In Langscape Magazine Articles

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

    August 24, 2021

    WORDS Raynold Lyngdoh

    IMAGES Raynold and Anne 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 about 12m, 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

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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 rights 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

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    Although the majority of the population in the area 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, Sohra 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. Through years of interaction with their environment, the tribes have come to develop unique methods and practices to make use of the conditions and resources present in their surroundings. Meghalaya was 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.

    Through years of interaction with their environment, the tribes have come to develop unique methods and practices to make use of the conditions and resources present in their surroundings.

    This photo essay 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 continue to face challenges to preserve their unique culture and habitat. It is my hope that projects such as this one 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

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    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.

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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

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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

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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

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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

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    Mawphlang Sacred Grove

    Mawphlang village. Monoliths and sacred forests are an integral part of the heritage and an ever-present backdrop. The monoliths were used to mark a significant event or person. A standing monolith represents an occasion or a man, while a flat laying one represents a woman. The famous Mawphlang Sacred Grove can be seen in the background. Sacred forests are sites that locals will respect, regardless of beliefs, when entering their premises: no cutting of trees, eating the fruits of the forest only within its confines, and so forth. Covering a vast area and intentionally untouched, the sacred groves offer unique insight into the indigenous botanical diversity in Meghalaya. Photo: Raynold Lyngdoh

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    Sacred forests are sites that locals will respect, regardless of beliefs, when entering their premises: no cutting of trees, eating the fruits of the forest only within its confines.

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    Ïewduh (“Main Market”), Shillong

    Ïewduh (“Main Market”), Shillong. A small scene from the oldest and main market 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

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    Meghalaya now has a very egalitarian structure, considering the prestige and respect that has been accorded to women traditionally.

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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

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    Living bridges stand as a testament to the unique interaction between people and nature in Meghalaya.

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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 bo0untiful 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

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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

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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

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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

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    E. Weston Dkhar

    Shillong. I incorporated this photo of a book by E. Weston Dkhar, written in the Khasi language, for two reasons: Firstly, to celebrate the fact that Khasi is no longer included in UNESCO’s Atlas of World’s Languages in Danger. I applaud all past and present efforts to preserve and continue our linguistic, cultural, and biological diversity. Secondly, I couldn’t find a more fitting poem than the one on the cover of this book to serve as a reminder of the importance of preserving and being proud of one’s own heritage. The poem translates to “If we should forget our own origins, / To hug and cuddle the attire of others’ ways; / How can we strive to ascend– / As we drown our own humanity!” Photo: Dondor Lyngdoh

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    Watch Ngim Khuslai – No Need to Worry, a video by Insightshare about the Khasi community.

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    Raynold Lyngdoh is a Khasi tribal from Meghalaya, India. As an EthnoRisk practitioner, sociologist, and someone socialized in multicultural environments, his faith lies in the concept of “unity in diversity.” He and his wife, an ethnobotanist from North Dakota, USA, saunter between India and the United States. Together, they champion Indigenous seed-saving practices.