Dr. Streamlet Dkhar
Matrilineal society has a system in which lineage is traced through the mother and maternal ancestors. All the members of the clan who trace their descent from the common ancestral mother practise their lineage system in the matrilineal society. The line of descentinall prevailing generations that comes from the mother is known as matrilineal descent’. The Khasis also practise the matrilineal system. Khasis include the Khynriam, Pnar, Bhoi, War Khasi, War Jaiñtia, Maram, Lyngngam and Dyko1.These are all known by the generic term the “Khasi”. On this, H. Lyngdoh wrote: “Ka kyntien Khasi ka kynthup ïa ki Khasi baroh – ki Khasi ne Khynriam, ki Pnar ne Synteng, Ki Bhoi, ki War bad ki Lyngngam – kiba shong hapoh ne shabar ka ri lum Khasi bad Synteng” (H. Lyngdoh, 1937, 1). A number of eminent Khasi writers such as, R.S. Lyngdoh, H.O. Mawrie, R.T. Rymbai, D.T. Laloo to name a few, were of the opinion that the Khasis are the descendants of the sixteen families or the Khathynriew Trep from heaven out of which seven families were sent to earth through Ka Jingkieng Ksiar Sohpetbneng or the golden ladder of Sohpetbneng. This creation myth is deeply rooted in the Khasi belief system. The Khasis have been practising the cultural customs and practices of the matrilineal system from time immemorial. These traditional systems, which are still practised till today have made the Khasis as one of the unique tribes of the world. As far as the kinship system of the Khasis is concerned, it may be viewed that the clan system characterises the structure of the society.
Helen Giri said of the clan system that “it is the first social entity around which other social institutions revolve” ( Helen Giri, 159). When one talks about the practice of the lineage system in the Khasi matrilineal society, one will have to go first to the root of the clanlineage.
As far as Khasi society is concerned, the ancestral mother is known as “Ka Ïawbei”. “Ka Ïawbei” means the first ancestral mother of the clan. She is always known as “Ka Ïawbei Tynrai” or ‘the root/original ancestral mother’ who is the first mother of the clan. The husband of “Ka Ïawbei” is known as “U Thawlang” who is the ancestral father, the progenitor, whereas “U Suidnia” is the ancestral maternal uncle of the clan. There is also “Ka Ïawbei Tymmen” literally meaning ‘the old ancestral mother’ and she is the ancestral mother in the second generation. “Ka Ïawbei Khynraw” or ‘the young ancestral mother’ is the ancestral mother in the third generation and “Ka Kpoh” or the ‘womb’ is a mother from one’s own generation. Throughout generations all children, grand- children and great grandchildren take the lineage of their clan as originated from “Ka Ïawbei Tynrai”. Thus, whenever a Khasi meets another Khasi, not known to one another, they will first enquire about each other’s clan that they belong to.
As the descent is through the mother’s side, only the children of the daughters can become members of the clan. The children from the sons cannot be the members of their father’s clan as they cannot take their fathers’ clanname. Therefore, females belonging to the clan shall continue the lineage and wives of sons and of maternal uncles cannot take the clan lineage of their husbands’ as they have their own roots of their respective clans.
To uphold the clan lineage, the Khasis have their own tradition to assure that the laws of consanguinity are maintained. Thus there are prohibitions in marriage to evade incest as each clan is a matrilineal exogamous group and no one could marry within the clan. Any transgression in this matter by any member of the clan involves ostracism from the other members of the clan. An offence in this matter or the sin of incest is considered an unpardonable sin. The perpetrator would be turned into an outcast from the clan to the extent that no funeral rites for him/her would be performed by the clan and his/her bones and ashes after his/her demise would not be placed in the clan ossuary called “Ka Mawbah”.
The scope of “Ka Kur” or the clan in the Khasi society is widespread. The clan is not restricted only to a particular area or village, but is spread throughout the length and breadth of Meghalaya and Bangladesh, other places of the country and even outside India. In tracing the matrilineal consanguine kin group at different levels, one would first trace the nearest clan relation called “Ka Kpoh” which means the same mother from whom children are born. This is followed by tracing cousin brothers and sisters known as “shipara arkmie” who are the offsprings of the elder or younger sisters of one’s mother. After this, the children from the grandmothers who are the sisters of one’s own maternal grandmother are traced. In this way, the kin relationship is traced from one generation to the other as long as one could remember. The other members who belong to the same clan yet distant from the ones one could trace are known as “shi kur” or simply, one belonging to the same clan and not necessarily the same “kpoh”. The lineage system remains alive within the Khasi society. If a Khasi mother converts to another religion, she, alongwith her children, are still considered Khasis as long as she continues to practise “ka kheiñ kur” or knowing the kith and kin of her cognates as this is a significant part of the matrilineal system since it indicates the blood relationship. As per custom and tradition, “ka kur” or the clan is the main identity of every Khasi.
The kinship system, also called the kinship terminology system, has a kind of social norm which uses a set of particular vocabulary to indicate the blood relationships among the Khasi people. The matrilineal kinship system of the Khasis is used within their matrilineal blood groups of “kur” or clan. It includes certain terminologies which are: Mei Ïawbei or the great-great grandmother; Mei Dot or the great-grandmother; and Mei Ieit who is the grandmother. The mother’s elder sister is known as Mei San/Mei Heh and the mother’s younger sister is known as Mei Deng/ Mei Rit/Mei Duh/ Nahnah. The mother’s sister’s daughter (older than ego) is known as ka hynmen arkmie and the mother’s sister’s daughter (younger than ego) is known as ka para arkmie.
As is the custom, the maternal uncle plays a vital role in the clan. The Khasis have great respect for all maternal uncles of the clan and they have different terminologies for each one of them, such as Madot for mother’s great maternal uncle and Mabah for mother’s maternal uncle. The eldest brother of one’s own mother is a maternal uncle known as Maangbah; the middle one is known as Madeng or Makhynnah and the last maternal uncle is known as Maduh or Marit. All elder sisters from one’s own mother known as hynmen kynthei are referred to as Kongthei or Kongkong or Kongieit. Kongdeng is the reference for the middle one and para kynthei means the one younger to herself and is called by specific names as Heplung, Heprit, Hepduh or simply Duh. The Khasis call their elder brothers as ki hynmen shynrang and the prefix “Bah” is always added such as Bahheh or Bahrangbah or Bahbah for the elder brother; the middle one is Bahdeng or Bahkhynnah; and the youngest brother is called Bahduh. The children are known as “ki khun” with daughters as ki khun kynthei while sons are known as ki khun shynrang . Grandchildren as known as “ksiew” with granddaughters being simply called ka Ksiew or ka Ksiew Kynthei and the prefix “ka” denotes the feminine gender. Grandsons, on the other hand, can be simply referred to as u Ksiew or u Ksiew Shynrang and the prefix “u” is indicative of the masculine gender. The great-granddaughter or ka Ksiew-tun and the great-grandson or u Ksiew-tun alongwith the great great-grandchildren are known as ki Ksiew-jiap. The ego calls the sister’s daughter or the niece ka Khunruit and the sister’s son, u Khunruit. The brother calls the sister’s daughter ka Pyrsa Kynthei (niece) or simply i Pyrsa; the word “i” in Khasi indicates the mark of respect that is given to anyone. On the other hand, the brother refers to his sister’s son as u Pyrsa Shynrang or simply u Pyrsa. Therefore, the terminologies used for the kin relations are important to adhere to since the essence of ka kheiñ-kur plays a vital role in the lineagesystem.
Malwin Stone Passah, a researcher, said that “on account of the matrilineal system among the Khasis, the mother is the person entrusted with the important duties of performing family rites and ceremonies and occupies a position of family priestess.” (Passah, 9). His view goes in line with Hamlet Bareh’s opinion that “the mother is the custodian of family rites and a family priestess”(H.Bareh, 290). However, Bareh also wrote that “the task of sacrifice and other religious ceremonies of the house devolves upon the male inmates” (H. Bareh, 290). A woman is only ka nongri їing (keeper of the house) and the custodian of family property. Though the Khasis trace their lineage to the mother and holds the position of the keeper of the trust yet, the control and decision making functions in the family and society are mainly concentrated in the hands of men. There has always been an assumption that ka Khatduh or the youngest daughter inherits all the property and that she is the sole heir and she enjoys the advantage of her position in the Khasi family. However, by tradition, that is not the real truth. In most of the cases the youngest daughter is only the custodian of the family property and whatever decision to be taken is always done by the maternal uncle. Tradition implies that the house of the youngest daughter is “Ka Ïing Seng Ïing Khatduh” or the sacred and religious house where all religious performances of her clan within her “Kpoh” are performed. Management and decision making authority on ancestral property rest with the male members be it the maternal uncles or the elder brothers. Traditionally, female members cannot dispose of such property at their own will. Women are expected to abide by the decision of the male members who act as their counsellors. Though the Khasi woman plays an important role in family matters and prepares the things required for religious rites and rituals, however, despite playing all these roles, she has to be guided by the counsel of her maternal uncle (s) “U Kñi” and herbrothers.
A Khasi male has a dual role to play as a maternal uncle in his sister’s or mother’s house and as a father in his children’s house. The father is the executive head of the family and he is revered as the bread winner and the provider. The eldest maternal uncle is generally the head of the clan. There is a Khasi proverb for a Khasi man and the role that he plays which is, – “U Kpa uba lah baïai, uba ai ïa ka longrynïeng, u Kñi uba tang ha ka ïap ka im” which generally means that the father is the one who is able to provide and protect, the one who gives stature to his children and as the maternal uncle he is present only in matters of life and death.
In the matrilineal system of Khasi society, the head of the household is not the women but the men. It is the male members who take decisions regarding household matters. The symbolic act of “Ka bam ja khlieh khiew ka dei ka jong u rangbah” is the practice of having the top most portion of cooked rice from the pot designated only for the father as he is the head of the family. In a matrilineal society, though the descent is through the females, yet, the sole authority in decision making lies in the male members not in the females. Even though the Syiem Sad or the eldest sister of the ruling clan prepares things for the ceremonies however, U Syiem or the ruling chief, who is her brother, performs all the rites and rituals.
Though the Khasi society witnesses the woman’s primary role in maintaining the continuity of the family, the lineage and the clan yet, today, we are witnessing some changes in the system. The increasing establishment of neo-local residence leads to the increasing authority of her husband or the father of her children resulting in the declining power and authority of the maternal uncle (s) or her brother (s).
With respect to the changing status of the youngest daughters of today, it is seen that, in most cases, the youngest daughter wants to be independent and she moves from the ancestral house to her neo-local house with her husband. She has her own viewpoint of having her own aspirations and so why not let her older sisters take the responsibility of looking after the aged parents. The responsibility that the khatduh has to handle as per tradition seems a burden to her now and she prefers avoiding it if she could. In some cases “the youngest daughter today has become the sole owner of the ancestral property and also claims ownership over the whole ancestral property” (Passah,11). This is due to the declining power of her maternal uncles and brothers and the rising power of husbands and fathers.
Transition is witnessed in the Khasi matrilineal society due to the changes in the overall set-up. Such changes can be the result of the different factors such as intermingling with other neighbouring patriarchal communities, the coming of Christianity, impact of colonial mindset, forces of urbanisation and modernisation, and emergence of nuclear families. Among other factors, the most important one is marriage outside the Khasi community when women leave behind their tradition. Moreover, the increase in higher education today, perception of the elite class in the urban setup, and migration of educated people from rural to the urban setup have, to a large extent, brought about a change in the Khasi Society.
Despite the changes that are witnessed in the Khasi matrilineal society at present, yet, the lineage system is still prevalent and strong because the clan organisation or Seng Kur is actively strengthening the power of the clan to uphold the traditional lineage system of the Khasis. In exceptional cases, there is only a handful of Khasi women who have changed their lineage, like those who study or work outside the state as per the requirement of the place they are compelled to give the father’s title instead of the mother’s. Not also forgetting those who have followed the patriarchal system after marrying a non-Khasi man leaving her mother’s lineage and giving the husband’s surname.
Bareh, Hamlet, The History and Culture of Khasi People. Calcutta; Sarumitra Publishing Ltd., 1967
Giri, Helen, “Social Institutions among the Khasi with special reference to the kinship, Marriage, Family life and Divorce” Tribal Institutions of Meghalaya, edited by S. K. Chattopadhya. Guwahati: Spectrum Publications 1985.
Mawrie, H. Onderson. Ka Pyrkhat U Khasi. Shillong: Lyngwiar Press, 1994
Passah, Malwin Stone. Domestic Violence and Matrilineal Society. New Delhi: Christian World Imprints, 2019
Rymbai, R. Token. Ban Pynïeng la ka Rasong Bad Kiwei De ki Ese. Shillong: W. Hynñiewta Rymbai, 1979.