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Khasi Roots and the Adaptation to Winds of Change

The Khasi community of nearly one million is but a microscopic dot against the one billion population of the Indian nation. Tucked away in northeastern India, in the geographical elevation of plain land adjacent to Bangladesh and gradually rising to the height of 1964 metres, the highest point being the Shillong peak, from which the name of the Shillong God is derived ‘U Blei Shyllong’, is the homeland of the Khasis, also known as the Hynniewtrep people , predominating the present West Khasi Hills, East Khasi Hills, Ri Bhoi and the Jaintia Hills districts of East Meghalaya.

The Khasi people have an ingrained, deep rooted belief that they belong to the sixteen family or clan order of the Divine and has descended to Earth through the Golden vine atop the ‘U Lum Sohpetbneng’ peak, according to the divine sanction to be rulers over other creations of the plant and animal world, as the chosen Hynniewtrep or the Seven Huts of the sixteen family or clan order.

This belief of the originality of the people is testified in the annual pilgrimage to the sacred U Lum Sohpetbneng peak (1424 metres), twelve kilometres from the capital Shillong, held on the first Sunday of the month of February, cutting across all religious background. It is a unision expression of the people upholding the matrilineal system of society, a system which has passed through the acid test of time since time immemorial, a system which is based not on the dominance of women, but on her role as a custodian of the clan lineage traced right from the clan proginetress and the patrilineal proginetor. As the Khasi adage says, ‘Man is the protector of the woman and the woman is the keeper of his trust’.

The Khasi people have however faced much of the travails of history during the passage of time, since the days of yore of the Golden age where harmony existed between man and nature, the animals and plants and the environment. The Khasi states have withstood the invasion of the Moghuls, the Kochs, clashed with the neighbouring Ahoms and fought against the forces of the British Empire in upholding their territorial integrity, their cultural heritage and their spiritual freedom.

Young Dancers at the recently concluded Shad Suk Mynsiem.All photos by Eborlang TariangThe Khasi – Anglo war, which began by an attack of the Khasi chief U Tirot Sing of the state of Nongkhlaw on April 4th in the year 1829 came to an end in 1833 and the British took control of the administration of the Khasi – Jaintia Hills with its headquarters at Nongsawlai in Sohra (Cherrapunjee), the region which receives the highest amount of rainfall in the world. The headquarters was shifted to Shillong in the year 1874. The Welsh Christian mission which was set up during 1841 aimed at introduction of Christianity working in rapport with the British government. The Salvation Society of the Divine Saviour of the Catholics started work through a German mission on February 27th in the year 1890. Besides spreading the Christian religion, these missions also started educational schools. However, the first ever formal school in the Khasi – Jaintia Hills was started by the traditional administrative the Seng Bakhraw of Hima Shella on February 3rd of the year 1823, imparting studies in Sanskrit and also Bengali.

The influence of the political, religious and cultural impact upon the people of the land of Ri Hynniewtrep had caused much concern for the intellectuals and leaders of the Khasi community. It was at this juncture that visionaries like U Babu Jeebon Roy of the Mairom kur or clan prompted sixteen young men to form the Seng Khasi organisation for the protection, preservation and promotion of the indigenous religion, cultural traits and heritage of the Hynniewtrep people on November 23rd in the year 1899. This socio – cultural – religio organisation was able to initially consolidate the people bringing about an awareness of the customary usages in the social sphere, under the age – old tenet of Tipbriew Tipblei (self realization and God conscious), Tipkur Tipkha (to know the matrilineal and patrilineal lineage) and Kamai ia Ka Hok (to earn righteousness).

These basic spiritual and moral principles are some of the corner stones that have been accepted gradually even by the churches of different Christian denominations and have served not only as a binding factor of the entire Khasi community but had also strengthened the Seng Khasi movement along the passage of time. The ancient ethics of the Khasi have therefore been acknowledged and re – discovered by those who do not profess the indigenous religion. Dr. Barnes L Mawrie SDB who holds a doctorate in Catechetics from the Salesian Pontifical University (Rome), in his book titled ‘Introduction to Khasi Ethics’ has observed thus – ‘It is something very peculiar that the Khasi religion is based on righteousness. Ka Hok. They believe that salvation is personal. This indeed is a great religion in itself’.

There is hope therefore that the children and youth of today are imbibed with the ancient wisdom and virtues with simplicity, strength and sublimity.

Khasi leaders like U Babu Jeebon Roy, who had established the first high school in Khasi – Jaintia Hills in the year 1880 in Shillong, now known as the Shillong Government Boys Higher Secondary School and who had set up the first printing press the ‘Ri Khasi Press’ in Umsohsun, Shillong in the year 1896 had authored books like ‘Ka Niam Jong Ki Khasi’ (The Religion of the Khasis’ and also other authors like Hormurai Diengdoh, editor of the first Khasi secular newspaper ‘U Khasi Mynta’, started in 1896, U Rash Mohan Roy Nongrum, who started the first Seng Khasi L.P free morning school in Mawkhar, Shillong in 1926, U Sib Charan Roy and notably U Radon Singh Berry who compiled the oral Khasi moral code titled ‘Ka Jingsneng Tymmen’, first published in 1897. This moral code has now been introduced in different levels of education. Bijoya Sawian had translated this Khasi moral code into English in January 1996 and in her note has observed, “Almost a century has passed yet its content is neither irrelevant nor archaic. The uniqueness of this work lies in its agelessness and universality, for its foundation is truth – the essence of all religions.”

The inherent and growing of the Seng Khasi organisation today is its contribution to the Khasi language and literature, in which many present authors today irrespective of religious faith have written books on the various angles and views of the Khasi faith specially in its relation to the cultural heritage of the people. An awareness has therefore been created for people to respect and uphold their traditions while adapting to the winds of change of the present including pursuing higher education and participation in wider economic and welfare activities.

The Seng Khasi which has now attained the status as the custodian of the spiritual and cultural heritage of the entire Hynniewtrep people is an inspiring force in the emergence of like minded organisations like the Sein Raij, Seng Khihlang, Sengbha Hynniewskum Hynniewtrep, the association of performers of divine rituals.

The Seng Khasi adage ‘Ieid Ialade Burom Ia Kiwei’ (Love yourself and respect others) has brought about closer understanding of the people of the religious philosophy and cultural heritage so as the ancient wisdom and the modern knowledge confluence, towards a better future is understood.

The Seng Khasi has been able to revolutionalise many festivals which were earlier confined to villages. The Shad Suk Mynsiem, the dance to the joyous heart and soul, was performed at the end of the religious ceremonies of villages and clans called Shad Phur. The Seng Khasi had however over the last 101 years during 1910 -11 raised Shad Phur into Shad Suk Mynsiem in a common platform as a spring festival, evident of its growing attraction for and participation of people today.

The Khasi renaissance however also faces certain challenges that the indigenous religion and faith also need a deeper introspection and understanding of its philosophy and that the performance of rites and rituals are practiced in their right perspective of spirituality and that these can not be divorced from culture which is an integral part of the religious aspect.

As Mahatma Gandhi had stressed that windows should be open for the wind to bring in diverse belief and culture, yet these winds of change can not be allowed to blow off one’s feet.

There is hope therefore that the children and youth of today are imbibed with the ancient wisdom and virtues with simplicity, strength and sublimity.

Sumar Sing Sawian