Traditional Institutions of the People of Meghalaya

By Julius L.R.Marak

The State of Meghalaya was carved out of the Assam's Hill areas that sprawl along her southern frontiers with Bangladesh and act as her natural barriers. The Autonomous State of Meghalaya came into being on April 2, 1970 attaining its statehood on the January 21, 1972. State of Meghalaya comprises of three major tribes of Khasi & Jaintia and the Garos with a total population of 17,74,779 and areas of 22,429 Sq. Km. The Garos, Khasis & Jaintias were the indigenous tribes of North-East India.
The Garos, Khasis and Jaintias of Meghalaya are purely matrilineal society and as such the descent of an individual either men or women is always reckoned and traced from the mother alone and through her genealogical tree traces its origin back to the common ancestress. The matrilineal system gave the woman, the wife and the mother, a social rather than a personal standing.

Indigenous Tribal Instiyutions During Pre-British Periods :

Prior to the advent of the British into the Garo Hills areas, all the civil and criminal cases were tried and settled by the tribal chiefs known as A. king Nokmas assisted by the village Nokmas and their councils. The A. king Nokmas were all in all, in all the civil administration, administration of justice and the welfare of his subjects within his A. king land. They are all independent of each other and subjects to none. The proceedings of the cases were not recorded and every decision and judgments were oral but binding on the offender. The village elders took part in the melaa (bichal or meeting) argued the cases and gave decisions according to the customary laws and practices.
The traditional institutions in the form of Syiemships, Wadadarships, Dolloiships, Lyngdohships and Nokmaships were functioning in the form of Panchayati Raj of other states. The Khasi hills comprised of 25 native states commonly known as the 'Khasi States' which signed the Instrument of Accession and authorised the constituent Assembly of India to make Rules keeping in view the terms and conditions laid down in the Instrument of Accession. Garo Hills areas was annexed into the British dominion in the last battle of Chisobibra of Rongrenggre village, near the present district of East Garo Hills headquarters Williamnagar on the 12th December, 1872. In this last battle with the British army, Pa Togan Sangma, Garo warrior and the Chief was shot and succumbed to bullet injuries. But, the Garos managed and retained the A. king Nokmaship till the present generation.

British Periods :

During the British periods, the tribal indigenous institutions of Syiemships, Dolloiships, Nokmaships, etc, were recognised and did not disturb the functioning of these democratic institutions. In the case of A. king Nokmas in Garo Hills, Deputy Commissioner appoints Laskers and Sardars who were given the third class magisterial powers to try cases of civil and criminal cases committed under the customary laws and practices. The Laskers are empowered to try offences on theft (value stolen property upto Rs. 50, injury to property, injury to persons, house trespass, affronts of any kind, gambling, drunkenness, etc. and were made to pay 'Dai' or compensation. The payment of 'Dai' (compensation) varies according to the nature of offence. British have put to an end to capital punishment and had hunting practiced by the Garo community.

Post-Independent Periods :

After the attainment of Independence, the Hill districts of Meghalaya is being administered according to the provisions under Para-1(1) of the Sixth Schedule of the constitution of India, the District Council was constituted in 1952 with a view to preserve, protect and strengthening the existing tribal indigenous institutions amongst tribal communities. District Council is empowered to make laws for an autonomous districts which have effect only after assented to by the Governor.
When the District Councils came into being in the Hill areas of Khasi & Jaintia and the Garo Hills districts, the traditionally elected chiefs or traditional heads such as Syiems, Dollois, Wadadars and Lyngdohships were appointed by the District Councils and the rights of election of Chiefs by the people were taken away. But, in the case of selection of A. King Nokmaship amongst the Garo community, the traditional way of selection continued unaffected. The District Council only recognise formally the A. king Nokma selected by the ma.chong or motherhood.
The President of India may direct that any Act of Parliament shall not apply to an autonomous districts. These provisions were inserted in the Schedule by the north-eastern areas (Re-organization) Act, 1971. Further, the Governor of a State could exclude the operation of any Act of Parliament or of the State Legislature in these Autonomous District.

Land System in Kashi Hills :

Each village in Khasi and Jaintia Hills has its own lands in which rights of private ownership are recognised. There are two main classes of land in Khasi Hills, namely - (1) Ri Raid Lands; and (2) Ri Kynti Lands. And under these there are sub-classes of land by different names in the various elakas.

  1. Ri-Raid lands are the lands set apart for community over which no persons have proprietary, heritable or transferable rights except the right to use and occupy as long as one occupies and use the land. The Ri Raid lands comprises of Ri shnong, Ri shnat, Ri kuna, Ri Lyngdoh, Ri RamSyiem, Ri Law Kyntang, Ri Law Lyngdoh, Ri Law Niam, Ri Law adong, Ri Law Sang, Ri Law Sumar, Ri Bam Lang, Ri Lynter, Ri Leh Mokotduma, Ri Aiti Mon Sngewbha, Ri Phlang, Ri Bamduh, Ri Diengshai-diengjin, Ri Samla.
    • Ri Shnong is a land, which is a part of the village, and the villagers can use.
    • Ri Shnat and Ri Kuna is the part of Ri Raid land within the jurisdiction of the Raid of Ri Mynsain, Lamsain, Somraid or Ri Pud Lands are the piece dividing boundary lands that divides the lands of the other individuals.
    • Ri Lynter is a land of the Raid that have been acquired through wars and in later days through litigation.
    • Ri Bam syiem is a land set apart for the clans of the ruling chiefs.
    • Ri Law Kyntang, Ri Law Niam and the Ri Law Lyngdoh are the forest lands set apart for religious purposes which is controlled and managed by the Lyngdohs.
    • Ri Law Sumar is a land belongs to the individual, family, clan or village community.
    • Ri Law Adong, Ri Law Sang and Ri Law Shnong are the forest lands set apart as catchment areas for use by the community for firewoods, housing, personal use etc. that may be decided by the Raid Durbar.
    • Ri laleh Mukotduma is a land acquired through litigation.
    • Ri Umsnam is a land acquired through wars
    • Ri Bamlang or Ri Umsnam or Ri Mukotduma is the land given by Syiem to the Raid
    • Ri Aimon Sngewbha or Ri Nongmei-Nongpa is a land donated for the public purposes
    • Ri Raphlang-Ribamduh is a barren land which any citizen has the right to use
    • Ri Diengsai-diengjin is a forest areas that are covered by vegetation between the uplands and lower areas of the lands
    • Ri Samla is a land acquired by the unmarried person who has the right to dispose off as he likes.
  2. Ri Kynti lands are also known by the different names such as - Ri Kur, Ri Nongtymmen, Ri Maw, Ri Seng, Ri Khain, Ri Duwat, Ri Khurid, Ri Bitor, Ri Dakhol, Ri Shyieng, Ri lapduh, Ri Lynter, Ri Span, Ri Longdung, Ri Pud, Ri Kut and Ri Lyngdoh, Ri Syiem, Ri Khain Raibuh.
    • Ri Kur is a land that has been divided between the various branches of clan or families
    • Ri Nongtymmen is a land that has been inherited from generation to generations
    • Ri Maw is a land that has been acquired through purchase or through the right of apportionment
    • Ri Seng and Ri Khain is an undivided family owned land
    • Ri Duwar is a land that have been acquired through purchase by clan usually for maker place, river ghat, etc. and toll is collected by them
    • Ri Khurid is also a land that has been purchased over which the purchaser have the proprietory, heritable and transferable right over the land
    • Ri Bitor is a land that have been acquired on receipt of ceremonial bottle of liquor
    • Ri Dakhol is a land that has been obtained by the right of occupation
    • Ri Shyieng is a portion of land that has been given to the youngest daughter (khadduh) of a clan or family for meeting the expenses on performance of religious rites and ceremonies
    • Ri Phniang is a part of land of Ri Kur or Ri Nongtymmen that has been given to female members who acts as custodian and assist in preparation of religious ceremonies or for looking after them in times of troubles
    • Ri lapduh is a land of a family or clan that has become extinct which is kept as Ri Raid or Ri Ram Syiem
    • Ri Lyngdoh is a land that belongs to the Lyngdoh clan
    • Ri Syiem is a land set apart for the maintenance of the Syiem's clan
    • Ri Shiak is a land that has been acquired by the husband and the wife which is given to the clan (Kur)
    • Ri Span and Ri Langdung is a land within Ri Maw or Ri Khian that has been occupied or given on lease
    • Ri Kur is a portion of land or Ri Nongtymmen that is held by the clan that cannot be divided

Land System in Jaintia Hills:

In Jaintia Hills there are two classes of lands exists. They are (i) Hali or irrigated paddy lands and (ii) High lands. These two main categories of land are again sub-divided into different classes. Hali lands consists of (1) Raj lands; (2) Service lands; (3) Village puja lands; and (4) Private lands.
Raj lands were the property of the Syiems of Jaintia Hills. They were unoccupied lands and vested with the Jaintia Syiems. After the abolition of Syiemship in Jaintia Hills, these lands were taken over by the British and assessed to land revenue. This type of land can be settled by any individual on lease basis.
Service lands are the rent free lands given to Dollois, Pators, Basans and other officials for their service rendered to their administration. They were not paid but allowed to hold this piece of land in recognition.
The village puja lands are the lands held by the Lyngdohs and the Raid. These lands were set apart for the purpose of worship. These lands are revenue free lands and the Lyngdohs can use the revenue from these lands for their own upkeep, etc.
Private lands are the lands held by the individuals and have the right to transfer, mortgage sale, etc. at their will. The Patta or lease lands were the lands allotted and settled by the British during their regime. These same lands are now being exercised by the District Council who settles to any individuals in consultation with the Dollois of the areas.

Land System in Garo Hills:

The lands in Garo Hills consists of Revenue areas and Non-revenue areas. The Revenue areas are the Plain areas of Garo Hills and the non-Revenue areas are the A.king lands of Garo Hills.
The Revenue areas of Plain areas under Mouza No. IX and X are directly under the management and administration of District Council in matters of settlement of land to any of the individuals for cultivation, etc.
The Hill areas of Garo Hills are the A. king lands which belongs to the A. king Nokma of particular clan. The entire A. king lands are managed by the A. king Nokma who is the guardian and custodian of a particular clan or motherhood. The District Council do not have direct control over the A. king lands. A. king lands belong to the particular motherhood whose head is a female. The ultimate ownership lies with the motherhood which exercise its control through her husband. The A. king Nokma being a mere custodian and guardian of A. king lands cannot take any arbitrary decisions in matter of sale, mortgage, gift, transfer etc.

There are different kinds of a A. king lands in Garo Hills such as A. milam, A. jikse, A. joma, etc. All these different kinds of lands held by particular ma.chongs, cannot exercise the power over their own acquired lands as the entire property belongs to the wife or female. The Chras or male elder members of the family play an important role in shaping their future and welfare.

District Council Court and Administration of Justice :

The District Council constituted village courts or district council courts for trial of suits and cases between the parties of all of whom belong to the Scheduled Tribe within the Autonomous district. Village Courts do not try cases arising out of the special laws or cases relating to the offences of serious in nature (punishable with death, life imprisonment, etc.) However, the Governor may extend the jurisdiction of village court to decide such cases. The Rules requires the village Court to try all cases and suits in accordance with the customary laws and practices. These village courts are supposed to be non-professional bodies and decide cases in an informal atmosphere without any procedural technicalities and formalities.
Applicability of General Laws;
Meghalaya is the land where the customary laws and practices prevail. The cases are usually taken into the village headmen or village courts which disposed off all the local cases and settles minor disputes within its jurisdiction. The aggrieved parties are at liberty to appeal to the Deputy Commissioner's Court against any decisions. Most of the statutory instruments are regulated by the Rules or Orders issued under Rule 15 of the Assam Autonomous District (Constitution of District Councils) Rules, 1951.
Subject to the certain exceptions and subject to the provisions of the rules, the procedure of district council court of all grades -

  1. Shall, in criminal cases, be "in the spirit of the code of criminal procedure", so far as it is applicable to the circumstances of the district (Rule-44 (1), and
  2. Shall, in Civil cases, be guided by the spirit but not bound by the letter" of the Code of Civil Procedure, 1908, in all matters not covered by recognized customary laws and usage of the District (Rule-48). The Tribal areas of the Khasi & Jaintia and Garo Hills, etc. were governed separately from the other areas, during the British Rule. These areas are being administered under the Scheduled district Act, 1874, making special provisions for their administration and governance. When the Government of India Act, 1935 came into force, these tribal areas were continued to govern under the new terminology of "Excluded and partially excluded areas". In matters of procedure to be followed in the trial of suits and cases in the district council courts, Para 5 (3) of the Sixth Schedule provided that "Code of Civil Procedure, 1903, and Code of Criminal procedure, 1898, shall not apply to trial of any suit, cases or offences in an Autonomous District".

The traditional institutions of the Khasi & Jaintia and Garo communities still continues to exist and run their own affairs without any difficulties in the midst of modern Rules, Regulations and Laws. The Sixth Schedule was incorporated in the Constitution of India to grant certain autonomy to these traditional indigenous institutions of the Khasi & Jaintia and the Garo people.

Conclusion :

The indigenous traditional institutions of the Khasi & Jaintia and the Garo communities in the different forms of Syiemships, Dolloiships, Wadadarships, Lyngdohships and the A. king Nokmaships existed from the time immemorial and continued to survive till date due to its democratic in actions and decisions which is far better than the Panchayati Raj system of other states. The age old indigenous traditional institutions which were firmly established on a democratic systems need now be strengthened and revived by returning to them the rights to decide their own destiny especially in the present day complex situations. These traditional institutions of Syiems, Dollois, Lyngdohs, Wadadars and A. king Nokmas should be involved at the grass root level in formulation of schemes, plans and programmes as well as any developmental schemes, and seek their participation. The involvement of traditional institutions and their co-operation can be obtained, if the Government at the State/ Central is sincere to bring the village administration and their involvement to decide their own-welfare and future. The involvement, strengthening and decentralization of power with the indigenous traditional institutions may not be at the liking by the present politicians, and administrators but the only way to save the present situations is involvement of these traditional institutional heads.

The Panchayati Raj system found in the plain areas of towns and cities as found in other states is not desirable for the people of Meghalaya as there are already existed and deep rooted traditional institutions. The tendency of the administration to do away with the traditional institutions, as they think that these institutions are hindrance to their liking, instead attempts should be made to strengthen, develop and improve upon by making the traditional institutions more workable, coordinating body and responsible within their own respective areas or jurisdiction.

The local cases of civil and criminal can be dealt better, if the heads of traditional institutions are involved and are taken into confidence in curtailing them. The selection of traditional heads should be given free hand without any political interference in the hands of the people. The services of the heads of the traditional institutions can best be utilised, if the State Government nominates at least 5 members in the Autonomous District Council as members. While trying to formulate the policy of decentralization of power as envisaged by the Government of India through Panchayati Raj system with a view to involve the people at the grass root level in the developmental process, the financial powers and planning be entrusted to these traditional institutions. The traditional institutions of Syiems, Dollois, and the A. king Nokmas be delegated with economic power to enable them to participate in the planning process and implementation of developmental programmes through different Government agencies as per the provisions of the Sixth Schedule to the Constitution of India of Para 3 & 4, if the Government is to work for the betterment and their economic and social upliftment, the community leaders, heads of traditional institutions need to be involved. The traditional institutions and their head still exists amongst the community who needs revitalizing and necessary Legislation or Amendments to the existing Rules, Regulations and Provisions of Constitution of India and get the community participation in saving the country's economy, administration and future of the people of the State.
The grass root planning development and implementation of various programmes and projects carried out for the welfare of the people need their co-operation and help. But, these can be best achieved only if the administration take these institutions into confidence.


  1. The Assam Re-organization (Meghalaya) Act, 1969 NO. 55 of 1969.
  2. Customary Law and Justice in the Tribal Areas of Meghalaya (9182) - The Indian Law Institute.
  3. Law of Administration of Justice in Meghalaya (1973) First Edition - Jangsan Sangma
  4. Census of India 1991 Series-16 Meghalaya (Part-XII-A&B). District Census Hand Book, East & West Garo Hills village and town directory.
  5. Garo customary laws and practices (1999-2000) 2nd. Edition -Julius L. R. Marak
  6. The Constitution of India (1969) L.D. 144 (1969)
  7. Report of the Land Reforms Commission for Khasi Hills, p-17
  8. Garo Hills Autonomous District (Administration of Justice) Rules1953 and the Assam High Court (Jurisdiction Order, District Council Court Order, 1954).
  9. Sangma, M.S. "History and Culture of the Garos'"(1981).
  10. Succession to the Syiemships in the Khasi States by Capt. D. Herbert, D.C., Khasi & Jaintia Hills (1903)
  11. British Administration in Meghalaya, Policy and pattern. - D. R. Syiemlieh (1989)