KHASI CULTURE AND SOCIETY
Marbhador M. Khymdeit
“Culture… is that complex whole which includes knowledge, belief, art,
morals, law custom and other capabilities and habits acquired by man as
a member of society”
Edward Burnett Tylor (1832-1917)
The Khasis are absolutely different from all other hill-tribes inhabiting in this region,
such as the Garos, the Karbis, the Mizos, the Nagas, the Tiwas and other various tribes of North
East India. These tribes are either Tibeto-Burman or Kuki-Chin stock, while the Khasis belongs
to the Mon-Khmer group of Austro Asiatic language family. The Khasi community consists of
the following sub-groups such as the Khynriam, the Pnar, the Bhoi, the War, the Maram and the
It is very difficult to trace the early settlement of the Khasis since they have no written
records, i.e. before the advent of the British their history is not well documented. According to
one of their own tradition, the Khasis came from the North and North-East from the Districts of
Nogaon, Lumding and Halflong, on the borders of the present habitat. Linguists and others
however, points to the East rather than to the North as the route of their migration. Their folklore
and oral tradition that tells about their supernatural origins, giving a section of Khasi intellectual
the belief that they are autochthons of the land1. The Khasi myth about U Sohpetbneng validates
the belief that the Khasis had made their first settlement on these hills. Oral tradition had it that
the Khasis belongs to the Khathynriew Trep Khathynriew Skum (Sixteen Huts) and their abode
was heaven. Ka Hukum (the Mother Decree), after an appeal from Ka Ramew (nature), send the
Hynniew Trep (the Khasis) to this world and to look after it. It is also belief that the Khasis came
into this world through the Jingkieng Ksiar (Golden Ladder) and according to the myth, it was on
this Sohpetbneng peak that the Khasis as a group had made their first settlement.
However, in course of time, the Seven Huts on earth commit sin and so the bridge was
disconnected, a split took place bifurcating the group into ‘Nine Above’ and the ‘Seven Below’.
The Khasis remains separated and no longer shuttle between earth and heaven at will, nor could
they converse with God.
.Singh K.S,(ed.) 1994, People of Meghalaya Volume XXXII, p.17,
It is generally believed that the Khasis were one of the first tribal groups who have
migrated from somewhere in the South-East to the Brahmaputra valley where they resided before
entering the hills. According to the Khasi migration tale, it is believed that before the Khasis
reached the present region of settlement i.e ‘Ri Hynniew Trep’, their ancestors had travelled a
long journey of ‘Khatar snem lynti’ (a twelve years journey). This ‘twelve years journey’ is in
question of whether it signifies that the Khasi came from somewhere faraway land or does the
motif of Khatar snem lynti refers to the extend of their existence as a unique community and that
throughout many generations they have been able to maintain their own culture and identity.
Regarding the origin of the Khasis, Gurdon writes, “The origin of the Khasis is a vague
question. Although it is likely that the Khasis have inhabited their present abode for a
considerable period, there seems to be a fairly general belief amongst them that that they
originated from somewhere…”2. The present linguistics researchers’ show that Khasi form a
group of the Mon-Khmer language which belongs to an Austro-Asiatic type. J.R.Logan in
1850-57 discovered an intimate relation between Khasi and the Mon-khmer-Palaung dialects
which prevail in Burma and Indo-China and again this group is connected with a larger family
consist of Santal, Munda and Kurku. In 1891, Hugh Roberts pointed out that although the Khasi
are similar in their outlook with the other tribes of North East India like the Garos, Kukis, Lushai,
Manipuri and Naga but their relations in language are not so. In 1981, G.A.Grierson in
LinguisticSurvey of India, Vol.II, 1904, also asserts that the Khasi language belongs to the
The introduction of the Roman scripts for the Khasis by Thomas Jones in 1841 was a
great contribution which enables the Khasis to record and preserve their oral tradition. The Khasi
literature has grown and flourished since then..
Khasi culture and society has undergone some changes due to the influence from other
cultures, religion and people. But in spite of these changes there are many indigenous traits which
remained outstanding features. Some of these traits are language, clan, traditional political
system, kinship, marriage, religion and its folklore.
The Khasi- Jaintia people were grouped into clans. The clan system of the Khasis is
unique in character. Each clan (kur) claimed to have a primeval ancestress called ‘Ka Iawbei
Tynrai’or the first grandmother. A sub clan is called ‘Shi kpoh’ (one womb). The smaller division
of the clan is the family (ïing). Clans and sub clans, having a common ancestry cannot marry
within the ‘kur’ and ‘kpoh’. Certain clans have religious functions like the Lyngdohs (priest). The
Khasi society is generally egalitarian but certain families alone may offer its male member for the
Gurdon P.R.T, 1907 (1987) The Khasis, p.10
office of chief (syiems) in the Khasi states (hima). “There is a hierarchical ranking in the hima as
with state officials (Basans), nobles (Bakhraws), priests (Lyngdohs), ministers (Lyngskors),
electing and regulating the activity of the hima, syiems, lyngdohs, headmen (sirdars) and a
confederacy of four chiefs (Wahadadars)”.3 The importance of the clan cannot be undermined or
ignored because it determines the relationship of its members; it affects inheritance and descent,
wealth and property, marriage, death and every sphere of activity.
The other prominent feature of the Khasi culture and society is its traditional political
system. In Khasi political system, a village is a unit for political administration. A clan or a
conglomeration of clans form a village, a conglomeration of villages form a Raid and a
conglomeration of Raids together form a Hima or state or Syiemships or Dolloiships. The Khasi
practices a direct democracy long back before many nations of today declared themselves to be
democracies. The village dorbars or councils remain powerful till date. A noteworthy feature of
the dorbar was the manner in which the Khasi conduct their parliamentary debate. The decorum
maintained at the dorbar of Hima Nongkhlaw during the time of U Tirot Sing Syiem cause David
Scott to frankly admit that the inhabitants of the most civilized nation could not have displayed
better insight. Though women are regarded as custodian but they are traditionally not
participating in any local dorbar or council as they are not entrusted with any administrative
function. It is because women are give custody of the family property and so men are entrusted
with the task of protecting the community and to engage in warfare if necessary and to rule. This
indicates the fact that women do not rule, though the society follows a matrilineal system.
The kinship system of the Khasi is very elaborate and the kinship terms are strictly
adhered to, it can be said that it is different from other Indian societies. The Khasi kinship system
is based on ‘Ka Tip Kur Ka Tip Kha’. It is clan exogamy. Members who belong to the father’s
side are respected, whether young or old, as they are ‘Ki Nongai Nongsei Rynieng’4, the maternal
uncles as they are ‘Ki Nongbtin lynti, Ki Nongduwai phirat bad KiNongsaid –Nongthew’5 U
Lyngdoh Kur (Clan Priest) of life and death in the field of rites and ritual6. In Khasi society,
contrary to the mistaken idea of the non-Khasi that women rule, one find man’s double role or
double honoured. In his sister’s home he is ‘U Kni ha ka iap ka im’ or an uncle to counsel, guide
his niece and nephew. He is also helping in the performance of the religious rites and ceremonies
Bareh.H,(ed.), 2001, Encyclopaedia of North-East, vol.iv, p.254
Ki Nongai Nongsei Rynieng’: The giver of life and stature.
‘Ki Nongbtin lynti, Ki Nongduwai phirat bad Ki Nongsaid –Nongthew’: The communicators, the diviners,
and the pleaders.
Synrem, H.K, 1992, Revivalism in Khasi Society, p.33
like birth, death and others requiring such performance. In his wife’s house he is ‘U Kpa u ba lah
ba ïai meaning a father to uphold, support and maintain. The misconception that the Khasi
women rule arose out of the presumption that the youngest daughter is the heiress of the
undivided property of the parents and of a clan. But in the Khasi social structure men and women
are equal and have their separate role to play. Broadly speaking, men for the field and women for
home. The youngest daughter is not the heiress but she is a custodian of the undivided under the
management and control of the maternal uncle. She stays in the house of the parents where her
elder brothers and sisters who have set up homes of their own can come back and stays if they
happen to fall on bad days. One could observed that the kinship system of the Khasis intertwine
with religion, political administration and the society.
Marriage among the Khasis has both religious and social aspects. The Khasis practices
both duolocal and matrilocal residence, since they follow the matrilineal society. The most
remarkable feature of the Khasi marriage is that it is usual for the husband to live with his wife in
his mother-in- law’s house, and not for him to take his bride home as in the case of other
communities7. But this means or refers only to those who marry the youngest daughter of the
family, whereas those who married to elder daughters cannot live in the bride’s mother’s house.
So, theirs is a duolocal residence. There are many cases of virilocal residence also and neolocal is
common among them.
Marriage between members of a clan is a taboo, forbidden and as sin unforgivable or a
social crime, which is locally known as ‘Ka Sang’. Monogamy is the role among the people.
Cross cousin marriage is not allowed, and it is an incest taboo to marry near relatives of the
father’s clan or relatives whom the father calls brothers, sisters and mother. The typical Khasi
marriage is one in which the couple chooses their partner, in which is motivated by personal
preference rather than family considerations. For the Non-Christians, marriage is purely a civil
contract. For the Christians, marriage is a sacrament. The rule of exogamy and endogamy prevail
in spite of the onslaught of Christianity.
There two are types of marriage ceremonies prevalent amongst the Khasis, all of which
took place in the bride’s home. The most esteemed and respectable type is known as ‘Ka
Pynhiarsynjat’, and the other one is known as ‘Ka Lamdoh’. The first type of marriage,
‘Pynhiarsynjat’ is a very complicated and elaborate form of marriage, which involves the
sacrifice of pigs. The second type of marriage, ‘Lamdoh’ or ‘Taking Meat’ is the simplest form of
marriage where there is no sacrifice, pork being brought from market for the feast. Further, it
consists of recitation of the marriage formula by a priest, accompanied by the drinking of distilled
rice beer. This ceremony was popular only among the poorest in the community because it was
the simplest and involved the least expense. Divorce amongst the Khasis is common and is by
mutual consent. It is a simple ritual performed in the presence of witness followed by a public
announcement by the village crier. Remarriage after the divorce is frequent among men and
The Khasi follow their own traditional religion professed by indigenous inhabitants. The
Khasis believe in one God, but called him with different names. The Khasis believe that God is
omnipotent, omnipresent and omniscient. Accordingly, they hold it a sacrilege to symbolize God
or to picture him in any shape or form. The Khasi have no temples, churches or synagogues, God
is everywhere. They also have no saints or martyrs or any system of established priesthood, for
their creed is that each man must save himself by his own deeds and behaviour, obeying God’s
commandment enable them to join the Nine above. They are monotheistic, but they invoke God
by various names according to their need of the moment. They also have no fixed days of
congregational worship, like Sunday of the Christian, Friday of the Muslim or the Sabbath of the
Jews. The three tenets of the Khasis traditional religion are the following:-
1) Kamai ia ka Hok (to earn righteousness): the importance of this commandment is the
primacy of righteous life which the Khasi should follow in their life’s journey on earth. To live
righteous life is not only to speak the truth and act justly but in his very thought and wishes as
2) Tipbriew-tipblei (to serve human being and God): ‘tip’ in this context means ‘to serve’
the meaning of this commandment is that a man can only serve God when he serve his
fellowmen.Serving one’s fellow men connotes performing of one’s duty to them, which is to be
good, kind and helpful to one and all; not to cause harm or injury to any one for self interest or
pleasure. No one could serve God whom he could not see if one could not serve his fellowmen
whom he could see with his naked eyes.
3) Tip kur-tip kha : the word ‘tip’ in this context means ‘to respect’, ‘Kur’ means
maternal relation or clan and ‘Kha’ means paternal relation. So it means to respect relations of
both maternal and paternal.
The Khasi society has a rich repertoire of dances performed on various occasions. Their
dances could be classify in many ways but in this article it is not possible to classify and
described all the dances, so the two main dances will be discussed as follows;
Ka Shadsuk Mynsiem or thanks giving dance
Ka Shad Suk Mynsiem which is also known as the Weiking dance was organized by the
Seng Khasi in 1911. The Seng Khasi is a socio-cultural cum religious body of the Khasis for the
protection, preservation and to revive their traditional culture, custom usage and social system
structure that seem to be in a state of disappearing by the influence of western culture since the
advent of the British. There was a time when the Khasis was almost in a state of a bull with a
pierce nose that blindly followed the misleading of the Christian missionaries and simultaneously
neglected their own culture. It was under the leadership of Jeebon Roy Mairon that the Seng
Khasi was formed in 1899 and it is because of this organization that this misunderstanding of its
own culture was clear off from the mind of the Khasis.
The work of the Seng Khasi has spread rapidly reaching to all over the Khasi and Jaintia
hills forming its branches in almost every part of these hills and till today there are about 200
branches of the Seng Khasi. Last but not the least, to mention, the Seng Khasi started its first visit
to the Sohpetbneng hill to offer prayers to God the creator on the 20th February 19908.
Since 1911, Ka Shad Suk Mynsiem became the Khasi festival dance which is celebrated
every year in the spring season as the season signifies prosperity and the brand new start of life.
The dance is associated with the agricultural cycle i.e. the harvesting period and the beginning of
the sowing period. The dance is usually held for three days but the special day is the culmination
day. In this dance all Khasi from different place ignoring their religion could take part. It is noted
that only the unmarried or virgin female dancers are allowed to participate in this dance while
their male counterparts do not have any such restriction. Before the dance is to be started, they
performed a ritual to appeal to God and giving thanks for showering prosperity to them, there
after the dancer goes to the Weiking field and start performing the dance.
The male and female dress in their ceremonial attire, dance separately in two circle- the
female dances occupying the inner circle where as the male dancers cover the outer circle. A band
of musicians playing varieties of drums, flute and cymbals sit in a corner outside the dancing
The young virgins while dancing gaze fixed on the ground and make a minimum body
movement. Their hands hangs loose from shoulders, they keep their body straight. They move
their toes bit by bit forward and backward. The movement of the male dancers is in contrast with
the movement of the female dancers. The male dancers on the outer circle go round the female
circle in a very swift and galloping movement. They change their pace and style of dance
according to the rhythm of music.
Ka Kaiphod of the Souvenir of the Seng Khasi by Rgh. O. P. Swer,
Ka Shad Nongkrem:
Ka Shad Nongkrem or Nongkrem dance is similar in content and style to Ka Shad Suk
Mynsiem. It is performed annually in the autumn with the consent of the Syiem of Khyrim, who
follows the indigenous religion of the Khasi to commemorate the memory of the founder
ancestors of the Hima. This dance is also known as the Pomblang Nongkrem. The function is
held in Smit. The dance is the culmination of a week long programme of rituals and conference
held in the official residence of the Syiem. Some rituals related with this dance like prayer or
thanks giving for the welfare of subjects of the Hima are performed, they also appeal and
supplicate that God will help them in the economic progress and development of the Hima.
The Hima Khyrim has immensely contributed for the preservation of this Syiem homage
dance. All the rituals related with this dance are the homage paid by the Raids that falls under the
Khyrim Syiemship. In this dance, different Raids bring goats and these goats go as the offering
for the rituals.
Culture is the process and so there is an expectation of changing in some or other traits
of it. It is because culture goes together with time and time makes the culture to change so that it
will cope up with the new generation. Culture which remains continuity brings some changes and
the culture that remains stagnant seem to be a dying culture. The Khasi culture has been severely
and tremendously change because of its collision with others culture
In present Khasi society, father is the head of the family and the maternal uncle remains
the head of clan. Some of the Khasis also practice patrilineal system. This system follows or
occurred when the family has no daughter. So, patrilineal system has to be adopted for
The clan system of the Khasi remains unchanged though organization like Ka Syngkhong
Rympei Thymmai (SRT) appeared to alter the process of claiming the surname. This organization
is of the opinion that a surname should be claim from the father instead of mother. The
organization stands on the ground that the Khasi matrilineal system is the drawbacks of the Khasi
society in all spheres ranging from economic development to social awareness. On the other
hand, most of the Khasis were against its view because the Khasi clan system is the backbone of
its society. Within a clan, there is a relationship which fastens its members; it affects inheritance
and descent, wealth and property, marriage, death and every sphere of activity. Some of the Khasi
males who marry the non-Khasi, their offspring follow their father surname by giving the initial
like ‘Khar’ and followed by their father’s surname (for e.g. if the surname of the father is
‘Mawlong’ his offspring surname will be ‘Kharmawlong’). The word ‘Khar’ means ‘u dkhar’ or
non-Khasi. This kind of clan sanctity is maintain and followed till date. Another changes that
happens for the sanctity of a new clan is that, a new title of a clan is given by omitting the word
‘khar’ and the title of the father.
Concerning the inheritance or descent of property, most of the non-Khasi presumes that
the youngest or the Khatduh is the sole descendant of the family property but some Khasi
families equally distributed the property to their children, irrespective of the eldest or youngest.
Many Khasi stands firm on equal inheritance of property for sons and daughters. Thus, the
descent of inheritance of property among the Khasi has also change.
With the advent of the democracy, the Khasi village durbar has also change in many
ways. Women who were allowed to participate in the parliamentary debate of durbar, they are
also permitted even to elect their Rangbah Shnong or Headman. Women also have their own sub-
governing body within the village administration which is known as the Seng Longkmie or Seng
Kynthei. These Seng Longkmie play a vital role in the village administrative functions and they
are coming out participating in politics.
In the present society about three fourth of the Khasi are professed Christian of various
denominations, and the Christian population appears to be increasing , not only because of those
born in a Christian but also because of the new converts.
Bareh, H.M. (ed.), 2001, Encyclopaedia of North-East, vol.iv, Meghalaya, New Delhi. Mittal
Gurdon, P.R.T, 1907 (1987) The Khasis, New Delhi, Cosmo Publications.
Singh K.S, (ed.) 1994, People of Meghalaya, Volume XXXII, p.17, Calcutta, Anthropological
Survey of India,
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