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In 1908 Sir Bampfylde Fuller, then Chief Commissioner of Amman, proposed and the Government of India sanctioned, the preparation of a series of monographs on the more important tribes and castes of the Province, of which this volume is the first. They were to be undertaken by writers who had special and intimate experience of the races to be described, the accounts of earlier observers being at the same time studied and incorporated; a uniform scheme of treatment was laid down which was to be adhered to in each monograph, and certain limits of size were prescribed.

Major Gurdon, the author of the following pages, who is also, as Superintendent of Ethnography in Assam, editor of the whole series, has enjoyed a long and close acquaintance with the Khasi race, whose institutions he has here undertaken to describe. Thoroughly familiar with their language, he has for three years been in charge as Deputy-Commissioner of the district where they dwell, continually moving among them, and visiting every part of the beautiful region which is called by their name. The administration of the Khasi and Jaintia Hills is an exceptionally interesting field of official responsibility. About half of the district, including the country around the capital, Shillong, is outside the limits of British India, consisting of a collection of small states in political relations, regulated by treaty with the Government of India, which enjoy almost complete autonomy in the management of their local affairs. In the remainder, called the Jaintia Hills, which became British in 1835, it has been the wise policy of the Government to maintain the indigenous system of administration through officers named dolois, who preside over large areas of country with very little interference. All the British portion of the hills is what is called a “Scheduled District” under Acts XIV and xv of 1874, and legislation which may be inappropriate to the conditions of the people can be, and is, excluded from operation within it. In these circumstances the administration is carried on in a manner well calculated to win the confidence and attachment of the people, who have to hear few of the burdens which press upon the population elsewhere, and, with the peace and protection guaranteed by British rule, are able to develop their institutions upon indigenous lines. It is now more than forty years since any military operations have been necessary within the hills, and the advance of the district in prosperity and civilization during the last half-century has been very striking.

The first contact between the British and the inhabitants of the Khasi Hills followed upon the acquisition by the East India Company, in consequence of the grant of the Diwani of Bengal in 1765, of the district of Sylhet. The Khasis were our neighbours on the north of that district, and to the north-east was the State of Jaintia, ruled over by a chief of Khasi lineage, whose capital, Jaintiapur, was situated in the plain between the Surma river and the hills. Along this frontier, the Khasis, though not averse from trade, and in possession of the quarries which furnished the chief supply of lime to deltaic Bengal, were also known as troublesome marauders, whose raids were a terror to the inhabitants of the plains. Captain R.B. Pemberton, in his Report on the Eastern Frontier (1835), mentions an attack on Jaintia by a force under Major Henniker in 1774, supposed to have been made in retaliation for aggression by the Raja in Sylhet; and Robert Lindsay, who was Resident and Collector of Sylhet about 1778, has an interesting account of the hill tribes and the Raja of Jaintia in the lively narrative embodied in the “Lives of the Lindsays.” Lindsay, who made a large fortune by working the lime quarries and thus converting into cash the millions of cowries in which the land-revenue of Sylhet was paid, appears to have imagined that the Khasis, whom he calls “a tribe of independent Tartars,” were in direct relations with China, and imported thence the silk cloths which they brought down for sale in the Sylhet markets. A line of forts was established along the foot of the hills to hold the mountaineers in check, and a Regulation, N of 1799, was passed declaring freedom of trade between them and Sylhet, but prohibiting the supply to them of arms and ammunition, and forbidding any one to pass the Company’s frontier towards the hills with arms in his hands.

The outbreak of the first Burma War, in 1824, brought us into closer relations with the Raja of Jaintia, and in April of that year Mr. David Scott, the Governor-General’s Agent on the frontier, marched through his territory from Sylhet to Assam, emerging at Raha on the Kalang river, in what is now the Nowgong district. This was the first occasion on which Europeans had entered the hill territory of the Khasi tribes, and the account of the march, quoted in Pemberton’s Report, is the earliest authentic information which we possess of the institutions of the Khasi race. Dr. Buchanan-Hamilton, who spent several years at the beginning of the 19th Century in collecting information regarding the people of Eastern India, during which he lived for some time at Goalpara in the Brahmaputra Valley, confused the Khasis with the Garos, and his descriptions apply only to the latter people. The name Garo, however, is still used by the inhabitants of Kamrup in speaking of their Khasi neighbours to the South, and Hamilton only followed the local usage. In 1826 Mr. David Scott, after the expulsion of the Burmese from Assam and the occupation of that province by the Company, entered the Khasi Hills in order to negotiate for the construction of a road through the territory of the Khasi Siem or Chief of Nongkhlaw, which should unite Sylhet with Gauhati. A treaty was concluded with the chief, and the construction of the road began. At Cherrapunji Mr. Scott built for himself a house on the plateau which, two years later, was acquired from the Siem by exchange for land in the plains, as the site of a sanitarium. Everything seemed to promise well, when the peace was suddenly broken by an attack made, in April 1829, by the people of Nongkhlaw on the survey party engaged in laying out the road, resulting in the massacre of two British officers and between fifty and sixty natives. This led to a general confederacy of most or the neighbouring chiefs to resist the British, and a long and harassing war, which was not brought to a close till 1833. Cherrapunji then became the headquarters of the Sylhet Light Infantry, whose commandant was placed in political charge of the district, including the former dominions in the hills of the Raja of Jaintia, which he voluntarily relinquished in 1835 on the confiscation of his territory in the plains.

Cherrapunji, celebrated as the place which has the greatest measured rainfall on the globe, became a popular station, and the discovery of coal there, and at several other places in the hills, attracted to it many visitors, some of whom published accounts of the country and people. The first detailed description was apparently that of the Rev. W. Lish, a Baptist missionary, which appeared in a missionary journal in 1838. In 1840 Capt. Fisher, an officer of the Survey Department, published in the Journal of the Asiatic Society of Bengal an account which showed that the leading characteristics of the Khasi race had already been apprehended; he mentions the prevalence of matriarchy or mother-kinship, notes the absence of polyandry, except in so far as its place was taken by facile divorce, describes the religion as a worship of gods of valleys and hills, draws attention to the system of augury used to ascertain the will of the gods, and gives an account of the remarkable megalithic monuments which everywhere stud the higher plateaus. He also recognizes the fact that the Khasis as a race are totally distinct from the neighbouring hill tribes. In 1841 Mr. W. Robinson, Inspector of Schools in Assam, included an account of the Khasis in a volume on that province which was printed at Calcutta. In 1844 Lieut. Yule (afterwards Sir Henry Yule) published in the Journal of the Bengal Asiatic Society a much more detailed description of the hills and their inhabitants than had been given by Fisher. This formed the basis of many subsequent descriptions, the best known of which is the attractive account contained in the second volume of Sir Joseph Hooker’s Himalayan Journals published in London in 1854. Sir Joseph visited Cherrapunji in June 1850, and stayed in the hills until the middle of the following November.

Meanwhile the Welsh Calvinistic Methodist Mission, originally located at Sylhet, had extended their operations to Cherrapunji, and in 1842 established a branch there. They applied themselves to the study of the Khasi language, for which, after a trial of the Bengali, they resolved to adopt the Roman character. Their system of expressing the sounds of Khasi has since that time continued in use, and after sixty years’ prescription it would be difficult to make a change. Their Welsh nationality led them to use the vowel y for the obscure sound represented elsewhere in India by a short a (the u in the English but), and for the consonantal y to substitute the vowel i : w is also used as a vowel, but only in diphthongs (aw, ew, iw, ow); in other respects the system agrees fairly well with the standard adopted elsewhere. Primers for the study of the language were printed at Calcutta in 1846 and 1852, and in 1855 appeared the excellent “Introduction to the Khasia language, comprising a grammar, selections for reading, and a Khasi-English vocabulary,” of the Rev. W. Pryse. There now exists a somewhat extensive literature in Khasi, both religious and secular. An exhaustive grammar, by the Rev. H. Roberts, was published in Truebner’s series of “Simplified Grammars” in 1891, and there are dictionaries, English-Khasi (1875} and Khasi-English (1906), besides many other aids to the study of the language which need not be mentioned here. It is recognized by the Calcutta University as sufficiently cultivated to be offered for the examinations of that body. Two monthly periodicals are published in it at Shillong, to which place the headquarters of the district were removed from Cherrapunji in 1864, and which has been the permanent seat of the Assam Government since the Province was separated from Bengal in 1874.

The isolation of the Khasi race, in the midst of a great encircling population all of whom belong to the Tibeto-Burman stock, and the remarkable features presented by their language and institutions, soon attracted the attention of comparative philologists and ethnologists. An account of their researches will be found in Dr. Grierson’s Linguistic Survey of India, vol. ii. Here it will be sufficient to mention the important work of Mr. J. R. Logan, who, in a series of papers published at Singapore between 1850 and 1857 in the Journal of the Indian Archipelago (of which he was the editor), demonstrated the relationship which exists between the Khasis and certain peoples of Further India, the chief representatives of whom are the Mons or Talaings of Pegu and Tenasserim, the Khmers of Cambodia, and the majority of the inhabitants of Annam. He was even able, through the means of vocabularies furnished to him by the late Bishop Bigandet, to discover the nearest kinsmen of the Khasis in the Palaungs, a tribe inhabiting one of the Shan States to the north-east of Mandalay on the middle Salween. With the progress of research it became apparent that the Mon-Khmer group of Indo-China thus constituted, to which the Khasis belong, was in some way connected with the large linguistic family in the Indian Peninsula once called Kolarian, but now more generally known as Munda, who inhabit the hilly region of Chutia Nagpur and parts of the Satpura range in the Central Provinces. Of these tribes the principal are the Santhals, the Mundas, and the Korkus. In physical characters they differ greatly from the Indo-Chinese Khasis, but the points of resemblance in their languages and in some of their institutions cannot be denied; and the exact nature of the relation between them is as yet one of the unsolved problems of ethnology.

The work of Logan was carried further by Prof. Ernst Kuhn, of Munich, who in 1888 and 1889 published important contributions to our knowledge of the languages and peoples of Further India. More recently our acquaintance with the phonology of Khasi and its relatives has been still further advanced by the labours of Pater W. Schmidt, of Vienna, whose latest work, Die Mon-Khmer Voelker, ein Bindeglied zwischen Voelkern Zentralasiens und Austronesiens (Braunschweig, 1906), has established the relationship of Khasi not only to the Mon-Khmer languages, but also to Nicobarese and several dialects spoken by wild tribes in the Malay Peninsula.

There still remains much to be done before the speech of the Khasi nation can be considered to have been thoroughly investigated. In the Linguistic Survey four dialects are dealt with, the standard literary form, founded on the language of Cherrapunji, the Pnar or Synteng, of Jowai, the War, spoken in the valleys on the southern face of the hills, and the Lyngngam, spoken in the tract adjacent to the Garos on the west. Major Gurdon mentions a fifth, that of Jirang or Mynnar, spoken in the extreme north, and there may be others. A great desideratum for linguistic purposes is a more adequate method of recording sounds, and especially differences of tone, than that adopted for the standard speech, which though sufficient for practical purposes, does not accurately represent either the quantity or the quality of the vowels, and leaves something to be desired as regards the consonants (especially those only faintly sounded or suppressed). These things, no doubt, will come in time. The immense advance which has been made in education by the Khasis during the last half-century has enabled some among them to appreciate the interesting field for exploration and study which their own country and people afford; and there is reason to hope that with European guidance the work of record will progress by the agency of indigenous students.

It remains to summarize briefly the principal distinctive features of this vigorous and sturdy race, who have preserved their independence and their ancestral institutions through many centuries in the face of the attractions offered by the alien forms of culture around them.

In the first place, their social organization presents one of the most perfect examples still surviving of matriarchal institutions, carried out with a logic and thoroughness which, to those accustomed to regard the status and authority of the father as the foundation of society, are exceedingly remarkable. Not only is the mother the head and source, and only bond of union, of the family: in the most primitive part of the hills, the Synteng country, she is the only owner of real property, and through her alone is inheritance transmitted. The father has no kinship with his children, who belong to their mother’s clan; what he earns goes to his own matriarchal stock, and at his death his bones are deposited in the cromlech of his mother’s kin. In Jowai he neither lives nor eats in his wife’s house, but visits it only after dark . In the veneration of ancestors, which is the foundation of the tribal piety, the primal ancestress (Ka Iawbei) and her brother are the only persons regarded. The flat memorial stones set up to perpetuate the memory of the dead are called after the woman who represents the clan (maw kynthei , and the standing stones ranged behind them are dedicated to the male kinsmen on the mother’s side.

In harmony with this scheme of ancestor worship, the other spirits to whom propitiation is offered are mainly female, though here male personages also figure (pp. 106-109). The powers of sickness and death are all female, and these are those most frequently worshipped . The two protectors of the household are goddesses , though with them is also revered the first father of the clan, U Thawlang.

Priestesses assist at all sacrifices, and the male officiants are only their deputies ; in one important state, Khyrim, the High Priestess and actual head of the State is a woman, who combines in her person sacerdotal and regal functions .

The Khasi language, so far as known, is the only member of the Mon-Khmer family which possesses a grammatical gender, distinguishing all nouns as masculine and feminine; and here also the feminine nouns immensely preponderate . The pronouns of the second (me, pha) and third person (u, ka) have separate forms for the sexes in the singular, but in the plural only one is used (phi, ki), and this is the plural form of the feminine singular.

It may perhaps be ascribed to the pre-eminence accorded by the Khasis to the female sex that successive censuses have shown that the women of this race considerably exceed the men in number. According to the census of 1901, there are 1,118 females to every 1,000 male Khasis. This excess, however, is surpassed by that of the Lushais, 1,191 to 1,000, and it may possibly be due to the greater risks to life encountered by the men, who venture far into the plains as traders and porters, while the women stay at home. Habits of intemperance, which are confined to the male sex, may also explain a greater mortality among them.

It would be interesting to investigate the effect on reproduction of the system of matriarchy which governs Khasi family life. The increase of the race is very slow. In the census of 1891 there were enumerated only 117 children under 5 to every hundred married women between 15 and 40, and in 1901 this number fell to 108. It has been suggested that the independence of the wife, and the facilities which exist for divorce, lead to restrictions upon child-bearing, and thus keep the population stationary. The question might with advantage be examined at the census of 1911.

The next characteristic of the Khasis which marks them out for special notice is their method of divination for ascertaining the causes of misfortune and the remedies to be applied. All forms of animistic religion make it their chief business to avert the wrath of the gods, to which calamities of all kinds sickness, storm, murrain, loss of harvest are ascribed, by some kind of propitiation; and in this the Khasis are not singular. But it is somewhat surprising to find among them the identical method of extispicium which was in use among the Romans, as well as an analogous development in the shape of egg-breaking, fully described by Major Gurdon , which seems to have been known to diviners in ancient Hellas. This method has (with much else in Khasi practice) been adopted by the former subjects of the Khasis, the Mikirs; but it does not appear to be prevalent among any other of the animistic tribes within the boundaries of India.

The third remarkable feature of Khasi usage is the custom, which prevails to this day, of setting up great memorials of rough stone, of the same style and character as the menhirs and cromlechs which are found in Western Europe, Northern Africa, and Western Asia. It is very surprising to a visitor, unprepared for the sight by previous information, to find himself on arrival at the plateau in the midst of great groups of standing and table stones exactly like those he may have seen in Brittany, the Channel Islands, the south of England, or the Western Isles. Unfortunately the great earthquake of June 1897 overthrew many of the finest of these megalithic monuments; but several still remain, and of these Major Gurdon has given an excellent description (pp. 144 sqq.), with an explanation of the different forms which they assume and the objects with which they are erected. Other races in India besides the Khasis set up stone memorials; but none, perhaps, to the same extent or with the same systematic purpose and arrangement.

In conclusion, I have only to commend this work to the consideration of all interested in the accurate and detailed description of primitive custom. I lived myself for many years among the Khasis, and endeavoured to find out what I could about them; but much of what Major Gurdon records is new to me, though the book generally agrees with what I was able to gather of their institutions and characteristics. It is, I think, an excellent example of research, and well fitted to stand at the head of a series which may be expected to make an important contribution to the data of anthropology.

C. J. Lyall.

November, 1906.