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Traveling in India: A Khasi Way of Life Part I

When I went to India in the late 80s I spent two months traveling. The first month was in my friend’s home state of Meghalaya, in the northeastern part of India. There is a tiny join at Darjeeling before the country opens up to seven tribal states. These states were never truly conquered by the British and have self-autonomy. This means they are under the governance of India but maintain a unique cultural identity, which is protected. These states are Assam, Nagaland, Mizoram, Manipur, Tripura, Arunachal Pradesh and Meghalaya.

For most of these states, especially at that time, they were barred to foreigners (and sometimes other Indian nationals) or you needed a special visa. I probably obtained a visa only because my friend was from the state of Meghalaya. When we arrived, besides Hanocia’s husband, there was only one other white person, a child (so presumably there were parents somewhere) in Meghalaya.

The capital is Shillong and the most populous people are the Khasis. The Garo and Jaintia tribespeople make up the other majority and this states sports a majority of Christians. Many of those Christian Khasis blend their faith with the traditional animist beliefs. Although once part of Assam state (by way of the British) Meghalaya was made a separate state. Even when we were there, we had to fly out of Assam and the borders were closed because the Assamese and the Khasis, traditional headhunting enemies, were fighting with each other again.

It’s been many years since I was there but I do remember some aspects of Meghalaya that made it quite different from many other places in the world. First off, the Khasi people are matrilineal. This is slightly different from matriarchal where women would be in charge of everything. Western civilization is still trying to throw of the yoke of patriarchy, as well as other cultures, where women are not allowed certain positions because of their gender. This used to pertain more to jobs and still does in some countries, or that women cannot vote, work or be ministers of certain religions. Matrilineal means that the lineage runs through the women, and other certain aspects of society.

The Khasis are a tribal people–even if they live in houses, they still have traditional tribal roles. A child will take its mother’s last name, not the father’s and it’s common for the man to move into the wife’s or mother-in-law’s house. This of course makes more sense because you will always know who your mother is but there is no sure way to know who your father is. The women are the inheritors of the wealth and instead of the oldest son of the oldest son inheriting, the youngest daughter of the youngest daughter inherits and is keeper of the family lands. This too makes a lot of sense in it being the youngest because the youngest will be around longest to support the parents in their old age. The Syiem is the hereditary ruler of Meghalaya, although there is a full government. This is traditionally a man but it is not the man’s son who inherits, but his sister’s son or the next in line. Hanocia told me that it is mostly a figurehead position these days and when one king died he laid in state, in the palace, until his successor stepped forward. No one wanted the position and so he laid in state, rotting for a long time.

The Khasis are a diminutive people and at 5’4″ I towered above most of them. Their language is similar to the Khmer of Burma and the land lies very close to Myanmar/Burma. This language is back of the throat, glottal and akin to swallowing part of a word. At one point, for the month I spent in Meghalaya, I was trying to speak a few Khasi words one night. Something like “ngam thlen.” After a few tries Hanocia turned to me and said, “What are you trying to say?” “I’m trying to say I’m hungry.” She matter of factly said, “Well you’re saying you give blood sacrifice.” Everyone found this hilarious, coming from the foreigner, but should a Khasi have said it, it would have been a serious thing indeed.

The Khasis have a belief that if a person seems to come into sudden wealth that they may be performing thlen worship. I’m not sure I remember this correctly but a thlen is, I believe, a snake-like creature (maybe part cat?) that can grant wealth in exchange for a human sacrifice. The sacrifice must be killed without spelling blood (choking, hanging, suffocation, etc.). In the late 80s, people were still being accused, occasionally, of this.

Just as I mentioned my experience in eating the kwai (betel nut) in Shillong, the experience with the language caused an amusing reaction. What was also interesting was experiencing what it’s like to be a minority but not ostracized for it. Being one of very few white people, in some cases I was the first that many people had ever seen. Watching a school parade one day, of the Catholic schools and bishops in neon orange and gold lame’ robes, I took a few pictures but couldn’t get to where I was staying as there was no way around but through the parade. As every child walked past their heads all swiveled to look at me. Another day, I walked out of one of the shops to about 15 men, women and children just standing across the street staring at me. It became disconcerting and I began to wonder if I was doing something wrong or was under scrutiny. Of course, I was just a curiosity.

There is much more to say about this: the matrilineal structure, the stones, the way of life but that’s all for today.

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Traveling in India: Transportation Travails

I think there are many great tales that often take place around transportation: planes, cars, trains, buses, elephants, camels, bikes, rickshaws, etc. Especially if you’re traveling (obviously) there are more tales than the everyday commute, but even living in one’s own city will afford you adventures.

India was probably the most diverse in terms of transportation and terror. I already wrote about flying in “Frightful Flights” but the rest was its own adventure. I never did ride an elephant and though I saw one being ridden it was definitely not the most common form of transportation in India. That would be feet, as most people are too poor to afford more.

I took a few buses from town to town. Many of these were Greyhound size buses and usually without incident But a few trips were driven by kamikaze drivers on winding hills through treacherous roadways. These buses tended to be more like school buses with a picture of one or several Hindu deities up from as well as bright color trims or other decoration. The bus could be one where everyone had a seat and was a mixture of tourists and locals, or one that was a reservation only, air-conditioned, elite tourist only bus. Reservations certainly didn’t guarantee the type of bus or a seat.

On one supposedly reserved bus it was jam-packed full of locals with live chickens and other produce. We knew that we’d paid extra for the privilege of riding locally. It was a bumpy, dusty and long ride and we were packed close enough to examine the weave of each other’s clothes. After someone managed to puke on the bus, the answer being to put paper over the acrid mess and continue onward, several of us opted to ride on the roof of the bus. The tourist luggage was up there anyways and this was a good way to keep an eye on our goods and get some fresh nonvomit-ridden air. Of course this is illegal and had we been stopped some baksheesh would have changed hands, probably from tourist hands to police hands.

As it was, it was a fun way to see the country, and not experience the claustrophobia of the overcrowded bus. I had a couple of bus rides in Nepal too but they were calmer and cleaner. Busing to the next town wasn’t that far but the seats were narrow and metal. Metal is fine in a warm climate but at 5’4″ I was nearly too tall to sit in the seats. I would have stood but I was hit so badly with dysentery I nearly fainted and had to sit, thanks to the Nepalese who noticed my state and motioned for me to sit. Three of them can fit on a bench but I could barely jam my knees down and they were pressed against the seat in front of me. I also took up the room of 1.5 Nepalis. And anyone taller than me had to stand because they just wouldn’t fit. Imagine a 6’2″ man standing next to a tiny Nepalese woman.

Perhaps the most terrifying ride of my life took place in a jeep. The Himalayan hill tribes in the state of Meghalaya tended to drive mostly jeeps, which makes a lot of sense when you see the winding, curving roads with nothing but the foothills of the Himalayas framing them (those foothills equal some of our mountain ranges). One day we went out to Cherapunjee with Hanocia’s brother driving us in the jeep. I had tried to the drive the jeeps there but with the handling of a jeep which is somehow different and tippier, and the right-hand steering, left-hand gear shifting, I just couldn’t get it to work. (Oddly in Ireland with the same type of driving but a car instead, I had no problem.)

So we drove up and took the day looking around. We were there in Oct./Nov. and the days get shorter sooner. We ended up driving back in full darkness. There is no light pollution from distant cities in the foothills of Meghalaya. And the roads are narrow hairpins. As we found common and strange in India, cars would drive with their lights off and only turn them on when they encountered another vehicle. Imagine how terrifying this is as we wind through a hairpin, get to the outside curve and then there is a truck barreling at us, and they both turn their lights on to blind each other.

Hanocia’s brother swore he had to do this to save his lights and that the battery was going. Usually driving regenerates the battery but needless to say we were nearly breathless with fright. After a few encounters with oncoming trucks on the narrow roads we insisted he turn the lights on or we were going to get out and walk. We were miles and miles from Shillong but a long walk in the dark was preferable to dying in the dark.

Since this post has gone long enough I’ll leave off the train rides for a another time, but I can say this: after all these years I still vividly remember the transportation and the tales attached with traveling in India.

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