Alcove 1 – Sacred Grove, Mawphlang

The Sacred Forest, located in Mawphlang of East Khasi Hills District, is the most celebrated forest-groves of Meghalaya. Held sacred by Jaintias, the Sacred Forest is a deep insight into Khasi history and religious beliefs. Its total area is 100 sq. km.

The State of Meghalaya is basically an agricultural State. It has a total geographical area of 22,429 sq. km. The total estimated forest area of the State is 8,514 sq. km. of which only 722.36 sq. km. are directly under the control of the State Forest Department. The remaining areas are managed by the respective District Councils of Khasi Hills, Jaintia Hills and Garo Hills as per provisions of the Sixth Schedule to the Constitution of India. Except the reserved forest areas and protected forests in and around Shillong (being managed by the department in arrangement with the District Councils), the rest of the forest areas are subjected to the primitive agricultural practice of shifting cultivation or slash and burn method especially in Garo Hills. However, there are few pockets of undisturbed natural forests still in existence, comprising about 1000 sq. km. being protected by the tribal as ‘Sacred Groves’. Essentially, they are located in strategic watersheds and still play an important role.


Music is integral to the Khasis’ life, and whatever it lacks in formal sophistication of established schools and forms of music, it makes up in purity, beauty and a certain complexity in skilful rendering. Music is everything in a Khasi Life – every festival and ceremony from birth to death is enriched with music and dance. One can hear natural sounds enmeshed in the songs – the hum of bees, bird calls, the call of a wild animal, and the gurgling of a stream.

One of the basic forms of Khasi music is the ‘phawar’, which is more of a “chant” than a song, and are often composed on the spot, impromptu, to suit the occasion. Other forms of song include ballads & verses on the past, the exploits of legendary heroes, and laments for martyrs. Khasi musical instruments (Ksing Shynrang, Ksing Kynthei) are also interesting because they support the song and the dance. Flutes and Drums of various types are used. The ubiquitous Drum takes on the most prolific role. Drums not only provide the beat for the festival, they are used to ‘invite’ people to the event.

“Tangmuri” (a kind of flageolet); “Shaw Shaw” (Cymbals); Percussion instruments of various types, including the “Nakra” (Big Drum) and “Ksing Padiah” (small drum); the “Besli” (flute for “solo” recitals) and a variety of other wind instruments like “Sharati”, “Shyngwiang” (used for different occasions, sad or joyous); the “Duitara” (a stringed instrument played by striking the strings with a wooden pick), [Dymphong-Reeds of Bamboos].Today, the “Spanish Guitar” is more popular and is widely used for festive occasions as well as for general entertainment.


The Khasis speaks a Mon-Khmer language. Khasi is believed to form a link between related languages in central India and the Mon-Khmer languages of Southeast Asia. While dialectal variation may be noted within different Villages, the major Khasi dialects are Khasi, Jaintia, Lyngngam, and War.

There is a distinct similarity between the Khasi language and the Mon Khmer-Palaung dialects prevailing in Burma and Indo-China. The earliest written literary reference to the Khasis is to be found in Sankardeva’s Assamese paraphrase of Bhagavata Purana composed around A.D. 1500. However, in various Sanskrit sources, notably the chronicle of Kashmir i.e. Rajatarangini, reference is made to a hill people called the Khasis. Those people dwelt chiefly in the mountains of Southern Kashmir where the descendants are to be found to this day.

Khasi is an Austro-Asiatic language spoken primarily in Meghalaya state in India. Khasi is part of the Khasi-Khmuic group of languages, and is distantly related to the Munda branch of the Austroasiatic family, which is found in east-central India. Although most of the 865,000 Khasi speakers are found in Meghalaya state, the language is also spoken by a number of people in the hill districts of Assam bordering Meghalaya and by a sizable population of people living in Bangladesh, close to the Indian border.

The Mon-Khmer languages are the autochthonous language family of Southeast Asia. Together with the Munda languages of India, they are one of the two traditional primary branches of the Austroasiatic family. However, several recent classifications have abandoned this dichotomy, either reducing the scope of Mon-Khmer (Diffloth, 2005) or breaking it up entirely (or equivalently reclassifying Munda as a branch of Mon-Khmer: Peiros 1998).


The Sacred Forest, located in Mawphlang of East Khasi Hills District, is the most celebrated forest-groves of Meghalaya. Held sacred by Jaintias, Sacred Forest is a deep insight into Khasi history and religious beliefs. Its total area is 100 sq. km.


Traditional 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 western dress. On ceremonial occasions, they appear in ‘Jymphong’ and dhoti with an ornamental waist-band.

The Khasi traditional female dress is called a Jainsem or a Dhara, which are 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. The Jainsem consists of two pieces of material fastened at each shoulder. The Dhara consists of a single piece of material also fastened at each shoulder.

Female Dancers:
Cloth draped from waist to ankle (Ka Jingpim Shad). Full sleeve blouse with lacework at the neck (Ka Sopti Mukmor). Two rectangular pieces of gold-thread embroidered cloth, pinned crosswise at the shoulders, overlapping each other (Ka Dhara Rong Ksiar). Necklace made of red coral and foil-covered beads in parallel strings (U Kpieng Paila). Golden ear-rings (Ki Sohshkor Ksier). A gold or silver crown with a braid of very fine silver threads in the back that falls past the waist, often adorned with fresh flowers (Kapangsngiet Ksiar Ne Rupa). Large silver armlets on both arms (Ki Mahu), golden wristlets or bracelets (Kikhadu Ne Ki Syngkha). Semi-circular collar of gold/silver plate tied with a thread around the neck. A silver chain worn round the neck (U Kynjiri Tabah). Handkerchiefs tied to both hands to wipe perspiration off face and forehead (Ki Rumal Rit).

Male Dancers:
Male Festive Regalia. Beautiful golden silk turban (Ka Jain spong Khor). Semi-circular collar of gold/silver plate tied round the neck (U Shanryndang). An 18-inch long ‘plume ‘stuck in the turban (U Thuia). A richly embroidered sleeveless jacket (Ka Jympang). A silver chain worn across the shoulders (U Taban). Silver ‘quiver’ with silver ‘arrows’ tied to the waist and an animal tail dangling from the end (Ka Ryngkap). A silver-mesh belt at the waist to cover the cord of the quiver (U Parnpoh Syngkai). Maroon silk cloth worn like a ‘dhoti’ (Ka Jainboh). A whisk (U Symphiah). A ceremonial sword (Ka Waitlam) and a Handkerchief (Ka Rumar).


Cultivation is the major Khasi subsistence activity and the family farm (managed by a single family with or without the assistance of outside labor) is the basic operating unit in crop production. The Khasi are multi-occupational and their economy is market-based. Marketing societies exist to facilitate trade and to provide aid in times of personal need. Crops are produced for consumption and trade. There are four types of land utilized for cultivation: forest; wet paddy land (hali or pynthor); homestead land (ka ‘dew kyper); and high grass land (ka ri lum or ka ri phlang).

The Khasi also engage in other subsistence activities such as fishing (by poisoning or with rod and line), bird snaring (quail, partridge, lapwings, coots, and wild geese), hunting (deer, wild dogs, wolves, bears, leopards, and tigers), and the raising of goats (for sacrifice), cattle (cows and oxen for manure, field cultivation, and dairy products), pigs, dogs, and hens (for sacrifice), chickens and ducks (largely for eggs), and bees (for larvae, wax, and honey).


Women here are very fortunate as they are treated equal to their male counterparts, but the head of the family is always the father. In this society the question of illegitimate child, child abandoning, dowry and bride burning are unknown. Offsprings, whether male or female, are treated alike. On the whole, the society is unique. Women are the property holders and keepers of the family purse and other movable and immovable properties.

In a matrilineal society, marriage is strictly exogamous i.e. outside the clan (Kur). There cannot be a greater sin than a coition between members of the Kurs. Women in Khasi & Jaintia society are accorded high respect. At home, women take care of the nursing and rearing of the children, supervision of domestic activities, attending to the sick aged parents and other relatives in distress. This is the duty of the youngest daughter in both Khasi and Jaintia families. The women folk are very sociable. This is reflected in the structural pattern of their socio-political system, which by itself formed a social organisation from the family unit to the Hima or State. There is no caste or class system and women are free to participate in any social activities.

The women are hard working, contributing in many respects to the family income by lending a helping hand in different economic activities. With the spread of education, women have taken jobs in govt. offices, many working as engineers, doctors, teachers of colleges and universities and are known for their sincerity and proficiency. One unique feature of the society is that the man has a dual crown, being an uncle in his sister’s house and a father to his children. The fact that the ancestral property is vested with the mother could be a mistake to suppose that the father is nobody in the Khasi-Jaintia society. The father has a strong position in his wife’s house as well as at his mother’s house.

The women have never been under the shadow of their men. The fame of Ka Latympang and Ka Pring Sariang, the queens of the Jaintia are well known. Many women folk stood up for elections and make known their presence. As early as 1937 we had a woman MP, Miss. Mavis Dunn Lyngdoh. In 1952, Mrs. B. Khongmen became an MP, now people like Mrs. R.Warjri, Mrs. M. War are MLA’s. Women like Mrs. M.R. Kyndiah a Jaintia woman, Phidalia Toi, Probity Nongpluh social activist, and others have stood for elections. Prominent entrepreneurs like Mrs. Dolly Khonglah, Mrs. M.J. Passah, Mrs. Edwina Lyngdoh, Mrs. Obilet Tariang and many more are coming up as successful business women.

As Panchayati Raj does not exist in the Khasi-Jaintia society, the 73rd Amendment leaves the woman untouched. As majority leaders in the political scenario are men, women need no special reservation for Assembly seats, as they are vested with enough power under the matrilineal system. Women do not sit idle; they make their voices heard. Recently, Probity Nongpluh, a social activist won a case in the Gauhati High Court seeking one-third reservation for women in Municipal polls. The matter is still pending in the Supreme Court.

In Meghalaya, all decision-making bodies are male dominated, where all major decisions are in the hands of men. Therefore, real improvement can only happen when the patriarchal mindset of these bodies is reversed. It is only the inclusion of women in decision-making process which will enable a change in attitudes in a far more effective manner than any legislation and amendments. The society will move forward if there is an equal partnership between men and women.


The Khasi are monotheistic. They do, however, invoke God by various names according to the need of the moment, as God has all the attributes of goodness and all the power to do well. So they call him “lei long spah”. 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 Khasis have a matrilineal and Matrilocal society. Descent is traced through the mother, but the father plays an important role in the material, mental life of the family and social welfare. According to Khasi laws, a woman cannot be forced into marriage, she owns the children and properties. In Khasi tradition, the youngest daughter will also inherit the property. A woman may end a marriage at her will with no objection from her husband. The Khasi have an unusual dedication towards matrilineal customs, most notably similar to the Minangkabaus. 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.


A typical Khasi house is a shell-shaped building with three rooms: the Shynghup is a porch for storage; the Nengpei is the centre room for cooking and sitting; and the Rumpei is the inner room for sleeping. The homes of wealthy Khasi are more modern, having iron roofs, chimneys, glass windows, and doors. Some have European-style homes and furniture. A marketplace is located outside a Khasi village (close to memorial stones, by a river or under a group of trees, depending on the region). Within Khasi villages one may find a number of public buildings, Christian churches, and schools.


Traditional food: The staple food of Khasis is rice. They also take fish and meat. Like the other tribes in the Northeast, the Khasis also ferment 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.


The small kingdom of Mawphlang is noted in British Colonial records as early as 1820s. The 18 villages that comprise Mawphlang Lyngdohship are linked through their clan ties within the Khasi cultural community and share a common history in the area that probably dates back at least to the 15th century. According to Mawphlang’s indigenous leaders, their Sacred Forest has been protected since the settlement of the area hundreds of year ago. It is also a sacred cultural location with large stone monoliths around which rituals are performed. Strict community rules ensure that no human interference is allowed within the Sacred Grove, banning any cutting, collection, fires or settlement. Today the forest is managed by the traditional Lyngdoh and the clan heads of the area.

The Sacred Groves of Meghalaya largely fall under the temperate type. This wet temperate forest covering 100 sq. km. is a unique habitat with impressive biodiversity, including 400 tree species, unusual orchids, mushrooms, amphibians and birds. Ancient stone megaliths dedicated to fallen warriors occur throughout the dense forest of oaks, rhododendrons, chestnuts, alder and figs with its prolific variety of epiphytic growth including aroids, piper, ferns allies and orchids. The Sacred Grove of Mawphlang is one of the few still being managed according to traditional beliefs and customs, and where indigenous religious rituals are still performed. Managed by a religious chief (Lyngdoh) and his ministers, together with village headman and clan chiefs, responsibilities for forest protection, fire control, and ritual observances are shared by the local communities.

While East Khasi Hills ranks high among the world’s heaviest rainfall areas, communities now experience extended droughts in the dry season where springs run dry and rivers shrink to trickles. The upper hill slopes of the major highway passing through the site are riddled with pockets of stone quarries. The upper ridges of these quarries are steadily advancing towards the Sacred Grove posing an immediate threat to its existence. The quarrying debris is dumped downhill causing mud-slides during the rainy season, generating heavy sedimentation in the ponds and streams that destroys all aquatic life including rare amphibians.

The Sacred Grove is not only beautiful to look at but at the same time is a storehouse of great natural diversity. Therefore, it is now our utmost duty to look into its maintenance as well, apart from enjoying its scenic beauty.

Prof J.B. Bhattacharjee has analyzed how the India’s North Eastern region is the homeland of a number of ethnic and cultural groups with different languages, religions, faiths and beliefs and traditions.

The important part of the region is the hilly people by the Indo- Mongoloid tribal groups, while the Indo-Aryan (non-tribal) population is mostly concentrated in the Brahmaputra Valley and the Barak valley of Assam and the plain areas of Tripura. The importance of the tribal population is in the hilly areas. The region is the homeland of a number of ethnic and variegated cultural groups with their languages, religions, faiths and beliefs and traditions.

Meghalaya was declared the 21st state of India on 21st January 1972. It united the areas of the Khasi, Jaintia and the Garo Hills under the leadership of Captain Williamson A. Sangma, the State’s first Chief Minister. Meghalaya, approximately 22,429 square kilometers (8,659 square miles) in area, lies between the latitudes 251degree – 265 N and the longitudes 8549- 9252 E. it is bounded by Assam in the North and Eastern and the plains of Bangladesh in the South and West Meghalaya is divided into two main administrative divisions; West and East Meghalaya.

The hilly state of Meghalaya has been termed as ‘a patch of beauty and grace’. It is linked to the Borail Range, an offshoot of the Himalayan Mountains. The sedimentary rocks that characterize Meghalaya’s upper surface protect the hills from being washed away during the violent monsoon. Meghalaya has been a very exciting subject in many respects for pre-historic investigations and research works. The state is divided into four geographical regions; the Northern Slope, the Central upland, the Southern Slope, and the northern and Western Lowlands. The northern Slope has undulating Hills and thick forests with ‘sacred groves’.

At the time of their first contact with the British, the Khasis had organized into 25 principalities. The largest of these principalities were Khyrin, Mulliem, Nongkhlaw, Nongstin and Cherra. Fourteen of them were under constitutional heads called ‘Syiems’, seven were under Sirdars, three under priest- rules called ‘Lyngdohs’ and one actually a confederacy of independent villages Southern Khasi Hills. The offices of Syiems and Lyngdohs have always been hereditary and according to the Khasi usage, succession falls on the eldest son of the previous incumbent’s sister.

Contacts between the British and the Khasis began by the end of the eighteen century. The British’s East India Company had obtained the Diwani of Bengal from the Mughals and began to establish themselves in the plains of Sylhet which lies in the South of the Khasi country. The Khasi Hills, what is now called Meghalaya, lies between the new possession of the British in the plains of Assam and their already occupied areas of Sylhet. David Scott, the agent to the Governor General for the North-East Region, planned to have communication between Sylhet and Guwahati. U Tirot Singh was the Syiem of Nongkhlaw. His predecessor had owned some duars in the plains of Assam which were occupied by the British. Mr. Singh wanted them back. David Scott agreed, he wanted to build a route to link Guwahati with Sylhet through Mr. Singh’s territory.

Shillong is the capital of the present State of Meghalaya, and was the seat of the Government of Assam from 1874 until 1905. Shillong’s picturesque setting and salubrious climate were considered suitable for sanatoriums and holiday homes for British civilians suffering from the sweltering heat of the plains. It was described as a “Mini London”. Cradled in the rain shadows of Shillong peak, flanked by Mawpat Hills in the North and overlooking hum Diengiei further west, Shillong lies in the midst of idyllic surroundings. Before the arrival of the British, from the thirteenth to the eighteenth centuries, the Jaintia dominated a large number of kingdoms. At the beginning of the sixteenth century, Jaintia rule was extended to Sylhet and this marked the beginning of Brahman influence on the Jaintia. By 1860, the British had annexed the entire Jaintia Hills region and imposed taxes on it as a part of British India.

The Khasi States had limited cultural relations before the arrival of the British, characterized in large part by internal warfare between villages and states. The incorporation of the markets at Sylhet into the British colonial economy in 1765 marked the beginning of Khasi subjugation. In 1837, the construction of a road through Nongkhaw State linking Calcutta to the Brahmaputra Valley led to the eventual cessation of Khasi-British hostilities, and by 1862 treaties between the British and all of the Khasi States (allowing Khasi autonomy and freedom from British taxation) were signed. This showed a significant amount of cultural change like an increase in wealth, decline of traditional culture, rise in educational standards, and frequent intermarriage. The Khasis now have their own State, Meghalaya, in which they predominate.


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