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ETHNONYMS: Cassia, Cossyah, Kasia, Kassia, Kassya, Kasya, Khasía, Khasiah, Khassia, Khassu, Khosia, Ki Khási


Identification and Location. The Khasi (who call themselves Ki Khási) live in two districts of Meghalaya State, India (21°10 to 26°05 N, 90°47 to 92°52 E), an area of some 16,000 square kilometers. This region is home to Several Mon-Khmer-speaking groups. The Khasi themselves live in the upland center of this large area. The Khasi designation for the Khasi Hills section is Ka Ri Khásí and that of the Jaintia Hills section is Ka Ri Synten. Other matrilineal and Mon-Khmer-speaking groups found in this region include the Lyngngams (Lynngam) who occupy the western part of the area, the Bhois who inhabit the north-central Region, the Wars who occupy the district's southern expanse, and the Jaintia (also called Pnar or Synteng) in the Southeast of the region.

Demography. According to P. R. T. Gurdon, who first studied the Khasi in 1901, the total population then numbered 176,614. Their number had risen to 463,869 by 1971.

Linguistic Affiliation. The Khasi speak a Mon-Khmer Language (belonging to the Austroasiatic Family). Khasi is believed to form a link between related languages in central India and the Mon-Khmer languages of Southeast Asia. While dialectal variation may be noted within different Villages, the major Khasi dialects are Khasi, Jaintia, Lyngngam, and War.

History and Cultural Relations

In the mid-sixteenth century there were twenty-five separate Khasi chiefdoms along with the separate kingdom of Jaintia. Before the arrival of the British, the Jaintia were vassals to a Series of dominant kingdoms from the thirteenth to the eighteenth centuries (e.g., the Kachari, Koch, and Ahom). At the beginning of the sixteenth century Jaintia rule was extended to Sylhet and this marked the beginning of Brahman influence on the Jaintia. The annexation of Sylhet in 1835 (instigated by the seizing of British subjects for human sacrifice) preceded the subjugation of the Khasi states by some twenty or more years. By 1860, the British had annexed all of the Jaintia Hills region and imposed taxes on it as a part of British India. The Khasi states had limited cultural relations before the arrival of the British, characterized in large part by internal warfare Between villages and states and raiding and trading in the Sylhet and Brahmaputra valleys. The incorporation of the markets at Sylhet into the British colonial economy in 1765 marked the beginning of Khasi subjugation. Khasi raids in the 1790s led to the rise of British fortifications in the foothills and an eventual embargo on Khasi-produced goods in Sylhet markets. In 1837 the construction of a road through Nongkhaw State linking Calcutta to the Brahmaputra Valley led to the eventual cessation of Khasi-British hostilities, and by 1862 treaties between the British and all of the Khasi states (allowing Khasi autonomy and freedom from British taxation) were signed. A significant amount of cultural change (e.g., an increase in wealth, Decline of traditional culture, rise in educational standards, and frequent intermarriage) occurred after the British made Shillong the capital of Assam. In 1947 there was constituted an autonomous tribal area responsible to Assam's governor as an agent of the president of India. However, the native state system with its various functionaries remains intact, and Khasis now have their own state, Meghalaya, in which they predominate.


Khasi villages are built a little below the tops of hills in small depressions to protect against storms and high winds, with houses built in close proximity to one another. In addition to individual houses, family tombs and memorial stones (mawbynna ) are located within confines or nearby. Internal division of the village based on wealth does not obtain; rich and poor live side by side. Sacred groves are located near the Village between the brow of the hill and the leeward side, where the village's tutelary deity is worshiped. Pigs wander freely through a village, and some villages (e.g., those of the high plateau) also feature potato gardens protected by dry dikes and hedges. Narrow streets connect houses and stone steps lead up to individual houses. The upper portion of a Khasi Village may be as much as 100 meters higher in elevation than the lower portion. A village site is rarely changed. The typical Khasi house is a shell-shaped building with three rooms: the shynghup (porch for storage); the nengpei (center room for cooking and sitting) ; and the rumpei (inner room for sleeping) . The homes of wealthy Khasi are more modern, having iron roofs, chimneys, glass windows, and doors. Some have European-style homes and furniture. A marketplace is located outside a Khasi village (close to memorial stones, by a river or under a group of trees, depending on the region). Within Khasi villages one may find a number of public buildings, Christian churches, and schools.


Subsistence and Commercial Activities. Cultivation is the major Khasi subsistence activity and the family farm (managed by a single family with or without the assistance of outside labor) is the basic operating unit in crop production. The Khasi are multioccupational and their economy is market-based. Marketing societies exist to facilitate trade and to provide aid in times of personal need. Crops are produced for consumption and trade. There are four types of land utilized for cultivation: forest; wet paddy land (hali or pynthor ) ; homestead land (ka 'dew kyper ); and high grass land (ka ri lum or ka ri phlang ). Forest land is cleared by cutting trees, burning them, and planting seeds with hoes in the ground thus fertilized (jhum agriculture). Paddy land in valleys is Divided into compartments by banks and flooded by irrigation channels. Proper soil consistency is obtained by using cattle and hoes. Crops produced by the Khasi include vegetables, pulses, sugarcane, maize, rice, potatoes, millet, pineapples, Job's tears, bay leaves, yams, tapioca, cotton, oranges, and betel nuts. Other crops known in the region include turmeric, ginger, pumpkins, gourds, eggplants, chilies, and sesame. The Khasi also engage in other subsistence activities such as fishing (by poisoning or with rod and line), bird snaring (quail, partridge, lapwings, coots, and wild geese), hunting (deer, wild dogs, wolves, bears, leopards, and tigers), and the raising of goats (for sacrifice), cattle (cows and oxen for manure, field cultivation, and dairy products), pigs, dogs, and hens (for sacrifice), chickens and ducks (largely for eggs), and bees (for larvae, wax, and honey).

Industrial Arts. Industrial specialization by village obtains to some extent among the Khasi, but generally they practice a great diversity of industrial arts. Cottage industries and industrial arts include cane and bamboo work, blacksmithing, tailoring, handloom weaving and spinning, cocoon rearing, lac production, stonecutting, brick making, jewelry making, pottery making, iron smelting, and beekeeping. Manufactured goods include: woven cloth, coarse cotton, randia cloth, quilts (made of beaten and woven tree bark), hoes, plowshares, billhooks, axes, silver work, miscellaneous implements of husbandry, netted bags (of pineapple fiber), pottery (made without the use of the potter's wheel), mats, baskets, rope and string, gunpowder, brass cooking utensils, bows, arrows, swords, spears, and shields.

Trade. Trade takes place between villages, with the plains areas, and between highland and lowland areas. Barter (though to a lesser extent now) and currency are the media of exchange. There are local markets (village-based) in addition to a large central market in Shillong, and a large portion of Khasi produce is exported. Within a typical Khasi market one may find the following for sale: bees, rice beer, rice, millet, beans, sugarcane, fish, potatoes, oranges, lemons, mangoes, breadfruit, pepper, bananas, cinnamon, goats, sheep, cattle (live and slaughtered), and housing and cultivation products (roofing grass, cut beams, bamboo poles, latticework, dried cow manure, spades, baskets, bamboo drinking cups, gourd bottles, wooden mortars, water pipes made of coconut, clay pipe bowls, iron pots, and earthen dishes). Large markets, like Shillong, contain goods from foreign markets (e.g., from Europe).

Division of Labor. Men clear land, perform jhum agriculture, handle cattle, and engage in metalworking and woodworking. Women weave cloth, act as vendors in the market, and are responsible in large part for the socialization of Children. Women are credited with being the growers of provisions sold at market. Men also participate in market activities by selling articles which they manufacture and produce (e.g., ironwork), raise (e.g., goats, sheep), or catch (e.g., birds). They also bring provisions to women at market and exercise some degree of control over the market by acting as accountants. For example, a husband may be responsible to his own family (by working the fields for his wife) while at the same time keeping his sister's mercantile accounts. A woman's uncle, brother, or son may function in a similar capacity on her behalf, though this is more likely to be the case if the woman's business is on a large scale.

Land Tenure. There are four kinds of public land: ka ri raj (Crown lands) ; ka ri lyngdoh (priestly lands) ; ki shong (village lands for the production of thatching grass, firewood, etc.); and ki 'lawkyntang (sacred groves). There are two types of private land: ri-kur (land owned by a clan) and ri-kynti (land owned by families or acquired; it is inherited by a woman from her mother or is acquired by a man or a woman). Ancestral land must always be owned by a woman. Men may cultivate the land, but the produce must be carried to the house of the mother who divides it among the members of her family. Usually, if a man obtains land, upon his death it is inherited by his mother (i.e., if he is unmarried). There is, however, a provision made for a man to will land acquired after marriage to his children.


Kin Groups and Descent. The Khasi are a well-known instance of matriliny. The maximal matrilineage among them is the clan (called kur or jaid ). The Khasi speak of a family of great-grandchildren of one great-grandmother (thus, four generations) as shi kpoh (one womb). Clans trace descent from ancestresses or kiaw (grandmothers) who are called ki lawbei-tynrai (grandmothers of the root, i.e., of the clan tree). In some instances the actual name of the ancestress survives. She is revered greatly and her descendants are called shi kur (one clan). Below this division are the subclan or kpoh (as already mentioned, descendants of one great-grandmother) and the iing (house or family), usually made up of a grandmother, her daughters, and her daughters' children. Together these are said to be shi iing (one house).

Kinship Terminology. Kinship terminology employed for first cousins follows the Iroquois pattern.

Marriage and Family

Marriage. The Khasi are, for the most part, monogamous. Their social organization does not favor other forms of Marriage; therefore, deviation from this norm is quite rare. Marriage is a purely civil contract. The ceremony consists of a betrothal, the pouring of a libation to the clan's first maternal ancestor, the taking of food from the same plate, and the taking of the bride to the house of the groom's mother where a ring is placed on the bride's finger by her mother-in-law. Males are between the ages of 18 and 35 when they marry, while women's ages range from 13 to 18. Although parentally arranged marriages do occur, this does not appear to be the preferred form. Young men and women are permitted considerable freedom in the choice of mates and in premarital Sexual relations. Potential marriage partners are likely to have been acquainted before betrothal. Once a man has selected his desired spouse, he reports his choice to his parents. They then secure the services of a male relative (or other male unrelated to the family) to make the arrangements with the female's family (provided that the man's parent's agree with his choice). The parents of the woman ascertain her wishes and if she agrees to the arrangement her parents check to make Certain that the man to be wed is not a member of their clan (since Khasi clans are exogamous, marital partners may not be from the same clan). If this is satisfactory, then omens are taken. If the omens are favorable, then a wedding date is set, but if the omens are negative, the wedding plans are abandoned. Divorce is frequent (with causes ranging from incompatibility to lack of offspring) and easily obtainable. This ceremony consists of the husband handing the wife 5 cowries or paisa which the wife then hands back to her husband along with 5 of her own. The husband then throws these away or gives them to a village elder who throws them away. According to Gurdon, postmarital residence is matrilocal, with the husband and wife leaving the wife's mother's residence after the birth of one or two children. C. Nakane makes a further distinction between two types of marriages, the first being marriage to an heiress, the second marriage to a nonheiress. The type of marriage is, for Nakane, the determining factor in marital residence. This practice is the result of rules and regulations governing inheritance and property ownership. These rules are themselves related to the structure of the Khasi iing. In short, postmarital residence when an heiress is involved must be uxorilocal, while postmarital residence when a nonheiress is involved is neolocal. Khasi men prefer to marry a nonheiress because it will allow them to form independent family units somewhat immune to pressures from the wife's kin. A Khasi man returns to his iing upon the death of his spouse (if she is an heiress). If she is not an heiress, he may remain with his children if they are not too young and if he plans to marry his wife's younger sister. Marriage to a deceased wife's elder sister is prohibited. This is the only form of the sororate found among the Khasi. The levirate does not obtain in Khasi society. It has been suggested that the increasing monetization of the Khasi economy and availability of jobs for men beyond village confines may have altered postmarital residence patterns.

Domestic Unit. Around the turn of the century, the basic Khasi domestic unit was a single household made up of a grandmother, her daughters, and her daughters' children (the grandmother being the head of the household during her lifetime). In mid-century, Nakane distinguished between four types of Khasi households: (1) a household comprised of wife, husband, their children, and wife's unmarried sisters and brothers; (2) a household composed of nearly all the iing members (but not including their spouses) or a larger Household (including wives and husbands) that contains all descendants of three or more generations from one woman (in which case the iing corresponds to the kpoh); (3) an intermediate type of household, between types 1 and 2, that is popular among newly married couples before the birth of children, in which a husband is supposed to live in the wife's house but often returns to his sister's house for meals and to sleep, and in which the husband is responsible for working his wife's fields and may also work those of his mother and sister; and (4) one nuclear family unit (usually when the man marries a nonheiress). According to Nakane, most Khasi households are of types 1,3, and 4. All three types are usually found in one Village. Type 2 was prominent at one time among the Jaintias.

Inheritance. With regard to real property, inheritance goes to the youngest daughter of the deceased mother and upon the youngest daughter's death in turn to her youngest daughter. Other daughters are entitled to a smaller share of the inheritance of their mother, but the largest share goes to the youngest daughter. When the mother has no daughters, the inheritance goes to her sister's youngest daughter. If the sister has no daughters, then the mother's sisters and their female kin receive the inheritance. Men are prohibited from Inheriting real property. All property acquired by a man before marriage belongs to his mother. Property acquired by him after marriage belongs to his wife and children. Of these Children, the youngest daughter will receive the largest share of the inheritance upon the death of the man's wife. If the man has no daughters, then his sons receive his property upon the death of their mother. Christian conversion has had and may continue to have a deleterious effect on the Khasi system of inheritance. Khasi heiresses who converted to Christianity lost their right to inherit at one time in Khasi social history. With the gradual acceptance of Christianity, these rights were restored. However, there is a tendency for heiresses who convert to Christianity to discontinue their sacerdotal functions within the family. It has been suggested that this may threaten the institution of ultimogeniture. It has also been suggested that the availability of nonland-based employment for males may undermine the economic basis of matrilineal inheritance.

Socialization. Naming occurs one day after birth. Family activities center on the performance of religious rites, management of family property, and the maintenance and protection of kin relations. Men, women, and children participate fully in these and other labor-related activities. Women, However, are the chief agents of socialization.

Sociopolitical Organization

Social Organization. Khasi villages tend to be endogamous units, each one containing a number of matrilineal clans (kur). Members of these clans trace their descent from a common female ancestor. Solidarity is manifest largely on this level of social organization. There are three class-defined lineagesnobles, commoners, and slaves. Elderly men and men of importance wear turbans as a sign of status, and men who have sponsored a great feast may wear silver armlets above the elbows. Wealth can be demonstrated in a number of ways, including the size of the mawbynna (monument) one has constructed at the burial site of a deceased person and the ownership of decorative gongs (wiang ). In some sense, the lyngdohship (priesthood) may also be treated as a sign of status. The matrilineal clan is perhaps the most important primary institution. The position of women is more prominent than that of men. As member of a clan, a man will be lost to his mother's clan when he marries, his status shifting from that of u kur (brother) in his clan to that of u shong ka (begetter) in his wife's clan. He is not allowed to participate in the religious observances of his wife's clan and when he dies he is not buried in his wife's family tomb. Women also assume leadership in secondary institutions (e.g., religion) as evidenced by their management of the family cults and the performance of its attendant rituals.

Political Organization. The Khasi state system arose originally from the voluntary association of villages or groups thereof. The head of state is the siem (chief). He has limited monarchical powers. He may perform certain acts without the approval of his durbar (an executive council over which he presides). He also possesses judicial powers. Those who sit on the durbar are called mantris. These individuals are charged with the actual management of the state. Some states have officials called sirdars (village headmen) who collect labor, receive pynsuk (gratification) for the siem, and settle local cases. In Nongstoin there is an official called a lyngskor who acts as supervisor of a number of sirdars. In most states the siem is the religious and secular head of state. He conducts certain public religious ceremonies, consults oracles and acts as judge (the durbar being the jury) in legal cases, and in times past was the literal head of the army in battle. The siem was chosen by popular election in Langrim, Bhoval, and Nobosohpoh states. The British attempted to impose this system on all Khasi states but the results of their efforts were questionable. Little was accomplished save the confirmation of an electoral body that itself elected the siem. Succession to siemship is always through the female side. A new siem is elected from a siem family (of which there is one in every state) by an electoral body that may be composed of representatives from certain priestly and nonpriestly clans, village headmen, and basams (market supervisors).

Social Control. Interpersonal tensions, domestic disagreements, and interclan disputes account for the major part of conflict within Khasi society. Other sources include the swearing of false oaths, incest, revenge, conversions to other religions, failure to maintain the family religious cults, adultery, rape, arson, and sorcery. Social control is maintained by clan, village, state, and national authorities. The traditional means used to maintain order included exile, monetary fines, curses, disinheritance, enforced servitude, imprisonment, capital punishment, confinement (e.g., in the stocks), imposition of fetters, and confinement to a bamboo platform under which chilies were burnt.

Conflict. Conflict between states and regions (e.g., Between the Khasi and the peoples of the plains) was prevalent before the arrival of the British. The taking of heads (associated with the worship of the war god U Syngkai Bamon) was also practiced by the Khasi. In their conflict with British Imperial forces, the Khasi relied heavily on ambush and guerrilla tactics. Little is known of traditional Khasi contacts with other groups.

Religion and Expressive Culture

Religious Beliefs. Christian missionary work among the Khasi began in the late nineteenth century with the efforts of the Welsh Calvinistic Methodist mission. The effects of their endeavors and those of other Christian bodies have been considerable. Today over half of all Khasis have adopted Christianity. The missionary impact may be noted on almost all levels of culture. However, the core of traditional Khasi religious beliefs remains intact. The Khasi believe in a creator god (U Blei Nong-thaw) who is considered feminine in gender (Ka lei Synshar). She is invoked when sacrifices are offered and during times of trouble. The propitiation of good and evil spirits is also part of this system, as is the worship of ancestors. The following major spirits are worshiped: Ulei Muluk (god of the state); Ulei Umtang (god of drinking water and cooking water); Ulei Longspah (god of wealth); and O Ryngkew or U Basa Shnong (tutelary deity of the village).

Religious Practitioners. The propitiation of the spirits is carried out by the lyngdoh (priest) or by old men knowledgeable in the art of necromancy. Other practitioners include the soh-blei and soh-blah (male functionaries with limited sacerdotal functions), the ka soh-blei, also called ka-soh-sla or kalyngdoh (female priests who must be present at the offering of all sacrifices), and the nongkhan (diviners). The lyngdohwho is always appointed from a special priestly clan, who holds his office for life, and who may be one of several within a stateis the chief functionary of the communal cults. He also has certain duties in conjunction with marital laws and household exorcism. In some states, the lyngdoh subsumes the responsibilities of siem (chief) and rules with the assistance of a council of elders. The duty of performing family ceremonies is the sole responsibility of the head of the family or clan who usually fulfills them through the agency of the kni (maternal uncle). Female priests must assist at all sacrifices and, in fact, are the only functionaries in possession of full sacerdotal authority. The lyngdoh exercises his duties as appointed agent of the ka soh-blei (female priest). It is believed that this system is an archaic survival from a period in Khasi history when the female priest acted as her own agent in the offering of sacrifice. In some states (e.g., Nongkrem), there is a high priestess who functions sacerdotally and as head of state. She delegates temporal responsibilities to a son or nephew who then exercises them as a siem. The adoption of Christianity by a large segment of Khasi society has resulted in important changes. The sacerdotal function of the youngest daughter (responsible, in traditional Khasi culture, for conducting burial services on behalf of her parents and for acting as chief practitioner of the family cult) has been threatened by Christian teaching and practice (i.e., the youngest daughter, if a Christian, is less likely to fulfill her priestly responsibilities to her family).

Ceremonies. Dancing and music are important parts of Khasi ritual, and the Nongkrem Dance (part of the pom-blang or goat-killing ceremony) is the major festival on the Khasi calendar. It is dedicated to Ka lei Synshar, for the ruling of the Khasi. Its purpose is to ensure substantial crop yield and good fortune for the state. It is held in late spring (usually in May). A number of state and communal rituals are also performed, in addition to many ceremonies associated with the human life cycle (birth, marriage, death, etc.).

Arts. Examples of decorative art include metal gongs (with animal engravings), implements of warfare (arrows, spears, bows, and shields), and memorial slabs (with engravings). To a limited extent woodwork, jewelry, and other industrial manufactures may be so classified. Music is an important part of Khasi religious ceremonies (both communal and clanrelated), hunting expeditions, and athletic events (e.g., archery contests). Musical forms include extemporaneous verse that is said to resemble, in form and content, magicoreligious incantations. Drums, guitars, wooden pipes and flutes, metal cymbals, and various harps are among the instruments used in Khasi musical performance. As was mentioned previously, dancing also accompanies most ceremonies in public and private life. With regard to literature, a considerable body of oral and written material exists. This includes proverbs, myths, legends, folktales, songs, and agricultural sayings.

Medicine, In traditional Khasi medical practice Magicoreligious means are used to prevent and treat sickness. The only indigenous drugs used are chiretta (a febrifuge of the Gentianaceae orderSwertia chirata ) and wormwood. Native medical specialists are not present. Generally illness is believed to be caused by one or more spirits as a result of a human act of omission. Health, within this system, can be restored only by the propitiation of the spirits or, if the spirits are not able to be appeased, by calling on other spirits for assistance. Divination is done by breaking an egg and "reading" the resulting signs.

Death and Afterlife. In Khasi eschatology, those who die and have proper funeral ceremonies performed on their behalf go to the house (or garden) of God, which is filled with betel-palm groves. Here they enjoy a state of endless bliss. Those who do not receive proper burial are believed to roam the Earth in the form of animals, birds, and insects. This idea of soul transmigration is believed to have been borrowed from Hindu theology. Unlike Christian eschatology, that of the Khasi is not characterized by a belief in any form of eternal punishment after death.


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