Sunday, February 25, 2024

Notes on Khasi- Pnar Culture

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By Morning Star Sumer

As a subject of study, the Khasi Culture, in its pristine form, as crafted by our ancestors seems to have eluded the present generation of academics among the Khasis. So, it appears that it is left to the non-academics who feel strongly about the way our culture is being interpreted for the benefit of keenly interested scholars and for correcting what is quite obviously the wrong interpretation of many of the common practices in our culture. Some of these practices are being observed rather too tenuously for comfort.

As a concerned Khasi I feel called upon to give expression to my views formed after extensive private field research into the Khasi cultural practices and customary laws which have bonded the members of the community into one cohesive whole till this generation. In spite of the vicissitudes which the community had experienced it had managed to resist the forces that threaten to annihilate it, simply because of the cultural practices which are protected under the provisions of the Sixth Schedule to the Constitution of India. After much research I have come to the conclusion that our culture is a bulwark against all destructive forces which sought changes which would be detrimental to the cohesion of the race/community. Our culture is, therefore, self-protective. It is so because it was based upon fundamental truths which our ancestors had discovered by observation of the manifestations they encountered during the millennia that had past before they enunciated a doctrine based upon their observations that:

1. There is a Super-being/intelligence that they called U Blei a term which is translated in English as God, who created the Universe and all things in it.

2.That, having created the universe and all things in it He decreed that all creatures should share its space and resources in proportion to their needs.

Thus was religion born and the customary laws established or decreed.

Khasi religion – though I do not consider it a religion – is a composite of philosophies as we know them today. It acknowledges God as all religions do. Because of His being omnipresent He is referred to or invoked as God of the place or occasion where or in which a person may be. Because He is omniscient and omnipotent He is also given other names suitable to the occasion and place. Being omnipotent He is invoked as U LEI-KHARAI meaning a God who protects the place or Kharai. He is also invoked as KA LEI-LONGSPAH when petitioned for success in business transaction. Because of this, the detractors of Khasi faith jump to the conclusion that the Khasis worship many gods : they have not grasped the meanings and purport of the wordings in the process of invocation. Time is needed to expand on this theme.

In human relationship the Khasi culture is based upon the Triad of KA IAWBEI (the first or primal female progenitor (progenitrix) of a clan, U THAWLANG (the first or primal male progenitor of a clan and U SAIDNIA ( the first or primal maternal uncle of a clan). Khasi society being matrilineal – that is, succession is through the mother of a person who takes the mother’s clan, not the father’s, as in patrilineal or patriarchal societies – a wrong impression is created in the minds of non-Khasis by those who interpret the term matrilineal as encompassing the right to succession to property of the mother. To begin with, the mother does not own ancestral property as detractors seem to claim. She is only the custodian of ancestral property and any income thereof. She has no personal claim to ancestral property or to any income generated by the property. She has the role of a titular head of a branch of her clan. She does not manage the property of which she may be a custodian. The role of manager is played by one or more of her maternal uncles who are her KNI(s)(Mother’s brother(s). The property is held in her name as custodian: a role similar to that of the President of India in whose name all the business of governance of the country is conducted. The question that arises from this is, why should the custodian of ancestral property be the only beneficiary of ancestral property? The answer is that she is not the sole beneficiary. She holds the property as custodian for the benefit of other members of the branch of her clan. Other members of her household (long-iing) benefit by having a share in the property in times of need. She cannot deny them succour when they need it. For instance, an unemployed brother or uncle would have to be taken care of whenever he needs care or support.

Among my relatives and friends in other branches of the clan it is still the practice that is kept alive. In my own case, my sister-in-law who inherited the role of custodian of her branch of the clan is performing her role religiously by going to the succour of her brothers, sisters, or uncles whenever they need it. These relatives may not even have contributed to her household because of lack of sufficient income: even if they may be drunkards she would have to stand by them and ensure that they come to no harm; even to the extent of seeing them through court cases. Yet detractors of the culture say that the custodian, being female, does not care for them. The practice is still observed among those who follow the precepts of the society. The problem is that the detractors pick up certain instances that suit their purpose to decry the system which does not suit their schemes, to portray the community as being archaic and unresponsive to progress. They stress that the custodian is female and the youngest daughter of a clan so, in every statement they make they refer to the word KHADDUH meaning the last daughter of a branch of a clan. If the males have shown any sense of responsibility they would not do the things that they know might create problems for the custodian. There are many instances that I know when wastrels have brought ruins to some clans because the custodians have been too indulgent and the KNI(s) uncles(s) have abdicated their roles as managers of ancestral property. This is one aspect of a joint family system.

This positive effect of the joint family system as is still practiced by the Khasi-Pnars which affords protection to the members of a clan who might have fallen into hard times is succinctly articulated by Ms Patricia Mukhim in the opening paragraphs of her article titled Pangs of adoption published in The Telegraph from Guwahati in its issue on Monday, 26 May 2008. In the article the writer mentioned a well known vexing fact that families are drifting towards being nuclear and we also witness this degeneration of our society, especially in the city. This is happening because our own kith and kin are scheming against the sound foundation of our culture.

One other practice, as in every organized society, is the practice of land holding or land tenure. Our ancestors recognized that land is God-given to be utilized by all creatures. So, they decreed a system in which land may be shared equitably. To achieve this they decreed that land should not be looked upon as an article or commodity of trade and commerce; so, land, according to Khasi-Pnar culture, should not be bought or sold. Land is, therefore, distributed only by a clan manager amongst his clan members. After that, land is allocated for the use of animals or for protecting the eco system as witnessed in the presence of Law-Shnong, Law-Adong etc. Wisely, they decreed that the administrators of governance should own no land but are provided land for their use while holding office. So, it follows that the government which administers the state should not have right of land holding. Therefore, land is common property held in trust by clans for their members.

I do not find fault with all the above practices being followed by the community as decreed by our ancestors. In fact, we see that we are what we are today because of these practices. Unfortunately, the present generation seems hell-bent to dismantle all these by doing whatever possible to erase these practices as witnessed in the rampant activities of selling land even to outsiders (non-indigenous people). Therefore the community is heading towards chaos.

To counter this slide towards chaos the political class we have chosen to govern us should enact laws which would enforce adherence to the precepts that our ancestors had bequeathed to us through past generations.

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