The indigenous Khasis of Meghalaya are mostly farmers. In fact, even today 83% of them are farmers. For hundreds of years, the agriculture of the Khasis has remained the sustainable kind, managed with long-lasting, low-maintenance eco-friendly tools. Sustainable living has always been their way of life and starvation is unheard of.
Ever environmentally conscious, whatever they do to sustain themselves they take care not to disturb the balance of the eco-system that supports life and gives them a livelihood.
These traditional agricultural practices still prevail today with amazing results. But they have neither modern tools nor machinery. How do they achieve this?
Through the indigenous farming implements, they designed since ancient times and continue making even today.
The Khasis have perfected the art of fashioning tools from locally and abundantly available raw material. Evolving from bamboo, wood and metal, not only are these tools simple, but they are also eco-friendly and sustainable, and they reflect the Khasis' deep respect and reverence for nature.
These tools are practical, easy to use and to maintain, and extremely gentle on Ka Mei Ram-ew - Mother nature. They perfectly fit the sustainable lifestyle of the Khasis.
Meghalaya is blessed with a wealth of dozens of species of bamboo. Each species has its own special utility depending upon its strength and pliability. Some are excellent for basket and mat making while others make perfect containers, frames, irrigation systems and even musical instruments. Yet some more make great huts and dwellings. Bamboo's versatility is truly unendingly amazing.
The same goes for wood too. There's wood for every requirement – for fashioning tool handles or for making hardy thlong and synrei - mortar and pestle - for pounding paddy into rice grains. The list goes on.
As for metal, the Khasis have, since ancient times, mastered the art of sain nar, the smelting of iron from a local iron ore called mawpyrsut.
Large deposits of 'mawpyrsut' were available in Laitdom and Lyngkhiew villages, about 19 kilometres southwest of Shillong. The blacksmiths of Sohryngkham, Mawkdok, Laitlyngkot and Mylliem are still famous for their sturdy and effective iron farm implements.
Visit any Khasi bazaar and you'll not fail to notice the ubiquitous bamboo products. Whether they're showpieces, basketry or practical tools, bamboo products are visible everywhere.
Let's see some of those eco-friendly and multipurpose tools the Khasis have fashioned that enable sustainable living till today, all made from bamboo:
This long rope with strands usually plaited from thin slivers of cane sports a broad head weave at mid-section. The two adjustable ends tie to hold and secure the khoh in place on the carrier's back while broad headband helps position it comfortably on the head.
Once thus slung, the khoh stays balanced by the neck muscles, evenly distributing the load on the back. The carrier's hands remain relatively free for any other activity.
Even if one doesn't use the khoh as a carrier it still can make a perfect eco-friendly dustbin.
The knup is contoured to drape over the human body, encasing it like a protective shell - concave in the inside to contain the wearer's body and convex on the outside to provide run-off surface for rainwater. It's great for farmers who must work bending down continuously.
When worn, the knup covers the body's length till the calves. A piece of string sometimes runs across, securing it under the wearer's chin to prevent it's blowing away by the wind.
Not only is the knup indispensable during rains, but it's also excellent hands-free sun protection gear.
They also make good egg-laying or brooding baskets for hens.
Some types of shang are the thiar, storage bins for paddy kept for seed. These are loosely woven with bamboo strips but heavily padded with straw on the inside.
Shang kwai is a special type of shang specially constructed for serving kwai, a combination of betel nut, leaf and lime as a gesture of Khasi hospitality.
The shang kwai is a prominent piece of household bamboo ware that always comes together with the dong tympew or bamboo cylindrical container that stores betel leaves, and another smaller (usually tin) lidded lime container.
In husking, the user holds the prah with both hands, tossing the contents up and down continuously. Lighter husks naturally get pushed to the raised front and float away with the wind. The sorted heavier grains remain at the prah's deep end.
In winnowing, the prah with paddy is raised to a height and shaken so the paddy drops freely to the ground. The wind plays its part, blowing away the husks.
The amazing prah comes in various sizes and has multiple uses.
Sustainable farming involves cutting of earth, clearing of trees and shrubbery which calls for appropriate and sturdy tools of metal. As the Khasis have already mastered the art of iron smelting, here's an account of two of their most important agricultural tools of iron, the mohkhiew and the wait.
The big mohkhiew is the heavyweight tool used for slicing through heavy earth in paddy fields and lifting and turning great mounds of soil. Being heavyweight, it is mostly the men-folk who wield it.
Women use the medium and baby mohkhiew for digging and making holes for planting of seeds.
Its utility is so multipurpose that not having it in the fields is a great handicap for the farmer. The first thing they do before leaving for the fields is to sharpen the waitbnoh. They even peel and cut their 'kwai' (betel nut) with it.
All the tools of the Khasis are eco-friendly and soft on nature. There's nothing of the harsh earth-compacting machinery and none of the eco-system destroying non-biodegradable equipment. They're the perfect tools for sustainable farming and sustainable living.
There's no dispute that there's need for equipment improvisation and modernisation, especially as the pressures of a burgeoning population clamouring for more food is on the upswing.
But, for the homesteader or small farmer or even the backyard and urban farmer, these tools would be more than viable.
Subscribe to #ZiziraFoodlores for more stories about Meghalaya farmers and their products.
Comments will be approved before showing up.