The Khasi, Jaintia, Bhoi, War collectively known as the Hynniewtrep people predominantly inhabit the districts of East Meghalaya, also known to be one of the earliest ethnic group of settlers in the Indian sub-continent, belonging to the Proto Austroloid Monkhmer race.
The Khasis inhabit the eastern part of Meghalaya, in the Khasi and Jaintia Hills. Khasis residing in Jaintia hills are now better known as Jaintias. They are also called Pnars.
The Khasis occupying the northern lowlands and foothills are generally called Bhois. Those who live in the southern tracts are termed Wars.
Again among the Wars, those living in the Khasi Hills are called War-Khasis and those in the Jaintia Hills, War-Pnars or War-Jaintias. In the Jaintia Hills we have Khyrwangs, Labangs, Nangphylluts, Nangtungs in the north-eastern part and in the east. In the Khasi Hills the Lyngngams live in the north-western part. But all of them claim to have descended from the ‘Ki Hynniew Trep’ and are now known by the generic name of Khasi-Pnars or simply Khasis. They have the same traditions, customs and usage with a little variation owing to geographical divisions.
Dress: The traditional Khasi male dress is “Jymphong” or a longish sleeveless coat without collar, fastened by thongs in front. Now, the Khasis have adopted the western dress. On ceremonial occasions, they appear in “Jymphong” and dhoti with an ornamental waist-band.
The Khasi traditional female dress is rather elaborate with several pieces of cloth, giving the body a cylindrical shape. On ceremonial occasions, they wear a crown of silver or gold on the head. A spike or peak is fixed to the back of the crown, corresponding to the feathers worn by the menfolk.
Food & Drinks: The staple food of Khasis is rice. They also take fish and meat. Like the other tribes in the North-East, the Khasis also ferment rice-beer, and make spirit out of rice or millets by distillation. Use of rice-beer is a must for every ceremonial and religious occasion.
Social Structure: The Khasis, the Jaintias and the Garos have a matrilineal society. Descent is traced through the mother, but the father plays an important role in the material and mental life of the family. While, writing on the Khasi and the Jaintia people, David Roy observed, ‘a man is the defender of the woman, but the woman is the keeper of his trust’. No better description of Meghalayan matrilineal society could perhaps be possible.
In the Khasi society, the woman looks after home and hearth, the man finds the means to support the family, and the maternal uncle settles all social and religious matters. Earlier in the conservative Jaintia non-Christian families, however, the father only visits the family in the night and is not responsible for the maintenance of the family.
Inheritance: Khasis follow a matrilineal system of inheritance. In the Khasi society, it is only the youngest daughter or “Ka Khadduh” who is eligible to inherit the ancestral property.
If ‘Ka Khadduh’ dies without any daughter surviving her, her next elder sister inherits the ancestral property, and after her, the youngest daughter of that sister. Failing all daughters and their female issues, the property goes back to the mother’s sister, mother’s sister’s daughter and so on.
The Ka Khadduh’s property is actually the ancestral property and so if she wants to dispose it off, she must obtain consent and approval of the uncles and brothers.
Among the War-Khasis, however property passes to the children, male or female, in equal shares but among the War-Jaintias, only the female children get the inheritance
Marriage: Marriage within a clan is a taboo. Rings or betel-nut bags are exchanged between the bride and the bridegroom to complete the union. In the Christian families, however, marriage is purely a civil contract.
Religion: The Khasis are now mostly Christians. But before that, they believed in a Supreme Being, The Creator – U Blei Nongthaw and under Him, there were several deities of water and of mountains and also of other natural objects.
Music, Crafts and Costumes
Songs and Music
The Khasis and Jaintias are particularly fond of songs praising the nature like lakes, waterfalls, hills etc. and also expressing love for their land. They use different types of musical instruments like drums, duitaras and instruments similar to guitars, flutes, pipes and cymbals.
Weaving is an ancient craft of the tribals of Meghalaya – be it weaving of cane or cloth. The Khasis are famous for weaving cane mat, stools and baskets. They make a special kind of cane mat called ‘Tlieng’, which guarantees a good utility of around 20-30 years. The Garos weave the material used for their costumes called the ‘Dakmanda’. Khasis and Jaintias also weave cloth. The Khasis have also been involved in extracting iron ore and then manufacture domestic knives, utensils and even guns and other warfare weapons using it.
Costumes and Jewellery
The three major tribes of Meghalaya have distinct costumes and jewellery. However, with the change of time as in the rest of the country, the males have adopted the western code of dress leaving the ladies to continue the tradition of ethnic sartorial elegance.
The Khasi lady wears a dress called ‘Jainsem’ which flows loose to the ankles. The upper part of her body is clad in a blouse. Over these, she ties both ends of a checkered cotton cloth on one shoulder, thus improvising on apron. On formal occasions, worn over the ‘Jympien’ is a long piece of Assam muga silk called ‘Ka Jainsem Dhara’ which hangs loose below the knees after being knotted or pinned at the shoulders. The ‘Tapmohkhlieh’ or head-shawl is either worn by knotting both ends behind the neck or is arranged in a stylish manner as done with a shawl.
The Jaintia maidens dresses like her Khasi counterpart but with the additional of a ‘Kyrshah’ – a checkered cloth tied round the head during harvesting. On formal occasions, however, she dons a velvet blouse, drapes a striped cloth called ‘Thoh Khyrwang’, sarong style round her waist and knots at her shoulder an Assam muga piece hanging loose to her ankles. In contrast, the Garo women wears a blouse, a raw cotton ‘Dakmanda’ which resembles a ‘Lungi’ and the ‘Daksari’ which wrapped like a ‘Mekhla’ as worn by Assamese ladies.
The jewellery of the Khasis and the Jaintias are also alike and the pendant is called ‘Kynjri Ksiar’, being made of 24 carat gold. The Khasis and the Jaintias also wear a string of thick red coral beads round their neck called ‘Paila during festive occasions.
Nongkrem Dance is a religious festival in thanksgiving to God Almighty for good harvest, peace and prosperity of the community. It is held annually during October/ November, at Smit, the capital of the Khyrim Syiemship near Shillong.
The dance is performed in the open by young virgins and men, both bachelors and married. The women dressed in expensive silk costumes with heavy gold, silver and coral ornaments dance in the inner circle of the arena. The men form an outer circle and dance to the accompaniment of music of flutes and drums. An important feature of the festival is the ‘Pomblang’ or goat sacrifice offered by the subjects to the Syiem of Khyrim, the administrative head of the Hima (Khasi State). Ka Syiem Sad, the eldest sister of the king is the chief priest and caretaker of all ceremonies. The festival is conducted alongwith the Myntries (Ministers), priests and high priest where offerings are made to ancestors of the ruling clan and the deity of Shillong.
Shad Suk Mynsiem
One of the most important festivals of the Khasis is Ka Shad Suk Mynsiem or Dance of the joyful heart. It is an annual thanksgiving dance held in Shillong in April. Men and women, dressed in traditional fineries dance to the accompaniment of drums and the flute. The festival lasts for three days.