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The Khasis as Hindus

Avner Pariat (abner.pariah@gmail.com) is a writer and cameraperson based in Shillong, Meghalaya. 

Hindu religious practices may have influenced present day monotheistic Christinatity prevalent among the Khasis. However the cultural and religious linkages between Hinduism and Christianity in Khasi Hills need to be investigated keeping in mind that there was no defined centre for the Hindu faith and the influence may have been more syncretistic than partisan. 

Perhaps this article is ill-timed. Perhaps in the current scenario with various right wing groups actively seeking a Hindutva agenda it is not the best time to be writing about things which could be used for their own benefit. This is particularly true after the recent procession carried out by the Rashtriya Swayamsevak Sangh (RSS) in Shillong (its first in the city) that has evoked so much reaction. However, these events cannot forestall the need for articulating important things.

It has been repeated over and over again especially by the Christian clergy and its fraternity that Khasis were and are not Hindus. They often say, in very vague terms, that essentially Khasis 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.

Why only Khasis?

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 one god. These are full framed figures, resplendent in their distinct tribal garb, not simple allusions to a one universal deity. 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. It is convenient to argue that the new gods is in reality just a change in nomenclature and ritual, that essentially they have always been worshipping the same god.

However if the Khasis claim to be a matrilineal culture, why is U Nongbuh Nongthaw (The Keeper/ Creator) a male deity? Shouldn’t “he” be a “she”? I realise that this is not necessarily a water-tight hypothesis, but we could still argue for it to be questioned.

The Pnars and Bhois, interestingly, seem to place more importance on female divinities—the goddess Riang Khangnoh, goddess Myntdu and Lukhmi are more popular than any of their 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 both the Christians and the Hindus. 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.

Danger in Simplification

When we talk of Hinduism we have been warned time and again about the dangers of “centralising” 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 logic. 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 onto 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 shivling. 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 (or anger) us. The North East is basically a land bridge (possibly one of the most important in history). Materials, skills and ideas have flowed through this region for a very long time from East to West and vice versa. The isolation of the North East and the xenophobia of mainland India 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” Hindu goddess 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). One should also 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 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.    

Conclusions

I am not attempting to locate a “centre” from which all Hindu authority emanates (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 to them. 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 right-wing 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. Politics has always been used to influence religious practices, and it is no different this time.

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