Sunday, July 21, 2024

Solving Tribal Boundary Issues: The Ancestors’ Way


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By Fabian Lyngdoh

The Khasi who belong to the Austro-asiatic speaking peoples, are the first to enter into the hills and plains of North East India. For this reason, the present Khasi homeland is being encircled on all sides by various latter immigrants, all of whom belong to the Tibeto-Burman group of tribes. But in the past, there were no formal political boundaries between the neighbouring tribes. The Khasi ancestors had good trade relations with the Bengali in the south, and peaceful coexistence with the Garo, the Karbi, the Tiwa, the Rabha and Biate. There was no head hunting among the Khasis and the tribes surrounding them.
The Karbi who belong to the Kuki-Chin sub-family of the larger Tibeto-Burman group, are Khasi neighbours on the East. They migrated from the Kuki-Chin area in Myanmar and established their kingdom in the Diyung Valley with the capital at Maibang. The Kachari (Dimasa) shifted their capital from Dimapur to Maibang and drove away the Karbi towards the Kupli river. The Karbi migrated to the hills, and entered into the Jaintia kingdom and lived under the Jaintia suzerainty. But fearing that their ethnic and cultural identity might be lost by the influence of the dominant Khasi matrilineal culture, majority of the Karbis migrated northward into the Rongkhang ranges, and established their kingdom in the 16th century, occupying a vast hilly portion of the Jaintia Hills and the entire Rongkhang plain with the capital at Socheng. Though there were minor clashes between the two tribes, but by and large they lived as peaceful neighbours.
The Garo who live on the west of the Khasi Hills also belong to the Tibeto-Burman ethnic group. It is said that the Garo migrated from Tibet and entered into Koch Behar and settled there. But they were driven away and wandered into the Brahmaputra valley in Assam and settled there for about 400 years at a place today called Jogighopa. But they were again driven away towards the south by the king of that country. As they wandered towards Guwahati, they were enslaved and persecuted at the hands of the kings who ruled in the valley. It is said that a Khasi ruler helped their release and settled them in the neighbourhood of Boko. But as the place is said to be infested with tigers, the Garo moved away into the uncharted territory in the hills bordering the Khasi, and established their present homeland.
The Tiwa (Lalung) also belong to the Tibeto-Burman ethnic group. The tribe is divided into Hills Tiwa and Plains Tiwa. The Hills Tiwa live in the Umswai valley as well as in the north-eastern corner of Ri Bhoi. Formerly, the Hills Tiwa followed the matrilineal and matrilocal system as the Khasi, but there was gradual change to the patrilineal system under the influence of neighbouring patrilineal communities. The small kingdom of Gobha ruled by the Raja of a Tiwa clan, lies between the Ahom kingdom and the Jaintia kingdom. It was formerly under the Jaintia kingdom but later it had to acknowledge the Ahom supremacy under Jayadhwaj Singha as its overlord in 1659 A.D.
The Biate belong to the Hmar tribe which is part of the Kuki-Chin group of tribes. They are inhabiting the south-eastern part of Jaintia Hills and spreading into the other side of the Kupli river in North Cachar. The Pnar and Bhoi people call them ‘Hadem.’ Perhaps there was a time when the Hadem were quite a strong people. There are oral traditions among the elders in Ri Bhoi about ‘u syiem Hadem’ (Hadem chief). There is a village in Ri Bhoi called ‘Kor Hadem’ (stone resting place of the Hadem) evn today. There is also a story among the Pnar about a certain Hadem warrior called u Khongweng Myllep who terrorized the people of Raliang. Even the warriors of Jaintiapur could not defeat him until he voluntarily retreated to his own realm across the Kupli river. However, by and large the Biate have been living in peace in 29 villages in the Saipung area of Jaintia Hills.
When the British came, they established their headquarters in the Khasi Hills for their colonial rule over the whole of North East India (Assam Province). Shillong became the capital and the meeting place for all the tribal and non-tribal people of North East India. There was peaceful coexistence between various communities during the powerful British rule which stood as a common superior over them all. In 1947 this powerful common superior left the realm, and the peaceful coexistence began to break down. Assertion of tribal territorial and political identities began, leading to intermittent clashes between the different communities. Now we have nasty border disputes with Assam in the Block I and Block II areas as well as in the Langpih area. These border disputes sometimes led to violent clashes and deadly consequences.
It is interesting to study how the Khasi ancestors solved boundary issues and lived in peace with the races and tribes surrounding them. The main factor was the adaptive character and the assimilative strength of the Khasi matrilineal system under the leadership of maternal uncles (avuncular leadership). The main identity of a Khasi male was that of a maternal uncle, and not that of a father. What is understood as ‘u Rangbah’ (respectable elder) applies to a Khasi man as a maternal uncle. With regard to the interrelationship with the plains people, Khasi men took non-Khasi women from the plains as their wives and converted the offspring into Khasi. That is how a great number of Khasi clans bearing the prefix ‘khar’ emerged. Non-Khasi men who married Khasi women had to cut off ties with their families of origin, and became assimilated into the Khasi family and Khasi culture. That is the cultural buffer zone with regards to the people of the plains.
In the west, the Khasi and Garo freely intermarried, thereby producing a unique subculture called ‘Lyngngam,’ which is a blend of both Khasi and Garo cultures. The Lyngngam are genetically and culturally related to both the Khasi and the Garo. Their food and dress are similar to the Garo, but the language is more that of the Austro-asiatic Khasi. The marriage and funeral ceremonies of the Lyngngam are like that of the Garo. The Lyngngam believe that when a person dies, his/her soul shall not go to eat betel nut in the portico of God as the Khasi believe, but shall go to rest in eternal peace on ‘u lum Pyndengrei’ or ‘u Lum Ngunrei” which is situated directly on the east of the Balpakram forest where the Garo too believe that the souls of their dead shall have eternal rest.
While marriage among the Khasi is initiated from the male side, for the Garo and the Lyngngam, marriage is initiated from the female side. That is the cultural buffer zone on the western side which kept the Khasi and the Garo in peaceful coexistence.
On the north-eastern border, the Khasi intermarried with the Karbi and the Tiwa, thereby producing a large number of new Khasi clans from Karbi and Tiwa ancestresses. When Karbi and Tiwa men married Khasi women they assumed Khasi surnames, and got absorbed as normal Khasi men. This part of the Khasi Hills came to be known as Ri Bhoi (Bhoi country). There are some political communities (Raids), established by the Karbi, the Rabha, and the Tiwa in the Ri Bhoi area long before British rule. These non-Khasi Raids are being recognized by the Dorbars of Hima Mylliem and Hima Khyrim today, as in the past. This is the cultural buffer zone on the eastern border that kept the Khasi, the Karbi, the Rabha, and the Tiwa in peaceful coexistence. Similar socio-cultural phenomena must have taken place at the borders of Jaintia Hills.
Dr. B. Pakem pointed out that the patrilineal Biate have established marriage ties with the matrilineal Pnars of Jaintia Hills. Perhaps new matrilineal Pnar clans have emerged in Jaintia Hills through the marriage of Pnar men with women of the plains and women of other hill tribes.
The world has changed; human population has grown, land has become not only a dwelling place but also a highly priced commercial commodity, political boundaries have been formally demarcated, and new governance systems have been adopted. Hence, there are bound to be conflicts. But violence is not the solution to conflicts. The Khasi ancestors solved their inter-tribal relations not through violence but through cultural adaptations and accommodations, while at the same time maintaining a very strong ethnic and cultural identity that could absorb and assimilate elements coming in contact with it.
No society can survive in isolation. Development and progress of any society depends to a large extent on the peaceful co-existence, mutual respect and mutual support it offers to, and receives from its neighbours around the borders and other communities far beyond the borders. Protective and defensive attitudes alone would not serve as a policy for ethnic and cultural security. Mutual suspicion and hatred, reciprocal harassment and violence would only create more insecurity that would hinder development and growth in all aspects of life. There had never been any violent conflicts between the Khasi and other neighbouring tribes or kingdoms, except ordinary skirmishes, which are natural when different communities live together side by side. Though the situations have changed, people of the present generation have to do likewise. The ancestors did not have the support of formal laws like we have today, but they could do it. With good will, we too can do it.


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