Behdieiñkhlam a prayer for bountiful harvest and more

By HH Mohrmen

Very often Behdieiñkhlam is defined by the literary meaning of the name of the festival. The term beh-dieñ-khlam comprises of three words ‘Beh’ meaning to get rid of, ‘dieñ’ meaning wood or a log and ‘khlam’ meaning plague, epidemic or pestilence. So Beh-dieñ-khlam literarily means a festival to get rid of the plague but that is not what Behdieñkhlam is all about.

Very few people know that altogether there are six Behdieñkhlam festivals celebrated by the Pnars throughout the year, the first Behdieñkhlam was celebrated by the raij Chyrmang, then followed by the raij Jowai, Tuber, Ialong, Mukhla and raij Muthlong. The celebration of the Raij Ialong Behdieñkhlam was concluded last Saturday at Pyrda near the Ialong park and the community sacred grove. The year long celebration of Behdieñkhlam will conclude with that of the raij Muthlong.

Rupaia Lamarr lecturer of Kiang Nangbah Government College has aptly described the festival when he said: “Behdieñkhlam is an agrarian festival which is a testimony to an advanced culture of wetland cultivation as against the jhum cultivation practiced by other indigenous communities.” Lamarr also said, “It is during the festival that family members and relatives experience the joy of homecoming. It is a time to be at home with Mother Nature and dance on its lap, its soil and its water. Behdieñkhlam also expresses the relationship between man and god, man and nature and man with his fellow men.” He also added that “at the community level Behdieiñkhlam is a joint effort to drive away evil and diseases; the prayers and sacrifices offered to god are for good health, for the economy and the society.”

K.C. Rymbai Daloi of elaka Jowai recently confirmed to this writer that the festival indeed has a fine connection with the agricultural activities of the people. The main part of the festival is the council of the 4 high priests of the four raijs, the raij Jowai, raij Tuber, raij Chyrmang and Ialong. Rymbai also said that every part of the rituals performed throughout the year in preparation for Behdieñkhlam are intricately linked with agriculture. The significance of Thoh Langdoh is that after the ritual is performed then people can start planting cucumber, pumpkins, beans and various types of vegetables and it is only after another ceremony ka Chat thoh that farmers can start tilling their paddy fields.

The various Behdieiñkhlam festivals celebrated by the different raij also indicate the many important events of rice cultivation. The first raij to celebrate Behdieñkhlam is the raij Chyrmang and it symbolises that the time for tilling the paddy fields has started. The Jowai Behdieñkhlam signifies the season after the seeds have been sown and the raij Tuber’s Behdieiñkhlam coincides with the time that farmers have done with weeding the fields, while the raij Ialong celebrates its Behdieiñkhlam when the rice plant starts to flowers and the celebration of the raij Mukhla’s festival indicates the advent of the harvest season.

So Behdieiñkhlam is not merely about driving out plague and pestilence but it testifies to the fact that the Pnars of Jaintia Hills were the first tribe in the region to graduate from jhum cultivation to a more developed farming practice, while their counterparts like the War Jaintia, the Karbis and even the Biates still practice jhum cultivation till as recently as the early nineties.

Though the main features of the festival is the same in all the Behdieñkhlam, yet there are some variation in the rituals the different raij use to perform their sacrifices. In Jowai; the three days and four nights Annual Behdieiñkhlam festival of the Pnars always starts with the tradition of offering food to the ancestors in a tradition called “Ka Siang ka Pha” or “Ka Siang ka Phur.” Of course preparation for the annual Behdieñkhlam festival starts many months ago but the immediate rituals and sacrifices that precede the designated days of the festival are the ‘kñia khang’ performed on Muchai; the first day after the market day of the week and ‘kñia pyrthad’ sacrifice to the thunder god on the Mulong the seventh day of the same week. But the festival officially begins on the sixth day (Pynsiñ) of the eight days a week traditional calendar of the Jaintias.

The feast of offering food to the dead is a mark of veneration and gratitude to the ancestors and the forbearers of the clan and the holders of tradition. In the Khasi Pnar concept of the afterlife, departed souls reside with the Creator and eat betel nuts in the courtyard of his abode. The spirit of the death (ki syngngia ki saret) every year, descend down to the Earth to partake in the feast provided by the descendants who are still alive in the world to propitiate the departed souls. Ka Siang ka pha is celebrated by every clan except when there is sickness in the family or if death has just occurred in the family. The family which had just met with bereavement, does not perform the rituals because the annual ‘ka siang ka pha’ has already been offered to the departed souls as part of the last rites of a person. It begins with family informing the children of their maternal uncles or their brothers (khon kha) about the preparation for the offerings to the ancestors. The ‘khon kha’ offers money (pyn-nam) as a token of respect, love and affection to their paternal family. This also has a connection with one of the cardinal principles of the Khasi-Pnar known as (ka tip kur tip kha,) respect for one’s family of both mother’s and father’s side. Not all clans perform their offerings to the dead on Pynsiñ. There are also clans which perform ‘ka siang ka pha’ on Muchai the last day of the festival.

In the traditional calendar “Mulong,” is the day before the market day “musiang,” the market day in Jowai is also the second day of the fest. By the end of the day all the Dieñkkhlam, i.e. all 9 round neatly carved logs are kept at their allotted place in the Iawmusiang area. The 9 Dieñkkhlams cut from huge trees are prepared and carried to their respective places at Iawmusiang by the 7 localities namely Tpep-pale, Dulong, Panaliar, Lumiongkjam, Iongpiah, Loompyrdi Iongpiah, Loomkyrwiang and Chilliang Raij being the khon Raij was by tradition given the responsible to prepare and bring two round logs called ‘Khnong blai’ and ‘Symbood khnong’.

The third day of the holy week is “Musiang.” It is also the last day of the week and on this particular day all the Dieñkhlam and the Khnong are carried from the heart of Jowai town to the respective localities. Apart from the seven dieñkhlam and two khnong; hundreds of trees which are between 15 to 19 feet tall, called ‘ki Dieñkhlam khian (small Dieñkhlam) are cut by the followers of the Niamtre. Two or three of these tiny Dieñkhlam are kept in the frontage or patio of every house of the followers of the Niamtre. The tiny Dieñkhlam are used when the community dancers come to bless the house with proper rituals and use it to beat the rooftops of the house to symbolize the ridding away of the plague and evil spirits from the house while praying to the almighty God to bless the family. By tradition every tree cut during Behdieñkhlam is done with proper rituals and pleading for exoneration from the Mother Nature (Bei ram-aw) and the Ryngkaw the basa, the gods; the guardian angels of the area.

Muchai is the last day of the Behdieñkhlam festival of the Jowai Raij and it is also the first day of the eight-day week traditional calendar. The ritual starts in the wee hours of morning with the tradition of ‘kyntiñ khnong’ at the official house of the priestess. The programme is followed by the Ka Bam tyngkong led by the Daloi at the clan-house of the first four settlers of Jowai town. But the main part of the festival is the coming together of all the khon (children) ka Niamtre at the sacred Aitnar, a pond in which the last significant part of the festival is performed. The ‘ia knieh khnong’ traditions at the sacred pool is when men compete to set foot on the ‘khnong’ symbolizing the cleansing of the souls and blessing for good health.

The ritual arrives its climax when the colourful Rots are brought by the many localities (dong) of Jowai town to be displayed at the Aitnar; the beautiful Rots are then thrown away as part of the offering.

Dat Lawakor, the last part of the Behdieñkhlam is about the farming community in the Jowai Raij, asking god to indicate which of the two valleys around Jowai, the Pynthor neiñ or the Pynthor wah will yield a good harvest in a particular year. It is a sort of football played by using a wooden ball with no goals bars. The only rule of the game is that the team which can carry the ball to the designated end wins and it is believed that the particular direction will reap better harvest that year. (The author is a researcher and environmental activist)

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