Indigenous to the state of Meghalaya and with a significant population spread over Assam and Bangladesh, there is an ethnic group called the Khasis. Making up 48% of Meghalaya’s population, they are truly a unique tribe.
The Khasis believe in an extensive mythology that traces their roots to Ki Hynniewtrep or the Seven Huts. According to this, the human race into sixteen heavenly families by God or the Lord Master (the Khasis call their God as U Blei Trai Kynrad). However, out of these sixteen families, only nine were sent up to heaven while the other seven were left on earth. The myth narrates that there existed a heavenly ladder or golden tree on Lum Sohpetbneng Peak that granted the families free access to the heavens. Their journey back and forth from the heavens remained uninterrupted until the human race was corrupted by sin. One fateful day, the humans were tricked into chopping down the sacred tree, thus closing the gates of heaven to them, never to open again.
The Khasis’ fervent belief in this legend leads to them considering trees and nature as God’s manifestation on earth. According to them, chopping down trees and harming nature is a sin which cuts down their relationship with their God. To this day, Lum Sohpetbneng Peak is a sacred place for the Khasis. On the first Sunday of each February, an annual pilgrimage is undertaken to the peak to perform traditional dances, songs, rites and rituals.
During early times and to this day, the Khasis consider nature to be part of God, and hence worship the Pagan gods too. The Khasis also consider the rooster to be a figure of worship, because it was the rooster who moved God with prayers to create the Universe in the first place. While the Khasis did not worship their ancestors, they did respect them and treated them as mediators and elders.
Before the arrival of Western influence and Christianity, the Khasis followed their own indigenous religion consisting of ka niam-im, which is the rites of the living and ka niam-iap, the rites of the dead. The ka niam- im concerns the present life of the living members. The members follow a peaceful way of life to ensure their entry into the afterlife and hence to be blessed with immortality. The ka niam-iap includes the rites and rituals performed upon the departure of an earthly soul for an easy transition, until they have entered the heavenly realm. Upon the death of a member of the clan, their bones are safely stored in a mawbah. A mawbah is a sacred stone of the dead, used as a storage place for the bones. It is believed to be a symbol of the dead person’s entrance into the next realm. The ritual of depositing the bones of the person is of ultimate importance, because if it is not done so, then the departed soul would never rest as they are unable to meet the ancestral mother in the spiritual realm.
Today, the belief in ka niam-im and ka niam-iap has significantly diminished due to various reasons. The practitioners of the religion themselves discarded many rituals to keep up with the changing times and circumstances. Western influence is another major reason.
The arrival of Christian missionaries influenced the clan in significant ways. Today, most of the Khasis follow Christianity, amongst which the main denominations are Catholicism, Anglicanism and Presbyterianism (which is the largest amongst the Khasis.) As a result of intercommunity marriages, Islam also prevails in the clan. One of the many positive aspects of the Khasi way of life is that no single religion is imposed on the members. They are free to choose whichever deity or God to believe in.
It is believed that the Khasis had no original script or language of their own. They talked in Bengali until the arrival of the British.
The men wear the traditional dress called Jymphong. A Jymphong is a lengthy sleeveless coat which doesn’t have a collar. It is held in place with things in the front. In the modern day, one can see the influence of the West in the manner of dressing too. Most men of the clan have taken up Western clothes. During events such as ceremonies, festivals and rituals, they wear the Jymphong, along with a sarong and a turban. An ornamental waist band is wound around their waist.
For the women, the traditional dress are the Jainsem or Dhara. The former has two pieces of material that are attached to each of the shoulders, while the latter has one piece of material attached to each shoulder. Both these clothes are very elaborate, made up of many layers and pieces of cloth. Once dressed up in these, the body attains a rather cylindrical shape. Like the men wear a turban during ceremonies and festivities, the women wear a crown made of either silver or gold. At the back of the crown is a spike, which corresponds to the colourful feathers worn by the men.
The dancers during festivities wear even more elaborate clothes. Female dancers are draped from their waist to the ankle in a cloth called Ka Jingpim Shad. A blouse with intricate lacework at the neck and long sleeves called Ka Sopti Mukmor is worn. Ornaments include a necklace (U Kpieng Paila, consisting of red coral and beads), a silver chain (U Kynjiri Tabah), gold earrings (Ki Sohshkor Ksier), huge silver armlets (Ki Mahu) for both arms and gold bracelets (Kikhadu Ne Ki Syngkha). The cloth pieces attached to the shoulder, called Ka Dhara Rong Ksiar, is of rectangular shape, embroidered with gold thread. The crown is decorated with fresh flowers.
The male dancers are adorned in a golden turban of silk (Ka Jain spong Khor) with a large feather. A jacket heavily embroidered and without sleeves (Ka Jympang) is worn. The shoulders are adorned with a silver chain (U Taban). A quiver of arrows made of silver and an animal tail hangs from the waist. The dhoti is a maroon silk cloth. The men also carry a ceremonial sword.
Dance and music are an important part of any Khasi festival. The music is heavily influenced by nature- they are laced with natural sounds like the calling of birds, the humming of bees, call of wild animals and the sound of a flowing river. Music also celebrates tribal and ancestral legends. Amongst the many forms of music are the phawar (a basic form of music, a chant), ballads and verses. The phawar is a chant that is composed impromptu for the occasion. The ballads and verses narrate the stories of martyrs, legendary heroes and battles. Musical instruments include drums and flutes.
One of the most prominent of the Khasi festivals is the Festival of Dance. Dance is part of the ‘rites de passage’, which could either be a celebration of the life- cycle of a member or simply for the yearly change of seasons. While dance is rooted in the heart and soul of the entire clan, each area or sub- division of the clan add their own variations regarding form and colour to it.
The different types of dance festivals are
- Ka Shad Suk Mynsiem: An annual spring dance performed to celebrate agriculture and the period of harvesting and sowing. Female dancers have to be virgins while men have no such restrictions.
- Ka Pom-Blang Nongkrem: A five day festival celebrated in gratitude to God for a great harvest. Those who participate offer prayers for the prosperity and peace of the clan. It is one of the most ancient dance festivals of the Khasis. Offerings are also made to the ancestors to bless the community with a good harvest.
- Ka-Shad Shyngwiang-Thangiap: This ceremonial dance is performed when a death occurs in the clan. It is an expression of sorrow. Drums and flutes are played by male musicians. The dance commences on the day of death and it is performed near the kitchen of the house. The dance ends when the last rites are carried out.
- Ka-Shad-Kynjoh Khaskain: A dance to celebrate the housewarming of a family. The dance is performed after the ceremonial rituals are done. It continues into the night and ends at dawn. Although dancers perform in a group, each dancer has an individual rhythm and footwork. The dance is filled playfulness and joy. Unlike the other dances, no formal attire is needed.
- Ka Bam Khana Shnong: A gathering of the members laced with dance to thank their God for the past year and to pray for a blessed new year. Each home would contribute some kind of food or agricultural products. The feasts mostly consist of various pork dishes. The pigs are brought in decorated pony carts accompanied by musicians with drums and flutes.
- Umsan Nongkharai: An elaborate five day festival made of animal sacrifice, dance and prayers. It is a ritual performed to bless the community with contact with the heavenly souls. Prayers are offered to protect the members from natural disasters and to be blessed with prosperity and fertility. Men wielding drums and flutes perform music and dance.
- Shad Beh Sier: A dance ritual during the off- harvest season to celebrate deer hunting. Each deer hunted is celebrated with dance and merry making. The hunted deer is paraded around the villages while the rest of the villagers cheer them.
Marriage and divorce
Regarding matrimony, men and women are free to choose their partners. Potential partners are acquainted before they are engaged. The men report their choice of partner to their parents who then seek a mediator to consult with the woman’s family. The woman has the right to accept or reject the suitor. If the woman agrees, her family makes sure that the man isn’t already married. If all goes well, the wedding is fixed. Marrying within their own clan is unacceptable. During the union, the couple exchange either rings or betel nut bags.
If the man is married to an heiress (Ka Khadduh), he moves into his mother-in-law’s house. If the woman isn’t an heiress, then the couple live independently, away from both their families. Most men prefer marrying a non- heiress as this would grant them the freedom of living independently from their in- laws.
Divorce is obtainable for many reasons ranging from lack of children, adultery and incompatibility. The traditional divorce ceremony consists of the couple handing 5 paisa to each other. These are then either thrown away by themselves or given to a village elder to be thrown away. Today, divorce is carried out through the Indian legal system.
Undoubtedly, the best feature of the Khasis is that it is a matrilineal society. Unlike the rest of the country, women have a dominant role here. In a family, it is the youngest daughter (Ka Khadduh) who inherits all the property. The husband moves into the mother-in-law’s house post- marriage. If the couple have kids, then they take on their mother’s surname instead of their father’s. If the couple has no daughters, then they adopt one and all the property is given to her. While the birth of a son is simply acknowledged, the birth of a daughter is celebrated with great pomp. A woman faces no criticism or stigma for having children out of wedlock or for remarrying. They are allowed to marry outside their own tribe. Sex before marriage is accepted, but adultery is a punishable offence. The woman can also choose to remain unmarried too. Most businesses are owned and managed by women. The mother or mother-in-laws take care of the children. The woman who inherits the property hold the role of taking care of her parents and siblings.
With many unconventional ways of life, the Khasis are a breed unto themselves. Their treatment of women is definitely something that the entire country can learn from.