Thursday, 25 September 2014

Land of the Seven Huts

Meeting Moulvibazar’s Khasis

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.

Eyes opened as the rooster crowed. Dawn had arrived in Kukijuri. In the village of the Khasis perched on jungle hilltop, as it should be, activity begins with first light. Yards are being swept, clothes washed and hung to dry. Henry Talang wanders over from the main house. I suspect there’ll soon be tea.

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.

Nothing in a punjee can happen without the Montri’s approval. As a visitor it was natural to go to his house first. It’s why I was invited to stay there. The Montri’s house isn’t hard to find. It’s usually the highest house in the punjee.

Kukijui Punjee.

“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.

On the ridgeline is a basic iron gate to mark entry to the punjee. Inside, among the houses of the 47 families are two churches – Kukijuri is 80% Catholic and 20% Presbyterian – and a primary school. As is customary for the Khasis the surrounding areas are betel gardens: well-tended, semi-cleared areas of forest. The betel vines grow on taller trees and do best with a good dose of sunlight. Betel leaf and areca nut are the main cash crops.

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.

A few villagers are disappearing into the forest. They’ve set off along winding, rough paths that lead into the valleys. They’ve each got soap and a towel, ready to bathe in a stream.

But most prefer to wait for water to reach them. It’s carried up in buckets, very often by tea garden labourers. The gardens are some miles off but the labourers are keen to earn extra, early morning cash. Each bucket will fetch ten taka on one of Kukijuri’s verandas. Water fees: it’s in the nature of a hilltop Khasi economy.

The Montri's front yard, Kukijuri.

The day in Kukijuri began with the rooster crowing – as though he was inviting sunlight into the hills. Of course with each sunrise starts the way to the future. And yet that dawn also felt untarnished and ancient, as though finding inner strength requires a reconnection with the past.

Betel leaf collecting baskets outside a home in Kukijuri Punjee.


Betel nut plantation. Harvest is in December.

When U Blei of the old belief first thought to create the world, did he plan for his Khasi to settle in these hills? He is U Blei, she is Ka Blei and they are Ki Blei: God belongs to every gender and number. God was known too as the designer-creator U Blei Nongthaw Nogbuh, before Christianity. He still is in parts of Meghalaya and by a few Khasis in Bangladesh who follow the old religion.

There’s a myth of how Khasis came to the world. It was a time when the Earth was verdant and splendid – but empty. The Earth petitioned the creator to send a custodian. A heavenly assembly was called and it was decided that of the Khyndai-trep, the sixteen “huts” residing in heaven, seven should be sent to remain on Earth as guardians. That must’ve been the time when those hills first filled with that cheerful greeting “Khublei!” still to be encountered in abundance.

Kukijuri Punjee is 80% Catholic, 20% Presbyterian.
The Khasis call themselves Ki Hynñiew trep: the seven huts. In Moulvibazar they also call themselves the Khasi – not Khasia as many Bengalis prefer.

Those first days were of peace and prosperity – God promised to stay with the seven huts; and he planted a giant tree to act as ladder between heaven and Earth. As long as this tree remained the people of the seven huts could go up and down as they pleased; but if it was felled sin and suffering would emerge. God gave three commandments: earn righteousness through labour, know mankind to know God, and know your maternal and paternal kin. While Khasi society has no caste, according to the last of these Khasi may not marry from the same clan.[1]

A church in Kukijuri.
Unfortunately the evil one persuaded brothers U Sormok and U Sorphim to cut down the giant tree – convincing them it would block all sunlight and suffocate Earthly life. With the tree fallen the Earth became bright, ironically good for betel vines, but God’s promise was broken.[2]

There are over one million Khasis. Most live India’s Meghalaya. Kukijuri is one of 38 punjees in Kulaura, of an estimated 94 in greater Sylhet. The Montri suggests the Khasi population of Bangladesh might reach 35,000.

It is thought the Khasi have been in the region for a long time – longer than most of the other ethnic minorities of Bangladesh. The Khasi language is of the Austroasiatic family thought to have originated in India, passed through the Brahmaputra Valley and into Southeast Asia. Khasi is related to Mon, Vietnamese and Khmer, and to the Munda languages of central India.

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.

Part of the problem is that there is no clarity of land tenure. There is not even consensus among government officials. Local forest officers claim jurisdiction; the Deputy Commissioner says they have none. This does not help the Khasi when forest officers come knocking.

Belwa betel vines.
The Montri of Ishachora Punjee nearer to the tea gardens put it this way: “The Forest Department officials are very pleasant. We drink tea together... and then they want money or trees. If we refuse they make false cases.” Honesty is highly prized in Khasi culture. They don’t bargain. They don’t lie. One wonders how much the cultural gap exacerbates these difficulties.

On behalf of Kukijuri, Talang says he is currently involved in seven cases – and the expense of pursuing justice involving lawyers and trips to Dhaka’s High Court is a drain on punjee finances. In Belwa too, the new Montri singles out forestry cases. “The Montri’s work is very tough,” he says, “There’s much to do – the cases are the worst.”

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.”[3]

A few houses in 25-year-old Belwa Punjee.

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.
While the Mandi once had a similar – nokma – governance system it has declined in importance and Raksham needed to adjust to the Montri way of getting things done. He noted that Khasi villages tended to be located in isolated areas away from Bengali villages and towns – and juxtaposed to their hospitality he soon understood Khasis are by nature reserved and wary of outsiders. “It took time to win their trust,” he says.

The Montri's family in Ishachora, wearing traditional diek kiang.

Yet perhaps because of their isolation and self-sufficiency, Khasis have been able to preserve more of their self-identity through the conversion to Christianity and into the modern era. Punjees at their best are free of crime and serious internal conflict. While matrilineal traditions are changing – in Kukijuri males now commonly inherit an equal property share – women have a high status. “Though the eldest earning male member is the manager of the family” reads the Gazetteer, “his wife exercises greater influence.” Marriages and divorces are straightforward and common with no stigma attached. It’s even possible for Khasi couples to raise a family without the formal acknowledgement of marriage.

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.


Dulukchara school.

The new church under construction in Dulukchara Punjee.
Dulukchara's new church.

From Belwa, Talang and I backtrack some way before heading along a new path to reach 14-year-old Dulukchara Punjee. “We don’t have a Montri,” says Rosebell Khasi, inviting us into his home, “This is a committee punjee.” Rosebell’s father was the previous Montri before he retired; his son is a committee member.

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.

“Our punjee was really poor but for the last five years the betel grew well,” says Rosebell.

Rosebell Khasi (left). Dulukchara Punjee.

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.

Teacher Probin Areng, 56, is undoubtedly grateful for the two blackboards and seating options. As the only teacher, he instructs classes KG to 5 simultaneously, to cover the ages of the school’s 46 students. Areng is Mandi – he decided to move to Kukijuri in recent years after buying a betel garden nearby, and has brought the teaching experience of a long career, including fourteen years at Laxmipur Mission High School in the plains.

It’s hardly unusual for a Khasi punjee to have a
Betel leaf sorting, Kukijuri.
resident Mandi teacher. Not too many years ago for lack of qualified Khasis all the local teachers were Mandi. It’s a circumstance that hasn’t changed much. “At first they didn’t want to study,” Areng says of his experience, “I had to drag them to school! They were scared.”

Yet, he’s a teacher with high hopes. “Education is the key to the future,” he says, “Earlier people did not take care about education – things are changing but it will take time.”

Kukijuri homes.
It’s not only a matter of keeping students enthusiastic – each month in the presence of the Montri, Areng meets their guardians. “I tell parents to give love and support, to ask their children what they learnt and how school is going – to take an interest.”

“I like to see my students succeed,” he says. “Fourteen are at college, twenty-seven at high school. I have former students working with the church and NGOs. I’m really pleased.”

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.


Everything must be carried by hand to punjees such as Dulukchara.
A betel vine. Kukijuri.

Cecelia Lamarong 32, and Monica Khonglah, 30, are welcome exceptions. Khasis with tertiary qualifications from Dhaka, these two confident and articulate pioneers teach at the Laxmipur Mission High School – Areng’s former stomping ground. Indeed, as former students they number among his successes.

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.”

“When we studied there,” says Lamarong, “there were only thirteen Khasis living in Dhaka.”

One advantage of having Khasi teachers is that when students have difficulties they are better placed to help. “If they don’t understand in Bangla,” says Khonglah, “we can explain in Khasi.” “We understand what’s different for them,” adds Lamarong.

Another innovation has been the inclusion of Khasi language classes. While previously the Khasi language, written in Latin script, was sometimes taught informally through churches, classes are now held for eighty students after their other classes are done. “At first they didn’t like it,” says Khonglah, “But I teach songs, poetry and rhymes and they perform them at school.”

The Khasi language was once endangered but has experienced a revival. In particular the written form is not well-entrenched in Bangladesh, given that books needed to be imported from India. But last year Caritas started publishing texts for PG to class 2 locally.

A similar initiative has been running in Ishachora Punjee since 2008. With funding from Oxfam, IPDS opened a Khasi language centre that introduces 30 students to their native language, including its written form, each morning before school.

Like Areng, Khonglah and Lamarong believe education is a means to secure a better future. “Don’t rely on the betel garden,” Lamarong tells her students, “Do something else as well.”

“Besides,” says Khonglah, “there’s climate change – less rain – a problem for betel cultivation.”

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.

It’s not only the written language and literature being revived. Since 2008 Bangladeshi Khasis have recommenced celebrating an important pre-Christian festival Shad Suk Mynsiem, which symbolises spring and thanksgiving for the land. This has generated renewed pride in Khasi clothes, song and dance. “We used to sing English and Bangla songs,” says Khonglah, “We thought we didn’t need our traditions. But now we understand it’s our culture. We started Shad Suk Mynsiem again and now I really feel it.”

Together with strengthened efforts in modern education and better attempts to connect with mainstream society – such as by pursuing their rights through the courts, renewed cultural awareness can only be an asset, allowing coming generations of Khasis to more fully and confidently contribute, to bring to the fore the wealth of their cultural experience and unique history. Despite the contemporary challenges it’s easy to be optimistic that Khasis will be able to realise their full potential not only as Khasis but as Bangladeshis. In the process, the life of the nation is sure to be enriched.

There’s another Khasi myth which says that brother and sister – the moon and sun – once danced together. Everybody said it was sinful, being from the same family. From shame the sun hid herself in a cave and the Earth descended into darkness. People tried every means to coax the sun out, and ultimately they deployed a rooster as messenger. It was with the rooster’s crowing that the sunlight came again.

Ishachora Punjee.

Areca (betel nut) palms, Kukijuri.

Kukijuri residents.

Kukijuri Punjee.

This article is published in Star Magazine, here: Meeting Moulvibazar's Khasis

Neat and tidy: Ishachora's Montri's veranda.

[1] Sen Soumen, “Khasi-Jainitia Folklore”, Context, Discourse and History, p.71
[2]Ibid, p. 62
[3] SNH Rizvi, ed., “Bangladesh District Gazetteer Sylhet”, Dacca 1970, p. 104

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