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Need to Revive the Tradition of Khasi Nongbah

By Fabian Lyngdoh

The Shillong City we have today was not the traditional Capital (Nongbah) of the Khasis; it was not even the capital of the erstwhile Hima Shillong. It was the Capital of the British colonial administration, established only in 1864 when the British selected a beautiful forest area and made it the centre of their administration for the north eastern region of India. In the past, people from all over the Khasi and Jaintia Hills knew this British administrative centre not as Shillong, but as ‘Laban’.

Before the advent of the British rule, the society of the ‘Hynniew Trep’ people in the Khasi and Jaintia Hills was a sort of international order, composed of numerous independent political communities called, ‘Raid’ or ‘Hima’. The ‘Raid’ was a territorial political community or city state, but the term ‘Hima’ stands for the voluntary federation of these independent city states. However, small Himas with single Raids were also territorial city states. Usually, the Khasis lived in the ‘Nongbah’ (Capital) of their own respective traditional city states, where fortresses in the form of natural stone formations and caves, enforced by deep and wide trenches were constructed to protect the inhabitants from possible enemies. Within the Nongbah or outside the Nongbah, a catchment area was consecrated as a sacred grove, to protect the water source and bio-resources of the community. A little away from the fortified Nongbah, the community graveyard was demarcated, where ‘ki mawbah’ (bone repositories) of respective clans were constructed. Numerous monoliths and dolmens were constructed for different purposes in the Nongbah and outside the Nongbah. Hence, in the past, all the Khasis were the inhabitants of well planned traditional cities, and they identified each other in the context of these city states, such as ‘u Thaiang’, ‘u Nongtluh’, ‘u Nongkrem’, ‘u Mushai’, ‘u Mylliem’, ‘u Jwai’, ‘u Mukhla’, ‘u Sohra’, etc.

The traditional Khasi city states were not equal to the Greek city states in material civilisation, but they were self-sufficient in natural and cultural resources. The Khasi concept of God might be more logical than the logical Greeks. The ancient Greeks believed that their chief god, Zeus, led a war of the gods and married his sisters, and had sexual affairs with numerous lesser goddesses, nymphs and mortals. But for the Khasi,it is not logical for Almighty God to be under the control of Fate, and much less to be involved in the sexual affairs of men.

Under the British rule, the organisation and autonomy of the Khasi traditional political communities have been dissolved  and brought into one administrative entity called the ‘Khasi and Jaintia Hills District’ under the rule of the British Deputy Commissioner. When Shillong became the Nongbah of that new entity, the traditional capitals of the Raids and Himas were made redundant; people from all over the Khasi and Jaintia Hills began migrating to Shillong. A new conceptual division of people into ‘ki nongsor’ (urbanites) and ‘ki nongkyndong’ (rural folks) came into existence along with the establishment of Shillong. In the past, there could be ‘kyntoits’ (sections) of a Nongbah but there was no concept of ‘nongkyndong’ (peripheral settlements) in the traditional Khasi society. All the people were Nongbah dwellers, and all were equal. Hence, the concept of ‘nongsor’ and ‘nongkyndong’ as a conceptual social stratification is traditionally baseless.

Formerly, Shillong was not a particularly significant area in the Khasi and Jaintia Hills. But today, it seems that people have begun to believe that it was established by the ancestors since time immemorial as the centre of Khasi tradition and culture. In reality, the Nongbah of all the ‘Raids’ and ‘Himas’ in Jaintia Hills, West Khasi Hills, as well as the Ri Bhoi area, were all at the same level of civilisation with the Nongbah of Hima Shillong at Nongkseh, or that of the Hima Sohra. The ancient sites in the Nongbah of the Raids in Ri Bhoi area such as, Iapngar, Thaiang, Nongtung, Nongpoh, Nongtluh, Nongkhrah, and all other Raids in the Khasi and Jaintia Hills had more or less been at the same level of civilisation. It is only the coming of the British that had made the difference. British settlement in Sohra and Shillong, and the emergence of literature in these areas seem to have created the idea of Khasi mainstream-culture as belonging to the people living in the Shillong plateau, and Khasi subaltern-cultures as belonging to the people of other Raids and Himas. The fact is that, the basic values and ideals are the same all through the Khasi and Jaintia Hills, but all the Raids and Himas had their own varied cultural practices, and one was not subordinate to the other. Hence, the present trend to interpret Khasi culture and history in terms of Western feudalistic models would be totally misleading.

     By virtue of the tradition of being city dwellers in numerous Nongbah, we should have by now been experts in the art of municipal administration. But, in spite of the wisdom of the ancestors, today we are stuck up in the various muddy pools of British innovations, and we have not been able to improve on our own traditions. We have lost the tradition of equality and federalism, and we have also lost the tradition of living in well organised city states. Our ancestors had as many Capitals as there were the Raids and Himas, with equal level of civilisation and equal dignity. But today, we want only one urban centre in Shillong; and, that every modern facility should be within it. The new State Legislative Assembly building should have been built at Mawdiangdiang, or anywhere else a long time back. But since we have come to believe that the British are our de-facto ancestors, we feel that nothing of worth should be established out of our British legacy. The city of Shillong which the British established according to their own requirement has already become miserably congested and is becoming a big conglomeration of slums and ghettos, and a nightmarish thoroughfare.

     Those among us who live and experience life only in Shillong might think that the Ri Khasi is only in Shillong, and that Shillong is the whole of Ri Khasi. But, Shillong is only a dot in the Ri Khasi. The problems of Shillong are not the problems of the entire Ri Khasi. The problems of Shillong become the problems of Ri Khasi only because following in the footsteps of the British, we want only Shillong to be the Nongbah of the whole Khasi tribe. In reality, Shillong is the Nongbah of the British colonial rule, and the Nongbah of Meghalaya today, but not the traditional Nongbah of the Khasi tribe. However, it depends on our choice. If we want that the joys of all blessings should be only in Shillong, we should also have to suffer the sorrow of all the curses; and if we want the benefit of all the good, we should also have to bear the disgust of all the filth. Let us understand that even if Shillong City goes down the drain, the Ri Khasi shall always remain.

But let us think over calmly. We have the tradition of living in numerous Nongbah (Capitals). So, if we insist on having only one Nongbah in Shillong, then all will flock to reside in in it; and that has caused miserable congestion. Moreover, even those who do not reside in Shillong, would rush forward to save it, even with weapons of stones and sticks, if there is perception, (whether true or false), that it is in danger. It is here that we have the contemptuous remark; “Save the jaidbynriew at Motphran” because presently, Motphran is the only Capital that Khasis have.

     So, for the betterment of all, we have to retrieve our own tradition. Let us establish modern urban centres as replicas of the Nongbah everywhere as in the past. Let all the District Head Quarters and other towns be made urban centres, where all modern facilities are available. Important health centres, educational and economic institutes should be established in all the other towns of the Khasi and Jaintia Hills.

     Shillong is not a traditional Nongbah, so are all modern urban centres that have been established, and would be established. Therefore, as Toki Blah had suggested in his article, “A Flummoxed Urban Citizen” (ST July 3, 2018), democratic governance system should be established in modern urban centres even if only the Khasis are involved. The silly question, “Where is the status of our hereditary Syiems and Dalois?” in such scheme of things, should not be entertained, because that question itself is a legacy of the British rule which politicians today are trying to make capital of. So, let us recreate numerous Nongbah for spreading civilisation, and Shillong would be saved from the problems it is facing today.   


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