Sunday, December 5, 2010

Behdieñkhlam The Greatest Festival of the Pnar

Behdieñkhlam is the most important and the biggest festival of the Pnars of Jaintia hills District. It is the festival paying obeisance to Almighty God the Creator to bless people with good health and prosperity. The term beh-dieñ-khlam comprises of three words in a Pnar parlance, ‘Beh’ literarily means to chase or to rid away and ‘dieñ’ means wood or log and ‘khlam’ means plague, epidemic or pestilence. Behdieñkhlam literarily means the festival to rid away plague.
The three days and four nights Annual Behdienkhlam festival of the Pnars always starts with the tradition of offering food to the ancestors. In the morning families would visit the market to purchase the best and the finest of fruits and foods available in the market. Come afternoon, families will be busy preparing offering from all sorts of foods bought from the market to offer to their ancestor in a tradition call “Ka Siang ka Pha” or “Ka Siang ka Phur.”
Of course preparation for the annual Behdieñkhlam festival was started many months back but the immediate rituals and sacrifices that precedes the designated days of the festival are the ‘kñia khang’ performed on Muchai; the first day after the market day of the week and ‘kñia pyrthad’ sacrifice to the thunder god on the Mulong the seventh day of the same week. But the festival officially begins on the sixth day (Pynsiñ) of the eight days a week traditional calendar of the Jaintias. The feast of offering food to the death is a mark of veneration and gratitude to the ancestors the forbearer of the clan and the tradition.
In the Khasi Pnar concept of the afterlife, departed souls reside with the Creator and eat bettlenuts in the courtyard of his abode. The spirit of the death (ki syngngia ki saret) every year, decent down to the Earth to partake in the feast provided by the descendant still alive in the world to propitiate the departed souls. Ka Siang ka pha is celebrated by every clan except when there is sickness in the family or if death has just occurred in the family. The family which had just met with bereavement, do not perform the offerings because the annual ‘ka siang ka pha’ has already been offered to the departed souls as part of the last rite of a person. It begins with family informing the children of their maternal uncles or their brothers (khon kha) about the preparation for the offerings to the ancestors. The ‘khon kha’ offers money (pyn-nam) as a token of respect, love and affection to their paternal family. In the Khasi Pnar clan system, the dead body of the deceased is carried to one’s clan’s ancestral house and all the funeral rites are perform in his maternal family home and even the charred bones of the deceased are placed in the clan’s repository stone (mootyllein). This also has a connection with one of the cardinal principle of the Khasi-Pnar known as (ka tip kur tip kha,) respect for one’s family of both mother’s and father’s side.
Since the offering is for all the departed souls, foods of every kind are placed in brass plates and must be in odd numbers 5, 7 or 9. Care is also being taken that favourite food of the deceased is placed as part of the offering which could be anything from fruits, cigarette or even alcohol. The next part of the rites is the role of the maternal uncle to invoke the spirits to partake the offering. The maternal uncle will also pray to the departed souls to bless their descendant with the good health, prosperity and progress in all walks of life. After the Maternal uncle’s invocation, the whole family gathered for the rites, stayed in silence for sometimes in a symbolic moment to allow the ancestors spirit to partake the offerings. Then the offering was shared among the family members.
Only a clean female member of the family is allowed to prepare the offerings, women who is in her menstrual cycle is not allowed to do the preparation. Not all clan perform their offering to the death on Pynsiñ, there are also clan which perform ‘ka siang ka pha’ on Muchai the last day of the festival.
The significance of the ritual is the fact that even though the ancestors had departed from the clan many years ago, their love, respect and reverence for the deaths is still alive. Behdieñkhlam is appropriately starts with the offerings to the ancestors, because every tribal community has profound respect for their ancestors.

In the Pnar weekly calendar “Mulong,” is the day before the market day “musiang,” the market day in Jowai is also the local pay day and Mulong is also the second day of the fest. By the end of the day all the Dieñkkhlam, all 9 round neatly carved logs were kept at their allotted place in the Iawmusiang area. The 9 Dieñkkhlams cut from huge trees were prepared and carried to their respective place by the 7 localities of the town namely Tpep-pale, Dulong, Panaliar, Lumiongkjam, Iongpiah Loompyrdi Iongpiah, Loomkyrwiang and Chilliang Raij being the khon Raij was by tradition given the responsible to prepare and bring two round log called ‘Khnong blai’ and ‘Symbood khnong’. The important aspect of this day is that male members of the Niamtre marches in a dancing procession accompanied by traditional drums and flutes to bring the dieñkhlam from the different woods where the many dieñkhlam were prepared to the town. Early in the morning families are busy preparing ja-sngi (lunch) for every male member of the society to join the community to bring the dieñkhlam.
The third day of the holy week is “Musiang” it is also the last day of the week and on this particular day all the Dieñkhlam and the Khnong are carried from the heart of Jowai town to the respective localities. Apart from the 7 dieñkhlam and two khnong; hundreds of 15 to 19 feet trees called ‘ki Dieñkhlam khian (small Dieñkhlam) were cut by the followers of the Niamtre. 2 or 3 of these tiny Dieñkhlam were kept in the frontage or patio of every house of the followers of the Niamtre. The tiny Dieñkhlam are used when the community dancer come to bless the house with proper rituals and use it to beat the rooftop of the house symbolizing ridding away the plaque and evil spirit from the house and pray to the almighty God to bless the family. Behdieñkhlam will be incomplete without the ‘dieñ.’ KC Rymbai Daloi of Elaka Jowai also expressed his concern about the consequences from the large-scale cutting of trees during Behdieñkhlam. By tradition every tree cut during Behdieñkhlam was done so with proper prayer and asking for exoneration from the Mother Nature (Bei ram-aw) and the Ryngkaw the basa, the gods; the guardian angels of the area.
Muchai is the last day of the Behdieñkhlam festival of the Jowai Raij and it is also the first day of the eight days a week traditional calendar.
It is rather a hectic day for the religious heads of the Niamtre, the day started at the wee hour of the morning with the tradition of ‘kyntiñ khnong’ at the Priestess official house. The programme was followed by the Ka Bam tyngkong led by the Daloi at the clan-house of the first four settlers of Jowai town. But the main part of the festival was the coming together of all the khon (children) ka Niamtre at the sacred Aitnar, a pond in which the last significant part of the festival was performed. The dance at Aitnar was that of the people who finds joy on the arrival of U Tre Kirod (God) with the celebration of Behdieñkhlam. It also symbolizes the oneness of the people and everyone joyfully joins without any distinction. The ‘ia knieh khnong’ traditions where men compete to set foot on the ‘khnong’ symbolize cleansing of the souls and blessing for good health. 
The climax of the day is the arrival of the colourful Rots brought by the many dongs of the Jowai town to be displayed at the Aitnar, and all the beautiful Rots are then rid-off as part of the offering. 
Dat Lawakor, the last part of the Behdieñkhlam is about the farming community in the Jowai Raij, asking God to indicate which of the two valleys around Jowai, the Pynthor neiñ or the Pynthor wah will yield a good harvest this year. Interestingly, the Pnar sense of direction is only of the East and the West and they have no words for north and south but simply call the two direction as ‘wah’ and ‘neiñ’ which literarily mean up and down. 
It is a football played using a wooden ball with no goals. The only rule of the game is that the team which can carry the ball to the designated end wins and the particular direction will reap better harvest that year. So if the team on the upper side of the road wins, the indication is that the Pynthor neiñ will reap a better harvest and if the team from the lower side wins, the valleys in the Pynthor wah will obtain a better harvest.
Dat Lawakor is the last public event of every Behdieñkhlam, although the Daloi, the Lyngdoh and the other religious dignitaries still have a last ritual to finish at the Lyngdoh’s residence called ‘pynlait sarang.’ Finally the Daloi and the other religious head can now go and sleep in their respective wife’s house. To maintain the sanctity of the religious rites, self-purification by way of abstinence from sleeping with one’s partners is observe by religious head. The religious are even prohibits from visiting their respective wives residence throughout the festival.
There altogether 6 Behdieñkhlam festival celebrated by the Pnars throughout the year, the first behdieñkhlam was celebrated by the raij Chyrmang, then followed by the raij Jowai, Tuber, Ialong, Mukhla and raij Muthlong.

Monday, November 29, 2010

How face book help save the caves of Nongkhlieh

It was the never-ending complaint made by a section of the villagers of the Nongkhlieh elaka (province) against the daloi (traditional chieftain) and the Jaintia Hills District Council (JHADC) which did not get the attention it deserves that made some of the young people in Jowai to rise up to the occasion. I think it was my face book posting of the Luray caves at the Rappahannock County in the USA on my face book account on November 3, which prompted Arwat and Sajeki to start a face book account they named as ‘save the caves and water of Jaintia hills.’ The day before the duo also visited Nongkhlieh to join the villagers in their protest against the plan of JHADC official to survey and mapped the proposed site of the 1.1 million ton per annum cement project of the Lafarge Company. The plan is to survey and mapped the land to enable the District Council to declare the land as non-forested and non-agricultural land thereby base on the recommendation; the council will allow the plant to go ahead. Seeing the plight of the poor villagers and their determination to protect their precious land motivated the two young friends to do something to help the people. From all the available means of protest against injustice- the strikes, the rally, hunger strike, bandhs etc, who would think that any tools in the internet, not to mention a much recent additional internet tool call the face book can be of any help to protect the caves on the Nongkhlieh ridge?
But it did. Now I now understand why no one come up with a plan to make a movie on the life of Tim Berners-Lee and his team at the CERN who started the (World Wide Web) internet, nor has anybody come up with an idea to make a movie on Bill Gates and Steve Jobs but instead a movie is now in the theatre on Mark Zuckerberg the co-creator of the Social Networking site called the Face Book. The moment the page went online, we started inviting friends to the page, and the numbers of friends of the ‘save the cave and water of Jaintia’ grow horizontally. I had the opportunity to camp and joined the Meghalaya Adventure Association (MAA) in one of their caving expedition at Nongkhlieh and wrote two stories about it. I immediately link to the face book page the old articles related to the caves in Nongklieh that I had posted on my blog. The tech savvy duo who created the page on November 5, keep on posting photographs and write-ups related to the caves in Nongkhlieh. In no time the number of friends on this face book page is 444, this is by no mean small feat. But the important thing about the face book is not the nummbers of people joining the face book group, but the postings and the comments and the ideas they shared. Sometimes posting and comments were just polite gesture to show one’s like and support for the cause by clicking on the like button, while other were like debates between members to throw more light on the pertinent issue. Yes, they would not have called it a social networking site for nothing. I was struck by the view posted by Patrick Sawian, who made us realize that it is not going to be an easy task to fight against a multinational like Lafarge whose clout and influence extends from the corridor of power in Delhi to a nondescript hamlet like Shnongrim and anything in between.
Looking back, I realized that I started to involve with efforts to protect this ridge since the winter of 2009, when the Meghalaya Pollution Control Board advertised to conduct a hearing on the Cosmos cement company’s application to set up plan in the area. A day before the schedule hearing I was given the honour to address the dorbar elaka and the decision of the dorbar was unanimous to oppose the the proposed plan. But on the day of the hearing, people from elaka Sutnga came in groups and claimed that the proposed project site does not fall in the elaka Nongkhlieh but instead falls under the elaka Sutnga. On January 7, 2009, I immediately send a protest to the Chief Minister of Meghalaya, the Governor of the state and other concern authorities. I know my protest will not stand a chance against a company co-owned by a (now) power politician of the state, but deep inside me, I belief it is not going to be a futile effort either. I don’t know what happened to Cosmos cement now, but then Lafarge came to the scene; the Daloi who was with us against the Cosmos is now on the other side of the fence. Members of the Synjuk Ki Rangbah Shnong Elaka Nongkhlieh came to meet me every now and then to seek advice and support, but we all know that we are in for a tough job ahead.
It was in times like this; that face book came to our rescue. Of the many friends I invited to the group, one is Anirban Roi, (Jaintia’s own son-in-law); Anirban read the posting and saw the photographs of the villagers protesting against the JHADC move. A journalist who had worked in the state for so long; Anirban understand the situation we are in and he immediately supplied us the list of people we need to send our petition to. I immediately draft petition and send it to Jairam Ramesh, minister of environment and forest Government of India and all the names provided. My request to the Minister is not to issue environmental clearance for Lafarge to set up plan at Nongkhlieh; base on the following reason: That Nongkhlieh the smallest elaka in Jaintia hills comprises of only ten villages and if we allow mega cement plant to come up in the elaka; it will upset the demography of the area. It is also true that the proposed site of the plan is on the upstream of the Letein Valley, the rise bowl of the area, the cement plan will affect the livelihood of the people who solely depend on agriculture for their living. The same area is also the source of the three rivers, ka river Lynju also known as Lukha, river Kupli and Letein. Nongkhlieh is also adjacent to the Saipung reserve forest and Narpuh Block 2 Reserve forest, which the government has proposed to convert to Wildlife sanctuary. The Kut (fort) Sutiang and the Sutiang cave adjacent to it was once use by Kiang Nangbah the freedom fighter in his fight against the British army, the MAA caver also found broken clay pots inside the cave. But the icing on the cake is that Nongkhlieh ridge is famous for the caves. Not only that krem Liatprah (31 km long) the longest cave in Indian sub continent is in the Nongkhlieh ridge, elaka Nongkhlieh is also blessed with thousand of caves. The MAA record has it that in an area of 30 square kilometer (the approximate size of the elaka), it has surveyed and mapped 145 kilometer of cave passages, the elaka has the highest concentration of caves said Byan Kharpran Daly. Brian also informed that the uniqueness of the Nongkhlieh caves is that the cavers have documented two rare species found inside the caves and the caves are millions of years old. What follows then was that Jairam’s mail box was flooded with petition emailed to him from different quarter of the district.
Meanwhile, Arwat, Saje and another friend Russell update on the face book page any development on the issue. Any news item related to the protest was immediately put on the ‘save the caves and water of Jaintia hills’ face book page for the friends to read. Arwat told me once that it is like full time job. Based on our petition Dr. Jayanta Biswas of the National Cave Research and Protection Organisation (NCRPO) also send a petition to Jairam Ramesh with copies forwarded to national dailies. Dr. Jayanta’s petition was carried out as new item on many National dailies the Economics Times and Hindustan Times on November 16, and surprisingly the news was also carried by the Bangladesh newspaper, the Daily Star on November 21.
On November 17, the prominent NGOs of the District in show of support to the people of the Nongkhlieh elaka addressed the meeting with a huge crowd at Shnongrim. The social networking site has done wonder to the cause. Now that the Government has made public its decision not to allow Lafarge to setup plan in the area, the decision would be more meaningful if the same area is also include in the provision of ‘ecological sensitive area’ in the proposed Meghalaya Mineral policy. The matter should not end there the Tourism department and the Meghalaya Tourism Development Forum should start talking to the people in the MAA (the only expert group in the state when it comes to caves) to identify tourist friendly cave in the area and start promoting cave and nature tourism in the Nongkhlieh and Saipung area.

Sunday, November 28, 2010

Whose land is it anyway?

When it comes to mining and saving the environment; the saying better late than never appropriately describe the conundrum the state of Meghalaya is facing now. I never ever involve myself with anything relate to the government but, for first time ever; I attended the meeting on November 25, to discuss on the proposed Meghalaya Government Mineral Policy which the deputy chief minister hope that it will be government’s new year gift to the people of Meghalaya. It would have been an all landowners and mine owners’ affairs with government on the high end of the table had it not been for few young people from Jaintia hills and Garo hills representing the environment groups.
Environment group were the last people that the mine owners expect to see in a meeting like this. This become evident from exchange of words when one of the environmentalists remarked in the meeting that mining in Meghalaya is illegal. No sooner the young-man resumed his seat, a member who is a spoke person of the Khliehriat miners rose immediately and questioned whether the speaker is also a stakeholder or has he been invited to the meeting? If so which organisation did he represent? My understanding is that; from the miner representative perception, stake holders in the mining business includes the government, the mine owners and the landowner only. The mine owners seems to be of the opinion that the three sections are the only groups that has the right to speak in the meeting called by the Government to discuss on the propose Mineral Policy 2010. What we did not say is that the environmentalists represents the stakeholders who cannot represent themselves in the meeting; we speak on behalf of the birds, the animals, the plants, the fishes and yes even the most hated animal the snake. Are we trying to say that animals are not stakeholders in the environment? Are they not part of the environment? In fact these stakeholders were the first settlers of the land; they have been living on these beautiful hills much before our ancestors arrived. We also hope we speak on behalf of the future generation by trying to convince the government to protect the environment for posterity. The CEM of the KHADC also immediately reacted to the comment made by the environmentalist and lectured the young man that he need to update his knowledge on the Khasi Pnar land tenure system which the people has been practiced since time immemorial.
How ancient is the present land tenure system? By saying that the current land tenure is a system practiced by our ancestors, the question that needs to be answer is; when did our people first learn to read and write and use the term like land holding certificates and pattas? Before we use the term land holding certificates and pattas, before our ancestor can read and write, how do they own land or do they own land at all? Isn’t it true that the land tenure system we are using now is one which was introduced by the British or may be later improves by the District councils? Our ancestors have no concept of owning land, they own the land as long as they use it, and once they decided to move on to greener pasture, they leave the land behind and it become a community land again. They take the saying (pyrthei shong basa) ‘earth our temporary shelter only’ literarily. They also occupy only as much land as they can use. This land system is still being practice in many places and one such place is the eleka Nongkhlieh.
The present land tenure system is neither ancient nor traditional; because it only creates more land grabbers whose crave for land and more land can never be satisfied. It is not because the land owner has little or no respect for the nature. It is also not traditional because the land owners and the miners have no responsible towards the traditional mother earth. It is due to the present land tenure system that in the process of mining; land owner and the miners polluted all the water bodies on the surface and even underground. They took for granted that they own the land; by that same right they also own the water in the rivers and the air around. The water in the river is not static; it flow from one place to another, so does the air which encompasses properties irrespective of who own the land. Can the land owner claim that they own the water and the air too? Our land tenure system is to be blamed for making land owners think that once they own the land they also owned the water, the air and anything around it.
Our perception of one’s affinity to the land is also funny to say the least; we think that one who does not live in the elaka or the village has no right whatsoever to utter any words and make any opinion on anything related to the elaka or the village which he is not a resident. A letter was published in the letter to the editor section of U Mawphor dated November 22, 2010, which asked me and my friend Sajeki the so call ‘ma Jowai’ to mine our own business and not to mess with matter relate to Nongkhlieh. The letter was signed by 5 people, who obviously are relatives of the dalloi, but that is not the important issue; the message behind the written words is very potent. The undertone of the letter is since we are from Jowai; we have no right to form an opinion or say anything on matter relate to Nongkhlieh. But the caves in Nongkhlieh (or anywhere else for that matter) do not belong to the people who own the land; neither does it belong to the village. The caves are our national heritage. We may own the land but how can we lay claim to the caves carved mysteriously by the nature millions of years ago.  If the caves of Nongkhlieh belong to anybody or anything, it belongs to the strange creatures which live inside the caves hundreds of meters below the ground; their survival depends on the existence of the caves.
In the meeting; matter related to the suggestion in the mineral policy that the miners should keep 3 percent of their profit under corporate social responsible fund came up for discussion. When the miners complained that the percentage suggested in the drafted policy is huge, I remind the meeting the statement in the Assembly made by the then Minister of Agriculture that agricultural activities in the Jaintia hills district of Meghalaya declined due to unscientific coal mining. The corpus funds created is not meant for starting schools, colleges and provide health care only, but it also meant to be use for reclaiming the land and water polluted by mining activities. It also meant to provide livelihood to the people who have lost their living due to mining, so 3 percent is peanuts. I introduced myself by purposely mentioned that if there is anybody who has not been invited to the meeting and enter without permission it is me, I was given to understanding that everybody is a stake holder in this issue. Arwat was right when he remarked ‘when we talk about the future, everyone is a stake holder’. Some way or the other we have been affected and we will be affected by the mining activities in the state, hence we have all the right under the sun on our side. The government should increase the percentage for the CSR base on the fact that in the coal mine areas not only water and air is being polluted, all the roads are in a deplorable condition because; the state roads are made for lesser traffic and vehicles with lighter loads. It is important that government should increase the contribution of the miner towards the CSR fund; the same can also be used for repairing the road damaged by massive coal trucks. It is high time that the government calls a spade a spade and make sure that the miners pay for damaging the environment and the roads.  
Although some would say that the proposed Meghalaya Mineral policy 2010 is too little too late especially for most of the mining areas in Jaintia hills, and this was confirmed in the statement made by non-other than a very senior bureaucrat in the mining dept of the state who in just four words said ‘Jaintia hills is gone.’ Yet policies are meant for the future, it is hope that the Mineral policy will help us avoid repeating the same mistake again.

Wednesday, November 17, 2010

The Doomsday Earthquake that never happened

This article was also published by the Shillong Times on November 17, 2010.
Every time our grandmother tells us the story of the devastated earthquake that rocked the Khasi Jaintia hills, she always ended it on less tragic and a much optimistic note by telling us the story of the image of an earthquake in Syndai (ka dur u Jumai). The story says that in the village of Syndai about 20 kilometers from Amlarem on the Indo-Bangla border, there is this representation of an earthquake. Now in the many visits that I made to Syndai and the cave, I tried to locate the image from the many sculpture in the village, but I was not able to decide for myself which among the sculpture is the earthquake’s image. The matter was made even more difficult by the very fact that perhaps Syndai is the only village in the Khasi Jaintia hills which has many sculpture including the famous Rupasor bathing ghat carved on a single rock.
The two likely candidate of the legendary image is the cone-head figurine of Lord Ganesh near the Syndai cave and the sculpture of an elephant in the Pubon River. The Khasi Pnar legend of the earthquake also says that after the great Khasi Jaintia quake, to ensure that similar quake would not trouble the people anymore; God detached all the nine fingers of the earthquake except its pointer finger. The one remaining finger was saved for the earthquake to rub lime when it eat bettle-nuts and pan-leafs. If this part of the legend is taking into consideration then the most likely candidate of the Earthquake image of Syndai is the limbless elephant image in the Pubon River, but Syndai has many more sculpture some still covered by the shrubs at Rupasor.
I must also thank whoever started the doomsday prediction for the mere fact that it has made me realize the richness of our Khasi Pnar language. From the many discussions that I had, I learned that only in the vicinity of Jowai, earthquake is known by many names. The Pnar call it ‘u Khmi,’ the Khasi of Puriang call it ‘u Khynniuh,’ and the War Jaintia call it ‘u Kynjun’ and ‘u Khmai.’ I am sure other Khasi dialect would have another name for earthquake and we still say that Khasi language is not as rich as other languages.
The interesting thing about the doomsday forecast is the fact that the traditional image of the earthquake is integrated in the predicted story. The image of a personified earthquake which has a figure of its own; perhaps shaped in the human form or a demon is still lingering in the mind of the tribal people. Or maybe the personified earth quake is also influenced by the Biblical stories of the Almighty God intervening in the history and always side with the faithful.
Local people who have the benefit of reading the vernacular papers were fed with the detail description of the forecast; from the earthquake with 30 kilometers long tail to the detail account of the event which was predicted to start from the War Jaintia area and of course will only hit the Khasi Jaintia only. One can sympathize with the lack of knowledge of the poor villager who started the entire ruckus (unless she had at some point of time watched the movie ‘2012’ and with the invasion of satellite TV, one never know), but to think that the clergy, the church elders and the vernacular press too were part and parcel of the whole commotion is something beyond one’s comprehension. I have nothing to comment on the part played by the section of the clergy and the church elders, but my indignation is against the media particularly the vernacular papers.
My first question to my esteemed colleague in the media fraternity is; are we ignorant of the fact that till date there is no method or device available that can predict the occurrence of the earthquake? Can we allow ourselves to be dictated by the church or any institution without questioning the reliability of the source? Can media persons like the clergy and church elder get carried away in something that cannot be tested and prove beyond doubt? Are we not supposed to cross check and ascertain the fact before we publish any report? What happened to the rule number one of reporting that one must be able to separate fact from fiction? Are we not supposed to report the truth and nothing but the truth? One would expect an upright journalist to ascertain that anybody who made prediction has earlier made a similar forecast that came true and has ample prove to that affect, but sad to say nothing of that sort happen. The media published the story and the write-ups related to the so called ‘prophesy’ like it is the gospel truth which came straight from the mouth of God. The blame for the entire commotion should lie squarely with the media for creating undue fear psychosis in the mind of the people. The media are responsible for bringing the earth quake to the public domain.
We have stories of parents asking their children studying in Shillong or Jowai to return home without fail latest by Sunday evening, and then there are also stories about people shaking hands and biding goodbye to each other like they are not going to meet again in this world. The people at Moowakhon village made a makeshift tent house in the open field which is in accordance with the disaster preparedness procedure. Then we have the Office of the Deputy Commissioner Jaintia hills who asked his disaster management team to be prepare in case of an earth quake. On Saturday people were seeing buying enough rations to last for few days and torchlight sold like hotcake. People in the village made makeshift tent under the bamboo plantation because it is belief that in case of an earthquake it is safer to be beneath the bamboos plants. Other are heard busy preaching to the non-believers ‘to repent for the end is neigh.’ The preachers are certain that they themselves will be save because they has accepted Jesus as their savior while those who have not will not be safe by the earthquake. So, this earth quake also has prejudices and discriminates between the believers and the non-believers.
On Sunday evening, faithful gather in their houses to pray till the appointed time, but before stroke of midnight mobile phones started to ring. I received a call to conform if it is true that the earthquake has hit Nongtalang? Then one of my relatives received a call informing her that Dawki is leveled to the ground and turned to rubbles.
In the cyber world; there is a group of young people using the modern technology available and started a discussion group about the prediction on the Face Book page. I was invited to the discussion and most of those joining the face book group are young people and very few took the issue of the predicted earthquake seriously. Some students who are obviously studying elsewhere in the country jokingly thank heaven for he is not in the Khasi Jaintia hills.
Now the question is should we let those people involved in creating the fear psychosis (especially the press) escape scot free? We should remind our journalist friends that reporting is like a double-edged sword, while one is free to report any news; one is also equally responsible for one’s own report. Freedom and responsibility is like the two sides of the same coin. Imagine the loss of the parents who has to summon their children to come home for fear of the impending earthquake. I know of students who had missed their selection test because they were not able to arrive on time next Monday morning. Who will compensate them for their loss? I am sure readers would have many more stories about the Prophesy.
The doomsday prediction is an evidence of the fact that no matter how educate we are, our belief in the personified earthquake is still deeply entrenched in our mind. We seldom use our rational mind and reason before we belief anything, we easily get swayed away by anything especially if it has even an iota of connection with our church or our faith tradition. The entire earth quake drama also speaks volume about our tribal mindset which; like many first nation people, in our effort to move forward we are trapped between tradition and modernity

Thursday, November 4, 2010

Unitarian In The Khasi Hills

Unitarianism In The Hills: An Indigenous Religion With Modern Offshoots
Rev. Bert Inkson once said, “Unitarianism is rather a religious way of life than a set of belief.” Unitarianism hence can be defined as a way of life followed by different people in different parts of the World. Unitarianism’s origin as a faith in various parts of the Globe is in fact unique to the culture and ethos of the area in which it exist. In many cases all around the world where Unitarians Universalist churches present, the movement was originally started by individual who experienced spiritual trial and tribulation within ones self, it could be the individual discontent with the faith that he possessed and was struggling to find new meaning and insight to life. In other words it was started by people in their respective area against conforming to any set of beliefs or tradition dictated by certain authority in the power that is. From a historical point of view its origin as a movement can be trace back to a group of people in early Christian era, under the leadership of Arius who started a debate on the issue of the ‘godliness’ of Jesus Christ at a Council was held at Nicea in 325 AD. Since it is a way of life followed by people in different Places, of different Races and of different Cultures, Unitarian Universalism in different part of the Globe is therefore as varied as the people that followed it and each has maintain its own uniqueness. Though it varies with the people that followed it, but in spite of the diversity, it however has a certain common belief that the whole church adhere to, prominent among the many is the freedom of belief, respect of other religions and respect of the dignity of a person, are few of the fundamental principle which bind together the Unitarians Universalist the world over.
Unitarianism in Khasi Jaintia Hills and Karbi Anglong District, like any of its sisters in faith in different parts of the World is a unique religion with an equally unique beginning. The later part of eighteen and early nineteen hundred, Khasi Jaintia society witnesses an emergent of giants and stalwarts of Khasi intellectuals and the doyen of Khasi literature in the like of Babu Soso Tham, Pahep R.S. Berry, Nissor Singh and his brother u Babu Hajom Kissor Singh, the list is however by no mean exhausted. (One must also bear in mind that it was only in 1847 that Khasi language was put to writing using Roman script and the period we are talking here is the late 1800) The mentioned personalities were great littérateurs, and of these H.K. Singh was not only poet and an essayist par excellence but he is also religious reformer in his own right.
Born to a Khasi family whose father was an employee of the mighty British Empire, the Singhs along with few of their contemporary were perhaps few lucky educated Khasis of the time. It is said that in those days one can count on one’s hand the numbers of educated Khasis and H.K.Singh was able to complete his Entrance examination (High School graduate) which is itself a great achievement in those days. H.K. Singh though born a Khasi was converted to Calvinist faith along with the whole family while he was studying at a school in Nongsawlia Sohra (Cherrapunjee). He being an educated and an ardent quest for spiritual truth was well acquainted with the traditional animist religion and read his Bible thoroughly. He read the sacred text from cover to cover and found that the Bible has only reinforced his belief in one God, which in fact is a belief not alien to the Khasis. His studies of the Bible particularly the Gospels convinced him that Jesus himself; a true Jews to the last; worshiped one God, which he called Abba and taught his disciples to pray to this God the Father when they pray in what was latter known as the Lords prayer. At the same time H.K. Singh though he discovered that even the Bible and Jesus teaches about the existence of one true God which is similar to the belief followed by the Khasis, he however is reluctant to go back to the Niamtynrai/Seng Khasi fold (to which he has very close relationship) for other theological intricacies. Basically H.K.Singh was not at ease with what he believed to be the two variant of difficult belief that he cannot comprehend and one must remember that the age we are concern saw the advent of Christianity and the beginning of the people in the Khasi traditional belief to organise themselves to repel the rapid advancement of this new faith in the hills - the Seng Khasi was also started around this particular period. H.K.Singh was essentially caught between the old and new truth and ultimately came up with his own version.
H.K.Singh was struggling with the new truth that he had discovered, he was in search of a faith or religion, which worship one true God as well free human from the bondage of other super natural deities and at long last his search led him to his goal. By divine providence he met one Brahmo (member of Brahmo Samaj) who introduced him to Rev. C.H.A. Dahl a Unitarian Missionary stationed at Kolkata (Calcutta). Singh’s contact with Dahl was like the proverbial ‘light at the end of the tunnel’ and the correspondence between the two has indeed greatly influenced Singh. The communication between H.K.Singh and C.H.A. Dahl came to an end only in the demised of the later, which had shocked Singh and ironically the tragedy happens only two months before Unitarianism in this Hills saw the light of the day. H.K. Singh in spite of all odds went ahead with his plan and started “Ka Niam Mane Wei Blei” Unitarianism in the Khasi Jaintia and Karbi Anglong on the 18th of September 1887 and the rest is history.
Unitarian in the Khasi Jaintia and Karbi Anglong District is like a tree standing tall with its roots deep into the ground and its branches and leaves widely spread receptive of the light and the blessings of the Universe. Its roots are strong and firm in the belief and culture of the people of the region as well as being open to truths from elsewhere.
From a theological point of view, the concept of God Worshipped by the Unitarians in the Hills is the Khasi’s own concept of God the Creator (U Blei Nongbuh Nongthaw) (which is) formless. The Khasi concept of God is in contrary to the western concept that they inherited from Judeo-Christian tradition. The concept of God in a western context is God in an “Anthromorphical form.” – God on whose image man was created or to be precise God in a human shape. God in Khasi Pnar concept is not only of a formless God but also in contrary to other tribal God or gods; the Khasi Pnar concept of God is that of a Universal God. He is neither a God, which have a territory, nor God, which belong and recognize only his own tribe. H.K. Singh preaches of a formless God and a Universal God and he even went a step further by preaching a dual identity of God ‘ the motherhood and fatherhood’ concept of God. Unitarians therefore worship the Khasi original idea of God- a formless God, a Universal God, a Divine Power and a benevolent Benefactor.
Khasi Pnar is a tribe with its own distinct culture and value system. The genesis of any tribe’s culture and value system is based on its Mythological stories handed down by their ancestors since time immemorial from one generation to another. Unitarian treated the khasi-pnar folklore and legends as aetiological account of the tribe that can neither be describe as historically factual or mere mythologies. Like any other tribes or races in the World, the Khasi-Pnar also has its own genesis the “Hynniew trep hynniew skum.” Hynniew trep hynniew skum is a folktales or story as important and profound to the Khasis as the story of Adam and Eve in the book of Genesis for both the Jews and the Christian. The Hynniewtrep story for that matter is as solemn as any mythological stories of any race or tribe. The story does not have to be factually true but they certainly have a profound impact on the belief, culture and psyche of that particular tribe or race.
The Unitarians in the Khasi Jaintia Hills faces no contradiction what so ever between the faiths they followed and the common culture or ethos of the tribe. Believers in western oriented denomination are many a time in a dilemma whether to believe in the teachings of their Sacred Book or to follow the Value System follow by their forefathers since time immemorial. Oftentimes their faith and dogmas being western oriented are in contrary to the prevailing customs and ethos of the society. Being a liberal religion in a unique Khasi Pnar context, the Khasi Unitarians adapt well to the culture and ethos of the society, they follow and lives by the cardinal values of the tribe and continue to respect the traditions values of the tribe. The basic Khasi value system are ‘To earn righteousness’ (Ban kamai ia ka hok), ‘To live honorably and courteously and to know and revere God’ (Ban long Tip-briew Tip-Blei) ‘To know and respect one’s relation both from mother and father side’ (Ban tip kur tip kha). These three basic value systems of the Khasi pnars are like the tri-pot stones (maw byrsiew) in the hearth of the khasi-pnar’s home that provide warmth and feed the entire family. The Unitarians found no contradiction to the Value System; they in fact adhered in letter and spirit to these basic value system. Faiths that were introduce from other areas, naturally carry with them the ethos and traditions of the area from which they originated and therefore they remain out of place to the contemporary Khasi-pnar society. We see that these religious organisations started the process of trying to adapt to the prevailing culture of the people of the area.
Unitarian church though has an alien name and naturally has the influence of Protestantism in their worship traditions, yet they hold tight and fast the intrinsic values of their tribal value system. In fact Unitarian Universalism Church is itself an all pervading and all-encompassing religion it is inherent to the church to be able to easily accept different variety of thoughts and beliefs. Unitarian church in the Khasi and Jaintia Hills, is therefore a liberal church with its roots strong in the Khasi Pnar value system while it is also all encompassing and free to reach out to new thoughts and teaching. R.S. Berry in one o the many hymns he generously composed for the Khasi Unitarian hymn book, described Unitarianism as “Ka niam ieid i’u blei ieid i’u briew” (The Religion of love God and love fellow human being), in a nutshell this best describe Unitarian in Khasi Jaintia hills.

Wednesday, November 3, 2010

Sein Beh Iaw Jowai: Meghalaya’s own Dabba Wallahs

If the Dabba Wallahs of Mumbai can make it to the pages of the Forbes Magazine, the Economics Times et al, the Sein Beh Iaw Co-operative Society of Jowai deserves at least some space in the editorial page of the Shillong Times. There are two things that these two business organization have in common, that their business model is original in its own right and the unique business ventures are not a copy-paste models of some successful business enterprises or models copied from certain management books. Secondly both the organisations are laymen’s movement in which most of the members are semi literate and the day to day affair of the organization is being run by the members themselves.
Co-operative organization come and go and with one of the two outstanding co-operative societies in Jaintia Hills, the Mowkaiaw Transport Society is now a mere a shadow of its former glory, Sein Beh Iaw which was established on June 23, 1980 is now a 30 years old organization and it is still going strong and doing a good business. Perhaps the success story of Sein Beh Iaw, Jowai is one case study that our own IIM, Shillong can take up for study.
Incidentally while composing this article, my wife shouted from the kitchen asking me when is ‘Musiang’ (the market day in Jowai), the fact is even though Jowai is a growing town and everything is available in the market throughout the week, the significance of Musiang has not diminished. Musiang is the day the town folks look forward to fresh (and many a time organically grown) food products that petty farmers from every nook and corner of the district come to sell in the local market. I was told that an IAS officer from the town posted in Shillong was once asked why he didn’t opt to serve as the Deputy Commissioner of Jaintia hills. The officer who was born and brought up in Jowai replied ‘why would I want to work in a town in which I already know what food each family cooks every morning and evening of the market day? Jokes apart, to understand the principle on which the foundation of the Sein Beh Iaw is set, one needs to understand some of the traditions of the Pnars which has some connection with this business. The business is based on the eight days a week traditional calendar of the Khasi Pnar, yes we have eight days in a week and don’t ask me where did the Khasi Pnar get the extra day in their week? If the Beatles had known about the Khasi Pnar tradition, it would have safe the group the trouble of composing a hit song wishing for a week of eight days. Unlike the western calendar; each day is named after the market in the particular village; hence each major village has one market day in a week which also caters to the need of the villages in its vicinity.
Ma Ronel Chullai reminiscence in the silver jubilee souvenir of the Sein Beh Iaw, the day he first joined the elders in the ‘Beh iaw’ tradition which literarily mean ‘following the market;’ way back in 1948.  He recalled starting from Shangpung which falls on ‘Muchai,’ the day after ‘Musiang.’ During those days there were no means of conveyance so they walked on foot the entire week with bundles of goods on their back from one village to another. They stayed overnight at Shangpung and continued the next day to the market at Mynso, they again stayed overnight at Mynso then crossed the river Myntang to reach Barato market. On the same evening they left Barato and crossed the river Mynriang stayed overnight at Lapangap to walk to Ummynso the next day. They returned the same route from Lapangap, to Mynso and it took them two days to reach Jowai again. After walking from one market to another braving the inclement weather and the danger of wild animals, by 1950-54 traders used cycles to commute from one market to another, later on they used Jeeps and by 1956-60 they started using small buses and followed next by the big buses.
As per the traditional calendar except Jowai two or more villages share the same market day. The second day of the week is Muchai and it is the market day at Shangpung and Dawki, Pyngkat the third day is the market day in Khliehriat, Iooksi, Mynso and Chiehruphi, the next day is Thymblein; on this particular day  market is held at Muktapur, Barato and Khanduli, the next day is Hat and  it is a market day at Borkhat and Mookaiaw, followed by Khyllaw the market day in Jowai, Dawki, Sutnga, Kympreng and Namdong, the sixth day of the week is Pynsyin where market is held at Wah-iajer and Rymbai. Mulong is the market day at Nartiang, Jarain Lumchnong, Muktapur and Raliang followed by Musiang the market day in Jowai and the last day of the week.
Sein Beh Iaw co-operative society was organized to help those following the markets and the organization was in a way forcibly thrust upon them by circumstances prevailed then. Initially traders depend on private buses for transportation but the lackadaisical attitude of the private bus owners, forced some of the ‘beh-iaw- wallahs’ to think of an alternative. They decided to join together buy their own bus and not to depend on the whims and fancy of the bus owners. Initially all 121 members of the ‘beh-iaw family’(as they would like to call themselves) contributed as much as they can to purchase the society’s first bus and since they cannot afford a brand new vehicle; they bought a used bus from Shillong. Irrespective to the amount a member contributed to the corpus fund; members were allotted an equal share and it was repaid immediately after the coop break even. The Society’s second bus was financed by the State Bank of India, Jowai and now the Society has 5 buses and another new one will join the fleet soon. The Coop has 15 employees which include bus drivers and helpers and 15 members working on a voluntary basis to run the day to day affairs of the society. The account of the organization is being audited every month and the auditors provide a quarterly audited report to the management and the members meet at annual general meeting on the society’s foundation day.
The market day in the village is not only an opportunity for the villagers and those nearby to sell their local products, but traders even from distance places came to sell their goods once a week to create villagers’ own supermarket where the weekly need of the villagers is provided; likewise traders bought the villagers products to sell them elsewhere. Sein Behiaw is one big entity which contributes to the flourishing traditional weekly market system and perhaps it is not an overstatement to say that the Sein Beh Iaw, Jowai is single handedly responsible for the growth of these village markets. Numbers of unemployed youths in the state is growing at an alarming rate, and the government is yet to come up with any employment policy, helping the village market grow is perhaps one alternative to create employment and at the same time arrest the ever increasing urban migration. The tradition of having market is already in place, it remains for the government to create value in the market by providing modern facilities like cold storage and even transport with cold storage facility, RCC stalls etc, this will surely help create employment opportunity. The corporate houses created modern market for people to come and shop in their malls and super mart; the genius of the Khasi Pnar is they take people’s own super market to the villages.
People often conclude that Pnars are enterprising lot, but the real entrepreneurs are not those coal and limestone mine owners who just happens to own lands with mineral deposits, real entrepreneurs are people like the members of the Sein Beh Iaw who 30 years ago out of nothing created their own business and struggled hard to prosper.
In comparison state run Transport Corporation failed in spite of financial support from the state, one can’t help but wonder what does the Sein Beh Iaw, Jowai has that the Meghalaya Transport Corporation does not have. Perhaps the government of Meghalaya has a lot to learn from the Sein Beh Iaw. The Sein Beh Iaw not only created a viable transport alternative for its members, it has created employment for many drivers and helpers in the buses and occasionally it is also an opportunity to earn extra income for the members. It is also a mean of communication for hundreds of traders depending on its buses to travel from one market to another.

Wednesday, October 13, 2010

DURGA PUJA IN NARTIANG : A Synthesis of Hinduism with Pnar Culture and Traditions

Nartiang is one of the oldest villages in the district and it is famous for two things, the monolithic park and the Durga Temple . The two landmarks also symbolized the intrinsic nature and ethos of the village which is unique in itself. Nartiang is a unique case study where two diverse traditions Hinduism and Pnar Culture and tradition blend as one. The pertinent question is “How does the Pnar in Nartiang, adapt their tribal way of life with Hindu religious practices? “How does Durga Puja which is a Hindu tradition blend with the Niamtre which is a tribal tradition- unique in its own right?”

I was not aware of the importance of the Durga Temple in Nartiang in the Hindu tradition till I heard R.S. Mooshahary the Governor of Meghalaya spoke at the inaugural function of the Tourism festival in Jowai in the year 2009. Mooshahary related the Mythology in the Hindu tradition about the death of Sati and the grieve-stricken Shiva carry Sati’s corps everywhere he went. The other Gods request Vishnu to pacify Shiva, so Vishnu sent his discus Sudarshan to destroy the corpse of Sati. 51 pieces of Sati’s body scattered across the sub continent, one piece which is the womb fell in Kamakhya in the Kamarupa region and one of the thighs fell in the area where the Durga temple was constructed in Nartiang.

One may ask why, what is so special about the Durga Puja in Nartiang? One answer to the query, is the fact the Durga puja in Nartiang is being celebrate regularly at the famous Durga temple which is one of the oldest Durga temple in the region (some say about 600 years old). It is also special because the temple was built by the erstwhile Jaintia king and that human was sacrificed in the temple in the days gone by. But the distinctiveness of the Durga Puja in the village is the fact that Nartiang is a place where Hinduism blends beautifully with the tribal customs, tradition and ethos of the people of the village.

Like any other village in the district, the predominant settlers of Nartiang are the Pnar and a large chunk of the population belongs to the Niamtre, but a Niamtre with a difference. The Niamtre people of Nartiang has a distinction of observing both their customs and way of life as prescribe in their traditional Niamtre culture as well as celebrating certain Pujas set by the adopted religion they have inherited from their Kings. In other words Pujas are not the only religious rites and rituals observed by the people of Nartiang, apart from the various Pujas, people also perform sacrifices to appease the tribal goddess Kupli and her husband Yale, the Thunder god (u Pyrthat), the Shillong deity (u lei Shyllong), the innumerous nature god (ki laiphew Ryngkaw ki laiphew basa) and other gods and goddesses in the khasi Pnar pantheon. It is also interesting to note that all rites of passages from birth to death are performed in accordance with Pnar tribal traditions they inherited from their forefathers.

To invoke these gods and goddesses, people use the usual sacrificial animals of the Pnars namely roosters, pigs and goats etc., these sacrifices were performed by the Langdoh and others religious heads of the Elaka; where as the various Pujas were performed by (Wamon) the Priest; a descendant of the first priest since the reign of the Jaintia Monarch when the Durga temple was first established in the village.

The other uniqueness of the tradition adopted by the followers of Niamtre in the village is that people accept a special local calendar which allow them to pay obeisance to the different gods and goddesses they worship. The calendar is divided into different season in which there are seasons for observing pujas as per Hindu tradition and also seasons for performing sacrifices for the traditional tribal gods and goddesses of their ancestors. Since time immemorial, tradition has it that during puja seasons, all the sacrifices to the ‘local’ deities were put to hold and similarly no pujas were performed during the seasons earmarked for performing sacrifices to appease the tribal gods and goddesses. So there is no room for conflict between the ritual as per the traditional Niamtre religion and the pujas, beacuse the season for paying obeisance varies and persons responsible for performing these religious rites are also different.

Shri. Uttam Deshmukhya, Pandit (wamon) of the Durga temple, (who speaks in chaste pnar told this scribe that of the four pujas that was celebrated namely, Holi, Bishari (Manasha puja), and Kartik puja, Durga is the most important and the biggest of them all. Like other festivals celebrated by the tribal, the Durga puja was also greeted with month long drum beating by the Dhulias before the actual puja. Although the Daloi and other traditional heads of the village do not have a significant role to play in the actual rituals of the puja, the Daloi who is the representative of the erstwhile Jaintia monarch in the Elaka, is responsible for arranging all supplies needed for the puja. Of the more than a hundred goats offered, the most important goats offered by the Daloi for the sacrifice is the King’s goat (ka blang syiem), the Daloi’s goat (ka blang Daloi), and the mid-night goat (ka blang syniaw) The mid night goat as the term itself implies is a special offering performed in the mid night of the second day and no body is allowed in the temple during the sacrifice but for the priest all by himself. The goat is dressed like a human with a turban on the head, a dhoti and earrings (kyndiam) on both the ears. Finally a mask of a human face is placed on the goat’s face before its head is chopped. The priest clarified that the midnight goat symbolized human that was used to sacrifice by the kings during the days of yore. To the left of the sanctum sanctorum there is a whole on the ground and the priest explained that the goat’s head was chopped in such a way that the head will roll down from the hole to the Myntang river the same way they did when human was sacrifice, he concluded.

When asked why, unlike the fancy Durga idol used elsewhere, the idol of the Durga in Nartiang is always made of the banana tree? Daloi Mon Dkhar explained, “Banana tree is like a second mother to us, it provides human being with banana which in fact is the first solid food provided to a new born baby. The banana is human’s second food, next to the milk from mother’s breast. That is why Durga is always made of a banana tree in Nartiang.” The offering that people bring with them to the temple is also uniquely traditional, it consist of rice carried in bronze containers, one betelnut, five pieces of pan leafs and a few coins. The other amazing thing about the Durga puja is the chanting of hymns by the Dhulias and some village folks- the hardamuid; these mantras are not in Pnar, but in a strange language that they learned orally from one generation to another. On the last day each family performs the ‘siang ka pha,’ to offer food, vegetables and fruits to their dead ancestors, this tradition is also akin to the “ka siang ka pha” performed at the onset of the Behdienkhlam festivals of the people of Jowai. It is also strange that although the Pnar of Nartiang worships Durga, one cannot see a single picture or idol of the goddess or for that matter any gods and goddesses in the Hindu pantheon in any houses of the villagers at Nartiang.

The two temples in the village, that of the goddess Durga and Lord Shiva are also unique in their own way, these temples have a unique Khasi Pnar architecture; similar to the “Iung Lyntur” or the nearest example is “Ka Ingsat at Smit village.”

While I was interviewing Ma Dontha Dkhar the Pator of the Elaka for this writeup, a correspondent of a certain news-paper interrupted, and remarked “Pator the way I see it, this is a typical puja performed by the people belonging to Hinduism do you call yourself a Hindu?” The wise Pator ignored the query. Later I retorted my journalist friend that the question is wrong in the first place. I said “you may call it whatever you like but to the people of Nartiang this is their religion, the religion where they see no difference in following both their traditional Niamtre customs and beliefs and simultaneously observe the various pujas. This is the religion they inherited from their forefathers, the religion where two diverse traditions converged together into one. It is not for anyone to define it for them?” I responded.

The other uniqueness of the Niamtre in Nartiang is that there is no conversion involved here; the residents of the village or the entire Kingdom would have convert to Hindusim if the King used his might and authority, but the Jaintia Kings were Liberal Kings. Although the King spent a good six summer months every year in the village, the people of Nartiang did not have to convert to Hinduism, they just took certain elements of their adopted religion and they combined it with their own to form a synthesis of these two traditions, and that is the beauty of the Niamtre in Nartiang. This is the lesson that the Niamtre of the Nartiang has to teach each and every one of us, the lesson of synthesizing the goodness of all religion into one.

Monday, October 4, 2010

A Tale of Two Villages

“It was the best f times, it was the worst of time…it was the season of light it was the season of darkness, it was the spring of hope, it was the winter of despair…- in short the period was so far like the present period… ” Thus, Charles Dickens started his classic novel, the tale of the two cities and the opening aptly described the drastically diverse conditions of the two villages in the Jaintia hills district; the story of which this writer tries to portray in this write-up. The tale of one of the two villages is the story of despair and hopelessness while the other is pole apart from the former, for it is a story of delight and hope.
Both the villages are among the oldest villages in the District and one has the reputation of being the village the Jaintia monarch originated and that is the reason why the erstwhile Jaintia Dynasty is also known as ‘ki Syiem Sutnga.’ Sutnga is a village blessed with coal deposit in and around the village and judging from the numbers of palatial houses constructed in the village, it gave one the impression of a prosperous population with nothing to worry about. But on a closer look; the village tells a different story. All the children of rich families who can afford to study outside the village or the state are away free from muddy road of the summer season and the coal-dust-laden wind during winter; while the children of the poor families has to bear the brunt.
Come winter and it is the beginning of the season of despair and helplessness for most of the people in the village. Water is the main problem of the village because all the rivulets and rivers in and around the village are polluted. Here again the well to do can afford to spend thousands of rupees to drill underground to get their supply of water, but what about the poor? In fact the wealthy families does not have to worry about the future of the village either, because most of them already have a second or a third home in Shillong or Jowai, their future is secured but that of the poor section of the village is not. The village does not have a water supply and the last time the village had the semblance of a water supply was when it hosted the Synod of the Presbyterian Church. The water was then made available for the occasion from the source in the Narwan, a village nearby and the arrangement is for the purpose of supplying water during the Synod only. Even the Sutnga CHC does not have a water supply and on my last visit to the village; the Doctor told me that they have avail funds from the Government to drill water from underground. I asked him ‘are you sure the underground water is free from pollution because it is known fact that mining is done even hundreds of meters underground?’ The Doctor’s reply was ‘That I cannot say.’ During winter the poor people have to travel to Moopoon also known as river Kwai to wash their linens, but even the river is now poisoned from coal mining. I asked the ladies washing linens on the bank of bluish river, ‘you know the water is polluted?’ and they answered in affirmative. I again asked ‘why in spite of that you still wash your clothes in the river?’ They said ‘we do not have any other option.’ The pertinent question is when will coal mining stop or can scientifically mining of coal and lime stones be of any help?’ and even if it is stopped ‘how long will it take for the water in the rivers to regenerate itself?’
Shangpung is the village on the other end of the spectrum. More than fifteen years ago; Um-iurem the main river in the village met the same fate the rivers in the other coalmining area had suffered due to pollution. Coal was then allowed to freely dump on any available space in the village, water sources started to get polluted and part of the wah Um-iurem River too was affected. Thanks to the farsightedness of the elders and timely intervention of the village, the Dorbar shnong then decided to ban mining and storing of coal in the whole village. That was the beginning of the complete turnaround in the villager’s perception with regard to mining and stockpiling of coal and its harmful effect to the village and it does not come easy I was told. More than fifteen years after the landmark decision was made this writer visited Shangpung last summer and it was indeed a summer of contentment and a summer of hope.
A walk down the Shangpung market across the wah Um-iurem, draw us close to the farmers busy planting rice saplings on the fertile bank of the river. Men ploughed and tilled the muddy earth and the female and young men followed from the rear to plant the sapling. We did not want to disturb them and waited till it was time for them to rest. During the impromptu chat with the male farmers while they chew betlenuts and smoke from their pipes, we were informed that the reason there were large numbers of farmers in the paddy field that day was because of the tradition called ‘chu-nong.’ It is a unique tradition of lending one’s hand to help each and every family of the farming community. The word ‘chu’ means to give or to provide and ‘nong’ means labour or wage, in other words it also means exchanging of labour. It is a tradition by which farmers would help each other by giving one’s day labour to work for each and every family in the community during the entire sowing season. Every family will reciprocate when it was a turn for the community to jointly farm on their neighbour’s field. This way the cycle goes on and every family is duty bound to help another family so, by the end of the farming season, families in the village completed the sowing of rice without having to pay for the work, because the entire community has donated a day work to help one another.
On our way back we cross the pristine clear Um-iurem River packed full with ladies washing their cloths and young boys merrily swimming in the river. Heibormi Sungoh the headmaster of the Khad-ar-nor Upper Primary School, Shangpung told me that the Niamtre in Shangpung would have lost some of its traditions had the wah Um-iurem died like any other rivers because there are several rituals that has to be performed in the river he said. Heibormi is also a person one would call a village environmentalist who subscribes to the saying ‘think globally and act locally.’ In the capacity of the headmaster of the school, Heibor came up with an innovative idea of taking the environmental classes outside in the open where it rightfully belongs. The school does not believe in just the ceremonial planting of trees every environment or earth day, but took another step forward by organizing the students into groups to take care of the saplings that the group has planted. It is the responsible of the students to take care of the plants all year long and credit was given to the group accordingly. Before our education minister come up with the idea of continuous comprehensive evaluation of the students, Heibor has already practice it. The school has embarked on another new idea; the saplings they had planted earlier were supplied by the forest department and are not native to the region. In the near future the school hope to plant local trees and encouraged its students to collect seeds of native trees in their neighborhood for their school’s garden.
Recently the Shangpung village supported by the Fishery department of Jaintia hills inaugurated the fish sanctuary at Moolasha a section of the river Um-iurem which was one once polluted by the coal mining but was now reclaimed fifteen years or so after the dorbar shnong banned mining and stockpiling of coal in the village. The village plan to develop this sanctuary by planting more trees on the bank of the river and hope to develop many more sanctuaries on the entire stretch of river Um-iurem.
Shangpung village enthusiastically dream and plan for the future of the village, while ma T. Chyrmang the headman of the Sutnga village would not even allow filming the village and its vicinity and even discouraged us from interviewing the villagers during our last visit to the village. If there is really going to be change in the coalmining areas of this District, it is not going to be the mining policy or anything from outside, it has to be from inside the community -from the heart of the people. Shangpung has proved it that it took the Dorbar Shnong a little more than fifteen years to reclaim the precious water and the valuable topsoil that we have lost to pollution from the coalmining.
Connect to H.H.Mohrmen:

Wednesday, September 22, 2010

The Core Belief of the Unitarians in Khasi and Jaintia hills

The Unitarian Church in Khasi Jaintia hills or the Khasi Unitarians as it is known by its sisters church in arround the world is a liberal church which is unique in it is own right. Though Unitarianism is a global religion, each group has its own distinct feature which is unique to the individual group. Unitarianism around the world is a liberal religion which was founded on the principle of respect and tolerance, encourages diversity and has room for different beliefs. Variation is the church strength, and one of the church’s core beliefs is diversity and not division.
The uniqueness of this church in the hills is not because it was founded by a native of the land and was the only church which was not started by the missionaries; but more importantly the birth of the Church was the founder’s ability to blend the best and the essence of the two thoughts and traditions into one. The church was established 123 years ago on the 18 of September 1887. Hajom Kissor Singh Lyngdoh Nongbri who has probably converted to Christianity along with his famous brother Nissor Singh in the year 1885 1 was an avid reader, like many of his predecessors in the many Unitarian movement across the globe; he too soon realized that the doctrine of the holy trinity was not adopted by the Church till the reign of the emperor Constantine more than 325 years after the death of Jesus Christ 2. He concluded for himself that the holy trinity was not only a complex proposition but also unscriptural. To his own understanding the core teaching of Jesus is to worship the one and only God whom he called father and to love God and love one’s neighbor as one love oneself 3. The Unitarian Church in the Khasi hills is also called “Ka Niam ieid i’u briew ieid i’U Blei” 4 the religion of love fellow human being and love God based on these core teaching of Jesus.
The three main principles of the Unitarian church in the Khasi Jaintia hills as propounded by Hajom Kissor Singh himself is the Oneness of God who is a Father and a Mother of human, the brotherhood and the sisterhood of humankind in spirit and the eternally everlasting living soul or immortality. In the same line H. K. Singh also affirmed that the human spirit has the potential to grow and progress into everlasting life, he hence coined an ever inspiring motto of the church “To nang roi” which literarily translates as ‘keep on progressing.’ Being a liberal church this is one aspect which confirmed the progressive facet of the church because it inspires one to strive forward and progress both at the individual level and as an organization. The three principles of belief of the church were firmly set in the first hymn of the Khasi Unitarian hymnal which H. K. Singh called “the essence of the church of God.” 5
The oneness of God is the foundation of belief of the Unitarian hence the name, but the belief in the one Creator God is also the core of the Khasi belief. The oneness of God which is the heart of the Khasi belief system was many a time put on the back burner by the Khasis of his time and instead the worship of the many deities and gods was more prevalent during those days. H. K. Singh vehemently opposed the worshipping of the various deities and lesser god(s). 6 He was, therefore, not in the good book of Khasi stalwart the like Babu Jeebon Roy. 7 Neither was he in good terms with his Christian brethrens who branded him heretic. H. K. Singh’s call was for the Christians to worship the one and the only God of the Hebrew Bible (Old Testament) and the “our Father in heaven of Jesus” and for the Khasi who spend more time and resources to appease the deities and gods in total disregard of the Creator God. His call for them was to pay more allegiance to the one and the only God the Creator whom they have often neglected.
It may be mentioned that in the Khasi Jaintia thoughts and understanding; there is only one word for the two English words the spirit and the soul -“ka mynsiem.” So when one says “Mynsiem” it could either mean the soul or the spirit. To the Khasi Pnar the human soul is the same with the all-pervading spirit. The Khasi does not differentiate between the two. Hence the other principle of belief of the Khasi Unitarian that of the brotherhood and sisterhood of human in spirit or the universal-spiritual-brotherhood and sisterhood of humankind can be understood in this context, that the spirit permeates in all creation and particularly in the human kind. To the Khasi, ‘ka mynsiem’ is that which connects one soul to another and that which encompass the entire universe and also that which transcend all creation. The universe and the entire creation is link by the spirit or filled with the spirit.
H.K. Singh’s concept of the everlasting live of the soul also bears the truth that his thought was inspired by the indigenous Khasi thoughts and philosophy of life after death. The Khasi concept live after is that the soul departed from the body will go eat bettlenuts in the corridor of God’s house, so traditionally the Khasi too belief that the soul lives eternaly. The immortality of the soul also prove that spirit even transcends the realm of mortality. The Khasi Pnar believe that during conception, the mother conceived only the body that which is mortal, the soul or the spirit was divinely instilled in the body in the womb. The spirit in the human body which was divinely placed in the mother’s womb lives and grows in the human body and on its death return back to God which is the everlasting source of all spirits.
Salvation to the Khasi is by deeds and character, the Khasi lays a great emphasis on the other cardinal principle of life of the Khasi which is known as ‘Kamai ia ka hok’ to earn righteousness. In the Khasi way of life, one’s entire life is governed by this principle alone. There are two schools of thoughts with regard to salvation, one is of the opinion that he who does not earn righteousness in his life will go to the nurok ka ksew, or the Khasi hell, and the other are of the opinion that whatever wrong one does in his life will befall on one’s descendant. One who lives in the path of righteousness shall go to eat bettlenuts in the corridor of the God’s dwelling. In the Christian context it is the challenge that Jesus called everyone to bear one’s own cross and to do the will of God. The Unitarian also shares a similar belief that salvation is by one’s own deeds and character and not by faith alone.
Unitarianism in the Khasi Jaintia hills is a middle path of the two prominent traditions of the area the Khasi Pnar tradition and the Christian tradition. The Unitarians worship the one and only God of the Hebrew Bible and the Father in heaven of Jesus and the love your neighbor as one love thyself. The cardinal principles of Khasi Pnar way of life is also base on a similar teaching of “Tip briew tip Blei and tip kur tip kha” (to know man; know God or live righteously and know God and know your families from both the mother and the father’s side. The two principles begin with the Khasi word ‘tip’ which is literarily translate ‘to know’ in English, but the word ‘tip’ here has other meaning too, it also means to respect and to love. Hence Unitarian in Khasi Jaintia hills is also known as the religion of love fellow human being and love God because it lays strong emphasis on the essence of the two traditions to love fellow human being and to love God.

1. Syiem, R.S. Ka Jingim u Nissor Singh Lyngdoh Nongbri, Ka Thiar ki Nongthoh Khasi.
2. Encyclopedia
3. New Testament Mk 12/28-31 and Mt 22/40
4. Edward, Rev. David. Hymn No 14 in the Khasi Unitarian hymnal.
5. Singh, H. K. Hymn No. 1 & No. 335 of the Khasi Unitarian hymnal
6. Singh, H.K. Hymn No. 18.
7. Roy, Jeebon. Preface of Ka Niam Jong Ki Khasi.

Friday, July 23, 2010

Status of women in the contemporary matrilineal Khasi Pnar Society

Like the mythological Kumbha Karna in the epic Ramayana, I woke up one fine morning realizing that that there is something than what meets the eye in the debate which few months back; had occupied much space in the printed media in the State of Meghalaya. I hope it is not too late to join in the inconclusive debate on the volatile subject of the contemporary Khasi Pnar society. The debate gain more currency when coincidently the nation as a whole was also debating during the same time the contentious proposed women reservation bill.

Earlier during the late eighties and early nineties, I remember Khasi Pnar society was described as a matriarchal society, l personally made this mistake when a student at a seminary in Manchester who was then studied about the status of women in Christianity, asked me how does women in your matriarchal society react to male oriented Christian church? The question caught me off hand and I was not able to provide her the answer which can be of help to her study. It was this lady during one of our long discussion who helped me understand from my own account that we are matrilineal and not matriarchal society, because the female enjoy no special status than the fact that she merely carries the lineage or the family line.
Does a Khasi Pnar women share the same status with her male counterpart? The argument is that Khasi Pnar women share the same status with man because both enjoy equal rights as per Khasi Pnar custom and traditions. It was also argued that in the Khasi Pnar society women were never barred from competing with her male counterpart in whatever field of work or for whatever position in the societal hierarchy. In that case one can use this same parameter and conclude that the Tribals in India do not need a reservation because they were never barred from competing with other community in the country. Is this a fair argument? The question is not whether women is given equal rights and privileges in the society or not, but rather why very few women succeed in politics or why very few Khasi Pnar women occupies high offices?
The answer is though we all share this false perception, the fact of the matter is Khasi Pnar men still have this prejudice against women that we inherited from our ancestors. Woman is still a second class citizen of the society.

Women have no political power or no role in politics for that matter. Traditionally, from grass root politics to the top echelon of the political authority woman has very limited or no role whatsoever to play. In the Khasi context the very name U Syiem connotes a male entity; the limit that a woman can achieve is the preordained position of ka Syiem sad. The Myntris the Laskor are reserved and can only be occupied by the dominant half- the male species of the Khasi Pnar homo sapient. In the Pnar of Jaintia context; women do not even have the right to vote in the election to the Daloiship not to mention entering in the fray which is traditionally a taboo and is a reserved male bastion. This bigotry is obvious even in the grass root level of the so called Khasi Pnar democracy (if we can call it democracy), when by tradition only person who sport a moustache can take part in the community deliberation (dorbar shnong). Even the highest office in the local council is preordained for male species for the title of the office itself is biased towards man and it provides no opportunity whatsoever for a woman to become u Rangbah Shnong. It should always be a man- u Rangbah. So much about the about the so called Khasi democracy.

Status of Khasi Pnar woman in Religious context of the society. During one of our debate a friend who is the editor of a Khasi biweekly published from Jowai, argued that in his church women have equal rights and opportunity like any man. He elaborated that they even have their own wing or organisation, where they can do things at their own pace and understanding. Does that mean equality? I doubt it. When I ask him can a woman preside over the offering of a mass? Then he answered except that. Is that equality, when women were not given the same right as man? How many churches allow women to become a deacon or member church committee when by definition only a man can become a Tymmen Basan or a Rangbah Balang? How many churches have ordained pastors or minister and gave woman pastor equal rights and opportunity to those of her men counterpart? How many churches had had a woman as the head of the church? Sadly not even a liberal church like the Unitarian has a history of a woman President, although the church since its inception by virtue of its tenet women were given equal rights and status and had ordained a woman minister (who was trained both at Meadville in Chicago and Harvard) since 2002 and that woman has rose to occupy some higher position in the Unitarian Union but still not the president. My editor friend then said, it was written in the Bible you know, that women should bow before her husband he meant to quote Paul letter to Ephesians (5:22) “Wives, submit yourselves unto your own husbands, as unto the Lord.” Then I ask him was it Jesus who said that or Paul the apostle. We can quote many such anti-woman saying from the Bible, and it is always someone else and not Jesus who was recorded to utter those saying. Till now in many churches particularly those in the villages one can see women attending church covering their head as a sign of submission while a man no matter how young or old, does not have to do so. I am no trying to say that submitting to the Almighty is wrong, but the question is why is this disparity, this double standard even in the church which is supposed to liberate the souls and that too in a matrilineal society?

Even in the traditional Niamtre religion all the top slots on the religious hierarchy is by ‘divine ordination’ meant for men folks, every top post be it, u Daloi, u Pator, u Sangot or any other position other than ka Langdoh the Priestess, is always occupied by a male candidate. It is indeed ironic that in spite of the fact that in the contemporary Khasi Pnar society; any religious gathering be it Christian church services or other, it is always the fairer sex who are in majority yet, they still have to satisfy with the position that their male counterpart and the tradition had pre-determined for them without contesting. Why our women folks readily accept this status as if it is preordained by the Creator for them?

Is it because we still have this archaic mindset against women that our thought process is still very much influence by ancient adages like “hens do not crow, or if and when hen crow then the world is destined to doom?”

A friend who is a leader of one big organization in Jaintia hills, asked in one of our debate, why should we allow women to wield more power when she already enjoy the right to the lineage and property? As for lineage as per the Pnar traditional belief, women earned that right because during the whole birth process for nine long months she fought a lone battle. The Pnar saying have it that she carries a double edged sword “ka wait samen,” with the same sword she can help bring new life to the World and it can also kill her in the process. Legend also has it that during one intertribal feud, the enemy conducts a surprise invasion on the Pnar settlement, while all the men folks were out in the field. The women who were in the village had no other option but to fight to the last to defend their children and property. The men folk on arriving realized what their mothers, wives, daughters, sisters and nieces had accomplished; arrived to a sensible conclusion that women naturally have the right to lineage and property. Is taking lineage through a female line a status or a burden for a woman?

It will not surprise me if the 2011 census comes up with a startling revelation that the numbers of single parent families is growing in the contemporary Khasi Pnar society, and by that I mean a family in which the mother is the head and the sole bread winner of the family. Single parent family in the Khasi Pnar society only means one thing and that is mother having to take care of all her children, why? Because it is very easy for a man to leave his wife, the children do not belong to him, because they do not take his family name. Many factors which are obvious even to the naked eyes indicate to the grim reality of a growing number of single parent families. In a way giving a lineage through the female line is a burden than a status for a woman, but a burden that every mother cherishes even if she had to face the challenges of doing the parenting single handedly.

Much hue and cry was made about the fact that Khasi Pnar women also enjoy the sole rights to property. A friend remarked that the double edged sword really means that female of the society had both the lineage and the property in her custody and left man bereft of anything. This is also the argument of the SRT. But the question is what property? How many families in the Khasi Pnar society really own property? In fact if by property we mean land, as per Khasi Pnar tradition, land belongs to the community. Individual or the family owns the land only while one is using it, the ownership of the land return to the community the moment one stop using it. Even in the contemporary society only middle class people has property and such family share their property equally among all the siblings. So this argument is also not free from flaws.

My appeal to our male-chauvinist leaders both the CM (I means DD Lapang because on the last count there were four of them) and one of his Deputy BM Lanong, who had started the ruckus (if they are still holding the posts by the time this piece is published) to shed one’s prejudice and try to understand the fact of the matter before one jump to conclusion. It is the general expectation that our leaders should educate us makes us wiser and come up with informed views whenever they made any statement in the public. Public space is not their private domain to be use as an opportunity to vent personal vendetta against anyone. Nobody has that right because public space is sacred.