-of-war, in which a stout bamboo pole replaces the rope and the contesting teams try push each other beyond a marked line instead of pulling. Again, the villages may turnout in strength to take part in communal fishing.

The common and regular festivities are, of course, those connected with agricultural operations. Greatest among Garo festivals is the Wangala which is more a celebration of thanksgiving after harvest in which Saljong, the god who provides mankind with Nature's bounties and ensures their prosperity, is honoured. There is no fixed date for the celebration, this varying from village to village, but usually, the Wangala is celebrated in October. Preparations take place well before the date; items of food are among the first to be collected. The Nokma of the village takes the responsibility to see that all arrangements are in order. Rituals in his house and in the individual fields precede the feasting at which guests are literally force-fed by the hosts. A large quantity of food and rice-beer must be prepared well ahead. The climax of the celebrations is the colourful Wangala dance in which men and women take part in their best clothes. Lines are formed by males and females separately and to the rhythmic beat of drums and gongs and blowing of horns by the males, both groups shuffle forward in parallel lines. Variety is added by the performance of a skilled dancer who ties a large fruit to the end of a string about half a meter in length and by a skilful manipulation of his body sets it swinging round and round behind him. This part of the dance usually wins enthusiastic applause.

Communal Life

A Garo village is a well-knit unit, the population consisting of one domiciled ma'chong or lineage of a chatchi or clan which has proprietary rights over the entire land of the village or a 'king, as it is called. In the matrilineal society of the Garos, of course, we must assume matrimonial relations with other clans with which marriage ties are permissible. In the case of the principal family, the husband of the heiress becomes the nokma. The nokma manages his wife's property and allots plots to different families for cultivation, besides carrying out other duties. Girls generally stay in their own village; their husbands, if not cross-cousins, may be from other villages. Some degree of relationship may, therefore, be said to exist between most households in the village and the principal clan.

The people are industrious, and both men and women participate in the normal duties in the fields and in the home. Some tasks, naturally, belong to the males, like jungle-clearing, house building and all other work demanding greater physical labour, though basketry is also largely man's work. Planting of most crops, ginning of cotton as well as weaving, cooking and making of rice-beer, are usually done by women.

A Garo village ordinarily has its Bachelors' Dormitory or Nokpante in which the male youth and unmarried men over a certain age live. In the past, these dormitories had a more specific role to play. Besides performing civic tasks, they also served as watch-houses whose inmates were entrusted with the task of guarding the village from unforeseen dangers and of hostilities. Even today, the members of a dormitory are bound together by ties of loyalty. Guided as they are by the tribal code of conduct, a high degree of discipline is noticeable in their way of life and behavior.

Administrative Units

The district comprise of four Community & Rural development Blocks namely,
Baghmara C&RD Block
Gasuapara C&RD Block
Ronggara C&RD Block
Chokpot C&RD Block

Tourism

There are several places in the district that can be developed for tourism. Some of them are of historical importance; others are important because of their association with the cultural traditions of the Garo people and many of them again have deservedly earned fame for their scenic beauty. Much of the area still remain untouched, retaining almost intact the original flora and fauna. Garo hills known for its abundance of wild life, should interest naturalists and photographers to capture the facts of life of animals and the flora and fauna.
Two mountain ranges - The Arebella range and the Tura range, passes through the Garo Hills, forming the great Balpakaram Valley in between.

Balpakram National Park
A national wild life park, is about 45 kms from Baghmara, also known as the abode of perpetual winds. An awe-inspiring mini-canyon separates the Garo Hills plateau from the Khasi-Hills plateau across the Sib-bari rivulet. A majestic rocky plateau crowns the western ridge of the cliffs on the Garo Hills side of the mini-canyon.
The plateau commands an enchanting view of the beautiful plains of Bangladesh which are criss crossed by meandering rivers and large expanses of silvery inland water. The plateau has borne the unending lashes of summer wind and storm which have blown off all traces of soil, leaving the plateau as one continuous mass of rock and rubble. The Garos believe that on death, the soul of every pious Garo flies to Balpakram and abides there for all time to come, making it the abode of human souls.
The Balpakram plateau and canyon abound in plants and herbs of immense medicinal value, besides being the home of all sorts of wild animals including wild bison, wild cow and elephants. Government has since created the Balpakram National Park stretching over an area of approximately two hundred and twenty square kilometres, covering the plateau. The National Park can be approached by taking off from the Baghmara-Moheshkhola-Ranikor-Balut-Shil- long Road, at a place called Sib-bari.
During April each year, the entire Balpakram plateau is covered by exquisitely colourful wild flowers and swarms of colourful and beautiful butterflies, making it a veritable dreamland.
Balpakram has many mysterious and unnatural phenomena that cannot be satisfactorily explained by modern science and logic.

Some of these mysterious sites are:-

Boldak Matchu Karam:
On the wayside there is a sturdy Boldak tree (schimawalliche) that has a mysterious depression around its trunk as if eroded by the constant tethering of animals on it. The Garos believe that the spirits of the dead tie their animals slaughtered for their funeral to this tree while taking a rest close by hence when one such tree was felled by strong winds, soon after another tree close by started having the same symptoms.

Chidimak:
There is small pool in Balpakram which is absolutely charcoal black. It is believed that the spirits of the dead wash and clean themselves here before entering the realms of the dead. Hence the clear water turned black from their sins and soots of cremation.

Matchru:
Anti or Animal market. In the heart of the vast plateau there is a big stretch of flat rocks that is full of foot prints of all kinds of animals big and small. It is not understood how only that stretch of rock has thousands and thousands of footprints embedded there whereas the nearby rocks are completely bereft of such prints. Myth logically of course it is said that it used to be a market place where all kind of animals gather for their weekly markets.

Areng Patal:
It is a massive rock with a hollow space on its surface that is believed to have powerful magnetic powers. This hollow space acts as a veritable death trap to any bird or animal (except for man of course) that goes near it. Any living being that goes near it is magnetically drawn towards the hollow from where it can never come out and die eventually.

Goncho Dare:
The rock cliffs of the canyon are said to be the natural habitats of gonchos, the evil spirits who like to take away people from their homes. These gonchos lead their victims over steep precipices and inaccessible rock faces without causing any physical harm.

Dikkini Ring:
To the southern side near Mahadeo village there stands a massive flat rock in the shape of an upturned boat. It is said that one night when Dikki, a legendary hero was making this boat, the cocks started crowing before completed the task and hence the uncompleted boat turned to stone. The legend says that spirits work only at night and have to complete their works before cocks crow.

Rongsaljong Agal:
On the South Garo and Khasi Hills border there is a very interesting rock tank that is 120 ft long and 90 ft wide. Interesting side of it is that the water here remains perpetually clear and transparent, also it remains at the same level throughout the year. It is surprising that heavy down pours of rain cannot raise its level or the scorching heat of summer reduce it. The Garos believed that it used to be the bathing ghat of Bandi's wife Shore. Her bucket of water fossilized into stone remains in that place.

Rongsobok Rongkol:
Further east to the northern side of Balpakram there is a beautiful cave that contains shining pieces of rock that resemble banana flowers.
Apart from the above mentioned sites there are many mysterious places which you can explore yourself. Indeed Balpakram is so steeped in myths that even the Hindus believe that it is a sacred place. They believe that when Laxman was seriously injured during the war with Ravana and a very rare life saving herb was required, Hanuman found it here but not knowing which plant to take also in his haste to return broke the top of the hills and carried it away. The missing portion of that hill became a deep awning canyon .
Balpakram has been declared a National Park some years ago. This place is about 220 sq kms in area and is 45 kms away from Baghmara. This is a place of not only mythological importance but also the natural habitat of many rare and exotic animals and plant life . It is also believed to be the original of the rare citrus plant Me- mang Narag . Balpakram is exquisitely beautiful when ground orchids and herbs are in bloom. The best time to see is from April to mid June. There is the guest house at Hattisil entrance to Balpakram run by the Forest Department.

Siju Cave
The third longest cave in the Indian sub-continent, it is situated on the bank of the Simsang river just below the village of Siju. The cave is locally known as Dobakkol or the Cave of Bats. The cave consists of innumerable internal chambers and labyrinths which have not yet been fully explored. The depth of the cave is yet to be fathomed although cave-explorers are reported to have so far covered depths of over a kilometer. The cave is totally dark with a perennial stream flowing out of it ,which abounds with different forms of aquatic life. The floor of the cave is covered with a very thick layer of bat-droppings. Beautiful stalactites and stalagmites are found all over the cave.
30 kms. North of Baghmara, Siju is famous for Dobakkol or the bat cave with impressive stalagmites and stalactites. It is one of the longest cave in the Indian sub-continent and contains some of the finest river passages to be found any where in the world. The magnificent limestone rock formations inside especially named princes Di's chamber by the excavators will fill any visitor with awe.
Close by on the other side of Simsang River Siju bird sanctuary is the home for many rare and protected bird and other wildlife. The migratory Siberian ducks also come here during winter months. At the entrance to this bird sanctuary after a steep climb of nearly 1 km there is a stretch of fantastic rock formations that will take your breath away.