The Khasi are a Khmer people that live primarily in and around the Khasi Hills and Shillong, a hill station in the state of Meghalaya, south of Assam, in northeast India. Also known as the Cassia, Cossyah, Kasia, Kassia, Kassya, Kasya, Khasia, Khasiah, Khasso, Khosia, Ki Khasia, they may have originally come to India from Cambodia and are a matrilineal culture. From the mid 16th century to the British annexation of the area in the mid 19th century the Khasis controlled a couple dozen small kingdoms. The British began its efforts to take over the region after British subjects were seized for human sacrifices. [Source: Encyclopedia of World Cultures: South Asia, edited by Paul Hockings, C.K. Hall & Company, 1992]
There are about 1 million Khasis. They practice both wet-land rice farming and slash-and-burn agriculture. Cattle and hoes are used to prepare land to grow a variety of crops. They also fish with poison, trap birds with snares, raise goats and chickens for sacrifice and have hunted wild dogs, leopards, deer and tigers. They produce a number of goods with village level cottage industries and trade widely with other peoples. A few live in Bangladesh.
Khasis have traditionally been divided into three classes: nobles commoners and slaves. Wealth has traditionally been measured by the possession of decorative gongs and the hosting of large feasts with dancing and music from drums, guitars, wooden pipes and flutes. Wealthy men are allowed to wear turbans and armlets above their elbows. Head hunting was once widely practiced to honor the war god U Syngkai Bamon and criminals were sometimes punished by confining them to a bamboo platform under which chillies were burnt.
The Khasis have been heavily Christianized. Many have Western names. Khasi medicine incorporates the singeing of hair with a burning hot poker. The Nongkrem is a dance performed by the Khasi to commemorate the founding the founding of their tribe. It is performed in Smit, the cultural center of the Khasi hills, in the autumn.
The Khasi have great reverence for their queen mother, who was 50 in 2002 and lives outside Shillong. Every Saturday hundreds of Khasi gather to receive her blessing and have a red-hot iron rod waved over their heads to drive off evil spirits.
The Khasis practice a unique from of archery in which teams aim at a target made of bamboo and moss. Gamblers bet on which teams can pierce the target with most arrows in a fixed amount of time. Every day at 4:15pm hundreds of people crowd around as 60 archers shoot 1,000 arrows in four minutes into large straw targets, Afterwards judges count the number of arrows in the target. The last two numbers is the winning number (if for example 923 arrows strike the targets, 23 is the winning number). There are betting booths and kiosks that sell liquor. The archery lottery has been legal since 1982. No one knows how it got started. It is run along with other state lotteries by the Khasi Hills Archery Sports Institute.
Khasi Matrilineal Customs
Khasi live under an ancient matriarchal system with women serving as household heads. There is no dowry and member of both sexes can freely choose their partners. Family incomes are shared and older women in a group decide how the money is spent and allocated. The youngest daughter of the family matriarch is the legal custodian of the family’s wealth and property and inherits property. It is not surprising that families desire girls not boys.
Women are the heads of families and the owners of property. When a man married he is moves in he house of his wife’s family Kinship is determined through the mother and clans trace their origin back to “grandmothers of the root.” Property is handed down through the female line from deceased mother to youngest daughter. There are no strict rules about marriage as long as one marries outside their clan. Young men and women are given a great deal of freedom in choosing their mates and are allowed to engage in premarital sex. The marriage ceremony includes pouring libation on the clan’s maternal ancestor and taking of food from the same plate and the placing of a ring on the finger of the bride in the house of the groom’s mother.
In the old days most Khasi households were comprised of a grandmother, her daughters and her daughters children. These days there are three main household types: 1) nuclear families; 2) a household comprised of wife, husband and the wife’s unmarried brothers and sisters; and 3) a family with all the female descendants of grandmother, including young children and sometimes including spouses. When male spouses are not included they eat meals and sleep at their sister’s house.
Men are not allowed to inherit property. All property obtained by a man before marriage belongs to his mother. That obtained after marriage belong to his wife and daughters. Ritual sacrifices of goats and divinations performed by breaking chicken eggs can only be done if female priests are presents. Many Khasi who adopted Christianity have abandoned these customs. Pioneering missionary work was done by the Welsh Calvinist Methodist mission.
Khasi Government and Economics
The Khasis have traditionally been ruled by tribal kings known as syiems, who wore turbans and silk robes. One of their primary duties was presiding over a celebration in which they each had to behead two dozen goats, each with a single stroke from a sword. As of 2003 there were 25 syiems. Their power has been eroded by district councils, with representatives from New Delhi that have been accused of corruption.
Society is matrilineal but is formally ruled by men. The kings take their positions through the matrilineal lines. The youngest daughter become the head of the family and wears the crown. The oldest of her brothers is made the king. The daughter remains important within the tribe and is often called on to heal the sick. The tribal kings are respected and loved by their people but have no constitutional power.
The syiems never regarded the Khasi as part of India. The agreed to accede to India in 1948 on the grounds that they would maintain their power over land, taxes, laws and resources. The Indian government later stripped them of their power and gave power to the district councils. The syiems refused to sign off on the final merger that would make Khasi territory apart of India. Efforts by the syiem tems to get a fair hearing for their cause have been ignored by new Delhi.
Large deposits fo uranium—regarded as the richest in India—have been found on Khasi land. A state-owned mining company is pushing to develop the site with a $100 million project. The government wants the uranium for nuclear weapons and nuclear power plants. The government promised Khasi that the mine will bring them money and development but many Khasi oppose it over health and environmental concerns generated by the by the mine.
Khasi Thlen Serpent Superstitions
In his book “The Khasis,” Philip Richard Thornhagh Gurdon wrote: “There is a superstition among the Khasis concerning “U thlen”, a gigantic snake which requires to be appeased by the sacrifice of human victims, and for whose sake murders have even in fairly recent times been committed. The following account, the substance of which appeared in the “Assam Gazette”, in August, 1882, but to which considerable additions have been made, will illustrate this interesting superstition:--"The tradition is that there was once in a cave near Cherrapunji, a gigantic snake, or “thlen”, who committed great havoc among men and animals. At last, one man, bolder than his fellows, took with him a herd of goats, and set himself down by the cave, and offered them one by one to the “thlen”. By degrees the monster became friendly, and learnt to open his mouth at a word from the man, to receive the lump of flesh which was then thrown in. [Source:The Khasis by Philip Richard Thornhagh Gurdon, Deputy Commissioner Eastern Bengal and Assam Commission, and Superintendent of Ethnography in Assam, 1914 */*]
“When confidence was thoroughly established, the man, acting under the advice of a god called “U Suid-noh”, (who has as his abode a grove near Sohrarim), having heated a lump of iron red hot in a furnace, induced the snake, at the usual signal, to open his mouth, and then threw in the red-hot lump, and so killed him. He proceeded to cut up the body, and sent pieces in every direction, with orders that the people were to eat them. Wherever the order was obeyed, the country became free of the “thlen”, but one small piece remained which no one would eat, and from this sprang a multitude of “thlens”, which infest the residents of Cherra and its neighbourhood. When a “thlen” takes up its abode in a family there is no means of getting rid of it, though it occasionally leaves of its own accord, and often follows family property that is given away or sold. “ */
Khasi Thlen Serpents and Human Sacrifice
Fabian Lyngdoh wrote in the Shillong Times, “According to Khasi belief, u nongshohnoh is a person hired by a certain Kur or family which offers human sacrifice to evil spirits in the form of u Thlen (a serpent) for economic prosperity. The family that worships u Thlen are called Menshohnoh and the persons hired by the family to capture human beings for the sacrifice to the altar of u Thlen are called ki Nongshohnoh. Some may call this superstition but it is not particular to the Khasis. Indeed the Thlen cult is an outgrowth of Hinduism. It has nothing to do with the Khasi traditional religious faith and belief. The Jaintia Raja practiced human sacrifice to the goddess Kali and to the river Kupli. The British annexed Jaintiapur and Jaintia Pargana as a consequence of the sacrifice of three British subjects to the goddess Kali by a sub-ordinate chief of the Jaintia Raja. In the past human sacrifice was also practiced in Raid Iapngar, Raid Thaiang and other Raids (cluster of villages) in Ri Bhoi area. [Source: Fabian Lyngdoh, Shillong Times, April 25, 2013,
In his book “The Khasis,” Philip Richard Thornhagh Gurdon wrote: “The “thlen” attaches itself to property, and brings prosperity and wealth to the owners, but on the condition that it is supplied with blood. Its craving comes on at uncertain intervals, and manifests itself by sickness, by misadventure, or by increasing poverty befalling the family that owns the property. It can only be appeased by the murder of a human being." The murderer cuts off the tips of the hair of the victim with silver scissors, also the finger nails, and extracts from the nostril a little blood caught in a bamboo tube, and offers these to the “thlen”. The murderer, who is called “u nongshohnoh”, literally, "the beater," before he sets out on his unholy mission, drinks a special kind of liquor called, “ka 'iad tang-shi-snem”. (literally, liquor which has been kept for a year). This liquor, it is thought, gives the murderer courage, and the power of selecting suitable victims for the “thlen”. The “nongshohnoh” then sets out armed with a short club, with which to slay the victim, hence his name “nongshohnoh”, i.e. one who beats; for it is forbidden to kill a victim on these occasions with any weapon made of iron, inasmuch as iron was the metal which proved fatal to the “thlen”. He also takes the pair of silver scissors above mentioned, a silver lancet to pierce the inside of the nostrils of the deceased, and a small bamboo or cylinder to receive the blood drawn therefrom. The “nongshohnoh” also provides himself with rice called "”u 'khaw tyndep”," i.e. rice mixed with turmeric after certain incantations have taken place. [Source:The Khasis by Philip Richard Thornhagh Gurdon, Deputy Commissioner Eastern Bengal and Assam Commission, and Superintendent of Ethnography in Assam, 1914 */*]
“The murderer throws a little of this rice over his intended victim, the effect of which is to stupefy the latter, who then falls an easy prey to the “nongshohnoh”. It is not, however, always possible to kill the victim outright for various reasons, and then the “nongshohnoh” resorts to the following subterfuge:--He cuts off a little of the hair, or the hem of the garment, of a victim, and offers these up to the “thlen”. The effect of cutting off the hair or the hem of the garment of a person by a “nongshohnoh”, to offer up to the “thlen”, is disastrous to the unfortunate victim, who soon falls ill, and gradually wastes away and dies. */*
“The “nongshohnoh” also sometimes contents himself with merely throwing stones at the victim, or with knocking at the door of his house at night, and then returns home, and, after invoking the “thlen”, informs the master that he has tried his best to secure him a prey, but has been unsuccessful. This is thought to appease the “thlen” for a time, but the demon does not remain inactive long, and soon manifests his displeasure for the failure of his keeper to supply him with human blood, by causing one of the latter's family to fall sick. The “thlen” has the power of reducing himself to the size of a thread, which renders it convenient for the “nong-ri thlen”, or “thlen” keeper, to place him for safety in an earthen pot, or in a basket which is kept in some secure place in the house. */*
“When the time for making an offering to the “thlen” comes, an hour is selected, generally at dead of night, costly cloths are spread on the floor of the house of the “thlen” keeper, all the doors are opened, and a brass plate is laid on the ground in which is deposited the blood, or the hair, or a piece of the cloth of the victim. All the family then gathers round, and an elderly member commences to beat a small drum, and invokes the “thlen”, saying, "”ko kni ko kpa” (oh, maternal uncle, father), come out, here is some food for you; we have done everything we could to satisfy you, and now we have been successful; give us thy blessing, that we may attain health and prosperity." The “thlen” then crawls out from its hiding-place and commences to expand, and when it has attained its full serpent shape, it comes near the plate and remains expectant. The spirit of the victim then appears, and stands on the plate, laughing. The “thlen” begins to swallow the figure, commencing at its feet, the victim laughing the while. By degrees the whole figure is disposed of by the boa constrictor. If the spirit be that of a person from whom the hair, or a piece of his or her cloth, has been cut, directly the “thlen” has swallowed the spirit, the person expires.” */*
Thlen Serpent Keepers
In his book “The Khasis,” Philip Richard Thornhagh Gurdon wrote: “ Many families in these hills are known, or suspected, to be keepers of a “thlen”, and are dreaded or avoided in consequence. This superstition is deep-rooted amongst these people, and even nowadays, in places like Shillong or Cherrapunji, Khasis are afraid to walk alone after dark, for fear of being attacked by a “nongshohnoh”. In order to drive away the “thlen” from a house or family all the money, ornaments, and property of that house or family must be thrown away, as is the case with persons possessed by the demon “Ka Taroh”, in the Jaintia Hills. None dare touch any of the property, for fear that the “thlen” should follow it. It is believed that a “thlen” can never enter the Siem's or chief's clan, or the Siem's house; it follows, therefore, that the property of the “thlen” keeper can be appropriated by the Siem. [Source:The Khasis by Philip Richard Thornhagh Gurdon, Deputy Commissioner Eastern Bengal and Assam Commission, and Superintendent of Ethnography in Assam, 1914 */*]
“A Mohammedan servant, not long ago in Shillong, fell a victim to the charms of a Khasi girl, and went to live with her. He told the following story to one of his fellow-servants, which may be set down here to show that the “thlen” superstition is by no means dying out. In the course of his married life he came to know that the mother of his Khasi wife kept in the house what he called a “bhut” (devil). He asked his wife many, many times to allow him to see the “bhut”, but she was obdurate; however, after a long time, and after extracting many promises from him not to tell, she confided to him the secret, and took him to the corner of the house, and showed him a little box in which was coiled a tiny snake, like the hair spring of a watch. She passed her hands over it, and it grew in size, till at last it became a huge cobra, with hood erected. The husband, terrified, begged his wife to lay the spirit. She passed her hands down its body, and it gradually shrank within its box. */*
“It may be stated that the greater number of the Khasis, especially in certain Siemships, viz. Cherra, Nongkrem, and Mylliem, still regard the “thlen”, and the persons who are thought to keep “thlens”, with the very greatest awe, and that they will not utter even the names of the latter for fear some ill may befall them. The superstition is probably of very ancient origin, and it is possible that the Khasi sacrifices to the “thlen” demon may be connected with the primæval serpent-worship which characterized the Cambodians, which Forbes says was "undoubtedly the earliest religion of the Mons." But it must be remembered that snake-worship is of very ancient origin, not only in Further India, but also in the nearer peninsula, where the serpent race or Nagas, who may have given their name to the town of Nagpur, were long held in superstitious reverence.” */*
Cases of Thlen Human Sacrifice in th 1800s
In his book “The Khasis,” Philip Richard Thornhagh Gurdon wrote: “Mr. Gait, in the Journal of the Asiatic Society of Bengal, vol. i. of 1898, gives some account of the human sacrifices of the Jaintias or Syntengs. He writes as follows: "It appears that human sacrifices were offered annually on the “Sandhi” day in the month of Ashwin (Sukla paksha) at the sacred “pitha”, in the Faljur pargana. They were also occasionally offered at the shrine of Jainteswari, at Nijpat, i.e. at Jaintiapur, the capital of the country. As stated in the “Haft Iqlim” to have been the case in Koch Behar, so also in Jaintia, persons frequently voluntarily came forward as victims. This they generally did by appearing before the Raja on the last day of Shravan, and declaring that the goddess had called them. [Source:The Khasis by Philip Richard Thornhagh Gurdon, Deputy Commissioner Eastern Bengal and Assam Commission, and Superintendent of Ethnography in Assam, 1914 */*]
“After due inquiry, if the would-be victim, or “Bhoge khaora”, were deemed suitable, it was customary for the Raja to present him with a golden anklet, and to give him permission to live as he chose, and to do whatever be pleased, compensation for any damage done by him being paid from the royal treasury. But this enjoyment of these privileges was very short. On the Navami day of the Durga Puja, the “Bhoge khaora”, after bathing and purifying himself, was dressed in new attire, daubed with red sandal-wood and vermilion, and bedecked with garlands. Thus arrayed, the victim sat on a raised dais in front of the goddess, and spent some time in meditation (“japa”), and in uttering mantras. Having done this, he made a sign with his finger, and the executioner, after uttering the usual sacrificial mantras, cut off his head, which was placed before the goddess on a golden plate. */*
“The lungs were cooked and eaten by such “Kandra Yogis” as were present, and it is said that the royal family partook of a small quantity of rice cooked in the blood of the victim. The ceremony was usually witnessed by large crowds of spectators from all parts of the Jaintia pardganas. "Sometimes the supply of voluntary victims fell short, or victims were needed for some special sacrifice promised in the event of some desired occurrence, such as the birth of a son, coming to pass. */*
“On such occasions, emissaries were sent to kidnap strangers from outside the Jaintia Raj, and it was this practice that eventually led to the annexation of the country by the British. In 1821, an attempt was made to kidnap a native of Sylhet proper, and while the agents employed were punished, the Raja was warned not to allow such an atrocity to occur again. Eleven years later, however, four British subjects were kidnapped in the Nowgong district, and taken to Jaintia. Three of them were actually sacrificed, but the fourth escaped, and reported the matter to the authorities. The Raja of Jaintia was called on to deliver up the culprits, but he failed to do so, and his dominions were in consequence annexed in 1835." */*
“There seems to be an idea generally prevalent that the Raja of Jaintia, owing to his conversion to Hinduism, and especially owing to his having become a devotee of the goddess Kali, took to sacrificing human victims; but I find that human victims were formerly sacrificed by the Jaintias to the Kopili River, which the Jaintias worshipped as a goddess. Two persons were sacrificed every year to the Kopili in the months “U' naiwing” and “U' nai prah” (November and December). They were first taken to the “hat” Mawahai or Shang-pung market, where they were allowed to take any eatables they wished. Then they were conducted to Sumer, and thence to Ka Ieu Ksih, where a stone on the bank of a small river which falls into the Kopili is pointed out as having been the place where the victims were sacrificed to the Kopili river goddess. Others say that the sacrificial stone was situated on the bank of the Kopili River itself. */*
“A special clan in the Raliang doloiship used to carry out the executions. It seems probable that the practice of sacrificing human victims in Jaintia was of long standing, and was originally unconnected with Hinduism, although when the Royal family became converts to Hinduism, the goddess Kali may easily have taken the place of the Kopili River goddess. Many of the Syntengs regard the River Kopili to this day with superstitions reverence.” */*
Cases of Thlen Human Sacrifice in the 2000s
In 2011, a seven-year-old boy appeared to have been sacrificed in the Garo Hills of Meghalaya in northeast India. The Hindustan Times reported: “Two BSF personnel have been detained by police for questioning after a suspected case of human sacrifice in Meghalaya's West Garo Hills district. Havildar Chandrawan and constable Babu Khan is being questioned by police at Tura after the body of a seven year old was recovered from near the BSF 121 battalion headquarters at Tura, deputy commissioner Sanjay Goyal said on Saturday. The body of the boy, Krishna Singh, was recovered on Thursday, Goyal said, adding that post mortem pointed to multiple injuries, including that of incense sticks, pierce wounds and others. The boy, son of a BSF cook, went missing a few days earlier. The DC said it appeared to be a case of human sacrifice and investigations were on to ascertain the facts. [Source: Hindustan Times, October 8, 2011]
Fabian Lyngdoh, a Khasi, wrote in the Shillong Times, “Let us accept that some people believe and worship various spirits, be it u Thlen, ka taro , ka shwar, ka tympiam, ka lasam etc. Whether that belief is only a superstition or a satanic cult is not known, but people would do anything to fulfil the requirements of that cult including killing a human being. It is not the superstition of the community that burnt the house of u menshohnoh but the superstitious belief of u menshohnoh which terrorized the community. It is not superstition that caused the arrest of the Hindu priest for sacrificing a child, but the superstition of a couple who desperately wanted a child that caused the murder of a boy at the altar of idols. We are deceived by a belief that once the people of Mawbsein village including members of the village dorbar were arrested and punished in June 17th 2007, the Khasi community would be ushered into the 21st century. But in April 27th 2011 the people of Mawlai, who are closer to the wisdom of the 21st century burnt the house of sorcerers. The perpetrators were booked under the law. We believe that the Khasi people would come round to the wisdom of the 21st century. [Source: Fabian Lyngdoh, Shillong Times, April 25, 2013 /+/]
“But in October 7th 2011, people of Sohra were reported to have killed three nongshohnoh and they were apprehended; the enlightened thought that now the Khasi people would have learned to let go their superstitions and become respectable members of the 21st century. The stories are repeated and on April 23rd 2013, a four thousand strong mob torched the house of Tremlin Nongsiej of Mawryngkang village in East Khasi Hills on the charge that he is u menshohnoh as confessed by his hired nongshohnoh. Nineteen people were arrested and more would be booked in the days to come. Now we believe that this would be the last remnant of the superstition to be put down once and for all. But I would boldly predict that more such cases would recur in the future even if we hang the Rangbah Shnong and members of the Dorbar.” /+/
Text Sources: New York Times, Washington Post, Los Angeles Times, Times of London, Lonely Planet Guides, Library of Congress, Ministry of Tourism, Government of India, Compton’s Encyclopedia, The Guardian, National Geographic, Smithsonian magazine, The New Yorker, Time, Newsweek, Reuters, AP, AFP, Wall Street Journal, The Atlantic Monthly, The Economist, Foreign Policy, Wikipedia, BBC, CNN, and various books, websites and other publications.
© 2008 Jeffrey Hays
Last updated June 2015