In Langscape Magazine Articles

In the Abode of the Clouds: Biocultural Diversity of Meghalaya, India

August 25, 2015

by Raynold Lyngdoh

Nestled in the more secluded northeastern region of India are several unique tribal groups, each diverse and distinct in their own right. Every group faces immense challenges in maintaining their linguistic and cultural diversity, as globalization and external influences perpetually challenge and erode the age-old traditional practices and knowledge of the people in this region. Additionally, the unique biodiversity of the region is also at stake, as profit-minded entities continually attempt to dislodge the fragile environment in pursuit of “development” projects.

Kynrem falls.

Kynrem falls. Certain locations in Meghalaya can receive an average annual rainfall of around 12 meters, making it the wettest place on earth. The landscape during the monsoon season (June – August) is streaked with waterfalls and swollen rivers. Most of the water flows over the plateau state’s boundaries to neighboring Bangladesh or the low-lying state of Asom (formerly Assam). Unfortunately, water management projects have been slow to develop and significant droughts during the winter months can occur. The government and locals are beginning to make strenuous efforts toward water harvesting. Photo: Raynold Lyngdoh, 2006

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In an overtly entrenched patriarchal country, surprisingly, there exists in Northeast India a state that comprises three tribal groups who ardently continue to practice the matrilineal system. Meghalaya is a hill-station state where the Khasi, Jaiñtia and Garo tribal groups reside. Since time immemorial, these groups have passed down family name, wealth, and land title from mother to daughter. The Khasi and Jaiñtia people are more similar to each other in characteristics and customs, so more often than not they are considered of the same group, particularly by outsiders.

In an overtly entrenched patriarchal country, surprisingly, there exists in Northeast India a state that comprises three tribal groups who ardently continue to practice the matrilineal system.

Being home to one of the only thriving matrilineal groups in the world, the majority of members in the state are fiercely protective of this tradition. They have repeatedly shunned any efforts promoted by, comically enough, local male right groups — akin to a feminist movement — to change the system. Small in number and popularly considered a shame to the society, members of such groups allege that their intention is a manifestation of the ever-increasing need to justify a man’s role in the tribes due to evolving changes. Given the overt modern and external influences seeping into the society, there have been latent and manifest challenges to the matrilineal society, mindset, and customs.

Ammutong village

Ammutong village. Contrary to some reports, women are active participants in the subsistence farming that is the main form of agriculture in the state. Therefore, they are not merely land title holders but work the land in tandem with their male counterparts to meet the family’s needs. Here, women from several households of a village in the Jaiñtia Hills district help the lady in the center to harvest the rice seedlings for transplanting in her fields. They will take turns to assist one another to complete the task in their respective ancestral lands. Photo: Anne Lyngdoh, 2013

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Although the majority of the population has converted to Christianity following the proselytization activities of Welsh and other missionaries from the early nineteenth century, there are a number of people who still practice the traditional Indigenous belief, a form of animism. While various local customs and practices were banned by the Church to its members or adapted to be in line with the Church’s preaching or western thought, traditional knowledge and ways have inadvertently survived the test of time—matrilineal practice being one of them. Furthermore, as local educated Christians realize the importance of preserving their distinctive customs and culture, they are now more willing to attend and participate in traditional ceremonies and festivals, which in previous times might have been in opposition to the Church’s directives.

Meghalaya, meaning “the abode of the clouds,” is a plateau state, aptly named as it lies directly in the path of the southwest monsoon traveling north from the Bay of Bengal to the Himalayas. When the moisture-laden clouds hit the plateau, it results in tremendous amounts of rainfall, such that two locations in the state, Cherrapunjee and Mawsynram, repeatedly vie for the title of “world’s wettest place.” An abundance of rain has also translated into a significant variety of flora and fauna thriving in the region, to the extent that Meghalaya is considered one of the world’s hotspots of biodiversity. The tribes, through years of interaction with their environment, have come to develop unique methods and practices to make use of the conditions and resources present in their surroundings. Meghalaya has been chosen to host the International Terra Madre festival in 2015, an event that seeks to showcase and popularize the traditions, foods, and lifeways of Indigenous communities from around the world.

The following photo narrative is my small effort to give the spotlight to the little-known matrilineal system and its home in Meghalaya, India. With a rich culture and diverse environment, the people of Meghalaya will continue to face challenges to preserve their unique culture and habitat. It is my hope that projects such as this may empower us to be proud of our heritage and offer motivation to seek avenues that aim to support our biocultural diversity. The popular adage that a photo speaks louder than a thousand words might be true, but nothing can compare to the exhilarating experience of coming to visit and supporting a unique location such as Meghalaya!

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Pongkung village

Pongkung village. A male farmer proudly shows the fruits of his family’s labor that will help feed the family for an entire year, while also allowing them to sell some of the rice in the local market. Rice is a staple food for the people of Meghalaya. The husband farms on his wife’s land as he moved to her village after their marriage. Indigenous seed is passed down from mother to daughter in most traditional families, and this practice has promoted the maintenance of a biodiverse seed stock across the state. Photo: Anne Lyngdoh, 2013

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pitcher plant

Jarain and Thangsning villages. The Nepenthes khasiana or carnivorous pitcher plant is a great example of the unique biodiversity of Meghalaya, as it is the only pitcher plant native to India. Apart from thriving in nutrient-poor soil, the plant is also used by traditional herbal practitioners for a variety of illnesses, including ear and eye infections. Photo: Raynold Lyngdoh, 2013

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Khasi herbalists

Jarain and Thangsning villages. Another aspect that ties people to their environment is the manner by which many locals still seek to find their own traditional herbal practitioners to treat ailments. A traditional healer, John Kharduit (center), shows dried local medicinal plants that he uses in his practice to a visiting ethnobotany student from the United Kingdom. Khasi herbalists are renowned and sought after by people from all around the world. Several organizations are starting efforts to preserve this traditional knowledge. Photo: Raynold Lyngdoh, n.d.

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Smit village

Smit village. The food preference in the region varies significantly from the rest of India, as most people are nonvegetarians. Male members of the society are mostly responsible for animal husbandry and the butchering process thereafter. In a typical village, one day of the week is set aside as “market day.” Locals will commute from surrounding areas and bring a variety of produce and meat to sell and purchase. Additionally, various cottage industry wares, including blacksmithing, bamboo works, and pottery are sold at such markets. Photo: Stephanie Lyngdoh, 2008

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orchid

Dawki road. Locals involved in daily wage employment usually supplement their income by collecting flora and fungi from forest areas to sell in the state capital, Shillong. This man, a taxi driver, took the opportunity of a landslide that occurred during the monsoon season to collect a certain species of orchid on the fallen tree, which is prized in the city. He claimed that had the tree not fallen, he would have not collected the orchid. Conservation efforts to educate locals on preserving the diversity of their environment are beginning to take shape. Photo: Raynold Lyngdoh, 2006

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rubber fig tree

Mawlynnong village. An age-old work of purpose and art—and of unintended infamous consequences—the living bridges stand as a testament to the unique interaction between people and nature in Meghalaya. Over hundreds of years, locals have engaged in the practice of taking the young roots of two Ficus elastica (rubber fig) trees and intertwining them over a river (using the aid of bamboo) to form a natural bridge. This particular bridge is found in the village of Mawlynnong, which also once held the esteemed title of “Asia’s Cleanest Village.” Photo: Raynold Lyngdoh 2009

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Ïewduh (“Main Market”), Shillong

Ïewduh Market, Shillong. A small scene from the oldest and main market (ïewduh) in the capital Shillong shows the matrilineal system at play in a significant manner. Unlike the village market setting, in the main market the majority of businesses are run and operated solely by women. Given the external influences that have affected society in the region, and despite the protests of a few men, in my view Meghalaya now has a very egalitarian structure, considering the prestige and respect that has been accorded to women traditionally. Furthermore, while women traditionally wield significant power in family and financial matters, council, tribal, and village affairs and committees are almost exclusively male domains. Photo: Raynold Lyngdoh, 2014

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Ficus elastica

Mawlynnong village. An age-old work of purpose and art—and of unintended infamous consequences—the living bridges stand as a testament to the unique interaction between people and nature in Meghalaya. Over hundreds of years, locals have engaged in the practice of taking the young roots of two Ficus elastica (rubber fig) trees and intertwining them over a river (using the aid of bamboo) to form a natural bridge. This particular bridge is found in the village of Mawlynnong, which also once held the esteemed title of “Asia’s Cleanest Village.” Photo: Raynold Lyngdoh, 2009

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Shad Nongkrem (Dance of Nongkrem)

Smit village. Young people can be seen taking part in an annual traditional ceremony of the Khasi tribe called Shad Nongkrem (Dance of Nongkrem), hosted by the ceremonial King of the Khasi, the Syiem of Hima Khyriem. The dance is reflective of both the matrilineal and patrilineal roles played in the tribe and signifies thanksgiving for a bountiful harvest. Males, particularly the maternal uncle, play a crucial role in the decision-making process of the immediate family and traditionally act as the clan protectors. In this dance, young men wield swords and dance around young women to signify the protection given to them. Also on display during the festival are the varying traditional musical instruments distinct to the tribe. Music is an integral part of the tribes in Meghalaya. Photo: Anne Lyngdoh, 2013

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Shad Nongkrem (Dance of Nongkrem)

Smit village. Young people taking part in the traditional ceremony of the Khasi tribe called Shad Nongkrem (Dance of Nongkrem). Photo: Anne Lyngdoh, 2013

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betel nut

Road to Dawki. Local women are busy sorting out an areca nut (betel nut) harvest to be sold in a local market. Although harmful to health, the habit of chewing the nut with betel leaf and lime (kwai) is such a common practice in the state and in such high demand that the nut is a highly priced commodity. It is not uncommon that kwai would be the first thing offered as a hospitality gesture. The locals even have a unique folk story behind the practice of offering kwai to someone, the premise being that God wanted even the poor to be able to offer something to a guest. Photo: Raynold Lyngdoh, 2006

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citrus indicates

Shillong. In the winter months, compounds across the state are dotted with ripe mandarins. Meghalaya is believed to be one of the places of origin of all cultivated modern citrus fruit. The Indian wild orange, Citrus indica, is considered to be the most “primitive” citrus, the progenitor of all other varieties of citrus in the world, and can only be found in the Garo Hills district of Meghalaya. Such is its esteemed status that the first Citrus Gene Sanctuary in the world has been created in the Nokrek Biosphere Forest Reserve, in the Garo Hills. Photo: Anne Lyngdoh, 2009

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E. Weston Dkhar

Shillong. I incorporated this photo of a book written in the Khasi language for two reasons: firstly, to celebrate the fact that Khasi was recently taken off UNESCO’s Atlas of World’s Languages in Danger. In the task to preserve and continue our linguistic, cultural and biological diversity, I applaud all efforts made in the past and continuing today. Secondly, in a contribution such as this, I couldn’t find a more fitting poem as the one on the cover of this book by E. Weston Dkhar that serves as a reminder of the importance of preserving and being proud of one’s own heritage. Photo: Dondor Lyngdoh, 2015

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Raynold Lyngdoh is a Khasi tribal from Meghalaya, India. As a sociologist, sports enthusiast, and someone educated in a multicultural environment, his faith lies in the concept of “unity in diversity.” He and his wife, an ethnobotanist from North Dakota, USA, are making plans to travel the world to champion Indigenous seed-saving practices.


Further Reading

Ministry of External Affairs (1999). Cityscapes – Shillong [Motion picture]. India: Public Diplomacy Division. Retrieved on 15 March 2015 from https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=vzfxvwOvQcQ

DasGupta, P.K. (1989). Life and Culture of Matrilineal Tribe of Meghalaya. New Delhi: Inter-India Publications.

Gurdon, P. R. T. (1914). The Khasis. London: Macmillan & Co.Retrieved on 10 March 2015 from http://www.gutenberg.org/cache/epub/12786/pg12786.html

Jenkins, N. (1995). Gwalia in Khasia. Gwasg. Llandysul: Gomer Press.

Mawrie, B. L. (2001). The Khasis and Their Natural Environment: A study of the eco-consciousness and eco-spirituality of the Khasis. Shillong: Don Bosco Centre for Indigenous Cultures.

InsightShare (2012). Ngim Khuslai – No Need to Worry [Motion picture]. Retrieved on 15 March 2015 from https://youtu.be/1nNfUxN3Cfs

 

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