(Paper presented by H.H.Mohrmen at the Seminar on Folklore and Oral tradition organized by the Sahitya Academi on the 24th and 25th April 2006 at Chutwakhu, Jowai.)
War Jaintia are the people living in the southern slopes of the state in the border with Bangladesh. Perhaps it is not wrong to say that “The War” (as they are commonly known in the District) is a community which still follows traditional customs which is unique to this particular group of people only. Choh-ñia is one such tradition that I seldom encounter elsewhere in Khasi Jaiñtia other than in the war Jaintia area. Even among the war, only those who live in certain areas follow this tradition. As far as I know, apart from the inhabitants of Nongtalang Village, others who are still practicing this customs are inhabitants of Lamin its neighbouring village and to some extend those who are residing also arround Khonglah and Nongbareh area. The reason for discontinuance of practicing the heritage is due to the fact that apart from the areas mentioned earlier, almost the whole War Jaintia region the population in other villages are predominantly Christians, resulting in the natural decrease of the indigenous religion. The other hypothesis could well be due to the fact that the villages which practice chhoh-ñia falls under the jurisdiction of the Daloi Nongtalang and as we all know that in the context of Jaintia Hills, traditions differ from one elaka to another or from one region to another. The case in point are the festivals known as Pastieh celebrated by the people of Elaka Shangpung and Raliang, is not celebrated by the people in Jowai or Tuber etc. which celebrates Behdieñkhlam instead. On the other hand the War Jaiñtia celebrates Rong Kusi, Rongkhla and other festivals. The inhabitants of Padu village too practice chhoh-ñia even though Padu now falls under the jurisdiction of the Elaka of Daloi Jowai. From time immemorial Padu was part and parcel of the elaka Nongtalang. One may question how then Padu became part of Elaka Jowai. Perhaps it is not out of place to mention here that Padu ‘annexed!’ itself to Elaka Jowai after the famous battle known as the “Thmi thhat khier.” We have a near accurate translation in Pnar (Ka Thma jed kper) or the battle that torn or broke the fence. As legend would have it; the famous battle was between the people of Nongtalang village and those of Padu, which ultimately led to the two to part ways forever. However the Padus keep chhoh-ñia and other Nongtalang tradition in tact as a token of its origin.
In Nongtalang Chhoh-ñia is also known as ‘Khae-na-salon.’ To define Chhoh-ñia, it is a kind of Lamentation; because it is normally performed when death occurred in the particular family. It is also in someway similar to chanting because it was sing to its own unique and melodious tune. And in all this lamentation and chanting there is a golden thread that go through this fabric and that is story-telling.
Chhoh-ñia is normally performed on two occasions, when death occurred in the family and on the occasion when the bones of the deceased are kept under the clan’s ossuaries. In War Jaiñtia dialect we say Chhoh-ñia is performed “ti ae ah i-jia i-jot ti sni” and during the “lum shyiang” time. The other reason of performing Chhoh-ñia is also to console the family which met with the unfortunate demise of their near and dear one; in our war-jaiñtia dialect we say “tju pyndot pynsyang.”
Chhoh-ñia is enerally performed at night and at the bereaved family and it continues till the dawn of the next day. Chhoh-ñia is also continued to be performed at the cremation ground and ends till the cremation ceremony is over. It begins soon after the bereaved family perform ritual of offering food to the deceased, I think this is akin to ‘ka siang ka pha.’ In Nongtalang they call it “Tai tji, tai tjia. Kae nguuh Prai nguuh shyem.” The offerings consist of food which the deceased use to take while he or she was a toddler. In war-jaiñtia dialect we call the typical food offered as “ka hi piah bae i-ji ladia. After the ritual, rice beer called “Ra” is given to one of the “Chyrkiang” elder present in the place and his role is to “Phriah” make an announcement. The announcement is not only to call upon the people present to listen to the Chhoh-ñia but it is also the occasion when the bereaved family announce the price for the team who perform the best Chhoh-ñia. Yes, in almost every Chhoh-ñia there is a competition. One may also question what the competition is all about or what is so competitive about Chhoh-ñia? Remember Chhoh-ñia is also storytelling occasion; the stories are of wide variety which includes the many popular folk tales and legends of the Khasi Pnar were narrated in a chant. So the competition is on the ability of the team to narrate accurately the legends and folktales that was jointly decided for competition. Traditionally the Chhoh-ñia will begin with folktales of the origin of the clan that the deceased person belongs. So if the dead person belongs to a Lamin clan, then the competition will on who can narrate the most accurate story of how the “Iawbei” of the Lamin name “Iawchibidi” started from Iapngar then proceed till she reach Umngot. The competition is divided in to different parts “Lyngkhot” so it could be from Iapngar to Umngot, or from Umngot till she reach the present domicile of the family. Similarly if the demised person belongs to Lyngdoh Talang clan, the story of how their Iawbei started from their place of origin; again depend on the agreement of the piece for competition. Likewise if the competition is on the popular folktales or legends, the competition will be on the specific part that has been agreed upon. The most popular legend and stories used in a typical Chhoh-ñia are Stories of the “Iawbei” of the different clans, the generations of the Jaiñtia monarch from Li dacha to the last, the king who change his intestine and others.
The competition is not merely an entertainment, it is not to be taken lightly by either the bereaved family who hold the competition or the “Nong chhoh-ñia,” it is the duty of the “Man-ñiew” the maternal uncle of the family to hire the judge who received the highest respect in the village, and considered to be the best in the business. I was told that a particular; village seldom perform chhoh-ñia anymore because of the non-availability of judges who can really do justice to his duty. Very recently in Nongtalang judges and even Nongchhoh-ñia was hired from Nongbareh because of the non-availability of the same in the village.
Any body can take part in the Chhoh-ñia and the only criteria needed are; that one needs to have knowledge of all the popular folktales and legends and of course the talent to chant. Chhoh-ñia has it own rhythm and it is normally performed by three people – a leader and two of his colleague to “Pyndon pyntoh,” meaning to follow in chorus the last syllable of the sentence to add flavour to the chanting. For instance if the leaders conclude the first line with “tewan” then in a beat unique to itself, the two colleague will jointly repeat in chorus “tewan” after him. Obviously, Chhoh- ñia is also a store house of folktales and legends; it is perhaps one of the few oral tradition that is being performed in public.
By now I think one may say that there is nothing related to lamentation in Chhoh-ñia. Well, it does not begin unless there is bereavement in the family and of course the placing of bones in the family ossuaries. A typical Chhoh-ñia begins with “Hai re hai/ Ah bea-rom ϊae tea-wan…” which referred to the occasion- the dead of so and so which is very unfortunate. This line is referred at a regular interval, to express the regrettable incident.
Chhoh-ñia is a lamentation mixed with chanting and story telling. It is rather unfortunate to mention here that Chhoh-ñia is rather a dying art, now because very few people can chant Chhoh-ñia in Nongtalang and when I say few I mean the number dwindled to the extend that they can be count on the fingers on both your hands. If Sahitya Academy can be of any help on the matter I would be willing to extend my support and co-operation to revive this dying art including another unique tradition called “Long Hai.”
I extend my sincere gratitude to the following for being generous enough to spend their time and energy in sharing their thoughts and experiences on the subject with me, I shall always remain grateful to :-
1. Chui Lamin pohlynjar, Daloi Elaka Nongtalang,
2. Siang Bareh, Myntri Dorbar Nongtalang,
3. Khyllaw Mychiang, Nongthang juprew (tymmen thangbru)
4. Plielad Lyngdoh, Ex. Headmaster Sohkha Secondary School. (Recipient of the National Award for Teachers)
5. J.F. Pohsnem for introducing me to the elders.
6. H.L.Giri Revenue Officer (JHADC) for giving more input to the paper.
7. P. Lyngdoh for correcting the draft of this paper.