As the legend goes, there were originally 16 families, nine in heaven and seven on earth. The golden vine that connected them was severed when sin polluted the earth. From then onwards, the people were divided into 16 warring families with different chiefs. These families belonged to the Khasi, Jaintia and Garo tribes. Today, they are the people of Meghalaya and this is their legendary beginning! And they do fight amongst themselves quite a bit!
Tribal law prevailed until the British took over the administration in 1820 and allowed Christian missionaries into the area. Today, most people are Christians. Present day Meghalaya was incorporated in the state of Assam after the independence of India in 1947. On 21 January 1972, Meghalaya made an independent state of the Indian Union.
The people of Meghalaya are cheerful, sociable and hardworking and have exemplary dignity of labor. Physically, they are short, muscular and robust with fair complexions. Predominantly Christian, their society is casteless. They are devout and practice their faith with fervor. On Sundays, the cities, towns and villages wear a festive look as hordes turn up in church in their Sunday best.
Mekhla, one of the traditional dresses of Assam, is also worn by the women of Meghalaya. The beauty of the Mekhla and the convenience of wearing it makes mekhla one of the most popular dresses of Meghalaya. Mekhla is usually weaved from Muga Silk. The rich hue of the silk that is used to weave mekhla is very eye-catching.
Mekhla comprises of two parts. A sarong or skirt like apparel is wrapped around the waist. This part of Mekhla generally has an intricately designed border on one side. The Mekhla Chaddar is worn over the upper part of the body like the end of a sari. The material used, the rich and varied designs on the body of the Mekhla and the weaving techniques applied to make the dress, distinguish the Mekhla from other dresses of Meghalaya.
Mekhla worn in Meghalaya is woven by the women living in the rural area. The dresses are then bought by traders and sold in the city markets. Tourists visiting Meghalaya should always pick up a piece of mekhla as a treasured souvenir. Mekhla is intricately linked with the tradition and culture of Meghalaya. Brides wear the mekhla at their weddings. Women also wear it during festivals and ceremonies. It is a popular dress of this beautiful state.
Special Attire and Accessories
The three major tribes of Meghalaya have distinct costumes and jewelry. However, with the change of time as in the rest of the country, the males have adopted the western code of dress leaving the ladies to continue the tradition of ethnic sartorial elegance.
The Khasi lady wears a dress called ‘Jainsem’ which flows loose to the ankles. The upper part of her body is clad in a blouse. Over these, she ties both ends of a checkered cotton cloth on one shoulder, thus improvising on the apron. On formal occasions, worn over the ‘Jympien’ is a long piece of Assam muga silk called ‘Ka Jainsem Dhara’ which hangs loose below the knees after being knotted or pinned at the shoulders. The ‘Tapmohkhlieh’ or head-shawl is either worn by knotting both ends behind the neck or is arranged in a stylish manner as done with a shawl.
The Jaintia maidens dresses like her Khasi counterpart, but with the additional of a ‘Kyrshah’ – a checkered cloth tied round the head during harvesting. On formal occasions, however, she dons a velvet blouse, drapes a striped cloth called ‘Thoh Khyrwang’, sarong style round her waist and knots at her shoulder an Assam muga piece hanging loose to her ankles.
In contrast, the Garo women wear a blouse, a raw cotton ‘Dakmanda’ which resembles a ‘Lungi’ and the ‘Daksari’ which wrapped like a ‘Mekhla’ as worn by Assamese ladies. The jewelry of the Khasis and the Jaintias are also alike and the pendant is called ‘Kynjri Ksiar’, being made of 24 carat gold. The Khasis and the Jaintias also wear a string of thick red coral beads round their neck called ‘Paila during festive occasions. The Garo ladies wear Rigitok, which are thin fluted stems of glass strung with fine thread.
Dressing up and wearing ornaments forms an important component of not only dance, but daily life as well. The items turned out from the rich metals reveal the intricate system of folk jewelry in the state. Perhaps metallurgy was practiced extensively in the past.
Some of the ornaments worn by females are as follows-
Coronet-Ka pangsngiat – a crown in pure gold or silver with a flattened top which varies in shape between oval and round.
Wahdong – round earrings of pure gold, which are like chains, the top most ends converging with the upper portions of the ear.
Siar Kynthei – earring bedecked in the earlobes and looping down. It must be of pure gold.
Lakyrdeng – for earlobes, of gold.
Ki tad ki mahu – bracelets of gold.
Khadu syngkha – bracelets of gold, very thick and heavy.
Shah ryndand – necklace of gold, tightened to the neck.
Kynjri tabah – bands of silver worn down from the neck.
Kanupad – coral beads and water pearls of reddish radiance, but half of them being modeled in pure gold.
Coral beads-half of which in the band is pure gold.
Wrislets in pure gold
Siar shynrang-earring of gold to distinguish from siar kynthai of women
A sword belt and scabbard in pure and plaited of silver on which the sword is hung.
Quiver- of silver on which three arrows are placed.
Textile of Meghalaya
Women do weaving in their spare time and use back-strap or loin-looms, the only exception being the garos who also use frame-looms. Endi silk-weaving, famous for its feel and sturdiness, is carried out by the local women.
The garos also cultivate a variety of short staple cotton that is used to make the traditional fabric worn by the people of this region. Proportioned motifs are the attraction of the textiles. . Dakmanda, is a kind of blouse worn by the garo women and it looks like a lungi. Daksari is another dress which is wrapped around and looks like the mekhla (dress worn by the Assamese women).
Table cloths, table and bead spreads are the other items prepared by the garos.
The Khasi woman wears a dress called jainsem, which flows to the ankles and on top a blouse is worn. Over these, are tied both ends of a check cotton cloth on one shoulder. On formal occasions, a long piece of Assam muga silk called ‘ka jainsem dhara’ is worn, which hangs loose below the knees after being knotted.