The Khasi people reside in the central and eastern part of the state of Meghalaya in North East India. They are known to be one of the oldest inhabitants of the Indian subcontinent and a significant number also live in the state of Assam and in Bangladesh. The word Khasi includes the various sub tribes of this pristine part of the world: Pnar, Bhoi, Khynriam, Maram, War, Nongtrai, Muliang, Lyngngam. The language and dialects spoken by the Khasis belong to the Austroasiatic family of languages (Mon-Khmer) at their root, but words derived from Sanskrit, Arabic and Persian are found in common usage and have enriched the language. Anthropologists and scholars have offered many theories as to the origin of the Khasi people but no single theory has been accepted conclusively. However, there is no dispute as to their mythological origins. According to Khasi mythology they descended from the celestial abode of the Divine Creator, U Blei. The foundations of the indigenous faith ‘Niam Khasi- Niamtre’ are lodged deep in the story of these origins. The spiritual truth of the faith shines within the inner meaning of the legend of ‘Ka Jingkieng Ksiar halor U Lum Sohpetbneng’ (The Golden Bridge at the Navel of the Universe).
All religions of this world convey their meanings through parables and so too does our religion. 1
The story begins at the dawn of consciousness, when the Sun and the Moon were young, and the world was silent and calm. Sixteen families of Man (Ki Khadhynriew Trep) lived in the celestial realm beyond the visible sky, beyond the stars, in cosmic harmony with the Divine Creator (U Blei). The Earth remained quiet and desolate until, Mei Ramew (Mother Earth) and U Basa (Guardian spirit of the World) were blessed with three children- Air, Water and the youngest, Fire. With time, the world began to grow. Rivers flowed, mountains grew, birds sang, flowers bloomed, the creative fires of Biskorom grew brighter- Natures song had begun. The deafening quiet was replaced by the sound of life bursting open. However, Mother Earth would need help in governing the chaos that ensued, so she pleaded to U Blei and she was answered. It was decreed in a Grand Assembly of the Gods (Dorbar Blei) that Seven families would be entrusted with the sacred task of nurturing life on Mother Earth. The seven – U Hynñiewtrep – are believed to be the progenitors of the Khasi people.
Before the seven families descended to begin their sacred duty they were blessed by U Blei with their own Way of Life and Worship (Ka Niam ka Rukom), and they made an oath to never lose their spirituality. They traversed the two worlds through a Golden Bridge (Ka Jingkieng Ksiar) that stood at the summit of the sacred hill, U Lum
Sohpetbneng – the Navel of the Universe. The bridge was a divine link that connected Man, Mother Earth and the Divine Creator. This period of harmony and unison is known as Ka Sotti Juk (Age of Purity) or Ka Aiom Ksiar (Golden Age). But, the clear conscience of the Hynñiewtrep would soon be gripped and swallowed by greed and envy (U Thlen). Man grew distant from himself, his fellow man and his sacred duty. The Golden Vines (Tangnub Tangjri) were severed. The seven had grown in wealth and numbers but they had also grown distant from their spiritual bond. The joyous soul was broken.
If they were to rebuild the divine connection they would have to look within, guided by the three tenets of Ka Jutang Sohpetbneng. The Golden Bridge (Ka Jingkieng Ksiar) now resides within a Golden Heart (Mynsiem Ksiar)- a place where the limitless energy of a joyous soul grows with and in, Truth. U Lum Sohpetbneng, stands witness to this heritage and to the spiritual reality of the ‘Hynñiewtrep’. It is the unshakable foundation of the indigenous faith, Niam Khasi- Niamtre, and a light for all to find true inner peace.
The Khasi way of life, worship, philosophy, spirituality, identity are all tied to Lum Sohpetbneng and the three tenets of the indigenous faith:
• Kamai ïa ka Hok
• Tip Briew Tip Blei
• Tip Kur Tip Kha
‘Kamai ïa ka Hok’ means to earn righteousness. Only a path of Truth brings Divine Blessings. It is stressed in the teachings that righteousness can not be given or taken – it must be earned.
‘As nothing material can be carried to the House of God, the emphasis is on earning righteousness, which is the only thing that can be associated with one forever. Hence living on Earth is a blessing as it offers greater opportunity to earn righteousness’. 2
(Sib Charan Roy jait Dkhar Sawian)
Tip Briew Tip Blei’ literally translates as ‘Know Man Know God’ but there are an infinite number of interpretations. However, they all converge into the wisdom that in order to reach the Divine, one must first search within oneself and strive to understand our fellow man. An understanding of one without the other is to fail at self-realisation.
‘Tip Kur Tip Kha’ stresses the importance of knowing both Matrilineal (Cognates) and Patrilineal (Agnates) lines. The religion is practiced based on knowledge of these relationships. The descent system is matrilineal but knowing and understanding both lines are crucial, particularly in matters pertaining to Marriage. Graceful manners are imbibed as one follows this system of respect.
The tenets weave into and greatly inform the conduct of Khasi rites, rituals and ceremonies especially in:
Ka Jer Ka Thoh- Khasi Naming Ceremony
Ka Poikha Poiman- Khasi Marriage Ceremony
Ka Ïap Ka Duh)- Cremation and last rites of the deceased.
The Khasi identity is tightly bound to the traditional faith, and the social systems, traditional forms of governance, custodianship and kinship all sprout from its foundations. Niam Khasi-Niamtre is a spirituality, philosophy, a way of life, guided by Truth – it leads, and it stands above all. A single word of Truth is greater than all untruths put together.
“Ieng ka Hok ka Shi Kyntien khyllem ka Pop Shi Byllien” (Motto of Ka Sengbah Nongshat Nongkheiñ Hynniewskum Hynñiewtrep)
“To revive the true faith of our forefathers; to understand the true meaning of conscience and truth as handed down by them, which were being neglected, misled and blinded by the teachings of foreigners”. 3
The need to protect and preserve the ancient yet timeless wisdom and knowledge of the land led to the formation of the Seng Khasi on November 23rd, 1899 by sixteen young Khasi men, all under the age of thirty. The Khasi way of life was being uprooted and replaced at a rapid rate by the imperialists who had gained control of most of the land by the latter half of the 19th century. Initially called ‘Khasi Young Men’s Association’ it took shape as the custodians and protectors of Khasi religion and culture under the guidance and mentorship of U Jeebon Roy Mairom, a pioneer, social reformer and spiritualist, described by many as the “Father of Modern Khasis”.
The Seng Khasi movement is driven not only by the aim to protect and preserve ones roots but also to progress with them intact. The founders wished to instill a true sense of pride in the Khasis, for their unique way of life and worship. They foresaw that this would bring confidence, clarity and strength to the lives of future generations. It is said that a divine thread connects the culture, traditions and values that have developed over centuries. The sixteen understood that for the religion to survive, and for peaceful and positive growth to be achieved, then this thread must be kept intact. The strength and resilience of Seng Khasi is drawn from this belief.
The last century saw a large decline in the population of Niam Khasi-Niamtre faithful. The most significant factor contributing to this fall is the proselytisation that occurred with the advent of Christianity in these hills. It began in the mid 19th century, when the British colonists ruled India and it flourished under their aegis. It continues to be seen in present times. High rates of conversion were achieved using this method in conjunction with a control over education. Education leads to material betterment in any society and in this field there was a clear monopoly. Not only was there a monopoly, a cap was kept on the level of education given. The motive for imparting education, in the early years, was to teach the natives how to read the holy book of the colonial masters.
Efforts by Seng Khasi to establish schools of their own met several hurdles. Funding was often denied unless their curriculum conformed to the ideology of the mission schools. A circular written by the first Seng Khasi Chairman, U Rash Mohon Roy Nongrum, decrying the bias in allocation of funds even reached the hands of Mahatma Gandhi, who published the circular in his magazine ‘Harijan’ and concluded with this statement:
“If what is stated here is true, it enforces the argument often advanced by me that Christian missionary effort has been favoured by the ruling power. But I advertise the circular not for the sake of emphasising my argument. I do so in order to ventilate the grievance of the Secretary of the school. Surely he has every right to object to teaching proselytising literature prepared by the missionaries. It should be remembered that the School has been in receipt of a grant from the Government. It is not clear why the question of the missionary books has now cropped up. It is hoped that the school will not be deprived of the grant of the Secretary’s very reasonable objection ”. 4
(Mahatma Gandhi, Harijan Magazine, 9th March, 1940)
As proselytisation through education progressed swiftly, the aspirations of those who had converted began to also change quickly. Khasi beliefs were deemed backward and a harsh rejection of the traditional culture and its values set in. This seed planted in the days of divide and rule has not fully withered, but the work of Seng Khasi and its sister organisations has awakened younger generations to the beauty of their ancestral faith and its universal wisdom. Self discovery through the prism of ones own culture has magnified the uniqueness as well as revealed similarities with other cultures in the subcontinent, diminishing significantly the sense of alienation and distance from fellow countrymen.
Abandonment of the traditional faith was also caused by the de-stabilisation of the unique traditional family structure, with the arrival of external forces of change and the onset of urbanisation. In the traditional set up, the eldest uncle (U Kñi Rangbah), is the caretaker, the mediator of the family, and the youngest daughter (Ka Khatduh) is the custodian of family property. The ancestral home is a place that upholds the sanctity of the lineage. It is in this home that all important family matters are discussed and religious ceremonies performed. As families relocated, maintaining this system posed many challenges, subsequently leading to a breakdown in the completion of important rites, rituals and ceremonies. This caused a withering in spirituality and in the understanding of the deeper meanings within the teachings of the religion.
By the late 1960’s, as calls for statehood started to resound, so too did a non-secular political ideology. A Christian state was envisioned by some in the chambers of power. A political wave energised by religious fervour disregarded the sentiments of the population who still belonged to the indigenous faith of the land. Even today, it is not uncommon to find articles and letters in local newspapers projecting and claiming Meghalaya as a Christian state, while simultaneously defending the need to keep India secular and decrying anyone or anything that may suggest otherwise. The existence and growth of Seng Khasi always serves as a gentle reminder that there is a religion born of this land that carries a universal ethos and fosters co-existence. This was eloquently described by an outstanding leader of Seng Khasi, U Hipshon Roy Kharshiing: “The world of religions is a garden of flowers and each religion with all its settings blooms with all its beauty and fragrance and each adds to the beauty and glory of the whole garden. Theirs is to supplement and theirs is not to supplant”.
The last 122 years have seen active steps taken by the Seng Khasi to address these issues.
Several working bodies and committees have been formed over the years that have all helped to keep the movement and its spirit alive. Today there are over three hundred branches of Seng Khasi in the Khasi Hills. In the field of education a great milestone was achieved this year as The Seng Khasi Higher Secondary School celebrated its centenary.
The working bodies of the Seng Khasi, armed with greater spiritual understanding and organisational power, have been able to revive ancient rituals and mass movements.
Amongst the most successful and powerful of revivals is the annual pilgrimage to the sanctum sanctorum at the summit of Lum Sohpetbneng (Kiew Pyneh Rngiew), held on every first Sunday of Ferbruary. On June 18th, 1989, U H. Onderson. Mawrie, who was president of Seng Khihlang at the time, wrote a letter urging U Dipshon L. Nongbri to conduct a survey of the summit of Lum Sohpetbneng, for the purpose of holding a gathering there for the Niam Khasi Niamtre faithful. Thus began the process of securing the sacred hill. Respected Seng Khasi elder, U Sumar Sing Sawian, one of the greatest Khasi minds, through his writings, brought great clarity to the origins of the faith which are found in the legend of this sacred hill. With the combined efforts of these individuals in particular and countless other, who cant all be named here, the first pilgrimage was held on 20th February, 2000. Thousands climbed to the top of Lum Sohpetbneng on that day and now even greater numbers continue to participate, growing with each passing year. The pilgrimage has created an awakening that has strengthened the spirituality of the followers of Niam Khasi Niamtre. With Lum Sohpetbneng secure under the guardianship of Seng Khasi, the indigenous religion ‘Niam Khasi-Niamtre’ it can be safely said, will never be lost.
The Seng Khasi and its sister organisations follow a philosophy of preservation through practice. The fruits of which are showing in the growing participation in religious festivals. ‘Shad Suk Mynsiem’ (Dance of the Joyful Hearts), a spring dance festival held across the Khasi hills, is witnessing increasing numbers of participants on the grassy fields. The dance is a form of public worship where peaceful souls exhibit love for their culture and offer gratitude to the Almighty. Behdeiñkhlam and Chad Sukra, organised by Seiñ Raij (a socio-religious organisation focussed on the spirtual awakening and preservation of the traditional faith in the Jaintia Hills region) are celebrated by thousands. Indigenous festivals banned by the British and kept supressed after they departed are steadily being revived.
Beginning in the late 70’s, a mass contact programme was initiated by Seng Khasi. Dynamic and fearless leaders such as Hipshon Roy Kharshiing, H.O. Mawrie, and R.T. Rymbai, toured all over the Khasi and Jaintia Hills, lecturing about the ideology of Seng Khasi and the philosophy of the traditional faith. They wanted to instill a sense of pride in religious identity by awakening the people to the wisdom and beauty of the ancestral faith. In 1981, they founded Seng Khihlang (The United Endeavour Society), a branch of Seng Khasi which comprises of members of Seiñ Raij too. Two invaluable pieces of literature on Khasi religion, traditions and the history of Seng Khasi were commissioned by its Executive Committee: ‘Where Lies the Soul of our Race’ and ‘The Essence of Khasi Religion’. Another congregation aimed at inspiring and educating the future generations is Ka Lympung ki Khynnah (a gathering of Seng Khasi and Seiñ Raij youth). Ka Sengbah U Nongshat Nongkheiñ Hynñiewskum Hynñiewtrep (Grand Organisation of Diviners) was also born out of the mother organisation and their contribution in keeping the religion alive especially in the rural areas is outstanding. The social and spiritual aspects of the ancestral faith, deeply entrenched in the teachings of its forebears, have stayed relevant to each generation due to such congregations. All these branches stem from the mother, Seng Khasi Kmie, and each one strives towards the same goal, encapsulated in the slogan “Im Ka Niam, Im Ka Jaitbynriew”, which carries the message that if the religion survives, so too will the Khasi.
“The founders of the Seng Khasi, however were firm in their resolution and steadfast in their aims and objectives. So also, in their thoughts, words and deeds. They took up the leadership with an amazing unique statesmanship to establish the organisation in a humble way. They had in their simplicity, a deep concern for the future of the Khasi race – its traditional faith, its social structure, its moral ethics; its cultural heritage and highest of all ‘Human Right’ as a Khasi”. 5
Inspired and guided by the great work laid down by those who have come before, a revival grows energised by a positive philosophy directed at awakening the spiritual truth of the land. The internal strength drawn from this has brought spiritual upliftment and community progress. Niam Khasi Niamtre, will continue to bloom in a harmonious garden of flowers, growing in strength with the spirit of Mother India. Khasi spiritual knowledge is gaining recognition as a treasure of humanity and the Seng Khasi momentum set into motion on November 23rd, 1899 grows stronger into the future.
Always take heed
O ye elders, you the youths,
All around keep vigil,
The wisdom of forebears,
Remain visible like the Sun
For Truth to ever prevail;
Cling to the Roots
Blessings from Divine Creator would shower (Poem by Sumar Sing Sawian)
The article was scripted and compiled in consultation with: Sumar Sing Sawian (Author and Scholar on Khasi Culture), Paia B. Synrem (Secretary, Seng Khasi Literary Committee) and elders of Seng Khasi (Kmie).
- H.O. Mawrie: “The Essence of The Khasi Religion”. 1981 Edition.
- H.O. Mawrie: “The Khasi Milieu”.
[Translation of moral commandment in “Ka Niam ki Khasi”- Sib Charan Roy Sawian.
- Introduction. Pg 11]
- Seng Khasi Series No. 2: “Where Lies the Soul of Our Race”.
Selections from the Sneng Khasi English Supplements on Khasi Culture and Religion. 1982. Page 11.
- Seng Khasi Series No. 2: “Where Lies the Soul of our Race”. Selections from the Sneng Khasi English Supplements on Khasi Culture and Religion, Page 17.
- Sweetymon Rynjah- “The Living Patriotism: A Khasi Thought” Seng Khasi Centenary Celebration Souvenir. (1899-1999). Page 126.