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.