The indigenous Khasis of Meghalaya are mostly farmers. In fact, even today 83% of them are farmers. For hundreds of years, the agriculture of the Khasis has remained the sustainable kind, managed with long-lasting, low-maintenance eco-friendly tools. Sustainable living has always been their way of life and starvation is unheard of.
Ever environmentally conscious, whatever they do to sustain themselves they take care not to disturb the balance of the eco-system that supports life and gives them a livelihood.
These traditional agricultural practices still prevail today with amazing results.
But they have neither modern tools nor machinery. How do they achieve this?
Through the indigenous farming implements, they designed since ancient times and continue making even today.
Nature Conscious Ancient Art
The Khasis have perfected the art of fashioning tools from locally and abundantly available raw material. Evolving from bamboo, wood and metal, not only are these tools simple, but they are also eco-friendly and sustainable, and they reflect the Khasis' deep respect and reverence for nature.
These tools are practical, easy to use and to maintain, and extremely gentle on Ka Mei Ram-ew - Mother nature. They perfectly fit the sustainable lifestyle of the Khasis.
Raw Materials for Eco-friendly Tools
Meghalaya is blessed with a wealth of dozens of species of bamboo. Each species has its own special utility depending upon its strength and pliability. Some are excellent for basket and mat making while others make perfect containers, frames, irrigation systems and even musical instruments. Yet some more make great huts and dwellings. Bamboo's versatility is truly unendingly amazing.
The same goes for wood too. There's wood for every requirement – for fashioning tool handles or for making hardy thlong and synrei - mortar and pestle - for pounding paddy into rice grains. The list goes on.
As for metal, the Khasis have, since ancient times, mastered the art of sain nar, the smelting of iron from a local iron ore called mawpyrsut.
Large deposits of 'mawpyrsut' were available in Laitdom and Lyngkhiew villages, about 19 kilometres southwest of Shillong. The blacksmiths of Sohryngkham, Mawkdok, Laitlyngkot and Mylliem are still famous for their sturdy and effective iron farm implements.
A Peek at some Bamboo Tools and Implements
Visit any Khasi bazaar and you'll not fail to notice the ubiquitous bamboo products. Whether they're showpieces, basketry or practical tools, bamboo products are visible everywhere.
Let's see some of those eco-friendly and multipurpose tools the Khasis have fashioned that enable sustainable living till today, all made from bamboo:
- Khoh and Star - Multipurpose Conical Basket and Sling Strap. They come in different sizes – large, medium and small - for a variety of uses and users. The indigenous khoh (conical basket) is the quintessential carry-all basket. Wide-mouthed and tapered bottom, it holds anything from farm produce to farm manure, to firewood and even to water containers. The star is inseparable from the khoh.
This long rope with strands usually plaited from thin slivers of cane sports a broad head weave at mid-section. The two adjustable ends tie to hold and secure the khoh in place on the carrier's back while broad headband helps position it comfortably on the head.Once thus slung, the khoh stays balanced by the neck muscles, evenly distributing the load on the back. The carrier's hands remain relatively free for any other activity.
Even if one doesn't use the khoh as a carrier it still can make a perfect eco-friendly dustbin.
- Trab - lightweight multipurpose cover from dust and rain. The trab is a circular, extremely lightweight and durable covering contraption made by interweaving two layers of thin bamboo strips. Lying sandwiched between the interlays are dried broad leaves, usually of palm or of la-met, an eco-friendly packaging leaf. The leaves overlap one over the other converting the trab into an effective water and dust proofing surface. The trab is also pliable enough for insertion as inner lining into the khoh to prevent water, dirt or slime from seeping on to the carrier's back. Two inner linings of trab in the khoh enlarge its dimensions without increasing significant weight. This ingenious method immediately creates more room for more items such as those of greater length like long sticks. It also helps prevent injury to the khoh-carrier's neck and head.
In market places, the trab finds versatile use as a cover for edible items stored in the Shang or storage baskets.
- Knup - eco-friendly hands-free raingear, the knup, is the farmer's best friend during rains. Like the trab, it's woven from thin strips of bamboo interlaid with broad leaves. Its most important function is to keep rainwater off the head and back of the working farmer while keeping the hands free.The knup's frame is rigid. Its shape is oval but it has angularly tapered ends, obtuse at the top and acute at the bottom.Its top overhangs frontwards, giving it the shape of a downward-sloping canopy that shades the user's head, face and much of the chest.
The knup is contoured to drape over the human body, encasing it like a protective shell - concave in the inside to contain the wearer's body and convex on the outside to provide run-off surface for rainwater. It's great for farmers who must work bending down continuously.
When worn, the knup covers the body's length till the calves. A piece of string sometimes runs across, securing it under the wearer's chin to prevent it's blowing away by the wind.
Not only is the knup indispensable during rains, but it's also excellent hands-free sun protection gear.
- Shang and Kriah - multipurpose storage basketsShang are baskets are of many types, shapes, sizes and utility. They may come in fine bamboo or cane weaves for storing grains such as paddy, rice, soya bean, millets. Or they may be loosely or coarsely woven with thicker and larger bamboo strips to be used for storage or carriage of coarser items such as potatoes, gravel, soil or manure, or as fowl carriers. Whatever their weave, their utility is versatile and multipurpose. Grain storage shang are fine weaves built with supporting frames and legs to stand upright. Some have lids on them to keep away rodents and dust. The kriah are coarser weaves, made with thicker strips of bamboo. They are great for rough use such as for storing soil, stone or sand but never for fine grains.
They also make good egg-laying or brooding baskets for hens.
Some types of shang are the thiar, storage bins for paddy kept for seed. These are loosely woven with bamboo strips but heavily padded with straw on the inside.
Shang kwai is a special type of shang specially constructed for serving kwai, a combination of betel nut, leaf and lime as a gesture of Khasi hospitality.
The shang kwai is a prominent piece of household bamboo ware that always comes together with the dong tympew or bamboo cylindrical container that stores betel leaves, and another smaller (usually tin) lidded lime container.
- Pdung and Prah - grain processing and winnowing trays. Pdung is the indispensable circular and concave tray for processing grain, sorting rice, and drying of seeds and all sorts of farm produce. Every Khasi household has a pdung or two of some size or the other. The weaves of this contraption can be of fine or broad bamboo slivers. Thick, raised bamboo frames line the pdung's edges to prevent spillovers. Prah is a must-have winnowing tray post-harvest of paddy. It's rectangular in shape with a depressed end and a raised front. It's a most useful piece of equipment for winnowing paddy or separating grains from the husks.
In husking, the user holds the prah with both hands, tossing the contents up and down continuously. Lighter husks naturally get pushed to the raised front and float away with the wind. The sorted heavier grains remain at the prah's deep end.
In winnowing, the prah with paddy is raised to a height and shaken so the paddy drops freely to the ground. The wind plays its part, blowing away the husks.
The amazing prah comes in various sizes and has multiple uses.
Two Most Indispensable Iron Tools
Sustainable farming involves cutting of earth, clearing of trees and shrubbery which calls for appropriate and sturdy tools of metal. As the Khasis have already mastered the art of iron smelting, here's an account of two of their most important agricultural tools of iron, the mohkhiew and the wait.
- Mohkhiew - shouldered Hoe for cutting and lifting of earth. The design speciality of the Khasi mohkhiew lies in its unique triangular-shaped blade and acute alignment with the handle. The two lateral ends have sharpened and curved angular shoulders that help in precision slicing and pulverising. This feature is unseen elsewhere. The mohkhiew comes in usually three sizes: mohkhiew heh (big), mohkhiew rit (medium) and mohkhiew khun (baby) depending upon the earthwork to be done.
The big mohkhiew is the heavyweight tool used for slicing through heavy earth in paddy fields and lifting and turning great mounds of soil. Being heavyweight, it is mostly the men-folk who wield it.
Women use the medium and baby mohkhiew for digging and making holes for planting of seeds.
- Waitbnoh or Waitkhmut - bill-hooked dao or bush clearing knife. 'Wait' or dao has a bnoh or khmut, a hooked nose. It usually has a slightly curved shape that aids in chopping effectiveness. The blade length is usually about a foot and a half and the handle or 'sping' is about a foot long. Its hooked bill is where the enhanced utility comes in, allowing easy pulling down of branches and tufts, raking in twigs and leaves or just about anything.
Its utility is so multipurpose that not having it in the fields is a great handicap for the farmer. The first thing they do before leaving for the fields is to sharpen the waitbnoh. They even peel and cut their 'kwai' (betel nut) with it.
Great in Utility, Gentle on Nature
All the tools of the Khasis are eco-friendly and soft on nature. There's nothing of the harsh earth-compacting machinery and none of the eco-system destroying non-biodegradable equipment. They're the perfect tools for sustainable farming and sustainable living.
There's no dispute that there's need for equipment improvisation and modernisation, especially as the pressures of a burgeoning population clamouring for more food is on the upswing.
But, for the homesteader or small farmer or even the backyard and urban farmer, these tools would be more than viable.
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