Kong, The Women of Tyrshang

Hemashri Dhavala

An insight into the matrilineal society of Meghalaya

“It’s an iron rule of history that every imagined hierarchy disavows its fictional origins and claims to be natural and inevitable.” – Yuval Noah Harari

In prehistoric times, humans lived in small societies as hunter-gatherers. To survive, men and women would together hunt down animals, gather plants, berries and nuts. Nurturing for the young was a communal activity and parenting was a group effort. Studies have shown that more than three-fourth of the handprints found in the caves in Spain were made by women. Even in early agriculture settlements the men, women and children worked equally in fields. It’s rather absurd to think that in such labour-intensive activities one group would sit idle while the other worked day and night.

Bobbing its head a chicken walks carefully, laying its feet one by one on a clay road, leaving its footprints on the road, damp from the rain. There is a faint noise of women giggling and thumping mud from a nearby shanty. A few more chickens cluck about and the strong smell of freshly cut pine wood engulfs the entire village. It’s all very surreal.

In ancient times, it is said that the Khasi and Jaintia men were fierce warriors who protected their land from invaders and spent most of their lives away from their homeland. The uncertainty of whether the warriors would come back and the consequent fear of their sacred land falling into the hands of the invaders gave birth to the idea of female inheritance of land. And so this tradition became a part of their religion and from then on the woman is the owner of the house. According to Khasi culture, the youngest daughter of the family inherits all of the property passed down from her mother and before that her grandmother.

A one and a half-hour taxi ride from the city of Shillong brings you to the village of Tyrshang. Located in the Jaintia Hills in the northeastern state of Meghalaya. It is home to some Khasi and Jaintia communities. As a part of a craft-based subject to study and understand more about the unique craft of making handmade pots from black clay and greenstone acquired from the Sung valley, I was lucky to witness the beauty and simplicity of this village and peek into the lives of the people and witness their culture. Working alongside highly skilled artisans observing and absorbing their splendour. 

Kong Ibahun’s sister showing us a freshly made pot.

The title Kong meaning sister in Khasi is commonly used in the region to respectfully address a woman. Kong Ibahun is one of the many women of the village who make pots out of black clay. She is my guide and mentor in learning more about the community. 

A typical day starts at around five in the morning with children running to school and women gathering in Kong Ibahun’s courtyard to start pounding the clay for a day’s worth of pots. Gathered around with muddy hands they shape pots and discuss their day. The majority of the households here make a living by making and selling ceremonial hand-made black clay pots. This craft, known as Khiew Ranei, is said to have originated by a family in a neighbouring village, their kin settled in Tyrshang and continued practicing the craft. The fresh produce of the week along with local delicacies and handlooms are sold in a weekly market. 

A shop selling assorted dried fish
A woman selling Potha Ru

Every Saturday, the women prepare to go to the market. As I walk into the market I am transported into a whole new world with vendors selling everyday utilities from dry fish, poultry, silkworms, Koi, paan leaves, local vegetable, berries, spices, tea leaves, duma (local smoking tobacco), smoking wood pipes, clothes, jainsem (a traditional garment), baskets, pots to Bangladeshi boots, fishing nets, and potions. The market is dominated by women.

People from nearby villages flock to the market to replenish their weekly supplies and it gives the sellers a good place to display the variety of their products and skill. There is a woman selling Potha Ru (traditional rice cakes) to a woman who then hands it over to her baby tied on her back. The woman with the baby then picks up her sack full of amenities and walks away. A woman selling paan leaves and koi calls me to her stall and asks me to take a good picture of her, in return she offers me a paan leaf with some choona and half a koi nut. I accept her gift with gratitude.

A mother with child on her back buying Potha Ru
Women selling Paan leaves and Koi

Typically after marriage, the husband acquires the wife’s name and moves into her family home. Their children take the mother’s last name. They say that the man is the head of the family and the woman is the neck, where the neck turns the head follows.

Next to the market is a tea stall, offering red tea or sha with a selection of garlic chicken, smoked pork, boiled spinach gravy with a side of red rice and fermented fish chutney for lunch. The woman who owns the tea stall gets busy feeding her son after serving her customers. She has a few friends sitting and drinking tea and talking when suddenly lightning strikes and everybody goes quiet. The awkward silence makes everyone in the little shop burst into laughter.

Walking back I hear somebody calling me from behind, it’s Kong Ibahun. I spotted her earlier in the market selling her pots. She is now on her way back with a bag full of groceries and a big bunch of local bananas. I give her a hand as she escorts me back to her home. 

As we reach home her younger son and elder daughter come and take her bag from her and start unpacking the groceries, Kong gets started on making lunch after feeding her four-month-old daughter. Sitting with Kong Ibahun in her sultry kitchen as she makes smoked pork curry we drink some sha. She has freshly made pots stacked on the side of her herth. Rows of corn hang on the ceiling of the kitchen most probably left to smoke.

Smoking Corn
Kong Ibahun’s children helping her out

Kong Ibahun’s eldest son

While in Tryshang, Kong Ibahun and the other women of the village are in a position of power that is granted to them through inheritance of property, in many societies across the world, women are not so lucky. Today, even when women do pursue their careers in professions previously dominated by men, they bear the bulk of the household work and are assumed to be the primary caregivers. The distribution of labour is skewed drastically with no added gains for women. 

A village elder

Passing down all the ancestral property to the daughter may not be the best way to create an equal society. That said, piling all the housework on a woman or  presuming a bulldozer operator, a CEO of a Fortune 100 company, a stockbroker in wall street to be a man isn’t equal either. 

“Does the handle of a jhadu (broom) come printed with the words: ‘to be operated by women only’?” asks a petition started by Subarna Ghosh, co-founder of an NGO called ReRight Foundation. It asks Prime Minister Modi to ask Indian men to do house chores as well. In the hope that if the Prime Minister asks them, they might listen. The time I spent in the village of Tyrshang will stay with me forever as a time when I witnessed a society that not only encouraged women but also placed them in a position of power through inheritance. Their involvement in important decisions related to the household and the village allowed them to live a life of their choice and in their own terms. 

Hemashri is a Graphic designer from the National Institute of Fashion Technology and the Creative Director of Bol Magazine.

Photos by Hemashri Dhavala