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.
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