Wednesday, June 26, 2013

Traditions and Modernity: Beyond Superstition

The recent infamous attacked on a family alleged to be “the keeper of u thlen” (nongri-thlen) at Mawlymbnang in the East Khasi Hills District, again brought to light the dichotomy between traditions and modernity that exist in the Khasi Pnar way of life. I don’t think it is a clash at all but the truth is that the mystery exists and the society is caught between traditions and modernity. The truth is what has happened in Mawlymbnang is the reflection of what is happening in the society, it is the manifestation of a society entangled in a tribal culture and tradition and the modern way of life.
U Thlen, the Taro, ka Bih etc has been part of Khasi Pnar beliefs system which has been inculcated in the mind of the people from one generation to another. We grew up believing Nongshohnoh exist when our parents in an effort to make us stay put at home; would tell us of the Menshohnoh who is lurking around the locality to catch us. We were given strict instruction not to partake food share by certain family in the society because they keep Taro, ka Kymbad, ka Bih etc.  My grandfather died when I was one year old, I was told that Dr. Norman Tunnel of the Welsh Presbyterian Hospital, Jowai diagnosed that the cause of his dead is due to cancer, but friends and relatives believed that he died from ‘Kymbad’ (ka Bih) the symptom of which is similar to cancer. In this case it is obvious that the Khasi Pnar did know about cancer and maybe cancer in the mouth, throat and the many part of stomach is known as Kymbad/ka Bih in the local parlance. The only problem is that the sickness is believed to be the curse of certain family and the family was blamed for causing the same.
In the Khasi Pnar Society, family of patient who suffers from a chronic ailment is often advised to take both allopathic and traditional shamanist treatment. It is often concluded as (ioh dei ba leh ki briew) it could be the spell of someone’s evil eye, or the curse of some evil person, so it is important to take necessary precaution by consulting a local shaman as well as taking allopathic medicines. People are in a dilemma and because it is a matter of life and dead; they neither have full faith in the allopathic medicine nor in the traditional treatment. There are many cases of patient with orthopedic problem who would simultaneously consult a qualified orthopedics as well as a local herbal medicine practitioner to save them from the predicament.      
In matter of bad health people always take the help of both world of medicine, in fact frail as any human, the Khasi Pnar too; consult any available healing system be it ayurvedic, homeopathic etc to get themselves cure. I know belief is personal matter; it is within an individual right to choose what to believe and not to believe hence it comes as no surprise to know that even practicing Christians sometimes perform sacrifice if that is what it takes to cure the person. My take on the issue is not to denounce this incident or any such incidents as superstitious act, because it is too complex an issue to understand. But would rather like the educate Khasi Pnar to look at the wisdom behind these legends and beliefs and interpret them in the new light.
Rather than looking at the traditions and beliefs as superstitious we can examine these issues in a much broader sense with deeper insight and try to understand and see the relevance this Khasi Pnar wisdom in the modern day context. I am not condoning the violence and madness that has happened in Mawlymbnang and other villages, such act of vandalism need to be condemned in the strongest term, but my call is to try and understand these legends and folktales in the light the modern world and to see its relevance in our world today. We also know that there are folk beliefs which have positive impact in our life if we only have time to study them carefully. On a closer look; we sometimes realized the profound wisdom of our ancestor even in those act that we initially denounced as superstitious.  
We have barely crossed this year’s halfway mark yet; I consider 2013 a spiritually fulfilled year because I was able to fulfill my long cherished dream. I was able to visit the two sacred groves and probably the biggest sacred forest in the Khasi Jaintia, the Raij Tuber Sacred forest in Chohchrieh village and the two sacred forests in Raij Chyrmang, the Khloo Langdoh in Chyrmang and Ka Khap-yaba in Iongnoh village.  In my visit to the Khap-yaba sacred forest very recently; I was not only amazed at the sheer size of the forest but was equally surprise at the fact that the forest was really free from any human interference. The forest was thick and green and there were no sign of human activity anywhere. The reason is because the people who live in the vicinity of the forest believe that the goddess Khap-yaba is very powerful and it punishes those who trespasses its territory and transgress its domain. We were told that the local seldom wander to the forest and if they have to do so, they would always pay obeisance to the goddess Khap-yaba. I then realized why it was very difficult to convince the two young men to take us to Khap-yaba, and when we reach near the forest, they told us that they would not go any further and even refused to point their fingers towards the forest. Before that we also passed through the hut of an old lady and when we told her of our intention to visit the forest, she read us the do’s and don’ts and advised us to ask forgiveness for trespassing into the goddess territory. Sacred forests are considered sacred because it is believe to be the dwelling place of the gods and goddesses, on a cursory look; some would consider this superstitious but it is this belief system that has help keep our sacred forest. In the tradition of keeping sacred forest, we can see the wisdom of our ancestors, their profound understanding of how the nature work and the need to protect and preserve it.      
In the same way let us examine other Khasi Pnar traditions and legends and try to interpret its relevance in our day to day life. The ‘keepers of thlen’ are those, whose greed has overtaken their sane self, they are those people who would do anything to garner more wealth. They would exploit people even force them to do odd job and pay them a very small return for doing so. They would go to any extend to exploit both human and nature for their own selfish gain- these are the modern day Nong-ri-thlen, because their only concern is to get money and more money. The ‘Nongshohnoh’ are those who work for the Nongri Thlen and would go to any extend to serve their master even if it means taking somebody’s life for money.
The keepers of ‘ka Taro’ are those who are envious of others. Their hearts is full with envy and are incessantly jealous of their friends, neighbor and relatives’ success, beauty and wealth. They would secretly wish to possess their friends and neighbours unique character albeit with evil design. And when they were not able to achieve those qualities, they would curse their friends and neighbours.  
The ‘Badon bih’ are mean, close-fisted people they are so stingy that they would reluctantly part anything with others. Even if they would have to provide food to others, they would do so with grudge and would even curse those with whom they share their food.   
Culture and traditions are not something that we can just wish away, the legends, the belief systems was imbibed in our psyche for generations, it will take time if not impossible to rid off the same from the person. The way to the future for the Khasi Pnar Society is that we take the best of both world and move forward. The Khasi-Pnar tradition and modern way of life can go hand in hand; the two can co-exist albeit with new interpretation of the legends and traditions. Then only we’ll realize that u Nongri thlen, u Nongshohnoh, ka Taro, ka bih et al are alive in every age, caste and creed and the Khasi-Pnar wisdom is ever-relevant; it lives beyond race and time.   


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