Willie Wood

January 28 2015

This page is dedicated to the stories Willie Wood finds and shares with us for which
we thank him sincerely.

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The Mysoreans who won the battle of Haifa
Butter Biscuit and All
The Khasi - H. I. S. KANWAR - 1956 observation

Tea Express

February 3 2015

 Thanks to Willie Wood for forwarding this story

p.s.  In the Remembrance Services in memory of valiant soldiers who lay down their lives for the sake of their country, the following stanza of a famous poem by

Laurence Binyon is recited in Britain, Canada, Australia and New Zealand -

 They shall grow not old, as we that are left grow old
Age shall not weary them, nor the years condemn

At the going down of the sun, and in the morning

We will remember them


The Mysoreans who won Battle of Haifa

By Shyam Prasad S | 
On Sept 23, 1918, Mysore Lancers, the personal army of the erstwhile Maharaja, played a crucial role in winning one of the greatest battles of World War-I

Every year on September 23, the Indian Army celebrates 'Haifa Day' in remembrance of the Battle of Haifa — one the bravest battles of World War-I.

Even as the 95th anniversary of the battle was celebrated this year, not many outside the Army are aware of the Karnataka connection to it. Mysore Lancers, the personal army of the Mysore Maharaja, played a crucial role in winning the battle for the Allied Powers.

Along with the Jodhpur Cavalry and 16th Imperial Cavalry Brigade, soldiers from Mysore Lancers charged on Turkish positions in and around the city of Haifa. The Indian soldiers were armed only with lances and swords while the Turks were armed with artillery and machine guns.

This battle is one of the last cavalry charges that resulted in a victory in a modern war. By the end of WWI, horses had become redundant in wars.

Paved the way for Israel
Israel ambassador to India, Alon Ushpiz, who participated in the Haifa Day celebration at Teen Murti Bhavan on September 23, said in his speech, "The heroism, tenacity and cavalry skills of the Mysore and Jodhpur Lancers that took control of the city from the Turks on September 23, 1918, proved to be a decisive factor in the victory over the Ottoman Empire. The historical battle of Haifa paved the way to the victory of the British Army and 30 years later — to the creation of the State of Israel." Incidentally, Ushpiz was born in Haifa in 1966.

Haifa is today the third largest city in Israel with a population of over 2.91 lakh.

When Mysore Lancers saved the city in 1918, they ended the Ottoman Empire's 400-year long rule over the region. The Ottomans joined WWI on the side of the Central Powers (Germany) against the British Empire, France and Russia. Twentyfive years later, Haifa became a part of the newly formed nation of Israel.

Though 1.4 million Indian troops are recorded to have fought in WWI on behalf of the British Empire, the participation of troops from Karnataka, then mainly the Mysore Kingdom, is largely forgotten from public memory. Memorials to the Mysore Lancers in New Delhi and Bangalore are also no more in public view.

A long forgotten memorial to the Mysore Lancers in Bangalore states that Mysore Lancers, Mysore Transport Corps, and Mysore Imperial Service Troops participated in the 'Great War 1914-1918'.
(my comment: where is this memorial located? Does anyone know?)
The Mysore Lancers served at the Suez Canal between 1915 and 1917 and in Gaza, Meggiddo, Sharon, Damascus and Palestine between 1917 and 1918. The Mysore Transport Corps served at Tigris Kut-Al-Amara in 1916-1917 and at Baghdad between 1916 and 1918.

The Bangalore memorial has a list of Mysore soldiers who died including that of two officers, A Lingaraj Urs and Meer Ashroff Alli. Other soldiers who died were Venkata Rao Maney, Annaji Dhummal, Rachunatha Rao Birjey, Mohammed Abdul Sattar, Nar Singh, Mohammed Peer Khan, Rahimon Khan, Ganapaty Rao Sindhey, Rama Rao Gaikwad, Manadeva Rao Bobdey, Sheik Ibrahim, Sham Singh, Roya Sundaram, Chithambara Rao Ithapay and Meer Abdul Latheef.

The Lancers returned home on February 21, 1920, to a rousing reception by His Highness Nalwadi Krishna Raja Wadiyar. The Lancers were merged with the Indian Army in 1950 and lost their distinct identity.

On September 23, 1918, the 15th (Imperial Service) Cavalry Brigade was ordered to capture Haifa. The area to be captured lay between Kishon River and Mount Carmel. The Jodhpur Lancers entered the field from the south while the Mysore Lancers moved around and attacked the town from east and north. They had to take on the Turks, who were supported by German machine gun troops and Austrian soldiers manning field guns. One set of Mysore Lancers attacked the Austrian battery at 2 pm after climbing a steep slope of Mount Carmel. They captured the guns and took prisoners. The rest of the Mysore Lancers joined forces with the Jodhpur Lancers to launch the main attack on German machine gunners from behind. This attack led to the capture of two machine guns, two camel guns and 30 prisoners. The road to Haifa had been opened.
The Jodhpur Lancers then charged into the town, while the Mysore Lancers provided fire support and followed them into Haifa. The two managed to capture 1,350 German and Ottoman soldiers. Artillery and machine guns were captured. Nobody knows how many Mysore Lancers and Jodhpur Lancers fought in that battle.

There are about 800 graves of Indian soldiers in Israel today.

February 3 2015

This story was written by Janice Pariat, daughter of  ex Assam planter Danny Pariat, Janice lives in Shillong, and kindly shared with us thro the good offices of Willie Wood.

It’s six o’clock on a summer evening in Shillong. While the rest of the country suffers heat and humidity, here the chill sets in. There’s a cool nip in the air, the promise of more rain hovers at the edge of silver-grey clouds, and the distant hills look like a carefully washed watercolour. Time for a walk, then, before the town drops its shutters and the roads empty out. The great thing about this weather — apart from the obvious — is that it’s cool enough to harbour an appetite for just about anything.

If none of the street food in Police Bazaar tempts you — spicy mutton and chicken cutlets, batter-fried chillies stuffed with mashed potato and mint — head to Tartoria, a small, family-run jadoh stall hidden along the pedestrian-only J S Road. The only business here is food, which is evident from the rather Spartan interiors with canteen-style wooden tables and benches. The only extravagance is a small painting of the Last Supper, hanging lopsided on a wall.

A brusque lady named Lajja runs the show, serving, taking orders and sorting out bills. She recites the day’s menu out loud when you’re seated. What you get is a variety of local Khasi food — jadoh (yellow rice cooked with meat), turungbai (chutney made with soya beans), jhur khleh (mixed fried vegetable), tungtap (spicy fried fish paste) and an assortment of cutlets and meat curries including pork, beef, fish and chicken. For the adventurous there’s doh jem (curry made from pork intestines, liver and heart) and doh khleh (boiled pork pieces mixed with brain and ginger). If you still have room after your meal, hop across the road to Delhi Mistan for a plate of crisp, golden-brown jalebis (the best in the world, according to many). Nearby is Palace restaurant, where you can go for hot, milky chai and samosas. Its first-floor location and long glass windows makes make it a perfect place to watch the world go by.

Further west of town is Mawlong Hat, near Bara Bazaar, the biggest traditional market in the state. Here you can pick up local culinary goodies to take back home. A colourful line of restaurants serves up excellent Muslim food (yes, they have that too in Shillong) — the most notable being Hotel Naz and Hotel Grace, run by two formidable Khasi-Muslim ladies, Mimi and her daughter Dimple. Amidst fairy lights, printed Islamic prayers and pictures of Mecca, you can enjoy a plate of steaming mutton keema and chicken seekh kebabs with soft, puffy rotis. Also in the area is Mahari & Sons, the town’s oldest bakery, established in the 1930s. Opt for delicate butter biscuits and plain cake, which despite its alarming custard-yellow appearance, is delicious.

On the other side of Shillong, in the Laitumkhrah area, is a host of eating places you mustn’t miss. Begin with Nongrim Hills at Uncle Rock’s shop. ‘Uncle Rock’ (nobody seems to know his real name), an Anglo-Indian from Goa who married a Khasi lady, has been doling out hot dogs, chops and other ‘slow food’ snacks from his hole-in-the-wall establishment for many years now. It’s all too easy to spend an entire evening sitting with him, chatting and listening to classic rock playing from a small stereo in the corner. If you manage to drag yourself away, head to Fire Brigade, the location of the town’s most famous ‘Chinese’ food joint, The Wok. Within its shiny red and gold interiors you can help yourself to a plate of pork chow or momos. They run out quite fast, so if you’re out of luck, stop at their adjacent takeaway counter and place an order.

 Right next to that door is Reens, which sells divine lemon pie. For even better bakery items, stroll to the other end of Fire Brigade ground (where concerts and trade fairs frequently take place), and look for a tiny unnamed bakery that locally goes by the name ‘Saikia’s Shop’. Stuff your shopping bag with melting doughnuts, homemade ginger biscuits, super-soft lamingtons and creamy éclairs. As reinforcement, sip a cup of strong coffee at a table next to a wall hung with splendid silver cake moulds in shapes including Harry Potter and Spongebob Square Pants.

If you walk into the main Laitumkhrah area, a bustling shop-lined road, there are a few young, hip cafés where you can stop. Swish is a cosy place complete with guitar, board games and bookshelf while further away there’s Déjà Vu, which has a dimly lit, space-age feel. Also another option is MOT (Matter of Taste), where if you’re lucky there may be a music recital or poetry reading to liven up the evening. A personal favourite, however, is a small unnamed tea stall located beneath a shoe shop along the main road, which everyone refers to as ‘Godown’ — head here for steaming sha saw (red tea) and jing bam dih sha (tea snacks) served out of a wicker basket. Make yourself comfortable on one of the bright green benches and wait for the inevitable shower of rain to stop. 

Janice Pariat is a Shillong-based freelance writer




  The Khasi - H. I. S. KANWAR - 1956 observation


During the War, I had only a glimpse of Assam. Being then more concerned with operations, I had little opportunity of close contact with the people. Besides the Japs, our other foe was the mosquito, which had taken quite a toll of lives. Due to regular doses of mepacrine, the whites of my eyes had turned yellow, thus giving me a jaundiced look. This unpalatable experience had created a lasting impression on me. And thus, on the eve of my last visit to Assam, I dreaded the idea of going there.

Two days later, I passed through Katihar en route to Shillong via the unusually slow Assam link, which is devoid of many ordinary amenities of everyday life. Scarcity of good drinking water and hygienic food still exists on this route. The water that I had kept in a glass jug turned reddish, the rust showing up clearly. Had it not been for a timely offer of hot tea from a co-passenger; I might have gone thirsty.

At some of the so-called important stops, one could get only gram and ‘singaras’*, and since these were then the only link between me and existence, I had no other alternative. It was a relief to arrive at pandu, where a hearty meal was available on board the ferry, which later took me across the Brahmaputra. The scenery on either side of the snake-like road from Gauhati to Shillong was more enchanting than the distasteful landscapes between Katihar and Pandu. As the car winds its way up the rising highway, the tall slender bamboos dressed in their greenish finery keep bowing in the breeze, as if welcoming you to Assam. Further up, the giant firs are like sentinels guarding over the hilly countryside.

Half way up at Nonghpoh, the car halted over half an hour. Walking up to a roadside inn for lunch, I saw a number of fruit and vegetable vendors, mostly teen-age village belles, conducting brisk business. Their attractively coloured costumes revealed their naturally supple figures to advantage. The winsome smiles of their peach-red complexions were enough to melt the hearts of their numerous prospective customers. This was my first introduction to the Khasis.

In front of the Nonghpoh police post was a notice board covered with posters in Roman script, which on closer inspection were found to be not in the English language, but in Khasi. I learnt from an erstwhile Khasi acquaintance that his people had no written script of their own. A Khasi legend relates that the Khasi lost his book in a vast flood, and with it the art of writing.

Due to absence of native script, it is a pity that no tentative record is available to tell us how or whence the Khasis came. In the past, it appears, even the neighbouring peoples had taken little interest in the tribals. Perhaps, this was due to lack of easy communication and diversity of tongues spoken, which made contact a difficult matter. Prior to the advent of the British, Assam seems to have been virtually cut off from the rest of India. Thus, up to the dawn of the 19th century, the history of this region is rather vague, a good deal being either based on scientific theories or legends that exist to this day. The Khasis believe that though they have been here for centuries, they actually came from elsewhere.

I arrived at Shillong in the evening, and keen as I was to have a good look round this “Queen of Hill Stations”, I could not do so, due to the short time at my disposal. Shillong was full of activity, parties of men and women having their evening strolls, groups on their way to places of entertainment, some young folk shopping and others roaming at leisure. What struck me was their cheerful nature, lightheartedness, happy-go-lucky outlook on life and their robust health. Before proceeding further, I would like to tell you something about their background.

About 1778 a former Resident and Collector of Sylhet, Robert Lindsay, in his “Lives of the Lindsays”, described the Khasis as a tribe of independent Tartars having direct relations with China. In the early 19th century, Dr. Buchanan-Hamilton, although spending many years studying the races in Eastern India, in his descriptions confused the Khasis with the Garos, an error also committed by the Rev. W. Lish, a Baptist Missionary, in 1838. In 1840 Captain Fisher of the Survey Department, in an authoritative account of the Khasis, stated the prevalence of matriarchy, absence of polyandry, “their religion as a worship of gods of valleys and hills, system or augury used to ascertain the will of the gods and dwelling at length on the megalithic monuments situated on the higher plateaus.” Fisher says that the Khasis are a race totally different from the neighbouring tribes.

The isolation of the Khasi race amidst a vast multitude of Tibeto-Burman stock, and the remarkable features of their language soon attracted the attention of philologists. With the arrival of the Welsh Calvinistic Mission in 1842, the Khasi language was studied. Bengali script, after a trial, was found unsuitable for Khasi. The missionaries therefore decided to use the Roman script instead, a system which proved convenient for expressing the sounds in Khasi, and still in vogue today.

H. R. Logan, editor of the “Journal of the Indian Archipelago” from 1850 to 1857, pointed out the affinity between the Khasis and the Mons or Talaings of Pegu and Tenesserim, the Khmers of Cambodia, and the Annamese. Through a study of Oriental languages, he found that the nearest kinsmen of the Khasis are the Palaungs in the Shan States. Later researches revealed that the Khasis belong to the Mon-Khmer group of Indo-China, which was somewhat connected with the large linguistic family (mainly comprising the Santals, Mundas and Korkus), inhabiting Chota Nagpur and parts of the Satpura Range.

In 1906, Prof. Schmidt of Vienna established the kinship of Khasi not only with the Mon-Khmer languages but also with Nicobarese and several dialects spoken by wild tribes in Malaya. The roots of the words are seen to be similar, as also the order of words in a sentence, indicating that these peoples think alike.

Khasi-Palaung affinity is strengthened by a Palaung folk-tale stating that the Palaung Sawbwa was descended from Thusandi, a Naga princess who lived in Nat Tank, where she laid three eggs. From one was born the ancestor of the Palaung Sawbwa. The Khasis lay great stress on the potency of the egg in divination for religious sacrifices. At death, an egg is placed on the stomach of the deceased, and later broken on the funeral pyre. Among some Malayan tribes, the Gaji-Guru or medicine-man “can see from the yolk of the egg, broken while sacramentally counting from one to seven, from what illness a man is suffering and what caused it.”

The Palaung tale is interesting, and might suggest of the matriarchate still in vogue amongst the Menangkabau Malays of Sumatra and adjacent lands. The matriarchate was prevalent amongst the primitive races of Cambodia. Ancient Chinese writers have spoken of the Queens of Founan (Cambodia). Since Khmers were the ancient peoples of Cambodia, there is an important landmark between them and the Khasis.

Ancestor worship has since long existed in the Malay Archipelago, even amongst tribes who later embraced Islam. The same may be said of some Khasis who became Christians. The custom universally observed by the Khasis at births, as regards the placenta being mixed with ashes, placed in a pot and hung on a tree, has parallel cases among the South Moluccans and west coast Sumatrans. All this seems to point that the Khasis are Malay in appearance, and it is clear that they have affinity with both the Mon-Khmers and the Malays.

From Shillong, Some days later, I proceeded to Elephant Falls. When one talks of waterfalls, one immediately recalls the Niagara or the Victoria, whose majesty there are few to dispute. Elephant Falls is actually puny in comparison. A little rivulet descends from a neighbouring hill, winds its way down under a culvert, and finally ends its career in a deep pond about 50 feet in diameter, 600 yards from the main highway. The fall is hardly 80 feet, and during the dry season the water silently flows down the edge.

It was disappointing to discover that the water flowing here was not aqua pura, but one coming through an adjacent camp! The scenery, however, is charming: greenery all round with a moderate undergrowth, the tall fire soaring high into the sky. Carvings of hearts with arrows, and names of those who made them, decorate the tree trunks, legacies of many a romance. A few stone slabs serve as benches for those who care to use them. In close proximity of the falls are a couple of lovers’ walks with peaceful retreats, and further away are groves on the slopes.

On the main road were a few Khasis, some with conical baskets on their backs and supported with cloth bands on their foreheads, others with neat bundles of firewood, all on their way from Mawphlang to Shillong to sell their wares, later to return home with their domestic needs. Short in stature but with muscular physique, these stalwarts can carry heavy loads for long distances. It was not surprising to learn that they make some of the best porters in North Eastern India.

The Khasis, numbering over three lakhs, are a carefree race who prize liberty above everything else. It is quite easy to recognise a Khasi by his dress, comprising a modified form of western trousers and coat. For headgear, he wears a small turban. The female attire is more picturesque: a large scarf or kerchief covering the head, a colourful lungi and a blouse, and finally a loose cloak over the latter, resting over the shoulders and secured by a neat knot under the chin. The girls choose their colours with care. Though at first these may appear gaudy to a stranger, it is a treat to watch the gatherings at fairs and festivals, when a multitude of hues greets the eye.

As is generally evident in this region, agriculture on the hillslopes and jungle clearings is the main occupation. Due to difficulties involving water and drainage control, the people have to labour hard. The more enterprising, residing near the main highways, also manage to cultivate crops for sale. Burning the undergrowth and scattering the ashes, known as ‘jhooming’, is a common way of fertilising. Though the western half of the Khasi Hills is not so fertile, the Khasis by sheer effort manage to grow crops not only for home consumption but also for sale in the neighbouring villages. Besides the staple crop rice, they raise maize on the slopes, pulses, pine-apples, oranges, peaches, plums, pears, arecanuts and even a small amount of cotton in the clearings. The Khasis also devote large areas to potatoes, first introduced here about 125 years ago.

Adept at making domestic articles out of bamboo and cane, both found in fair abundance in this region, the Khasis excel in producing mats, chairs and tables, cradles, bird-cages and fishing-rods. Miniature replicas of some of these items are used both as toys and means of adornment. Khasis also weave cotton and silk cloth on locally-made handlooms. Like other tribals, they lay emphasis on attractive colours.

Next day, at the first glow of light, I left with a party for Jowai, 35 miles away. The chilly morning breeze was bracing, a good omen when one has a long march ahead. A few minutes later, we were trudging along a path on the slope of Shillong Peak, about which there are many folk tales. One relates that long ago when the world was young, on the top of Dingiei, a hill close to Shillong Peak; there was a big tree which overshadowed the whole world.

The Khasis unanimously decided that felling the tree would bring good and light to the world, which was then dark and unfruitful. They used to cut it during the day, and on returning the next morning, they found the cuts obliterated! This strange occurrence baffled them. On investigation, they learnt from ka phreid, a small bird, that “all this happened because a tiger comes every night to the tree and licks the part of the tree which has been cut.” From then onwards, after cutting the tree, they tied their axes and knives to the incisions with their sharp blades pointing outwards. When at night, as usual, the tiger came to lick the cuts, the sharp blades cut his tongue. The tiger hence-forth ceased to come to the tree, and so the cuts were not obliterated any more. The tree was thus felled and the world received the light of the sun and moon. No one knows what became of the tree, for since then its species died out.

Two miles away, we made our way to the top of a hill about 3000 feet high. Since the gradient was almost one in two, we got tired out. The up-hill path, probably over 100 years old, consisted of giant stone slabs in steps all the way up. What a relief I felt when I reached the top and viewed the beauty around me! The Shillong Peak presented a majestic appearance, with its little cottages on the grassy slopes dotted with tall firs rising high, as if vying with one another to reach the deep blue sky. Standing on a projecting boulder, I could see for miles around. To the right, the gravel road to Jowai spread like a narrow red carpet winding through the beautiful landscape, its course sometimes obscured by the blue hills. This ridge, about 10 miles away from Shillong, is an artist’s paradise.

Continuing our way, we found ourselves approaching a village. Some distance to the left were a group of Khasis, descending with easy strides, and chanting a melody as they jogged along. Besides their loads, they also had haversacks, in which, we later learnt, they carry food, money and their ‘pan-supari**’. We enquired from one of them the distance to Jowai, and were taken aback when he replied that it was about twenty ‘pans’ away! It was interesting to know that rural people here usually define distance by the number of ‘pans’ chewed on the way.

Khasi villages are generally sited below the summits, and this one was no exception. This is because the people want protection from the Nor’westers, and more so because it is taboo for Khasis to live on the peaks. Being a settled community who soon become attached to their surroundings, they seldom change village sites, in the vicinity of which they have their family and clan-grave-yards. One may judge the age of a village by its stone monoliths, the custom of erecting them being as old as the hills.

Just outside the village was a solemn group of Khasis. One of their kinsmen had died. Coming closer, we found the corpse laid on a pyre, head to the west. Shortly afterwards, the egg-breaking ritual was observed. Fire was then applied to the pyre by the children of the deceased. Three arrows were shot into the air, one each to the north, east and south. We learnt that after the corpse has been burnt, the calcined bones are collected by the relatives and taken to the tribal cemetery for being interred. There, a large flat stone is stuck upright into the ground in memory of the dead.

In the days gone by, different types of stone were erected, each having its own significance. The stones were of granite or sandstone, rough-hewn, gradually tapering towards the top. The ‘mawlynti’ or ‘mawjkat’ were meant to serve as seats for departed clansfolk. The ‘mawbynna’ were in memory of parents and near relations. The ‘maw-umkoi’ marked the sites of tanks, where the ashes and bones of those who died unnatural deaths were washed. All these were not to be confused with the ‘maw-shongihait’, flat stones placed horizontally in market-places and the roadside for the convenience of travellers.

Adjacent to their villages, the Khasis have their groves of pine and oak, where none are supposed to fell. Herein, they gather to worship their village deity, U-Ryngkew-u-Basa. The village dwellings are generally raised on plinths about two feet above the ground. One or two windows serve for the purpose of ventilation. Since the hearth is generally kept in the centre, the atmosphere inside is rather dark and smoky. Usually oval in shape, a Khasi house has three rooms, one for sleeping, the centre for the hearth, and the other as a sort of porch. Though most of the houses are of wood, some have stone walls. The Khasis pile their firewood and odds and ends in the porch, while outside their cows and pigs roam ad lib. During the night these animals are kept in little huts nearby. Despite their general poverty, the Khasis are contented, taking life as it comes.

As we plodded onward, the outskirts of Jowai greeted us with a smile. The village urchins with their chubby cheeks and pretty costumes lined up the wayside, their grins conveying to us that we were in friendly country. Nearby, some Khasis puffed bidis and cheap cigarettes, others chatting over cups of tea at the roadside cafe, run by a young pretty female. Her attractive, features were enhanced by her rosy health. Although she was the only woman present, there was a sense of orderliness amongst the, customers. There are many such cafes in the villages along the main highway. Therein, the Khasis like to collect together to spend their spare time, gossiping or even talking over small transactions in daily life.

Some time later, we passed through the Shellatang Military Farm, which stretches a few miles on the road to Jowai. The farm raised a variety of vegetables, all grown by volunteer effort of jawans from the units in Shillong. When the jawans initially came here some years ago, they had to build their own quarters. Their present barracks were neat and tidy. The farm presented a fine picture. This was mainly due to the spadework of an energetic Sikh brigadier commanding the Shillong brigade, who took a very keen interest in its success.

We halted at Jowai for a couple of days. The environments here were beautiful. Scattered at several spots were groves of pine and oak, on the outskirts of which are beautiful lawns of grass dotted with small bushes bearing wild flowers in bloom. About two furlongs from my temporary abode was a hillock, on which stood a cluster of cottages with beautiful red-tiled roofs. The charm of the surroundings was enhanced by the well-maintained grassy meadows. This little colony comprises a co-educational institution run by a Christian Mission. In the evening, I paid a visit to the school, where on arrival the Principal very kindly showed me round the classes, dormitories, library, dining-hall, workshop and playgrounds. All these were well equipped and an example of tidiness. The students displayed a high sense of discipline everywhere.

It was a credit to those who ran the institution, that they provided modern facilities in many ways, especially their own water and electricity, something which the adjacent army farm could not boast of. More pleasant was the surprise that there are a number of such schools dotted all over Khasi-land, some being right in the interior. Here, let me, in all justice, pay a tribute to the sincere and hardworking missionaries, who have done a lot in the cause of uplift and welfare of the local tribals. To the criticisms that one hears about the missionaries, it can be said that they entered the field when none others had even thought of doing anything for the tribals. Despite the atmosphere that they have been through, the local inhabitants consider themselves Indians first and Khasis only second.

During my tour of the classes in this institution, I found the students both keen and intelligent. Khasi names, however, baffled me. My erstwhile escort explained that Khasi parents are fond of naming children after great personalities of the West. For instance, here were Khasi boys named Washington, Lincoln, Mckinley, Scott, Churchill, Stephenson, Roosevelt and Lyngdoh. More interesting was the case with girls’ names. In a class, the teacher pointed out to me three Khasi sisters, and much to my amusement, he told me that their names were Million, Billion and Trillion!

While returning from the school, some one on the road greeted me with a ‘Good evening to you, Sir.’ On turning round, I saw a Khasi villager, young and sturdy, with a pole slung across his shoulder, on which dangled a basket and his native jacket. He smiled at me and requested; “Excuse me, Sir, I would like to play basket-ball at your camp.” I guided him to where the game was in progress, and when he joined in, I was surprised to find that he played it so well. After the game was over, I asked him where he was educated. He modestly revealed that he had never been to school, and whatever English he had picked up was during the war, when British troops were stationed near his village. As he was a Hindu, I was rather astonished, as up to that time I had been under the impression that out here only the Christian Khasis bothered to learn English.

Next day, I paid a short visit to Jaintiapur. As it happened to be a weekly fair day, the market place was very crowded, and most of the time I had to squeeze through from one place to another. The whole atmosphere was one of festivity. There were separate sections for vegetables, fruit, meat, fresh and dry fish, rice and other cereals, domestic articles, groceries and general merchandise. The smell of fish and vegetable refuse on the ground pervaded the air, but this did in the least bother the Khasis from going about their business, which went on in full swing.

One aspect that strikes a casual visitor here is the predominance of female vendors. This is because, on account of the matriarchy, the women occupy a high pedestal in the community and family life of the Khasis. The women run the house and business, while the men work in the fields, tend the cows and pigs, and bring firewood home. Close to the fair, the men were having archery contests, and indulging in other sports.

Two days later, I reached Shillong. It happened to be a Sunday. While waiting for my down-hill journey to commence, I noticed cheerful groups of Khasi boys and girls dressed in their Sunday best on their way to the church. The peals of the church bells mingled with their youthful laughter, which spoke of their contented and happy life.

As the car left the outskirts of Shillong, I began to recollect all that I had seen during my short sojourn in the land of the Khasis. It had been a pleasant experience. One point stood out in the forefront, that humans can be happy with even the frugal means at their disposal, if only they appreciate the blessings of Nature. For indeed, the Khasis are Nature’s own offspring.

January 28 2015 


This article came from 'The British, Tea and the Khasis' written by Danny Pariatt

THE KHASIS, it seems, had been drinking tea long before the British had come to these hills. Claud Balds in his book ‘Indian Tea’ says, “Camellia drupifera and other species grow wild in the Naga and Khasi hills and are known to be actually used in making a kind of tea for local consumption among certain of the hill tribes.”

     However, with the coming of the more popular tea made from the Camellia sinensis, the above practice had probably stopped many years ago.

     It was probably true that the British had made efforts in the early 19th century to grow tea in the Khasi Hills possibly at the time when Charles Alexander Bruce, the father of the tea industry in Assam, was trying to establish the beverage business in the 1820s and 1830s. Bruce himself, though not directly, may have played a large part in encouraging tea planting in the Khasi Hills as he was probably the only known source of tea seeds or saplings at that time.

     The first reference we hear of tea planting in these hills was during the time of David Scott, agent to the Governor General, when he was residing at Nongkhlaw in the mid-1820s. The Nongkhlaw chief then was Khasi hero Tirot Singh who, after consultations with his people, had allowed Scott to build a road through the kingdom in order to connect the British possessions lying to the north and south of Nongkhlaw.

     Scott had received saplings from Bruce when the latter was running a flotilla of gunboats at Sadiya, Assam. The saplings were to be forwarded to the Botanical Gardens, Calcutta for identification. Scott probably handed over some saplings to one Bowman who was probably trying to set up a plantation in the Nongkhlaw area round about that time.

     Tirot Singh, however, had a fallout with Scott and things came to a head when, on the 4th of April 1829, a group of Khasi warriors surrounded and then attacked the foreigners resulting in a near-total massacre. Scott escaped by the skin of his teeth having left Nongkhlaw just before the uprising. Bowman had got to the stage of building a bungalow so we can assume that tea must have been planted by that time and this must have been true as in 2012, tea trees were discovered at Nongkhlaw in an area being cleared for a church gathering.

     Another area where tea was grown in the 1840s was in Pomreng – now known as Mawber – on the southern slopes of the Khasi Hills in the Mawkynrew block. A judge in the Sylhet High Court, one Stainforth, had a farm near Pomreng with a well built and furnished bungalow. The presence of this farm and bungalow is beyond doubt as Sir Joseph Dalton, the well known botanist, while on his travels through the Khasi Hills in the early 1850s, had written about staying in Stainforth’s bungalow. The remains of the bungalow can still be seen.

     The remains of tea trees in the farm were interesting though, sadly, most of the bushes had been uprooted to make way for cultivation of other crops. Stainforth had a manager to run the farm from1847-1849. He was none other than the Welsh missionary, Reverend Thomas Jones, who had arrived at Sohra in June 1841.

     Jones was a man of tremendous faith and energy and within a year or two of his arrival had invented the Khasi alphabet. The Khasi farmers were, however, under the yoke of a ruthless and uncouth Anglo-Indian business man named Harry Inglis who paid farmers a pittance for their produce. Inglis also insisted that all produce be sold only to him and non-compliance resulted in assaults. Jones took up the cause of the farmers by filing a case against Inglis but lost in the court (Inglis’ father-in-law was the judge). Inglis threatened Jones with dire consequences and sent his goons after him.

     His life in danger, Jones had to flee Sohra and landed up at Stainforth’s farm at Pomreng where he took up employment as a manager. We, of course, do not know as to who planted the tea but it was probably the efforts of Stainforth as Jones was there only for two years but he must have had a hand in looking after the tea plants. I have seen the remaining trees and have, in fact pruned a few to see if we can get them going again. Plans are in hand to generate cuttings from the trees and to, in course of time, produce tea from these plants to honour the memory of Stainforth and Jones.

     The question of course remains: Where did Stainforth get his planting material from? Could it have been from Bruce? Scott was an unlikely source as he had died in 1831 but Bruce was alive and well in the 1840s. The answer remains a mystery.

     Many years ago when, as children, we would spend our long winter holidays with our grandparents in Sohra and, many a time when we had been too noisy, our grandmother, having got fed up, would scold us and shout “Go and play in the ‘per sha’”, i.e., tea garden. Curious, I one day asked her what she meant by ‘per sha’ and it turned out that not far from our house and where we have the civil hospital now, there once stood a tea garden. I do remember playing among the ruins of the bungalows and coming across weather-beaten household items like spoons, knives and bottles. It appears the British had also tried to grow tea in Sohra but no details of the project are known. However, the heavy and constant Sohra rain put paid to all efforts and eventually the British gave up the idea of growing tea at Sohra.

     A much later effort was made by a British company in the first half of the 20th century to plant tea at Umran, a village on the Guwahati-Shillong road. Once the tea trees had started maturing the company then set out to set up a factory and funds were arranged for the purchase of machinery. One of the directors was given the responsibility of procuring the machines and the funds were handed over to him as he had to travel abroad for the procurement. This person left on the trip and, alas, that was the last heard of him – the story goes that he promptly disappeared with the funds and that was the end of the Umran tea venture.

     It was not till many years later when local people themselves started to take to tea planting in the 1970s and 1980s and small plantations started appearing in the Ri Bhoi area where there are now three tea factories manufacturing mostly black tea. Some other small gardens specializing in organic and green tea have also come up and are doing fairly well but on the whole the initial enthusiasm has died off and the fledgling tea industry is struggling, the main reason being shortage of workers to pluck or work the fields. The locals do not find outdoor work in an estate attractive. Local organizations also do not allow non-Khasi workers to be brought in from outside due to a fear of influx. Multiple government schemes involving subsidies, grants, soft loans and other work guarantee schemes are far more attractive than work in a tea garden where the hours are long and hard and as a result, the industry has suffered as there has been no expansion in recent years.

     Sadly, we have had cases where farmers have abandoned or uprooted their gardens. The factories are manufacturing only a fraction of what they are capable of so costs are high and long term survival is doubtful. However, some die hard entrepreneurs persist and continue to plant tea as they feel that, eventually, the day will come when the growing demand for tea will bring in attractive prices. Some of these small holdings are run by the people of a village where all work is done by the villagers themselves and outside workers are not needed and, perhaps, this is the only way that tea growing will be remunerative in these hills.

     By and large, tea in the Khasi Hills, known for its good quality, does have a future especially if the government can help out. In closing, interestingly, the British connection with tea in these hills has not broken – a small tea garden near the Umiam Lake was being run by the last of the British planters, who, having married a Khasi lady, decided to make these hills his home.--none other than our friend Bob Powell-Jones