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Matriliny : The Cultural Cradle of Khasi Kinship System

Matriliny : The Cultural Cradle of Khasi Kinship System

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Beautiful Khasi Women

The Khasis of Meghalaya are a matrilineal tribe who believe in the ideology-‘Long jaitna ka kynthei’ which means ‘From the woman sprang the clan’. This ideology has brought to light the role of women in perpetuating the clan from one generation to another. Today, the Khasi have come a long way from the traditional normative way of living based on cultural expectations to that of modern urbanized living. What is more striking is the fact that many external factors have not only imposed a severe strain on the matrilineal system but also made women the center of attack for all the supposed ills of the system. Therefore there is a need to explore the redefinition of the traditional normative roles of the Khasi woman within the family and the society at large.

By Dr. Rekha M Shangpliang


Sociologists and Anthropologists have long been fascinated with core concepts such as Kinship, Family and Marriage which are central to human social organization and to relationships of gender and power. Origin of kinship studies can be traced back to evolutionists like Lewis Henry Morgan, through his ‘Systems of Consanguinity and Affinity of the Human family’ published in 1871,which emerged at a time when there was a need to explain how and why humans formed and constituted social groups which were unique only to humans. Thus, Kinship is that organizing principle that governs human groups into a network of relationships based on relations through blood or consanguinity and relations through marriage or affinity.

Kinship has been one of the most researched dimensions of Social Anthropological studies and also considered to be the most ‘technical’ domains of Sociology and Anthropology, since it can be best described by diagrams and equations that identify kins and affines. Kinship is also rich in terminologies which were enriched by Morgan through his taxonomy of kinship terms. The importance of kinship in small scale societies is paramount since in such societies kinship ties are strictly defined by biological linkages of clan, descent and lineage. (though these categories may differ in different cultures) Kinship thus provides a useful guide to a great many of the social relationships in which a person is likely to be involved in the course of his life.


The North East of India represents a plethora of tribes and communities that are uniquely distinct in terms of linguistic and cultural variations as well as their kinship patterns. The main types of lineage patterns prevalent among the communities in the North East are patrilineal, matrilineal and double descent. However, it is difficult to have one representational tribe for each lineage pattern because of structural variations between different tribes. For instance there are structural variations in the matriliny of the Garos, Khasis and Jaintias. The Purums of Manipur are a patrilineal tribe having exogamous clans that play a very important role in marital alliance .The first Purum monograph appeared in 1945 which was conducted by Tarak Chandra Das. The Purums have their unique system of marriage alliance which is so popular in kinship anthropology. The Pagro-Misings have a dual organization where the whole society is grouped into two moieties (sub-division of a tribe for exchange of women) the Doley and Pegu who play an important role in regulation of marriage.

Old Khasi Woman
Old Khasi Woman by Topashish Bhattacharya


The Khasis of Meghalaya are a matrilineal tribe who believe in the ideology-“Long jaidna ka kynthei” which means “From the woman sprang the clan”. This ideology has brought to light the role of women in perpetuating the clan from one generation to another. Woman is central to the family in Khasi ideology. The woman who nurtures her child in her womb gives her the custody of the child. This ideology is so deeply rooted in the Khasi ethos that the children traditionally belong to the descent group of the mother. The centrality of the mother in Khasi family thus enjoins on her the rights and responsibilities of the family at large. She is expected to be exclusively responsible for the upbringing and welfare of her children. She is the repository of family honour and the continuity of the family line depends on her. The Khasis speak of a family of brothers and sisters who are great grand children of one great grandmother, and identify themselves as ‘shi-kpoh’ which literally means ‘one womb’ ‘that is the issue of one womb. Deeply rooted in the Khasi ideology of human reproduction is the belief that the father is the provider of stature and form (U kpauba ai ka long rynnieng),while the mother contributes flesh and blood (ka kmiekaba ai iaka doh ka snam)to the child.This blood bond between the mother and the child is strongly reflected even in familial relations and kinship ties where the term parakur (mother’s kin)is used more significantly than the word bakha (father’s kin).

Unity and solidarity in any kinship system depends upon the dynamics of clan organization and the functional roles of the groups and segments within it. The Khasi while tracing the emergence of clan formation believe in the Divine Theory which states that they are the descendants of the Hynniewtrep Hynniewskum (seven huts) who came to settle on earth from heaven. This myth describes how the Khasi clans were formed from the union between a woman (the root ancestress) and her husband U Thawlang. The overgrown families of which constitutes the Khasi population which is divided into many clans. Following this belief, the Khasi have ever since accorded a high value to kinship bonds amongst clan members. The matrilineal system of the Khasis has played an important role in shaping the kinship ties and relations amongst the matrilineal kins. Starting from the ‘kur’ (group of matrilineal cognates) which is the largest division on the basis of the matrilineal principle, it is found that kinship ties are well maintained at every stage of Khasi family structure .The ‘kur’ is the first social entity  round which every social institution revolves .A ‘kur’ which is a near equivalent of a clan is an exogamous unit. While it is difficult to determine the exact number of ‘kur’ it is well understood that each ‘kur’ is divided into a number of exogamous units which are grouped together as descendents of a common female ancestress (Ka Iawbei Khynraw) and are therefore exogamous. The sense of belongingness and kinship bond amongst members of the kur is so strong that whenever Khasis meet each other for the first time, the first question that is asked is- To which kur do you belong? Or what is your ‘jait’?

While delving deeper into the functional units of the Khasi family structure, it is found that the ‘IING’ and the ‘KPOH’ are the two most important tenets that work towards the functional unity of a Khasi matrilineal family. It would therefore be pertinent to discuss here the functional roles of ‘Iing‘ and ‘Kpoh’ in order to co-relate their roles in bringing about strong kinship ties.

The ‘Iing’ (domestic group of matrilineal kins) is the most vital functional unit of Khasi family structure.It is the centre of religious rites and ceremonies and also a welfare organisation where all the matrilineal kins belonging to the same lineage of a common grandmother(Ka Iawbei Khynraw) or young ancestress, the aged, the destitute, the handicapped, orphaned find a place of refuge. Where the ‘Iing’ has branched out into separate household units it is called ‘IingTnat’(elementary family)which happens when the elder sisters of the ‘khadduh’ branch out of the main ancestral iing or household of their mother and create their own separate households. Nevertheless it is the khadduh who retains the religious significance of the iing which she has inherited and brings the members of the family together from time to time during religious rites and ceremonies.

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The Iing also functions as a social community which gathers members of all ages for family events, religious or otherwise. Older members of the family have the important duty of imparting moral and social instructions to the young through moral teachings on etiquette and wisdom such as ‘Ka sneng ka kraw’, ka kdew ka pyni’, “Jingsnengtymmen”. Compared to the Kpoh, the iing is a very restricted descent group giving opportunities to split off by those who have no rights to inheritance.

To be continued

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