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The tune is given to the child out of unconditional love for the newborn
The tune is given to the child out of unconditional love for the newborn|EastMojo image
DOCUMENTARY

Meghalaya’s melodic villages: Where everyone gets a tune as a name

Kongthong is not the only place following the unique practice; there are several villages in East Khasi Hills district where locals sing out to call somebody

Princess Giri Rashir

Princess Giri Rashir

Shillong: Dense fog and drizzle, lush greenery and serenity – this is a very common sight of Sohra, popularly known as Cherrapunjee, to many.

Located approximately 55 km from the hustle-bustle of Shillong, the capital of hilly Meghalaya in Northeast India, even further down from the main connectivity in Sohra, lies Kongthong, a village that offers a lot more than meets the eye.

Well known for its unique tradition of naming a child by a tune, Kongthong has caught the attention of many in the recent past. Apart from having a name like everyone else, their unique identity is their tune.

The tune comes from the mother who is still recovering after giving birth to the child. She sings a lullaby to the little child and realises the child responding to a particular tune, which sticks to the child for the rest of its life as its prime identity.

While sociologists and psychologists dug deep and tried to trace the roots of this practice, nothing concrete has come out so far.

‘Jingrwai iawbei’, the Khasi name for the tradition that means ‘song in honour of ancestress’, goes all the way back to ancient times
‘Jingrwai iawbei’, the Khasi name for the tradition that means ‘song in honour of ancestress’, goes all the way back to ancient times
EastMojo image

Meanwhile, the residents in Kongthong believe that 'jingrwai iawbei', the Khasi name for the tradition that means 'song in honour of ancestress', goes all the way back to ancient times and have grown up adopting this practice.

Pyrshang Mynring, local resident of Kongthong, said: “Giving a tune to a child just comes from within, we don’t think like names where we select from a long list. The tune just flows randomly and it’s just the strong emotions the mother has for her new born child. Even when a person is dead his or her tune is not used again as it’s that person’s identity. The tune is very meaningful for a mother and at times it even brings tears to our eyes of being overjoyed.”

What is more surprising is that the tunes never seem to have any similarities with any of the person in the village. Every tune is unique and is an identity of a particular child or person.

However, it is not just Kongthong that practises the tradition but there are several other villages that have been following the tradition for decades.

Team EastMojo travelled to Mawmang, a village located at a 90-minute trek from Kongthong. Cut off from the outside world with no motorable road, the locals of Mawmang travel to and fro through this risky terrain and have no other route apart from this path amid the dense jungle.

Although practised with the same values, the unique tradition has slight differences from the one practised in Kongthong.

“We do follow the same practise but there are slight differences. One is the jingrwai iawbei that has been given to us by our mother and the other is the tune given to us by our friends. During our time of enjoyment among friends we come up with a tune for each other. But that tune doesn’t have prominence like the one given to us by our mother,” said Arman Majaw, Sordar Shnong of Mawmang.

After the birth of a baby, the mother sings a lullaby and realises the child responding to a particular tune, which sticks to him or her for the rest of his or her life
After the birth of a baby, the mother sings a lullaby and realises the child responding to a particular tune, which sticks to him or her for the rest of his or her life
EastMojo image

While most of the villages remained in the shadows all these years, it was only after reports of the tradition in Kongthong made it to news that the other villages also came forward to be recognised as well. Over 20 other villages that fall under khatar shnong, where khatar means a clan or tribe and shnong meaning village, follow the same practice.

Cominghome Pohnong, headman of Kongthong village, said that it was after Kongthong being recognised that the other villages came forward and said that they do follow the same practice. “As you’ve seen the media reports how people in the neighbouring villages [are] demanding to be recognised. So we had a meeting and discussed how their practices were and from that meeting, I understood that it’s the same practice,” said Pohnong.

The tradition was also able to attract scholars of the North Eastern Hill University (NEHU) in Shillong. A research on this practice was carried out but traces of its origin couldn’t be found.

Professor AK Nongkynrih of sociology department in NEHU who is familiar with the practice followed in Kongthong and neighbouring villages, said, “It is very difficult to give the exact details or historic information of how this practice came about. What’s important is that this is part of the child-rearing practices that have been handed down from generation to generation. So it’s very hard to trace where and when all of this began.”

Nongkynrih added that people should understand that every community in the world has their own way of child-rearing. “For example, in Khasi society, children are generally not called by their names but are called by their kinship name like ‘Bahdeng’ or ‘Bah Bah’. So, right at a very early age, this practice is adopted at home. Likewise, we have this rich tradition in khatar shnong areas who over generations acquire this indigenous way of calling a child by using a particular sound. And these practises have nothing to do with religion or war fought back then because that would be too much of conjecture. But we can look at this in a practical manner and call it a rich tradition in child rearing practises where a mother gives the unique tune and it becomes known and familiar to people around,” said Nongkynrih.

Broom cultivation is the only source of livelihood for the villagers of Mawmang in Meghalaya’s East Khasi Hills district
Broom cultivation is the only source of livelihood for the villagers of Mawmang in Meghalaya’s East Khasi Hills district
EastMojo image

While the unique tradition has always been a highlight of these villages, their struggle in making ends meet has remained off the books. Broom cultivation is the only source of livelihood.

With no road to pick up or transport the brooms, daily wage labourers take the risk to carry 50-60 kg of broom on their back and walk to Kongthong through a risky terrain.

"We prefer to carry them on our own. Men carry 50-60 kg, women carry around 20 kg, there are a few who are able to collect 100 kg. They opt to hire a labourer and pay them Rs 4-5 per kg," said Daplin Shabong, a resident of Kongthong.

With no proper access to road, the labourers have to go out of their way to make ends meet but only to find that what they are paid is not even worth the risk that they have to take.

“I feel that we are still far behind from other places, with no roads and any other options to make ends meet. I depend on carrying brooms to Kongthong, the price rate is Rs 4 per KG and I carry 50-60 kg it keeps varying, also setting a target of 4 trips in a day. The brooms once dropped at Kongthong are then purchased by wholesale buyers and they are also measured and loaded into the truck. Most importantly these buyers don’t come every day, Saturday is when they come to purchase the brooms so we ensure that we bring as much as we can to Kongthong,” said PhlensonNongrum, a resident of Mawmang.

While their struggle for survival still continues, tourism remains the only option for them that may help them in boosting their livelihood.

While only Kongthong is accessible for tourists, the remaining villages that practise the same tradition are longing to host tourists from all over the world as it will not just promote the tradition but also provide a more sustainable livelihood which is currently dependent only on broom cultivation.

Kongthong village or areas falling under Khatar shnong may have made it to the headlines but the challenges that the people in these areas face are yet to come to the fore. People from all across the world may have visited Kongthong but what’s unfortunate is that Kongthong or any of the other villages are nowhere seen in any of the sightseeing lists of Meghalaya.