A Khasi poem heavily improvised on a local radio channel


The Minority Question in Khasi Jaintia Hills

The water seems to have cleared up a bit and so maybe it is the right moment to dip one’s feet in the pond – unsettle things. There has been a large amount of correspondence in the Shillong Times – back and forth – around the issue of whether our local “indigenous faiths” (and those following them) should qualify for “minority” status. If they attain the desired outcome, possibly through reservation, then the perks and advantages attached to “minority” would be open to them (more so than before). So there have been various quarters that have taken this up as an issue for debate. There are some who have straight away rubbished such claims, and there are others who have taken to defending them. Few have said that there is no need for ‘reservation’ because there is no such discrimination against the NiamTre or Niam Tynrai followers. This is hardly correct (more on this later). Still others have got around to philosophizing and discussing the nature of religion, definitions of faith and other stuff. Of them, I ask: whether they are religions or faiths or whatever, do we simply belittle the sentiments of a people who feel slighted? Do people care about the definitions or the real material conditions that they encounter in their day-to-day life?

So the key word here is “discrimination”. This main point of contention is very fascinating for our particular context. We have always, supposedly, been at the receiving end of the stick and our entire political discourse is premised on the presumption of “defense” except for this case in question. In January, I along with a researcher friend, Bhogtoram Mawroh, travelled to Mawsynram, in the company of some pastors. As we made our way along the Lyngiong- Tyrsad road, one of them turned to the other and said “Ithuh phi mo, ki jaka bym pat long Kristan” (you can recognize, places which are non-Christian, by the way they look). My friend looked at me, smirked and shook his head. He did this because we had actually talked about something along those lines much before that moment. Much of our respective works involve travelling to and visiting villages in Khasi, Jaintia Hills. Therefore, it quickly dawned on us that development patterns (roads, electricity, sanitation) within these parts of the state seemed more inclined towards one particular demographic than others (namely Khasi Christians). We are currently pursuing means to validate this supposition. This is not in any way a mission to ‘politicize’ “inclusion/exclusion,” it is for the sake of knowledge.

There are many reasons why the ‘indigenous faith’ followers might be sidelined. The major and most obvious one is because they are fewer in number than the Christians. A political representative such as an MLA would sadly be more inclined to help realize the aspirations and ambitions of the majority. Even if she/he belonged to the minority group, ultimately the majority would have to be satisfied if she/he were interested in being re-elected for the next term. To change this would be far and away an extremely arduous but necessary task. However, even if a more “representative” representation were achieved, the systemic discrimination would be harder still to overcome. How would one begin to confront the privileges accumulated over decades that have been enjoyed by the Christians? How would one begin to unwind the ‘power’ cliques and political “spaces” that have become their prerogative? Would a form of reservation really do anything to uplift the plight of the ‘indigenous faith’ followers? Would it be constructive in the long run, or would it tear our community asunder?

The conclusion I surmise is that this is essentially a critique on the very idea of “reservation” itself. I am not against the idea, I think it is absolutely essential for a more just and egalitarian society. However, even as we ‘rejoice’ in the status of being a Scheduled Tribe (ST) we must acknowledge the bitter reality that most of the benefits and advantages of being ST are enjoyed by the middle and upper classes. I doubt that the poorer sections of our society, and especially those in the villages, can claim to have gained much from an ST/SC certificate. This is the danger too with the current plea by the Sein Raij and co. I am sure they would have thought hard upon this as well. If the minority benefits all go to a Niam Tynrai businessman’s family in Shillong and not villagers like those in Lyngiong-Tyrsad then it would have failed in its objective, in my opinion.

I think that the way forward is to reach out to one another, calling out progressive Christians and non-Christians alike to come together and attempt to alleviate the suffering of others. Orthodoxy, on all sides, is the enemy. In this regard, we have to grow bonds stronger than the religious ones. Pressure and lobbying groups that can bring people together rather than pull them apart should be encouraged. For this to happen, we need dialogue. It might be painful, embarrassing even but it must be initiated. We do not need “outsider” organizations to come and perform charity puja. In our need for political allies and powerful friends we seem to forget that we have more in common with each other (Christian and non-Christian) than Right wing nut-jobs who seek to further widen the schism. This is as true for the Hindutva as it is for the Evangelical Fundamentalists. The tragedy could be that these characters might actually come together to vilify and demonize Muslims (the “dreaded” Bangladeshis) O what a big joke that would be! That cannot be allowed to transpire without resistance.

Frankly speaking, the Niam Tre/Tynrai already have a trump card. On the cultural front, they have won and politics and culture are intertwined. Unless they approach the matter with open-mindedness and self-criticism, Christian Khasis can never truly be “Khasi” again. There are many who would raise objections to this statement and they have interesting points to make regarding definitions of identity, language, customs etc. My point, however, is that from within a conservative or orthodox Christianity (which is most of our Christianity!) we cannot ever (through fear or censure) really know what it is like to be “Khasi.” I realize that many might have problems with my investing so much authority with the Niam Tre et al. After all, are they not also modern? Have they, also, not been changed by the times? How could they survive if they were static all this while? The Niam Tre et al have undoubtedly altered as well but in terms of cultural luggage (the folktales, the beliefs, the songs, dances) they are probably our best custodians. They could be actively teaching the Christians a few things about our common past and maybe with that our collective futures would be clearer, brighter. There would be no need for “defense” or preservation then. They can be the initiators of real ‘growth’, but it must be inclusive.

The Khasis as Hindus

Perhaps this article is ill-timed. Perhaps in the current scenario with various Far Right groups actively seeking a Hindutva agenda it is not the best time to be writing things which they could use for their own benefit. This is particularly true after the recent maiden procession carried out by the RSS in Shillong which has evoked so much reaction. However, these events cannot forestall the need for articulation. It waits for no one. With this in the background, I would like to present an argument that has been brooding in my head for a while now.

I have often heard it repeated over and over again especially by the Christian clergy and its fraternity that Khasis were/are not Hindus. They often say, in a very vague language, that essentially we worshipped One God (U Nongbuh U Nongthaw) through His “ambassadors” here on Earth. So in a sense ‘Lei Shyllong and other ancient deities might be suitably placed within a pre-Christian monotheism. This seems contradictory in more than one way. The most obvious is that it seems the Khasis are the only ones who profess this. Other tribes around us who have undoubtedly influenced and been influenced by the Khasis worship multiple gods not a God – these are full framed figures, resplendent in their distinct tribal garb, not simply allusions to a one Universal. This aspect is something we need to interrogate further because this pre-Christian “Christianity (monotheism)” appears to be revisionist. The frequency of the articulation of this idea among the Christians – especially Catholic priests – seems to betray its origins and motives. After all, it is much easier to convert people by drawing comparisons to that which they are already acquainted with: that the introduction of new gods is in reality just a change in nomenclature and ritual, that essentially they have always been worshipping the same God.

I am personally interested in the fact if the Khasis claim to be a matrilineal culture/society, why is U Nongbuh Nongthaw (The Keeper/ Creator) a male deity? Shouldn’t ‘he’ be a ‘she’? I realize that this is not necessarily an air-tight hypothesis but humour me. The Pnars and Bhois, interestingly, seem to place more importance on female divinities – the goddess Riang Khangnoh, goddess Myntdu, goddess Lukhmi are far more popular than any male counterparts. And they are not simply goddesses of the homestead either, they can wonder outside from spring to spring, blessing the families that stay along their path, they can serve as guardians (‘lei khyrdop) protecting Jowai like Myntdu does and they can also guarantee a good harvest like Lukhmi. They seem to have more character, more nuance than the Nongbuh Nongthaw. To simplify the pre-Christian era has been one of the major projects of the missionaries of various faiths. These include the Christians and the Hindus as well. Both have, in their own manner, drawn attention away from the differences and harped on the similarities that were allegedly shared. The Christians have been vague about it while the Hindus have embraced the ‘nitty gritties’ of the idiosyncratic Khasi myth pantheon as their own.

When we talk of Hinduism we have been warned time and again about the dangers of ‘centralizing’ it: that there are, in fact, many Hinduisms. This is a convenient starting point for interrogating the Hindu processes that went on in the Khasi and Jaintia Hills before the coming of Christianity. To simply state and defend the “Khasis were not Hindus” tenet with no evidence except popular belief is bad science. On the contrary, there is substantial material evidence to support the claim that they were, indeed, Hindus. In Syndai, you will find a large Ganesha sculpture – among others – of some age carved into a large rock; the local people call it ‘U Khmi’ (interestingly the word means “earthquake” in Pnar). Dawki has a number of old rock carvings which seem to be influenced by Hindu traditions. Legend has it that the Kamakhya Temple in Assam was originally a sacred Khasi site – a point acknowledged by temple management in publications – where a type of mother goddess supposedly resided. She was called “Ka Mei Kha” by the Khasis, which over time morphed into Kamakhya. The phonological shift is noteworthy. Nartiang and Iale Falls were important locations for Shakti human sacrifices. The former is still an important shrine for pilgrims to visit. Mahadek,also known as Laittyra, was called that because of the presence of a Mahadev temple within the village. Mawsynram still draws a decent number of Hindu pilgrims who suffer the horrible roads in order to perform puja at the mawjymbuin cave, which they consider to be a shiv-ling. Interestingly, these sites are all near borders – either with Assam or Bangladesh. There are undoubtedly other similar sites and shrines throughout these hills and valleys which await re-discovery.

Beyond the ostensible spaces, there are also a number of cultural borrowings that seem to have been directly influenced by Hinduism. This should not surprise (nor anger) us. The North East is basically a land bridge (possibly one of the most important in history). Materials, skills, ideas have flowed through this region for a very long time from East to West and vice versa. The fairly recent isolationism and the subsequent xenophobia should not fool us into believing otherwise. Many important festivals like Behdeinkhlam, Lukhmi have strong links with larger Vedic currents. The references to Lukhmi/Lukhimai are quite clearly to a ‘tribalised’ Lakshmi. During Behdeinkhlam, the rot (tower-like structures made of wood, bamboo) must be cast away after the religious festivities are over. This is interesting because the worship of the (non-Classical) Hindu deity Jagannath (Odisha mostly) also involves similar structures which are called rath (chariot). Note the similar names. The casting away of the rot is akin to the casting away of the idols at Durga Puja after their roles as ‘cleansers’ have been fulfilled. Even the ritualistic animal sacrifices at Shad Pomblang might be re-seen in the light of other festivals like Gadhimai, Bali Jatra and others. When I was to be married, there was some discussion about putting up banana stalks in front of the entry way which is a very common Hindu practice – this in spite of the fact that my in-laws’ household is almost exclusively Christian. This ultimately did not happen but it was interesting nonetheless.

As I had mentioned earlier, this piece might be misconstrued for obvious political purposes. I am not interested in privileging the mainstream Hindu tradition over the smaller traditions. Further, I hope the reader does not think that I am attempting to locate a “centre” from which all Hindu authority stems out of (which is what Hindutva groups seek). This automatically assumes the position that the ‘tribal’ people are always the ones who “take” ideas and concepts and divorces them of a knowing and conscious exchange with Hindu “missionaries”, maybe even resistance to them. The control room is not in Gujarat, Maharashtra or Ayodhya. If anything, we see the reverse, that in fact, Hinduism has always been shifting and ‘de-centering’ itself according to contexts and areas. The question “were/are Khasis, Hindus” is inextricably linked to the notion of who a Hindu is in the first place. The flexible and assimilative nature of Hinduism ensured its success from Cambodia and Bali through to Kabul etc, it spread through a huge geographic expanse. However, this strength, this mutability is also what permits the Far Right groups to go about proclaiming everything and everyone as being Hindu, everything from “proper” religions like Buddhism and Jainism to smaller belief systems like Niam Khasi (Meghalaya), Donyi Polo (Arunachal Pradesh) and Meiteism (Manipur). Their success in redefining the latter practice as their own is something the Niam Khasi followers should be wary of. Ultimately, religion is less important than politics.

Roadtrip: Shillong – Tyrsad – Pomblang

The road to Tyrsad is horrible. Potholes lie in wait for you the moment you get clear of Mawphlang. I suppose proper roads are only for the tourists who frequent the much-hyped Sacred Grove, located on the outskirts of Mawphlang village. The valley in which Tyrsad is situated is wide, long and very picturesque. It looks like a fairly rich growing ground as well. I see lots of fat sacks along the roadside filled with potatoes or something of a similar shape. This rustic beauty, the sight of hard working people and the smell of cow dung in the morning make me forgive the back-breaking journey.

The moment we reach Tyrsad, my companions get down for a quick peg of whisky at one of the many roadside joints. I wonder how many people knew of the tiny rooms beyond the main eating area where customers could enjoy a drink with their meals. A small boy, maybe the owner’s son, brings us our order – he looks like he’s got a head for business. This is all hush-hush of course; ostensibly they are solely a restaurant catering to tired drivers and hungry travellers. It is too expensive to acquire a legal license and too much harassment. There are many places like these along the highways; you just have to look for the signs.

We get back into the car and start out again. We’re going downhill, to Mawsynram. At Weiloi village, you see it! Lum Symper – erstwhile mountain-god, now customary picnic-spot. You understand in a way why the ancient forerunners would have held it up in such spiritual regard. It towers over the surrounding plateau, your eye always on it.

We have to travel down the back of a mountain which slopes, sometimes too rapidly for our liking, towards the plains of Bangladesh. The bottom of the ravines are hundreds of feet below us and morbidly we wonder if they would even bother fetching our corpses or simply let them decompose out in the open. I used to be scared of cliffs, I’d imagine earthquakes and landslides pushing me over the edge but when you’re sharing such stories together with people, somehow it is easier to admire the sublime scenery rather than the tragedy of an accident.

I’ve always liked linguistics. It’s hard not to when your grandfather was a linguist, you grow up into it. The sounds of those names we encountered on the way, names of places like Phlangwanbroi, Trongpleng, Kenbah Malai fascinate me because they force me outside the standard Sohra dialect, which we use in Shillong, they make me re-see the world, re-assess versions of culture. Kenbah Malai – what does that mean? (“malai” is most probably borrowed from the Bangla). Perhaps the very incidence of this name shows our assimilation of many cultures into ours; which we now take for granted, perhaps we don’t honour them enough nowadays.

At Mawpen, we are told that a big meeting is underway. A Revival Service which, I believe was called by the Presbyterians. This explains why the villages all looked deserted. I didn’t want to offend my friends so I withheld vocalising my grievances. It should have been fine though, since all the while we’d been debating about tribal identity and culture. We never halted at Mawsynram. My friends asked for direction and we sped off further downhill. I hadn’t asked what we were going there for. I like long drives. After yet another hour, we finally reached our destination.

What can I say about the place? Pomblang looks like any other village along the Mawsynram-Balat road. If you didn’t have work there, or had family there, you’d most probably drive on by. It’s a nice enough place with kwai (areca nut) and orange orchards sprouting their wares, all around, in the warm weather. We ask for a particular person’s house and meet his grandmother, his aunts and their numerous children. Inside their home, prominently displayed on the wall, I see a programme- leaflet of upcoming church services. There is also a picture of Jesus next to that of a political candidate. I mutter to myself – Messiah.

I remember a friend once telling me that travelling – on an empty stomach – to West Khasi Hills on a Sunday was risking starvation. He’s absolutely right. I’m extremely hypoglycaemic as I sit down in their living room. My lovely hosts seem to sense this and bring us each a bowl of jadoh (meat cooked with rice) almost immediately. They’re all smiles and I can’t understand what they’re saying in the local tongue but it’s really nice to hear. It gets me thinking about the pre-eminence of the Sohra dialect, about the economics and politics behind its stature. I don’t want that those village kids should ever lose their mother tongue, the language of their village just because they have to come to Shillong to eke out a living. In the city, we talk about outsiders coming and stealing away what is precious to us but maybe we need to be more careful with such thoughts because at times we’re the outsiders.

Slowly I realise, in the ensuing conversation, that the man whose house we’re in, is actually in jail and that my friends, who themselves had spent a month in the slammer, had gone all that way to tell his family that he was doing well, and to brief them about certain things they needed to do to speed up his release. I didn’t know what to feel at this point. What are our reactions when we know of or meet such people? Fear, loathing? Or do we dismiss them entirely? Throughout my formative years, I’d always thought that these people were hooligans and troublemakers. It may be true but is it really so simple or easy to pick up a gun?

Mere troublemaking and extortion were not what lured so many young people into the folds of armed outfits. They believed in something, maybe it was a wrong belief but they followed it through. If you never met one or talked to one, you’d most likely imagine them to be complete monsters. Personally I respect their courage but there is no doubt, in my mind, that they’ve been used. Many coming out of poor villages like this pawned, sold out and moved around by various forces beyond their control. I suppose that’s why these villagers are wary of strangers.

Wan Phai Ban Pynbha Biang


Sa shi sien, la kha biang ia me, la kynmaw ieid biang namar ba ki wah ki la rngat bad ki miet, kjam. Mynta ki sla ki la iap bad ki lum, syllen. La dei ka por wad jingkyrmen biang. Kumta hi ha ki sngi kha. Man u snem u wan noh ha PB, bad ki briew kim klet ban wan mane ia u. Ki wan dem ha me uba sympat ia ki nongkhayi; ha iew.

Ki thrang ban iohi ia ka jingwan arsien jong me. Kumno men wan? Kum ka eriong bad leilieh? Kum ka wait bad sum? Kum u jumai bad ding? Ne kum ka Pyrem bad ki sla jyrngam? Kum ka Erbatemon bad um pjah? Kum ka Jingkmen bad ki kot thymmai?

Wan, wan ban pynbha biang. Tangba lada me wan, kyrsiew shwa, kum ia u Lazarus, ia kito ki ba shah thang im ha ki por iakhih ki sengbhalang. Kyrsiew ia baroh kiba shah thombor tang namarba ki pher na ngi. Kyrsiew ia kito kiba pynrit mynsiem ha khmat kiba heh, kumjuh kiba shah bein tang namarba kim mane ia me. Kyrsiew khamtam ia ki dohnud maw jong ki nongbud jong me. Pynum ia u thah uba sop ia ki mynsiem jong ki.

Wan, wan ban pynbha biang. Ai biang ha ka Elaka Sutnga bad Elaka Narpuh ia ki tyllong um ba khuid, kibym ai jingpang ia kiba dih ne sum ha ki. Kumjuh ha Byrnihat bad Nongtalang.

Lada me wan ban pynbha shisha, pynbha ia kine ki khlur rit bad ophisar kiba shong ha khmat iingmane. Pyni ka dur shisha jong me ha ki. Ba me kham ia jan bad ki nongkhrong ban ia ki saipan, ba me shong bad ki nongdiekwai, ba mem pat ju poi sha Times Square, ba mem shym beh ia ka burom ne spah hapor ba me dang im ha pyrthei.

Lada me wan shisha, wan biang na trep na sem mrad; wan biang kum u nongpynim jong ka shnong ka thaw; u nongpyrsad mynsiem ia ka imlang sahlang; wan biang kum u nongpyllait im ia ki mraw.

CHATTRI, LAL BAHADUR (Indian Labourer) Indian Labour Corps; 56th (Khasi) Indian Labour Coy. Date of Death: 06/05/1918 Service No: 1828 D.1

In death, you become Khasi: a wildman, a man of the grass, a person who dug down deep and strove to scratch out life one day at a time, a royal. That’s what a Khasi was, wasn’t it?
You knew those ways, that’s why they called you one.

When you fell flat onto that cold French earth-
Not the France of Cannes and Paris but bleak brutal battle-
The Khas in you struggled inside, wanting to live on;
When your eyes shut -your body heavy with lead, your lungs failing -you took a fistful of foreign earth.
The British called you Khasi because they didn’t know what else to call you (or perhaps didn’t care).

They all look the same, I guess, they said. Hand them medals, sort up a small parade, send them some money: celebrate the death of their sons at Iewduh; call it bravery, call it valour.

I wonder what Lal Bahadur was really like. In a uniform, he must have looked like everyone else in the corp. He must have ‘attentioned’ or ‘stood at ease’ like everybody else.
He must have made some Khasi friends:
Facing death together, sharing stories about a home they shared in the hills of Assam, bracing together under a foreign hand, marching under a foreign scepter:
All problems must have seemed foreign back then.

Lal Bahadur, what sort of place was this when you were alive? What were the people like? What funny stories did the tavern spill out into the home? What forces drove people apart then and chained them?

Been a hundred years now, I wonder if he knows:
That there are no wild nor free men anymore; no people of the grass, no Khas.

Lal Bahadur Chattri, Khasi

Ha jingiap ki kam Khasi ia me:
Namar ha ka jingiap dam lut khait kito kiba pynpher ia ngi –
Kawei ka met ka iasyriem bad kawei pat, ki dak ba ngi ioh nangne nangthe kim don jingmut shuh;
Kam don shuh kata ka Pyrkhat Pyrdain kaban pynshai, kam don shuh ka Rukom kynnoh ktien shnong kaban sakhi.
Ngi kam ia me – uba na kiwei – kum u jong ngi:
Namar ngi ia tur lang, ia tyllun lang bad ia iap lang:
Tmang ka iing, ka sem, ki khun ki kti.

Me jah jlang – jngai na iing, sha ri nongwei – lem bad ki para Khas:
Ki para nongbylla, ki nongkit sahep, nongtihsurok ia ki atiar thma,
Ki nongtbeh dongmusa ha ki por ba iong ngain ka bneng:
Ym don jingiapher kyrdan, ym don ba tam, ym don ba duna;
Haba ia kyllon ia kyllon lang, haba ia thiah, ia thiah lang –
Jngai na iing, sha ri nongwei.