Khasi Society: India’s largest Matrilineal Society

Khasi Society: India’s largest Matrilineal Society

By Bogman – Own work, CC BY-SA 3.0, https://commons.wikimedia.org/w/index.php?curid=17152165

In the world, where nothing other than patrilineal society is visible and appeared to viable, the existence, survival, and thrival of the contrary, i.e., matrilineal society attracts attention and eyes and mind. Though their existence is modern amazement, matrilineal societies have existed on the planet from generation to generation. These societies had not only survived but also thrived. In the past, these societies had thronged the planet from east to west. However, with the time, most of the societies were converted or pushed closure towards patrilineal society. Currently, there are fewer than 500 such communities exists, These communities are the Mosuo of China, the Picti of Scotland, the Basques of Spain and France; the Ainu of Japan, Akwamu, Fante of Ghana, Khasi, Pnar/Jaintia, Garo in Meghalaya state and by the traditional Nayar in the Kerala state of India.  

India is known as the cradle of colourful cultures, languages, and mysteries. Among all mysteries, in the northeastern part of India, Meghalaya is home of India’s largest surviving matrilineal society. It is home of Khasi, Pnar/Jaintia, and Garo community. Their homeland is hilly tracks in districts of Khasi and Jaintia Hills. The term “Khasi” means born of the mother. “Kha” means “born” and “si” refers to “ancient mother”.

Origin of Khasi Community

It is conventionally believed that Khasi people had migrated from somewhere in the Cambodia region and the great plains of the Mekong river. As per Hamlet Bareh, the Khasi people belong to one of the earliest groups of races migrating to North-East-India. They came through the traditional route of migration from South-East-Asia to the fertile valley of the Brahmaputra that is through the Patkai Hills in the east near today’s Nagaland.

Common beliefs

The word “lineal” refers to someone’s lineage, so matrilineal describes anything related to kinship through a female line. In a matrilineal tradition of the Khasi community, the children take their mother’s last name. They have matrilocal residence. In other words, the family is rooted around the residence of the women and property is passed through generation through the female line. Females play a significant role in their contribution to the household. They play a major role in agricultural activities and enjoys greater freedom in comparison to counterparts in the country.

Like in the patrilineal society, parents in the matrilineal society also wish to have a child of a specific gender. Parents in patrilineal society vie for a male child, so that in a matrilineal society for the female child. The arrival of a female child is celebrated and the same of the boy child is just accepted. Even the family without a female child is considered unfortunate. Children born into India’s Khasi tribe bear their mothers’ names, daughters inherit property from their mothers, and men move to their wives’ homes after marriage.

Youngest daughter as heir

The primary element of the matrilineal system is the inheritance of property is made through female lineage. In the Kashi community, as a general rule, the youngest daughter, whom the Khasis refer to as ka-khadduh, inherits all the properties, including Ka-Iing Seng (foundation house). (Khad means to collect, and duh means the losses, i.e., the person who collects the responsibility for the losses of the family). The youngest daughter- ka-khadduh– is a moral force in stimulating the family affection and preserving the balance of kinship in the house. The youngest daughter is the only custodian of the ancestral property and, so, if she wants to dispose it off, she must obtain consent and approval of the uncles and brothers.

If the youngest daughter dies, the ancestral property goes to her own youngest daughter. howsoever low and if she be without any daughter, her next elder sister inherits and, after her, the youngest daughter of that sister, howsoever low. Failing all daughters and their stock, the property reverts to the mother’s family, i.e., to the mother’s sister, and so on.

Is society Matrilineal or Matriarchal?

Though matriarchy and matrilineal appear to be similar, there are contrasting differences. Matriarchy is a social system in which females hold the primary power position in roles of political leadership, moral authority, social privilege and control of the property at the specific exclusion of man. It is widely believed by foreigners and even Indians that the Khasi social is matriarchal in nature. But this is not true in case with the Khasi society which makes it matrilineal and not matriarchal.

It is also argued that the Khasi’s matriliny is indeed an illusion, which hides an insidious form of patriarchy. The youngest daughter is the only custodian of the property, a decision made by the women must be endorsed by her maternal uncle. In this system, the maternal uncle remains the pivot around which the whole family revolves. He is established as the centre of authority over the whole clan or over one particular branch of the family. The uncle’s authority over his sisters and her children is supreme and undisputed. They do not have the autonomy to act independently without the uncle’s knowledge and consent. In the ancient times, the uncle was even considered to have power over the life and death or his sisters, nephews and nieces: the uncle could beat even unto death his nephews or nieces who committed the incest by marrying within the clan.   

Further, this authority of the uncle was life-long, and valid even in old age. The uncle had the power of administering all property, movable or immovable as well.  The uncle has a religious role as well, as the priest, teacher and performer of rites for the well-being of the clan.  Traditionally, in a Khasi family, the eldest sister must get married first. Generally, when such a sister’s children become capable of earning their livelihood, partition of property (Mih iing) may take place. The elder sister moves out, and it is deemed the responsibility of her brother to ensure that she has sufficient means to live on. However, this comes from the self-acquired property of the woman, her children and her brother, while ancestral property continues to remain with the family which lives together.  The influence of her brother continues despite such a partition.

Future

Matrilineal society is slowly becoming extinct with continuous pressure from the male dominant society to turn the existing system to patrilineal society. The Khasi community is also facing similar kind of existential threats. In order to safeguard the identity and existence of the community, there is a safeguarding mechanism by the Indian Constitution which allows them the autonomy to carry out governance per their local practices.  As members of an official ethnic minority, Khasis have many privileges: the Khasi Hills Autonomous District Council protects their laws, taxation is lower than elsewhere in India, land is set aside for their use in tribal zones, and a quota system operates for higher education and civil service jobs. Such privileges are not always supportive but sometimes turned out to be otherwise. “Men from the plains, unscrupulous foreigners, marry Khasi women to take advantage of all these privileges. Such advantages jeopardise the future of the tribe and probably the existence of society which have survived through generations.

Vimal Kumar

Vimal Kumar is an education enthusiast. He strives to pen down the untangled whirlwind of mind.