Khasi people

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Ramakrishna Mission Cherrapunjee 106.JPG
A Khasi child
Total population
approx. 1,361,100
Regions with significant populations
Meghalaya (India): 1,250,000
Assam (India): 29,000
West Bengal, Mizoram, Maharashtra, Tripura, Tamil Nadu, Arunachal Pradesh, Nicobar Islands (India): 3,100
Bangladesh: 29,000[1]
Khasian languages
Presbyterian, Unitarian, Roman Catholic, Shaivism or tribal religions with animistic elements
Related ethnic groups
Khmers, Palaungs, Was, Kinh, Nicobarese and other Mon–Khmers

The Khasi are an indigenous or tribal people, the majority of whom live in the State of Meghalaya in north east India, with small populations in neighbouring Assam, and in parts of Bangladesh. They call themselves Ki Hynñiew trep, which means "the seven huts" in the Khasi language. Their language Khasi is the northernmost Austroasiatic language. This language was essentially oral until the arrival of European missionaries. Particularly significant in this regard was a Welsh missionary, Thomas Jones, who transcribed the Khasi language into Roman script. The Khasi people form the majority of the population of the eastern part of Meghalaya. A substantial minority of the Khasi people follow their tribal religion, called variously "Ka Niam Khasi" or "Ka Niam Tre", in the Jaintia region; within that indigenous religious belief the rooster is sacrificed as a substitute for man, it being thought that the rooster "bears the sins of the man and by its sacrifice, man will obtain redemption"[2] (compare Kapparot). Other religions practiced include Presbyterian, Anglican, Unitarian, Roman Catholic, and a small number of Muslims. The Khasi people who reside in the hilly areas of Sylhet in Bangladesh are of the War sub-tribe. The main crops produced by the Khasi people living in the War areas, including Bangladesh, are betel leaf, areca nut and oranges. The War-Khasi people designed and built the living root bridges of the Cherrapunjee region.[3] In several states of India, Khasis have been granted the status of scheduled tribe. The Khasis are a matrilineal society.

Origin and history[edit]

The origin of the Khasis has not been satisfactorily explained by the historians. The Khasi language is classified as part of the Austroasiatic language family; Peter Wilhelm Schmidt believed that the Khasi people are related to the Mon-Khmer people.

The Khasi mythology traces the tribe's original abode to Hynñiewtrep ("seven families"). According to the Khasi mythology, "Blei" (God) had originally distributed the human beings to 16 heavenly families (Khadhynriew Trep). Seven out of these 16 families were stuck on earth while the other 9 are stuck in Heaven. According to the myth, a heavenly ladder resting on the Sohpetbneng peak (located in the present-day Ri-Bhoi district) was meant to allow those on earth to visit the heavens for worshipping God, but the Khasis used it too often and God was angered to the point where he destroyed the ladder.

The Khasis first came in contact with the British in 1823, after the latter captured Assam. The area inhabited by the Khasis became a part of the Assam province, after the small Khasi Hill States entered into a subsidiary alliance with the British.

Geographical distribution and sub-groups[edit]

Khasi states, 1947

The total Khasi population may be estimated at 1.2 million people. According to the 2001 Census of India, over 1.1 million Khasi lived in Meghalaya,[4] in the districts of East Khasi Hills, West Khasi Hills, Ri-Bhoi and Jaintia Hills. In Assam, their population reached 13,000. The Census of Bangladesh enumerated 12,280 Khasi for the whole country in 1991. It is generally considered that the Khasis consist of four sub-tribes: Khynriam, Pnar, Bhoi and War. The Khynriam inhabit the uplands of the Khasi Hills District; the Pnar or Syntengs live in the Jaintia Hills. The Bhoi live in the lower hills to the north and north-east of the Khasi Hills and Jaintia Hills towards the Brahmaputra valley. The War, usually divided into War-Jaintia in the south of the Jaintia Hills and War-Khasi in the south of the Khasi Hills, live on the steep southern slopes leading to Bangladesh. The Lyngngam people who inhabit the western parts of the Khasi Hills display linguistic and cultural characteristics which show influences from both the Khasis to their east and the Garo people to the west.[5]


A Khasi woman
A Khasi man

Khasi people from different regions have small, but noted differences. Recent genetic researches have shown that Khasis are closer to their Garo neighbours as compared to other populations of Northeast India.[6]


Khasi children, 1944
Men dance during the Khasi festival of Shad Suk Mynsiem in Shillong

The traditional Khasi male dress is a Jymphong, a longish sleeveless coat without collar, fastened by thongs in front. Nowadays, most male Khasis have adopted western attire. On ceremonial occasions they appear in a Jymphong and sarong with an ornamental waist-band and they may also wear a turban.

The traditional Khasi female dress is called the Jainsem or Dhara, both of which are rather elaborate with several pieces of cloth, giving the body a cylindrical shape. On ceremonial occasions they may wear a crown of silver or gold. A spike or peak is fixed to the back of the crown, corresponding to the feathers worn by the menfolk. The Jainsem consists of two pieces of material fastened at each shoulder. The "Dhara" consists of a single piece of material also fastened at each shoulder.


The Khasis are, for the most part, monogamous. Their social organization does not favor other forms of marriage; therefore, deviation from this norm is quite rare. Young men and women are permitted considerable freedom in the choice of mates. Potential marriage partners are likely to have been acquainted before betrothal. Once a man has selected his desired spouse, he reports his choice to his parents. They then secure the services of a mediator to make the arrangements with the woman's family (provided that the man's clan agree with his choice). The parents of the woman ascertain her wishes and if she agrees to the arrangement her parents check to make certain that the man to be wed is not a member of their clan (since Khasi clans are exogamous, marital partners may not be from the same clan). If this is satisfactory then a wedding date is set.

Divorce is frequent (with causes ranging from incompatibility to lack of offspring) and easily obtainable. This ceremony traditionally consists of the husband handing the wife 5 cowries or paisa which the wife then hands back to her husband along with 5 of her own. The husband then throws these away or gives them to a village elder who throws them away. Present-day Khasis divorce through the Indian legal system.

The type of marriage is the determining factor in marital residence. In short, post marital residence when an heiress Khaduh is involved must be matrilocal, while post marital residence when a non-heiress is involved is neolocal. Generally, Khasi men prefer to marry a non-heiress because it will allow them to form independent family units somewhat immune to pressures from the wife's kin. A Khasi man returns to his iing (home) upon the death of his spouse (if she is an heiress). These practices are the result of rules governing inheritance and property ownership. These rules are themselves related to the structure of the Khasi iing(clan).


Khasi names are known for their originality and elaborate nature. The given names may be invented by parents for their children, and these can be based on traditional native names, Christian names, or other English words. The family names, which they call "surnames," remain typically in the native Khasi language.

Khasis are rich in music. The Khasis are a matrilineal society.

See also[edit]


  1. ^ Joshua Project - Khasi of Bangladesh Ethnic People Profile
  2. ^ Journal of the Asiatic Society of Bengal, Volume 71, Part 3 - By Asiatic Society (Calcutta, India), Asiatic Society of Bengal – page 63 [1]
  3. ^ "Cherrapunjee". Retrieved 2010-05-07. 
  4. ^ Census of India 2001
  5. ^ The Khasis — P.R.T. Gurdon
  6. ^ Langstieh B.T. & al., "Genetic diversity and relationships among the tribes of Meghalaya compared to other Indian and Continental populations". Human Biology. Aug 2004;76(4):569-90.

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