The War Jaintias


An attempt is made in this paper, to discuss about the people living in the southern part of the Jaintia Hills District, in the border area stretching along the international border with Bangladesh. The people inhabiting those stretch of land prefer to call themselves as WAR JIANTIAS or simply WARS. Of course all the people both in Khasi and Jaintia Hills who are inhabiting the southern slopes facing the border ares with Bangladesh known are as WARS. The 'Wars' can therefore be said to have inhabited the precipitous slopes and deep valleys of the foot hills in the southern part of Khasi-Jaintia Hills.

Gurdon in his book The Khasis describes a picturesque picture of the War area. He writes the war villages nestle on the hill -sides of the southern border, and are to be seen peeping out from the green foliage with which the southern slopes are clad. In the vicinity of, and actually up to the houses, in the war villages, are to be observed large groves of areca-nut,often twined with the pan creeper and of the scene. Looking at a War village from a distance a darker shade of green is seen, this denotes the limits of the extensive groves where the justly celebrated Khasi oranges is grown, which is the source of so much profit to these people. In a convenient spot in a war village, a clear space is to be seen neatly swept and kept free from weeds, and surrounded with a stone wall, where the village tribunals sit, and the elders meet in solemn conclave1. These quoted lines, though brief, give a lot of information what War villages look like , their much celebrated produce which made them well-known throughout the length and breadth of Khasi-Jaintia Hills and even across the national and international borders.

Under the traditional administration, the area occupies by the War Jaintias falls under the jurisdiction of 5 (five) Elakas, namely, Jowai, Amwi, Satpator, Nongtalang and Darang. Somehow, the territorial boundaries of these elakas in this part of Jaintia Hills seem to intersect each other. For example, we find that some villages, which are, situated right at the international border with Bangladesh, fall under the jurisdiction of the Doloi of Jowai, whose headquarters is at Jowai, far away from these villages. The people of these villages of course, pay their allegiance to the Doloi of Jowai as they come under his administration. This situation has its own historical background, if one proves into the past historical antecedents.

On the basis of the present delimitation of constituencies for the State Legislative Assembly, the War Jaintia Border Area constitutes one single constituency- the war Jaintia constituency. But with regard to representation to the Jaintia Hills Autonomous District Council, the same area is deliminated into two constituencies.

Since the area is too vast, it will not be possible to do justice in this humble attempt to present all the socio-political, cultural, economic problems and other related issues of the entire area. I am therefore, compelled to limit the area under study and bring out certain aspects and issues relating to the people living within the jurisdiction of the two Elakas only, that is, Darang and Nongtalang.

The two Elakas are adjacent to each other and have certain common aspects. The areas in the southern parts of these Elakas touch the international borderline with Bangladesh. This situation therefore helped the people in this part of Jaintia Hills to come into an earlier contact with the other different communities living across the international border is sealed off, the people of these areas for the sake of trade and commerce and for their own livelihood, continue in their own way in search of ways and means to exchange their goods and agricultural produce with the people across the border, but not to the extent as it was in the pre-partition days. The people have therefore lived and experienced both the joys and miseries of the pre-partition period, during and after the partition of India and Pakistan, and have been much affected , especially in terms of economic hard-ships after the Indo-Pak war of 1971, which brought into existence a new nation Bangladesh.

The People and their migration

With regard to migration, the War Jaintias in the Nongtalang Elaka, seem to have migrated from the same direction as did by the other people inhabiting the Khasi and Jaintia Hills. H. Bareh is of the opinion that "there is a tradition that the Amwi-Khasis reached their present land from the east and that their ancestors were originally connected with the Mekong river. Mekong in Amwi or Meisan in Khasi has an equivalent of the senior aunt." 2 B. Pakem also opined that " when the Jaintias entered the present hills they came in batches and were variously known by different names of those batches such as Amwis, Changpungs, Jowais, Nartiangs, Raliangs, Sutngas and many others." 3 All the batches mentioned here, except the Amwis, choosed to occupy and settle in the northern , eastern and western parts of the present Jaintia Hills District. The Amwis occupied and settled in the southern part of the district and they were perhaps the first to come, occupy and settle in this part of the land. Later on, they spread mostly down south of Jaintia Hills to the War area, looking for better plots of agricultural land for their cultivation. It is also found that the inhabitants of some villages, especially those within the Elaka of Nongtalang, have a close familial relationship with those in the northern part of Jaintia Hills. Some of the very old original clans are to be found both in the northern part of Jaintia Hills District and in the war area also. This may therefore suggest that some of these clans in the distant past, especially the big ones, did not follow the same direction in search of land either for permanent settlement or cultivation, or some of them were left behind during the period of their migration from place to place- the members of the Lamin Clan is a clear example in this respect.

The people who are inhabiting the other Elaka, that is the Elaka of Darang are different in many respects with those in the Elaka of Nongtalang. The people of this Elaka, have close affinity with the Khasis rather than the Jaintias. This suggests that these people came from Khasis Hills during the wave of migration. They crossed the river Umngot, occupied and settled the area which now falls within the jurisdiction of the Doloi of Darang. Their dialect is almost the same as that of the Khasis inhabiting the lower Khadar Blang area, on the other side of the river Umngot in the Khyrim Syiemship. This further confirms that they migrated from Khasi Hills and not Jaintia Hills.

The War Jaintia and their dialects:

Rev. T. Rodborne was of the opinion that the war Jaintias could be broadly divided into five sections from the geographical point of view of their settlements and the dialects spoken by them 4.

One particular factor which differentiates the War Jaintias from the other Jaintias or Pnars is their dialect. In the war area of Jaintia Hills, people of different villages speak different dialects, which are totally different from the language/dialect spoken by the Khasis, Jaintias/Pnars. But unlike the different dialects spoken by different Naga tribes, the War Jaintias have no problem in understanding each other's dialect. A person may speak in his own village dialect to another person from a different village, but both of them understand each other. The difference is , therefore not that very wide except of course, in pronunciation and in naming things. A Khasi or a Jaintia (non-War) would find it very difficult to follow or understand any of the dialects except those who daily come into contact with the people, that too, with great difficulties. the following story may help to prove this. R.S.Lyngdoh in his book - Ka History, Ka Thoh Ka tar, Bynta I, told of a story of one businessman who went to different markets both in Khasi and Jaintia Hills. This businessman did not have much difficulty in understanding the various dialects spoken at different markets that he visited. But when he went to the market at Dawki, he shook his head with disappointment for he could not understand or follow a single word spoken by the war Jaintia at dawki market. 5 This obviously proves the wide gulf of difference of the dialects of the war Jaintias from that of Khasi or Jaintia. (Even the much-celebrated one particular sentence, which many local scholars tried to translate into one of the War dialects, is full of mistakes. The war Jaintias have of course, no problem in understanding, and speaking both Khasi and Jaintia languages. Those who stay in Dawki proper could even speak other Indian Language like Hindi and Bengali.

H.Bareh maintained that " there is a good deal of dialectic variations in Khasi. The dialect on the whole are mutually intelligible, some dialects located on the southern border such as Amwi , as well as Nongstoin and Lyngngam on the West and Bhoi Jirang on the north, are more different from others in respect of morphology, phonology as in syntax and grammar. They are mutually intelligible with others. In fact, Amwi and Bhoi Jirang dialects are believed to be the intermediary between Khasi and Mon Khmer. They probably come from the purest form … Amwi has been ascribed to be the most typical dialect. Compared with the other dialects, Amwi appears to be the most rudimentary and is not , as a rule, intelligible to the neighboring peoples using dialects, such as Jowai or Khadar Blang…. Compared with the other dialects. Amwi may be said to be more an agglutinative form which could preserve intact its Monkhmer background. The Amwis, however, are acquainted with their neighbouring commercial dialects and could pick them up for communication.6

How far it may be true of what David Roy, a Khasi writer, wrote is yet to be proved when he maintained that the origin of Khasi literature is from the war Umwi (Amwi) dialect.7 H.Bareh has also suggeated that " the Amwi dialect of Khasi group is more Mon Khmer than Khasi in construction… and it constitutes a proper link between Khasi and Mon Khmer ……… Is it not possible, he asked, to assign the true parentage of Khasi to Amwi itself? This suggestion finds support when we remember that the first Khasi tribes settled in the eastern parts of Jaintia Hills".8 Many Khasi writers have tried their best to compare words or sentences found in different dialects spoken in Khasi and Jaintia villages. But as far as the war dialects are concerned, such words or sentences could not be written correctly as they should be, because of the lack of alphabets both in English and Khasi equivalent to the correct words or pronunciation used by the people themselves.

Traditional Polity and Administration:

The general pattern of pre-British administration in the war area was the same as prevailed elsewhere in the whole of Jaintia Hills. During that period of time, a three-tier system of administration existed among the Jaintias. Thus we found the office of Syiem at the top of the administration, at the Zonal level below the Syiem, there were Dolois/Patros and at the lowest rung of the ladder of administration, that is, at the village level, there existed the office of the Village headman (Waheh Chnong/ Rongbah Chnong).

After the British annexed the plain areas of the Jaintia Kingdom, they also took over administration of the hills section of the kingdom on the 15th of March 1835 and declared it as the "British Area". The whole of Jaintia Hills being a British Area came under the direct control and administration of the British. The British abolished the office of the Syiem, which also lapsed in 1835. However, the British retained the offices of Doloi/Pator and village headman and allowed them to continue in their day-to-day administration over the area. The same offices continue even today.

The war area was also under the jurisdiction of the Jaintia kingdom. As mentioned earlier, the two Elakas- Darang and Nongtalang have their own Dolois and each village has its own village headman. These offices continue to function even today aiding and assisting the District administration as well as the Jaintia Hills Autonomous District Council (JHADC). In general , the powers and functions of the Dolois in the War area were and are still the same as prevailed among other Elakas of Jaintia Hills. Of course, there are variations and differences here and there; for example, the present Dolois do not perform any religious functions and also own no markets or Rek lands as do by certain Dolois in other Elakas of Jaintia.

Earlier contact with the outside world:

Before the coming of the British, the whole Jaintia Hills formed a single kingdom (Syiemship). Syiemship was again split into twelve Elakas for administrative convenience. Each Elaka was and is still put under the administration of a Doloi/Pator. The Jaintia kingdom extended to both and the Sylhet plains in the south through conquest. It was this latter part which also included in the war area of the kingdom in its southern part along with the Jaintia paraganas.

The Jaintias were one of the first hill tribes in North-East India to have come into contact with the British (east India Company) in 1765 following the grant of the Diwani of Bengal. Thus earlier contact with the British was also possible because as stated above, the Jaintia kingdom extended to the plains of Sylhet. The two Elakas mentioned earlier were also under the jurisdiction of the Jaintia kingdom. Thus during the British and in the pre-partition period, the people of the War area have direct contact with the people in the plains of Sylhet. This, therefore, helped them to come into closer contact with the outside world especially in terms of trade and commerce and with people other than their own communities.

Trade relations:

On the southern frontier of Jaintia Hills, the people of the area had frequent contact with the people of Sylhet plains especially in their trade relations at a very earlier period of time. The period may even be traced back to the time of the Mughal rule over Sylhet and during the British rule when the latter stepped into the former's shoes. Although occasional raids and skirmishes in the frontier took place between the fierce tribes of the hills and the plainsmen, business transactions between them were however carried out.

Among the many tribal people of North-east India, the Khasis and Jaintias are highly trade-minded people. In Jaintia Hills, the area occupied by the War Jaintias was actually exposed to the plains of Sylhet. Jaintiapur, the then capital of Jaintia Kingdoms was not far from the War border area of Jaintia Hills. Thus, Jaintiapur besides being the capital of the kingdom, also served as an entrepot between the people of the hills and the plains which led to an extensive commercial relationships between the two areas. To quote Robinson, "A considerable trade in clothes, is carried on between the plains and hills and Jaintiapur, the capital, is the great entrepot in which all commercial dealings are transacted between the inhabitants of the plains and those of the hills. The articles specified, are bartered for salt,tobacco,rice and goats." 9

An earlier contact in terms of trade and commerce and other relations was also possible because of the availability of the road and river communication networks between the War areas in the hills and Sylhet in the plains.10 There has been road connection between Shillong and Sylhet since 1933 when this road was declared open by His Excellency, Sir Michael Keane, the Governor of Assam at that time. This road which passed through Dawki, the main market center in the War border area, connected Sylhet, the center of the Surma Valley at that time, with Shillong, the then capital of the Assam province ( later the State of Assam) and Gauhati ( Guwahati), the key city of the Brahmaputra valley. After this road was completed, it took only five hours pleasant motor between Shillong and Sylhet through Dawki. Earlier it took thirty five hours weary journey by road and rail between Shillong and Sylhet 11. The road by linking Sylhet-Shillong-Guwahati thus became the lifeline of communication for trade and commerce. The economic condition of the War Jaintias in particular was much stable and improved during this period due to the facilities that were available at their disposal.

Sylhet had a great demand for the produce of the War Jaintias like areca-nut,betel-leaf and oranges,besides other horticultural crops. The War Jaintia border belt is also famous for the production of the various horticultural and cash crops especially areca-nut,betel-leaf and oranges. Oranges were exported to Sylhet and from there to Chatak and Calcutta via the river ports of the then East Bengal.

The presence of various means of communications, opened up to the War Jaintias in particular, a better avenue and an encouraging opportunity to venture for more extensive trade and commerce even outside their own territory. The crops produced by the people from the hills were transported in a faster rate to the plains coupled with a tremendous demand for the same. Thus their produce found suitable markets in the southern plains. It is important to note that before partition took place, there was free trade and commerce between the Hills and the plains, and on this basis, the people of the War Jaintia area lived a somewhat prosperous life. Hills-plains trade was therefore at the peak of its flourishing height before and during the British period. Deterioration of trade especially in the border areas started soon after 1947; the reason being the closure and sealing off of the border hats which led to the dwindling down of the border trade. 12

Partition and Post-colonial trends:

The transfer of power in 1947 and the change of administration thereafter, brought a tremendous upset in the economic life of Jaintia people in general and War Jaintias in particular. Their relations in trade and commerce with their counterparts in the plains of Sylhet and a setback in exchange of goods and essential commodities. There was also a setback in the marketing facilities after the partition of the subcontinent into India and Pakistan and later on Bangladesh in 1971. One writer was of the opinion that the ultimate halt of the entire trade between Khasi-Jaintia Hills and Sylhet district was due to the short-sighted policy of the erstwhile government of Pakistan, the policy which was to starve the neighboring areas of India, their avowed enemies, of their normal and legitimate facilities. 13 There was therefore a tremendous after-effect on the economic life of the people living across the border due to the closure of the border trade and commerce immediately after 1947. Marketing facilities from both sides of the border were stopped and economic activities came to a standstill. The worst sufferers were those people of the Sylhet district and war Jaintias. They were so much dependent on each other and the border hats that they did not know what else to do with their produce after partition due to the total dislocation of trade and commerce.

At a particular time, an agreement was arrived at between the Government of India and Pakistan to free the people from both sides of the border from the kind of suffocation they suffered due to dislocation of trade and commerce after the partition. According to this agreement, certain commodities were allowed to be exported to the then East Pakistan by the people of Meghalaya. These items were candles, Indian ware, earthen ware, turmeric, vegetables and fruits of local produce, limestone, ginger, spices, hardwood, betel-leaves, pots, fuel, thatching grass, bamboos, stones, boulders and shingles.13 But unfortunately, this agreement was purely temporary and a short lived one. It did not bring any relief to the affected people of both the areas. The prospects of the once flourishing trade were therefore dimmed as a result of the 1947 partition, resulting in further border insecurities. The only alternative for the war Jaintias is to find out markets in the uplands. But this is very difficult as most of the orchards and fruit plantations are situated in the areas of deep precipices and foothills. Direct communication with the market centers in the uplands is almost an impossible task. Due to this difficulty and the lack of other facilities, the local produce such as fruits and other perishable goods worth lakhs of rupees are left to rot in the plantations. The trade of betel-nuts,betel-leaves and tez leaves which usually exceed the volume of income yielded by potato is then limited both in production and circulation. 14

There was an air of expectation for things to improve better especially in terms of trade and commerce between India and Bangladesh after the latter was liberated in 1971. The people of Jaintia Hills especially those inhabiting the border area with Bangladesh eagerly expected that better relationship, at least in trade, would prevail between the two countries and this would lead to the reopening of the border hats. There was no doubt an attempt between the two governments to channelise the much needed trade between the two neighbouring areas and allow them to exchange their normal necessities through official channels,but this was shortlived and did not take of as expected. Therefore,once again it belied the hope,aspirations and expectations of the people when the whole border was again sealed off and markets across the border were closed down for any free trade beyond their own borders. The economic prospects of the people came to a near standstill.

However, the re-opening of a few border hats for a brief period between December 1970 and March 1971 seemed to suggest the fact that the people living in both sides of the international border shared the same anxieties and sufferings arising out of the closure of the markets. Thus, after a prolonged negotiation up to the quarter ending March 1971, a few border hats were declared open for transaction in listed articles only. Before the other developments ensured, the maintenance of relations was upset by the Bangladesh affairs bringing with it influx of refugees into the State of Meghalaya. 15 This state of affairs brought immense suffering on the War Jaintias. They suffered a great deal of Hardship. The whole economic life and activities of the people were completely disturbed to say, at least. The present situation of opening up the border trade especially that of coal between Meghalaya and Bangladesh repeats itself of the old historical development that took place earlier.


Much have been discussed about the change in the economic condition of the people in the transitional period. Beside this, there has also been a change in the lifestyle and attitude of the people towards many things. A transition has taken place. Modernization has penetrated into the interior villages, mainly those situated along the roadside. Shillong and Jowai are no longer felt as distant places. At present, it is only a matter of two to three hours journey by bus and car and one can return back home the same day. Young people who frequently visited the urban centers have been much influenced by the modern ways of life.


  1. Gurdon, P.R.T.: The Khasis, Cosmo Publishers,Delhi (Reprinted) 1967,p.15
  2. Bareh,Hamlet:The History and Culture of the Khasi People, Shillong 1967, p.15
  3. Pakem, B. : "The changing power Structure of the Political Institution of Jaintia Chieftainship." The journal of NEICSSR, Vol.I No.1 April 1977, Shillong , p.1.
  4. Rodborne, Rev. T. : U.Khasi, Shillong 1976, pp,III-112
  5. Lyngdoh,R.S.: Ka History Ka Thoh Ka Tar, Bynta I, Shillong 1979, p.5
  6. Bareh, hamlet.: The Language and Literature of Meghalaya, II A.S, Simla 1977,pp.41-42
  7. Roy,David : "Ka Jaka u Khasi Ha Ka Pyrthei" (quated by R.S.Lyngdoh)op.cit.p.6
  8. Bareh,Hamlet.: op.cit p.-22
  9. Robinson, William : A descriptive Account of Assam, Delhi (Reprint) 1975, p. 408
  10. Gassah, L.S. : "Trade Routes and trade Relations between Jaintia Hills and Sylhet District in the pre-independence period," NEIHA Proceedings,1988; see also L.S. Gassah: " Pattern of Economic Change in Jaintia Society", NEHU journal of Social Sciences and Humanities, 1990
  11. Shullai, L.G. : " Umtyngngar Jaintiapur Road", Ropeca, Shillong, Aug. 27,1980 (Quoted by Mr Shullai from the Address by Sir Michael Keane on 22.3.1933, the opening day of the road)
  12. Gassah,L.S. : " Effects of partition on the Border Marketing of Jaintia Hills", in Marketing in NEL, (Ed) J.B. Ganguli,1984; for further details see also L.S.Gassah; " Impact of partition and after on the Economic Life of the Border Areas of Jaintia Hills Dist; Journal of Social Research, Vol. 10. No. 1
  13. Choudhury, A.R. : " Sylhet and its Trade with Highland Neighbours", A Souvenir ( Frontier Chamber of Commerce) Shillong 1972, p. 41
  14. Provincial Meghalaya : Legislative Assembly Debates, Vol.II No. I, 22 Sept. 1970, p.52
  15. Bareh, hamlet : op.cit.p.467