Khasi - Religion and Expressive Culture
Religious Beliefs. Christian missionary work among the Khasi began in the late nineteenth century with the efforts of the Welsh Calvinistic Methodist mission. The effects of their endeavors and those of other Christian bodies have been considerable. Today over half of all Khasis have adopted Christianity. The missionary impact may be noted on almost all levels of culture. However, the core of traditional Khasi religious beliefs remains intact. The Khasi believe in a creator god (U Blei Nong-thaw) who is considered feminine in gender (Ka lei Synshar). She is invoked when sacrifices are offered and during times of trouble. The propitiation of good and evil spirits is also part of this system, as is the worship of ancestors. The following major spirits are worshiped: Ulei Muluk (god of the state); Ulei Umtang (god of drinking water and cooking water); Ulei Longspah (god of wealth); and O Ryngkew or U Basa Shnong (tutelary deity of the village).
Religious Practitioners. The propitiation of the spirits is carried out by the lyngdoh (priest) or by old men knowledgeable in the art of necromancy. Other practitioners include the soh-blei and soh-blah (male functionaries with limited sacerdotal functions), the ka soh-blei, also called ka-soh-sla or kalyngdoh (female priests who must be present at the offering of all sacrifices), and the nongkhan (diviners). The lyngdoh—who is always appointed from a special priestly clan, who holds his office for life, and who may be one of several within a state—is the chief functionary of the communal cults. He also has certain duties in conjunction with marital laws and household exorcism. In some states, the lyngdoh subsumes the responsibilities of siem (chief) and rules with the assistance of a council of elders. The duty of performing family ceremonies is the sole responsibility of the head of the family or clan who usually fulfills them through the agency of the kni (maternal uncle). Female priests must assist at all sacrifices and, in fact, are the only functionaries in possession of full sacerdotal authority. The lyngdoh exercises his duties as appointed agent of the ka soh-blei (female priest). It is believed that this system is an archaic survival from a period in Khasi history when the female priest acted as her own agent in the offering of sacrifice. In some states (e.g., Nongkrem), there is a high priestess who functions sacerdotally and as head of state. She delegates temporal responsibilities to a son or nephew who then exercises them as a siem. The adoption of Christianity by a large segment of Khasi society has resulted in important changes. The sacerdotal function of the youngest daughter (responsible, in traditional Khasi culture, for conducting burial services on behalf of her parents and for acting as chief practitioner of the family cult) has been threatened by Christian teaching and practice (i.e., the youngest daughter, if a Christian, is less likely to fulfill her priestly responsibilities to her family).
Ceremonies. Dancing and music are important parts of Khasi ritual, and the Nongkrem Dance (part of the pom-blang or goat-killing ceremony) is the major festival on the Khasi calendar. It is dedicated to Ka lei Synshar, for the ruling of the Khasi. Its purpose is to ensure substantial crop yield and good fortune for the state. It is held in late spring (usually in May). A number of state and communal rituals are also performed, in addition to many ceremonies associated with the human life cycle (birth, marriage, death, etc.).
Arts. Examples of decorative art include metal gongs (with animal engravings), implements of warfare (arrows, spears, bows, and shields), and memorial slabs (with engravings). To a limited extent woodwork, jewelry, and other industrial manufactures may be so classified. Music is an important part of Khasi religious ceremonies (both communal and clanrelated), hunting expeditions, and athletic events (e.g., archery contests). Musical forms include extemporaneous verse that is said to resemble, in form and content, magicoreligious incantations. Drums, guitars, wooden pipes and flutes, metal cymbals, and various harps are among the instruments used in Khasi musical performance. As was mentioned previously, dancing also accompanies most ceremonies in public and private life. With regard to literature, a considerable body of oral and written material exists. This includes proverbs, myths, legends, folktales, songs, and agricultural sayings.
Medicine, In traditional Khasi medical practice Magicoreligious means are used to prevent and treat sickness. The only indigenous drugs used are chiretta (a febrifuge of the Gentianaceae order— Swertia chirata ) and wormwood. Native medical specialists are not present. Generally illness is believed to be caused by one or more spirits as a result of a human act of omission. Health, within this system, can be restored only by the propitiation of the spirits or, if the spirits are not able to be appeased, by calling on other spirits for assistance. Divination is done by breaking an egg and "reading" the resulting signs.
Death and Afterlife. In Khasi eschatology, those who die and have proper funeral ceremonies performed on their behalf go to the house (or garden) of God, which is filled with betel-palm groves. Here they enjoy a state of endless bliss. Those who do not receive proper burial are believed to roam the Earth in the form of animals, birds, and insects. This idea of soul transmigration is believed to have been borrowed from Hindu theology. Unlike Christian eschatology, that of the Khasi is not characterized by a belief in any form of eternal punishment after death.