|A bundle of betel leaf, ready for sale.|
|Khasis in Ishachora Punjee sorting the betel|
In part by circumstance, in part by design, from their betel gardens in the hills beyond Kulaura the wary Khasi have most often kept mainstream society at a distance. But increasingly they are discovering the need to engage, to protect their rights and build a better future. At the same time, the community’s self-confidence is growing through a process of rediscovering their written language and history.
|Through the trees: a home on the hilltop of Kukijuri Punjee, Kulaura, Moulvibazar.|
|Henry Talang and his wife.|
Apart from the stars, the night’s leafy darkness had only been broken by a chain of orange-tinted lights and the glow of distant lower towns on the plains. The lights were spaced along the far hill and marked the Indian border. Which towns of Moulvibazar District were glowing was not certain: was that Robi Bazar or Kamalganj? Was that Kulaura? On the other side, the villagers said, one town-glow marked Tripura’s Kailashahar, the other Dharmanagar. The oxygen was unadulterated, the silence almost magical in this land of the seven huts. It’d seemed a shame to sleep.
|Montri Joseph Konglah and his wife.|
Talang, 30, is the Montri’s second son. Montri is the title for the leader of a Khasi village. By tradition he chooses his successor from among his sons – whichever he deems most capable; or in the case of no sons he might choose a son-in-law. But there’s flexibility. A Montri can hold his title until death or retire. Villagers sometimes elect a new Montri and there are also punjees – what Khasi villages are called – run by committee. In Kukijuri though, it looks as though Talang is next in line. He’s already responsible for much of the punjee’s affairs, which is probably the reason he often carries a look of tension.
“Bengali tourists don’t come here,” current Montri, Joseph Konglah, 65, said on the previous evening. “Only foreigners come. About eight years ago some Spaniards came. A French couple stayed here once.”
|The road to Kukijuri.|
|Chopped wood stacked and ready.|
Talang promised that after breakfast we could walk in the hills. The goal was to reach even more remote punjees. But before that, in first morning light it was as well to consider Kukijuri – the surprise of finding such a well-established village high on a hill was not diminished but refreshed. Most houses were brick – and every brick was carted in, through the tea gardens, along the muddy path that follows the gully and merges in narrow spaces with the stream. Every brick was hauled up the hillside by hand, along the same path I’d taken.
|Isolated Kukijuri is home to 47 families.|
|A pig greets Kukijuri's morning.|
At the back of the Montri’s house the pigs have started shuffling about in their pens. They’re hungry and grunting. Wood’s been chopped and stacked high ready for winter. It’s neat and orderly.
|The Montri's front yard, Kukijuri.|
|Betel leaf collecting baskets outside a home in Kukijuri Punjee.|
|Betel nut plantation. Harvest is in December.|
|Kukijuri Punjee is 80% Catholic, 20% Presbyterian.|
|A church in Kukijuri.|
|Busy with the betel harvest. Ishachora Punjee.|
|Henry Talang crossing a bridge on the way to Belwa Punjee.|
Downhill isn’t difficult except that the knees start to shake. There’s a half-hour walk and five bamboo bridges to cross to reach Belwa Punjee. At a much lower altitude, like Kukijuri it’s spread across a ridgeline. Home to 65 families, Belwa is much younger: a 25-year-old punjee that formerly fell within Konglah’s jurisdiction.
|Five bridges to cross on the way to Belwa.|
But for the last 18 months Belwa has had its own 35-year-old Montri, chosen by the punjee committee. He takes advice from Kukijuri. He’s invited us into his home. As is usual in a Khasi house we are offered tea and biscuits, and a little later, a sample of the rice wine called kyat. “The best thing about our punjee,” says the young Montri, “are the betel gardens. In newer areas the betel grows well.”
|A home in Belwa Punjee.|
Yet betel cultivation often brings the Khasis in that area into conflict with mainstream society. There are attempts by influential locals to secure access to hillside land and resources. Forestry officials seek illegal payment. Instances of punjees being attacked and betel vines cut are not uncommon – and a betel vine takes three years to regrow.
|Belwa betel vines.|
|New houses in Belwa Punjee.|
Indeed a Montri’s responsibilities are many. He mediates disputes, ensures the sick are attended to and maintains the punjee’s accounts recording betel leaf sales. He also leases land to each family – Khasis traditionally practice collective property rights. According to the Bangladesh District Gazetteer, Sylhet, of 1970, the Montri “pokes his nose in every business.”
|Raksham at the IPDS office in Kulaura.|
Joyanto Lawrence Raksham, 38, is a Mandi (Garo) who, as project coordinator for local NGO, Indigenous People’s Development Services (IPDS), has been working with the punjees of Kulaura for six years. As a student he had Khasi friends and assumed punjees would not be dissimilar to Mandi villages. “But I saw it was not like ours,” he says, “The Khasis live in a tight community; Mandi villages are not like that. Khasis are united and uncompromising. Their sense of nationalism is strong. Whereas Mandis will readily speak Bangla, even to each other, Khasis don’t – and I couldn’t understand a word!”
|IPDS training for Khasis, Monipuris, Tripuris, Mandis etc.|
|The Montri's family in Ishachora, wearing traditional diek kiang.|
|Raksham has crossed many bamboo bridges.|
It’s unsurprising that such liberties and localised harmony invoke a sense of protectiveness. Nonetheless, nowadays Raksham can understand some Khasi language and he is often considered as an honorary Montri. Khasis share their problems with him.
|The new church under construction in Dulukchara Punjee.|
|Dulukchara's new church.|
|Parrot and betel basket.|
|Henry Talang. Tea in Dulukchara.|
Dulukchara is home to 25 families – 5 Catholic, 15 Presbyterian and the remainder followers of the old religion. There’s a new church under construction and a primary school of 30 students funded by Norwegian missionary aid.
|Rosebell Khasi (left). Dulukchara Punjee.|
By mid-afternoon Talang and I have completed the strenuous climb back to Kukijuri. In the meantime the bazaar has arrived. Shoes, clothes, utensils... every imaginable item is carted up the hill by Bengali traders to be sold door to door.
|The Dulukchara road.|
|Students at Kukijuri primary school with sole teacher Probin Areng.|
|Teacher Probin Areng believes in education.|
I am invited to the primary school a few hundred yards along the ridge from the Montri’s house. It consists of one long room with a large blackboard at one end and a smaller one at the other. There are several long tables and benches, also mats to sit on.
|Betel leaf sorting, Kukijuri.|
|Probin Areng with the 'big blackboard' at his school.|
But for Kukijuri’s families enrolling children beyond class 5 isn’t straightforward. The nearest schooling options for higher grades, Haiderganj and Laxmipur, are each several kilometres away, entailing the additional expense of boarding hostels. For university the most common choices are Sylhet or Dhaka. Of the few who complete university, most don’t return.
|A betel vine. Kukijuri.|
|A class at Laxmipur Mission High School.|
“To go from one culture to another is difficult,” says Khonglah of her university days in Dhaka a decade ago. “The adjustment is hard. Dhaka is a big city – the houses are different. Things move very quickly and everybody speaks Bangla. We come from the punjee!”
|Khonglah and Lamarong. Khasi pioneers.|
She mentions the shock of seeing women wearing burqas for the first time. “Women in Dhaka are also free,” she says, “but we were used to the punjee where even at night there is no risk to women walking about.”
|Monica Khonglah and Cecelia Lamarong believe education can bring a better future to the Khasi community.|
|An ingenious "tap". Ishachora Punjee.|
In recent decades Christian attitudes have shifted towards recognising the inherent value of local cultures. The new approach has encouraged the Khasis, despite in many ways having maintained their separate identity, to re-engage with their past. And that is, of course, to know themselves better.
|Areca (betel nut) palms, Kukijuri.|
This article is published in Star Magazine, here: Meeting Moulvibazar's Khasis
|Neat and tidy: Ishachora's Montri's veranda.|