Friday, November 18, 2011

The Indigenous Khasi people

    The Khasi are an indigenous or tribal people, the majority of whom live in the State of Meghalaya in North East India, with small populations in neighbouring Assam, and in parts of Bangladesh. The Khasi are generally people of short stature, racially, similar to the Indo-Chinese tribes. Generally, they are descendants of Mon-Khmer speakers who migrated from Yunnan to Meghalaya, and thus they are of East Asian origin.

The Khasi people call themselves 'Ki Hynniew trep ', which means `the seven huts` in the Khasi language. According to a popular legend of Khasi-Pnars there was a time when all sixteen families, dwelt in heaven. People used to descend daily by the Jingkieng ksiar (which literally means the` golden. ladder ` but is actually meant to refer to a celestial pathway connecting heaven and earth) to come down to the earth and cultivate. This continued until one day it was irretrievably destroyed. The seven families or Seven Huts who were on earth thus remained here forever and from them the race multiplied.

The Hynniew Trep are made up of several sub-tribes: Khynriam, Pnar, Bhoi and War. The Khynriam inhabit the uplands of the Khasi Hills District, the Pnar or Syntengs live in the Jaintia Hills. The Bhoi live in the lower hills to the north and north-east of the Khasi Hills and Jaintia Hills towards the Brahmaputra valley. The War, usually divided into War-Jaintia, in the south of the Jaintia Hills and War-Khasi in the south of the Khasi Hills, live on the steep southern slopes leading to Bangladesh. Their languages, Khasi, Pnar and War, are the northernmost Austro-Asiatic languages. This language was essentially oral until the arrival of Welsh missionary Thomas Jones, who transcribed the Khasi language into Roman Script. A substantial minority of the Khasi people follow their tribal religion; called variously, Ka Niam Khasi and Ka Niam Tre in the Jaintia region. A vast majority of the Khasis are Presbyterian or Roman Catholic, although there is a tiny Unitarian presence, and very few are Muslims as well.

The Khasis have a matrilineal and matrilocal society. The children take the mother's family name and clan. The father's clan is much respected as they are said to have given life but the children do not take his family's name. After marriage it is the groom who comes and stays at the bride’s home. Other than the youngest daughter, all other daughters have to build their homes after marriage, though they do get a share of the ancestral property. The youngest daughter of the family is the keeper and not the inheritor of ancestral property. She has the responsibility to manage the ancestral property. Daughters are given preference in the division of property while males can own only self-acquired property. Even Christians are known to pass down their ancestral property through the female line. Khasi women enjoy a high social status and play a significant role in socio-economic matters and household management.

Khasi villages are built a little below the tops of hills in small depressions to protect against storms and high winds. Their houses are built in close proximity to one another. The typical Khasi house is a shell-shaped building with three rooms: the shynghup is a porch for storage; the nengpei is the center room for cooking and sitting; and the rumpei is the inner room for sleeping . The homes of wealthy Khasi are more modern, having iron roofs, chimneys, glass windows, and doors. Some have European-style homes and furniture. In addition to individual houses, family tombs and memorial stones called mawbynna or monoliths are located within their territory. There is no internal division of the village based on wealth; rich and poor live side by side. Sacred groves are located near the Village between the brow of the hill and the leeward side, where the village’s tutelary deity is worshiped. Narrow streets connect houses and stone steps lead up to individual houses. A marketplace is located outside a Khasi village, close to memorial stones, by a river or under a group of trees, depending on the region. Within Khasi villages one may find a number of public buildings, Christian churches, and schools.

In Meghalaya many Khasi have taken up professions in civil services and in industries besides agriculture. The Khasi also engage in other subsistence activities such as, bird snaring , hunting (deer, wild dogs, wolves, bears, leopards, and tigers), and the raising of cattle, goats, pigs, dogs, and hens and bees . The Khasi people residing in the hilly areas of Sylhet, Bangladesh are of the War sub-tribe. The main crops produced by the Khasi people living in the War areas, including Bangladesh, are betel leaf and areca nut. The War-Khasi people designed and built the famous 'Living root bridges' of the Cherrapunjee region.

A Khasi woman usually wears a "jainsem" or ’dhara’ - two pieces of material pinned at the shoulder and a "tapmohkhlieh" or shawl. On ceremonial occasions they may wear a crown of silver or gold. Earlier Khasi male dress is a Jymphong, a longish sleeveless coat without collar, fastened by thongs in front. On ceremonial occasions they appear in a Jymphong and sarong with an ornamental waist-band and they may also wear a turban. Nowadays, most male and female Khasis have adopted western attire. 

The staple food of Khasis is rice. They also take fish and meat. As a gesture of friendship, a Khasi would offer you "Kwai" or betel nut. This is eaten by the young and old, rich and poor and can be said to be an equalizer. Culturally, rice beer is served when one visits any family but with the European influence this rice beer has been substituted with tea. But the use of rice-beer is a must for every ceremonial and religious occasion.

Every festival and ceremony from birth to death is enriched with music and dance in Khasi life. The `phawar` is one of the basic forms of Khasi music. It is more of a "chant" than a song, and is often composed on the spot, impromptu, to suit the occasion. Other forms of song include ballads & verses on the past, the exploits of legendary heroes, and laments for martyrs. Among Khasi musical instruments the Ksing Shynrang and the Ksing Kynthei are interesting because they support the song and the dance. Flutes and Drums of various types not only provides the beat for the festival but is also used to 'invite' people to the event. Some examples of Khasi made decorative art includes metal gongs (with animal engravings), implements of warfare (arrows, spears, bows, and shields), and memorial slabs (with engravings).

The most attractive thing of khasi hills that moves the explorer much is monoliths, the stone monuments scattered all around. Monoliths are consists of Menhirs (Upright stones) Moo Shynrang and Dolmens (flat stones in the horizontal position) locally known as Moo Kynthai. Majority of these monoliths were built in memory of the some special persons, ancestors or events as a sign of respect and remembrance.

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