Sunday, April 1, 2012

Customs and Traditions in the Changing times

By HH Mohrmen

Michael Bloomberg mayor of New York hit the bull’s eye when he spoke in Hong Kong about the advent of Social Media Network. Bloomberg said it has become difficult to govern because you have referendum on any issue every day. When Michael mentioned about the change social media ushered, he did not mean only about the change that happens in New York or Hong Kong but he is talking about the global village and the same social media network which provides the same opportunity to net citizens in our society too. Of late one very important subject that escaped media hype was the Rongkhli or Rongkhla festival of Nongtalang village. One is not sure if the festival failed to draw media attention because of the reason that a leopard was killed as part of the festival or for some other reason. But media hype or not, Facebook is abound with debates on one aspect of the festival – the killing of a leopard.
For the village to organize the Rongkhli festival, an animal from the tiger species (other than a cat) has to be killed by a member of a certain clan of the village. One interpretation is that the festival is like a punitive action against the clan whose member had accidentally killed the tiger and the entire clan has to pay for it by organizing the festival. It is also interesting to watch this debate going on in the cyber world particularly in the two Facebook pages, ‘Save the Rivers and Caves of Jaintia’ (which is fast becoming like a Mecca for any environmentally concerned citizen to post and comment in the page) and the War Jaintia tourism page which is an independent effort of a group of young people from War Jaintia to promote tourism in the Amlarem Sub Division. Social medial network is a platform for the people particularly the youths and one thing that a person from an older generation (like me) learns from using the network is that young people of the state have an opinion on almost on any issue under the sun.
On one side of the debate are young people who are of the opinion that killing an animal in the red list is not only illegal but it is also ethically wrong; on the other side of the divide are those who are of the opinion that since it is part of the religious tradition, stopping it tantamount to violation of the rights of citizens to freedom of religion. In a counter argument to the opinion that it is a tradition that has been practiced since time immemorial, one young man remarked that human sacrifice too was part of our tradition in Jaintia hills (which was then practiced in the temple in Nartiang and Borkhat), so should we then revive human sacrifice too? I am not an expert in the subject, but I have been part of almost all the traditional festivals practiced by the people following the indigenous Niamtre religion in Jaintia hills and have joined in the ceremonies of rites and passages observe by the people and have also published work (in the newspapers, magazines and my blog) on the area under discussion. My observation is that like many Indigenous or Tribal cultures, the traditions followed by the present generation of our ancestor’s religion in Jaintia hills proves beyond any doubt that the tribal customs and practices are based on the Khasi Pnar’s profound understanding of the ways of nature.
Just as I was trying to make sense of what I had observed in the Social Media Network, I went to visit Bataw village; one of the oldest village in the District on the way to Borkhat where another famed Hindu temple ia situated. Bataw or Wataw as the Pnar would call it is famous for the Umhang Lake and the sacred forests around it and I was lucky to visit the place when the followers of Niamtre in the village performed the last of the three days annual sacrifices of the community; the last one was to pay obeisance to Umhang. However I will reserve the legend of the Umhang lake for another time, but I’m going to share an instance that is relevant to the subject matter under discussion. The people of Bataw migrated to places like Assam and even Bangladesh in search of green pastures. The founder of Haflong town in Assam was a person from Bataw. According to Dren Biam an elder of the village, Bataw was founded by the 8 clans the Suchiang, the Tariang, the Rymbai, the Suchen, the Sumer, the Rupsi, the Massar and the Lamare but due to migration at one point of time the village met with a challenge wherein due to the incomplete representation of the required clans certain rituals were not complete. The eight clans who are the custodians of the tradition in the village were not able to perform the necessary sacrifices to appease the deities the people worshiped due to this conundrum. The followers of Niamtre in Bataw went to consult the god (a woman believed to be possessed by the spirit) and perform all the required rituals to seek spiritual guidance on the predicament that followers of the traditional religion believe the village were facing. Noren Palong (Suchiang) the Secretary of Seinraij Bataw said that the sign from the divine intervention was that since the founding clan was in disarray and religious rites and activities must continue, it was instructed that the followers can select/elect any clean person from any clan to assume the role which was previously held only by representative of the eight clans. Perhaps the Niamtre in Bataw is the only one which has a common “yungblai” (a common ancestral house) which is part of the same divine instruction.
The point is that reform is possible even in the Niamtre if one only follows the proper customs, traditions and rites. Perhaps Seinraij Nongtalang can also learn from the Seinraij Bataw and try to reform at least the tradition of having to kill a tiger for the festival. Doing away with the tradition of killing a tiger is not only legally and ethically right, it is also for the Seinraij Nongtalang’s own good because the number of tigers which includes leopards is dwindling everyday and a time will come when no tiger will be available for killing anymore in the forests which are gradually shrinking. In such a situation what will the Seinraij Nongtalang do? In my opinion the Seinraij Nongtalang has only two options; continue with the tradition and Rongkhli festival will die a gradual dead or seek divine intervention and reform the tradition to change with the changing times. Talking of progressive approach, Seinraij Jowai has one such example like having religious education (Sein Kyntu Niamtre) for the young ones of the community and having a weekly meeting (Dorbar Niamtre) of the community. These are the outcomes of a progressive thinking in the community and it will surely help the Seinraij move forward. Seinraij Nongtalang too, can think progressively and move in the direction of reforming the tradition.
However, at a larger context one is also surprised that the universities in the state are yet to start a proper study of the Niamtre or Niam Khasi religion. We are also yet to accept an English term to use when referring to the subject. Should we use the term “Traditional Religion”, ‘Tribal Religion’ or ‘Indigenous Religion’ when we refer to Niamtre and Niam Khasi? I hope MLCU department of indigenous studies and NEHU department of folklore will be the right organizations to address this problem. (The writer is a research scholar and environmental activist)

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