Khasi - Sociopolitical Organization



Social Organization. Khasi villages tend to be endogamous units, each one containing a number of matrilineal clans (kur). Members of these clans trace their descent from a common female ancestor. Solidarity is manifest largely on this level of social organization. There are three class-defined lineages—nobles, commoners, and slaves. Elderly men and men of importance wear turbans as a sign of status, and men who have sponsored a great feast may wear silver armlets above the elbows. Wealth can be demonstrated in a number of ways, including the size of the mawbynna (monument) one has constructed at the burial site of a deceased person and the ownership of decorative gongs ( wiang ). In some sense, the lyngdohship (priesthood) may also be treated as a sign of status. The matrilineal clan is perhaps the most important primary institution. The position of women is more prominent than that of men. As member of a clan, a man will be lost to his mother's clan when he marries, his status shifting from that of u kur (brother) in his clan to that of u shong ka (begetter) in his wife's clan. He is not allowed to participate in the religious observances of his wife's clan and when he dies he is not buried in his wife's family tomb. Women also assume leadership in secondary institutions (e.g., religion) as evidenced by their management of the family cults and the performance of its attendant rituals.


Political Organization. The Khasi state system arose originally from the voluntary association of villages or groups thereof. The head of state is the siem (chief). He has limited monarchical powers. He may perform certain acts without the approval of his durbar (an executive council over which he presides). He also possesses judicial powers. Those who sit on the durbar are called mantris. These individuals are charged with the actual management of the state. Some states have officials called sirdars (village headmen) who collect labor, receive pynsuk (gratification) for the siem, and settle local cases. In Nongstoin there is an official called a lyngskor who acts as supervisor of a number of sirdars. In most states the siem is the religious and secular head of state. He conducts certain public religious ceremonies, consults oracles and acts as judge (the durbar being the jury) in legal cases, and in times past was the literal head of the army in battle. The siem was chosen by popular election in Langrim, Bhoval, and Nobosohpoh states. The British attempted to impose this system on all Khasi states but the results of their efforts were questionable. Little was accomplished save the confirmation of an electoral body that itself elected the siem. Succession to siemship is always through the female side. A new siem is elected from a siem family (of which there is one in every state) by an electoral body that may be composed of representatives from certain priestly and nonpriestly clans, village headmen, and basams (market supervisors).

Social Control. Interpersonal tensions, domestic disagreements, and interclan disputes account for the major part of conflict within Khasi society. Other sources include the swearing of false oaths, incest, revenge, conversions to other religions, failure to maintain the family religious cults, adultery, rape, arson, and sorcery. Social control is maintained by clan, village, state, and national authorities. The traditional means used to maintain order included exile, monetary fines, curses, disinheritance, enforced servitude, imprisonment, capital punishment, confinement (e.g., in the stocks), imposition of fetters, and confinement to a bamboo platform under which chilies were burnt.


Conflict. Conflict between states and regions (e.g., Between the Khasi and the peoples of the plains) was prevalent before the arrival of the British. The taking of heads (associated with the worship of the war god U Syngkai Bamon) was also practiced by the Khasi. In their conflict with British Imperial forces, the Khasi relied heavily on ambush and guerrilla tactics. Little is known of traditional Khasi contacts with other groups.


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