The Khasi, Jaintia, Bhoi, War collectively known as the Hynniewtrep people predominantly inhabit the districts of East Meghalaya, also known to be one of the earliest ethnic group of settlers in the Indian sub-continent, belonging to the Proto Austroloid Monkhmer race.The Garo Hills is predominantly inhabited by the Garos, belonging to the Bodo family of the Tibeto-Burman race, said to have migrated from Tibet. The Garos prefer to call themselves as Achiks and the land they inhabit as the Achik-land.
The Khasis inhabit the eastern part of Meghalaya, in the Khasi and Jaintia Hills. Khasis residing in Jaintia hills are now better known as Jaintias. They are also called Pnars. The Khasis occupying the northern lowlands and foothills are generally called Bhois. Those who live in the southern tracts are termed Wars.Again among the Wars, those living in the Khasi Hills are called War-Khasis and those in the Jaintia Hills, War-Pnars or War-Jaintias. In the Jaintia Hills we have Khyrwangs, Labangs, Nangphylluts, Nangtungs in the north-eastern part and in the east. In the Khasi Hills the Lyngngams live in the north-western part. But all of them claim to have descended from the ‘Ki Hynniew Trep’ and are now known by the generic name of Khasi-Pnars or simply Khasis. They have the same traditions, customs and usage with a little variation owing to geographical divisions.
Dress: The traditional Khasi male dress is ‘Jymphong’ or a longish sleeveless coat without collar, fastened by thongs in front. Now, the Khasis have adopted the western dress. On ceremonial occasions, they appear in ‘Jymphong’ and dhoti with an ornamental waist-band.The Khasi traditional female dress is rather elaborate with several pieces of cloth, giving the body a cylindrical shape. On ceremonial occasions, they wear a crown of silver or gold on the head. A spike or peak is fixed to the back of the crown, corresponding to the feathers worn by the menfolk.
Food & Drinks: The staple food of Khasis is rice. They also take fish and meat. Like the other tribes in the North-East, the Khasis also prepare rice-beer, and make spirit out of rice or millets by distillation. Use of rice-beer is a must for every ceremonial and religious occasion.
Social Structure: The Khasis, the Jaintias and the Garos have a matrilineal society. Descent is traced through the mother, but the father plays an important role in the material and mental life of the family. While, writing on the Khasi and the Jaintia people, David Roy observed, ‘a man is the defender of the woman, but the woman is the keeper of his trust’. No better description of Meghalayan matrilineal society could perhaps be possible.
In the Khasi society, the woman looks after home and hearth, the man finds the means to support the family, and the maternal uncle settles all social and religious matters. Earlier in the conservative Jaintia non-Christian families, however, the father only visits the family in the night and is not responsible for the maintenance of the family.
Inheritance: Khasis follow a matrilineal system of inheritance. In the Khasi society, it is only the youngest daughter or ‘Ka Khadduh’ who is eligible to inherit the ancestral property.
If ‘Ka Khadduh’ dies without any daughter surviving her, her next elder sister inherits the ancestral property, and after her, the youngest daughter of that sister. Failing all daughters and their female issues, the property goes back to the mother’s sister, mother’s sister’s daughter and so on.
The Ka Khadduh’s property is actually the ancestral property and so if she wants to dispose it off, she must obtain consent and approval of the uncles and brothers.
Among the War-Khasis, however property passes to the children, male or female, in equal shares but among the War-Jaintias, only the female children get the inheritance
Marriage: Marriage within a clan is a taboo. Rings or betel-nut bags are exchanged between the bride and the bridegroom to complete the union. In the Christian families, however, marriage is purely a civil contract.
Religion: The Khasis are now mostly Christians. But before that, they believed in a Supreme Being, The Creator – U Blei Nongthaw and under Him, there were several deities of water and of mountains and also of other natural objects.
The vibrant and virile ethnic people who reside in the Garo Hills are known as the Garos. The word Garo has been coined after the name of a small group of the Garos residing in the central part of the southern hills. Besides the Garo hills, there are Garo settlements in the plains of Assam and Bangladesh.The Garos call themselves Achik-mande. In the Garo language Achik means Hills and mande, Man. So, Achik-mande means the Hills people.
Dress: The Garo women used to wear a piece of cloth around their waists and puts on a blouse or vest. The men usually wear, in addition to cloth, a turban. On all festive occasions, the Garos, irrespective of sex, wear head dresses with rows of beads stuck with feathers of hornbill. Males and females – both wear bangles and earrings. Educated and well-to-do Garos in the towns wear western dress.
Food and Drink: The Garos have no inhibitions about food. Their chief meals consist of rice with onions, capsicum and salt thrice a day. Practically all types of animal foods are taken. Drinks are almost an everyday affair. The liquor is not distilled, but prepared by brewing food grains.
Birth, Marriage and Death: Birth is a matter of joy not only to the family, but also to the community. Till death the new-born baby belongs to the mother’s family, irrespective of sex, even after marriage. Lineage is always matrilineal like the Khasis and the Jaintias. Except amongst the Nayars in Kerala, this system is not found anywhere in the country. It is unique among the Meghalayans in the North-East.
Marriage within the clan is completely prohibited and severely punishable. Marriage is however, arranged with the formal sanction of the parents.(Read More About Clan here)
Death of a person is not only a loss to the family, but is also mourned by the entire community. Elaborate rituals are held. Before embracing Christianity, they used to cremate the dead body, in the presence of all relations of the deceased. Now-a-days, according to Christian practice, the body is buried.
Bachelors’ Dormitories: Till now, the institution of Bachelors’ Dormitories which is gradually disappearing amongst the tribes of North Eastern Region, are found in the Garo villages. In such dormitories young people stay and live together till they are married. They receive various training in the dormitories like protection of crops, construction of roads, organising festivals, sports and ceremonies.