on the Way of Life at the turn of 20th Century

Source: History of the Catholic Missions in Northeast India (1890-1915) Written By: Rev. Fr. Christopher Becker SDS. Translated from German to English by: Rev. Fr. G.Stadler SDB & Rev. Fr. S. Karotemprel SDB
Published by: Firma KLM Private Limited , 257-B, B.B. Ganguly Street, Kolkata – 700 012, India. Copyright: Vendrame Missiological Institute, Shillong, 1980

Page 145 -147

Before the arrival of the British, the Khasi Hills were not under the authority of a single ruler. Twenty-five petty kings or chieftains ruled this territory. They had different titles like “Syiem”, Wahadar”, “Sirdar”, “Doloi”, “Pator” and “Lyngdoh” according to the size of the territory. The British retained these petty princes and they also gave them a certain amount of independence. But, besides sovereign dominion over the territory, the British reserved to themselves the right to pass the death sentence as well as the judgment on major crimes or disputes among individual Khasi states and their subjects.

According to the latest census report, the Khasi tribe numbers about 2,00,000. They are a happy people who live scattered here and there over these hills. Large stretches of land are bare and uncultivated. One feels quite at home here at an altitude of 1,000 metres among pine forests, which are mostly of the local pinus Khasia variety. Paddy, potatoes and pulses are the main crops here. Potatoes are mainly used by the Europeans and exported to other parts of India. Rice is the staple food of the people.

The people prefer to eat unpolished, reddish rice pounded out by hand from the outer husk. It is always cooked in water. Nobody thinks of cooking rice in milk. The poorer section of the people take only a little salt in order to make the rice tasty. Ordinarily, there is another certain sauce called “curry”. It stimulates the appetite and makes the rice tastier. It is the job of the womenfolk to prepare the curry. The different spices such as chilli, saffron roots, pepper, ginger, salt, onion, garlic, etc., are put on a flat stone or a piece of plank. Some people do not take all these ingredients, while others add still more namely, tamarind, coriander, fine cardamom and the like. All these are crushed into a paste on a stone and cooked. Whoever can afford it adds some fish or some meat on festive occasions. Fresh fish is used when available, otherwise, fish dried in the sun is used. Often, while passing through the village, one can see fish drying on bamboo sticks in front of the huts. Many make a business of catching fish, drying it and bringing it in bundle or basket to the market for sale. The dry fish has a strong smell and can be detected from a great distance. Vegetables, plants and roots from the jungle are also used for curry. Tender bamboo shoots are also used for curry. Saffron roots make rice yellowish in colour. When chillies and pepper are used, the food becomes very pungent and those who are not used to such preparation begin to perspire all over and the mouth and the lips seems to be on fire and begin to burn !

The different spices, vegetables, fish or beef curry, give the daily food some variety. The staple food is rice, which remains the same every day. Rice is the basic nourishment, the daily bread of Khasis. They are accustomed to this from their early youth and they want nothing else. Twice a day, morning and evening after work they eat a good portion of it. Banana leaves serve as plates. The fingers substitute for spoons and forks. Thus there is no need for many utensils.

Like their living, their houses are also very simple. Originally, they lived in small round huts. This way of building has been completely abandoned for square huts. Well-to-do people cover their houses with corrugated iron sheets instead of grass or leaves. The huts are almost two metres high and there are no windows. The only opening is the door. Inside, everything is simple and unpretentious. The reception room, the living room, the dining room, the sleeping room, the kitchen and stable for animals are all one. Bedsteads do not exist. Everyone sleeps on the floor. At the most one may wrap himself in a blanket and put a piece of wood under his head as a pillow ! There are no tables and no chairs. They are considered as luxuries which can be spared ! And open fire burns in the middle of the huts day and night. The entire stove consists of three stones on which the pot of rice rests. The smoke usually fills the inside of the hut and must find a small little opening in the roof or escape through the door. The inside of the huts is pitch dark and the walls and the roof is black with soot.

When one succeeds in bending down and creeping into the hut through the narrow door, one is somewhat bewildered ! The eye must gradually get used to the darkness around. Smoke and smell of dry fish and other scents begin to choke one’s breath. The eyes start burning and it is difficult to understand how these people can constantly live in such an atmosphere. The influence of education and the mission have already helped the Christian Khasis to make their houses more hygienic and comfortable.