Meghalaya


Meghalaya
State (pop., 2001 prelim.: 2,306,069), northeastern India.

Occupying an area of 8,660 sq mi (22,429 sq km), it is bordered by Bangladesh and Assam state. Its few urban centres include Shillong, its capital. The tribal hill people of Meghalaya trace their origin to pre-Aryan times in India. The area came under nominal British rule in the 19th century; it was included in Assam and was made a separate state in 1972. Although it has vast mineral resources, its economy centres on agriculture.

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Introduction

      state of India. It is located in the northeastern part of the country. It is bounded on the south and southwest by Bangladesh and on all other sides by the state of Assam. The area is 8,660 square miles (22,429 square kilometres). The capital is the hill town of Shillong.

      Meghālaya—literally “Abode (ālaya) of the Clouds (megha)”—occupies a mountainous plateau of great scenic beauty. It became a state in 1972.

Physical and human geography

The land
 Meghālaya is an upland area formed by a detached block of the Deccan Plateau. Its summits vary in elevation from 4,000 to 6,000 feet (1,220 to 1,830 metres). The Gāro Hills in the west rise abruptly from the Brahmaputra valley to about 1,000 feet and then merge with the Khāsi Hills and Jaintia Hills, adjacent highland systems that form a single massif of tablelands separated by a series of eastward-trending ridges. The southern faces of the plateau, overlooking the Bangladesh lowlands, is particularly steep. Many rivers and streams flow out of the plateau, creating deep, narrow, steep-sided valleys; the most important is the Umiam-Barapani, which is the major source of hydroelectric power for Assam and Meghālaya.

      One of the world's wettest regions is found in the state—Cherrapunji, with an average of 450 inches (11,430 millimetres) of annual rainfall over a 74-year period, the highest ever recorded in Asia and the second highest in the world. (Rainfall at Cherrapunji may be exceeded, however, by that at Mawsynram, where an average of 700 inches has been claimed.) The climate of Meghālaya is generally mild. In August the mean temperature at Shillong (in the Khāsi Hills) is 70° F (21° C); it falls to 49° F (9.5° C) in January. Annual rainfall in Shillong, only 50 miles from Cherrapunji, is 92 inches.

      The state is rich in forests, and pines, sals, and bamboo are plentiful. Other species include oak, birch, beech, and magnolia. The state abounds in elephants, tigers, leopards, deer, wild pigs, gaurs (wild bison), mithan (or gayals; the domesticated form of the gaur), wolves, anteaters, monkeys, apes, squirrels, snakes, hares, and sambar deer. Birds in Meghālaya include peacocks, partridges, pigeons, hornbills, jungle fowls, mynas, and parrots.

The people
      Most of the inhabitants of Meghālaya are Tibeto-Burman (Gāros) or Mon-Khmer (Khāsis) in origin, and their languages and dialects belong to these groups. The Khāsis (Khāsi language) are the only people in India speaking a Mon-Khmer language, more commonly found in Southeast Asia. Khāsi and Gāro are the main languages and along with Jaintia and English are the state's official languages; others include Pnar-Synteng, Nepālī, and Haijong, as well as the plains languages of Bengali, Assamese, and Hindi.

      Christianity, Hinduism, and animistic forms of Hinduism are the major religions in the area. There is also a small minority of Muslims and even smaller groups of Buddhists and Sikhs.

      The population is predominantly rural, and few towns exist in the state. Shillong is the largest town; other urban centres, listed in descending order of population, include Tura, Mawlai, Nongthymmai, and Jowai.

The economy
      Meghālaya has abundant but untapped natural resources, including coal, limestone, kaolin, feldspar, quartz, mica, gypsum, bauxite, and other minerals. Its sillimanite deposits (a source of high-grade ceramic clay) are reputedly the best in the world and account for almost all of India's sillimanite output. Meghālaya has no heavy industries; small-scale industries include cement, plywood, and beverage factories, in addition to a newly established electronics plant.

      Agriculture is the dominant economic activity. Land is owned in common, but jhūm cultivation (burning of trees and planting the cleared areas in a cyclical operation) has left the people extremely poor and has eroded the soil. The main crops are rice, millet, corn (maize), potatoes, pepper, chilies, cotton, ginger, jute, betel nuts, fruits (including oranges and mangoes), and vegetables.

      Internal communications are poor, and many areas remain isolated. There are no railways in Meghālaya. A national highway runs through the state from Guwāhāti (Assam) in the north to Karīmganj (Assam) in the south. Shillong is served by Vayudoot (the domestic airline handling short-haul, low-capacity routes).

Administration and social conditions
      Like other states of the Indian Union, Meghālaya has a governor, appointed by the president of India. A Council of Ministers, headed by a chief minister, is appointed from an elected Legislative Assembly (Vidhān Sabhā). Meghālaya falls under the jurisdiction of the High Court in Guwāhati, Assam. The state has five administrative districts—the East and West Gāro Hills, the East and West Khāsi Hills, and the Jaintia Hills.

Education and welfare
      The state is one of the most underdeveloped in India. Only about two-fifths of the people are literate. The North-Eastern Hill University, at Shillong, is the state's only university. The 1947 partition of the subcontinent disrupted the tribal populations; some tribes found themselves divided by the new international frontier, resulting in tribal migrations from East Pakistan (now Bangladesh) to India.

Cultural life
      The area is rich in tribal culture and folklore. Drinking and dancing to the accompaniment of music from buffalo horn singas, bamboo flutes, and drums are integral parts of religious ceremonies and social functions. Marriages are exogamous. The advent of Christianity in the mid-19th century, along with its strict morality, has disrupted many of the tribal and communal institutions.

      A curious custom among the Gāros is that, after marriage, the youngest son-in-law comes to live in his wife's parents' house and becomes his father-in-law's nokrom, or clan representative in the mother-in-law's family. If the father-in-law dies, the nokrom marries (and the marriage has to be consummated) the widowed mother-in-law, thus becoming the husband of both mother and daughter. The custom is now falling into disuse. The Khāsis formerly practiced human sacrifice.

History
      Apart from accounts of the more important Khāsi kingdoms in the chronicles of the neighbouring Āhoms and Kachāris, little is known of Meghālaya prior to the British period. In the early 19th century, however, the British desire to build a road through the region in order to link Bengal and Assam led to a treaty (1827) with the ruler (syiem) of the Khāsi principality of Nonkhlaw. Opponents of the treaty persuaded the syiem to repudiate it in 1829, and a subsequent attack on the British led inevitably to British military operations against the Khāsis. By the mid-1830s, most of the local rulers had submitted to the British. For the next century, the British exercised political control over the area, then known as the Garrows and Cossiya (Khāsi) States, but the tribes, left to themselves, were able to preserve their traditional way of life in seclusion.

      In 1947 the rulers of the region acceded to the newly independent country of India. India's first prime minister, Jawaharlal Nehru, evolved a policy to preserve and protect the way of life of the tribal peoples. Along with other tribal areas, the region was given special protection in the Indian constitution, and, though included within the state of Assam, it retained a great deal of autonomy.

      Even this did not prove enough, however, and when Assamese became the state's official language in 1960, agitation for autonomy and self-rule gathered strength. Unlike in many other hill regions in northeastern India, this movement was largely peaceful and constitutional. Meghālaya was created as an autonomous state within Assam in 1970 and achieved full statehood on Jan. 21, 1972.

Chakravarthi Raghavan Deryck O. Lodrick

Additional Reading
Overviews are provided by I.M. Simon, Meghalaya (1980); and P.R. Kyndiah, Meghalaya: Yesterday and Today (1990), a popular descriptive account of the region. The state's physical and human geography are covered in D.T. Zimba, Geography of Meghalaya, 2nd ed., rev. and enlarged (1978), and Geographical Identity of Meghalaya (1983); D.D. Mali, An Introduction to the Economy of Meghalaya (1978); and B.S. Rana, The People of Meghalaya (1989). Kamaleshwar Sinha, Meghalaya (1970), contains much history and other information on the state.

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Universalium. 2010.

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