Politics of Religion in Khasi-Jaintia Hills

Haba thet wat kynther ia ki kti ioh pharait ia ki briw da ka um thet
When you wash your hands do not shake the water off too vigorously, you might spray it on others
                                  from Ka Niam jong ki Khasi by Rabon Singh Kharsuka

Let me confess, firstly I am a Khasi by location and one who also subscribes to a pre-written, pre-institutionalised idea of the Khasi niam with a healthy dose of atheist desires. (In this anxiety-driven materialistic world, we need something to cling on to). Nonetheless, that is personal. But most importantly in these days of Arnab Goswami-led binaries, I must also admit that I do not subscribe to any political positions, left or right. I am interested in how forces or patrons of culture facilitate its dissemination. Since time immemorial custodians of culture and politics have always played dual roles.

Let us look at our recent past. The attempt to put into paper the Khasi language was by K. C. Pal from the Serampore Mission. He adapted the Bengali script and his first translations were from the Bible. Unfortunately, most people thought that all those Bengali characters on paper would make them go blind. Nonetheless, the saying remains, “U ‘ko’ bad u ‘kho’ u kiew nyngkong ha Shella”. Thomas Jones eventually put it down on paper adapting the Roman script into Khasi. Indeed he worked hard at it, charged by ideas of Welsh Methodism and Moravian principles which did not favour the functioning of the East India Company in Cherrapunjee. He did not last long. He was accused for working against the interest of the East India company, and even inciting the people to rebel against the British. He died in 1849 in Calcutta fleeing from the Khasi hills.

Meanwhile, a few year later, trouble was brewing in the Jaintia hills. The house tax was introduced. Brigadier General G.D Showers who was the Commissioner of the ‘Cossiah and Jyntia hills’ had called the Jaintia Hills – the rudest state of ‘civilization’ and which was then caught in the middle of rebellion. The Dalois and Pators were removed for misconduct and the first Jaintia rebellion of 1860 was quashed. This was two years after Jeebon Roy Mairom joined work for the East India Company. Roy worked as a writer and interpreter for General Showers. The Income Tax was introduced in 1861. The second Jaintia rebellion broke out in 1862.

Rabon Singh Kharsuka’s detailed description on Khasi religion was first published in 1889 in a Khasi monthly paper ‘U Nongkit Khubor’ (the first Khasi newspaper edited by William Williams in 1889 of the Presbyterian Church). Kharsuka worked for the government in Shillong but retired to Mawmluh, his ancestral village to work in a school for meager pay. In 1911, he wrote ‘Ka Kitab Niam Khein Ki Khasi’. By then he had reconverted to niam Khasi.

Interestingly, another book with almost the same title “Ka Niam jong ki Khasi” Jeebon Roy (dated 10th February 1897), mentions his desire to write about the religions of all the people who inhabited the Ri Khasi and Synteng especially in times when Presbytery, Catholic, Unitary, Brahmo religions were taking over the Khasi religion but due to his lack of time, he persuaded his friends to contribute writings and he himself would publish and edit them. He retired as an Extra Assistant Commissioner after serving the East Jingsneng TymmenIndia Company until the late 1890s. Jeebon Roy was the founder of the first printing press in this part of the world in 1895, two years before the great earthquake of 1897. Upon his retirement from the EIC he also took up limestone businesses. The quarries were already leased by the Syiem of Sohra to the East India Company for Re.1 pa. For his entrepreneurial and literary contributions, he is considered the “Father of the Modern Khasis”. He also translated Mit-Upodesa (Parts I and II), The Ramayana and Chaitanya. But Jeebon Roy is remembered more so for his contributions to the Seng Khasi and the creation of a press that mostly distributed niam Khasi books.

On the 23 November 1899, sixteen young men got together in the Brahmo Samaj Hall at Mawhkhar to form the Seng Khasi. Most of these men would attend lectures conducted by the Brahmo Samaj (not the Arya Samaj) where they would be taught and educated ideas of the Brahmo Samaj. Among them was Radhon Singh Berry Kharwanlang (not to be mistaken for Rabon Singh Kharsuka) who in 1886, help set up a Brahmo Samaj Mandir in Mawkhar. He wrote ‘Ka Jingsneng Tymmen (1902)’.

The sixteen young men who were architects of the Seng Khasi had Roy’s second youngest son Chandranath Roy as its first secretary. There are no records of this selection process. If political hegemony created rebellions, cultural hegemony did indeed create more interesting names. Nonetheless, the first Seng Kut Snem of November 1899 held at the Brahmo Samaj Hall at Mawkhar was celebrated with much enthusiasm. It was then the first concrete building belonging to a Aheet Ali. The purpose of the Seng Khasi was primarily to unite all the Khasis who were not converted or influenced by other religions. Finally, the Seng Khasi acquired a place of its own at Mawhkar. Hajom Kissor Singh donated a considerable amount of Rs 300 towards the purchase while Jeebon donated Rs 430. Hajom Kissor Singh is today remembered as the leader of the Unitarian church movement in the region.

Hajom Kissor Singh
Hajom Kissor Singh

Over a period of time, the women organisation of the Seng Khasi was started in 1941 with Kong Helimon Diengdoh as the first president and in 1980 the Seng Khasi became the first tribal organization from India to be the member of the International Association of Religious Freedom (I.A.R.F). Rev. Deither Gehrmann, the General Secretary of the IARF in his letter dated 1980 conveyed that “It is with great pleasure that I can report to you: the recommendation of the Executive Committee on Associate Membership of the Seng Khasi was received and unanimously accepted by the council”. In 1981 Hipshon Roy Kharshiing and H.O.Mawrie represented Seng Khasi in the 24th Congress of IARF held in Netherlands. That same year, the Seng Khihlang was founded by H.O. Mawrie. Mawrie studied theology at Serampur College (whose mission was to impart education to students of every “caste, colour or country”). The location of the college was a Danish colony then and free from direct British Imperial control till 1857).

But just as gardens grow flowers, spaces also nurture ideologies. In H. O. Mawries book, ‘Ka Seng Khih Lang’ (March 15th,1998) he states “When you reach Shangpung in the Jaintia area, do not forget to ask where the Imperials shot down the Doloi Giri”. He leaves no answer as to how it happened but I am tempted to ask, was he the victim of the rebellion during the house tax or the income tax in the 1860s? Were any double agents responsible for this tragic event? And upon answering that, can we say that even the Khasi niam was also appropriated to a liberal theology interpretation within itself?

Indeed there was a an attempt by the Welsh missionaries and other Christian denominations to consider indigenous practices of the Khasis as barbaric. This primitive mumbo jumbo is only meant for stages and travelling freak and variety shows in the market places of civilized nations. Hygiene, sanitation, English language, western clothing were benchmarks of civility and nobility and even till the late 1980’s certain members of church were ostracized for playing ‘traditional’ instruments. Now these ‘traditional instruments’ are part of almost every church singing activity. The desire by the ‘natives’ themselves to create new church culture and not just restrict themselves to age old hymns and the organ is an interesting area to look into. On the other hand some representatives of other Christian denominations have always been more open to ideas of syncretisation. Some even indicating that there was mention of a grand Khasi durbar in the Bible. Interestingly enough photos of priviledged ‘enlightened’ Khasi men both of the niam Khasi or Christian converts who were producing Niam Khasi literature or paraded as ‘Mission fruits’ around the late 1800s always had an air of Victorian sophistication about them. I was hoping I’d find photos of them adorned in a jymphong and jainboh with thuia and spong but no luck.

But let us turn back to the present now. I usually do not read newspapers because I have almost turned sceptic. You cannot blame anyone for this position in this age of corporate media and the Orwellian reality we now live in. I do however like to go through the page three of the vernaculars. This for me is the ultimate test of one’s vocabulary and skill of the language. You see in these pages, you will find translations of page three articles from all around the world by local editors. Now that is skill. Recently though, an article surfaced that related to the contents of the book “Ki Dienjat ki Longshwa”  by Fr. Bacchiarello by Seng Khasi Mawsynram. frbachiarelloThis looked interesting. The article said that the book should be discontinued from the Meghalaya Board of Secondary Education MBOSE for “allegedly showing in poor light the culture and beliefs of the Khasis”. It also “demanded” the state government (Congress) to remove the book completely or “to at least remove chapters 4, 12, 14, 17, 21, 24, 25, 49, 50, 51, 52 and 53. My first guess was that this was a publicity stunt by the publishers and the Seng Khasi Mawsynram to boost sales. I tried three shops and all of them had run out of copies. Eventually an old teacher got me the book and upon scanning the contents page, I noticed that poor Fr. Bacchiarello declares rather humbly in 7th January 1974 -“These lessons do not aim at a past or a science and most of them have come to my knowledge through previous Khasi writers and I hope school children will benefit from it…from the beginning itself I have mentioned that I do not get any proceeds from the sale…” Now this requires a little investigation.

Let us examine these chapters. Chapter 4 – Ka jinpynlong ia ka Pyrthei bad u Briew – Puriskam (The creation of the world and the body – a fable), a syncretic attempt at the Diengiei story and the creation of the world by God, which as a disclaimer, should it slip into the creation and evolution argument, Fr. Bacchiarello has already said was a ‘puriskam’ – a fable, a legend. Chapter 12 – Ka jingkha ia u Jisu Krist (The birth of Christ). There is no mention from Fr. Bacchiarello if this was a ‘puriskam’. Chapter 14 – Ka riam shad Khasi (The dress of the Khasis during the dance) by an anonymous contributor called Uba Tip Pateng 1902. Chapter 17 – Ka jingduwai Knia (The incantations during Knia) which interestingly is a transcription by Rabon Singh Kharsuka from Mawmluh dated 11th June 1897. The same writer mentioned above who also wrote ‘Ka Kitab Niam Khein Ki Khasi’ in 1911. Chapter 21- Shaphang U Blei, About God, (another syncretic attempt invoking Khasi progenitors which interestingly opens a debate of whether Khasis practice ancestral worship). Chapter 24- U Syiar Khraw Jutang (The Rooster’s grand vow), Chapter 25 – Haba don ka mon hangta ka lynti ka don (When there is a will, there is a way), Chapter 49- Iaroh ia u Blei (Praise be to God) Chapter 50 – Ka rukom niam jer Khun (The child naming ceremony), Chapter 51- Kaba knia pylleng syiar (Auguries through the egg) Chapter 52 Khublei (Thank-you), Chapter 53 Ki Mawbynna, Ki Mawniam bad ki Kor (Monoliths, religious stones and memorial stones) by Sr. P. Kharakor. Please keep in mind that at this stage, there is no attempt at a linguistic analysis of the titles and I am only making a rough translation for lack of space in the article. I’ll begin by saying that I studied this book while I was in school. It was an all boys Catholic school in Shillong (whose motto ironically is the same as the Suffragettes). Certain chapters were not taught including: The birth of Christ, to keep in mind the secular values of the school but in my free time, I did read them and it exposed me to another world. Now I am old enough to make opinions on matters based on what I have exposed myself to. I do not praise the chapters of the book either. To be trivial, there are punctuation errors, spelling mistakes and most importantly this glorification of the past that ‘subjects’ of colonies indulge too liberally. Nonetheless, they are entertaining and I would still suggest it to friends as a tongue in cheek, ready reckoner series into Khasi polity. Similary, Khasi religious books that invoke a grand past do the same (because where else does the idea of sanctity originate from?) But the lack of objectivity and the reluctance to accept the past not as a moment but a situation that came about through multiple events and consequences is what is problematic – almost Sophocolean at its best and I am reminded of Samuel Butler (iconoclastic Victorian-era English author)

“A blind man knows he cannot see, and is glad to be led, though it be by

a dog; but he that is blind in his understanding, which is the worst

blindness of all, believes he sees as the best, and scorns a guide”

Indeed what is even more sinister with this “demand to remove completely” DKL is that it is not governed by any idea or logic leave alone reason. Instead it complicates the matter by suggesting that the syllabus should introduce the Vedas and the Ramayana. So say should a hypothetical situation arise and the Ramayana is introduced in schools as part of the curriculum as suggested by Seng Khasi Mawsynram, it would be interesting to see whose version of the Ramayana represents things more accurately and is more relevant to the Khasis. Will it be Bah Lesli Harding Pde’s version from 2011 whose translation was encouraged by the Catholic church or will it be Jeebon Roy Mairoms’s version encouraged by his continuous efforts in serving the East India company and the Khasi people among others or do we have to learn it in Sanskrit? I feel there is some other hand at play here and I think we should assert our geopolitical identity and say we will not be bulldozed by neo-colonial forces that attempt to homogenise India. Just as the East India Company realised that it’s agents and its government at the end of the day were outsiders in India, their presence in the near future would be determined only by the participation of local supporters who would acted as double agents between them and the people, contemporary neo-imperial political positions also adopt the same- disguised as philanthropist who also need support of the local population to extend their electoral position and to create new political allies in the upcoming elections and eventually assert a Hindutva India. But there is hope and as the Khasi saying (not-writing) goes ‘Wad te phin sa shem, trud te phin sa mong‘ (search and you will find, scratch and you will be bruised). So in this simple profiling of the author of DKL as an ‘other’ – an ‘Arnab Goswami’sque binary attempt at ‘us and them’ arises, putting all these people in simple boxes on multiple screens and plucking out a few seconds of their lives to fulfill a greater nationalist agenda. Which is as bad as the profiling that led to racist attacks in Shillong in 1987, 1992 and most recently in 2013.Khasi Lanot Shillong Taxi

But being a subject of some form of colonisation today I will also conjure hope. Perhaps the true wisdom of our Khasi ancestors lies in the fact that they realise Khasi religion as a fluid oral philosophy and might have foreseen the problems that would arise once it is put in text and institutionalised. Perhaps they knew that the understanding of ‘Kamai la ka hok’, ‘Tip briew tip Blei’ and ‘Tip kur tip kha’ derived meaning from practice and not study and hence there was no need for it to be written. Similarly if traditions fade away, one should firstly question, debate, argue their functionality and relevance and not merely resort to putting them on stages at every festival in a superficial attempt to preserve them. In most cases, the context creates, the performance represents and sometimes in today’s world the corporate dictates as in the case of the cellular service provider TV ad in Umiam.

So has history changed then is my question? Aren’t the masses still misused and brainwashed by the powers that be who control the means of disseminating information and who can forge bonds across their immediate Khasi identity with other power structures from outside their geographic space so that they can determine the political future of the Khasis? Only time will tell. But before I finish, let me leave you with my favourite Khasi puriskam. When the great dance occurred, the sun and the moon did not have a partner. So the Sun danced with the Moon. Everyone laughed at them. Sad and upset, she ran away and hid in a cave. There was no more sun, no more light. Darkness encapsulated everything. The rooster martyred itself to fetch the sun. In return, he was decked with the most beautiful gold and silver and expensive cloth because prior to this, he was a mere ‘lymboit lymbiang’ – a naked worthy less creature. This explains the roosters beautiful plumes today. Henceforth, it became the roosters divine duty to fetch the sun every morning. Let us ensure the roosters plumes keep its many hues in these times of saffronisation. To Ngin iai Kamai la ka Hok. Shi Hajar Nguh. Khublei. Happy Shad Suk Mynsiem.

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Wanphrang Diengdoh Written by:

Wanphrang Diengdoh is a filmmaker who has made award winning films like 19/87 (with Dondor Lyngdoh) & Where the Clouds End. He is also a musician of Shillong's pathbreaking politico-punk band Tarik. His work can be seen at www.reddur.com

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