The great mother of hills

Mountain tales

The great mother of hills

tribals Khasi women performing a traditional dance.It is the home of numerous tribes and sub-tribes in the surrounding hills and the Brahmaputra Valley and scholars are still trying to unravel the origin of many tribes, the roots of their social customs, and their individual languages.

Even taking into account this vast diversity, the Khasi and Jaintia people of Meghalaya, literally the land in the clouds, stand out with some unique features. For example, their matrilineal social structure and megaliths erected in memory of the dead. 

As you drive up to Shillong, Meghalaya’s capital (formerly it was known as Khasi and Jaintia hills, part of Assam, and now it includes Garo hills too) the beauty of the landscape  enthralls the city-bred soul. Dotting the road are eateries and small shops where Khasi women wearing their traditional dress, Jainsems, sell pineapples and bananas. Now added are cash crops like strawberries.

But the nagging thought remains, why their social structure is matrilineal (the Garo hills has this tradition too), something apart from other tribal societies around though admittedly, their women too enjoy a better social status than their counterpart in the Gangetic valley. However, customs like property rights going to the daughter instead of the son set the Meghalaya society apart. There might be a clue in the word Khasi itself.
Linguists say it is a combination of two words: kha (born) and si (ancient) mother. In short, born of the ancient mother.   

Another difference is in their language. Khasis, like many tribal societies in this region did not have a written script and the oral tradition (ki parom) continued through centuries till the British came. The Christian missionaries introduced the Roman script to give shape to the Khasi written word (1841). However, those familiar with the North East also comment that the language sounds different from languages used by most tribals here.

To unravel these two mysteries one has to fall back on what the pundits say. Renowned linguist Suniti Kumar Chatterji, PR Gurdon (The Khasis), J H Hutton — all of whom had worked widely in this region found interesting insight into the uniqueness of the people of the Khasi hills.

Their research shows that the Khasis had migrated from somewhere in the Cambodia region and the great plains of the Mekong river. “The Khasi people belong to one of the earliest groups of races migrating to North East India,” writes Hamlet Bareh in The History and Culture of the Khasi People. They came through the traditional route of migration from South East Asia to the fertile valley of the Brahmaputra that is through the Patkai Hills in the east near today’s Nagaland. “It is interesting to note that there is a matriarchal tribe called Khasi in Laos which is associated with the Moi and Rade Jarai groups of clans,” Bareh writes.  

Social anthropologists trace matrilineal social customs to parts of Sumatra, Cambodia, among Khasoas of Laos, and parts of Vietnam, linking migration of the Khasis to the North East. Gurdon too found many affinities among the Khasis and Mon-Khmers of the Far East. Because the belief is strong that they are all descendents of the ancient mother divided into individual clans, traditionally, marriage within the same clan is prohibited. In Garo hills, where clans are divided into maharis, a man is not supposed to marry a girl of the same mahari. Some pundits believe it was ordained so that there is no intermarriage and weakening of the race.  

The language is another clue to the Khasis’ origin. Most of the tribals who also migrated to this region, for example, the Bodos, speak a Tibeto-Burman language but the Khasi language is affiliated to the Palaung dialect prevailing in Myanmar and Indo-China belonging to the Mon-Khmers, a branch of the Austro-Asiatic society.

With the arrival of the missionaries a majority of the Khasis converted to Christianity  but the Jaintias had long been followers of Hindu religion. The word Jaintia seems to be Aryanization of the original word Synteng (children of  ancient mother) into Zaitein and then Jaintia. Interestingly, as early as the middle of the eighth century reference is found  of a kingdom of stri-rajya, literally kingdom of women, which is identified as the Jaintia kingdom (Calcutta Review, 1867).  

From Shillong on way to Cherrapunji, the wettest place in the world, one comes across unusual megaliths or menhirs dotting the countryside. As they jut out to the sky they paint a sombre and awesome sight. They are often compared to the Stonehenge erections in England, though they are far apart geographically. However, Hutton drew attention to groups of stone ossuaries in North Cachar Hills in central Assam, now renamed Karbi Anglong district, and concluded that this is the way the Khasi migrants travelled en route before finally settling down in the present location. Megaliths or funeral burial urns had once been widespread in Tonkin, Indonesia and Myanmar and Hutton concluded that the practice was brought along by the Khasis to this region.

Because of these traditions, a visitor from outside finds these hills a little ‘different’. One of the best times to get introduced to the local culture is during the autumn dance festival of Nongkrem. People congregate at a place called Smit, off Shillong, to enjoy the festivities which celebrates a good harvest and pays homage to Ka Blei Synshar, the ruling goddess of crops. The Nongkrem dance is actually a part of the pom-blang (goat killing ceremony) performed by the Siem (king) of Khyrim (or Nongkrem)

In an open field, a group of 22 men with sword, shields and chowries (fly-flaps or whisks) perform Ka Shad Mastieh (dance of men) to the accompaniment of tangmuri (pipes) and drums. They dress gaily in black and white attires of dhotis, full sleeved shirts, embroidered sleeveless coats and turbans which are adorned with cock feathers (u thuiyah).

The women, usually unmarried girls, dance at the centre taking tiny steps, hardly lifting their feet from the ground. Their dance is called Ka Shad Kynthei. They hold down their arms to their sides and have their eyes are demurely cast down. Rich silk clothes and silver or gold crowns adorn them. The Tiew Lasubon (a rare sweet scented golden coloured flower found only in the deep jungles), worn on the crown indicates the purity of women. The hair is worn tied in a knot behind the head but with a long tail hanging down and adorned with silver ornaments at the end. They also wear silver and gold chains, coral beads, bracelets and earrings. These days, young girls often borrow heavy family heirloom jewellery from older people as making them afresh can be prohibitively expensive.

Watching the Nongkrem dance, the mind suddenly flies off to the distant Mekong Valley. Indeed, in many ways the richness of the ethnic culture of the North East is intermingled with the history of migration and its linkage to South East Asia.

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