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Khasi: One of India’s Last Remaining Matrilineal Tribes

Matrilineal traditions of the Khasi tribe: Navigating cultural heritage and contemporary realities

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19 Feb '24
6 min read


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During a casual conversation with a friend, an intriguing question about existing matrilineal societies surfaced. To our surprise, there are just a handful, according to a website, Town And Countrymag: Mosuo in China, Bribri in Costa Rica, Umoja in Kenya, Minangkabau in Indonesia, Akan in Ghana, and Khasi in India. 

The revelation is particularly refreshing in a country like India, where the roots of patriarchy and gender inequality run deep. The focus shifts to societies where women are treated with equal respect and their existence is detrimental for the community.

Deep within the enchanting landscapes of north eastern India lies a matrilineal gem: the Khasi tribe. Here, time seems to follow a different cadence, orchestrated by the potent essence of matriliny, where women hold sway.

The piece delves into the core beliefs of the Khasi tribe, unveiling the essence of their matrilineal structure. We look at the historical roots, the intricacies, and how the civilisation grapples with challenges in the current times. 

Who are Khasi?

The origin of the Khasis is shrouded in various theories. According to local folklore, the Khasis trace their roots to seven divine clans. In his 1967 book, The History And Culture Of The Khasi People, author and historian Hamlet Bareh proposes that the Khasis originated from an ancient Austric race in Southeast Asia, descending from a Mon-Khmer group in the remote Burmese jungles. While the exact migration timeline of the Khasis to the mountains and foothills of north-eastern India remains uncertain, linguistic evidence indicates that their language, Khasi, shares similarities with Mon-Khmer dialects.

Today, the Khasis primarily reside in and around the Khasi and Jaintia hills in Meghalaya and Assam. They constitute nearly 35% of the population. During the Bangladesh Liberation War in 1971, some families got separated and now live across the border from Meghalaya in Bangladesh. 

Although the Khasi population is known by at least seven different names, collectively they are referred to as the Hynniewtrep people. 

According to the legend, they are descended from the Supreme Being and Creator, U Blei Nongthaw, and the first lady, Ka Ngot. This mythological narrative emphasises the importance of matrilineal kinship and the fundamental function of women in Khasi society. It expresses the cultural beliefs that are passed down through generations, highlighting the matrilineal structure as an essential element of their identity.

Matrilineal Kinship

As mentioned above, In Khasi culture, matrilineal society emphasises ancestry and inheritance through the mother's side. This one-of-a-kind structure gives women social and economic authority in the community, serving as an encouraging example of gender equality.

Key Highlights

  • Lineage and ancestry are traced back to the mother's clan
  • Children take mother's surname
  • The husband moves into his wife's home
  • The family's youngest daughter (khadduh) inherits the entire ancestral or clan property
  • The khadduh becomes the ‘custodian’ of the land, assuming all  responsibilities
  • This inheritance practice is solely for ancestral or clan/community property 
  • The self-acquired property can be equally divided among siblings.

Lineage and Inheritance

Many Khasi clans trace their descent from revered ancestresses known as 'Kiaw' or grandmothers, specifically referred to as 'ki Iwabei-Tynrai,' signifying grandmothers of the clan's root. In Khasi culture, these ancestresses hold a sacred and revered status.

The descendants of a clan's ancestor, such as 'Ka lawbei Tynrai,' are identified as 'Shi Kur' or one clan. Another sub-clan, 'Kpoh,' comprises the descendants of a single great-grandmother, known as 'Shi-Kpoh.' This intricate system reflects the deep significance of lineage and ancestry in Khasi society.

Khasi communities primarily live in closely-knit extended families or clans. The unique practice of daughters inheriting their mother's last name plays a pivotal role in ensuring clan continuity. While all daughters, except the youngest (known as 'ka khadduh'), have the freedom to live within or outside their ancestral home, the youngest daughter assumes the role of the property custodian. 

Even after marriage, she remains connected to her ancestral home and takes over as the head of the household after her mother's passing, showcasing the enduring strength of familial bonds in Khasi society.

The Khadduh

The Khadduhor the youngest daughter is the keeper of the family property and ancestral home. She is an institution in her own right. Her residence is open to everyone. If any member of the family is in despair, one can find peace and aid in the Khadduh's home. Being the primary custodian, she inherits the family's property as she performs family ceremonies, cares for elderly parents, and honours family ancestors. Consequently, the 'khadduh' holds a substantial inheritance, receiving the majority of her mother's property, including the family jewels, home, and associated assets.

However, a unique aspect of Khasi tradition is that she cannot sell the house without obtaining permission from her sisters, emphasising the collaborative decision-making and familial ties within the Khasi community.

When it comes to the men in the society, Khadduh’s husband is expected to be open-hearted, accommodating, and assist the household members.

Source: Monday India

Meanwhile, the maternal uncles (‘kni’) serve as the family's counsellors and mediators. They also enjoy considerable authority and prominence in society, which frequently leads to perplexing observations regarding their true place in Khasi society. Often uncles hold actual power with women pushed to the background. 

Social Dynamics

Marriage in Khasi society does not involve the transfer of property or dowry. Instead, the groom often becomes part of the bride's household, contributing to the matrilocal nature of their customs.

The rule of matrilineal descent is central to the Khasi social structure; the youngest daughter, the khadduh, gets all property, including the family dwelling. 

If a woman does not have a daughter, she may adopt a female member of the clan to carry on the family line. Adoption is referred to as 'nongrap-ling', and female adoptees are referred to as 'ka nongrap-ling'. 

The changing narrative 

The matrilineal society of the Khasi tribe in Meghalaya is currently experiencing a transitional phase. While the government strives to modernise its traditional political institutions for efficient democratic decentralisation, conflicts arise with the Khasi Hills Autonomous District Council (KHADC) regarding the 'management of village-level governance.' Simultaneously, a fraction of Khasi men, feeling deprived of property rights, seek recognition on par with Khasi women.

It might sound surprising, but Khasi women don’t have complete agency.  They face a lack of political representation and are discouraged from expressing political opinions, as Patricia Mukhim points out in the academic paper Khasi-Pnar matriliny: Reclaiming lost spaces. 

In a news article, Margaret Lyngdoh, a researcher at the Department of Estonian and Comparative Folklore, University of Tartu in Estonia, even further stated  that women in Khasi society “do not have the upper hand in political and administrative governance.” They have the traditional role of bringing up children, creating the clan, and furthering it. It isn’t different from a patriarchal society where men make political decisions and provide for their families, she observed. 

Increased education and urbanisation imply that more members are traveling to locations like Shillong, where both matrilineal and patrilineal societies coexist, or to places outside the state where only patriarchal systems exist. 

A church in Shillong, Meghalaya

The clans' power is dwindling as families become nuclear and adopt Christianity which, although not directly challenging matrilineality, strengthens patriarchal values. This contributes to the consolidation of the father's authority, gradually overshadowing the maternal authority.

Category : World


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Written by Deepali Singh