This is a series of 3 posts – a travelogue to Meghalaya:
Part 1 of 3 – People of the Khasi Tribe
Part 2 of 3 – Places we visited in Meghalaya
Part 3 of 3 – Food in Meghalaya
In a nutshell: A rich, immersive, culture trip to the beautiful & clean Meghalaya & getting to know the lifestyle of people from the Khasi tribe.
Khublei (in Khasi language it means god bless you)
This is a travelogue & the idea is to share our experience during travel & provide information on what we saw / heard / gathered from our experiences & conversations. PLEASE NOTE THAT THIS IS NOT AN AUTHORITATIVE RESEARCH ON THE KHASI TRIBE.
Address & other details:
The guys who organized the trip – Vana safaris
The Man who guided us during the trip, on ground – Shining star
Facebook – shiningstar khongthaw
Instagram – shiningstar khongthaw
The Man who drove us around & fed us really enjoyable local food every 3-4 waking hours – Joon (+919707803248)
Disclaimer: All restaurants / eateries / Hotels / travel companies reviewed by YUMMRAJ were visited by YUMMRAJ himself & he has paid for the full Bill & tips also. http://www.yummraj.com does not have even one featured / sponsored reviews. YUMMRAJ believes in going to a restaurant/hotel/place of travel in anonymity, as a normal guest, experience everything & give a honest account of the same to you.
Cost of the trip paid was paid by YUMMRAJ to Vana Safaris by UPI payment transfer. From that, Vana Safaris have paid all the expenses of the trip.
Please find below the contents – so that you can skip sections that do not interest you & go straight to the more interesting sections:
1. About Meghalaya & Shillong
2. About Khasi Tribe
a) Home affairs – Matrilineal Society
c) Marriage & Divorce
d) Birth & Death
e) Public affairs – Men Managing the State
f) Defence & offence
l) Traditional food utensils
n) Religious beliefs of khasis
o) Rituals, Customs, beliefs & festivals
1. About Meghalaya & Shillong
• The British wanted to have a safe passage from Bengal & Assam to Syhlet & were facing opposition from the Khasi & Jaintia tribes in the 1820s.
• In 1829, a treaty was done between the tribal leaders & the British
• In 2 years, an opposition broke out against the British & that lasted for 2 years.
• The British finally put an end to the opposition, arrested the rebel leader & sent a political agent to be based out of Cherrapunji.
• The British officials could not get used to the weather & eventually moved office to Shillong.
• Shillong is named after a deity who is believed to look after the area
• Shillong was capital of undivided Assam from 1874 to 1972 when Meghalaya became a new state.
There are three major tribes in Meghalaya – Khasi, Garo & Jaintia. The areas we covered in this trip & the people we interacted with, were Khasi.
2. About Khasi Tribe
Among the khasis, there are 7 tribes:
Khynriam, Pnar, Bhoi, War, Lyngngam, Maram & Diko.
The differentiation seems to be based upon the areas of inhabitants of different places:
Khynriam – top of the hills, near Shillong
Pnar –Jaintia Hills
Bhoi – Ribhoi district, between Shillong & Guwahati
War – Southern part of Meghalaya, bordering Bangladesh
Lyngngam- West Khasi hills, bordering Garo hills
Maram – South west of Khasi hills
Diko – West Khasi hills not bordering Garo hills
Each tribe has their own deviations in rules, while being a part of a common Khasi system.
a) Home affairs –
Khasis are a matrilineal society. These are the social rules that they follow:
• If a Khasi man & Khasi woman marries, the man moves to woman’s house & lives there. Their child gets mothers surname.
• If mother changes religion, the children will change
• Kids, we heard, obey mother first & then father
The Garo & Jaintias are also a matrilineal society
Women have right to own property
• Mother’s property goes to youngest daughter.
• If a lady has no daughter, she will pass on the property to her sister’s youngest daughter.
• All property bought by boys before marriage have to be handed over to their mother. After marriage boy starts financially from scratch.
• If the boy’s mother is no more, then sister will get the property. If he has no sister, then aunt from mother’s side will get the property.
While the Land record system is maintained by government, the ‘Sordar’ (head of several villages) has absolute power to address land conflict.
Khasi traditional houses were built with wood beams, wooden doors & windows with no nails / hinges but operating through interlocking system. The internal walls were sometimes made of solid wood planks. Else they were made of woven split bamboo. The traditional roof was made with a certain kind of dried palm leaf that prevented water seepage. The leaf roof had to be replaced every 2-3 years.
Currently one can see 3 kinds of roofs of huts (non-cement & brick houses) in villages –
Palm leaf (cheapest), Grass, corrugated Tin sheets.
Grass roof is sound proof. One can’t hear rain from inside the house.
Historically, Khasis did not usually shift dwelling from one place to another, except if they were defeated in a fight. Fights were quite common two centuries back as sub tribes would constantly attack each other.
c) Marriage & Divorce
When a Khasi man & a Khasi lady decide to marry, the families come together, agree & then the marriage happens.
If Khasi girl marries a non-Khasi, boy then the child is not considered Khasi.
If Khasi man marries non Khasi or non-tribal, they are not considered part of the clan. Their child gets a new surname with half of mother & half of father’s surname.
Such couples traditionally were cut off from the Khasi social support system.
If a couple does not get along well & there is absolutely no hope of getting back, they can leave & stay separate temporarily. If they reach a point of no return, they can mutually decide on a traditional Khasi divorce. The Families come together, discuss & formally agree on the decision of the couple. The same day it is informed to all in village about this decision. It is also informed to all that anyone who likes can go & approach to marry the freshly divorced people.
As per Khasi tradition, divorced people can remarry.
d) Birth & Death
Unlike in North India, a girl child’s birth is celebrated more, in some families.
Families that follow the Khasi tradition cremate their Dead. Khasis who have converted to Christianity, bury.
In The traditional system, Bones of the dead are kept below a stone. Family member’s bones also kept there as & when the others die, so that even after death they stay together.
The Khasi belied is that even after death, the Spirit stays back in the village, with the family.
Dead body of poor people are decorated with banana trunk & Clothes & then firewood is put only in the middle. Rich person’s dead body is laid on a full wood bed filled with firewood & lit.
The Khasis have a concept of ‘commemorative stones’ – 3 vertical monolithic stone slabs denote the male dead members of a family & 1 or 2 horizontal monolithic stone slabs denote the female dead members of a family.
In some villages we saw mention of ‘Pumsohmen village’ – this refers to villages where at least 1 person from the village has been killed by enemy.
e) Public affairs – Men Managing the State
While the home is managed & headed by women, men used to manage the common affairs – politics, wars, protection etc.
Social Disputes are settled by headman (he acts as a judge).
Few people whom the villagers look up to, form a kind of guild. Headman is selected by that guild. People from only dominant clans can be the Headman.
Clans formed by people who came first to that area & started cultivating are considered dominant. In our Guide Shining Star’s village, the dominant clans are – Khongthaw, khongmawloh, sohkhlet
Treasurer or other posts can however be held by people outside the dominant clan as well.
Headmen of 20+ villages elect a Sordar (leader).
Above the Sordars is a Khasi King.
The Sordars act as advisors, military support system & sometimes ministers to the king.
Khasi King – his son will not become the king but his nephew (sister’s son will become).
f) Defence & offence –
Khasi traditional fighting instruments – bow & arrow made from bamboo, with Poison in the tip of the arrow. Iron Sword with a flat tip was also used.
g) Language –
Khasi is the most spoken language in Meghalaya, followed by English. We spoke to many people in multiple villages in English.
Khasi language is classified to be of Austro Asiatic origin.
Khasis earlier did not have a written language. So there is no written literature. No hieroglyphics as well. No old books. Everything is oral tradition song stories
Everything has been conveyed & carried forward through oral tradition for centuries. Khasis have adopted Roman scripture since the last century, with a few deviations.
Since there were no books, there was no formal concept of school. Children were taught life skills like hunting, treat sickness, how to cook, how to behave, how to run the community etc. For character development, the children were told stories from thousands of oral tradition stories of the Khasis. At end of the story there would always be a message.
The stories would be told mostly by grand parents because parents would mostly be very busy in doing daily things. Parents would also not be at home most of the time – they would be in the fields, in the community or at war etc.
Khasi traditional ornamental dress that we see in museums & galleries, was worn in traditional occasions only.
Men were always topless & would wear a short cloth around their loin.
The women always wore a single piece of cloth, Tied at the left shoulder & hanging form the shoulder. Some ladies would wear two pieces of cloth in a criss-cross fashion. That was surely a luxury at that point in time because it took a lot of time to hand-weave cloth earlier. So a single piece of cloth would be an asset for long.
Jhum cultivation – Khasis used to set up agriculture fields by clearing forest, on top of hills. After every few years the fields were burned & the tribe would go somewhere else & set up fields. They would get back to the old field after years, when soil revitalises.
Earlier the villages were self-dependent in growing cereals, weaving their cloth, baisic iron-smith job & pottery. Nowadays every area/cluster of villages has a kind of crop/ work specialisation. The people of the villages buy the rest of products from other villages. e.g. People in Nohwet make brooms, collect bay leaves, betel nuts, paan leaves, black pepper. People in Lakhading grow turmeric. In Umden people specialize in weaving. In Larnai people make earthen pots etc.
Earlier in every village, people used to grow their own cereals like yam, sweet potatoes etc for consumption. Now cash crops are being grown by all.
Lykha is big – the business of betel nut (supari) processing & finally auctions. We saw a lady classifying Raw supari into best, good & bad quality. The good ones are sold for ₹4 now. The lady would dry the betel nuts & then soak & store them in water tanks for 4-6 months. Then she will again dry the supari & finally she will be able to sell the same supary for ₹10 per piece
Nowadays rice is the most commonly eaten cereal by the Khasis. Earlier khasis used to eat sweet potatoes, yam & other root vegetables as cereals & with that they had some leafs (saag) & meats. This was because it was difficult to grow rice in the mountains.
Khasis traditionally did not grow & eat much vegetables except jarain leaf (buckwheat leaf), jabuit leaf, fig leaf etc. They would eat the fig leaf but would not know how to process & eat the fig.
We were told that ‘we don’t use knife to chop any edible leaf. We just tear with hands.’
Nowadays, fresh organic vegetables are eaten fresh in the season & extra produce is dried for consumption in winter & rainy season.
Fruits here are very juicy & blend of sweet & sour.
Earlier the Khasi tradition did not impose any restriction on eating any kind of meats (including beef, pork, wild animals including deer, boars, large squirrels, flying squirrels, monkey, bear, local chicken, barbet & even tiger killed by accident etc.) except snake. Few centuries back, some sub tribes were known to be doing head hunting too.
In Jaintia hills, they have a festival named Shad Rong Khli – if the villagers kill a tiger either accidentally or to defend themselves, then the village celebrates this festival that lasts 3-4 days. After end of festival, a part of dried meat of tiger is distributed to all families in the village. It’s believed that by eating a ritual tiger meat, they will be able to get good health.
In Khasi diet there is no milk, no dahi, no milk product. The Khasi families keep cows only for cow dung (needed for organic farming) & beef.
Khasis did not have the concept of consuming oil earlier. Every food item was either boiled, roasted on fire or smoked, with some herbs or pepper. Now they buy mustard oil & eat fried vegetables.
The long list of Indian spices are hardly used in the traditional food. We did not see the concept of using mixed masala paste or masala powder. We saw people at homes & also at eateries still using silbatta to grind ingredients for making chutneys. The use of different pepper is very common.
The Pork we ate everywhere in this trip had high fat to meat ratio. They were all farm bred bigger animals. This did not match with our memory of outstanding pork (small animals, balanced meat to fat ratio) in Nagaland.
Most people used to drink Millet beer (traditionally) & now rice beer is more popular. It is easy to get rice. Millet is difficult to get.
Earlier majority people used to brew alcohol at home . Now bought from shops
Traditionally local drinking shops name ‘Pata’ used to sell rice beer.
Earlier old people used to sit & drink at pata & tell stories
The ‘Pata’ owner would be considered as a normal member of the village, like a friend & often he would refuse to serve people who exceeded safe drinking limits.
l) Traditional food utensils –
Traditionally food was cooked in iron kadhai kind of utensil called ‘Talani’. Rice was cooked in Talani as well.
Clay terracotta vessels were also in use for cooking.
Eating plates would be made from either dried leaves, clay terracotta vessels, betel tree bark etc.
m) Mobility –
Public transport of yesterday – foot. Public transport of today – yellow SUVs that fit in 15-20 people / hatchback Maruti cars that fit in 8-10 people. They charge Individual fare, like a bus. Additional luggage needs payment.
We saw some wood frame old diesel engine buses but those are not allowed in Shillong city any more to curb pollution.
Maruti is the largest selling brand of non SUV/ MUV cars in Meghalaya & most of them are second hand bought from different states of India & they continue with the original number plates. 800 is still the most loved among the Maruti cars.
n) Religious beliefs of khasis –
‘U blei nong bu nong thaw’ means ‘almighty who created the living beings’
For centuries & millennia, the Khasis had their own faith – worship of nature, God (U blei), & deities. The followers of this faith are called Niam Khasi. This is what they believe –
There is only one god U blei
There are no special places to worship like temple / church / Mosque. Every place on earth is prayer worthy.
On certain occasions the Khasis go to the forest to pray & do their rituals. We went to the sacred grove forest near Shillong (more about the place in part 2 of 3).
On a day to day basis the people visit the Priest’s house to offer prayers to God with help of Priest.
Prayers are offered usually with water, rice & rice beer.
Niam Khasis still are about 15% of population as per 2011 census.
Houses of Niam Khasi followers can be identified by a Red flag with a cock sign.
Some Khasis have converted to Hinduism (less than 1%).
Rest majority khasis have converted to Christianity (80%+).
However, Khasis from all faiths still follow tribal social customs.
We heard that many Niam Khasis are increasingly praying more often to deities & less to god.
Niam Khasi Priest’s nephew (not his son) will become the next priest.
We heard about certain traditional beliefs of Niam Khasis – ‘If someone harms you, you must harm him. If someone is doing witchcraft, you must burn his house. If someone is suffering, then there must be an XYZ person who is the cause of sickness. However, now most people believe & use modern medicine while sick.
o) Rituals, Customs, beliefs & festivals
While throughout the year, the Niam Khasis go to priest’s house to pray, once a year a special Community gathering of people from different villages is organized, to pray & sacrifice together.
Village Headman & Priest decide the date & inform all villages.
The voluntary organizing team collects eggs & money (e.g. ₹10 per person) from all villagers
& a handful of rice per person.
After the prayer, the blessed rice is returned to villagers. They mix this rice with their regular rice & consume it throughout the year.
Number of Birds or Animals to be sacrificed (roosters, pigs etc.) depends on the problem that one needs to fight, like disease or famine.
During COVID there was a sacrifice as well in many villages.
The meat of sacrifice is distributed to priest & village elders who are present during the act of sacrifice inside a special hut.
Other villagers stand/ sit outside the hut where the sacrifice happens.
The annual event is conducted at the ‘Priest’s house’ – a common praying area built every year.
For building the ‘Priest’s house’, everyone comes together on one pre-decided day, the entire house is built & people have a prayer & feast, dance overnight & everyone leaves next morning.
Every villager contributes in some way towards building / renovating the Priest’s house – some villagers donate wood, some leaf to cover the structure, some donate raw materials for the village feast, some offer to cook etc.
In November every year, an annual festival named ‘Shad Suk Mynsiem’ takes place. All people from kingdom assemble at one place – The King’s palace, located in a village named Smit, 30km from Shillong.
The schedule of the festival is like this – Starts with a prayer, followed by sacrifice of goat, cooking the goat & serving the goat to everyone. Thousands of people join. The goat is cooked by boiling, the traditional way.
Next day starts with a ritual dance by the princess. Once this is over, the rest can start dancing. Only traditional music is playing, no Bollywood music.
‘Young’ word is used to describe unmarried people. Even if someone doesn’t marry till 40!! Young people get the first priority to dance on festival days. Only in the evening, ‘old’ (married) people are allowed to dance.
We heard about this ritual from our Guide Shining Starr – When a child is 6 months old & it’s time to start giving solid food to the child, a ritual is conducted. The child is encouraged to lick a live fish tail. If the child does this successfully, it is believed that the child will be more intelligent.
We also heard about a ritual of rooster sacrifice before naming a baby after baby completes 1 year age.
Sacrifice by Khasis are done in one shot – similar to ‘jhatka’ of the Hindus.
Sacrifice is planned only in morning time, provided it is sunny. In rainy season sacrifice is not done.
Women were not allowed to participate in the ritual sacrifice.
The belief is that God responds to a sacrifice & sends message to the priest thru an egg or a sacrificial rooster or a sacrificial pig.
Egg is the symbol of what we can see & what we cannot see (we can see that there is life only when chicken comes out). First Priest smashes an egg on a piece of wood. Depending on how many egg shells look up & how many look towards ground, the priest understands & interprets God’s acceptance / non acceptance of the sacrifice.
In case of Sacrifice rooster, the priest understands the divine message by seeing intestine of the sacrificed rooster. Priest is the expert in this. Same for pig sacrifice.
The priest can also see some patterns in the fumes – if pattern looks like a leopard, it is good news, if the pattern looks like snake, it is bad news.
Khasis have been created into 16 tribes. Long long back, out of the 16 tribes, 7 tribes descended from heaven at a mountain in Meghalaya named Lum Soh Pneng.
They came through a connection between heaven & earth, a Golden bridge link, like a ladder to & from heaven. People of these 7 tribes came every morning to earth & went back in the evening. Over time, they started liking the life on earth. So many people started discussing ‘what if we stay back’. Headmen of 2 out of 7 tribes went ahead & destroyed the Golden bridge so that one can’t go back to heaven any more. The people of these 7 tribes live in Earth even today.
Then some people started missing heaven. So they planted a Big tree in Lumdingiei Hill, that would grow so tall that it would eventually connect to heaven. In some time when the trees grew so big, some spirit provoked people that the tree is not good & one day it will cover the sun also. So two men went & cut the tree in the night!!!
However, in the morning the two men were surprised to see that the tree was intact. That happened because a sacred tiger licked the tree & restored it back to normal.
Next night the two men again cut the tree & left an axe on the tree. When the Tiger came again to lick the tree to restore it, it cut its tongue. After this the tiger never came back & the two men succeeded in cutting the tree for ever. The tree fell. As a result, the Water bodies in heaven collapsed & it rained heavily & led to a deluge. The branches of the tree blocked the draining out of water. So there was a big flood. The wild boar, seeing all this, sacrificed itself & said ‘I will take out part of tree with my tusk that are blocking the drainage. Please take care of my Children’.
That’s when pigs started to stay with humans.
Labasa/ Ryngku are two male deities, spirits, whom the Khasi revere. Labasa appears in the form of a tiger. Ryngku lives in big rock or Picus tree or in different forms at different times – insects or half animal half human.