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Living peacefully with nature

History, peoples and environment of Meghalaya

History of Meghalaya

Peoples living peacefully with nature

Until the arrival of the British in the 18th century, there were several smaller tribal kingdoms in the region that is now the Indian state of Meghalaya. The peoples, who lived peacefully with nature, did not have much to resist the armed forces of the British, so their territories were gradually taken over and became part of the British colony.

In the years following the end of the 19th century, the tribal chiefs managed to maintain a high degree of autonomy for their respective peoples through treaties. Independently of this, however, Christianity was increasingly spread through intensive missionary work among the population, which pushed back the original culture of the people. With India’s independence in 1947, the territory of present-day Meghalaya was initially placed under Assamese administration, although the individual tribal peoples were still granted extensive autonomy. However, the population felt – and still feels – that it does not belong to the rest of India. Intensive efforts for autonomy led to the secession of the region on January 21, 1972 and the founding of today’s state of Meghalaya.

The locals belong to 17 indigenous peoples

Peoples and religions

In ethnic terms, Meghalaya is a multi-ethnic state typical of this region. To this day, the majority of the locals belong to one of 17 indigenous peoples, with the Khasi (settlement area mainly in the east of the country) and Garo (settlement area mainly in the west) tribes dominating with a total population share of almost 70%.

A visit to these tribes in particular is very exciting for those interested in culture, as they represent two of the few matrilineal societies on earth in which priestesses and clan mothers have a high hierarchical significance. The girls inherit the family’s possessions and the husband traditionally moves in with his wife. However, as both the Khasi and the Garo were missionized during the British colonial period and many now adhere to the Christian faith, this rare way of life is becoming less and less important.

A section of the Khasi in particular still practise the traditional animist faith “Niam Khasi” and live most clearly in the matrilineal culture. Originally, this female-dominated way of life was also common among the Jaintias (Pnar) and the Garo. Among the Jaintia people, the tradition of “visiting marriage” has survived to this day, which means that in the first few years after marriage, husband and wife remain in their respective parental homes and fulfill the everyday duties of their ancestral family. Often the spouses only see each other every few days or regularly overnight.

In addition to their official affiliation to Christianity, quite a few members of the Jaintia still practise the traditional tribal religion “Niamtre”, a nature religion based on the belief in a supreme god who propagates appreciation and respect among all people as the basis for their own way of life, as well as the respectful treatment of nature.

 The original belief of the Garo is structured in a very similar way, in whose tradition several other gods are subordinate to a supreme creator and can be invoked via spirit rituals. However, this tribal faith has also lost much of its significance in the course of Christianization.

Only around 20% of Meghalaya’s inhabitants live in one of the cities; these are mainly people of Bengali, Nepalese and residual Indian descent. There are Hindu and Muslim religious centers.

Traditional and diverse


Thanks to the fertile soil, the diet of the Meghalaya population is traditionally varied and includes rice as a staple food, which is served as a side dish or prepared in various curry dishes. The menu is complemented by various types of fruit and vegetables. The range of different types of meat is particularly varied, as there are no religious restrictions on the consumption of beef, for example, in the predominantly Christian population.

European palates will be pleased to know that the food in Meghalaya is not overly spicy, and international dishes are now available in the cities and in many restaurants – also thanks to regular imports. Adventurous travelers may want to try chewing betel nut after a meal, which has a similar significance here as espresso after a meal in Italy – and also has a similarly stimulating effect. However, the red coloration of the mouth, which is of course particularly noticeable on light European skin, must then be accepted!

Species-rich and pristine nature

Flora and fauna

If you are on vacation in Meghalaya, you can look forward to an exceptionally species-rich and pristine natural environment. Almost 70% of the state’s area is covered by dense primeval forests, consisting mainly of teak and sal trees, which are overgrown with 325 different species of orchids and are home to over 660 different bird species; 34 of which are protected worldwide, nine of which are threatened with extinction (e.g. Manipur quail Perdicula manipurensis, bearded bustard Houbaropsis bengalensis or imperial heron Ardea insignis). Carnivorous plants such as the unique Nepenthes khasiana (a subspecies of pitcher plant) try to lure one of the countless representatives of insects into their clutches before one of the lizard species, for example, manages to do so.

Crocodiles and turtles live in the watercourses and ponds, as do some of the snake species that are native to the area (Indian cobra, king cobra, various vipers and many more). In addition, in Meghalaya you will encounter monkeys such as the Hooklock Gibbon; with a little luck you may come across representatives of the Indian elephants, spot a red panda, a civet cat or a mongoose or observe peaceful herbivores such as the gaur, wild buffalo and deer. Also unique are the bats that live in the large caves of Meghalaya and hunt through the forests at dusk.

Primeval forests have religious meanings

National parks & nature reserves

The Nokrek Biosphere Reserve in the West Garo Hills and the Balaphakram National Park in the South Garo Hills are probably the most biodiverse areas in Meghalaya. There are also three other wildlife sanctuaries, the Nongkhyllem Wildlife Sanctuary, the Siju Sanctuary and the Bhagmara Sanctuary.

Some areas of the primeval forests (the so-called “sacred groves”) have religious significance and are therefore visitors are not allowed; this is reserved exclusively for shamans and a few tribal members for the purpose of performing ritual ceremonies. Due to the remoteness of Meghalaya and the autonomy of the tribal peoples, which often prevents industrial use of the land, the original diversity of nature, the impressive biodiversity, is preserved almost throughout the entire territory of the state.

Traditionally living from what they produce


A large proportion of the people in Meghalaya work in agriculture and traditionally live off their yields. However, the cultivation techniques are only sufficient for the production of surpluses in a few cases and the urban population in particular is dependent on the export of food.

Also due to the partial autonomy granted to the tribes, the extraction of the rich deposits of raw materials is also massively hindered. There would be great potential for the extraction of coal, sillimanite, kaolin (porcelain clay), granite and lime and the establishment of corresponding processing industries. However, this rigid attitude of the tribal chiefs naturally protects nature and, above all, the primeval forests of Meghalaya, which is in line with the Indian government’s efforts to expand tourism as an economic mainstay for the region.