By HH Mohrmen
Recently much space on the editorial pages of The Shillong Times was devoted to the debate about the Khasi Pnar land tenure system, Khasi Pnar polity et al. What looks like a debate on the some attributes of the Khasi Pnar culture and tradition is in fact a debate on the changes manifests in the society (ka jaitbynriew) in transition. We therefore owe so much to Broncostar Thyrniang, Morning Star Sumer, Prof Kynpham Singh Nongkynrih, Michael N. Syiem and of course our own Kong Patricia Mukhim for kick-starting an enlightening debate.
To begin with, I think it is important to understand who is a Khasi Pnar? I always use the two words ‘Khasi Pnar’ in one breath and without a hyphen. Khasi Pnar is one and the same people much like Siamese twins; they are identical, inseparable yet unique in their own ways. For me the debate started by the patriotic folk song "Khynriam u Pnar, u Bhoi u War u dei u paid Khasi baiar" ends here. Therefore rather than using the nomenclature ‘Khasi’ as an inclusive name for the tribe, I use ‘Khasi Pnar’. The next question that begs for an answer is, ‘What does it mean to be a Khasi Pnar?’ A Khasi Pnar is defined by his identity and when I say identity, I means sharing a common culture which includes language, food habits etc. But the word culture itself begs for definition every time it is being used.
In order to understand the culture one must know and understand the stories, the myths and the legends of that particular culture. Rev Dr John Buehrens in his book ‘Understanding the Bible,’ said, to understand the western culture one must at least know the stories in the Bible because much about the western culture is in some way or the other connected with the stories in the Bible. Some are also of the opinion that the western jurisprudence the world uses has its foundation in the ten commandments of Moses. I think it is the same with the pan Indian culture too. One will fully understand the culture if only one is well versed with the stories and myths abounding in the civilization.
It is the same with the Khasi Pnar culture; one needs to know the stories of the tribe to be able to understand and appreciate its customs and traditions. If we talk about Khasi Pnar hospitality, one must know the folktale about u kwai, u tympew, ka shun and ka duma sla (the betel nut, betel leaf, lime and tobacco leaves ) . To be able to appreciate the clan system of the Khasi Pnar, one must understand the stories of the great maternal grandmother (Iawbei) and the great grand maternal uncle of the clan and the great grandfather of the clan. Almost all the Khasi Pnar clans have fascinating stories about the genesis of their respective clans. In some cases, these stories also relate to the Polity of the area if the clan in question is the royal clan, like the story of ‘ka Li dakha’ and the Sutnga clan of Jaintia syiemship and the story of ka ‘Pahsyntiew’ in the Nongkrem syiemship. To be able to understand the reason why the Khasi Pnar adopts the matrilineal tradition in their lineage system, one needs to know the story in this regard. It will also be difficult to understand the community’s attitude and reverence for nature if one is ignorant of the many stories like the ‘ka Iew luri lura’, ‘ka krem lamet, krem latang’ and thousands of stories that our ancestors weaved in their efforts to try to understand the mysteries of mother nature. One would also need to understand the reason why our forefathers have the tradition of keeping the sacred forests to be able to understand their wisdom in relation with mother earth.
But the crux of the debate is that the Khasi Pnar like any other community is in the process of constant evolution and right now we are at the cross roads. Like many of the young Khasi Pnar, I question the relevance of our dorbar shnong in its present form. We may have moved away from the archaic tradition that only those who sport beards can take part in the dorbar, but, we are yet to have a female head of the shnong. And for that matter if we have one, what do we call her or what would her designation be? Certainly not Rangbah Shnong! How democratic is the institution which does not guarantee equal rights to members of its community? I would also like to see a reformed dorbar shnong run by professionals specialized in community development and not by people who belong to a different profession and become Rangbah Shnong just for the sake of it. Dorbar Shnong (village or town council) is a serious business; the job cannot be performed by someone trying to serve two masters and on a voluntary basis. I also have my reservations with regards to the Syiemship and Daloiship. Why is it that for no fault of mine and just because I was born in the wrong clan, I cannot inherit the chieftainship and neither can I be a Myntri, a Laskor or a Daloi? I consider this undemocratic! With regard to the land tenure system, is it wrong to conclude that the Wah Umkhrah and may other rivers lost their pristine glory because of the present land tenure system? We assume that once we own the land we also own, the stream and rivers and everything in it. These are only some of the features of our tradition that need re-examining in the light of the modern world.
In the year 2009, I visited the Native American museum in Washington DC. I was fascinated by the collection of Native American arts and artifacts and I was deeply touched by the videos screened continuously in the sections allotted to more than 200 Native American tribes in America. I spend much time watching these videos and realized if there is a common thread that links the many documentaries, it is the dilemma that the tribes are facing in their efforts to cope with the modern way of life and simultaneously keep their traditions. In my humble opinion the question is, ‘How do we move forward with some of these antique traditions?’ This is the dilemma that the Indigenous People are facing the world over. To clear the cobwebs from my mind I continued to discuss the issue with my friend and guide Bob Tripp and I remember saying, ‘It is the question of how much of the baggage from the past we can carry to the future?’ Bob’s remark was, ‘Perhaps they are not even baggage’.
The customs and traditions that we have may not be baggage but certainly some can be impediments in the community’s move towards the future. In the tribes’ evolution, we need to re-look at some of these traditions. Some of these customs, traditions and stories were relevant for our forefathers in the era that was, and they should not be a stumbling block for us to move forward and evolve. The rightful place for some of these obsolete customs and traditions are the history books. They should be like a cursor to help us know where we came from, where we were once upon a time and also help us understand the future. These stories will also help us understand and appreciate the wisdom of our ancestors. The stories should be like roots to a tree; their role is to help us stand tall and grow from strength to strength. We must not get stuck anywhere; nothing can stand on the way of the society’s evolution.
To maintain our unique identity, the Khasi Pnar must continue with parts of the culture which are relevant to the present day and keep those that are outdated in the treasure trove of the community. Perhaps a modern day Khasi Pnar is one who speaks his language, understands the stories of his community, lives by the cardinal values of the tribe ‘ban kamai ia ka hok, ban tip briew tip blei bad ban tip kur tip kha’ (to earn righteousness, to know man and know God, and to know his maternal and paternal kin). Perhaps a modern day Khasi Pnar is one who is proud of his traditional attire and uses it with pride when the occasion warrants. And the debate must continue… (The writer is an elder of the Unitarian Church, an environmental activist, columnist and a thought leader)