Meghalaya is one of the smallest states of India but it is perhaps the most famous and frequented by Indian tourists among the seven sisters states of North East India. Thanks to the violent monsoon raging in the summer months in this area, Meghalaya has earned the nickname of abode of the clouds.
At certain times of the year, it rains a lot and people do not see the sun for weeks. In particular, the area of Sohra or Cherrapunji is known and famous for being the rainiest and humid place in the world. In a year, there are about 26,000 mm of rain and more than 9,000 in a single month.
Here at 1500 meters above sea level in the misty mountains, a stone's throw from Bangladesh, when you say Khasi tribe, it means a number of clans or extended families who have a family history of 2000 years dating back to the iawbei tynrai, the first Mother. The Khasi mythology is fascinating because it describes a people who landed from the sky on the summit of the Holy Mountain, where a group has recently discovered axes, bowls, iron and traces of settlements dating back perhaps to the twelfth century BC.
The Khasis may have come from Tibet through Burma. Their languages belong in any case to the Tibeto-Burmese group. They speak the Mon-Khmer. In a certain locality, the dignity of a high priest is occupied by a woman, and the woman who succeeds her is chosen from among her relatives. The way to choose the first name of the children is one of the most curious Khasi customs. A man recites a list of names and at the same time pours a glass of alcohol. The name that coincides with the last drop will be that of the child.
The central importance of the mother among the Khasi is also visible in religious conceptions. In the Khasi religious system, all divinities associated with family and social well-being are invariably feminine, such as Ka Blei Synchar, the supreme goddess, Ka Sngi Sun, the reigning goddess, Blei Rymma, the Mother Earth, Ka Thlang, the goddess of the harvest, Ka Taro, the goddess of wealth, Ka Blei Iew, the goddess of the market, Ka Blei Mynso, the goddess of accidents, Lukhimai, Ka Blei Iing, the protective guardian of the hearth.
The divinities of the waters are female, and the deities of the hills are male. Male deities are protectors and not producers of wealth. They are associated with the administration and protection of the territory, such as U Lei Muluk, the god of the State, U Basa Shnong, the village deity, U Lei Shillong, the god of capital Shillong, U Blei Lyngdoh, the God of the sacred groves.
The Khasi or Khassia call themselves Hynniewtrep or Seven Clans, which includes the Khasi, Jaintia, Bhoi and War. Clans and states all trace their origin through ancestral women of 7 women and 7 families (Ki Hynniew Trep) born of humanity. The importance of the ancestor woman in the Khasi-Jaintia rituals is also remarkable. In the Pomblang, libations are offered first to the Lei Long Syiem, the mother of the clan leader (Syiem). The priestess of this ritual is the sister of the chief. The libations are then dedicated to the sisters of the chief.
The Khasi population includes a number of matrilineal clans whose members consider themselves as descendants of a common female ancestor (khur). The members of a Khur have the same burial in which the bones of all the dead are buried. The most important lineage unit is the iing. This one has a vertical continuity without the extension on the plane of the collaterals. The establishment of a new house by a Khasi woman with her husband implies the constitution of a new iing, separated from her native iing not only on the residential level but also on the sociological level.
For here still persists one of the 30 matrilineal systems of the world, though not matriarchal. The matrilineal organization does not mean that women make all the decisions. Among the Khasi as in the Minangkabau, the maternal uncle plays a preponderant role in the family. He is the chief of the clan, the one to be consulted before marriage, for example. A man who marries continues to have to give priority to his sisters and nieces, rather than to his wife and children.
But when a man gets married, he must go and live in his wife's family, where the youngest is always the heir and the guardian of the lineage and property. The youngest daughter of the family inherits the largest share of the clan's assets. She is considered the guardian of family values and will have to look after her elderly parents. This was a system similar to that of some African tribes where paternity was uncertain and the mother's last name was a guarantee of belonging.
Khasi women are very active and often earn a significant share of household income. Many Khasi shops are run by women. Yet, many factors push Khasi society to abandon its traditional organization. In some cases, the cohesion of the clan is called into question by the fact that members leave the village to settle in the city. As they moved away from their village, they also moved away from the authority of the maternal uncle. The father then takes on a more important role within the family.
For now, the matrilineal structure resists because it is interwoven with folklore, rituals, and worship, such as clan meetings in the sacred forest in homes where their ancestors lived and where shamans are transformed, in their hallucinations, into five finger tigers, or predict the future, singing songs and healing mantra from all evil.
Meghalaya is very tribal and traditional, and the Khasi culture is definitely one of the most interesting, fascinating and mysterious in India. In this state, on the contrary, women are the stronger sex and men are discriminated against, which is absurd in a deeply male-dominated society like India. These women are strong, determined and resolute and if a father dares to give his surname to the child, he may be expelled from the tribe. Their faces clearly express their privileged status, even if the facial features are very delicate.
They always sulk with bright red lips, but it is not because of bad temper or because they use too much of lipstick. It is because they continually chew the tamul, a paan with betel nut. Almost everyone wears the traditional dress, which is nothing but a checkered tablecloth knotted on the shoulder. Like other ethnic groups that I met on this trip in this remote area of India, Khasis also come from South East Asia, but probably not from China but from the Mon State in Burma.
Before reaching Shillong I decided to stay a couple of days at Jowai, the capital of Jaintia Hills and an important center of the Jaintia Khasi culture. In the Jaintia Hills, the Khasis are from Khmer in Cambodia, who emigrated here in a very remote epoch. The hills are beautiful, everything is very green, and intriguing culture. The market is very traditional and interesting, although I've had better during this trip.
It's almost exclusively run by women. Men drink a lot, and often in the evening, there is a line in the few liquor stores downtown. I visit Nartiang, the ancient capital known for a monoliths forest and for a temple dedicated to Goddess Durga, famous for the human sacrifice that continued until recently. Menhirs are the phallus, and the dolmens are the uterus. The horizontal stones are the Ancestor Mothers, and the vertical the other members of the clan. Megaliths are a cult of ancestors.
We often find megaliths in Khasi groups, with both erected stones and tables. The best known and most impressive of these is Nartiang. These prehistoric sites are used by the local populations as places of gathering for the markets of the countryside, the stones then serving as seats. These giant tombs, circles of erected stones, and tables of stone for sacrifices cover the whole of India. People always gather there to celebrate the summer and winter solstices.
The bloodthirsty Khasi still erected them, at the time, during secondary funerals and is like another Stonehenge, particularly picturesque by its entourage of rare banyans and orchids that strongly recall these sets of mysterious and solitary monuments of unknown origin, for so long a riddle and delight of Antiquaries, which are visible here and there in all regions of Europe and Of West Asia. It is probable that the stones, if compared to the Stonehenge of the Nilgiris, were erected by a people who honored their dead as the Khasis do, and that the similarities of customs on this point indicate some connection between the Khasi, the Ho Singhbhum and more generally the Munda race of the province of Chota Nagpur.
We go to Mawphlang. In short, the main asset of this village is its sacred forest which is supposed to be the best preserved of the country. In this forest, the villagers are not allowed to cut wood, make fire or kill animals. On the other hand, they can drink the water and eat the fruit on condition that they are exclusively reserved for personal consumption and not for sale. The forest is quite interesting with plenty of orchids.
There are many monoliths resembling a Celtic menhir field. In the Khasi culture, the important people are buried under monoliths. There are also some to make sacrifices. The emblem of the Khasis is the cock. So it is the animal they sacrifice the most. In short, it is a little Celtic scenery.
Again, I'm lucky because the next day starts a traditional Khasi dance festival. It is a festival that takes place once a year. In a circle, dozens of girls in yellow tunic and crown decorated with flowers, begin a slow procession. Together, they advance in small steps as the flames undulate on the surface of a sun. At the periphery, men, with turbans and necklaces, twirl like satellites.
In the western part of the state, I decided to take the opportunity to discover another tribe of the Northeast of India, the Garo tribe. While the Khasi belong to the Khmer family, the Garo are of Tibeto-Burman stock. They live in the southwestern hills of Meghalaya, a 5-hour drive from Guwahati. Some of them continue to practice traditional tribal religion. This was the case in the village I visited, that of Sadolpara.
I was impressed by the length of the houses made of wood and plaited bamboo. They are built around a central fireplace and decorated with fingerprints made of rice powder. Feathers often adorn the main entrance, while deer trophies are hung in the sort of veranda which occupies the rear of the house.
I was very well received by the inhabitants, who made me drink rice beer and even invited me to lunch. The meal consisted of rice, pumpkin puree and a cup of honey coming directly from the forest, all washed with rice beer. The statues erected in memory of the dead are furnished with everything that the man could need in the afterlife with packets of biscuits, rice, a gourd of rice beer and betel.
I was also shown a sort of "Y" of wood places in the middle of the village, which serves as a log to decapitate the cows at religious festivals, and the building in which justice is rendered. As with the Santals of West Bengal, the customary justice of the village seems to prevail over any other form of law.
The Garo practice what the Indians call Jhum cultivation, the slash and burn cultivation. They clear a hill, set it on fire, then cultivate cotton, squash and various other vegetables, peppers, and ginger. When the plot can no longer be cultivated, they still manage to grow cashew nuts. Huts are set up in the middle of the plantations and allow residents to spend the night there during periods of high activity.
In this state, it is quite normal to see strange and original things. Here people love lotteries but have invented a very strange custom linked to a kind of archery. A group of men in a semicircle flings arrows on a bundle of straw that eventually are counted. There are a lot of people betting, even with very exaggerated figures.
Very strange are also the Khasi monoliths, which are scattered everywhere and were used for various purposes such as tombs, dwellings of the spirits or simply to indicate important places. Some were probably used for human sacrifice.
The settlers of the East India Company nicknamed it the Scotland of the East, but it would be more accurate, Wales of India because in 1840, Welsh Calvinistic, Thomas Jones, brought here the alphabet, the saw, building techniques and the first transcript of an oral culture linked to shamanism and magic through the healers mantra. It is no coincidence that the national anthem of the Khasi is the same melody as that of Wales, but with words in the native language.
Day 01: Guwahati - Jowai
After breakfast and a six-hour drive, the windy hills lead to the Jowai region. Jowai is the capital of the Jaintia Hills of Meghalaya, populated by the Jaintia tribes. The Khasis living in Jaintia hills are now known as Jaintias. The Jaintias are famous for their art and culture. On the way, we see the Umiam Lake.
Day 02: Jowai
We visit Jowai and the surroundings. We visit the Thadlaskein Lake, Syntu Ksiar (Golden Flower), Nartiang, famous for Stone Monoliths. We visit a Jaintia village and its people.
Day 03: Jowai - Shillong
After breakfast, we drive to Shillong, the Scotland of the East. After arrival and check-in at the hotel, in the afternoon we visit Shillong. We visit the Wards Lake, Bishop and Bidon falls and also visit the park of Archery, which is a relaxing and unique place.
Day 04: Shillong - Mawlynnong - Shillong
After breakfast, we drive to Mawlynnong (85 km/3 hours), one of the cleanest villages in Asia. We trek to the living root bridge to the point where we could see Bangladesh. We visit the village to learn about the tribal culture of the Khasis. Overnight we get back to Shillong.
Day 05: Shillong - Cherrapunjee - Shillong
Early morning we drive to Cherrapunjee (54 kms/2 hours), world renowned for being the wettest place on earth! Oranges and honey here are very famous and from here is also a good place to admire the plains of Bangladesh. We visit the Nohsngithiang Falls (Mawsmai falls), Nohkalikai Falls, the fourth highest in the world, the caves of Mawsmai, the Ramakrishna Mission etc. While coming back, we stop at the Shillong Peak (1965 m) which offers a breathtaking panorama of the city and the Elephant Falls. Finally, we get back to Shillong.
Day 06: Shillong - Kaziranga
After breakfast, (295 kms/7 hours) we depart for the Kaziranga National Park, a world heritage site and famous for its one horned rhino.