on the Markets in the Khasi Hills
An interesting development has taken place among the Khasis regarding the market system. There are no shops in the villages. Everything that the Khasis have for sale is brought to the market and there they buy what they need. The bigger markets are also the centres of communication among the different villages. People from far and near gather together and news is exchanged and spread into the more remote villages in a short time.
For many people the markets are the main source of their income and livelihood. Fish, for example, is cheaper in the plains or by the riverside. People buy the fish and bring it to the markets in the interior of Khasi Hills where there is demand for it and the prices are higher. The same thing is done with betel nuts and pan leaves which the Khasis like to chew as a stimulant and which grow only on the southern slopes of the hills. Many other goods are likewise traded.
The markets play a dominant role in the whole life of Khasis. The smaller markets have only local importance. The bigger markets are held daily in some place or other. The markets are held at intervals of eight days, that is to say, they are always held again in the same place after eight days. Accordingly the week is reckoned according to the markets. It consists of eight days. In order to indicate when a certain event has taken place, will take place, there is no talk about Monday, Tuesday and the like, but the day of the market in Laban, Cherra, Nongkrem, Jowai, etc. Thus days are designated according to their reference to the market day.
Since the market is held in the same place after seven days, on the eighth day, the day of the market changes every week. For example, if one week, the market in Shillong falls on Monday, in the following week it will fall on Tuesday. If this week it takes places on a Saturday, next week it will be on Sunday and so on. Christians who are bound to observe the Sunday as holy, find this quite disadvantageous. As a rule, however, they avoid the market if it happens to fall on a Sunday or a holy day in order to observe the Lord’s Day. An exception must be made for the poor people who have to earn their living in the market or who do not have the means to buy and keep their provisions for several days.
People rush to the large markets from all the surrounding villages covering a distance of 12 walking hours and more! Some have to start already the previous day in order to arrive at the market place in the morning hours. Generally they go in small groups and in order to pass time they sing songs on the way as they walk. The practice of walking in groups is a good protection against attacks of snake worshippers (Thlen) who offer human blood to snakes.
It is astonishing to see the people carry great loads on their backs along rough and endless paths in unfavourable weather conditions. Here a girl makes her way with a big chest of dry fish; there a woman struggles along under a heavy load of betel nuts and pan leaves. There a young man carries a heavy bag of rice on his side and another a load of sugarcane. Here a man has three big pieces of timber on his back. It is very heavy as we can see from the way he walks and the position of the head, which is bent low. Around the forehead there is a head-gear made of rope on which the load is carried. Even women at times can be seen carrying two such pieces of timber!
People who want to sell their goods in the market must pay a small tax. This tax is collected by the Khasi Syiems (princes) in whose territory the market takes place. The money collected from the markets is the main source of their income. It is their duty to look after the stalls, which are made of low posts covered with grass roof and open on all sides. Only in Shillong are the roofs made of corrugated iron sheets. If it does not rain, the stalls are not so necessary and the transactions are then done under the open sky. A walk through a Khasi market is most interesting. As a rule, the women do the business of selling and buying. Only a few articles like meat, timber, planks, and iron goods are sold by men. It is their job to cut trees, to make planks, to slaughter cattle and cut them up and prepare them for sale in the markets. The dealers sit in long rows one beside the other on the ground. The buyers and onlookers walk along in front of them, men, women, and children. The wares are generally spread out on the ground. Fruits, sweet-potatoes and the like are also kept in small baskets on display. Whatever the Khasi needs by way of foodstuffs, textiles, ready-made clothes, tools, material for construction and live animals is found here.
The Khasis do not have Sundays; the market day is the holiday for them. This is the day of rest for the place where the market is held. On that day all work is stopped. Payments are made on that day. Whoever has no work and wants to get work will look for it on a market day. To get workers on another day is difficult. Calculations are made from one market day to another and everybody wants to be employed for the time between one market and another.
Thus the market system brings life into the otherwise quiet Khasi Hills. The markets provide a regular and uninterrupted line of contact among the villages even without telegraph and telephone, without railway or other means of communications. Many make their livelihood in the market! For many the markets are a source of prosperity and a means of profiteering. The great solemn sacrifice which takes place every year in honour of the god of Shillong at Nongkrem reveals the great importance given to markets by the Khasis. This yearly sacrifice is offered so that their kings may be healthy and happy, that their markets may be prosperous and successful, and the children of the realm may be happy. The high priest pours some rice beer from the hollow pumpkin shell and says the following words, “So that the markets may be good, profitable and be successful, that the roads may be safe and that everything may be blessed, so that the realm may progress and prosper.”
The markets last for one day only. About mid-day the markets are most lively. In the course of the afternoon the sellers and merchants pack up their goods in baskets in order to take them home, or to the next market which will be held on the following day elsewhere. The local youth pass the afternoon hours until sunset playing the national game of archery