Khasia, The

Khasia, The (or Khasi) a Mongolite ethnic group is one of the major matriarchal tribes in Bangladesh. The Khasia's descended to the Khasia hills and Jaintia hills from Cherapunji and Shilong regions. They migrated to Bangladesh from Assam where they came about five hundred years ago, presumably from Tibet. Khasias are short people with flat noses and mouths, high jaws, and small and straightened black eyes.

Khasia women

Once they were nomads and they are still inclined to roam. North-east Bengal formed their traditional welling place. The habitats of the hilly Khasias extend upto the Garo hills in the west. They are fond of hills, mounds, bushes, and forests. They build their cottages with a balcony on a platform made of wood and bamboo. The balcony is used as drawing room. Recently, they have begun to build houses like the Bangalis. The kitchen is attached to the bedrooms and almost every house of Khasias has a pig-shed near it.

Khasias call their villages punjis, which are clusters of houses within the cultural boundary of their own community. However, in search of livelihood, they often desert their punjis and move to new places, where they form new ones to live in. They spread out to different places. Previously, Khasias in Bangladesh lived in the northeast border of sunamganj district, while in India they had settled in the foothold of the Jaintia hills in Meghalaya, at an elevation 9-10 meter above the sea level. Once a Khasia Sardar (tribe leader) occupied a few parganas (administrative divisions) and built an estate, but later, he was ousted. At present, Khasias are spread over bishwamBarpur, tahirpur and chhatak in Sunamganj. Other tribes living in the Khasia region include the Syntong, garo and Lalong, who are minority groups. Although descendants from the Khasia, these minority groups are looked down upon by them. Khasias have a number of other descendants of their own like the Khongta, Palong and Surong. There are five punjis in the border bteween habiganj and maulvi bazar, sixty-one in Maulvi Bazar, and seven in sylhet. Most Khasias live in the border region. Some live in Guyanghat, jaintapur, and Joyai. Many Khasia children are found working in the tea gardens in kulaura.

Khasia war dance

According to the census of 1991, the total number of Khasias in Bangladesh was 12,300, but the Bangladesh Khasia Society claims the number to be around 30,000. Birth rate is very high among Khasias. The chief of the punji is called Siem. Some punji-chiefs in Meghalaya and Bangladesh have the power of arbitration. They are called ministers, and own vast land property. Sharecroppers work in their lands and orchards. The job of the sharecroppers is supervised by paid workers. Religious festivals and social ceremonies are held under the supervision of the ministers.

Khasias are strongly attached to their tribal origin and culture. Although at present, they are gentle, polite and very disciplined, they were known to be aggressive in the past. The hilly Khasias used to attack villages in the plain regions and plunder villages, commit arson, and kill innocent people. In 1744, they were known to have burnt the scaffold of the capital of a feudal king (chieftain). The Mughals posted an army in the border parganas to repel the attack of Khasias. The British also did the same thing. The mountains in the border region abound in limestone. Conflicts over the business in limestone prevailed up to 1795. The mountains were under the control of the Khasia chieftains. In 1787, they attacked some five parganas and killed about three hundred people. Poisonous arrows and bows were used in these raids. The British faced great difficulty in controlling them. Khasias attacked even many local zamindars then. Many Khasias used to grow bananas, pineapples, oranges, cassia leaf (or dial), blackpepper and pan (betel leaf) on lands which they did not own. In addition to working in tea garden, they also traded in betel leaf, oranges, fish and rice in markets on both sides of the border. Rice and fish are their major food items.

The Khasia religion is very old but it has evolved over time. Traditional customs and superstitious beliefs form the core of their religion. The influence of hinduism, christianity, and islam is very evident. The changes that have taken place in the Khasia community are most evident in their religious practices. christian missionaries began to preach Christianity among Khasias about one and a half a century ago. At present, more than 80% of the Khasias are Christians. Almost every punji has its own church, where they say their Sunday prayer and spend some time in discussing about the punjis.

Christian priests often arbitrate in disputes arising in the punjis. Khasias were originally monotheists, who believe that the God first created the universe and then a man and a woman. Subsequently, the God created gods and goddesses for the purpose of controlling various aspects of the universe. They also believe in the existence of the god of a village. Moreover, they believe in the existence of evil spirits and adore nature and animals. They perform numerous rituals. They do not have any religious scripture. Recently, some Khasias have been converted to Islam. Conversion to Christianity brought about tremendous changes in the socio-economic structure of their lives. Christian Khasias are mostly Protestants and Catholic Khasias are rarely found. They, however, continue to maintain their age-old customs and traditions. There are some exceptions as well. They burn the dead body and bury the remains. The priest recites at the funeral: 'Good bye, good bye, You will chew betel leaf in the kingdom of God'.

The Khasia language does not have alphabets. Tradition says that once they had a written scripture, which was destroyed by a calamity. They are bilingual and can speak in the Khasia language as well as in Bangla, although in some pejorated phonetics. Once the Khasia language used to be written in Bangla letters. The first Khasia version of some parts of the Bible appeared in Bangla. The literate Khasias still use Bangla alphabets in writing their letters in the Khasia language. At present, the Khasia langauge on the other part of the border is documented in Roman letters. In Bangladesh, the Khasia language does not have any universal character. Khasias living in Cherapunji in India, however, have standardised their version of the language.

The religious feelings, culture, dress and manners of the Khasia today have been moderated considerably under the influence of modern developments in education, science, technology and culture. While they are adopting modern life-styles, some primitive traits are still found in them. They perform various kinds of rituals throughout the whole year and pray for the fertility of their land. They perform khyakhang brata at the time of sowing seeds. Other rituals are pisthol, pirdong and khyaklam. Marriage is compulsory for Khasia men and is treated a command of God. Celibacy is sinful and cursed. They dance and sing in a chorus in marriage ceremonies and other regular festivals. They celebrate birth and death. They are good in dancing and singing.

According to a Khasia proverb, the civilisation originated from the female. Because of the existence of a social system based on matriarchy, Khasia girls make their own choice of bridegrooms from tribes other than their own and keep their husbands in her own houses after marriage. Marriage within one's own tribe is forbidden and results in the loss of ownership of property, excommunication from the village, and no funeral after death. Most marriages take place on the basis of prior mating on the part of the girl. Usually girls invite would-be husbands to their houses and sometimes living together also takes place. Guardians are informed of the agreement among the intending parties and fix the date of the marriage ceremony. The males on the bridegroom's side dress the bridegroom in a white loincloth and a turban and take him to the bride's house. The bridegroom is blessed by his mother and senior female relatives. The bride's party welcomes them. The priest recites religious verses and blesses the bridegroom. The gods are offered wine and dry fish. After palatable dishes and drinks the bridegroom's party leaves him at midnight. The bridegroom treats the brothers and sisters of the bride as his own brothers and sisters. Sometimes marriage also takes place on the basis of the consent of the guardians without prior mating. After the marriage is over, a cottage for the new couple is built by the side of the house of the bride's mother. In some punjis this is compulsory. No cottage is built for the youngest daughter since she happens to be the heir of her maternal house and property. The wife does the monetary transactions.

In Khasia society cultivation and household work are done on the basis of mutual cooperation and understanding between wife and husband. Disagreement is very rare. Men respect women. Children have a religious responsibility to look after their old father if he is a widower. In the event of untimely death of the wife, the husband can marry and move elsewhere. The social custom of Khasias is not so rigid as that of the matriarchal Garo. Offsprings are known by their maternal names. All daughters, including the youngest, get a share of property but they cannot sell it. The youngest sister bears the responsibility of performing all rituals and ceremonies in the family. Monogamy is a custom among the Khasias. However, a woman can have more than one husband if the first husband happens to be sextually impotent. Rules of marriage and matriarchal social custom do not vary much in Khasia punjis. The income of the couple is exclusively its own if it lives independently after marriage. Divorce becomes mutual in the event of mistrust, hatred, dishonesty, and impotency on the part of husband. One or both have to communicate the desire to divorce to the minister of the punji and the people concerned with the marriage before divorce comes into effect. A specified time period is allowed to the party in question to reconsider the matter. If the situation does not change, the marriage is officially declared to be null and void by beating drums in the punjis. In most cases, divorce is initiated by the wife and in such case, she has to pay fifty percent of the compensation. But if the divorce is initiated by the husband, he has to pay for two pieces of cloth. Divorce, however, is ineffective if the wife is pregnant. Both the husband and wife can remarry after divorce but the children, if there is any, stay with their mother. A wife can also remarry after the death of her husband. [Ali Nawaz]