Meghalaya literally meaning the ‘abode of clouds’ is a small hilly state in the North eastern part of the country. Its landscape is not only dotted with green hills, deep valleys, crystal clear rivers and rivulets and gushing waterfalls but also has several natural wonders such as the longest sandstone cave (krempuri), the wettest place on earth called Sohra or Cherrapunji, multitudes of root bridges, the cleanest village in Asia called Mawlynong, a variety of flora and fauna, which have all made this state one of the most sought after tourist destination of the world. This tiny state has a matrilineal society endowed with a vibrant culture that pulsates at the core of it.
The Khasis or the Khriems, and the Jaintias or the Pnars belong to the Mongolian race while the Garos belong to the Tibeto Burman race and call themselves as A’chiks. The people of Meghalaya are rich in cultural heritage and one of unique tradition is the matrilineal system where the lineage and inheritance are traced through women. For example, a boy or as girl born of a Khasi mother belong to the family of the mother. The property is inherited by the youngest daughter or the Ka Khadduh who is the custodian of ancestral property. She cannot dispose or sell the property without the consent and approval of the maternal uncle and the brothers. The matrilineal system of society involves a very close relationship between religion, social life, economy and political life of the people. Dance and other festivals are celebrated by all the three tribes throughout the year and are mostly related to the sowing or the harvesting season and also as a thanksgiving gesture to the God almighty. These traditional festivals are a way to maintain the balance between man, his culture, his natural environment and the ecosystem.
The foundation of the Khasi society is based on the concept of Kur and Kha. Ka Tip kur ka Tip kha is a respectful recognition of the basic social structure, which consists of either maternal or paternal relationships. All those who are descendants of the same ancestral mother belong to the same Kur or clan and members of the father’s clan are not Kur but Kha. It enjoins all to know and respect each other, to recognize one’s relation on both sides and to give due regard to them. It involves an intricate network of kinship relationship and sentiments, obligations, convictions and beliefs that weave the Khasi society together. Each clan or Kur has its triad- ka Tawbli, the ancestral mother, U Thawlang, the ancestral father and U Suidria, the eldest brother or the eldest son of Ka Tawbli who is the ancestral maternal uncle of the clan.
Traditionally the origin of the Khasis is stated to be from the seven huts or seven families (HynniepTrep HynniesSkun) who were the progenitor of the whole Khasi race and from them the organization of the Khasi and the inter-clan relationship is based. Each hut or trep signifies a Kur. Kur or clan multiplied and increased in numbers out of inter-marriage among the different Kurs. Each Kur traced its descent to Ka Tawbli Tynrai or root ancestors. The kur is subdivided into jaids, which claim Ka Tawbli tymmen or old ancestress or their ancestress. The jaids are further subdivided into a number of kpohs, which claim Ka Tawbli Khyraw or young ancestress or their ancestress. Each Kapoh is further subdivided into a number of families or ing and belong to the same jaid. Religion too starts within the Kur and religion plays a predominant role not only in the social life but also in the political life of the people. Though over 70% of the population in the state follow the Christian faith, but Christians or non-Christians alike observe the Khasi customary law and adhere to the Khasi idea of life. Through migration some Jaids might have changed their names but as long as they belong to the common ancestors, they cannot have an inter-marriage.
The family or the Ka Ing forms part of the sub clan called the Ka kpoh (sibling) and a number of sub-clans form Ka kur ka jait or those originating from the same ancestress. Those having a direct lineage to the father’s side are called Ki Kha ki Man or cousins. Family in the past was a joint family that consisted a father, mother, brothers and sisters not yet married, sons and daughters who were not married and also the grandchildren. At present there is a kind of change taking place in the family, which now consists of only the father, the mother and the children, which is more or less like a nuclear family that does not include other members having close relations. The mother is still considered the custodian of the family rites and a family priestess although in the task of sacrifice and other religious celebrations of the house it is the male members that play the most important role. The mother, the maternal uncle and the father are revered as the makers of the clan. Children receive a lot of guidance from the father and the maternal uncle or the brother of the mother.
MARRIAGE RITUALS OF THE KHASIS
Marriage is considered as one of the oldest social institution. Throughout human history it has been endorsed by religion, laws, social norms etc. Though marriage ceremonies, rules, and roles may differ from one society to another, marriage is considered a cultural universal, which means that it is present as a social institution in all cultures. It is a bond between a man and a woman. A bond for cooperation and understanding to build a new home. Among the Khasis too, a marriage is a bond which connects two Kurs, the Kur of the woman and the Kur of the man.
The traditional Khasi system of marriage is quite simple. Both love and arranged marriages are permissible. Marriage is prohibited between people who are related by blood which means that clans who descend from common ancestors cannot marry as it is believed that it is an incest or a great sin. As it is a taboo, this system is quite rare. Marriage also cannot take place between a man and a woman whose father and mother have blood relations. It is a great sin to marry within the related clans. Those who go against this basic principle are ex-communicated from their kinsfolk. In a Khasi marriage, the husband is the son from one clan or Kur who marries a daughter from another clan where there is no blood relations.
Therefore marriage among the Khasis takes place between two different clans. Marriage among the Khasis is very sacred; the most remarkable feature of the Khasi marriage is that it is a usual practice for the husband to live with his wife in his mother-in-law’s house, and it is not for him to take his bride home, as it is the case in other patriarchal communities. In the past there was only arranged marriage and love marriage was nearly unknown, these days however love marriages or free choice marriages are more prevalent after due approval by the family.
Before the man decides to marry he must first of all examine the pros and cons because after the marriage the man goes to the woman’s house and becomes U Khun ki briew or son of other people. He also has to have some earnings for himself so that he is not looked down upon. He is expected to earn for his Kur termed as Kamai ing Kur and the remaining period of his life he devotes to earn for his wife and children or Kamai ing khun. Proposal for marriage comes from the boy’s side with the approval of his maternal uncles as well as the relatives of his father. They also check if the girl has a respectable family background. After elaborate examination, the elderly men will go to the girl’s house to ask for her hand in marriage with the boy. The engagement ceremony or Pynhiar Synjat thereafter takes place. Parental and maternal uncles of the boy goes to the girl’s house. Female members are however not permitted to be a part of this process. The engagement ceremony that is conducted by the elderly males can be with either a gold or lead ring depending on the capability of the party concerned. The period between the engagement and the marriage is not more than three months. If the engagement is broken by either party it is considered as Klim ka Synjat or adultery over the engagement which is almost like the breaking of the covenant of God.
There are two types of marriages among the Khasis – the first one is ‘Ka pynhior synjat’ that is exchanging of rings between a man and a woman who would be husband and wife and in the second type of marriage
called ‘Ka lamdoh’ there is no exchanging of rings. After the wedding day is fixed, the boy leaves his home to his new home or his would be wife’s home, after receiving the blessings of all his maternal and paternal aunts and other relatives and friends. Female relatives from the boy’s side are again not allowed to go along with him and only his uncles, male relatives and friends go along with him.
As a part of the tradition, a portion of the bride’s wedding attire as well as jewellery is given by the groom. The bride dresses herself in traditional Khasi outfit for her wedding day. She wears a Dhara or Jainsem as it is known in local language. The groom too dons a traditional outfit for his special day which is known as Jymphong. Jymphong is basically a long coat without any sleeves or collar, and is fastened with the aid of two straps attached in the front. Now-adays most grooms also team up their Jymphong with Sarongs, and some of them also wear turban on their heads. Both the bride and the groom team up their wedding outfits with apt accessories for their special day. The bride accessorizes her outfit with various ornaments such as necklaces and earrings made from silver or gold. She also wears a gold pendant known as Kynjri Ksiar.
In a marriage ceremony there must be a maternal uncle (U Kni) from the bride’s side and a maternal uncle on the groom’s side as well. They are called ‘Ki Ksiangs’ or the negotiator who will cite the marriage ceremony. On the marriage day as the groom and his entourage are on the way to the bride’s house, at the half way point the party is received by representatives from the girl’s side to welcome them. An exchange of betel nuts or Kwai with vines and lime takes place. On reaching the girl’s house the ceremony begins. The couple take their seat side by side and the whole audience witnesses the solemnisation. The spokesman recites from each side and declares the marriage of the bride and the groom. The Ksiang from the male side introduces the groom, upon which the opposite spokesman welcomes and explains that he has come to stay with his wife, and to live with her through bright and dark days, as well as through sickness and health. The Ksiang from the girl’s side rises up and agrees that the marital union has now come to be solemnly pledged in the presence of the congregation gathered. As a token of the marriage link, the priest pours libation or fermented brew from the two respective vessels. After this, he takes three pieces of dried fish and addresses the Goddess Synchar to bless and guide the couple. The ritual ends with the placing of the dried fish upside down on the roof of the house to be removed only after the birth of the baby of the couple. All relatives’ hands over their gifts in cash or kind and after the cutting of the wedding cake made of grounded rice, scrumptious meals are feasted upon by all present. The next day morning the boy leaves for his home for some time and returns back. After around three days the boy takes his wife along with her relatives, both males and females to his mother’s house and where she blesses her new daughter-in-law to increase her own Kur and applies a little oil on her head as a symbolic gesture. Mutual visits between the two Kurs starts from here on.
For a Khasi, procreation after marriage is very important. A Khasi does not believe to live without children or without a Jaid. To live without a Jaid is a curse. Therefore to expand one’s family after marriage to a Khasi is thought to fulfil one of the purposes of life on earth – to multiply and expand the clan. A childless couple are free to separate which is always performed in the presence of senior members of the community. When a husband and wife feel that they cannot live happily together any longer, they can divorce through mutual consent in the presence of the Headman. The procedure is simple, both the husband and the wife hold in their hands five cowries or five pieces of betel nut each. The husband hands over the contents of his hand to that of his wife. The later returns them with those of her own and the husband takes them and casts them away from his hand. Both husband and wife cannot remarry until they are separated.
Thus marriage for the Khasi is sacrosanct and is therefore solemnised with all the revered rituals and ceremonies. But with the passage of time such traditional marriages have become rare and no longer a common practice as most Christian couples are adopting the elaborate church weddings. But though a traditional wedding may have become exceptional especially among the urban city dwellers but it not totally unheard of even in the present times of today specially in the rural areas.
Presently an Administrator of Women’s College Higher Secondary Shillong. Has been a Radio Jockey in All India Radio and a News Reader and Moderator of Doordarshan Shillong for over 25 years. Also the Co-Convener of Indian National Trust of Art and Cultural Heritage INTACH, Meghalaya Chapter.