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The Khasi, Garo and Jaintia

Matrilineal societies in the hills of Meghalaya

 

Khaddu: the youngest daughter inherits everything

For the Khasi, the youngest daughter plays a very special role in questions of inheritance. As the so-called khaddu, while her parents are still alive, she takes over the house and land with at least three generations, manages the family income, leads consensus-oriented family councils and makes important decisions in agreement with her uncle. She bears enormous responsibility for the entire family clan and their various expectations. If members of the clan are ill, it is also up to the khaddu to take care of them.

 

 

 

“As a woman I have the right to give my name to my children, for it is I who bring them into the world in pain. This is also important because the children stay with us women in the event of separation.”

 

Meghalaya is called “abode of clouds” because of its foggy, lush green hills, which border the state of Assam to the North and Bangladesh to the South. In contrast to the rest of India, the Khasi, Garo and Jaintia indigenous peoples of Meghalaya are organized matrilocally and matrilineally, i.e. inheritance is passed down exclusively through the female line. With 1.4 million people, the Khasi are the largest of the three ethnic groups and those who practice ancient traditions most strictly, convinced that their culture will carry on for many generations to come. The name they use to denote the female gender is in itself a statement: kha si means “born of a woman”. Mother Earth is also the formative element of this people, which lives primarily as self-sufficient farmers.

The vast majority of the people in Meghalaya (about 75%) are Christians. The Hinduism that otherwise prevails in India is scarce here.Their animistic primeval religion and shamanism still have a place in their faith as well as in everyday life. They manifest in various rituals, some of which are even accompanied by animal sacrifices.

The jungle and “living bridges”

We travel via Kolkata (formerly Calcutta) to Shillong. The state capital is surrounded by the green Khasi hills and appears to be bursting at the seams. Far too many people and cars squeeze through the narrow streets. We meet our driver, Robert, and guide, Kabuki, who take us to the remote villages of Khasi, Garo and Jaintia. On the way to the mountains we meet Morningstar, a young Khasi who has dedicated himself to protecting the jungle.

He leads us not only to different families but also to so-called “living bridges”. In order to more easily make their way through the jungle-like forests and facilitate hunting, the locals have been building “living bridges” for centuries. They weave the roots of large rubber trees together and thus span deep gorges. The fact that we are interested in his culture makes Morningstar proud, but he can’t imagine what would bring us to these parts. He has never seen Europeans such as ourselves here before.

Cultural differences and similarities

No matter where we go, we are given a warm welcome and a handful of betel nuts and leaves. The hard and extremely staining seeds of the palm fruit are chewed around the clock and have a slightly toxic and astringent effect. It is often referred to as “chewing against hunger” and is considered a natural drug that numbs the body and mind but is also effective against germs and parasites. It doesn’t take long for us to figure out the cause of the red mouths and orange teeth that smile at us everywhere we go.

After a one-day trip to the western area of Meghalaya, we arrive in Garo Hills. We are welcomed in the villages with surprise but kindness and received with a special home-brewed rice beer. The rather reserved Garo are matrilineally organized as well, but in contrast to the Khasi, they have a less strict system of family succession. With the Garo, all of the daughters receive an inheritance, but the youngest receives the greatest share. Animistic religion also has a firm place in their culture. On the day we arrive, there happens to be a shamanic sacrificial ritual for healing a sick villager. The whole village gathers around the sacrificial altar, upon which a chicken and a piglet are sacrificed. In the Garo belief system, sick people are afflicted by a demon that can be drawn out and dispelled by animal blood.

In the eastern and northeastern areas of Meghalaya live the Jaintia, who welcome us just as warmly but with a bit more reservation. For centuries they have been living off of mining and have achieved greater prosperity, which they’ve invested in brightly painted brick houses and well-kept roads.

Despite many similarities, the three ethnic groups clearly set themselves apart from each other. Mixed marriages are not welcome, at least among the Khasi, because such a practice would jeopardize their own culture, we are told.

Family system and distribution of roles

All three ethnic groups are still primarily matrilocally organized and men move into their wives’ houses after the wedding. Children are raised collectively, which is a big relief to the women, some of whom also have to go to work. Khasi women often spend their days as so-called “stonecrashers”, manually crushing stones that are sold as building material to Bangladesh for a paltry wage.

The mother’s brother has a special role in the family system, comparable to that of our godfather: he takes on the role of fatherly advisor, handles administrative matters and represents the interests of the family to the outside world. Together, the uncle and khaddu constitute the highest authority of each family clan.

 

Behind the scenes

maria haas - projects - The Khasi, Garo and Jaintia