A distinct and much commented upon aspect of Khasi culture is that a person’s surname comes not from their father’s side of the family, but from their mother’s. The man is the one who moves into their in-law’s house upon getting married. Property also passes through the woman’s side of the family, and the child who is saddled with the responsibility of inheriting the most, of handling the family’s spiritual affairs, and of looking after the old folks, is traditionally the youngest daughter, known as the Khadduh.
It’s often speculated that the Khasi’s matrilineal system of inheritance developed in times of war, when the menfolk would go to battle, and many would not return. Having the women who stayed behind own the family land was thus a better way to ensure that the property passed smoothly from generation to generation. This gave women a uniquely important role within Khasi society. There is a saying that “long jaid na loa kynthei” (“from the woman sprang the clan”). Unlike in so much of India, the birth of a girl in the Khasi Hills is regarded as an equal, if not greater, blessing than that of a boy. Perhaps because of this, marriage is not as tightly binding as it is in much of the rest of India. Khasis don’t have arranged marriages, and a woman who is widowed or divorced is generally not stigmatized.
On the other hand, when men enter their in-law’s families, they are often seen as outsiders. As the British civil servant and amateur anthropologist P.R.T. Gurdon wrote in The Khasis, his comprehensive early 20th century description of the society of the hills: “There is…no gainsaying the fact that the husband, at least in theory, is a stranger in his wife’s home, and it is certain that he can take no part in the rites and ceremonies of his wife’s family, and that his ashes after death can find no place within the wife’s family tomb.” (pg. 82) Traditionally, a man who did not marry had a very low social standing, and even now, a great source of unease in Khasi society are men who are unhappy with their lot under the matrilineal system.
Thus, it’s not an overstatement to maintain that women have an exalted place within Khasi culture, something that many urban intellectual Khasis will inform you with justifiable pride. However, to say that Khasi society is somehow “female dominated” or “ruled by women,” is an oversimplification.
I’ve met many travelers, from both abroad and from other parts of India, who came to the Khasi Hills expecting to locate a matriarchal, rather than merely matrilineal, society. They tend to be mightily confused when they arrive. This is often because they’ve read (probably not very closely) one of the several misleadingly titled press articles about the Khasi matrilineal system that have come out over the course of the last decade or so. It seems that editors felt the articles needed to play up the female empowerment angle to generate clicks, at the cost of badly mischaracterizing the culture the articles were meant to illuminate.
One of the prime culprits was a write-up in the BBC from 2012 entitled: Meghalaya, India: Where Women Rule and Men are Suffragettes. The article itself is a humorous take on the fact that in some corners of Meghalaya men who feel disenfranchised have organized into male rights groups. The content is largely unobjectionable. The problem is the title. In Meghalaya some men may be suffragettes, but women don’t ‘rule.’
This misapprehension was only magnified by an extensively circulated photo essay published by the New York Times in 2015 with the suspiciously similar title of Girls Rule in an Indian Village. The collection of pictures, taken by a German photographer named Karolin Kluppel, are of little Khasi girls from the village of Mawlynnong wearing bundles of Areca Nuts on their heads, modeling necklaces made from dried fish, and putting bugs on their faces. This, according to Kluppel, was meant to showcase “how matriliny becomes visible.”
In miss Kluppel’s defense, she’s never quoted as saying that in the Khasi Hills “Girls Rule.” Again, that seems to have been stuck on there by editors. But the story went viral and was so widely read that in many cases it alone seems to have formed what outsiders thought the Khasi system of matrilineal inheritance meant. Khasis show it to me from time to time, mostly to complain. I once made the mistake of bringing it up in the presence of a lady teacher from the border town of Dawki, who immediately assumed, simply because I was a Phareng, that I took the photo essay at face value. Then the teacher subjected me to an angry half hour rant about the challenges women in the Khasi Hills face on a daily basis.
Following its widespread circulation, more stories popped up about Kluppel’s work and about Khasi matrilineal culture in general. And some of these were quite terrible. For example, the U.K. based magazine Huck published an article with the once more suspiciously unoriginal title of Inside the Indian Community Where Women Make All the Rules. The introduction to the piece is simply a list of complete falsehoods, perhaps the most egregious being the nonsensical claim that in the Khasi hills “men play a limited role in society day-to-day.”
(Note: A rather more balanced article on the subject was published by the BBC in early 2021 entitled Khasis: India’s indigenous matrilineal society, by Zinara Rathnayake.)
The fact that the youngest daughter carries on the family name certainly gives her a great deal of influence. However, traditionally, official political power was wielded almost exclusively by men. While the matriarchs of the various clans are extremely important figures in Khasi society, equally important are the warriors and kings in the mold of U-Tirot Sing.
To this day, women cannot control the traditional government institutions that hold sway over the villages. A woman can of course vote in the elections that impact the comparatively recent Indian state, but in a rural Khasi settlement the village council consists entirely of men. I’ve yet to meet a female headman, vice headman, secretary, etc. While I’ve been told that in some places attempts are being made to change this power imbalance, the fact remains that women in the rural areas of the Khasi Hills have only limited influence over the stratum of government which has the most direct impact on their day to day lives.
This shouldn’t take away from the positive things that have come with the matrilineal system. The singular fact that Meghalaya doesn’t have a terribly imbalanced sex ratio like other parts of India is something Khasis should be immensely proud of.
But not everybody’s happy.
Bahdeng, for one, gave me a long list of his issues with the system after dinner. This was a spiel he had delivered several times before. Apparently, his previous foreign guests had read the BBC and New York Times articles. While Bahdeng hadn’t joined any men’s rights groups, his view was that the system didn’t really work when you attempted to diversify the economy.
“If everybody is a farmer,” said he as we sat talking in his half-completed guesthouse that night, “then it doesn’t matter who goes where. It doesn’t matter if the son leaves the father’s family and goes to live with his wife. In that situation, the only thing that matters is land. How many acres. How many square feet. But in the city, which needs to have lots of different businesses, then the system won’t work.”
“Why is that?”
“For example, suppose my father had reared cattle his whole life. Once he is old, he will want to transfer the cattle to his son. But by the time he transfers, his son has to go live with his wife’s family. So then the father’s cattle will go to his youngest daughter. But what that really means is that his daughter’s husband, who the father doesn’t know well, will be the one who manages the cattle.”
“But can’t the youngest daughter manage the cattle? They’re hers, after all.”
“How will she? She will be having kids!”
“Does that mean that whoever marries the daughter winds up exerting influence over the property?”
“Yeah, the property does not go to the guy who marries the youngest daughter, but it’s natural that he will take control. In that case, if you have the right kind of gentleman entering the family, who works properly with his in-laws, things prosper, but if you have the wrong kind of gentleman, everything gets spoiled. But if my son is allowed to be in charge of the property, he will multiply my business. Then my grandson, obviously, he will multiply again. Like that. Because it’s hereditary. It goes straight. So, from my point of view, I think that the matrilineal system is not so good.”
Bahdeng’s dire analysis illuminates a problem with the system that is often overlooked, even if his solution, to simply have the men take over, seems unlikely to fix it. For the transfer of family property to happen smoothly, the individual managing it must be ‘the right sort’ of person. Yet custom does not provide the family with much choice in the matter. Of course, exactly the same problem could be said to exist in a rigidly patrilineal system. After all, men screw up too.
The last thing I did that night was take a hard look at whether walking all the way to Jarain was still possible. I had certainly trekked a great distance by Phlangwanbroi, but I had also narrowly avoided being incapacitated twice, and still had three out of the five grand canyons of southern Meghalaya to cross.
With regards to the specific goal of the long walk, locating and learning about the living architecture of the Khasi Hills, I could judge the trek so far as, at best, a mixed success. On the one hand, it was a major discovery to learn that the people of Nongnah had grown ladders out of ficus elastica trees. But on the other, for all the kilometers of walking, the sickness, and the uncertainty of the way forward, I had only laid eyes on a single genuine piece of living architecture.
Lying in bed in Bahdeng’s half-completed rest house and looking out through the tall windows into the blackness of the valley of the Umngi, I thought back on the past few weeks of hiking. I had discovered much about the history of the West Khasi Hills, ascertained how the majority of Khasi villages come into being, made the acquaintance of a startling number of local spirits and powerful gods, and had trekked over countless kilometers of incredibly interesting, varied, terrain. All in all, the trek could be going much worse.
But Jarain was still far off.
Directly ahead was the valley of the Umiam and the steepest land in all the Khasi Hills. Getting into and out of the gorge would entail physical exertion far beyond anything I’d faced so far. I wasn’t sure if I was up for it.
Luckily, I had a break to look forward to. Once I was out of the Umiam gorge, I’d be within walking distance of Sohra. That evening, nothing sounded better than goofing off for a couple of days, eating tourist food aimed at middle class Bengalis, and having the unimaginable luxury of not being woken up by roosters and screaming kids at 6 am.
Still, getting to Sohra was going to be rough. And walking all the way to Jarain didn’t quite feel possible.
But at least failing would be interesting.
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