The theme of today’s article is tricky; tricky in the sense that it is not a new subject since it is an issue that people usually discuss around the hearth of their homes and it is not an old subject either because one rarely sees any write-ups on this important subject. It is a subject matter that one must have heard people talk about or heard of it from one’s elders but seldom read about. I would not have dared to tread on this critical subject if the Mawlai incident had not occurred which was followed by Red FM programme ‘rat dyngkhong bad i kong ia ki kam bym long’. Obviously with the Mawlai incident in the backdrop, Red FM calls on listeners to let good sense prevail and not to let things like that to repeat again. But a few days back there were press reports that a similar incident had happened in Mowtyrchiah village of Jaintia Hills.
I would have written about it long time ago but feared that I might hurt somebody’s sentiments and hesitated to do so. Now that the subject is in the public domain, it is appropriate to start debating about it and I know full well that dealing with a matter relating to peoples’ beliefs is risky business but thanks to my liberal upbringing I was able (I think) to tread very cautiously in dealing with this vital issue of the Khasi Pnar society.
I remember when we were young, whenever I suffered from constipation, my father would take a pinch of lime (shun) and rub it on the pan leaf. Then he chanted some mantras and spat on the lime three times. Then he would take a little of that lime on his forefinger make a tick mark on my forehead move towards my tummy open my shirt and then draw a huge circle on my stomach and finish it with another lime-tick on my big toe. After that he would draw another circle on the pan leaf with a cross inside the circle and then place the lime-sketched pan-leaf at the nearest crossroad. This ritual is done because it is believed that somebody with evil eyes has cast a spell (sabuit in Khasi and Ske in Pnar) on me while I was eating, so the ritual is to cast away the spell from me.
In the past many houses have been damaged and owners of the houses have been ostracized by the village because the family is alleged to be a Thlen keeper, Taro keeper. Families were also detested by the village because it is alleged that they are in possession of the power of black magic or witchcraft and can cast evil spell (ai ksuid) on their enemies. In Jaintia hills fellow villagers avoid mixing with certain families because it is alleged that the family could cast a spell (ai bih in Khasi and e kymbad in Pnar) on somebody’s food and the victim would fall sick. When a person’s teeth falls rather un-naturally, it is believed that the person suffers from the Kymbad/Jymbieh/ Bih curse, and also neck pain and even throat cancer is attributed to Kymbad/ka Bih. The Welsh doctors at the KJP Hospital in Jowai diagnosed that my grandfather suffered from throat cancer, but the common belief is that he died of Kymbad. Families who are alleged to be keepers of Kynbad/ka Bih are forbidden from taking part in preparation of a community feast for fear that they may cast a spell on the food and that somebody who partakes of the community feast may suffer. The family is however not forbidden from joining in the feast but people would avoid sitting next to them or in opposite directions.
The Pnar’s belief about ‘Nong-ai-ksuid’ is quite different from that of the Khasis. In in the Khasi context (as I was given to understand) certain families are alleged to possess powers of black magic (‘nong-ai-ksuid’) because they can cast magic spell on their enemies to make them sick. In the Pnar context if any person wishes to cast evil spell on one’s enemies he would seek the help of a shaman (ksoh stad/pa stad) and pay him to do the job. It is believed that the shaman can do a variety of things to make the enemy suffer – similar to voodoo; he can make the cursed person sick or even make him pregnant with a piglet.
Not very long ago in the heart of Jowai town a locality where the entire population are Christians, the house of one family was damaged because a certain woman believed to suffer from a Taro spell which was alleged cast by the family whose house was damaged. When we were young we lived in a rented house which belonged to one of our very close relatives. I remember on many occasions a crowd would follow a sick woman (rarely a man) who would come running to our relative’s house; it is believed that the sick woman was possessed by the Taro that our relative allegedly kept. Not surprisingly our relatives are quiet well-off and like in the case of u Thlen, that is reason enough to confirm that our relatives are the Taro keepers because the Taro had blessed them with immense wealth. When a person is supposed to be possessed by the Taro, the person acts, behaves and even speaks like the alleged Taro keeper. The possessed-person is said to acquire a split personality of that of the Taro keeper and even assumed the name of the keeper. Taro can possess a person if she takes or consumes anything that the keeper shares no matter how big or small, and some time returning the favour helps the possessed person recover.
Later on my sisters fell sick and our parents called a shaman who declared that our two sisters were possessed by the Taro of our own relative. That caused the rift between the otherwise two loving families. After many years we realized that our sisters were suffering from a common disease and the two families re-united but not before a long and bitter separation that both the families suffered.
I now am very close with a family which some people allege to be the keepers of Taro (wa em blai iung). Very recently two members of their own family alleged that their Taro has possessed them. It is a common belief that a person who was possessed would run to the alleged keeper’s house and if the keepers accept and welcome the sick woman (because she has acquired the personality of the keeper) and admit that the Taro belongs to them, the spirit will leave the possessed woman and she will regain her health. On one such occasion the girl was brought to the family, since they are all but one family the father of the alleged Taro keeper’s family politely told those who brought the girl “we no longer believe in these kind of things. He instead offered to pray that the girl may be well, to which they all agreed. It is also believed that the keeper’s family inherited the Taro from their ancestors by inheriting the ancestral property. The father also told the family of the supposed possessed girl that he started his family from scratch and he did not take any of his wife’s property with him and questioned the allegation that his family inherited the Taro. He also remind that both he and his wife are government employees and even their children are in service and all their incomes are accounted. That brought the unfortunate episode to a close but the crack in the very close-knit family is yet to heal.
The alleged Taro keepers I interviewed said that they don’t know anything about the Taro and neither did their parents or grandparents ever tell them anything about it. Their house too has no place where the Taro is supposedly kept; neither do they have a wooden box that was not opened for ages. They only knew it from the allegation that was made against them by the family of the possessed person. In other words, it is simply an allegation that they are the Taro keepers. I have all respect for those who still believe in the power of course, spell and witchcraft. They are within their rights to do so, as long as it does not impinge on others’ rights or create undue problems in the community. I also think that if my father was still alive now I would still allow him to cast away the evil spell from my kids, (his grandchildren) as long as it did not harm them but I would not blame others for their sickness.
Obviously, the belief in curse and witchcraft is still prevalent in the society; it is not for me to play judge here and conclude that it is just a false notion; the subject needs to be debated if Khasi Pnar society is to move forward. Now that the call for legalization, propagation of traditional healing and traditional medicine is gaining momentum, the pertinent question is do we need to draw a line between true herbal medicine and shamanism? Do we need to draw a line where superstition (for want of a better word) ends and herbal medicine begins?
(The author is a research scholar and elder of the Unitarian Church)