My 10 delightful discoveries of the culture of Meghalaya

posted in: Asia, Culture, India, Meghalaya | 31

I admit that I have fallen in love with Meghalaya. The abode of clouds with its pristine landscapes and natural beauty does enchant everyone who heads there. However, for me, it was much more than that. It was discovering the unique culture of Meghalaya – about its people and their lifestyle – which might seem different to us but definitely adds to the charm of the place.

Discovering the culture of Meghalaya

There are three distinct tribes in Meghalaya, based on the three hill ranges here – the Jantia, the Garos and the Khasis. However, since I predominantly ventured into the Khasi hills, my experience of the Meghalaya culture is limited to the Khasi tribes. From their way of life to the traditions observed, their habits, shopping and food choices, I discovered some unique nuances of this state of Meghalaya. Here are 10 of these delightful discoveries of the culture of Meghalaya.

1) Matrilinear culture of Meghalaya

It was quite nice to see so much respect for women in Meghalaya. Women are at the forefront of every possible aspect of life. Be it business or home. One major reason for this is the matriarchal culture of Meghalaya. Here the natural heir of any household is its “youngest daughter”. The woman does not go to the men’s house after marriage. It is exactly the opposite.

A Khasi lady in Jainsem going about her work in Meghalaya

Every business in Meghalaya is named after a woman and the name of the business starts with the term “Ka” . Ka refers to the woman. I found only women at the various cash counters of shops and restaurants. In fact, if you recall one of the recommended restaurants, en route to Arwah Caves called the Orange Roots. This entire restaurant – from the kitchen to the cash counters to the service on the tables – every bit of it was run by women.

Having said that, these women still manage their households and kids, pretty much like most of us. In a true sense, Meghalaya is all about women power!

2) Cleanliness- an integral part of the Meghalaya Culture

Bamboo dustbins kept in every corner in Meghalaya

Meghalaya was one state that I found to be extremely clean. Whether you were on the highway or in the smallest lanes of the city or even a village, there was no rubbish thrown around. Every corner was spic & span. At the corner of every possible road or eatery are small bamboo dustbins and a sign, encouraging people to throw their waste into the bin.

Note the plastic bags for waste disposal

We happened to treat ourselves to some road-side snack and even there, every vendor had a dustbin or a bag ready for you to dispose your plate into. From Shillong to Cherrapunji and all place in between, we found the same cleanliness spirit.  Mawlynnong ,the cleanest village in Asia, was just the peak of this whole cleanliness culture. In short, I think Cleanliness has just become an integral part of the Meghalaya culture.

3) Traditional Dress and Customs

It is amazing how the traditional dress – specifically the Khasi outfit is still worn by the elegant women of Meghalaya. Be it in Shillong or in the smaller towns, you will see these lovely women going about their daily chores in their Jainsem. A modification of the Indian saree is how I would explain this. Jainsem covers the entire body and can be either cotton or silk – the latter being more of a festival choice. I personally thought it was quite a good choice given the weather and the comfort required. It seemed to be even more practical as I saw the women carrying their young ones on the back of a make-shift baby bag. It was in fact, quite cute, so much that my daughter accused me of not having done this with her. 😛

A Khasi lady in Mawlynnong with her baby in the traditional dress

Adding to the beauty of the Jainsem. were the beaded jewelry like these necklaces. Interesting though how these neck pieces are currently, a rage among the urban women, who often team with their outfit – both Western and Ethnic. I recall a friend paying dearly to acquire these while here, they are just everywhere and in the choicest of colors and designs.

The beautiful Khasi necklaces

The men here too, have a traditional dress called Jymphong but the same is restricted to their traditional festivals. You do not really see too many of the men sporting that in their everyday life.

I cannot claim to have witnessed any of their festivals in person but I got a fair idea of their customs and traditions through the Don Bosco Center for Indigenous Cultures. Here there were quite a few displays of the local cultures – not just of Meghalaya but all the neighboring states and even countries. It is here that I got to know of this tradition called Hynniew Trep. It is based on an interesting belief that the Khasi families descended from the 7 families that were sent to earth by the Lord himself.

 Hynniew Trep - Explaining the legend of the Khasis at the Don Bosco Center for Indigenous cultures

In reality, there were 16 such families who used to come to earth to enjoy themselves but 7 of them decided to stay back and make it their home. They are said to be the first human settlement on Earth.The representation above has been created to represent the values and the gifts that these settlers brought in with them. A detailed explanation of the same can be read in the picture below.

Explanation of the legend of  Hynniew Trep

Essentially, as you can see, the culture of Meghalaya is quite ancient and deep-rooted!

4) Discovering Retro in Meghalaya

Retro Music - An integral part of the Culture of Meghalaya. Picture Credits: Creative Commons from Pixabay under CC0

Now, this was a fun thing that I discovered. I knew of Shillong, the capital of Meghalaya, is termed as the “Rock Music Capital of India“. The love for music in the state was evident from the time we entered it but it wasn’t just rock music. In fact, it was Retro Music of the 80s – both English and Bollywood! Every taxi and restaurant played the hit songs of 80s and I was thoroughly amused with the same. It had been ages since I heard “Nothing can stop my love for you” or even those old Akshay Kumar songs “Waada raha”. It made me quite nostalgic.

5) Sustainable Products

The Bamboo goodies on sale at the Nohwet Village

Whether you look at the dustbins or the interesting curios to buy or even clothing and shoes, the Meghalaya products all are made of sustainable material. Bamboo articles are the most common here, where even the dustbins are made of Bamboo. Even when you go shopping, you will find a lot of Bamboo containers and memorabilia on sale.

Recycled plastic used to grow plants in Mawlynnong, Meghalaya

The interesting thing is that even in their homes, they have recycled and re-used plastic in the most innovative manner – a trait that I hope, can flow down to the cities. It is something that upped my respect for the people of Meghalaya.

6) Kwai

Ever noticed the red lips that the people of Meghalaya have? The same is not owing to any progressive genes but the habit of chewing Kwai. Kwai essentially is a betel leaf that has some lime (Chunna), betel and areca nut rolled into it. Everyone, including the kids, are attuned to Kwai as they say that it helps them keep warm in the otherwise cold weather in Meghalaya. It is so much a part of their culture that they find it odd that we have not even heard of it.  They say that even the poorest of the Khasi households will offer you Kwai, even if they cannot offer you food. In many ways, it is their way of an ice-breaker with a stranger.

Kwai - a culture of Meghalaya

I personally, found the taste too bitter for my liking but well, who knows, you guys might just enjoy it! However, having said that, it isn’t healthy to have on a regular basis and if you do decide to try it, make sure you read all about it before you do!

7) Food in Meghalaya

Meghalaya is a “non vegetarian’s” paradise, especially if you enjoy Pork. Being a vegetarian I cannot claim nor will attempt to describe these. Instead I will focus on the local vegetarian food that I managed to sample. Typically Rice, Rotis, Vegetables, and Daal are what you get in a typical Khasi meal. The rice is the dominant of the lot. In a lot of places, I found that they offered red rice with vegetable as a combination. I particularly enjoyed this with Dai Sboh neiiong (Daal made of Black sesame). Adding flavor further on was their bamboo pickle called Lungsiej and their radish salad – Muli Khleh.

Red Rice and Vegetable - Part of the Khasi vegetarian food in Meghalaya

Somehow, the food here sounds exotic but in fact, it is simple, homely and quite delicious. I also, found that it was quite easy on the stomach and I guess that is where my fondness for Meghalaya further increased!

8) Love for Football

Football game in progress in Mawlynnong

It was refreshing to see Football fields as against the cricket pitches in this part of the world. Large fields were dedicated to this sport in various parts of the state. When there was nothing to do, the kids and the adults came together to play football. Why we found a huge game in progress when we reached Mawlynnong as well. I suppose I enjoyed the spirit that went with the game and the large green cover that came with it. Truly a unique part of the culture of Meghalaya.

9) Stunning churches

The picturesque church in Mawlynnong, Meghalaya

Incidentally, it was Sunday when we reached Shillong from Guwahati. Well-dressed couples and families walked in their Sunday best to their neighborhood church- each one of these being as beautiful and colorful as another. There were so many lovely ones through the state that it became impossible for me to keep up with their names. And where there are churches, there has to be some lovely stained glass work – something that I love photographing.

10) Warm and delightful people

The friendly kids of Meghalaya

Everywhere we went, we were greeted with such genuine smiles, People in Meghalaya are in general, very soft spoken, polite and friendly. From the home-stays that we stayed into the restaurants where we ate or the shops that we visited, we encountered some delightful people. And even more charming where the kids. Always ready to share a joke, give a hi-five and skip along with you.

There is just something in the culture of Meghalaya that makes them like this. And it is that very thing that made me fall in love with the abode of clouds – Meghalaya. I would be surprised if you too are not charmed by these. Message in and let me know which part of the culture did you find the most fascinating.

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