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Land where women reigned

The kingdom in the Kapili valley was locally called Jainta & was under the rule of Jaintia queens

Philomath M Passah

The Jaintia people have been generally observed as having no sense of history. This is proved by the fact that so far none of the Jaintia students of history even those who have completed their higher study in the subject, is inclined to write the history of their race and its past kingdom.


Then among those who are still holding on to their indigenous Jaintia religion, the Kupli river still remains their most sacred river. But in the recent time they seem to have been less enamoured of its sacredness while becoming more enchanted by the myth of mount Sohpetbneng created by the Khynriams of the East Khasi Hills.

The myth came about after a great split that had ensued between the Khynriams and the Jaintias due to a feud over the claim of ownership of the Shyllong deity and the Shillong peak as a religious place. The Khynriams who were originally Jaintias claimed that the Shillong-peak religious site was created by their leader U Shyllong when he had led nearly a quarter of the Jaintia people from the hill area (later known as the North Cachar Hills, now Dima Hasao) across the Kupli river to Saphohlynrum (a flat land at the foot of the Shillong peak extending to the Mylliem valley in the west and to the present Smit village in the east).

After their leader Shyllong was no more, he was deified along with the Shillong peak. It may be noted that the Bodo Achiks (later called Garos) came subsequently to Saphohlynrum to live together with the Jaintias as they did at Kamrup many hundred years earlier.

Consequently, there occurred large-scale intermarriages between the two races, especially between the Jaintia men and the Garo women. As a result, a new community arose which was called Khynriam by the rest of the Jaintias who had almost all migrated east of the Kupli river and occupied the Jaintia Hills as their permanent home.

The women section of the Jaintias at Saphohlynrum was not in favour of the large-scale intermarriages with the Garos and many of them along with their families left Saphohlynrum for some other places and even moved to Jaintia Hills where their cousins were already living there.

Seeing the reactions of Jaintia women and after losing their warrior kings and migratory leaders at Madur-Maskut, the Garos left Saphohlynrum and traced back their route northward to the plains and then westward back to Dura (later Tura) Hills.

As soon as they reached the plains at a place called Sangati (in between the present Boko and Rajapara) they held their assembly where they made a historic decision to adopt the matrilineal custom of the Jaintias.

This article can hardly claim as a history of the Jaintias but only a small initial part of it. We must remember that the Jaintias are an Austric- or Monkhmer-speaking race who had first set foot in the North East of India before all other races, according to many historians of the region.

KL Barua, in his Early History of Kamrupa (1933) states, said, “The people of the Austric stock may therefore be regarded as the representatives of the most ancient inhabitants of north-eastern India.”

In all probability when they were in the Malay Peninsula, the Austric- or Monkhmer-speaking people invented the wet rice cultivation. DGE Hall in his A History of South East Asia (1964) states, “The Rubicon between dry and wet rice was crossed by the advanced Monkhmer-speaking people of the Indo-Chinese Peninsula. They pioneered its cultivation in the Delta of the Red River of Tonking. … When the Tonking plain was overrun by the Vietnamese, the majority of the wet-rice cultivators still living there, went up the Red River to Yunnan. Then escaping westward from the cold, high plateau of central Yunnan, they followed the Red River to its source, south of Tali, made their way across northern Burma to … the plains east of Assam where they established a new centre.”

This theory is more or less in consonance with the local tradition and the finding of local researchers like professor B Pakem who traces the migratory route of the Austrics from their original home in Central Asia through West Asia, North Africa, Greece, Palestine, North India to Southern Asia via Burma (now Myanmar).

Other writers believe that it was the early Mediterraneans, a branch of the Proto-Australoids from Palestine and were compared with the Jews in terms of their custom, traditions and monolith culture. This belief was further reinforced by a wealthy Welsh traveller whose name was Jacob Tomlin who visited Palestine and the East Indies in the first part of the nineteenth century and finally came to Khasi Hills where he stayed for about nine months before going back home in 1838.

Tomlin observed, “A very remarkable and primitive custom prevails amongst the Khassias, which is very worthy of notice. No stranger can travel far upon these mountains without observing groups of huge stones, set up. … most probably… as ancient landmarks or memorials of events, in the history of this people. … There are some other customs, and traditions, common amongst these secluded mountaineers, which seem to point to an Israelitist origin ….”

According to their well-known legend, the Jaintias believe that God Trekirot had created 16 families in heaven. Of these 16 families, seven of them known as U Ynñiau Wasa came down to earth through Ka Tangnub-Tangjri — this Jaintia phrase might be understood literally as being referred to liana vines seen and utilised by them during their journey, especially through deep forests, but its larger and extensive divine meaning might perhaps relate to a long-winding and strenuous migratory journey that they had to undertake through high snowy mountains, the oceans and seas, extensive desert countries, mighty rivers, deep gorges and ravines covered with deep forests infested with the fiercest of animals and snakes till they reached Ka Krem Lamet-Latang or the place where they had chosen to settle down.

This legend could be conformed to the finding mentioned earlier that the advanced Mon-khmer-speaking people who started the wet rice cultivation in the Indo-Chinese Peninsula, fled the Tonking plain to Yunnan in the north. It might so happen, in all probability, that 16 families of those who reached Yunnan, escaped westward to northern Burma and eventually entered Assam.

Again, it might also happen that as they reached the Patkai range of the eastern Himalayas (‘Loom Makachiang’ in Jaintia), all members of nine out of the 16 families suffered so severely from the Himalayan icy winds that they all perished on the way leaving behind the seven families (U Ynñiau Wasa) who ultimately reached Assam and eventually settled in Kamrup for several centuries before the arrival of the Bodos.

As they settled in Kamrup, the Monkhmer-speaking people had in all probability occupied the then Gauhati area extending from Dispur in the south up to the bank of the great river Brahmaputra in the north, and from Lonmati (now Noonmati) in the east to Silpati in the west.

It is here at Silpati about 30 km from the present Gauhati University, where five huge monoliths are supposed to have been erected by these people. Two of these monoliths have fallen flat on the ground and the authorities concerned appear to have not taken care for these ancient monuments under the existing law meant for the preservation of ancient monuments; neither the local state government nor the Archaeological Survey of India has made any attempt to reinstate the two pillars which are lying flat on the ground.

The old people among the Jaintias used to talk about Dispur as being the place their forebears had lived in for centuries earlier than all people who immigrated to the region. The name Gauhati (now Guwahati) was originally given by them as Kuaihati or Kwai-hat meaning betelnut mart, where this commodity was bought and sold in abundance.

While settling in Kamrup, the Austrics selected the Nilachal Hill standing among a few other hills beside the great river Brahmaputra as their sacred grove and placed a block of stone to represent their god. This practice where a god is represented by a block of stone, recalls ancient practice of the pre-iconic phase of history.

The great Mother goddess of Biblical Pergamos was worshipped in a block of stone, and in 204 BCE when Hannibal attacked Rome, the Romans appealed to their allies for help. All the allies sent men and materials except King Attalus of Pergamos who sent the mother goddess in the form of a venerated block of stone to Rome where the sacred symbol was received with divine honours.

The Nilachal hill-top shrine of the Austrics later became known by the Sanskritised form Kamakshya or Kamakhya and today it is perhaps the only one of the great centres of Hindu pilgrimage in India where the worship is of the pre-iconic form i.e. there is no image of the goddess in the temple.

The goddess Devi is instead symbolised by a single block of stone.  The Biblical name mentioned here is the other evidence that points to the fact that the Austrics might have migrated originally from West Asia as has been indicated earlier.

The traditions among the Jaintias and the Bodo Achiks who earlier prevailed on the north bank of the Brahmaputra speak of the arrival of the latter in Kamrupa in the distant past when the Austrics were already well settled on the land.

According to these traditions, the Achiks were in great peril while crossing the Brahmaputra due to an attack by a local warrior king but were able to manage the crossing safely with the help of the Austrics. In the subsequent period of time the Austrics were outnumbered by the increasing population of the Bodo Achiks in the worship of the hill-top shrine on the Nilachal hill and the latter could manage to distort the stone by carving out an image of the Kamakhya deity on the single stone block placed earlier by the former.

The Bodos are therefore considered as “the former worshippers of the goddess” as Kamakhya and the shrine was left to them by the Austrics. The shrine was then converted into Kham Maikkhya, a tribal deity of the Bodos to which pigs used to be sacrificed. Subsequently the King of Kamrupa who the Bodos call Narakasur (the demon king) for bringing the Brahmans from mainland India, handed over the ancient shrine to these Brahmans.

The history of the shrine was then changed. Together with other gods and goddesses, the Kham Maikhya was turned into Kamakhya and the people were and are still made to believe that the shrine was the ovary (yoni) of Parbati (wife of the Himalayan tribal god Shiva) which fell on the Nilachal Hill. It may be mentioned that the Austric-speaking people who were later christened Jaintias, were nature worshippers and had selected the Nilachal Hill as their sacred grove on the top of which they placed a block of stone as they used to do wherever they migrated and settled. PRT Gurdon had rightly said the Austric people never symbolize their gods by means of images, their worship being offered to the spirit only.

After establishing their place of worship on the top of the Nilachal Hill, the Austrics might be running a rudimentary kind of ancient village administration but devoted mainly to cultivation. According to the French scholar Przyluski , “the Austrics. … used to live in batches under the leadership of a headman, and they knew the art of cultivating paddy, arum roots, turmeric, betel-nuts and betel-leaves by picking up high land. They used red pigments.”

They lived peacefully together with the Bodo Achiks when the latter came to settle in Kamrup along with the former and were given charge of Kamakhya as already stated earlier. But when the Indo-Aryans came to Kamrup, they wrested everything under their control including the place of worship at Kamakhya.

With the assistance of the Brahmanas, the Indo-Aryans set in their hold over the Austrics and the Achiks and established their ancient Pragjyotisha Kingdom during the 4th century CE.

A wicked king (Naraka) arose in Kamarupa or Pragjyotisa who “cleared out the aboriginal Kiratas from his kingdom…”

The Kiratas (both the Austrics and the Bodo Achiks) who came to know of the wicked plan of the king fled Kamrupa. While the Bodos fled and scattered to the west of Kamrupa, the Austrics fled to the east towards the south bank of the river Kalong and spread to the Kapili and Jamuna valleys.

There were a few Austrics who fled to the west along with the Bodos and lived in the northern Lyngngam area now called Nongtrai and Muliangs. Gurdon concurs to this, “Some of the Lyngngams preserve a tradition that they originally came from the Kamrup plains.”

Nari-Rajya and the name ‘Jaintia’

It was at the Kapili (Kupli in Jaintia) valley that a female kingdom called Nari-Rajya or Srti Rajya of the Mahabharata fame was founded by the Austric people. This was confirmed by PC Choudhury who locates this kingdom in the southern border of the erstwhile Nowgong district assuming that it was ruled either by the Kachari or the Jaintia queens.

Since the Jaintias were and are still the only race following the matrilineal system, it must be the Jaintia queens and not the Kachari. The kingdom is generally designated as Nari-Rajya or women kingdom not only in the Mahabharata but also in the puranas.

This kingdom was locally called Jainta from which the name of the subjects was derived as Jaintia. Since then, the Austric-speaking people had been and are still known by the name Jaintia first in Assam and later in the entire north-east.

RM Nath, however, was of the view that the Austrics originally belong to a section of the tribe called T’sin-taing or T’sintien and were ultimately called the Zyntien or the Synteng.

SK Chatterji was linguistically convinced that the name Jaintia was a Sanskritised form of Synteng. Nath’s and Chatterji’s finding is in stark contrast with the view taken by some scholars who believe that the name Jaintia was known after the name of queen Jayanti of the Jayantia kingdom in Sylhet. Some foreign scholars/writers were also misled by the few educated persons based at Shillong and Cherrapunjee during the last part of the nineteenth century in so far as the name Jaintia is concerned.

Even today, foreign scholars have been both misled and misguided in this regard. Our finding disproves this misinformation based either on prejudice or mere conjecture.

Gurdon, for instance, in his The Khasis (1907), states that, “The latter (Jaintia) Hills take their name from the Rajas of Jaintia, the former rulers of this part of the country, who had their capital at Jaintiapur, a place situated at the foot of the Jaintia Hills on the southern side…”

The fact of history is on the reverse. It has to be realised that the name ‘Jaintia’ predates the names ‘Jaintiapur’ and ‘Jaintia parganas’. Obviously, the name ‘Jaintiapur’ means the abode or the colony of the Jaintias who came from Kapili valley and the North Cachar Hills and belong to Jaintia Hills their permanent home.

Unfortunately, part of Jaintia Hills was fallaciously sliced and was mechanically tagged to the Mikir Hills which are hundred miles apart to the east, by the then Assamese government in April 1951 hardly 15 months after the promulgation of the Constitution of Independent India. It was a violation of Part X (Article 244(2), the Sixth Schedule and the Table thereunder, by forcefully meddling upon the Scheduled Areas apportioned justifiably to every hill tribe of northeast India by the then British government and ratified by the Constitution of India.

As we come back to Nari-Rajya, locally called Jainta, it may be mentioned that the stone boundary pillar fixing the jurisdiction of the Jainta kingdom up to Jamunagaon was discovered by RM Nath in the reserve forest on the bank of the Jamuna and has been kept and preserved in the small museum at Nagaon.

However, it is not possible to determine the date of establishment of the Jainta kingdom and to know the name of the ruler, whether king or queen, who founded the kingdom. This part of history of ancient Assam or better called the Kapili Valley civilisation, has not so far been specifically or fully researched.

For now it has to be presumed that perhaps after a number of kings and queens had ruled over the kingdom for a few generations, Ka Urmi Rani became the queen of this kingdom; and her name about which tradition could keep alive, was found out by RM Nath. This queen married Sindhu Rai, an official or a kind of ambassador of the Kamrupa empire to Jainta.

A daughter, Ka Urwara, was born to them and she became an heir-apparent to the throne of the kingdom. Urwara married Krishak, the next Kamrupi ambassador. Krishak claimed that he had a Bodo blood through his mother (the woman belonging to the Pator-Goya clan of the Sootias section of the Bodos of the present North Lakhimpur) who married the offspring of Parikshit, the emperor of Delhi.

Krishak effected many improvements to the administration of the kingdom and modified the code of inheritance replacing the youngest daughter by the eldest son. The emperor of Kamrupa suspected a dangerous and far-reaching effect of this change, and at once recalled Krishak to Kamrupa and he could never return again to Jainta. Krishak’s son Hatak, however, ascended the throne of Jainta when his mother died, thus bringing in the new order of a male occupying the throne of Jainta for the first time and as contemplated by his father.

Hatak married a princess of Kamrupa and was later succeeded by his son Guhak who also married a Kamrupi princess.

Nath states, “The progeny of Krishak through Hatak ruled in Jainta and Sylhet for several generations.” It is therefore apparent that Sylhet was conquered and annexed to Jainta and there was a plan “to convert Jainta into a second Kamrupa.” It is also clearly obvious that the Jainta kingdom had passed over from the Jaintia people to the hands of the Bodos when the Jaintia queens married the Kamrupi officials belonging to the Pator-Chutia clan of the Bodos as already noted.

It is a fact of history that the Jaintia people were later found moving towards the south along the Kupli river and occupying North Cachar Hills in the next few hundred years. And, when Sylhet was subsequently separated from Jainta kingdom, the king with the people of his Pator-Chutia clan developed their independent culture in Sylhet. But what had happened to Nari-Rajya of the Austric-speaking people now known as Jaintias, we found no record. In all probability the kingdom simply evaporated from the Kapili valley when it passed into the hands of the Pator-Chutia clan of the Bodos whose men married the Jaintia queens and the Jaintias left the valley out of humiliation.

Guhak had three sons and two daughters. He renounced the world as a mendicant after the death of his eldest daughter but before doing so he divided his Sylhet kingdom into three equal portions for his three sons. The eldest son, Jayanta, got the eastern portion of Sylhet called after his name and also retained the parent kingdom of Jainta. The second son Gurak was allotted the southern plains with the seaport and the third son Laruk was given the south western portion. The three kingdoms were respectively known as Jayantia, Gaur Sylhet and Laur.

Some writers and historians had included Jaintia Hills (of the British Raj period) with the Jainta kingdom but the Jaintias occupied these hills only at a later stage when they abandoned North Cachar Hills by crossing the Kupli river with perhaps one-fourth of them proceeded further west to occupy Saphohlynrum in Khasi Hills under the leadership of Shyllong their second leader in North Cachar Hills.

A story had also been manufactured in an attempt to show that Jainta and Jayantia kingdoms were conglomerated into one kingdom known as the Jaintia kingdom. But Nath states, “When Jainta became a separate kingdom, she stood as a barrier to Sylhet against maintaining free intercourse with Kamrupa,” and the Jaintias have their own traditions to tell the world about the conquests of the plains areas both in the north and the south of Jaintia Hills.

It is apparent that Sylhet was re-united subsequently under one ruler but split again later into two kingdoms of South Sylhet and North Sylhet, the two kingdoms being known as Brahmanchal and Sylhet Gauda, respectively. After three generations, Sylhet was again united under Gauda Govinda who organised the country thoroughly though ultimately it fell successively to the Mughals and the English.

While such a political condition as noted above was prevailing in Sylhet, the Jaintias must be consolidating themselves in the newly occupied Hills called after their name. The Jaintia Hills which have more flat lands and river valleys than the North Cachar Hills, were and are still the blessings for the tribe who dexterously exploit them for wet paddy cultivation.

People must have been happy and prosperous and started thinking of organising their socio-political set-up now that they had become more settled after a considerable period of time that had gone by since they had arrived at Kamrup thousand years ago and then later at the Kapili valley and North Cachar Hills a few hundred years more.

In the first stage, they must have organised their respective families and clans and finally the villages. At the family level, leadership fell on the senior-most male member called U Kñyi which literally means a maternal uncle or U Masan of the family or clan. It was the families and clans which formed the smallest unit of the political society called I Chnong or a village.

U Kñyi performed both secular and religious functions and, for religious functions he was called U Langdoh or priest. In a village, all adult male members from different families and clans together elected the chief of the village called U Waheh Chnong or the village headman for secular matters.

The villagers also elected U Langdoh Chnong or a village priest for religious matters. In all matters the village leaders were assisted by the village council called Ka Durbar Chnong just as the family and clan were respectively assisted by the family meeting or Ka Yalang Yongyung and the clan council or Ka Durbar Kur.

After the formation of families, clans and villages with different councils, the Jaintias then considered the next stage of the organization of their polity. To make themselves more secure from future wars and aggressions, groups of villages came together to form a kind of state or sub-state called Raid.

Here again at this level the religious and the secular functions were divided between the priest or U Langdoh Raid and the secular chief of the Raid called U Daloi.

U Daloi being a chief of the next political unit called Ka Elaka could function with the assistance of his deputy or U Pator and the elders or Ki Wasan. In the next and final stage of state formation in the pre-colonial Jaintia, since the Jaintias already had earlier experiences in the formation of a state known as Nari-Rajya in the Kapili valley and after a considerable period of time they had become more settled in Jaintia Hills, the Dalois thought of coming together to form a loose confederation of Elakas for the purpose of inter-elaka relations, defence and foreign affairs.

This confederation resulted in the formation of a Jaintia state or Ka Hima Jaintia by selecting the eldest son of U Luh Randi and Ka Li Dakha, U Shyngklein-Am as their first king or Syiem with the first headquarters at Sutnga.

This in brief was the final stage in the formation of Jaintia state in pre-colonial Jaintia. After the lapse of some period of time, the Dalois together with their Syiem hit upon a plan to expand their kingdom by conquering the plains areas both on the north and the south of their state. But when the British came to the north-east, they conquered the Jaintia kingdom and annexed it to their empire in 1835 and the Jaintias were confined only within the hilly region being their original and permanent home according to the 1951-Map which, it is hoped, will be restored by Assam with due justice, in due course of time.

(The author is former professor of Economics at NEHU, Shillong. This article was first published in
Moosalyngkat Dorbar Chnong Golden Jubilee Souvenir)

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