Tribal communities have always shared a close relationship with nature, be it for sustenance, shelter, health, aesthetics, recreation or spirituality. Monoliths, ossuaries, cairns, cromlechs and other stone monuments are found all over the world, especially in the continents of Asia, Africa and Europe. The prevalence of stone culture has no regional boundaries as memorial stones are seen in many societies. In India, such stone structures are found in the southern states, and also in the Khasi-Jaintia Hills of the state of Meghalaya where they have been intricately woven into tribal culture and traditions from time immemorial.
On April 11, 2018, Martin Luther Christian University held a seminar entitled ‘Khasi History in Stone’, perhaps the first ever conference on traditional stone monuments of the Khasi and Jaintia Hills. The speakers were drawn from several academic institutions in Meghalaya to present findings from their field work. The seminar was a tribute to late Robin Laloo, a prominent conservationist and supporter of cultural projects.
The keynote address was delivered by Srikumar Menon, from the Department of Heritage and Humanities, National Institute of Advanced Studies, Indian Institute of Science, Bangalore. Dr Menon is the author of the books Ancient Stone Riddles and Comets: Nomads of the Solar System. He spoke on “The Megaliths of Prehistoric Communities in Southern India”. His presentation, full of pictures, covered many newly discovered stone structures in Kerala, Karnataka and Tamil Nadu. His talk, refreshingly shorn of technical jargon and academic pretensions, proved a valuable primer on different kinds of monoliths, and their unique arrangements, though much of their cultural significance lost with the passage of time. Menon is a multifaceted person: architect, archaeologist and astronomer, and he has determined the celestial alignments of some megalith groupings.
Binora Marsharing, a PhD scholar at North Eastern Hill University presented her research work on “Iron Working among the Khasis” and traced the links of the old iron industry with monoliths. Her presentation included drawings and other details of the smelting of iron, highlighting the unique processes and the prominent role of women.
Marco Mitri from Union Christian College spoke on “Monumentality in Khasi-Jaintia Pre-History”. His fascinating talk described his archeological findings at various sites in Ri Bhoi, mostly in the hill slopes along the Umiam river, though sites have been excavated in other parts of the Khasi and Jaintia Hills. His work has unearthed stone tools, weapons, and debitage from the Neolithic Period, with some of the artifacts dating from about 1000 BC.
His discovery of old iron implements such as fish spearheads, drilling tools and arrowheads help to date the antiquity of the iron industry in the region. Potsherds of earthenware made from red and white kaolinite indicate advanced techniques including kiln baking at temperatures up to 650 degrees celsius.
His meticulous sifting of soil samples have revealed seeds and other plant remnants of a variety of species including rice (wild and domesticated strains), jujube, gooseberry, Job’s tears, millet and cotton. Mitri’s findings have begun to write the pre-history of people of this region, and provide possible links with Khasi folklore.
“Ossuaries among the Khasis: a study in Ummat and Sohbar villages” was presented by Larilin Kharpuri and Gardinia Nongbri of the Department of Environment and Traditional Ecosystems of MLCU. Their field work described the mawbah, the box-like bone burial sites of 12 Khasi clans, found in close proximity, placed in a straight line in a sacred forest. The openings of these mawbah always face east, except for clans which have become extinct. For those clans, duh-jait, the openings of the mawbah face westward.
The topic “Stone structures along the royal path of Jaintia kings from Nartiang to Jaintiapur” was taken by H H Mohrmen, the well-known writer and community activist of Jowai. His pictorial presentation took us on the 73 km journey from Nartiang to Jaintiapur, now in Bangladesh but earlier the winter capital of the Jaintia kings. Along the way are many monolith assemblages, stone-arch bridges and the flat stone Thlum Uwi bridge. One of the bridges has well-hewn carvings, one of which seems to depict a mythical animal.
Kitboklang Nongrum of MLCU described the rules of “Mawkorkotia: A children’s game in stone”, one of the popular pastimes of yore. The game is played by two persons or two teams, who move cowrie shells, seeds or stones along a series of cups, strategically seeking to capture these objects belonging to the opponent. The game was played by farmers, who stayed up through the night keeping watch over the fields. Children played for fun, adults sometimes gambled for money. A video of two players was shown, though the game is hardly played anymore.
Many Khasi folk tales are associated with stone structures and some of these stories were related by Evan D. Diengdoh and Ibanrilin C Basaiawmoit of MLCU. Tales of the child-eating boulder and the giant stone resembling a khoh, conical basket, at Thankarang Park in Sohra were narrated with animation graphics.
Though not present, the PhD work of Danny Burke at National University, Ireland, entitled “Jingkynmaw: memories written in stone” was briefly described. Danny spoke to the audience over a speaker phone.
During the inauguration, a group of students sang the ballad of U maw nguid briew, and enacted the tragic story of the mother who lost two children to a stone that swallowed them. A group of paintings by local artists depicting monoliths was exhibited at the back of the hall.
(The authors are from Martin Luther Christian University)