Dialogue January-March, 2010, Volume 11 No. 3
Women and Khasi-Pnar Society
In traditional societies with a degree of homogeneity, there is invariably assigned a meaning and a role to all recognized aspects of the world –both living and non-living – which play a direct or indirect role in the life and culture of the people. There is always a conception of life and of its ultimate meaning and significance lying at the root of the network of meanings. The traditional Khasi-Pnar society too has its own framework of understanding life. Lying at the centre of the Khasi worldview is the highest ultimate reality who is U (male) Blei/Ka (female) Blei. This is beautifully symbolised in the Jaintia myth where the goddess Ka Blei Synsar is picturised as managing the house of God, the abode of the earliest sixteen families out of which seven were sent down to earth, of course, on the advice of U Blei – the invisible ruler and sustainer of the world.
Man and woman have each a body and a soul and they complement each other. There are natural differences between the two sexes: hence the functions and occupations of the two are different. Accordingly the elders divided the functions of the two sexes – the children and their care, the home and the field were the woman’s domain. Politics governance and other community affairs were totally in the hands of the male.
Traditionally the image of women in Khasi-Pnar society, is visualized on the pattern set by the mother goddess – she is the bearer and sustainer of children, representing the great motherly qualities of the Mother-ancestress. A man is known by his mother; accordingly, in Khsai Pnar society the clan name too is traceable to a mother. Tradition equates the female with the sun ( ka sngi) as she is warmth and light, two things very important for the Khasis. Their theory of creation is full of anecdotes of the terrible darkness that engulfs the earth if ka sngi is offended.
The identification of the woman with the root of all being has to a large extent saved her from violation and abuse. “That is why rape, abduction are despicable and unpardonable crimes in this region” (Hunter, The Statistical account of Assam, p 270). Khasi elders are always telling tales of the evil that befalls man, clans and villages when a single defenseless woman, be she a widow or divorcee, suffers unattended and helpless. Though folk tales describe extraordinary women such as Ka latyampang1 who defeated, in strait warfare, the warriors of Sangpung who dared to challenge her supremacy, the differences between the sexes are accepted as final. Physically, a perfect man is Rang Khaddarbor, a man of twelve faculties, while a woman is kaynthei-shibor, a creature of only one faculty. (This, in spite, of the fact that a woman’s workload in Khasi and Jantia hills is heavier than a man’s. She not only bears the children but should also be capable of single-handedly looking after the daily needs of the entire family.)
The society is matrilineal: the residential house of the mother (Ka ing scng) is inherited by the youngest daughter. This privilege enjoins upon her the obligation to act as the keeper of the house by keeping together all the distant and near relatives. “The foundation house remains as the sacred ground of the family rituals. The meeting place of the brothers and sisters, uncles and aunts, nephews and nieces etc., and the heir has no authority to dispose it off. She is required to look after and maintain her aged parents and to support her brothers and sisters in distress. She is there for more a custodial than an owner of the family property”2.
It is not easy to get a clear depiction of the status of women in Khasi-Pnar folklore. For in their legends and stories there is no conscious differentiation of gender in role examples for moral deliberations. Examples, as we are aware, persuade us to do our duty. They excite the imagination and the passion in such a way which, simple rules of do’s and don’ts are unable to do. What is important to note is that generally the folklore views both male and female characters as having the capacity to act or not to act in accordance with the recognized virtues of the tradition.
In this paper, I wish to discuss two traditional Khasi-Pnar stories which seem to treat their women characters in starkly different ways: The stories are:
1. The Fight Between Two Mountain Gods.
2. The Wailing Birds.
These stories by no means should be seen as the complete embodiment of the conflicting ideals for women found in traditional Khasi-Pnar society. They should be seen merely as examples of how women are seen in very different ways by the tradition.
Let me take the story of the fight between two mountains first.
There are two mountain peaks U Symper Nongsynrih and U Symper Kmawan situated in the North-West Hills and West Khasi Hills respectively. Tradition regards both these as two of the chief Gods of the Khasis.
Now being similar in shape, size, height, nature, etc. the two were said to have been great friends, always facing each other with a smile.
As time passed U Kmawan felt the need to get married and his father realising his loneliness arranged a match between U Kmawan and the daughter of Kyllai Lyngun, called Ka Iewma.
After the marriage rituals, U Kmawan led his beautiful bride from her father’s place to Nonglang village near Mawkyrwat. They lived there happily and earned the respect of all mankind.
They helped the people of the area by protecting them from invaders and other evil forces.
One day U Kmawan had to rush to his father’s bedside having got news of his ill-health. He did not take his wife with him since she had to look after their home. But before leaving he advised Iewma to behave in a discretionary manner and not allow anybody to visit her when she was alone. Iewma always obedient, promised to heed his advise.
U Kmawan found his father on his death bed and within a few days he departed from this world. Being the only son, U Kmawan had to perform the funeral ceremonies and other rituals, so he had to extend his stay.
In his absence his good friend U Nongsynrih used to visit Iewma at Nonglang. In no time he fell passionately in love with her for she was as beautiful as the full-moon (Naikhadsaw Synia). Remembering the warning of her husband at first Ka Iewma did not allow him inside the house. But as the days passed U Nongsynrih succeeded in gaining entrance. He tempted her by suggesting that he would tell her secrets about her husband’s past. Being “after all a woman” she fell in his trap and allowed him to enter her house.
One day the cunning U Nongsynrih gave her the false news that U Kmawan had caught the infection from his father and he too had died. When Iewma started crying he put his arms around her as if to comfort her, soon he successfully seduced her and had her acceptance to his marriage proposal.
Few days passed. U Kmawan came back home and found U Nongsynrih there. He knew at the first glance that they had committed adultery. In his anger he kicked U Nongsynrih on his hip so hard that he landed at his own place.
Then the fight between two began. They shot one another with bows and arrows. The struggle continued for nine days and nine nights without a break.
At last U Kmawan was victorious over U Nongsynrih. Victory was his because his cause was just while U Nongsynrih was in the wrong. Accordingly U Nongsynrih lies today fallen down, cut in two, at the foot of the hill. A reminder of this story is the fact of the shameful fallen state of the Nongsynrih boulder which lies at the foot on the once proud hill.
In the above narration we find the Khasi elders seeing U Kmawan as hero. He is exemplar in action because he successfully knocks down Nongsynrih. But he is hero for a more important reason and that is, he is a man of right conduct. Nongsynrih is guilty of immoral behaviour namely adultery and he meets a sorry end.
What about Iewma? The narration is silent about the punishment meted to her. The husband presumably left her as also the lover is destroyed by the husband. Is it being assumed that she ought to be full of guilt and remorse and needs no other mention?
Throughout the narration Iewma remains committed to the meaning bestowed on her by tradition. She is the ideal wife; obedient and faithful. Her virtue lies in her being subservient to her husband. Her dependence continues first on her husband and then on U Nongsynrih. Nowhere does she seem to assert her identity. Being “after all a woman” she gets easily taken in by her paramour thus implying that women on their own are not capable of exercising moderation and hence should not be given freedom.
Undoubtedly the story is about the ideal of friendship. Hence the centre stage has to be given to the two friends. But there could have been a statement or two about what happened to Iewma? Even her relationship with U Nongsynrih is perceived as mere seduction of her by the latter thereby championing sexual inhibitions. That appears to be the reason for not showing her in a state of delight even if for a short while, in the arms of her lover. To put it briefly, the story depicts Iewma the woman dependent on her husband’s agency, as obedient and domesticated and not a moral subject. Nowhere does she assert her autonomy very unlike her male counterparts.
Let me now move on to the story of the Wailing Bird (Ka Pahlipud).
Once upon a time when all trees, humans and animals could understand each other, there lived two poor orphaned sisters called Ka Lahun and Ka Punnah. Not having any relatives to look after them, the sisters had to earn their own livelihood. Ka Lahun who was the elder and the stronger of the two, worked as a labourer at a farm while the younger sister did all the household chores and always took lunch for her sister to the field.
Though they were very poor, they were happy together as they loved each other. They always prayed to God the Creator and their parents to bless them and protect them.
This kind of life continued for one year. A hermit who chanced upon their hut, tried to dissuade them to renounce the world of poverty and suffering. The girls however declined, claiming satisfaction with their own fate.
One day Ka Lahun told her younger sister to bring heavier lunch for her as she had not taken any breakfast in the morning. Ka Punnah as usual obeyed and did what she was told to. But when Ka Lahun saw the food she thought it was too little and shouted at her sister.
Ka Punnah gently as always, assured her sister “But Kong, I have brought twice as much as normal”. This was too much for Ka Lahun. In anger she hit Ka Punnah, who fell on the ground and died.
At first Ka Lahun thought Ka Punnah was just lying there. So she took the food and ate it satisfactorily. As she could not finish half of the food, she went to wake Ka Punnah up by saying “Pun khie sa koit, khie sa koit”, meaning “Punnah, get up and eat”. There was no answer, no movement, nothing at all. She touched Punnah’s body and found it cold. When she realised that her sister was dead she cried and mourned but to no avail as the spirit had left the body.
As she performed the last rituals for dead sister she thought, “why live alone unhappy in this world? I too should leave it too. No, on the other hand, I should leave my human form for it is that which made me loose my temper and harm my sister”. She decided to transform herself into a bird. So she threw away her human form and flew to the jungle, the hills and valleys crying all time “Pun-Pun sa koit, khie sa koit”.
As a bird she exists even today. The Khasis call it “Ka Pahlipud” (the bird who cries and mourns during the cloudy and rainy seasons).
If we compare our heroine with the star performer in the earlier tale we find the scales tilting in favour of Ka Lahun.
U Kmawan in the story of the fight between two mountain Gods, served as means for the people to act in accordance with what has already been determined to be our duty in the situation at hand. He upholds the goal of traditional morality which is to uphold and preserve order. Character and virtues occupy the centre stage in this story. Though U Kmawan is irreproachable in his knowledge of moral virtue, though he comes out lesser than Ka Lahun in his capacity for moral imagination. He presents a dry view of virtue. (Kant and Mill?). Virtue in his eyes appears simply as a conscientious adherence to rules and principles. Ka Lahun shows greater strength in the sense that she has the ability to elaborate and appraise the situation as one going beyond what is the right and good thing to do. Unlike U Kmawan she comes across as a person who does not simply repeat actions that have proven to be right in the past. Also she responds in an entirely novel way to the particular situation in sharp contrast to Ka Iewma. Exercising autonomy, she interprets her tradition differently and innovatively.
Her story does not end simply with her acknowledgement that she has broken a moral rule – “One must not lose one’s temper” or “one must be more tolerant”. On the other hand she examines herself, making herself the object of a critical enquiry. There is extreme remorse but there is also a search for the cause of her own behaviour. In this sense her reasoning goes beyond her training and tradition. While U Kmawan stops here, he merely applies a rule given in advance, while she transcends the given content of moral rules.
We have seen U Kmawan as having a fixed agenda of what duties we must honour, an agenda which he expects both U Nongsynrih and Ka Iewma to also share since they are his friend and wife respectively.
As they both went against their duty consciously and since they did so, they are not of a virtuous character and accordingly punishment meted out to them is just.
Ka Lahun’s story does not end merely on this note. After analysing herself she comes to the larger conclusion that it is human nature which restricts the attainment of ultimate value, tempting one to pursue the ways of evil.
A more fulfilled and righteous life can be led in forms other than that of human, she chose of course the form of a bird. It will be good to remember at this juncture that the Khasi world view is committed to the view that God, man and nature together must preserve righteousness which consists in harmonizing the different elements of the world into a wholeness- a single perception or vision of the good life.
1. There are also legends about women warriors and state heads such as Ka Sanglar, Ka Syntiew- both queens of Nongkhlaw. Ka Shan, queen of Marang and Ka Long of the Bhoi area.
2. J.B. Bhattarcharjee” Changing Khasis: a Historical Account” in the Tribes of North-East India ed. Karotamprel.