In A Patriarchal World, Meghalaya's Khasi Women Keep Their Own Identity

The Khasis of Meghalaya are an ancient and vibrant tribe. They are one of those matrilineal and matrilocal societies where lineage and kinship flow from the female line. The Khasi woman, not the man, is the one who passes on the family name to progeny. She also inherits and assumes custodianship of the legacy and clan of her parents. And if she is the youngest daughter, her husband comes and stays in her house! 

In a world where patriarchy is stiflingly dominating, this unique matrilineal and matrilocal setup is an astonishing breath of fresh air. Yet at the same time, the system is one to cherish, nurture and preserve, and be proud of, for true gender equality to be achieved.  

The custom is mightily empowering for women although to the overwhelmingly patriarchal societies the logic behind it is confounding.   

The Khasinumber a minuscule population of 1.41 million. Together with their country cousins, the Garos, they make up two of the few matrilineal and matrilocal societies of India and the world. 

Khasis are also one rare people where the ratio of women outnumbers that of the men! 

But who are the Khasis? What has the matrilineal system achieved for the Khasi women, especially the women farmers?   

Let’s learn more. 

The Dim Past 

It’s unclear how the Khasis came to settle in these hills in the dim past since there is no recorded history. But anthropologists saw the similarity in features between them and the people of South Asia such as China, Myanmar, Laos and Cambodia.

Philologists too say the Khasi tongue belongs to the Austro-Asiatic group of languages that were spoken across continents even as far as the Easter islands in South America, the Malayan peninsula and New Zealand.  

In India, the Munda also belongs to this linguistic group, having settled here long before the Aryans came.  

The Khasis, therefore, must have settled in these highlands for thousands of years. They even call the great mountains of the north ‘Ki Lum Makashang’ when the rest of the world calls them the Himalayas. That indicates that they must have come from somewhere up north and travelled elsewhere before finally settling in the Khasi and Jaintia Hills. 

The Bravery of Ancient Khasi Women 

woman farmer in a field

In his book, Ka Niam Khasi noted scholar Dr Homiwell Lyngdoh said that the Khasi lands were called ‘Khasdesh’ or the land of the ‘Khos’. Khos comes from the Sanskrit ‘kho’ meaning mind and ‘so’ meaning unwavering. So the ancient was depicted as a sturdy warrior people or ‘Agni Kshatriya’ in ancient Indian writings. 

They were here before many others, including the Aryans, and must have travelled and fought far and wide. Some intermingled and settled elsewhere and some took wives from among other peoples. But being warlike they were away most of the time and it was left to their women to manage affairs back home. 

Khasi women, according to Dr Lyngdoh’s book, were no less warlike. They’ve always risen to defend their race even if it meant to take up arms. 

According to one legend, the Hindu warrior-god, Lord Parasuram decided to wage a war against Khasdesh. The Khasis were no match for Lord Parasuram’s armies. Many were killed and many more had to flee.  

When the Khasi women saw this they were incensed and armed themselves to fight back. Lord Parasuram could not bring himself to fight women and returned to his kingdom. The Khasi women thus saved their nation from defeat and subjugation. 

Woman… Progenitor And Preserver 

Deep in Khasi psyche is ingrained the notion that the woman is the progenitor and preserver of the race. She is the all-important soil that embraces the seeds, makes them sprout and propagate. 

The soil’s work doesn’t end there. It continues to support life for generations to come. Without it, there can be no life and no people. 

Therefore the wise Khasi ancestors decreed that their women, rather than men, should get the right to carry forward their race because it is they who are the birth-giver and nurturers. 

They reasoned: 

“ It is the from the earth that water vapours take birth and rise as clouds only to fall as rain, back to the earth that forms them.” 

“The young of all animals cry out and run to their mothers when they are hungry or in danger.” 

“The children, therefore, are rightfully hers, no matter where the seed comes from. It is solely their right too to inherit her name, legacy and clanship which they are duty-bound to preserve for all generations. 

That is why, you see, when a Khasi man marries a non-Khasi woman she is given a new name because the husband cannot bestow his mother’s clan’s name to his children! 

So, when you come across people with the prefix ‘Khar’ on their names, for example, Kharkrang, Kharsahnoh and other instances, you understand that their clan’s ‘Iawbei’ or first ancestress-mother was a non-Khasi woman! 

(Of course, there are instances where this rule is not followed due to various, but isolated, reasons such as continuing intermingling, migration, or resettlement) 

Faith-filled People 

The Khasis are a people filled with deep faith. They believe in a monotheistic Creator whose imprints they see all over Nature. By observing patterns in Nature they draw parallels between woman and earth and concluded that it is the Creator’s will to accord due dignity to her. 

That’s the reason in the Khasi culture there exists the highest regard and respect for ‘ka longkynthei’ - womanhood. And this woman-centric, matrilineal custom exerts a soothing impact on society. Because when children own a name – their mother’s – they cease to be illegitimate. The name also bestows on them the right to inheritance. 

In Khasi custom, the youngest daughter, ‘ka khadduh,’ is the inheritor of the parental property or legacy. Her house is ‘ka iing-kur - iing-niam’, meaning the ceremonial house of the clan, for all ceremonies including religious rituals.   

Strength of a Woman 

woman farmer carrying water

On the woman, therefore, is built the foundation of Khasi society. Even in death the bones of the children are gathered and deposited in the ancestress-mother’s urn. Kinship and faith are the two pillars that hold the society together. They are the forces that drive every activity. 

But although she inherits and enjoys the full benefits of the property, she is not the owner. Rather, she is the custodian or the trustee of her clan’s heritage. She has the all-important responsibility of taking care of the clan’s affairs. 

The khadduh has to receive into the iing-kur the family members who have no means of support. However, those who haven’t married and still stay in their mother’s house are duty-bound to contribute to the iing-kur’s resources. This is why in the Khasi society there are no beggars. 

Family and Clan, the Khasi Woman’s Priority 

The traditional Khasi woman’s life revolves around two main premises: family and clan. The prosperity and well-being of the clan stand paramount. This pattern that reflects on every clan merges into one vibrant society. 

One clear advantage in a matrilineal society is the flexible, egalitarian non-hierarchical gender relationship. 

Three-fourths of the Khasi population lives in farm setups. Most are marginal farmers. They may be tilling their land or lease it, or work as farm labourers. As many as there are men farmers, there are women. Their work lives revolve not only on keeping home fires burning but also keeping their fields alive and brimming with crops. 

The hidden driving force behind Khasi women’s involvement in farm work stems more from innate desire to see to the well-being of their household, especially the children. 

woman farmer agriculture

Women and Home 

Women, in general, have a closer relationship with plants, collecting their seeds for the future. They have a keener sensitivity and understanding about the soil, maybe because it is they who look after the house and cook for the family. So they can instinctively sense the nutritive values. 

While the home is the priority they are on par with men at the field. 

“Whatever men can do, women can also do … even better!” says Kong Pdiang from Saphai, Jaintia Hills. 

Kong Pdiang is not just a farmer but also an intrepid farmer-leader in her community. For the past two years, she and her team of farmers have been supplying the world’s best turmeric – the Lakadong - to Zizira. She was the instrument, the driving force that brought Saphai into the limelight. 

This is what she says about the women farmers of her village: 

“They are an empowered lot now. They assert their rights and take their responsibilities literally and seriously.” 

She further explains: 

“The future of our children rests more heavily on us. Of course, our men are very supportive. They are the main pillars, providers of the family but often they don’t involve themselves much in running the household.” 

“They work in the fields or elsewhere and bring home the money. They have little time for anything else. It’s left to us. 

“We women have it tougher. Not only do we bear and rear children, but we also cook, wash and clean too. Sometimes we work elsewhere for extra income. And with farm work to boot, work never ends. For most women, the workday begins at dawn but stretches far beyond the sunset.” 

Adept Multitaskers 

Multitasking is real even for women in a matrilineal society! True, here too, the traditional domain of the woman is the house. Yet the fields belong to both man and woman! 

Ironic! Because men usually shy away from housework. 

Kong Pdiang tells us what the combination of family, home and field means to her and the women of her village. 

“When it comes to family, we are passionate and outspoken where it needs to be. Many of us are unlettered but we are fiercely protective of our households.” 

“And in farm work, we can do whatever the men do except in areas where it involves heavy earth cutting and lifting with the heavier ‘mohkhiew heh’ or big hoe.” 

One example is the ‘puh ktieh’ or cutting of wet, water-laden earth in paddy fields. Another example is the ‘kyntiew bun’ or building of dry earth bund beds. 

Both these need superior muscle power and physical strength of men. 

“Apart from these, we do everything else” reiterates Kong Pdiang. She goes on to tell us what those jobs are. 

“Clear bushes and brambles, sow and weed … in fact, some jobs are better done by us, such as transplanting, for example,” she says, with a chuckle! 

That must be true as one farmer, Bah Mylliempdah from Laitkor once told me: 

“We men have lesser knack and patience for fine jobs like weeding or transplanting. We are better at doing heavy jobs. Women do much better at these works that involve moving fingers inch by inch. Their hands are slenderer and nimbler and so more suited for such jobs.” 

farmer in a field

Three Guiding Principles

Wonder at how the Khasis developed such a civilized society?

That enshrines democratic governance in public life and equality of the genders in private life?

Thanks to the ancestors who designed norms of behaviour of astounding universality for all to follow:

Three ancient Khasi values of ‘tip briew-tip blei’, ‘tip kur-tip-kha’, and ‘kamai la ka hok’ remain forever the guiding principles of any Khasi man, woman or child. They form the bedrock of acceptable (and binding) behaviour, individually or in socially and hold as good today as in any age. These are:

  1. Tip briew-tip blei means to know God and man – it enjoins reverence for and obeisance to the divine and respect for fellow human beings.
  2. Tip kur-tip kha means to know your clan and origin – it enjoins keeping clan values and rules of life
  1. Kamai la ka hok means to earn righteousness – it enjoins rightful living, earning, thought and action. So, no stealing, no excesses of any kind.

For the Khasi nation to remain robust and progressive, these three universal principles must stay as lamps at the feet and the lights on the paths. To dilute them means slow death of the nation, with women getting the rawest of deals. 

A Vital Question

Now, can the women of this matrilineal Khasi society say theirs is a better deal than their sisters elsewhere get?

Yes and no. If they are fortunate enough to come from landed families, yes, because that also means more economic muscle. So to an extent, they are better placed.

What about those from humbler backgrounds? Except for the name and clanship they can leave no tangible legacy for their children.

Then there’s the status of the husband and father, the main provider. True, he heads the family but has no say in the affairs of his wife’s clan and cannot involve himself. He may even free himself from the relationship, leaving the wife and children to the care of her clan.

Maybe the societal setup needs some fine-tuning to match the times? That’s a vital question.

How Farming Women See Themselves

As game-changers, in tandem with their men.

Says Kong Pdiang:

“We now involve ourselves in village affairs and durbars. That was unthinkable a few years back. No, our men are effective but we find that if we put our heads and efforts together things flow better and smoother.”

She went on to explain how her village, Saphai, has turned into a model village when it comes to discipline. For example, no youngsters will loiter about in the streets without work after 8 p.m. Drunks will face action including stiff fines if they cause any public nuisance.

And as for her children, they’re taught to value their work – schoolwork, housework and farm work. They’re even rewarded for that. For example, in the last season, she gave each of the elder children a quantity of turmeric seeds to plant. The proceeds from the harvest go to the bank accounts she’s opened for each of them.

That way, says Kong Pdiang, they learn work and its values and earn money too!

Do they depend on the farm alone for livelihood? They don’t. Farm income is unpredictable. So they must generate income from other sources. Besides, somebody has to stay home too.

Kong Khongsngi is a farmer from Laitkyrhong near Laitkor. She has six children – five sons and a daughter. Her husband mostly works as a labour contractor wherever he gets work. Only when there’s so such work does he join his wife and children in the fields. While mother and sons work in the fields, the only daughter stays at home to do the housework and cook for the family.

farmers in field 

Strong and Positive Mindsets

“We are docile,” says Kong Pdiang, “but we can be aggressive when it comes to looking for opportunities and pushing for progress.”

It showed.

Turmeric, the main crop of her village, had no steady market even two years back. When the Zizira opportunity came, the women farmers went ahead and associated themselves with the company. Business suddenly looked up. They are now happy now and firmly determined to maintain the relationship for mutual gains.

“We are nurturing but also ferocious.”

It reflects in the way they bring up their children and care for their households. They do it even at community levels.

Still, Miles to Go

But if we imagined that Khasi women have it all smooth, we are way off the mark. She may be the mistress of the household and inheritance but in matters of politics and statecraft men hold the exclusive authority. Even in important decisions involving the clan, for example, marriages, the eldest brother or uncle from the female side, ‘u kñi, is the presiding authority.

Yes, there’s still a lot to fight for in women’s full emancipation even in such a woman-centric society as the Khasis’.

There have been some gains, for example, the recent (January 2020) Meghalaya High Court ruling that favoured women to vote in local councils. That was a landmark decision and an significant victory for women.

As Kong Pdiang asserts:

“We are fiercely independent in spirit. Freedom bestows power and we are not giving up on that.”

Zizira Salutes Women Farmers

Women farmers of Meghalaya already enjoy the good fortune of being in the matrilineal society. Yet life remains a struggle. Although time and again they prove their worth, they still must assert themselves and to claim their rightful place.

Now, more than ever, they must stake their right to make decisions, particularly when external forces – systemic, cultural or economic – threaten to upset traditions.

Zizira enjoys supporting our farmers, especially our women farmers and make them famous. I hope you liked this story. You can read about Zizira to know more about us.

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