Introduction

Hidden away in the subtle hills of eastern sub-Himalayas is Meghalaya, one of India’s most beautiful state. It is a land blessed with bountiful rainfall, sunshine, virgin forests, high plateaus, breathtaking waterfalls, clear rivers and meandering streams; a land of ancient cultures where the people are smart, intelligent and friendly.

In Sanskrit, Meghalaya means ‘the abode of clouds’ and signifies the state’s rightful claim as being the wettest place in the planet. Most of the state is covered by vast expanses of tropical primary forests and flourishing with biodiversity of plants, mammals, birds, reptiles and insects. Some of the small pockets of forests are known as ‘sacred groves’ which have been preserved since ancient times by local communities due to religious and cultural significances.

Three ancient tribes inhabit the land and live a free autonomous lifestyle which allows for their practices to be preserved. While the Khasis and Jaintas come from the ancient lineage of Proto Austroloid Monkhmer race who are considered one of the first settlers in India and reside in the Khasi and Jainta Hills, the Garos belong to the Tibetan-Burman race and reside in the Garo Hills. Fascinatingly, the cultures of Meghalaya have a matrilineal society where inheritance and lineage is passed on to women. In his observations, anthropologist David Roy notes this aspect as “a man is the defender of the woman, but the woman is the keeper of his trust”. Agriculture is the predominant source of livelihood of the people but other sources include mineral based industries, forestry, horticulture and cottage houses that promote traditional arts and crafts. The flowers of Meghalaya are renowned around the world and in recent years approach to organic and sustainable farming of various produces has been exceptionally promoted in the state.

The fascinating close relationship that can be observed when humans live alongside and in tune to the natural environment can be observed in the lifestyles of the people of Meghalaya. From creating sacred forests to building bridges out of living roots, beliefs in forest spirits and stone monoliths, some of the most cleanest villages to be found in Asia, an approach to an attitude to be as compassionate and benevolent as nature, Meghalaya delights with plenty of secrets for travelers who seek an adventure off the beaten path.

Culture

Meghalaya is home to three indigenous tribes, the Khasis, the Jaintas and the Garos. The three tribes live in distinct parts of the state; the Jaintas occupy the Jainta Hills of eastern Meghalaya, the Khasis occupy the Khasi Hills of central Meghalaya while the Garos reside in the western Garo Hills. The Khasis and Jaintas along with the Bhois and Wars are collectively known as the Hynniewtrep people. Belonging to the Proro Austroloid Monkhmer race, they are one of the earliest ethnic group of settlers of the Indian sub-continent. The Garos who prefer to call themselves as Achiks and their land as Achikland, belong to the Bodo family of the Tibeto-Burman race and are believed to have migrated from Tibet.

The people of Meghalaya predominantly follow a matrilineal system where lineage and inheritance are passed through women of a family, where remarkably the youngest daughter inherits all the property and cares for aged parents and unmarried siblings. When there is no daughter in a family it is not unusual for the parents to choose another female such as a daughter in law as the heir to the house and all their possessions. It is worth mentioning that Meghalaya has one of the world’s largest surviving matrilineal culture.‍‏

As per tradition, the Khasis believe that their religion is given by God and is based on the belief of one supreme God who is the creator U Blei Nongthaw. A Khasi is a deeply religious person with an intense love of live. He believes that life is God’s greatest gift and is accounted for in the hereafter. The Jaintias have the same religion but have been also influenced by Hinduism. The Garos too believe in one supreme creator Rabuga who is the sustainer and commander of the world. Other spirits act as his representative, are appeased by sacrifices but never worshipped. The village headman remains the religious head of a community. Though many from the tribes have today converted to Christianity, the ways of the ancients still remain a part of lifestyle and culture.

The Khasi and Jaintia tribes are particularly fond of songs that praise their land and nature; their landscape of hills, lakes and waterfalls. The Garo songs are folk related, dedicated to marriage, birth, festivals, love and serious deeds. The state also has a liking for western music with many rock bands that perform over the country and hosts major concerts of popular national and international artists.

Weaving is an ancient craft of the three tribes, used on both cloth and cane. Cane mats, stools and baskets are famous. The Khasi cane mat called Tlieng can last for around 30 years. Musical instruments like mouth organ, flute and cup violin are also made from cane and bamboo, along with other indigenous products such as tobacco pipe and tribal weapons. The people of Meghalaya are majorly into agriculture, growing common crops such as rice, maize, potato, jute, mesta, cotton, areca nut, ginger, turmeric, betel leaf and black pepper along with fruits such as orange pineapple, lemon, guava, jackfruit and bananas. Arts and crafts are also a popular occupation which preserves their ancient knowledge. In recent years, horticulture has been promoted with an approach to sustainable organic farming resulting in making some of Meghalaya’s flower the best in the world. However, it is to be noted that rampant illegal and unscientific coal mining is prevalent in the state which is a growing threat to locals and environment.

Festivals

Nongkrem

Nongkrem Dance Festival (held annually in November) is a five day festival which is celebrated for the harvest thanksgiving by the Khasi tribe. The Nongkrem Dance is the most important festival of the Khyrim state. The festival is associated mostly with goat sacrifice and is held at Smit, which is around 15 kilometres to the southwest of Shillong.

Wangala

Wangala or the harvest Festival runs for two days. The festival is dedicated to the sun god of fertility. Wangala is the greatest traditional festival of Garo tribes, who live in Meghalaya, India, Assam and Greater Mymensingh in Bangladesh. The tribes celebrate this festival at every harvesting period in late autumn. The festival falls during the second week of November each year. 

Behdienkhlam

Behdienkhalm Festival is celebrated by the people from Jaintia Tribe of Meghalaya. The festival is the most celebrated religious festival among the Jaintia tribe. Behdienkhlam is celebrated to chase away the Demon of Cholera. This festival is celebrated annually in July after the sowing period. This festival is also celebrated for seeking blessings of god for a bumper harvest.