Meghalaya is dominated by three major tribes namely the Garo who reside in the Garo hills, the Khasi who reside in the East and West Khasi hills and the Jaintia who predominantly reside in the Jaintia hills. The unique feature of all these tribes is that they have a matrilineal society where descent is traced through the mother.
They occupy almost half of the total population of Meghalaya. They reside in the Khasi and Jaintia hills of Meghalaya and follow the matriarchal society. They are a sub tribe of a group called Hynniew trep meaning ‘The seven Huts’ in Khasi. The other sub tribes in this group include Pnar, Bhoi, War and Lyngngnam. They are known to be one of the earliest settlers in the Indian sub-continent. But with the approach of the missionaries most of the people have converted to Christianity with very few people following their tribal religion, called variously, Ka Niam Khasi, Ka Niam Tre, or Chnong. Their language is known as Mon-Khmer which belongs to the Austro-Asiatic Family.
In this tribe, Women are given more importance than men. The youngest daughter inherits the property from her mother. Men wear Jymphong, which is a long sleeveless coat without collar. They also wear turbans. Women are very fond of wearing jewelry and earrings. They have a tradition of wearing silver chains around their waist. U Blei Nong-thaw, Ulei Longspah (god of wealth), Shnong and many other gods are worshiped by this tribe.
Music and dance are an integral part of the Khasi culture, playing a central role in all their ceremonies and festivals. One of the basic forms of Khasi music is the 'phawar', which is more of a "chant" than a song, and are often composed on the spot, impromptu, to suit the occasion. Their most important festival is Ka Pom-Blang Nongkrem which goes on for five days. This festival gives thanks to the Lord Almighty for a good harvest along with which the participants pray for peace and prosperity of the community. The festival is celebrated in the month of October or November in the village of Smit.
Rice is the staple food and they also consume fish and meat. Rice beer is used as liquor. Nongkrem is a famous festival celebrated amongst the Khasi tribes. This festival falls in the month of November and is celebrated for five days.
They are the second largest tribal community of Meghalaya. They constitute 1/3rd of the total state population and mainly reside in the Garo hills of Meghalaya, some districts of Assam and West Bengal. They originally migrated from Tibet thus belonging to the Tibeto-Burman race. They call themselves Achik Mande, literally meaning the hill people. They were an animist tribe believing in their traditionl religion of Songsarek. But with the advent of the American Baptist and Christian missionaries in the later part of the 19th century most of them converted to Christianity. Like the Khasis they too are a matrilineal tribe tracing their descent from the mother’s side. These tribes speak the Garo language. This language is further divided into different sub-languages.
The main features of the Garo tribes are the women. The Garo women are the property owners and there is a custom where the youngest daughter inherits the property from her mother. Unlike other marriages, in this tribe a man shifts to his wife's place after the marriage rituals are over.
These tribes are a great lover of music and dance. Various traditional musical instruments like stringed instruments, wind and self sounding instruments are used by the tribe. The Garo men wear turban with clothes whereas women wear blouse and a cloth tied around their waist. The traditional jewellery is made of beads and other material.
Garo’s also celebrate different festivals and Wangala is one of the significant festivals generally celebrated in the month of October. The Garo’s celebrate this festival as a symbol of thanksgiving ceremony to their deity Salijong after harvesting of the crops. The food habits of the Garo’s are non-vegetarian with rice as the staple food. Liquor is consumed among this tribe and is made at home from food grains. The main cultivation crops are rice, ginger, millet, bananas, vegetables, chilly and cotton.
In ancient times the Jaintia kingdom was a powerful kingdom of Assam. The central region of Jaintia Hills are inhabited by a tribe called "Pnars" while the southern and northern regions and inhabited by "Wars" and "Bhois" respectively. Over a period of time all three tribes have been collectively labelled by the generic name Jaintias. Despite some similarities with the Khasi they have their own unique customs and traditions. Even today many people still maintain their unique religion called Niamtre. The capital was Jaintiapur. The Treaty of Yandaboo was signed between British Government and the Burmese on 26 February 1826 and under the treaty on 15 March 1835 the Jaintia kingdom was annexed by the British Government. The reason was human sacrifice and the last king was Raja Rajendra Singh. Now the Jaintias are found in Jaintia Hills of Meghalaya, N C Hills and Karbi Anglong districts of Assam. They found in Karimganj, Hailakandi also.
They are follower of matriarchy. The family property goes to the daughters. The youngest daughter is considering having the main custody of the family property and she is expected to perform all the rites and rituals. Marriage within the clan is strictly prohibited. After the marriage the husband stays in the wife's house.
The female member receives highest priority in the society. The mother of each family is the most important member in a Jaintia family. Next to her is the maternal uncle who has the complete hold in his sister's family.
The Jaintias mainly celebrate agricultural festivals. They offer prayers to rivers, mountains, and peaks. Kopili river is the most sacred river and in ancient times human sacrifices also was offered. In the summer weeding festival is celebrated. A fertility rite is perfomed and the Longhai Dance is danced by the youths. In November Raliang Daloiship is observed by sacrificing a He-goat. Human was sacrificed in this festival in old days. This festival ends with a grand feast of animal meat and beer.
Another adventurous festival for young boys and men is the ‘Siat khnam` or the archery competition. This is very popular festival among young crowd.
A popular Jaintia dance is Laho dance which similar to the Bihu dance of Assam. ‘Shad Pliang` or plate dance was performed in the Royal palaces to please royal guests. This dance is performed in fields also.
The dress of the various Jaintia tribes is very similar to that worn by the Khasi people. Traditionally ‘Ryndia khyrwang', ‘Ryndia Saru`, ‘Ryndia Stem`, ‘Ryndia Tlem` were worn by Jaintia ladies. Men used to wear Sula, Yuslein, Patoi, Dhara... Usually women wear gold and silver ornaments like Khaila, Kpien Ksiar, Sahkti, Khadu... during Lahu dance the women wear Pangsngiat (headgear).
The Jaintia people are usually meat eater. They eat different type of meat like mutton, chicken, deer, fowls etc but the pork is most favorable meat. Beef is taken in the Christian families. The famous rice dish Jadoh is prepared from pig head. Jadoh is served with Dokhlieh (local spices). Jantias are famous for preparing ‘Tunktoh' and ‘Tungrymbai' prepared from fermented beans. ‘Kwai' which is similar to ‘Tamul-Pan' in Assam has a special social importance. Homemade beer is used in all social functions like birth, death and any other festivals. Beer usually prepared from rice or millet. Almost all types of fruits are found here.
Jaintia people have a rich culture. They play various types of musical instruments like Duitara, Sarong,(both are stringed instrument), Ka Nakra, Padiah, Katasa (different types of drums), Marynken,(harp) Chuwiang, Tangmuri (flutes) etc. they are music lovers and consider ‘Ka Duitara' as the Queen of music.