A mixed up ‘Khasi’ reflects on his ancestry

I am an individual of mixed ancestry and I have often wondered where my ancestors came from. Who were they? Where did they come from? What of their culture?

These questions had kept me awake my entire childhood and I never got an answer to them, not even when I earned a Bachelor’s degree in history. My entire life I was taught about the cultural practices and folktales of my mother’s Khasi ancestors but the history of this tribe remained unknown to me. There was a gaping hole in my knowledge that neither school nor college ever attempted to fill.

I was given lessons on Khasi language and folklore in school, but they could hardly be considered rigorous or deep. Instead what was offered to me at my ICSE school was a superficial knowledge, I was taught the Khasi language, poetry and prose and a bit of Folklore but I was never told their significance or historical context. My school history books contained the names of dynasties and rulers of far away and alien lands. No mention was made of the history of the local land.

Even when I joined college, my syllabus of local history began with the arrival of the British with David Scott and ended in the 1970’s. What came before that? Not the professors’ problem. There was an option to teach medieval and ancient North East history but I do believe the professors did not want to touch that with a ten-foot pole so we ignored that portion.

My knowledge of Khasi came from an alternative source outside of the educational institution, in a library, the State Central Library on a warm summer afternoon. I was perusing through the history section when I happened across a book, “Archaeology in North East India” by Jai Prakash Singh and Gautam Sengupta. The book contained the published works of various scholars on the history and archaeological studies done in North East India, the chapter, “Who are the pre-historic dwellers of Meghalaya Plateau?” by Zahid Hussain caught my eye. The theories put out in the chapter quite literally realigned my entire perspective on the Khasi tribe and gave answers to many questions I had about my Khasi ancestors.

In short, the chapter argued that the Khasis were a hybridized ethnicity. According to the author with evidence he had at the time, Khasi were the descendants of Australoids and Mongoloids who had settled on the Meghalaya plateau since Mesolithic and Neolithic times. The theory explained the strange physical features of Khasis which differentiated them from surrounding tribes. Apparently, these two distinct groups of people intermingled and intermarried and gave rise to the unique and distinct ethnic group, the Khasis. The Khasis as a result of their mixed ancestry have features of both Australoids and Mongoloids. The author also presents the shared ancestry of the Khasis and Mundas of the Chota Nagpur Plateau as evidenced by shared cultural practices like cremation of the dead and similarities in language and other things.

Overall the chapter was quite eye-opening and answered a large number of questions I had. Of course, the ideas and theories of one individual may be mistaken but at least someone tried to provide answers. In academia and in history, theories and ideas often get replaced as the evidence changes, but there is at least an attempt to seek answers. Why were such things never taught to us in our school years? I am sure many would find that much more interesting than memorizing the entire list of Mughal rulers. Surely one measly chapter in a tenth-grade history book would not hurt? Perhaps the theory is widely disputed? Perhaps the people who set syllabus did not think it was important?
Whatever the case may be, people have a right to hear both sides of a controversy, considering the importance of the subject matter. Whatever the case, people need to hear about their history. In the absence of open discussion, it leaves the door open to malevolent people to create pseudo history to fulfill some absolutist political aim. History may be scorned and ridiculed of all the humanities but humans have always looked to it to form an identity, a sense of self. We have to change how it is taught and discussed.

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A student in Shillong - a strong believer in democracy, liberty, equality, rationality and secularism. He hopes to fix the world, or die trying.

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