Mercury Rising 鳯女

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Gwalia in Khasia and Khasia in Gwalia/updated

Posted by Charles II on November 11, 2008

First, visit here and turn on the CD by Siân James to get in the mood.

Image by Confused Shreyasi (Image of waterfall near Cherrapunji by Confused Shreyasi See note at bottom of post)

I just finished Nigel Jenkins’s Gwalia in Khasia (i.e., “Wales in Meghalaya, India”), and want to write a review of the book before returning the book to its lender. Gwalia in Khasia deals with three principal themes:

• The life events of Thomas Jones, a Welsh Calvinistic Methodist (Presbyterian) missionary in the hills of northeastern India, and his colleagues
• The culture and history of an Asiatic people, called the Khasi (and their kin, the Jaintian Pnar), and their similarities to the Welsh ethos
• The colonization of a people by a colonized people, its consequences and sequelae

Meghalaya province (Image of Meghalaya from Indian government)

Modern day Shillong

(From the BBC. For more on Shillong and Meghalaya, consult The Shillong Times)

The people who dispatched Jenkins so far from his Swansea residence chose as their investigator a brilliant poet who happened also to be an agnostic. And so the book—a lovely narrative—contains almost nothing about Presbyterian theology and how it exercised its transformative power on the Khasi. And, yet the transformation clearly was powerful. As a measure of that, one-fourth of all Khasis, 250 thousand of them, gathered to celebrate the 150th anniversary of the arrival of the first Presbyterian minister, Thomas Jones. Again and again, Jenkins records Khasis thanking the Welsh people for bringing light into a dark place.

Christianity came to Kerala in southwestern India almost two millennia ago, in the person of the Apostle Thomas and was practiced, independent of the prevailing Roman Catholic structure, until the arrival of the French in 1320. The Portuguese arrived a century and a half later, and the Protestant wave arrived with the British in the 18th century. By the time Thomas Jones arrived in the mid-1800s, the northwestern hills of India had just begun to fall under British control.

Even in modern times, the Khasi remain culturally distinct. After Indian independence from Britain following World War II, the hill region very nearly became a separate state. Even as recently as the 1990s, the Indian government restricted travel to the region, though now the requirement of a permit seems to have been lifted. And yet, Khasis have a much longer record of contact with the wider world. Oranges from the Khasi hills came to Syria in the hands of Arab traders. During the Crusades, “Franks” arrived in the Meghalaya region and did likewise; the Khasi word for foreigner is “phareng.”

The Khasi hills were accessible from India in the 19th century only by traveling by budgerow down the Hooghly river, through the Sundarbans salt marshland at the delta of the Ganges with their dwarf date palms, to the northern tip of the Bay of Bengal, through the freshwater Jheels (marshes) where there are no trees, but very deep grass. As in The African Queen, the Jheels have no landmarks and can be navigated only by trial and error. As in The African Queen, they are infested with leeches and mosquitoes. Proceeding up the Surma River to Chattuck, passengers then traveled—laying on their backs under a bamboo roof—by canoe to Pandua, then by horse and finally up ladders to Cherrapunji. Every scrap of luggage and even travelers overcome by a fear of heights were carried by basket up the ladders.

Image of budgerow from the Indira Gandhi National Centre for the Arts
(Image of budgerow from Indira Gandhi National Centre for the Arts)

Departing from Liverpool in late November, 1840, Thomas Jones and his wife Anne traveled by way of Simonstown and Calcutta, to arrive in Sohra (or Cherrapunji as it is known to English speakers), on the flood tide of a June monsoon in 1841. And flood is the only apt term: in 1974, rainfall in Cherrapunji was 80 feet. Like all of Asia, Meghalaya is earthquake-prone, and suffered an earthquake over 8 (!) on the Richter scale in 1897. Another earthquake struck the region in 1950, but apparently was not as destructive to the Khasi. The Welsh missionaries, by some miracle, escaped any casualties in the 1897 earthquake, and were able to help the devastated Khasi to rally and revive. The area also suffers from stunning landslides.

The missionaries to Khasia seem to have been in many ways a positive influence. The strong medical focus of the mission was popular with the Khasis. Thomas Jones showed the Khasis how to exploit local coal reserves and use them for lime burning, essential for the production of cement. He also taught them the use of the wood saw, blacksmithing, masonry, brick making, accountancy, the use of the almanac… and, purely for medicinal purposes, the art of distilling. The missionaries served as intermediaries between the Khasis and British troops, and helped to defend the Khasis against the commercial depredations of the local businessman and powerbroker, Harry Inglis.

But most dear to the Khasis, the Welsh transcribed their language into written form and thereby preserved it against the acculturating influences of the English, the neighboring Bengalis, and the Hindu-speaking majority of India. Prior to the arrival of the missionaries, the Khasis had apparently been literate and had a script of their history. According to their legend, a great storm came. Either the flood swept away their national “book,” or it was swallowed by their ancestor. In any event, the Welsh mission restored them to literacy, serving as a point of national pride and identity, and providing an outlet for the natural bent toward poetry that the Khasi have.

Despite the transmission by the Welsh missionaries of habits of “piety, frugality, hard work, love for your language, a care for your identity,” and in the face of dogged missionary repression of anything to do with pleasure or unsanctioned supernatural beings, Khasi tribal ways remain strong. The society is matrilineal, matrilocal and perhaps matrifocal. Not unexpectedly, there is male backlash. Khasis cherish nature. Nothing may be removed from sacred groves except the wood for the sacred column for a chief’s palace, and nothing may be left behind by visitors. So sacred are trees that one of the Khasi’s origin myths involves a tree that bridged heaven and earth. People and animals spoke the same language, and there were nine suns. After outwitting the tiger, who opposed their efforts, they succeeded in chopping down the tree, but then they were scorched by the heat of the suns. A bird interceded with God, who removed eight suns. It is as though a storyteller combined Genesis’s story of the Tree of Knowledge of Good and Evil in Eden, the story of the Tower of Babel, and the Chinese story of Yi.

The sacred groves are believed to be guarded by Furies called Basa that can take the form of tigers or snakes. The tiger is the benign form; the snake the grove’s avenger. Also among the legendary creatures is the Thlen, a man-eating shapeshifter in the form of a serpent. The Khasis believe that a Lalu mermaid named Ka-Iaw-Iaw taught them the skill of smelting iron.

As in Japan’s Shinto religion, stones are central to Khasian spiritual life. In Khasia, however, stones are arrayed not only as monoliths, but also as cromlechs and they may be carved rather than natural. Cromlechs are also closely associated with burial, while in Shinto, the stones themselves are regarded as beings. However, there is neither worship of ancestors nor of stones nor of creatures; Khasis are traditionally monotheistic. Even so, they initially resented the encroachments of the missionary conversions, and punished or ostracized many of the early converts. Khasis also retain a love for alcohol, enlightened notions of sex, and a wicked sense of humor. Khasi names can be whimsical, with children named “Milky Way” or “Crankshaft” or even “Syphilis,” just because the sound is pleasant to Khasi ears.

In part, the Welsh missionaries were popular because they served as allies against the cultural and military imperialism of the British, the Bengalis, and India. The Khasis were displaced from the plains of Bengal (Bangladesh) into the hills. They took recourse in raiding their neighbors below for captives and loot. Relations between the two ethnic groups remain frosty. Despite the moderating influence of the missionaries, the British occupation was brutal. The Sylhet Light Infantry, sepoys commanded by British were headquartered in Cherrapunji. Major David Scott (1786-1831), the Agent to the Governor General was set to the task of suppressing Khasi independence.

Following British territorial encroachment, duplicitous dealing on the return of misappropriated land, economic exploitation by Harry Inglis, and threats of taxation, the grand chief of the Khasi Tirot Singh (who Jenkins analogizes to Owen Glendower) declared war on the British. Scott escaped the opening skirmishes of the war due to a betrayal of Tirot Singh by none other than his mother, who was Scott’s lover. For four years, it was Khasi bow against British flintlock, and it was a full ten years before the land was truly at peace. In the end, British terrorism under the command of Ensign David Brodie triumphed in the foulest way possible, by making war on women and children. In the end, Captain Harry Inglis of the Sylhet Light Infantry accepted the surrender of Tirot Singh. India, for its part, developed in recent times a formal plan to culturally extinguish the Khasis by sending a flood of Hindu immigrants. This came to light with the publication of a letter by an official of the Hindu nationalist party, the BJP.

On his arrival to Khasia, Thomas Jones life revolved around caring for his wife, Anne, who had fallen ill on the journey and for his infant daughter Anne Jane. Between 1842 and 1845, Thomas Jones wrote in Khasi a reader, as well as nine chapters of a catechism and doctrinal guide (Yr Hyfforddwr). He translated into Khasi the Welsh book Rhodd Mam (A Mother’s Gift) and a number of hymns. He also translated the Gospel of Matthew; the remainder of the New Testament was translated by Mary and William Lewis. The lack of Khasi words to describe religious emotion make parts of the Bible almost impossible to translate. Rev. John Roberts translated 23 chapters of the Old Testament and brought the completed Bible to press in 1891. In 1845, Anne Jones gave birth to a son, then fell ill with fever and died.

After Anne’s death, the record on Thomas Jones becomes unclear. It is known that he was expelled from the church for “contracting an injudicious marriage,” with a young girl, Emma Catell, as well as for joining a Mr. Stainforth, the Judge of Sylhet, in a tea farming venture, probably near modern-day Puriang. He had a son, also Thomas, with Emma. During this period, Thomas Jones also published Rhodd Tad (A Father’s Gift) and Cyffes Ffydd (Confessions of Faith). What sealed Jones’s fate with the church was that his wife’s brother had crossed Harry Inglis, the district magnate, by exposing his corruption. Thomas Jones took up the cudgels in challenging Inglis’s oppression of the Khasis. Inglis controlled commerce in coal, limestone, and oranges and was notoriously corrupt.

Image by Indian government
(Image of Puriang area by Indian government)

What seems to have sent Thomas Jones over the edge was the lynching of a Khasi laborer by repeatedly hanging him. Since three tries did not kill the man, Inglis’s men stabbed him to death. In response to Jones’s protest, Inglis sent the Cherrapunji police to break into Jones’s house while he was away and menace Emma. Thomas fled to Guwahati and Calcutta, where he died. Emma, aged 18, went with her son to live with her mother. Anne Jane was adopted by another missionary. Inglis was, over the years, charged with everything from illegal arrest to attempted murder. Since he controlled the judicial system, no punishment was forthcoming. Indeed, he told that Khasi chiefs that he would be lord of the land until his body was buried in the earth… and then arranged to have his body placed in a crypt above ground.

Many things brought the Khasi and the Welsh missionaries together. A shared identity as people of the hills. A shared sense of having been colonized by the English and of the violent unrest of resistance. A love of oaks and of stones. A delight in poetry and, more generally, language. And, of course, monotheism. Eventually, the Christian tie also bound them together. But now, many of the Welsh have lost their first love in Christ. The Khasi, now concerned by their Welsh brethren’s backsliding into agnosticism, are considering evangelizing them.

With thanks to Leslie for her faith that I would return this volume to her.

Update: There is a dispute as to whether the beautiful photo initially used in this post is from Cherrapunji or from Plitvice Lakes Oddly, there are multiple images which support both claims. So, I have replaced it with a photo that at least shows a waterfall.

6 Responses to “Gwalia in Khasia and Khasia in Gwalia/updated”

  1. Donald Provam said

    I enjoyed reading your article, a fascinating story. Regarding the photograph of the waterfall, I am certain it is of the Nohkalikal Falls near Cherra. I visted the place earlier this year.

  2. V St Clair said

    My ancestors lived at Cherrapunji – I heard that their bungalow at Kut Madan had previously been owned or lived in by a local businessman who had been notoriously cruel to his workers – sounds like H Inglis.

  3. V St Clair said

    They didn’t leave, but sent their children to the UK.

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