NCERT faux pas: Our advantage

By H H Mohrmen

The North East is again not included in the prescribed textbook of the NCERT and it was not until Patricia Mukhim brought this to light in an article published in The Quint that we were made aware about the embarrassing mistake. But rather than engaging in a blame game, it would be interesting to look at how this could pan out to be to our advantage. Taking advantage of the faux pas, the question that needs to be asked is if Meghalaya is to be included in the text book how do we wish to describe the state? Or how will we present the area to the young learners of the country?
As such this is a reading into the important facets of the people who live in the Khasi Jañtia portion of the state only because they are ethnically of the same stock. Culturally they are unique because lineage is taken from the mother and clan plays a vital role not only in the family life but in the social life of the people too. For instance, traditional offices in the raid or the hima are based on the primordial clans of the area. Most clans trace their origin to the stories of their ‘Ïawbei’ primal mother and they are related according to the clan they belong to. People who live in these two regions are united by their culture. They have the same food habits and their way of life is identical in every respect.

Mythologies and Stories
Story telling is an integral part of the life of the people here. They weave stories about nature and everything around them. The story telling tradition is not limited to grandmother/father telling stories around the fire place. Story telling traditions which still prevail in the Niamtre, Niam Tynrai are ka Choh syiar, ka Choh ña and other traditions. They tell stories which connect them with nature and even the celestial bodies in the sky. The most prominent of all stories is the creation story which speaks about the origin of the tribe. Originally it is believed there were sixteen huts in heaven of which seven descended to earth and the nine huts remained with the creator. The people who live in these hills are the descendants of the seven huts who descended from heaven via an umbilical cord called the ‘sohpet bneng’
In the past people did not record their stories and traditions because they believe that it should only pass from one mind to another and one tongue to another (nei jabieñ ha i jabieñ, n u thylliej ha u thylliej). This is how the stories and traditions passed from one generation to another.

Although they speak different dialects which are sometimes unintelligible to one another, yet they all belong to the same Austro Asiatic Monkhmer language group. They write the Sohra Khasi dialect because the British first landed in the region and the missionaries used the dialect to write the language using the Roman script. This has its advantages as it became the link language which people use to read and write. However, people use their dialects in their daily communication amongst themselves and especially while performing their rituals in the traditional religion.

Migration to the area
The tribes still narrate stories of their migration to the hills which took 12 long years, circling the Himalayas which they call ‘ki Makashang.’ But recent studies based on ancient genome revealed that they originated from China. The Austro-asiatic-language speakers in India which includes the Mundas and the Khasis arrived as farming migrants to India from South East Asia sometime in 2000 BCE. Studies by the Indian Statistical Institute, and the Centre for Cellular and Molecular Biology, suggest that the ancestors of the Mundas arrived in India 66,000 years ago. The Khasis which were the first genetic offshoot of Munda came about 57,000 years ago.

Way of life of the people
Their way of life is governed by three cardinal principles; ‘tip briew tip blei, tip kur, tip kha and kamai ïaka hok’, which literarily means revere God/gods and respect fellow humans, respect relations from the mother and the father’s clan line and earn righteousness. They also believe that the well-being of all ‘ka bhalang u babun balang or ka bhalang ka imlang sahlang’ is the most important community obligation. In their day to day lives they support each other in times of joys and sorrows in the principle they call ‘ka chan kylliang ka nong kylliang.’

The famous festivals of the people are the Shad Nongkrem, Shad Suk Mynsiem in the Khasi hills and ka Behdieñkhlam, ka Chad Sukra in Jañtia hills, Ka Chad pastieh, ka Nohsakyriat and ka Rong Khli, ka Rong Kusi are some prominent festivals in the War Jañtia areas. All festivals have one common feature – they connect with the agrarian lives and practices of the people in their respective areas.

Monolith and the Megalith
Monoliths or the three standing stones and megalith or one sitting stone have become an unofficial symbol of the tribe. One can find the stones dotting the landscape all over the Khasi and Jañtia hills region and even in Jañtiapur in Bangladesh. Megalithic structures like the stone bridges, the bathing ghat carved on a rock and other sculptures and carvings are found in Jañtia hills.

Sacred grove
People who live in these two regions are also known for the sacred groves that they nurture. Most of the sacred forests are connected with the traditional belief systems of the people. It is believed that there are gods who dwell in the forests and in the nature around called ki ‘ryngkaw ki basa’. Sacred forests are believed to be the altar from which religious rites to appease the deities are performed.

Living root bridges
Living root bridges which can be found only in the War area of the Khasi and Jañtia Hills are not really about the marvel of bio-engineering feat of the people, they are a living representation of the way of life which always strives for the well-being of all in the community.

Niam Khasi and Niamtre
Niam Khasi and Niamtre are the custodians of these stories and traditions and most of the sacred forests continue to be so in keeping with tradition. Had it not been for these institutions we would have lost all the stories and the traditions which are like roots that connect us to our ancestry. Our ancestors believed in one God but there are also deities and divinities that are being revered and worshipped. Rites of passage from naming ceremony, to marriage ceremonies, to a person’s last rites which are unique to the people are at the same time the storehouse of stories and traditions. Stories are embedded in almost all religious rites and traditions from the naming ceremony ‘ka Chat lane or ka Sib syiñ’, to marriage ceremonies ‘ka lam ïutang’ to the last rites ‘ka choh syiar’ traditions.

The Kingdoms
In both the Khasi and the Jañtia regions of the state there were many small kingdoms or chieftainships but the Jañtia kingdom was one of the powerful ones. Its dominion extended from the hills to the plains and it is one of the few tribal kingdoms which issued its own coins. The first encounter between the British and Jañtia people was in 1774. The British force under the leadership of Major Hennicker attacked in retaliation to the aggression of the Jañtia king. Another encounter between the Khasis and the British was the rebellion led by u Tirot Singh Syiem of Hima Nongkhlaw which started in April 1829. The last bit to save the Jañtia kingdom was a rebellion led by u Kiang Nangbah who was treacherously captured and hanged by the British on December 30, 1862.

Natural splendour
The region is blessed with natural beauty which includes hills, rivers and waterfalls which come cascading down the ridges during summer. Most of the hills, rivers and the waterfalls have stories to tell. There are also flora and fauna which are unique to the region like the pitcher plant. Meghalaya is also blessed with caves and these include the longest and the deepest caves in India. Apart from the unique formations found in these caves, rare fishes and animals are also found inside these caves.
Khasi, Khasia, Khasiah like Jaintia or Jainteah are exonyms or names that outsiders use to refer to the tribe. Now people who live in Jañtia Hills prefer to be called Pnar and like the Lyngngam, the Bhoi and War, they are all grouped as Khasis.
Hence all this information cannot be clubbed in a North East capsule.
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