COLUMN: Landscape and historical imagination

19 Apr 2015

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Nartiang, Jaintia Hills 	— Ahmed Hossein
Nartiang, Jaintia Hills — Ahmed Hossein
Reeju Ray
Reeju Ray

By Reeju Ray

REEJU RAY is a historian and social activist. She lives between Delhi, Toronto, and Shillong. She received her doctorate in 2013 from Queen’s University, Canada.

I GREW up in the north-east Indian state of Meghalaya which forms the lowest ranges of the Himalayan mountain chain. Local geography was not included in my school curriculum but we read extensively about the relevance of the Ajanta and Ellora caves in Western India, or about historical sites in northern India, and very little about the history of the north-east. History textbooks characterised this region as the north-east frontier of the British Empire before being integrated into the Indian nation state. A few years ago as I walked around the village of Nartiang in the Jaintia hills of Meghalaya, well known for its megaliths, I wondered how inhabitants imagined landscape and geography in the 18th- and 19th-century. Or more specifically in what ways did the stones found across the hills shape the relationship between people and their surroundings amidst significant ruptures brought about by colonialism. As a historian, and being politically invested in the region, I found the monoliths offered a refreshing new perspective on conceptions of the past.

In the late 18th and 19th centuries, independent polities that remained outside the imperial scope of the Mughal administration in the north and east of Bengal were in varying degrees brought under the purview of the English East India Company government. The chief or raja of the Jaintia polity was forced to abdicate his capital Jaintiapur and his territory in the Sylhet plains now located in present-day Bangladesh. The raja was confined to the hills territory of his erstwhile large and influential polity that spread far into the plains of Sylhet. Nartiang, a ritual and religious centre in the hills, became the seat of power for the Rajah as well as the centre for anti-colonial resistance. The famous rebellions against colonial taxation in 1861-62 started in Nartiang and spread across the Jaintia territory. Nartiang is relevant today for many reasons; most obvious among these being that it serves as a popular tourist site. More significantly, the landscape of Nartiang, read as a historical source, gives access to forms of resistance to colonial and postcolonial geographies, histories, and ideas of the hills and its people.

Imperial geographical expeditions and revenue surveys created a bulk of information on the Khasi Jaintia polities. The hills were also incorporated in large-scale scientific projects in the mid-19th century such as prominent British botanist Joseph Dalton Hooker’s study of natural science of the Himalayan mountain ranges. In 1854 J.D. Hooker’s research was published in two volumes named The Himalayan Journal or Notes of a Naturalist in Bengal, the Sikkim and Nepal Himalayas, the Khasia hills etc. Towards the end of the 19th-century the focus of colonial knowledge production shifted from geography and landscape to people inhabiting the imperial frontier. Many of the communities and groups that did not fall under British puritanical ideas of practicing Hinduism or Islam, those inhabiting hills and forests, and not engaged in settled agriculture, were characterised as tribes. The classification of people as tribal ascribed a supposed ‘backwardness’ to their political, social, and religious systems. Anthropology and ethnography emerged as important disciplines making the tribes and tribal society objects of scientific study. Colonial administrator and amateur anthropologist P. R. T. Gordon published a monograph in 1907 titled The Khasis sanctioned by the Assam government; his monograph is among the most quoted and referenced historical source in academic and non-academic literature.

The Khasi hills were incorporated into the independent Indian nation state with the signing of the Instrument of Accession in 1948. Nationalist histories rewrote colonial accounts incorporating them within homogenising narratives of anti-colonial resistance. Imperial and nationalist histories ignored at best the rich sources and forms of historical knowledge in the region and its inhabitants. This meant that pre-existing ideas and local knowledge marginalised during the colonial period were further invisibilised in histories of the nation state.

Colonial characterisations of both the region and its inhabitants as ‘backward’, ‘primitive’, ‘tribal’ were accommodated in postcolonial anthropological and historical writing until recently. Several historians in the last decade or so have challenged these characterisations. They show that the region was connected from Kashmir to Bengal through trade and monastic movement. It was fragmented over the 18th and 19th centuries and transformed into a frontier. As late as the 18th century the East India Company was only one of many trading interests in the region. Dutch, Armenian and Afghan traders were engaged in trade with the Khasi polities. In the early 19th century treaties were signed with independent polities, which by way of their unequal terms gave the Company political and economic dominance. By tracing the longer history of the region then, it becomes possible to reimagine it as a dynamic spatial unit, not just a margin or frontier.

Nartiang is among numerous clusters of megalithic structures found across the Khasi Jaintia hills. As I mentioned earlier these can be read as historical sources that provide a different window into the past. The purpose of these megaliths, found in clusters of various numbers, is accounted in 19th-century literature. Juxtaposing the meanings attributed to them by inhabitants of the hills in the present day with colonial anthropological texts enhances our understanding of these structures. Attributed purely religious significance in colonial texts, these stones served political and social functions according to oral tradition. Inscribing the landscape with stones created a medium to communicate with an ancestral past. Hence, the most significant function was to connect the past, present, and future within the landscape of the hills. The stone clusters also performed the function of sepulchers, and were erected to commemorate birth, death, and other significant events like succession, or social transgressions such as adultery.

As renowned Khasi writer Sweetimon Rynjah, an influential member of Khasi society, pointed out to me in one of our many conversations, ka klim ka khla, translated as ‘adultery’ surpassed the usual English language connotations to include various forms of social transgressions. Renowned Khasi writer Rynjah emphasised that these stones also served as seats for deceased ancestors making their journey into the metaphysical realm. The megalithic remains and their relevance in the present day attest to the fact that social practices in the erstwhile independent Khasi polities continue to resist being co-opted by a pervasive colonial and postcolonial imagination.

The Khasi word for memory is kynmaw, which literally means to mark with stone. Several travel narratives and early descriptive accounts of the hills referred to the clusters of stones arranged along roads or inside forests. An analysis of the landscape marked with stones points towards the relationship between past and self, memory and history. That the word kynmaw meant both stone and to remember, suggests that inhabitants used megaliths to inscribe the landscape with memories, events, associations, and histories.

The landscape was not only marked with stone but also contained spaces both physical and metaphorical that were inaccessible to colonial forces. For example sacred forests or groves known in Khasi as law kyntang or law Niam were spaces where severe injunctions prohibited anyone from disturbing any aspect of nature. There are rare examples of some sacred groves being sold to the colonial state but largely the ecology of these forests remained undisturbed. Megaliths were often erected inside the sacred groves, and rituals were performed to appease guardians and energies attributed to the forests. The metaphorical space of ramia was only accessible to shamans who were able to transform into Khla Phuli (tiger) or San Saram (four-clawed one). The transformation from person to tiger, inhabiting an alternative space, was produced by an anxiety to protect and preserve what seemed to be under threat. The absence of colonial recording of the legend of tiger-men and spaces like ramia may have been the result of a political act of refusal on the part of the hill inhabitants to give the colonisers access to such information. These spaces were not isolated from the colonised or geographical landscape of Khasi polities, but were dream-like interpretations of ecological, political and social realities.

Matrilineal kinship structured power and authority, contestation and resistance. For example, flat, and horizontally placed megaliths represented ka iawbei tynrai or ka iawbei tymmen, literally the grandmother of the root, or the old grandmother. There were also stones laid down for the ancestress of the clans, and families. The authority of both the chief and the shaman representing alternative nodes of power was legitimised through matrilineage. Social practices, myths and legends, rituals and religious beliefs embedded within the landscape have been a continued source of resistance to totalising histories, albeit affected by colonial forms of knowledge, thought, and ideas. Understanding the landscape as a historical source one finds that the relationship between the inhabitants of these hills and their past mediated through landscape features such as the megalithic structures provides access to unrecorded histories. The continued relevance of megaliths, of the legend of tiger-men, and matrilineal kinship reveals narratives and practices that resist the violence of colonial representations.