Bamboo and Cane Culture of Meghalaya

Meghalaya is the homeland of three ancient hill communities, the Khasis, the Garos and the Jaintias. She is renowned for her scenic beauty. Nature has affected man psychologically and in a metaphysical sense. This has given rise to other interesting creative trends that are characteristically symbolic, religious and pictographic. There are a number of crafts found in Meghalaya and the significant ones are cane and bamboo work, artistic weaving and wood carving. However, difficulties are many. The extraction of bamboos from the Garo Hills is a very difficult one that a man with a good experience of the work would be necessary. Transportation poses as a hindrance too. The most important of all difficulties is the necessary capital required to undertake the work. Species of Bamboo: Bamboo grows wild and some are specially grown. Meghalaya is rich in the varied kinds of bamboo. Some species include Ryngngai, a hard stem with thin leaves; Tyr-a, a kind of jungle cane; Siej Shrah, a hard stem with longer spans; Trylaw, prevalent in West Khasi Hills; Skong, a thin stem somewhat corky bark; Siej, a small smooth stem; Siej lieh, (a Koka Specie), Ry-ia-n, a thin bamboo with fewer leaves; Nam land, very small tender shoot; Japung similar to a raddan plant; Kdait (akra) and Sylli similar to Japung; Lana, a sort of broomstick, Siej iong used as chunga, and tube for carrying water; Shken, this has a smooth skin; Siej bri considered as an inferior bamboo; Rimet and Riphin, these are canes. Ryngngai, this is used for constructions; Try-a, this is used for making fences, barns and walls; Trylaw, this is very good for factorial use and paper making; Ry-ia-in, this is used as a string for moulding and wrapping; Kdait, this is good for making house walls; Bamboo shoots or Lung siej, for making condiments, is seen on the north; Straw or u Sder and Tynriew a palm growing in the south are good for thatching housing.

Bamboo and Cane crafts:

Khasi Trap (used for catching small fish found in rain water)

Cane and bamboo craft occupies an important place in the economy of the state, next only to agriculture. The artisans attend to the craft when free from agriculture. The products of bamboo and cane are mostly of two types, namely (i) articles required for day to day use and of medium quality, more suited to local requirements; and (ii) articles of finer quality, both decorative and functional, to meet the requirements and tastes of more sophisticated markets. The Khasis are known for creating attractive cane baskets and sieves. The Garos are also rich in the various forms of bamboo culture. Garo Hills are rich in bamboo and cane. Some of them include also a few species resembling Khasi bamboo and cane. As bamboo groves occupy a good quantum of forest lands, now further steps can be taken to develop other small scale or supplementary mills. There are many kinds of constructions and craft made from bamboo such as various kinds of basket and mat making. The semi-tropical climatic condition characterise the bamboo culture and influence the growth of a rich variety of bamboo. Articles such as baskets (locally known as khok or thugis) are popular. Artistic baskets known as meghum khoks are made in the Garo Hills, and are used by tribals to store valuable items including clothes. Pokerwork, in which designs are burnt into the bamboo with a red-hot pointed rod, is also done by the Garos. Khasi women in Meghalaya wear an attractive large round hat composed of a circular bamboo frame with a thick brim that is covered with cloth. The crown is worked with a pretty lattice design of cane at the edge and the top, each triangle in the pattern being tipped with a small circular blob. Mats, moorahs and Khasi umbrellas (locally known as kurup) are made in light and medium qualities.

A. (Open Weave Carrying Basket):(i) Khasi Pig Basket: The “pig basket” as the name suggests, is a basket used to transport pigs and is seen being used in the Khasi Hills. The local name is not known. Instead of using the term “pig-carrying basket”, the term “pig-packing basket” expresses the manner in which this basket is used more appropriately. Live pigs are restrained within the basket in order to facilitate easy transportation to the bazaar. After its forelegs are tied against its body, the pig is lowered into the basket with the head first so that its snout sticks out of the opening at the base of the basket and its hind portion protrudes above the rim. The pig’s hind legs are bound together and the binding at the rim holds the animal gently but firmly within the basket. The basket is shaped like a test-tube, the diameter increasing gradually towards the rim. It is woven in an open-hexagonal weave using wide but thin outer bamboo splits. The elements are fairly wide but thin- 10 mm in width and 1 mm in thickness. The diameter of the basket at the rim is 280 mm and it is 510 mm in height. This basket incorporates an extremely interesting structural concept. Elements used in the weave are taken in multiples and this work together to make the whole basket much stronger. The inner layer of the basket is completed first and the outer layer is woven tightly over this, using the formed inner layer as a mould. An interesting detail that is repeated in this basket is the manner in which stiff splits of bamboo are bent sharply without breaking the fibres in the element.

B. (Closed Weave Carrying Basket):
(i) Khoh: The khoh is a coarse, closed-weave basket used by the Khasi tribe of Meghalaya for general-purpose marketing. This basket is carried on the back by a head-strap. The rim is a circle of diameter 420 mm and the sides taper down sharply along a straight line to form a point at the base. The height of the basket is 620 mm. The warp elements in the side weave are bent sharply at the base, before continuing up the opposite side. The weft element is made from bamboo outer splits, which are half the width and thickness of the warp elements. In the weft, the outer layer of bamboo faces the outer surface of the basket. Four splints of bamboo strengthen the base. The upper edge of the rim is self-strengthened.
(ii) Khasi Fruit Basket: This basket is used for packing and transporting fruit and vegetables. It is similar in structure to the khoh. The form of this basket is like a parabolic dome. The circular rim has a diameter of 350 mm and its height is of 300 mm. Wide outer splits of bamboo are used in the warp, overlapping radially to form the base. The first few turns of the weft spiral is made from fairly thin bamboo splits. Subsequent turns use weft elements that are almost the same width as the warp, though the thickness is less. The rim is self strengthened.

C. (Shallow Carrying Baskets):
(i) Shang: The Shang is a shallow storage and shop-display basket used by the Jaintia tribe of Meghalaya and made from split bamboo. It has a square base of diagonal 240 mm and the sides spread out to a circular rim of diameter 430 mm. Its height is 240 mm. The base is woven in a twill weave in four-fold symmetry around the centre. A spiralling weft element forms the side weave that has an inverted herringbone pattern along the centre line of each side.
(ii) Khasi Shallow Basket: The Khasi basket is woven from split bamboo and the weave structure is identical to the Jaintia Shang.The difference lie in the rim-strengthening detail and the side-strengthening structure. The diagonal of the base square measures 240 mm, the diameter of the circular rim is 360 mm and its height is 230 mm. The base is strengthened by a wide, thick split of bamboo, bent to form a square band, on which the basket rests. This split is 35 mm wide and 4 mm thick and made from bamboo of fairly large wall thickness. Eight side-strengthening elements of wide bamboo splits are attached to the band, four at the corners and four at the centre of each side. These splints are shaped at both ends. The concept of reducing the width or thickness to achieve flexibility in an otherwise rigid bamboo member is an interesting structural feature of Khasi and Jaintia products.

D. (Small Storage Baskets):
(i) Small Khasi Storage Baskets: The Khasi tribe of Meghalaya use small double-walled baskets to store valuables and other small articles. These articles have a square base with the sides moving up vertically and ending in a circular rim. The inner layer is woven with wide bamboo inner splits. While the outer layer uses thin bamboo outer splits. In both layers, the warp elements interlace to form the square base. Some of these baskets are left open at the top, while others are provided are provided with lids woven in the same structure as the container and hinged to the side by loops of split-cane. Here, three types of these baskets are discussed.

  1. The first one has a lid and a base square of diagonal 130 mm and is 175 mm in height. The diameter of the circular rim of the container part measures 115 mm.
  2. The second type of basket is similar, has a square base of diagonal 125 mm, a rim diameter of 115 mm, and is 175 mm in height. This product does not have a lid but is provided with loop of split-cane at the rim. This is done so that it can be suspended, either from the waist while being carried or from a hook when stored.
  3. The third basket is wide but shallow. The diagonal of the base square measures 220 mm, the rim diameter is 210 mm and its height is 120 mm. The basket is provided with legs made from spike-shaped splints of bamboo, using a part of the node at the lower end of the leg. Four of these are inserted into the side weave at the corners of the basket.

E. (Coiled Cane Containers):
(i) Coiled Cane Containers from Shillong: This container is in the form of a cylinder of diameter 205 mm and its height is 145mm. It has a lid of the same diameter, which has a rim that overlaps part of the container side at the top. At this part, the coiled rim has a smaller diameter than the sides, with a band being slightly recessed. This part receives the rim of the lid. Both the container and the lid are made from coiled whole-cane elements. A flat circular base is first formed by a single whole-cane element coiled as a tight spiral. At the centre of the base, this element is thinned down so that it can be bent easily into the small spiral. Split-cane binding holds consecutive turns of the spiralling whole-cane element, being wrapped around the pair as they move around the container. This construction results in a very rigid container and the texture created on the surface by the binding tends to form a pattern of inclined lines. These containers are sold in sets of three or four nesting one inside the other.

F. (Large Storage Baskets):
(i) Khasi Storage Baskets: The Khasi storage basket is a rectangular box with a lid and is woven from split bamboo. It is used by the Khasis to store clothes and valuables. The basket has a rectangular base, which is about 510 mm by 300 mm, and its height is about 320 mm including the lid. Both the container and lid have an identical double-walled structure. The lid overlaps the mouth of the container. The loops of split cane are bound to the rim of the lid and these loops act as hinges linking the lid to the container. A hasp made of split cane which is wrapped around by split-cane binding is attached to the rim of the lid in front of the basket and a staple of a similar construction is attached to the side wall of the container in a corresponding position. Four legs shaped like spikes and made from lengths of whole bamboo are introduced into the side weave to extend below the base at the corners of the basket. These keep the woven base away from the ground.

RAIN SHIELDS AND HEADGEAR: Knup: This is a Khasi rain shield used in Meghalaya. The knup is shaped like a hollow, shallow cone, with half the circumference of the base greatly elongated to terminate at a point. The rim of the rain shield therefore, looks like an inverted tear drop. When it is worn, the curved surface of the cone rests on the head, the apex protrudes behind the head and the elongated surface completely covers the back. The knup is made in two layers, each woven in an open-hexagonal weave. Two layers of palm leaves are sandwiched between the woven layers to provide the water-proofing. After both the layers are complete, dried palm leaves called shlew are tacked with bamboo pins onto each layer independently so that, when the layers are fitted together, two layers of leaves are sandwiched between them. All the layers are held together with bamboo pins, while the edges are sewn together with a fine split of bamboo.

(i) Winnowing Fan from Shillong: The winnowing fan from Shillong is made using the simple basket-forming technique. The warp elements made from outer split are parallel to the axis of the fan. These are bent vertically at the back of the fan to provide the required depth. The fan is woven in the five-up-two down structure except at the vertical surface where it becomes a closer twill weave. The edges of the mat are sandwiched between a thick splint of bamboo on the outside and on the inside a thinner split. The thin split is folded over the front edge on both sides and thus ending on the side beside the thick splint. The front edge is sandwiched between a folded split of bamboo beginning and ending underneath the mat. The split is looped over the rim at the corners, holding it in position.
(ii) Mud Shovel from Shillong, Meghalaya: A very simple and strong construction is used to make a shovel for mud and building materials. Concentric rectangular frames are formed by bending three outer bamboo splints that are placed closed to each other, with the ends extending beyond the frame at one corner. A mat is woven within this frame with outer splints of bamboo in an open-twill weave. These ends of the mat splints are twisted and folded over the rim and held between the rim splints. Once the mat is ready, the shorter edge is folded in half so that the two corners meet. The splints extending from one of these corners are folded into the rim of the other side. The splints extending from the shorter side are bent to lie along the joined edge, to end underneath in the weave of the mat. A twisted bamboo rope holds the edges of the joint together at one place. The mad shovel is strong because fairly thick splints are used in the rim and splints cut from the outer layers of bamboo are used in the mat.


Shield made of bamboo splints, Garo Hills, Meghalaya

(i) Khasi Bamboo Comb:
The Khasi comb is intricately assembled from several splits of bamboo. A number of fine teeth are shaped from individual bamboo splits. These teeth are held sandwiched between a pair of thick splits and this assembly is bound firmly with cotton thread. The thread passes between the teeth to create the required gap. The two teeth at either end of the comb are specially shaped from thick bamboo split to protect the fine teeth between them. The thread binding is coated with a thick sticky resin to permanently set the teeth in place. The teeth elements extend below the sandwiching binding and these are covered by two wide splits of bamboo to form the handle. Beyond these, a single whole culm length of a very small diameter is used to finish the upper edge of the handle. The entire assembly is now bound with cotton thread to complete the product. The resultant product is an extremely neat construction, intricately designed yet sturdy and functional. One can see in another variation made by the Khasis, the handle carved from soft wood and the bamboo teeth assembly bound with thread is set into a groove at the bottom of the handle with the use of resin.
(ii) Khasi Bamboo Pipes: The Khasi pipe is a simple construction incorporating a bamboo bowl connected to a bamboo pipe stem made from a length of branch. The surfaces of both bowl and stem are decorated with motifs scored on the outer skin by a sharp instrument. A bamboo cigarette holder has been evolved incorporating similar motifs on the surface. The holder has two parts connected along a common axis. The part that receives the cigarette is larger in diameter than the stem. Recent versions of this pipe incorporate a ceramic lining on the inner surface of the bowl after the hollow of the bowl has been sufficiently enlarged.


Bazaar Market Khoh Khasi Basket Knup Khasi Rain Shield Moorahs       Low Stool Storage Basket Winnow        Fan Winnowing   Tossing (grain) to free it from chaff; separate chaff thus