The Khasis as Hindus

Perhaps this article is ill-timed. Perhaps in the current scenario with various Far Right groups actively seeking a Hindutva agenda it is not the best time to be writing things which they could use for their own benefit. This is particularly true after the recent maiden procession carried out by the RSS in Shillong which has evoked so much reaction. However, these events cannot forestall the need for articulation. It waits for no one. With this in the background, I would like to present an argument that has been brooding in my head for a while now.

I have often heard it repeated over and over again especially by the Christian clergy and its fraternity that Khasis were/are not Hindus. They often say, in a very vague language, that essentially we worshipped One God (U Nongbuh U Nongthaw) through His “ambassadors” here on Earth. So in a sense ‘Lei Shyllong and other ancient deities might be suitably placed within a pre-Christian monotheism. This seems contradictory in more than one way. The most obvious is that it seems the Khasis are the only ones who profess this. Other tribes around us who have undoubtedly influenced and been influenced by the Khasis worship multiple gods not a God – these are full framed figures, resplendent in their distinct tribal garb, not simply allusions to a one Universal. This aspect is something we need to interrogate further because this pre-Christian “Christianity (monotheism)” appears to be revisionist. The frequency of the articulation of this idea among the Christians – especially Catholic priests – seems to betray its origins and motives. After all, it is much easier to convert people by drawing comparisons to that which they are already acquainted with: that the introduction of new gods is in reality just a change in nomenclature and ritual, that essentially they have always been worshipping the same God.

I am personally interested in the fact if the Khasis claim to be a matrilineal culture/society, why is U Nongbuh Nongthaw (The Keeper/ Creator) a male deity? Shouldn’t ‘he’ be a ‘she’? I realize that this is not necessarily an air-tight hypothesis but humour me. The Pnars and Bhois, interestingly, seem to place more importance on female divinities – the goddess Riang Khangnoh, goddess Myntdu, goddess Lukhmi are far more popular than any male counterparts. And they are not simply goddesses of the homestead either, they can wonder outside from spring to spring, blessing the families that stay along their path, they can serve as guardians (‘lei khyrdop) protecting Jowai like Myntdu does and they can also guarantee a good harvest like Lukhmi. They seem to have more character, more nuance than the Nongbuh Nongthaw. To simplify the pre-Christian era has been one of the major projects of the missionaries of various faiths. These include the Christians and the Hindus as well. Both have, in their own manner, drawn attention away from the differences and harped on the similarities that were allegedly shared. The Christians have been vague about it while the Hindus have embraced the ‘nitty gritties’ of the idiosyncratic Khasi myth pantheon as their own.

When we talk of Hinduism we have been warned time and again about the dangers of ‘centralizing’ it: that there are, in fact, many Hinduisms. This is a convenient starting point for interrogating the Hindu processes that went on in the Khasi and Jaintia Hills before the coming of Christianity. To simply state and defend the “Khasis were not Hindus” tenet with no evidence except popular belief is bad science. On the contrary, there is substantial material evidence to support the claim that they were, indeed, Hindus. In Syndai, you will find a large Ganesha sculpture – among others – of some age carved into a large rock; the local people call it ‘U Khmi’ (interestingly the word means “earthquake” in Pnar). Dawki has a number of old rock carvings which seem to be influenced by Hindu traditions. Legend has it that the Kamakhya Temple in Assam was originally a sacred Khasi site – a point acknowledged by temple management in publications – where a type of mother goddess supposedly resided. She was called “Ka Mei Kha” by the Khasis, which over time morphed into Kamakhya. The phonological shift is noteworthy. Nartiang and Iale Falls were important locations for Shakti human sacrifices. The former is still an important shrine for pilgrims to visit. Mahadek, also known as Laittyra, was called that because of the presence of a Mahadev temple within the village. Mawsynram still draws a decent number of Hindu pilgrims who suffer the horrible roads in order to perform puja at the mawjymbuin cave, which they consider to be a shiv-ling. Interestingly, these sites are all near borders – either with Assam or Bangladesh. There are undoubtedly other similar sites and shrines throughout these hills and valleys which await re-discovery.

Beyond the ostensible spaces, there are also a number of cultural borrowings that seem to have been directly influenced by Hinduism. This should not surprise (nor anger) us. The North East is basically a land bridge (possibly one of the most important in history). Materials, skills, ideas have flowed through this region for a very long time from East to West and vice versa. The fairly recent isolationism and the subsequent xenophobia should not fool us into believing otherwise. Many important festivals like Behdeinkhlam, Lukhmi have strong links with larger Vedic currents. The references to Lukhmi/Lukhimai are quite clearly to a ‘tribalised’ Lakshmi. During Behdeinkhlam, the rot (tower-like structures made of wood, bamboo) must be cast away after the religious festivities are over. This is interesting because the worship of the (non-Classical) Hindu deity Jagannath (Odisha mostly) also involves similar structures which are called rath (chariot). Note the similar names. The casting away of the rot is akin to the casting away of the idols at Durga Puja after their roles as ‘cleansers’ have been fulfilled. Even the ritualistic animal sacrifices at Shad Pomblang might be re-seen in the light of other festivals like Gadhimai, Bali Jatra and others. When I was to be married, there was some discussion about putting up banana stalks in front of the entry way which is a very common Hindu practice – this in spite of the fact that my in-laws’ household is almost exclusively Christian. This ultimately did not happen but it was interesting nonetheless.

As I had mentioned earlier, this piece might be misconstrued for obvious political purposes. I am not interested in privileging the mainstream Hindu tradition over the ‘smaller’ traditions. Further, I hope the reader does not think that I am attempting to locate a “centre” from which all Hindu authority stems out of (which is what Hindutva groups seek). This automatically assumes the position that the ‘tribal’ people are always the ones who “take” ideas and concepts and divorces them of a knowing and conscious exchange with Hindu “missionaries”, maybe even resistance. The control room is not in Gujarat, Maharashtra or Ayodhya. If anything, we see the reverse, that in fact, Hinduism has always been shifting and ‘de-centering’ itself according to contexts and areas. The question “were/are Khasis, Hindus” is inextricably linked to the notion of who a Hindu is in the first place. The flexible and assimilative nature of Hinduism ensured its success from Cambodia and Bali through to Kabul etc, it spread through a huge geographic expanse. However, this strength, this mutability is also what permits the Far Right groups to go about proclaiming everything and everyone as being Hindu, everything from “proper” religions like Buddhism and Jainism to smaller belief systems like Niam Khasi (Meghalaya), Donyi Polo (Arunachal Pradesh) and Meiteism (Manipur). Their success in redefining the latter practice as their own is something the Niam Khasi followers should be wary of. Ultimately, religion is less important than politics.

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Avner Pariat Written by:

Avner Pariat is a poet and chronicler of Khasi Jaintia Hills.

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