Exploring Khasi culture in Meghalaya

Exploring Khasi culture in Meghalaya

In this post on exploring Khasi culture in Meghalaya, I will give an account of what I learned about the Khasi people and a pleasant walk through the sacred grove in Mawphlang anzd a trek through the David Scott trail from Sacred grove to Cherrapunji. I do not claim to be an expert on the subject of culture of the Khasi people and all my knowledge is derived from the conversations I held with the local Khasi people, guesthouse owner, trekking guides and visit to museum etc. during my two-week long stay in Meghalaya. 

Khasi people

Friendly, polite and simple, you will often see them chewing betel nut which gives their lips the characteristic orangish tinge. Betel nut is a part of the culture and children can also be seen chewing it. Some locals claim that it helps with bad breath. Whatever the reason, one can’t rule out the possibility of that pleasant feeling of getting high as the probable cause. 

The keeper of the tea shop in Cherrapunji
Time for a cup of steaming hot coffee

Tribes of Meghalaya

Meghalaya is inhabited by three major tribes-Khasi, Garo and Jaintia and as the name suggests, the three tribes inhabit the respective hill ranges. I am not aware if the hill ranges derive their names from that of the tribe that inhabits them or the tribes derive their names from the hill ranges that they first occupied.

Khasi people live in the Khasi hills around Shillong. You can read about Shillong in my blog post exploring Meghalaya-things to do in Shillong. 

Mythology- the origin of Khasi people

According to mythology, sixteen Khasi families were believed to have originated from heaven and were free to move between the two realms of heaven and earth with the help of a divine ladder. The ladder is believed to be located on the sacred Lum Sohpetbneng Peak in the Ribhoi district, situated to the north of the East Khasi hills district. The people were tricked into cutting a divine tree which angered the gods and the ladder between the two realms was severed. The seven Khasi families who were on the earth at the time remained stranded there. In order to appease the gods, sacrifice was to be made. It is believed that the rooster sacrificed himself, the reason why rooster is considered sacred in Khasi culture. Each year, a festival is organized on the hill, and the rooster is sacrificed to appease the gods. It is believed that the divine ladder is established between the heaven and the earth on that auspicious day.   

I was keen on trekking to Lum Sohpetbneg hill, however the area is covered by the Forest Department and so special permission, is required. A road to the top of the hill was then under construction.

A walk through the Sacred Grove

Khasi people are highly attuned to nature and have huge respect for it and are very responsible towards it. Sacred grove is a thousand years old forest, untouched by human activities. It is of great significance in the Khasi culture and is located in Mawphlang

It was the walk through the sacred forest that piqued my interest in the Khasi culture. You can enter only with a Khasi guide, my guide was John.

A walk through the Sacred Grove
Thousands of years old trees standing in the Sacred Grove

Warning

A walk through the meadows leads to the entry of the Sacred Forest. There is however one rule that all visitors must abide by- Remove nothing from the forest or some huge misfortune will befall you. 

This lends this forest it’s own mystic charm. Untouched by any human intervention, the forest flourishes.

Matrilineal society

Just outside the entrance, one can see a flat, horizontal stone slab supported by three stone pegs and three vertical stones standing beside it. Khasis are matrilineal, with the horizontal slab symbolizing the mother, the pegs, the children. The three standing stones symbolize the father, the  maternal uncle and the nephew giving protection.

Traditionally, a Khasi man who marries the eldest daughter, the heir to the family property, and moves to her house. A matrilineal society doesn’t essentially mean matriarchal because decisions concerning the matters of property are largely handled by men. The new age Khasi couples prefer to move into a house of their own.

The horizontal stone, representing the mother, on three pegs, representing the children, is in front of the three vertical stones, representing the father, the uncle and the nephew
The horizontal stone, representing the mother, on three pegs, representing the children, is in front of the three vertical stones, representing the father, the uncle and the nephew

The entrance to the Sacred Grove
The entrance to the Sacred Grove

A ladybird
A ladybird

Flora in the Sacred grove

The Sacred forest is over a thousand years old and the floor is covered with foliage, fallen tree trunks, intertwining roots and moss. The guide showed me a delicate and ornate orchid leaf framework, a beautiful thing to behold, that had fallen from one of the many orchid plants in the forest.

The framework of the orchid leaf
The framework of the orchid leaf

A hollowed out tree trunk
A hollowed out tree trunk

It is believed that many medicinal plants grow in this region, several of which are said to cure some of the most vicious diseases like cancer. The fallen tree trunks have a number of varieties of non edible but visually pleasing mushrooms growing on them.

Exotic non-edible mushrooms growing on fallen tree trunks
Exotic non-edible mushrooms growing on fallen tree trunks

Exotic non-edible mushrooms growing on fallen tree trunks
Exotic non-edible mushrooms growing on fallen tree trunks

There are plenty of rhododendron trees in the forest, however, the red flowers bloom only in the months of February and March.

Tranquil nature

There are hanging branches and you can channel your inner Mowgli and swing from them, I  tried swinging but thankfully didn’t record the video of the awkward moment. The forest holds many secrets like this colorful but deadly fruit that can poison a snake.

This poisonous fruit kills the snake
This poisonous fruit kills the snake

I was completely immersed in the forest and all that it had to offer and felt calm and peaceful. I wonder if you can spend some time there, just listening to the small running streams and the rustling of the leaves.

Your guide will definitely make you click a picture of these trees forming a big heart in the sky
Your guide will definitely make you click a picture of these trees forming a big heart in the sky

A dried up stream running through the forest, most streams in the region are seasonal
A dried up stream running through the forest, most streams in the region are seasonal

Moss covered trunk
Moss covered trunk

A fallen trunk with roots and branches wrapped around it
A fallen trunk with roots and branches wrapped around it

A horizontal tree trunk serving as a bridge
A horizontal tree trunk serving as a bridge

Ritualistic sacrificial altar

Inside the forest is an area designated for ritualistic sacrifice. In years gone by, a bull was paraded to this altar and sacrificed to please the gods. It was believed that the gods were pleased with the people, if a leopard was spotted in the forest at the time of sacrifice, and displeased, if a snake showed up.

The ritual is not carried out any longer. Most of the Khasi people have now turned to Christianity and adopted a different way of life.

The altar for sacrifice
The altar for sacrifice

The altar for sacrifice
The altar for sacrifice

Khasi language and script

Traditionally the Khasi language had no script and the traditions were passed on orally. The Khasi people have now adopted Roman script for their language. You can see that the boards with instructions written in English and Khasi, both using the Roman script.

David Scott Trail

After walking through the Sacred forest, I hiked through the David Scott trail until Cherrapunji. It is 16km long trail that ends 12km from Cherrapunji. John, my guide told me how the people still live in villages. A Khasi man, above the age of twenty, can contest the village elections in his native village to become the chief. The David Scott trail is scenic with plenty of ferns along the way and your guide will certainly weave you one of those beautiful headgear of the Khasi people.

Views along the David Scott trail
Views along the David Scott trail

Along the trek, you would come across a stone bridge, built by David Scott, about which it is said that no adherent has been used to hold the stones together. If you remove a single key stone, the whole bridge would come undone.

The bridge built by David Scott, no adherent was used to glue those stones together
The bridge built by David Scott, no adherent was used to glue those stones together

Music

This post exploring Khasi culture in Meghalaya would be lacking if I don’t mention Khasi music. It is an intrinsic part of culture and people spend their evenings playing music. Take some time out to visit the You and I cafe in Shillong, a not for profit cafe. It is decorated in the traditional style and musicians play Khasi music.

Living root bridges

My account of exploring Khasi culture in Meghalaya would be incomplete without mentioning the living root bridges that are made by intertwining the roots of the rubber fig trees by the Khasi people so that they may cross rivers. The bridges can take decades to form and can last as long as the trees from whose roots they are built. To read the detailed account of root bridges, follow the link below:

The double-decker living root bridge in Nongriat
The double-decker living root bridge in Nongriat

Don Bosco museum, Shillong

To know more about the Khasi people, you can go to the Don Bosco museum in Shillong to learn about the tribes of North Eastern India. The museum showcases the types of houses that people live in, their weapons and their artifacts and musical instruments. This information helped me in writing this blog post exploring Khasi culture in Meghalaya.

Practical information

You can read my blog post Meghalaya-a glimpse of the Khasi hills for all the practical information on how to reach, modes of transportation and approximate pricing.

I would be visiting Meghalaya again soon and focus on documenting the lives of the people there more extensively but I hope that this article exploring Khasi culture in Meghalaya has at least given you a peek into the life of the people belonging to the Khasi tribe.

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