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Jasmine Dispatch

Village of Angels
June 14, 2000

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This woman could tell us a lot about village life
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Hat Mawdon, a village whose name translates to 'the market near the rocks,' is as splendid as villages come. What are the first things you think of when you imagine living in a village: straw huts, fetching water from a well, no electricity? I was curious too, wondering about the people, trying to imagine what they are like. What joys do they have? What challenges do they face? Overflowing with questions, I asked my friend Devdutt, a Goan man whom I met while visiting the magnificent coastal state. He laughed and said the best thing was for me to see for myself.

"Some things are better felt than telt," he smiled and invited me to meet his family in person!

Map
Devdutt is originally a city slicker from Panaji, Goa's capital city, but he married a Khasi woman from Meghalaya, one of India's seven northeastern sister states. There is quite a different system of life in Meghalaya, one in which women are the proprietors, so he has since relocated to the village and settled there with his wife and children. You may not be surprised to hear that a man would uproot his career and life to relocate to his wife's home, but in India this is highly uncommon.

Even husbands of the honorable women of the Parliament don't relocate to New Delhi. But the families of the men of Parliament dutifully follow. The women instead commute, flying in and out between session, while their family lives in the district they represent. In general it would be absurd for a man to follow his wife the way Devdutt did. But he is an extraordinary man, not bound or confined to the way of life simply because it's status quo or tradition. He recognized how limiting these constraints are and how unfairly India treats her women. Not to mention he married into a very different culture. It was reassuring, still, to see that there are those who see this error and don't fall into its trap.

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Beautiful, simple, magical-in a matter of minutes I had easily become quite comfortable
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That was my first clue that this place was going to be different from any other place I'd ever seen. I was right!

Once off the two-day train ride from Delhi, I rested for the night in preparation for the next leg of my journey, a ten hour bus ride to this remote village to visit the angelic descendants of the Ri Hinniew Trep, or Seven Families. Khasi legend has it that in the beginning there were sixteen families, nine in heaven and seven on earth, connected by a golden vine ladder. But when sin poisoned the earth, the link was severed. Today, the women are regarded as angels on earth, life-givers, and caretakers of their people. For that they receive the utmost respect of their people.

Once off the bus, which sped along the one main road that leads down into the fertile Himalayan valley and into neighboring Bangladesh, Devdutt and I were greeted by curious smiles near the river down below. They shyly found their way up the roadside to take a closer peek. "Didi," they smiled to one another. I was welcomed and regarded from that point as "Auntie." We continued on the road, across a small bamboo bridge which crosses the Hashimara river and into the village. Smiling faces poked out of huts along the way as the word was trickled down that a stranger had come.

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Boys in usually inherit their family's estate, but not in Meghalaya. Here the girls get the goods!
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Soon a small army had gathered behind me following me all the way to a small shop where Eve, Devdutt's wife, was already waiting outside. A tiny, spunky woman, she grabbed my hand and pulled me down to kiss my cheeks Then she proceeded to call to some of the younger boys to take my bags and put them in her hut. She greeted her husband, and with my hand still in hers she promptly left him behind, smiling a few words over her shoulder as she waved to him that we would return shortly. It was interesting that her name was Eve, because she was also the highest woman of the land, not to mention Meghalaya is a predominantly Christian state. Her mother, whom I call the Queen Mother, controlled most of the farms for miles in every direction, and it would all eventually be passed on to Eve and then to her daughter after her.

I was easily head and shoulders over everyone in the village, but no physical difference seemed to matter, not race or color, sex or appearance. I was instantly welcomed, and from there it was easy to make myself at home. First things first. I needed a Khasi wardrobe! Eve gladly pulled me out one of her small dresses and then tied a second piece of material over my shoulder.

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Instant family! I'm an aunt now with nieces and nephews galore!!!
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"Like a true Khasi woman!" she clapped.

Khasis wear small house coats or dresses with another piece of cloth tied over her shoulder or two pieces one tied over either shoulder. This is symbolic of their wings as angels. To wear this ensemble is to be respected, Eve said. Still, I think the shock value of the villagers seeing me in traditional garb was just as priceless!

Since I was now styling in the latest Khasi fashion, I was ready to get into the swing of things. But I quickly found that there wasn't much swing to get into. The village life was slow and peaceful. Some worked in the fields or grazed the cattle. Most could be found on their porches relaxing or playing cards. We walked along the road, stopping to visit with neighbors and have chay. One man even came to Hat Mawdon from another village to ask Eve if she would bring me by after dinner to meet his town and his family. By the orange glow of an oil lamp, we ate hot chirra sprinkled with sugar in Mr. Mawphlong's small hut and I was stunned to see how easy it was to make. We know chirra as rice crispies, but I'll bet you never had any hot off the grill! They're delicious!!!

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larger view
He's a Khasi, she's a Khasi, wouldn't you like to be a Khasi too!
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For hours, the entire village stood at the door of the hut peering in as I talked to my new friends about life and dreams. It was an interesting topic, and I found that I was in the company of some pretty amazing people! Anand, Devdutt's son, is at the top of his class. A future computer engineer, he explained how projects like the Odyssey are his inspiration to get into technology. He had recently only moved to the village from Goa and wants to connect people here to the world beyond the mountains.

At seventeen he seemed very well-aware of the world around him, and he attributed that to his education. Unfortunately, not many young boys in Hat Mawdon have the same opportunity. The girls, because they are the future land-holders, are the ones who are educated. The boys usually till the land. This was not always the case. Prior to India's independence, the Khasis were a prosperous people. They suffered greatly at the hands of Bangladeshi outsiders due to lack of protection from India, whose attention was focused on establishing an independent nation.

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This is the one schoolhouse of the village, which educates students ages 4 to 14
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The boys then had to fill the shoes of men lost or fathers who left their families and sought higher ground for protection. They had no stake in the land; the women did. So they stayed, endured the hardship, and rebuilt their communities once the unrest began to settle. The men's lack of self-worth is a tremendous part of the hardship faced by Khasi people. Not only is abandoning a family commonplace, leaving many women single mothers, but men have taken to alcoholism and gambling as pastimes.

The men in the room agreed that their counterparts feel like they are shortchanged in the society, while the women debated that they are loved and cared for from boyhood to manhood, unlike the girls in the rest of patriarchal India, who grow up knowing that boy children are more desirable. The reality is that a girl child that is actually born and taken care of should be thankful for her life, as many are aborted in hope of a boy the next time.

Vocabulary

proprietors - one who owns the land
status quo - existing way of things
fertile - being able to produce a lot of fruit

They could have continued the debate all evening, but it was getting dark, and with no electricity, that makes finding your way home quite difficult. So we bid our friends good night and made our way home. The light of the moon shone the way, and fireflies sparkled like glitter in the fields. Ahhhh, a quiet walk, a wonderful day, and now some rest. At home we walked to the well to wash up and used the bathroom in an outhouse, a luxury most villagers don't have. Then Eve, her youngest daughter and beneficiary, and I all lay on a straw mat on the floor of the bamboo hut. Devdutt and his son slept on two wooden beds behind the curtain that separated the one room area in to two parts.

Links To Check Out For More Info:

Meghalaya's official website

More about Shillong,the capital of Meghalaya

Sleep in the peaceful still of the night was refreshing, and I had plenty of new concepts to ponder in my dreams. What a lovely day.

Until next time...

Jasmine

p.s. - Please e-mail me at ...jasminehamlett@bigfoot.com
 

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Andrew - Follow the Yellow Brick Road (to meet an eight year old monk?)!
Monica - Serving the Poorest of the Poor: Mother Teresa of Calcutta

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