The Khasi and Jaiñtia hills are abundant in relics of the past which are more evident in the monoliths, dolmens and menhirs which stand till today as reminders of the glorious and colourful history of the indigenous people of the region. But sadly, no written records exist (or are yet to be found) of the early history of these people. Notably, oral tradition tells us that the Khasi tribes have swallowed their books (U Khasi u la nguid ïa ka kot) and therefore have lost their script forever.
It was only in 1842 that the Rev. Thomas Jones undertook to re-create the Khasi alphabets using the Roman script. Since then, the people have produced writings across all literary genres. And although the early history of the people which has been passed down the generations by oral tradition has also been reflected in some literary works, not much light has been shed on the actual dates and events in particular, barring a few that have appeared in the ‘Buranjis’ of Assam and Tripura and the accounts of the British officers and scholars who have served in the region from the early 19th century till India’s independence from British rule in 1947.
Therefore, the ancient and medieval history of the Khasi and Jaiñtia hills still remain an incomplete study which only archaeologists and historians can complete (or try to). The contribution of historical linguist to the study would definitely add clarity to the picture and even researchers of other disciplines can also shed light to this under-developed picture. While recent carbon dating of a few iron smelting sites point to the people’s antiquity, underground excavations have scarcely been done to dig out the ancient history of the people in Khasi and Jaiñtia hills. The only excavation we have come to know of was done around the Lum Sohpetbneng area and it does support the existence of a civilisation whose myths were centred round the Lum Sohpetbneng near the present-day man-made Umïam lake.
Oral tradition, as we know it, has been subjected to embellishments as well as deletions. It sometimes also creates confusion through existence of varying versions of a particular event or person. This is clearly evident in the 3 to 4 different versions of the legend of “Ka Lidakha” which tells of the origin of the Jaiñtia kings. However, in spite of its demerits, oral tradition still remains the chief source of early history of Khasi and Jaiñtia Hills and if not recorded would soon get eroded or buried into antiquity.
And it is on oral tradition that this article relies to try to understand the existing rock engravings and sculptures found in Jaiñtia Hills. In the midst of the realities already presented above, we are presented with the relics of the past which are difficult to explain in the absence of written records. This leaves much room for speculation. Here, the imagination of the human mind comes to play and naiveté serves to propagate misinformation. In the scheme of daily life, especially in this hectic world, rumination and contemplation have become scarce.
Jaiñtia hills has its fair share (if not more) of evidences of past events through the monoliths, remnants of haats (weekly markets) and structures that stand till today besides the awe-inspiring stone bridges that have withstood the natural forces of weathering and decay till today. It is the human activities that are more threatening to these relics. A notable point in this observation is the absence of engravings and sculptures in the central part of Jaiñtia hills. This may be proven to be wrong (I hope so) but till now, nothing has been reported to the contrary. The sculptures and engravings we have observed so far are seen in the areas that adjoin a different culture.
In the south Jaiñtia hills, (i.e. the War-Jaiñtia area), we encounter engravings of Hindu culture and faith, such as the ‘Trishul’ engraved at different periods on the rocks that embank the Tisang river (known as the Myntdu river in its upper reaches) near Psadwar village. The Jaiñtia kings, who also ruled over the plains of Sylhet (now in Bangladesh) besides their traditional kingdom in Jaiñtia hills were liberal and therefore accepted Hindu beliefs. Hence we see the engraving of the Hindu deity ‘Ganesh’ on the path leading to a cave in Syndai village where Hindu pilgrims used to visit on the annual occasion of ‘Shiv Ratri’. We also see the rock-cut sculpture of Ganesh cut on the rock in the bathing pool of the Jaiñtia royalty at the Rupasor bathing ghat near Syndai village on the road to Muktapur, a border village through which the ancient road to Jaiñtiapur (the winter capital of the Jaiñtia kings) passes through.
The only reference to local culture can be seen in the engraving of “U Khmi” (Earthquake) which is found on a rock on the banks of the Tisang river near Psadwar. Oral tradition tells us that “U Khmi” was a giant residing under the surface of the earth and the earthquakes that we feel are the result of him moving his body parts. He was said to be so powerful that if he moved either both his arms and hands, the earth would crumble. Therefore, his mother cut off his ear on one side and one side of his limbs so that he will not be able to destroy the earth. This legend is depicted in the moss-covered engraving that is seen till today. Near this engraving a little downstream, we can also find the engravings of what the locals claim to be of Rama and Lakhsmana on a rock and nearer still is found an engraving of a tiger and a woman. Though a clear explanation of the engravings are lacking, they still remain as mute witnesses of a time gone by.
The representation of the sun and moon on stone are found close to the Rupasor bathing ghat and the sculptures of small elephants are found on the stream called Ampubon, also situated near the Rupasor bathing ghat. These sculptures are indicative of the influence of Hindu culture and were most probably made during the reign of the Jaiñtia kings. Arched stone bridges, most probably belonging to the 18th century AD are to be found near the Rupasor bathing ghat. These are testimony of the Jaiñtia Kingdom’s legacy.
In Khanduli, a village in the northern part of Jaiñtia hills, adjoining the Karbi Anglong district of Assam, we find engravings on rocks that depict a soldier or a king. One of the engravings has been destroyed due to a road constructed on its location. Probably, the engraving had gone unnoticed or ignored by the labourers, but the elderly residents still recall it in their memory. Fortunately, a similar engraving has been preserved by thoughtful individuals, which we find on the outskirts of the village to the north. This engraving has been fenced off and marked to protect it from being destroyed. However, traces of paint are seen on the face of the engraving which otherwise still remains intact. Below the image of the soldier (or king) is juxtaposed an image of a woman (maybe of the queen). Only detailed studies can reveal the true meaning of the engravings. But the local name of the engraving on rock does point to a king being its subject. Local tradition refers to it as the “Moo-Syiem” (King’s rock/stone) although it does not refer to a name or age.
The most interesting engraving or rock sculpture in Jaiñtia hills may be ascribed to the rock carving of a Vulva situated on the outskirts of Lum Lakhiat village (Near Khanduli). The vulva has been carved on a rock which is about 15 feet wide and 5 feet off the higher ground. The engraving is a larger than life representation of the female genital and is inconspicuous to the normal eye because of the creepers growing on the rock and also because of the vegetation growing around it which camouflages it from the ordinary eye. I call it interesting because it evokes several questions to which the answers seem elusive. The present villagers of Lum Lakhiat have no knowledge of its origin. Most of them are unaware of its presence because it is situated away from the village on a hill, but close to their paddy fields.
We may probably never know who made it and when, but why was it made and for what purposes? Was it a product of voyeurism or was it made by someone who had nothing better to do? Or, could it be the work of someone inspired by creative thought? I am inclined to link it to Yoni-worship which is prevalent even today in India. The vulva engraved on this rock is similar to that at Kamakhya temple in Guwahati in Assam (a neighbour of Meghalaya). Kamakhya is one of the most visited ‘Shakti Peethas’ by Hindu pilgrims and considered to be one of the oldest of the 51 “Shakti Peethas”. Meghalaya also boasts of a “Shakti Peetha” located at Nartiang in Jaiñtia hills, which happens to be quite close (about 35 Kms) to Lum Lakhiat towards the South. This proximity of the vulva engraving at Lum Lakhiat to the “Shakti Peetha” at Nartiang does suggest that perhaps during the reign of the Jaiñtia Kings (who were patrons of Hinduism), Yoni-worship was practised by some of their subjects which slowly discontinued with the decline of the kingdom after the British annexation in 1835 AD.
There is another sculpture at Kseh Rynchang (also near Khanduli) which is now broken and removed from its original location during the construction of a road there. It now lies face down beside the tri-junction of the main road to Khanduli. People of the village say that there were two sculptures of a man and a woman in the nude. They do not know when or who made the sculptures but a story attached to the nude sculptures tells that the man and woman were turned to rock figures due to a curse by the man’s wife when she found that the man (her husband) had committed adultery against her with the woman.
The late Shining Star Laloo in his book written in Khasi, “Ka Syiem Latympang” (Queen Latympang) mentions some stone engravings and sculptures that can be found in Latuba near Thangrain village in West Jaintia Hills to the north. These include the elephant of U Syiem Slieng (a neighbouring king who fought against Queen Latympang), the bullocks of U Miat Rynsut Pala (Queen Latympang’s beloved) and his plough. Oral tradition tells that Miat Rynsut had left his two bullocks while ploughing his field to rush to the aid of Queen Latympang. The bullocks kept waiting for his return but when he did not come back to the field, the bullocks and his plough turned to stone. The stone bullocks were disfigured with cracks not many years ago due to weathering but locals say that they cracked after a rainstorm known as ‘Ka Pylliang’ hit the area incessantly for nine days and nights.
Some engravings have also been found on a monolith at Tamu, another village near Khanduli and another rock carving has also been reported from the same region at Saitsama village. An engraving of a rooster and an elephant on one of the monoliths in Yawmusiang at Nangbah village has been highlighted later (using black paint) by somebody yet unknown. The arched stone bridge at Umïaknieh (to the south of Krangshuri falls near Amlarem) also has some engravings on its sides. This bridge is similar in structure to the one near the Rupasor bathing ghat and is probably of the same age and lies on the ancient highway between the summer capital (Nartiang) and the winter capital (Sylhet) of the Jaiñtia kings. Maybe some more are to be discovered. Only time will tell.
It must be noted that it is considered taboo in the Khasi and Jaiñtia culture to make images in any form of one’s God, ancestors, deities and any object of reverence. This has also been reiterated by the noted artist and writer Raphael Warjri in his book “Ka Thoh Dur Mynta” (A Khasi book on Creative Art). Till the recent past some elders still refrain from being photographed. Therefore, it is not surprising to find very few rock engravings or sculptures in Khasi and Jaiñtia hills. Those that mentioned here may probably have been the influence of other cultures as they are found only in the Southern and Northern fringes of the erstwhile Jaiñtia Kingdom which come in contact with neighbouring cultures. However, it is a subject of further research which will lead to a better understanding of the subject.
Written by D. R. Michael Buam.
1989. Shining Star Laloo. Ka Syiem Latympang Shadap Ka Hima Manar bad U Miat Rynsut Pala. Printed by Wisely Printing Press, Shillong
2013. Raphael Warjri. Ka Thohdur Mynta (A Khasi Book on Visual Art). Published by Riti Academy of Visual Arts and Printed at Don Bosco Press, Shillong.
The views expressed above are those of the writer and does not necessarily reflect the views of this website. The writer is an independent researcher, author and filmmaker. He can be contacted at [email protected] and blogs at www.michaelbuam.blogspot.in)