The name of the village Khweng comes from the local Khasi term ‘Khongweng’ which means curved around. When one takes the road to enter the village, it’s so curved around that one can see the whole village. Over time, ‘Khongweng’ was shortened for ease to ‘Khweng’. A village of 100 households, the first thing that struck me on entering Khweng is how well-kept & clean the streets are. With the verdant mountains as a backdrop, the streets were lined with a series of traditional cane & modern tin cans that act as waste bins. I was happy to note that they were moderately full, showing that the villagers actively used them & that they weren’t just for display.
Khweng is an active weaving village, so a must-do on a trip there is a visit to the weavers’ quarters where I was able to see silk weaving on the frame looms in progress. Meghalaya produces three out of the four varieties of silk available in the world. They are – Eri; locally known as Ryndia, Muga and Mulberry. The type of Eri silk woven in Khweng is often called Ahimsa silk because the worm is not killed during the production process. The coarser Eri silk is quite different in look & feel to the silk we are familiar with, but it has the useful quality of keeping the wearer cool in summers & warm in winters & are most commonly fashioned into scarves.
Weaver working at her frame loom
The village has rearers, spinners & few weavers of silk but they often do not do this exclusively; they are involved in agriculture & use their spare time for Eri related activities. However, they are slowly coming to understand that keeping these fading traditions alive is an important investment for the future – an activity which through continuous practice they can keep doing long after they have lost their strength to contribute on the fields. For instance, one of the elderly weavers I met said: “I am a very old lady living a simple life… but now I only rear and spin to provide for my two disabled sons & my four grandchildren. I am poor, but I have enough food for a day. Eri silk is a blessing from our heavenly fathers.”
Close up of the frame loom
A highlight of my visit was a meal at the Mei-Ramew café (Mother Earth café) run by Kong Plantina Mujai who has been in the business since 30 years. It is a small establishment, serving simple traditional food with local ingredients, but the care taken in preparing it & the generous, affectionate manner in which it was served won my heart over. Though I could not develop a taste for the traditional Kwai, the local variety of betel nut that is much loved & consumed faithfully after every meal. At the café, one can even enjoy some of the fresh seasonal produce such as pineapples. Kong Plantina also grows her own mushrooms, in a room specially dedicated to this activity. One of my favourite dishes had the specialty fish, that is bred in the freshwater streams of the paddy fields & caught by the villagers, as the main ingredient.
Pineapples displayed outside the Mei Ramew cafe
Mushrooms growing under Kong Plantina’s care
The love & respect that the community has for each other is the foundation which brings unity among them – “We are living in peace & harmony”, said the villagers. This is not merely lip service but is directly linked to the “we feeling” of working together which is practiced till today in Khasi villages, via concepts such as Ka rep Bara, which means working together particularly for agricultural activities. There is a strong tendency to refer to a connection with the past and tradition when thinking about well-being – for themselves & the community.
If one has prior experience of visiting rural areas in India (or anywhere in the world for that matter), one will know that generally men are dominant & women are kept in the shadows. Visiting Khweng showed me that this part of the country is an exception. The men & women were both equally forthcoming & greeted me immediately with a handshake. The women actively lead & conduct the Eri silk production as well. In fact, in group discussions the women lead the conversation & are as adept at reading & writing as their counterparts.
Communicating with the villagers has to be through an interpreter, as they only speak the native Khasi language, but taking in the unique sights, smells & sounds of Khweng, truly proved to me that language is not a barrier when it comes to understanding local culture & the experience was all in all a hugely enriching & memorable one.
Village women chatting under the shade of tree.
In the foreground is a hand made waste bin.
All photos © Amrita Ravimohan
The writer visited Khweng village in Ri-Bhoi district Meghalaya during her stint in Shillong, North East India. As part of the Communications team of the Indigenous Terra Madre 2015, various such visits were undertaken by the team in the run-up to the event.