Meghalaya’s Kwai:A Symbol of Hospitality in the East Khasi Hills of India!
The humble Kwai made a very special appearance at my Bangalore home last week. Preciously wrapped in banana leaves, the Kwai had traveled all the way from East Khasi Hills in the North East, to the Deccan Plateau in the South. Kwai is nothing new to me, and I have my usual rendezvous with it each time I visit home, but seeing it perched on a ceramic plate atop my dining table made me nostalgic and evoked special sentiments in me. My mind immediately took off on a virtual tour of my homeland, Meghalaya – the abode of clouds. Everything associated with Kwai flashed before my mind like a continuous slideshow, and I started missing my pretty little homeland with renewed vigor. It suddenly occurred to me that Meghalaya’s Kwai was such a unique aspect of the culture of the state, and I wondered how many people knew about it.
What is Kwai?
Kwai is the combination of a neatly folded betel leaf (paan) smeared with a generous dose of lime and areca nut. Chewing paan is commonplace in India. But in the state of Meghalaya, Kwai is an integral part of the traditional tribal culture. Kwai brings people together regardless of their backgrounds and is considered to be an equalizer between the rich and the poor. People irrespective of their age and gender are addicted to it. Chewing paan by young children may be frowned upon in other parts of India, but not in Meghalaya, where even small students can be spotted chewing Kwai. Associated with red lips and a constant chomp, Kwai is of particular significance to the tribal etiquette in Meghalaya.
The Compassionate Beginnings of the Kwai Tradition
For all the tribes of Meghalaya, Khasi, Jaintia or Garo, t is fairly common to greet each other by offering Kwai, which in turn indicates extending a hand of friendship. Refusing Kwai is considered an ill etiquette – a point that travelers should note before meeting a tribal family.
Kwai is a boon during the cold winter months, as it gives an instant boost to the body temperature. The humble Kwai can be used for many other miscellaneous purposes as well. The story of the beginning of the Kwai tradition as soul stirring as the tradition itself.
According to Khasi folklore, a rich man and a poor man were childhood friends. They grew up and got separated. Life happened, and they lives their own lives in different villages. When the poor man would visit his native though, he would spend time with his rich friend of yonder years.
Back in his own village, the poor man’s neighbors didn’t believe that he had a rich friend. So, he invited his friend over to prove a point. The poor couple, however, ran out of food to offer to their visitor. None of the villagers chipped in. Shamed and heart-broken, the could committed suicide.
That night a thief entered their house, saw the bodies, and in fear of being apprehended – killed himself as well. The rich man, pained at the cause of the death of his friend, prayed for a way for the poorest man to offer something to visiting guests, thereby keeping his honor unaffected. From this was born the humble Kwai, making the lives of Khasi, Jaintia, and Garo tribes incomplete without it. The areca nut signifies the rich man; lime paste and betel leaf–the husband and wife, and the place between the lower lip and gum where Khasi women keep the tobacco is the thief’s hiding place.**
How Kwai found its way to my home
I missed mentioning how the Kwai landed into my second home, Bangalore. A Khasi friend was staying with me while on a visit to the garden city. Addicted to Kwai, it was like her lifeline. It baffled me to see that she had gotten 200 rolls of Kwai for four days, which amounts to 50 per day. The sheer number of Kwai neatly stacked in my refrigerator amused and astonished me. It got me thinking about the importance of Kwai in her life, and I decided to write about it.
But, the one thing that I am most proud of is, despite its obsession, people in Meghalaya manage to keep the red stains of the Kwai on their ever smiling lips. The land is untainted by smear marks, characteristic of the Paan chewing habit. This is probably because of the lack of tobacco in the Kwai – a detail that makes this hill tradition a safer addiction than its counterpart.
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- Meghalaya’s Kwai and its unique story of hospitality - June 2, 2017
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