04/07/2023, 13.02
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Easter on a mission among the Khasi, the world's last matrilineal society

by Alessandra De Poli

The Sisters of Charity of Nazareth, a missionary congregation that originated in the United States working on the ground in the northeastern Indian state of Meghalaya. In the West Khasi Hills district, part of the Nongstoin diocese, there are only three priests, forced to hold "itinerant" celebrations from village to village.

Shillong (AsiaNews) - A small community of sisters working for one of the world's last matrilineal communities in the mountains of northeastern India. They are the Sisters of Charity of Nazareth, a missionary congregation founded in the United States and now present in several countries in the global south, including the Indian state of Meghalaya, which has a Christian majority but a shortage of priests.

Unlike the rest of India, which is perceived as a strongly patriarchal society, the Khasi, Jaintia and Garo tribes use the surname of the mother, leave the inheritance to the younger daughter (called "ka khadduh") and it is the husbands who move into the wife's house, not vice versa. The ka khadduh, after obtaining the approval of uncles and siblings, becomes responsible for the family property and head of the household.

The Khasi, in particular, the best known and largest tribal group, are described by experts as "a matrilineal society with patriarchal overtones" because men continue to play an important role in politics and society. "A man is defender of the woman, but the woman is keeper of his trust," wrote early last century David Roy Phanwar in reference to the Khasi, to which he himself belonged. Legend has it that they are the descendants of seven divine clans, while scholars speculate that they are heirs of ancient Mon and Khmer ethnic tribes from the Burmese jungles.

Today they are predominantly Christian. "Only in Shillong, the state capital, do you occasionally cross paths with Hindus or Muslims," Sister Lilly Luka of the Sisters of Charity of Nazareth tells AsiaNews. "The Christian community here is very receptive and welcoming, and we don't have to deal with discrimination against minorities like in other parts of India." 

There are four sisters living in the West Khasi Hills district, part of the Nongstoin diocese, who work mainly with Khasi clans. They are involved in teaching and recently also in health care, while Sister Lilly visits families, attends weddings and celebrations in the 28 villages (also called substations) that make up the parish.

Compared to the population, there are so few priests that entire villages are forced to move from one part to another when they want to gather for celebrations. For the 22 parishes that make up the diocese, there are six religious communities and only three priests, so for the Christians of Meghalaya, faith-and even Easter-is an itinerant experience.

"For religious services they are forced to ask other priests to come and help them. Every Sunday Mass is celebrated in a different village and all the faithful who live nearby, more than 2,000 people, move from one village to another." 

Today's Good Friday celebration will be hosted by the Sisters of Charity of Nazareth. "The community is generous and well organized: the catechists and women leaders divide the readings among themselves and decide who will give the homily. The Sunday celebration begins at 10 a.m., ends by 1 or 2 p.m., and is followed in the evening by family prayers. The whole village gathers at a clan house, the Bible is read, someone gives a short reflection, and then they have tea together. There is a very strong faith here," comments the missionary originally from the southern state of Kerala, on the opposite side of the country. "It takes me three or four days to get home," exclaims Sister Lilly. 

She was the one who opened this new mission in March 2018. "I had made myself available to come here for an exploratory tour," she explains to AsiaNews. "I worked as manager and then as assistant director of social service programs for the diocese. After a year, the sisters arrived: one from Tamil Nadu, one from Maharashtra, and one from Jharkhand."

Coming from different parts of India, the biggest difficulty they face with the community is the language: "We are learning Khasi, however, the families at home speak a colloquial language that is harder to understand. To pray together, however, there is no problem, because the Readings are in Roman script, which is easy to read." Instead, the Khasi language is usually transcribed using the Bengali-Assamese alphabet, consisting of 12 signs for vowels and 52 for consonants.

"People share daily difficulties with us. Many Khasi people own land, and they mostly grow maize, rice and potatoes, or they do day labor. Getting food is not a problem, but it is more complicated to be able to put money aside. Difficulties arise in case of illness or if they had to pay tuition for their children."

For this reason, one of the sisters has started running a health center, while the parish schools are completely free. "Few young people can afford to go elsewhere to study to become nurses or teachers. Most stay here," Sister Lilly continues. Even today, it is women who take care of the Khasi community: "We sisters also host three girls from poor families, and since we have been here, in five years, four young people have decided to join our congregation."

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