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Saturday, October 9, 2010


Apart from hard work in their fields and seeking relaxation and recreation in zu-drinking, singing, dancing, feasting, hunting and fishing, which are habits common to all, each tribe has peculiarities which mark it out from the others. For example, as a Deputy Commissioner of the Garo Hills aptly observed, "Every Garo's life is spent in giving (or refusing) and demanding dai (compensation). A man's great-grandfather was killed fifty years ago; he demands dai from the heir of the murderer, and if it is not paid his heir will still demand it in turn and so on until it is paid". Although most disputes in the other hill districts also are decided by awarding compensation to the aggrieved party, the system is not carried there to extremes as in the Garo Hills.
Marriage customs, laws of inheritance etc. also differ from tribe to tribe. The most distinctive feature of Garo and Khasi societies is their matriarchate. Descent is claimed from a common ancestress and it goes down through the females. It is the husband who, after marriage, has to go and live in his wife's house and not vice versa. Property is inherited by the youngest daughter. Amongst the Garos, when the son-in-law comes to live in his wife's parents' house, he becomes his father-in-law's nokrom, i.e. to say a kind of representative of the father's clan. After the death of the father-in- law the nokrom marries the widowed mother-in-law, thus becoming the husband of both mother and daughter. This custom is rather extraordinary and there is nothing comparable to it among the other tribes.
All the other hill tribes are patriarchal. The Lushais, Zemi Nagas and Kukis have to buy their wives by paying a marriage price. The price is calculated in terms of a number of mithans (wild bulls or cows). If divorce takes place as a result of a lapse on the wife's part, her father has to return the marriage price. If on the other hand, it is the husband's fault which brings about a divorce, he looses the price. The custom of demanding marriage-price for girls among the partiarchal tribes is easy to appreciate when we take into account the fact that a woman's life in the hills is harder than a man's. While an unmarried buck, except for being compelled to put in his share of work in the field, is allowed to go about freely hunting, fishing, drinking, singing, dancing and making love to his heart's content, a girl has to help her mother from dawn to dusk in running the household and catering to the needs of the menfolk. It is no wonder, therefore, that an unmarried girl is looked upon by the family as a valuable asset which cannot be parted with except for a reasonable price.
Divorce is easy to obtain amongst all the tribes. Among the Garos it is allowed almost automatically on payment of the customary dai of sixty rupees or so. Amongst the Khasis it is even easier. In the presence of witnesses, the husband gives five cowries, or five pice in lieu, to the wife and the wife does the same. The husband then takes all the ten cowries and throws them on the ground and this completes the divorce.
Divorce amongst the Khasis and the Jaintias (Syntengs) are so common an occurrence that children very often do not even know the identity of their fathers. In spite of this laxity in the matter of divorce, it has been justly observed by Colonel Gurdon "that the great drawback attaching to divorces in ordinary communities, i.e. the effect that it has on the lives of the children of the marriage, does not apply to the Khasis, for with them the children always live with their mother and their mother's family, which latter would be bound to maintain them in the event of a divorce."
From the liberal nature of their marriage and divorce laws it would be seen that the hill people have a very scientific and liberal attitude to all matters concerning sex. Unmarried boys and girls are not interfered with in their love-making and even the bearing of children out of wedlock before marriage is not strongly frowned upon. A different standard in sexual matters is, however, expected, particularly of the womenfolk, after marriage. This is especially true of the Zemi-Nagas and all other Naga tribes. Rape of a married woman is considered an offence more heinous than murder. Ursula Grahman Bower in her book The Naga Path gives an interesting account of how a raptor was saved from being speared to death by the youngmen of the village by the prompt intervention of the village elders, who satisfied the sense of public justice by banishing the man from the village.

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