The Khasi Indigenous Faith
By Esther Syiem
The Khasis are people indigenous to the Khasi and Jaiñtia Hills, (Meghalaya) and to the adjoining plains of Kamrup and Nagoan in the North (Assam) and Sylhet regions (Bangladesh) in the South. Their main habitat lies between 25o1’ and 26o5’ North Latitude and 90o47’ and 92o52’ East Longitude. The total Khasi population in 1991 was approximately 1 million people (inclusive of the Khasi population in Bangladesh). Unlike in the neighbouring states of Nagaland and Mizoram, in Meghalaya, the conversion into Christianity that took place in the late nineteenth century was a little less than seventy percent. Hence the indigenous faith has strong adherents even today. There have been adaptations and changes in some ceremonies and rituals, but the underlying philosophy has remained the same.
The creation myth of the Khasis runs like this:
God who had created earth and her husband, and who had given them the children they asked for, placed seven families on Earth and nine in Heaven. The seven he placed on the rngi (sunny) side of Lum Sohpet Bneng where food was always in plentiful supply. At the beginning the seven families kept their promise to God, in which the Divine Decree that was given to them by Him, became the ruling principle of their lives. They were in touch with the nine families above through the Jingkieng Ksiar or the Golden Ladder that He had made for them.
The children of the seven families, of hynñiew trep hynñiew skum tilled the soil diligently and lived in harmony with their clansmen above, going up and down the jingkieng ksiar. God had also planted the diengϊei or the ϊei tree as reminder of their promise to Him. However, one day Sormoh and Sorphin two children of hynñiew trep hynñiew skum met a creature not of their world, who pointed to the imminent danger of the Ïei tree covering all of earth with its expanding foliage.
Sormoh and Sorphin, who had fallen under the influence of this creature, passed on their fears to the others who, before long decided to cut down the offending tree. Every man was called upon to bring his axe to cut it down. After a gruelling day of trying to hack the tree down they returned home in the evening only to continue with their self-appointed task in the morning. When they came back the next day they found that the tree had healed itself almost miraculously. This continued for several days until a little bird, a phreit happened upon them and told them of a tiger that came every night to lick the cut to make the tree whole again. The only solution it explained to them was to place their axes with their sharpened end outwards so that when the tiger came to lick the tree its tongue would be cut off. Sure enough this was what happened. It was now only a matter of time before the tree was felled.
We are told that when the tree was felled, Lum Sohpet Bneng receded from heaven and the children of hynñiew trep hynñiew skum found themselves irreversibly cut off from God and the other nine families above. This tale has a specific place in Khasi religion and culture in which the Divine Decree, said to have been imparted by God to the seven families who made the earth their home helped them carry on with the task of rebuilding their lives.
Thus the philosophy of Khasi religion is reflected in the common dictum: tip briew tip Blei; kamai ϊa ka hok; and tip kur tip kha commonly known as the Divine Decree. It lays the foundation of a society that must take into account the interpenetration of the physical with the extra-physical. Its brevity may easily be mistaken for simplicity but it does not allow reduction to a few simplistic norms.
To be tip briew tip Blei is to be informed of the hierarchies of knowledge and the existence of a world order that places human beings above all other creatures. Knowing man in the sense of recognising and respecting another, places the individual on the right course. The ability to know God results in a shared sense of community that weaves society together.
To kamai ϊa ka hok has the dual implication of following a work-ethic that, over and above everything else that is material, emphasises completely upon the working for or the earning of truth in this life. The stress is upon integrity and a disciplined sense of righteousness that has to be maintained at all times.
To be tip kur tip kha is an important dictum in Khasi society. Being matrilineal, lineage is traced from the mother; responsibility, hence, lies with the mother to identify relatives to her children such as the paternal and maternal relations that literally extend the family’s roof, ban ϊar u tnum u tyndai. Paternal relations, ki kñia kha, beginning with the paternal grandmother, hold special respect as they give the children rooted consciousness of who they are and where they belong: a full sense of themselves. The cardinal virtue of knowing one’s paternal and maternal relations is that the taboo of incest and intra-clan marriage may be pre-empted. The social norms and values that spring from this dictum establish a society that upholds the sanctity of familial values.
These are the three cornerstones of Khasi thought around which is structured the entire world-view of the Khasi. In as much as the fireplace or the hearth is symbolic of domestic stability which in turn is an important attribute of society, the three maxims are the three symbolic corner-stones that make up the fireplace. It is at this intersection of the domestic and the social that the religious finds proper definition. Within the ambit of Khasi life, religion as such is not a separate institution presided over by a religious functionary. Khasi religion is clan-based Ka Niam kur and the clan elder acts as the mediator between his clan and God; hence his significance within the Khasi household. In the various clans or kur, prayers, rituals, and sacrifices were usually performed by the eldest maternal uncle of the clan. His esteem within the clan and, consequently, within society, depends on his ability to negotiate the social and the spiritual, the physical and the metaphysical. Whatever rituals there are to be performed, these are usually clan-specific.
Khasi culture has always upheld the existence of one supreme deity, U Blei Nongbuh Nongthaw, “God the Creator and God the Maker”, and the life concurrent with such a belief. It is a culture that has always preferred to explain its existence in mythic rather than in historic terms. This is connected with the elevation and installation of the oral to a position of centrality as a result of the mythical loss of the written script. (This has reference to another tale in which the messenger lost the script given to him by God). The oral or the spoken word, ka ktien, rationalises the ultimate meaning of existence in a way that is geared towards the preservation of a mystical sense of life, where the rngiew or the aura that radiates from an individual and even the entire community must be kept alive.
The rngiew speaks of an inner force that is difficult to conceal. In maturity it is almost tangible and is a natural protection against all negative influences. Even a child may possess a strong rngiew or be eh rngiew and, therefore, prove able to withstand the suppressive forces that may threaten him/her. Giving a child a name is the first step towards empowering its rngiew.
Three epithets have been used to describe God: U Blei, U Trai Kynrad, U Bastad; God the Maker, the Master, the All-Knowing One. And it is always at the altar (there are no temples as such but a sanctified space may be created within a family home or public place invoked by prayer) of U Blei that the elder, sometimes the priest called in from the priestly family, or as is the case now the shaman, invokes empowerment for the performance of his sanctified duty. With God above and supplicating humankind below, prayers and rituals for different occasions follow strictly according to the occasion.
Some indigenous beliefs, customs and practices still exercise a strong hold upon Christians; what is considered religious truth by the follower of the indigenous faith maybe considered myth for others. But by and large both Christian and follower of the Khasi faith have been able to overcome the differences that brought a rift at the start of the 20th century, which was the cause for the evolution of Khasi literature and thought.
Esther Syiem is Professor of English Literature at the North-Eastern Hill University, Shillong. She has been involved in the study of Khasi folk literature for more than a decade and has written on Khasi folklore, myth, and history. A bilingual writer and established poet, some of her publications include two collections of poetry: Oral Scriptings and Of Wit and Wisdom of Follies and Frailties. Other works include The Languages of Meghalaya (with G. N. Devy), Race of the Rivers, Oral Discourse in Khasi Folk Narrative, and a play in Khasi, Ka Nam. She has published with Orient Blackswan, Tulika, Easternbook Publishers and Writer’s Workshop.
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