Khasi Women Wisdom

Worldview Impact Foundation

The matrilineal tradition of the Khasi community of Meghalaya, India that has influenced the culture and arts of this region.

The Khasi, who number about 1 million in India's north-eastern state of Meghalaya, carry on the matrilineal tradition. The youngest daughter inherits, children take their mother's surname, and once married, men live in their mother-in-law's home.These stories from Khasi women give insight and weave the tapestry of this unique social framework and matrilineal society that has influenced the culture and arts of this region.

In Udem village weaving initiatives have been set up by the Khasi women using only natural plant based colour. Women supporting women has built an eco system that is thriving.

A Khasi woman spinning silk thread. By turning her head whilst spinning, she is making this skill look deceptively simple. She is wearing a Jain kyrshah, that is the traditional gingham Khasi cloth, often worn whilst working

The Khasi traditional female dress is rather elaborate with several pieces of cloth, giving the body a cylindrical shape. This elegant, hand woven dress that has been made by the Udem weavers.

Both men and women work and share responsibilities equally, like here seen fishing. Native Arts photography workshops, teaches new scientific developments informing worn out beliefs that may harm their natural environment.

Native Arts was formed by men from the Khasi tribe with the intention of providing a platform & building a community among young artists who usually lack the necessary resources in refining and highlighting their skills. Native Arts have documented Khasi women and their initiatives. By hosting Luminous Journey Photography Workshops called "Beyond the Spectacular" that give women and men alike the chance to explore, through photography, the beauty of Khasi hills whilst learning about the importance of sustainable practices such as weaving and agriculture.

"Photography lets us capture amazing and important moments that might only last for a millisecond. As an art form, it lets us preserve wonderful moments in time and space that will never happen again. When we get really into photography, when we’ve mastered the tools to create the images, when we focus completely on the creative aspect, there’s a real and true beauty that comes into play- we become completely absorbed in the act and think of nothing else, we enter into a state of being of temporary enlightenment, in which we see the life of things. Of all the genres in photography, Landscape photography is perhaps the one art form that lets us enter into that state of enlightenment and contemplate not only on the beauty of the universe but on life itself." Ebor Tariang, the photographer for Khasi Women Wisdom

'Mei-ri-sawkun' is an indigenous Khasi concept which means 'mother earth that cradles its children and all else that exist around them’

Mayfreen The Human Rights Pioneer
Mayfereen Ryntathiang is a Social Worker with more than a decade of committed work in Human Rights.  Having studied for a Masters in English Literature, education in Human Rights and a leadership course at Columbia University, with The International Indigenous Women Forum she actively synthesises her literary and human rights experiences. She encourages young, passionate women to realise their potential.  Her documentaries “Voice of the Voiceless” and “Hear our Voices- A Cry from the Himalayas” gives credence to unheard voices. Mayfereen initiated documentation of the Khasi folklore, ‘The Peacock and the Sun’ into an animation, so that children can have a deeper understanding of their roots whilst exploring other cultures.  In 2016, she represented India at the United Nations Permanent Forum of Indigenous issues, at the UN Headquarters, New York, USA to lend a voice on land and cultural rights.

Not only is Mayfreen involved in grassroots initiatives in Shillong, but also in 2016, she represented India at the United Nations Permanent Forum of Indigenous issues, at the UN Headquarters, New York, USA to lend a voice on land and cultural rights. She actively speaks out for women on a local, national and international level. Here she is outside her home-base in Shillong by the scared forest.

Mayfreen's mother and sister who live next door and opposite her, support her initiatives as part of the matrilineal Khasi tribe. Using her confidence she activates this in other women through policy. In December 2016, she and her team of thee young women launched a Speak Out Campaign to help marginlised abused women who cannot afford legal fees to get representation and access in the legal system.

Christina Simpson Jyrwa
Christina Simpson Jyrwa is the daughter of an English man who came to Shillong originally for tea planting in Assam. Christina continued the matrilineal line bringing up her son Peter and daughter Sandra in Shillong, but always with the knowledge of how they have been a part of British colonial and post-colonial history that has infiltrated their lives and continues to influence them today.

Post colonial history of North East India was explored through Christina's family photos. Through kinship Christina has been part of an evolving post-colonial landscape between Britain and India. From when the British first came to Assam and started trading to present day British explorers looking to understand the region.

Christina Simpson Jyrwa in 1970's Kolkata that was a modern and vibrant time across the world

Just like in English homes, the garden, nature and herbs are important to Khasi traditions. Christina, a taller than usual Khasi woman, because of her British father is enjoying her garden in 1970's Shillong.

John Charles Palgrave Simpson's father was in tea as was his Grandfather who served for Queen Victoria. After the war, in 1948, John left the army and went to work for Williamson Magor & Co. Limited in Assam who had a long history in tea business dating back to the year 1868 and is considered to be one of the pioneers of tea business in India.

It was whilst working in nearby Assam that he came to stay at a friend's house Shillong, where he saw Christine's mother, Muklurmon Jyrwa in the window of the house opposite. John is pictured here with his second daughter Franscine who looks like a younger version of Muklurmon. John was so captivated by Muklurmon, that he asked her family round for tea and her hand in marriage and so they began their life together.

Christine with her mother and sister in 1950's Shillong.

Christina did not see her father for 25 years because after some troubles with the tea farm in Assam, he moved to Uganda to set up another tea farm and factory. John respected the Khasi matrilineal tradition, so that when Christina's mother wanted to stay in Shillong he abided by her wishes to continue her family roots, continuing to support her whilst building a new life in Uganda. Christina, being taller than most of her fellow Khasi tribe has a distinct resemblance to her British father.

Christina met Peter who was part of the Khasi tribe. They got married within the christian faith that was introduced to Shillong by the Welsh missionaries that founded churches within the region and encouraged Khasi children to write and document their own culture. It was a Welsh missionary that encouraged the documentation of the Khasi language.

Christina is standing proudly with her mother and Grandmother as the next in line to continue leadership of the matrilineal clan.

Christina married into the Khasi tradition continuing the Matrilineal line as being the head woman of her family

Soon after her marriage Christina had her first son, Peter who is tall much like his mother and British Grandfather. Peter married Iba Blah, the honey bee leader. Peter learnt a lot from both his British grandfather Simpson, visiting him on his plantation in Uganda and his father, Peter who would take him far out into the Khasi hills where tigers roamed free.

Christina's husband was often out in the Khasi Hills in his jeep, that inspired his son Peter to start his farm with Iba, who is also part of the Khasi tribe, cultivating sustainable practices in the region

Khasi Hills are said to be some of the cleanest in India as the Khasi tribe say that nature is their library, containing embodying knowledge and wisdom of humanity. Hilly Meghalaya – the ‘abode of clouds’ with rich limestone caves and hill sides covered in lush rainforest, often known as one of the wettest places on earth, yet provides safe havens away from pollution and smoke of the cities, allowing for moments of tranquility where children and families can safely enjoy each other's company in the fresh clean air.

Wage increase protests in the 1970's were part of the fight for statehood and were strong over the region. People did not go to work and demanded for better conditions and pay in the factories as part of the increasing independence.

Naphirisa Tariang is a Khasi writer. Her poetry about nature reveals the Khasi way of life that is intrinsically linked to cycles of life, death and renewal. North Star, her first novel, explores how Khasi materlinial leadership is of the feminine kind. Emulating masculine forms of leadership are not the way of the Khasi women. Her writing is as finely crafted as the elegant silk that is woven by her fellow Khasi women.

Through her writing, she hopes not only to document Khasi history, but also to inspire and teach others beyond her tribe of leadership and humanity's intrinsic connection to nature.

Naphirisa Tariang is studying literature in Kolkata. As she is the only woman in her class who is from a matrilineal society, she wanted to write, to give her female peers the chance to understand that there is another way than a patriarchal society. She found ways in which to tell the story in The North Star of a man and woman supporting each other equally, by encouraging each other to become their best selves.

Iba Queen Honey Bee
Iba is an agripreneur that cultivates Blossom Honey on Sainhun Farm as well as aloe vera, pineapples and healing herbs indigenous to the Khasi tribe. Iba is increasing sustainable livelihoods for women and youth within the region of Meghalaya. Iba has taken the gauntlet after the completion of the Participatory Rural Appraisal (PRA) in the project villages and is cultivating opportunities for women and their families to develop the eco-system through health, education and agriculture

Iba's bee-keeping project was initially funded by the Food and Agricultural Organisation of the United Nations (FAO). She was responsible for its' implementation after completion of the Participatory Rural Appraisal (PRA) in the project villages. Iba, having recently won an entrepreneur award is now inspiring and teaching other women to create their own sustainable initiatives.

Iba who is the Director of the United Fruit Company (UFC) Ltd. in Shillong, has to keep a close eye on the bees so that they don't leave the hive and have the right conditions to create honey

Iba encourages sustainability in the region by planting trees for world envirionment day

Iba and her group celebrate after contributing to a more sustainable society after planting trees for world environment day.

Iba is coordinating sustainable livelihoods for the rural youth of Meghalaya. She has traveled widely across North America, Europe, Africa and Asia while attending different international youth conferences and seminars.

Here Iba is speaking out at International Women's Day 2016 for the Annual Session on Young Indians (Meghalaya chapter)

Iba has been developing her organic health farm with her husband Peter, who is Christina's son. The road that leads to the farm is often clogged with piles of dirt and rocks making it more remote and difficult to get to than needed. With the recent acquisition of organic chickens the farm is only just sustainable enough for one family and send a 10 year old boy to school. Peter and Iba's plans are not only to provide sustainable organic farming for more families in the area but also to provide a health retreat, so that people can learn about nutrition and healthy living. Furthermore, Peter, has plans to build a school so that more children like the boy on the farm who is lacking schooling, can have more support.

Iba welcomes in European WorldView Impact explorers, such as Grazina Linkeviciute to understand more about Khasi ecological land use practices for restoring degraded landscapes into naturally fertile farmlands. Grazina, having seen children working on the land and not being able to go to school, was inspired to collaborate with Iba to build language arts/community/educational centres for 600 local villagers.

Healing Herbs
Kong Selmin having cultivated her skills in both weaving and medicinal herbs indigenous to the Khasi tribe, she is teaching others so that this essential knowledge is continued to ever greater circles of influence.  

These young women at St. Mary's College are watching clips from the Nongtluh Women Weaving co-operative out in Umden Diwon village in the hills. Beverley Kharsyntiew, a Khasi entrepreneur in Shillong arranged the film viewing, which enabled a greater understanding about the local initiatives in arts and crafts inspiring women to learn from women.

Follow your Impulse
Hasina founded Impulse Social Enterprise, a Shillong-based firm, which has given the local women’s products the brand name “Empower”. Impulse NGO Network, mitigates the risk of women being trafficked away from their families by instead giving them the opportunity to be gainfully employed in weaving that embraces their tribal customs by giving them a chance to weave in their own tribal patterns and symbols that in turn have become popular on both a local and global scale.  Impulse continues to spread awareness and fight the issue of human trafficking by focusing on generating sustainable livelihoods, which in turn to help prevent unsafe migration and let locals live with dignity and financial security. Hasina's social enterprise is collaborating with boutiques so that these handmade crafts are promoted outside the region. Being run by Hasina, she understands how this is not just about the women's livelihood, it is about sustaining their history in a contemporary and innovative way. Layered with contemporary design, modern production technology women are able to actively contribute to the growing eco-system and continue their traditions, whilst not being stuck in the past, they are evolving their own future.

Being run by Hasina, she understands how this is not just about the women's livelihood, it is about sustaining their history in a contemporary and innovative way. Layered with contemporary design, modern production technology women are able to actively contribute to the growing eco-system and continue their traditions, whilst not being stuck in the past, they are evolving their own future.

Oral to Written History
Sweetymon Rynjah was the first Khasi woman to pass the Assam Civil Service and has written many books to teach others about her culture, but also how the intrinsic Khasi values can be found universally other cultures however, just expressed in their own unique way.  Sweetymon was born on 10th November, 1934 and attended school at the Khasi Jaintia Presbyterian Girls High School which was then known as ‘Welsh Mission Girls High School’. Welsh missionaries started schools in Shillong bringing western Presbyterian Christianity, education and documentation of language. It was Welsh missionaries that encouraged the Khasi language to be documented, where before it had been only an oral tradition. She worked for Assam Government, but after her retirement she dedicated herself to literary works, including Aphira Award title and first book called “Syrwet Umjer” in 1989.  Speaking candidly on materlinsociety, the importance of men and women supporting each other equally as well as the connection between nature and the symbolic meanings of the Khasi tribe.

Preparations for the Nongkrem Dance festival are undertaken in November, where the villagers of Smit all come together as a community, young, old, male and female to clean the surrounding area and build the second part of the roof of the ceremonial cultural center that stands opposite the house of the Queen and King. Each year only one side of the roof is build up from naturally weaved straw. The queen is the leader of Smit village who has been welcoming Europeans during colonial and post-colonial time to experience this communal and celebratory time together in harmony.

In the Khasi Hills, rural life has developed at its' own pace. Agricultural techniques developed in collaboration each other are so elegantly balanced in unison that these native Khasis look like they are dancing with each other in the afternoon sun.

Shillong has often been called "Scotland of the East", because the rolling hills reminded European settlers of Scotland. Tartan checks were initially used as shawls called “Tapmohkhlieh”, literally meaning “head cover”, and worn from the top of the head, tied behind the neck in a knot and then loosely hanging over the upper body. This was the way both men and women wore them. Now it is mostly people from the villages who wear the “Tapmohkhlieh”. As much of the Khasi tradition has been passed down through oral history, it is not clear where the Tartan came from. However many Scottish, European and even people from Lancashire passed through these Khasi Hills. As Shillong is wet and often cold in the hills, the warmth was welcomed from these shawls. Khasi Women being Enterprising as they are, developed their own weaving based on this tartan and it is has become recognised as Khasi traditional dress, varying in style, yet keeping the checkered pattern.

Khasi Women have wisdom that goes far beyond the reaches of Shillong and the Khasi Hills. By exploring matrilineal societies such as the Khasis we can walk a step further towards balancing varying perspectives of gender equality, so that both men and women can strive to live in harmony by expressing their unique culture together whilst learning from others.

Worldview Impact Foundation
Credits: Story

Written and Curated by Jessica White

Photography and Camera by Ebor Tariang and Sawdamut Kharbuki

Video editing by Oliver Gardiner

Supported by WorldView Impact Foundation & Thinc Foundation

Special thanks to the people of Shillong, Meghalaya

Credits: All media
The story featured may in some cases have been created by an independent third party and may not always represent the views of the institutions, listed below, who have supplied the content.
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