Tag Archives: matrilineal

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: Memories of Meghalaya

When I went to India, I was poor. I saved up every penny, including sitting on the street corner and selling used books and ornaments (you could still do that in the West End at that point). My friends lent me the money for the plane ticket, which I paid back over the next year.

I was gone for two months and the first month was in the state of Meghalaya. There are seven autonomous states in northeastern India. They are: Assam, Meghalaya, Arunchal Pradesh, Mizoram (known for eating dog), Nagaland (known for eating these giant spiders I saw), Manipur. Meghalaya’s capital is Shillong, where I stayed but we did travel around some.

Hanocia, my friend from Meghalaya who had lived in Vancouver for years, was of an old family. There are last names, which denote some aspect of nobility or lineage that has carried on for generations. There are three major groups in Meghalaya; the Khasis, Garo and Jaintia with the Khasis being the largest. They are a rare thing in the world, a matrilineal society. Few cultures follow matriarchal culture and fewer matrilineal. Hanocia was the only daughter of a youngest daughter.

Instead of the oldest son of the oldest son it is the youngest daughter who traditionally inherits the family lands, partly because she will be around longest to take care of the aging parents. She also would oversee the family lands and riches. Children take their mothers’ last names and a divorced man moves back into the home of his mother. Clan leaders tend to be male but voted in by the women of the clan. Women handle the money a lot and men hunt. The Siyiem, equivalent to a king in their traditional society, will not see his son inherit but the son of his sister. The position does not have as much weight as it once did and Hanocia said one Siyiem lay in state, after he died, in the royal estates for a very long time because no one would take up the job, and he could not be buried until there was a successor.

The Khasis are a Himalayan hill tribe, traditional hunters with the bow and arrow. I saw the equivalent of horse races one day when we went out to a field where archery butts (stacks of sticks or reeds tied in an upright cylinder were set about a field. Then many men would kneel and shoot as many arrows as possible within a set time. I believe they then counted how many arrows were closest to the center (demarcated by lines or string) and the person who had bet closest to that number would win. Although the Indian government tried to discourage gambling, this was a very popular form for the Khasis.

They are a diminutive people, with the average height of women being under 5’4″ and men around 5’5″. There were a few taller people but often mixed with other blood and at 5’4″ myself, I towered above many of the people. Although many Khasis are now Christian, their traditional religious beliefs are animist. They believe there is a spirit in most things and we visited a scared grove of trees.

I was there in late October and November and was lucky enough to attend the seasonal festival. It ran three days and clan chieftains came from all over to meet. There was a dance that did not necessarily have prescribed steps and reminded me partly of Native American dances. In the sun, three Khasi women, sisters of the Siyiem I believe, danced very slowly, either holding parasols or someone holding one over their head (lighter skin is a sign of nobility). The women were done in the Khasis robes, (a nongkrem–this might actually be the name of a place and I’m misremembering), like a silk sari but folded in such a way to be pinned in a sheath over each shoulder. A longer sleeved top was worn beneath and on their heads stood tall and elaborate headdresses made of gold. Many Khasi women wear a gold necklace with a large ruby in it. In a circle around these dancing women men would dance running and moving quickly. It’s been a while so I don’t quite remember the details.

The animist Khasis also hold the rooster as a sacred animal as they believe that it conveys their messages back and forth to U Blei Ka Blei. U denotes masculine and Ka, feminine (spellings could be off a bit, so if I remember correctly it translates as “the god” or “he god she god”). At this festival there were men who did chicken divination, wringing the necks of the birds and using their fingers to pry the bodies open and remove the entrails. I’m not sure if the bodies were first cut or if they were actually pried apart.

I also went to a night festival that few women frequent but there was no rule against it. It took place in a building made completely of wood; even pegs and joins were of wood. Within was a fire and a tall pole. The men would get up and dance near or around the pole and high pitched pipes were played. I’m not sure what the purpose was and think that in some cases they were reluctant to tell me. It was probably something to do with fertility but I’m just guessing. I was also in some discomfort because I’d eaten some sort of preserved bamboo shoot and the preservative was causing a bad reaction (there was also no toilet on site so it was a bit of a conundrum).

I will write more on the Khasis of Meghalaya, but although Wiki says that permits were not needed by foreigners past 1955 this is not true. I went in 1989 and I had to get a permit. I was one of three white people that I saw, one other being Hanocia’s husband and one being a school child. I’m sure there were a few others but people tended to stare because tall white people were a rarity. Meghalaya is culturally protected, meaning that only Garo and Khasis can own land. They are not Hindu and in fact, eat beef quite regularly, which is cheaper than chicken. I believe that now permits are no longer needed though they may be for some of the neighboring states, which are also self-autonomous.

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