The Khasi people are an indigenous ethnic group of Meghalaya in north-eastern India with a significant population in the bordering state of Assam, and in certain parts of Bangladesh. The Khasi people form the majority of the population of the eastern part of Meghalaya, and is the state’s largest community, with around 48% of the population of Meghalaya. They are among the few Austroasiatic-speaking peoples in South Asia. A cultural tradition of the Khasi people is that they follow the matrilineal system of descent and inheritance. Under the Constitution of India, the Khasis have been granted the status of Scheduled Tribe.
Khasi Mythology :
Khasi mythology traces the tribe’s original abode to ‘Ki Hynñiewtrep (“The Seven Huts”). According to the Khasi mythology, U Blei Trai Kynrad (God, the Lord Master) had originally distributed the human race into 16 heavenly families (Khadhynriew Trep). However, seven out of these 16 families were stuck on earth while the other 9 are stuck in heaven. According to the myth, a heavenly ladder resting on the sacred Lum Sohpetbneng Peak (located in the present-day Ri-Bhoi district) enabled people to go freely and frequently to heaven whenever they pleased until one day they were tricked into cutting a divine tree which was situated at Lum Diengiei Peak (also in present-day East Khasi Hills district), a grave error which prevented them access to the heavens forever. This myth is often seen as a metaphor of how nature and trees, in particular, are the manifestation of the divine on Earth and destroying nature and trees means severing our ties with the Divine. Like the Japanese, the Khasis use the rooster as a symbol because they believe that it was he who aroused God and also humbly paved and cleared the path for God to create the Universe at the beginning of time. The rooster is the symbol of morning marking a new beginning and a new sunrise.
The Khasis first came in contact with the British in 1823, after the latter captured Assam. The area inhabited by the Khasis became a part of the Assam Province after the Khasi Hill States (which numbered to about 25 kingdoms) entered into a subsidiary alliance with the British.
The traditional Khasi male dress is a Jymphong, a longish sleeveless coat without collar, fastened by thongs in front. Nowadays, most male Khasis have adopted western attire. On ceremonial occasions they appear in a Jymphong and sarong with an ornamental waist-band and they may also wear a turban.
The traditional Khasi female dress is called the Jainsem or Dhara, both of which are rather elaborate with several pieces of cloth, giving the body a cylindrical shape. On ceremonial occasions, they may wear a crown of silver or gold. A spike or peak is fixed to the back of the crown, corresponding to the feathers worn by the menfolk. The Jainsem consists of two pieces of material fastened at each shoulder. The “Dhara” consists of a single piece of material also fastened at each shoulder.
The Khasis are, for the most part, monogamous. Their social organisation does not favour other forms of marriage; therefore, deviation from this norm is quite rare. Young men and women are permitted considerable freedom in the choice of mates. Potential marriage partners are likely to have been acquainted before betrothal. Once a man has selected his desired spouse, he reports his choice to his parents. They then secure the services of a mediator to make the arrangements with the woman’s family (provided that the man’s clan agree with his choice). The parents of the woman ascertain her wishes and if she agrees to the arrangement her parents check to make certain that the man to be wed is not a member of their clan (since Khasi clans are exogamous, marital partners may not be from the same clan). If this is satisfactory then a wedding date is set.
Divorce (with causes ranging from incompatibility to lack of offspring) is easily obtainable. This ceremony traditionally consists of the husband handing the wife 5 cowries or paisa which the wife then hands back to her husband along with 5 of her own. The husband then throws these away or gives them to a village elder who throws them away. Present-day Khasis divorce through the Indian legal system.
The type of marriage is the determining factor in the marital residence. In short, post marital residence for a married man when an heiress (known as Ka Khadduh) is involved must be matrilocal (that is, in his mother-in-law’s house), while post-marital residence when a non-heiress is involved is neolocal. Generally, Khasi men prefer to marry a non-heiress because it will allow them to form independent family units somewhat immune to pressures from the wife’s kin. Traditionally (though nowadays rule is not absolutely true), a Khasi man returns to his Iing-Kur (maternal home) upon the death of his spouse (if she is a Khadduh and they both have no children). These practices are the result of rules governing inheritance and property ownership. These rules are themselves related to the structure of the Khasi Kur (clan system).
Before the arrival of Christian missionaries, the majority of the Khasi people practiced an indigenous tribal religion. Though around 85% of the Khasi populace have embraced Christianity, a substantial minority of the Khasi people still follow and practice their age-old indigenous religion, which is known as Ka Niam Khasi and Niam tre. The main Christian denominations followed by the Khasis include Catholicism, Anglicanism, Presbyterianism (largest Christian denomination among the Khasis), and others. There are also a small number of Khasis, as a result of inter-community marriages, who are Muslims. There are also followers of Khasi Unitarianism as founded by Hajom Kissor Sing Lyngdoh Nongbri.
The Khasi, Jaintia, Bhoi, War collectively known as the Hynniewtrep people predominantly inhabit the districts of East Meghalaya, also known to be one of the earliest ethnic group of settlers in the Indian sub-continent, belonging to the Proto Austroloid Monkhmer race.
The Khasi-Pnars :
The Khasis inhabit the eastern part of Meghalaya, in the Khasi and Jaintia Hills. Khasis residing in Jaintia hills are now better known as Jaintias. They are also called Pnars.
The Khasis occupying the northern lowlands and foothills are generally called Bhois. Those who live in the southern tracts are termed Wars.
Again among the Wars, those living in the Khasi Hills are called War-Khasis and those in the Jaintia Hills, War-Pnars or War-Jaintias. In the Jaintia Hills we have Khyrwangs, Labangs, Nangphylluts, Nangtungs in the north-eastern part and in the east. In the Khasi Hills the Lyngngams live in the north-western part. But all of them claim to have descended from the ‘Ki Hynniew Trep’ and are now known by the generic name of Khasi-Pnars or simply Khasis. They have the same traditions, customs and usage with a little variation owing to geographical divisions.
Dress: The traditional Khasi male dress is “Jymphong” or a longish sleeveless coat without collar, fastened by thongs in front. Now, the Khasis have adopted the western dress. On ceremonial occasions, they appear in “Jymphong” and dhoti with an ornamental waist-band.
The Khasi traditional female dress is rather elaborate with several pieces of cloth, giving the body a cylindrical shape. On ceremonial occasions, they wear a crown of silver or gold on the head. A spike or peak is fixed to the back of the crown, corresponding to the feathers worn by the menfolk.
Food & Drinks: The staple food of Khasis is rice. They also take fish and meat. Like the other tribes in the North-East, the Khasis also ferment rice-beer, and make spirit out of rice or millets by distillation. Use of rice-beer is a must for every ceremonial and religious occasion.
Social Structure: The Khasis, the Jaintias and the Garos have a matrilineal society. Descent is traced through the mother, but the father plays an important role in the material and mental life of the family. While, writing on the Khasi and the Jaintia people, David Roy observed, ‘a man is the defender of the woman, but the woman is the keeper of his trust’. No better description of Meghalayan matrilineal society could perhaps be possible.
In the Khasi society, the woman looks after home and hearth, the man finds the means to support the family, and the maternal uncle settles all social and religious matters. Earlier in the conservative Jaintia non-Christian families, however, the father only visits the family in the night and is not responsible for the maintenance of the family.
Inheritance: Khasis follow a matrilineal system of inheritance. In the Khasi society, it is only the youngest daughter or “Ka Khadduh” who is eligible to inherit the ancestral property.
If ‘Ka Khadduh’ dies without any daughter surviving her, her next elder sister inherits the ancestral property, and after her, the youngest daughter of that sister. Failing all daughters and their female issues, the property goes back to the mother’s sister, mother’s sister’s daughter and so on.
The Ka Khadduh’s property is actually the ancestral property and so if she wants to dispose it off, she must obtain consent and approval of the uncles and brothers.
Among the War-Khasis, however property passes to the children, male or female, in equal shares but among the War-Jaintias, only the female children get the inheritance
Marriage: Marriage within a clan is a taboo. Rings or betel-nut bags are exchanged between the bride and the bridegroom to complete the union. In the Christian families, however, marriage is purely a civil contract.
Religion: The Khasis are now mostly Christians. But before that, they believed in a Supreme Being, The Creator – U Blei Nongthaw and under Him, there were several deities of water and of mountains and also of other natural objects.
Songs & Music :
The Khasis and Jaintias are particularly fond of songs praising the nature like lakes, waterfalls, hills etc. and also expressing love for their land. They use different types of musical instruments like drums, duitaras and instruments similar to guitars, flutes, pipes and cymbals.
Weaving is an ancient craft of the tribals of Meghalaya – be it weaving of cane or cloth. The Khasis are famous for weaving cane mat, stools and baskets. They make a special kind of cane mat called ‘Tlieng’, which guarantees a good utility of around 20-30 years. The Garos weave the material used for their costumes called the ‘Dakmanda’. Khasis and Jaintias also weave cloth. The Khasis have also been involved in extracting iron ore and then manufacture domestic knives, utensils and even guns and other warfare weapons using it.
Costumes and Jewellery :
The three major tribes of Meghalaya have distinct costumes and jewellery. However, with the change of time as in the rest of the country, the males have adopted the western code of dress leaving the ladies to continue the tradition of ethnic sartorial elegance.
The Khasi lady wears a dress called ‘Jainsem’ which flows loose to the ankles. The upper part of her body is clad in a blouse. Over these, she ties both ends of a checkered cotton cloth on one shoulder, thus improvising on apron. On formal occasions, worn over the ‘Jympien’ is a long piece of Assam muga silk called ‘Ka Jainsem Dhara’ which hangs loose below the knees after being knotted or pinned at the shoulders. The ‘Tapmohkhlieh’ or head-shawl is either worn by knotting both ends behind the neck or is arranged in a stylish manner as done with a shawl.
The Jaintia maidens dresses like her Khasi counterpart but with the additional of a ‘Kyrshah’ – a checkered cloth tied round the head during harvesting. On formal occasions, however, she dons a velvet blouse, drapes a striped cloth called ‘Thoh Khyrwang’, sarong style round her waist and knots at her shoulder an Assam muga piece hanging loose to her ankles. In contrast, the Garo women wears a blouse, a raw cotton ‘Dakmanda’ which resembles a ‘Lungi’ and the ‘Daksari’ which wrapped like a ‘Mekhla’ as worn by Assamese ladies.
The jewellery of the Khasis and the Jaintias are also alike and the pendant is called ‘Kynjri Ksiar’, being made of 24 carat gold. The Khasis and the Jaintias also wear a string of thick red coral beads round their neck called ‘Paila during festive occasions.
Nongkrem Dance :
Nongkrem Dance is a religious festival in thanksgiving to God Almighty for good harvest, peace and prosperity of the community. It is held annually during October/ November, at Smit, the capital of the Khyrim Syiemship near Shillong.
The dance is performed in the open by young virgins and men, both bachelors and married. The women dressed in expensive silk costumes with heavy gold, silver and coral ornaments dance in the inner circle of the arena. The men form an outer circle and dance to the accompaniment of music of flutes and drums. An important feature of the festival is the ‘Pomblang’ or goat sacrifice offered by the subjects to the Syiem of Khyrim, the administrative head of the Hima (Khasi State). Ka Syiem Sad, the eldest sister of the king is the chief priest and caretaker of all ceremonies. The festival is conducted alongwith the Myntries (Ministers), priests and high priest where offerings are made to ancestors of the ruling clan and the deity of Shillong.
Shad Suk Mynsiem :
One of the most important festivals of the Khasis is Ka Shad Suk Mynsiem or Dance of the joyful heart. It is an annual thanksgiving dance held in Shillong in April. Men and women, dressed in traditional fineries dance to the accompaniment of drums and the flute. The festival lasts for three days.
Khāsi, people of the Khāsi and Jaintia hills of the state of Meghālaya in India. The Khāsi have a distinctive culture. Both inheritance of property and succession to tribal office run through the female line, passing from the mother to the youngest daughter. Office and the management of property, however, are in the hands of men identified by these women and not in the hands of women themselves. This system has been modified by the conversion of many Khāsi to Christianity, by the consequent conflict of ritual obligations under the tribal religion and the demands of the new religion, and by the right of the people to make wills in respect of self-acquired property.
The Khāsi speak a Mon-Khmer language of the Austroasiatic stock. They are divided into several clans. Wet rice (paddy) provides the main subsistence; it is cultivated in the valley bottoms and in terrace gardens built on the hillsides. Many of the farmers still cultivate only by the slash-and-burn method, in which secondary jungle is burnt over and a crop raised for one or two years in the ash.
Under the system of administration set up in the district in the 1950s, the Khāsi’s elected councils enjoy a measure of political autonomy under the guidance of a deputy commissioner. In addition, seats in the state assembly and in the national parliament are reserved for representatives of the tribal people.