India is often perceived as a country where women live in the shadow of male authority to make virtually all important decisions in their lives. Then..there are the Khasis. They are a tribal people with an ancient matrilineal culture that sweeps aside stereotypical images of subservient Indian womanhood.
There is no dowry system among the Khasis and both sexes are free to choose their own partners.
Often there is no formal marriage ceremony with the relationship merely sealed by the man moving into a woman’s joint family ancestral home.
Divorce is equally simple: regardless of who initiates the split, the husband must move out of his wife’s household-either back to his ancestral home, or to that of a new spouse. The wife may then introduce a new partner into her family enclave. Both are legitimate second marriages.
Men have no custody rights over their offspring, and are not liable for alimony. The children “belong” to the mother’s family who are responsible for their support and therefore control all decisions pertaining to their upbringing and future.
In addition, no Khasi woman is ever thrown out onto the street. Whether married or not, her children are cherished as lineage ‘seeds and flowers’ and raised in the maternal ancestral home.
Although male babies are welcomed, the birth of a girl is considered a special blessing.
Family incomes are pooled and households are managed by the older women, who apportion domestic expenses. The youngest daughter of the family matriarch is the legal custodian of the family’s wealth and property.
James Perry in Khasi dress. Cultural Pursuits
Who are the Khasis?
Are they a tribe of Xena-like women and emasculated men? I am in Shillong, the capital of Meghalaya, to find out with the help of James Perry, director of local tour company, Cultural Pursuits. James grew up in a missionary family based in Shillong, “returned” to Canada for his later education, and has now settled down in Meghalaya with his Christian Khasi wife, Valerie. He offered to share his lifelong passion for these tribal people and their stunning environment, and further my inquiries within his wide circle of acquaintances.
The word “tribal” conjures up images of a primitive, backward people. The Khasis are neither. While the majority are farmers who live in the hill areas of Meghalaya, their counterparts in Shillong are doctors, lawyers, academics, government administrators and small business operators. They likely arrived in northeastern India from Cambodia and Laos in about the 13th century. Both their physical resemblance and their dialect derived from the Mon-Khymer group of languages appear to bear this out. Churches, missionary-funded schools and hospitals made their appearance in Shillong in the mid-1800s.
Today the Khasi population is around 879,000 and although roughly 50% still practice Christianity – at least by outward appearances – their original pantheistic beliefs have by no means disappeared. If anything, there is a resurgence of pride in folkloric history and the age-old rituals of ancestor worship are enjoying a revival throughout the Khasi hills.
Performers of the traditional Khasi Warrior Dance, Shad Thma. Margaret Deefholts
Mrs. Sweety-Mon Rynjah’s living room has an air of Edwardian decorum. Not so Mrs. Rynjah. “Khublei” she murmurs as we sit down. “That means ‘May God bless you,’ and it is our traditional greeting.” She peers sharply at me. “So, first of all, please understand that we pure Khasis have a deep reverence for our ancient spiritual rites and customs.”
“So,” she moves on briskly, “James tells me you are interested in knowing more about us Khasi women. To begin with, we are not aggressive feminists, but yes, we do wield considerable power. And,” she adds emphatically, “we also shoulder great responsibility.”
Nongkriem Dance Festival. James Perry
Matriarchal empowerment is rooted in the Khasis’ veneration of clan matrilineal ancestors. This surfaces not only in their religious rituals, but in daily life as well. It influences the way women think, react and feel.and how their men-folk think, react and feel towards them. Mrs Rynjah points out that it is the woman who enriches the clan by giving birth to new generations. She is the wise one, the counsellor and keeper of harmony within the household. Most importantly, she is the one who imbues her children with moral strength and purpose.
Are Khasi men subservient to their wives, sisters and mothers? Mrs Rynjah emits a gurgle of amusement. “Absolutely not! We each have complementary roles to play. Let’s just say we respect our men-folk, but we don’t kneel to them!”
Once warriors and hunters, men are now guardians and protectors of the household and the clan. They are active in the political and economic affairs of the state and participate in village tribal durbars (councils). Although women are not council members, they often will express views on political and community issues. However, it is the men who must voice them. The Syiem or chieftain presides over the clan, but it is the clan matriarch who chooses which of her sons (usually the eldest) will be appointed to the office.
Ancestral Home of a Khasi Chieftain. Margaret Deefholts
In a Khasi household, the eldest maternal uncle is invested with authority; he is the arbiter on issues that affect the family as a whole. “Take marriage for example,” says Mrs Rynjah. “We don’t prohibit our women from marrying non-Khasis, though certain taboos are strictly enforced. There must be no blood-ties whatsoever from the maternal line, and no family links for at least three generations from the paternal side. It is maternal uncle’s responsibility to investigate the genealogy of the groom to ensure that there is no taint of incest.”
Similarly, though the youngest daughter is the legal owner of the family wealth, her role is that of “custodian”. Purchase or sale of family assets is made in consultation with the entire household and although the maternal uncle’s decision is binding, he delivers this only after diligently weighing the opinions of the women in the family. “The rympei (kitchen) is the fiery hearth from which emanates a woman’s power on all matters pertaining to customs, traditions and family life,” my hostess adds emphatically.
Nongkriem Dance Festival. James Perry
Hmm..I sense something of a shadow play here. While men stand at the forefront, women manipulate the strings gently, but firmly, in the background. Once more, Mrs Rynjah erupts into a Vesuvius-like explosion of mirth, “Well, maybe!” She turns serious. “But the viewpoints of both men and women have equal validity!”
We move on to the apparently relaxed sexual mores of the Khasis. “Adultery,” she declares, “is not socially or morally acceptable. Never was and never will be.” At one time, divorce was rare, and permissible only after the couple’s families had deliberated over the problem. Today the divorce rate hovers at a whopping 40%, and conjugal splits are regarded with casual insouciance.
The conversation turns to Khasi spiritual beliefs. While animism and ancestor exaltation are intrinsic to their culture, God is perceived as being formless-an energy that permeates the entire universe. “We believe that each of us is on this earth to serve God and our fellow men with a pure heart. And to be righteous…” She repeats the word, drum rolling the ‘r’ for emphasis. “R-r-r-righteous in all that we think and do!”
Festivals Behdeinkhlam: An important Jantia festival in July. Men beat roofs with sticks to drive away evil spirits, plague and pestilence; women make sacrificial offerings to ancestral spirits.
Nongkrem Dance Festival: Held in Smit (20 km from Shillong) in November. A celebration of thanksgiving to the Almighty for a plentiful harvest, peace and prosperity.
Shad Suk Mynsiem: A three-day spring festival in April all around the Khasi hills. Men and women, dressed in traditional finery dance to the accompaniment of drums and flute.
What about transgressors? “They will suffer!” she says ominously. “Sickness, pain, sorrow..because God will have turned His face away from them.”
What then, I inquire? A sinner must humbly ask his Creator to reveal the cause of his travails. A raw egg is broken, and the answer is to be found in the way the shells fall. Alternatively, the entrails of a sacrificial cock are studied by a shaman who understands such mysteries.
I stare at Mrs Rynjah wondering whether she is having me on. But she is perfectly serious. As I find out over the next few days, a curious dichotomy lies below Shillong’s urbane exterior: exorcism rites, supernatural omens, faith healing ceremonies, spells, love-potions and sacrificial rituals are strands which weave through the fabric of Khasi life, regardless of class, status or level of education.
With these profound thoughts in mind, I move on to Mrs Batti Mon Tymthai, principal of the Seng Khasi College, to discuss the future of young Khasis. She admits that post graduate opportunities are limited. “Unless their parents are wealthy, it would be difficult for students to pursue law, medicine or engineering-although some have done so with great success.”
Women seem to find employment fairly quickly as they are proactive job seekers. “On the other hand, our young men are often preoccupied with sports, martial arts, playing in pop bands and partying with their friends,” Tymthai says wryly. “Eventually most of them settle down in government service, or in their own family-run small business ventures.” She adds, “Agriculture, nonetheless, is the mainstay of our people.”
Ancestral monolithic memorials of the Sacred Forest. Margaret Deefholts
Fruit Vendors in the Khasi hills. Margaret Deefholts
The Khasis have another source of strength: they are uncorrupted by envy or overweening ambition. Only a few have left home to live in cities around the globe. For those who are content to remain in the gentle hills, their lives continue to unfold with the rhythm of the seasons, in the joys of ceremonial revels, and in their age-old traditions and beliefs. Their place in the maternal womb of their ancestral heritage remains warm and secure.
Follow Up Facts
Weather: The best time to visit Meghalaya is October through May although in the hotter months (March/May) Shillong has an influx of tourists from the plains, driving hotel prices higher. June to September are literally a ‘washout’ as the monsoon drenches the area. November to February are chilly, with many hotels providing heaters on request (for an additional fee).
From our Travel Article Library collection, enjoy another India article by this author in which she recounts her adventures aboard the narrow-gauge Darjeeling mountain railway which is part of a designated UNESCO cultural heritage train system in the Himalayas.
Margaret Deefholts has written articles on numerous journeys through Canada, the U.S., Britain, Europe, Australia and India, published in national and community newspapers and magazines throughout Canada. She has won Tourism Malaysia’s prestigious “Best Foreign Writer” award for her extensive coverage of travel destinations in Borneo and mainland Malaysia. Living near Vancouver, Canada, Margaret’s book, Haunting India, is a compilation of her short fiction, travel tales and memoirs. www.margaretdeefholts.com.