Hinduism in Jaiñtia Hills & Celebration of Durga Puja in Nartiang

By H H Mohrmen

Come October and people wake up to the fact that there are Pnars who celebrate Durga Puja and although these people have themselves converted to another religion, yet this is something they cannot comprehend. Along with other traditional festivals, Durga Puja is one of the festivals which is celebrated by a section of the indigenous Pnars in Jaiñtia hills particularly those in Nartiang. Many o ask how come the Pnars in Nartiang follow Hinduism? To this my response is that it is a long story.

Perhaps it is not wrong to say that the second oldest religion in the Jaiñtia hills is Hinduism, second only to the traditional Niamtre religion. And unlike Christianity or Islam, Niamtre is not an organised religion and its core is the family and only certain aspects of the religion are connected with the Raid or the Chnong. But the situation in Nartiang and Jaiñtiapur is unique because the Pnars in this area simultaneously celebrate Puja along with traditional rites and passages, and also follow the Pnar customs and traditions.

Uttam Deshmukhya, Pandit (wamon) of the Durga temple in Nartiang who died some years ago told this scribe that of the four pujas that are celebrated in Nartiang, namely Holi, Bishari (Manasha puja), and Kartik puja – Durga is the most popular festival. Records mention that there are altogether five ancient Hindu temples in Jaiñtia hills, two in Nartiang the Durga and Shiv temple another in Syndai and another in Muktapur on the Indo-Bangladesh border and the last temple is at Borkhat. It may also mentioned that apart from the Pnars in Nartiang, those who stayed back and lived in Jaiñtiapur the capital of the erstwhile Jaiñtia Kingdom which is now part of Bangladesh continue with the tradition of blending traditional Niamtre  custom and practices with Hinduism, but this needs further study .

As per tradition, the Jaiñtia Kingdom was earlier known as ‘Ka Hima Sutnga’ and the Kings were commonly called ‘Ki Syiem Sutnga, but the question is how and when and why the Kingdom changed its name from Sutnga to Jaintia or Jayantia? The question is why they adopted the title of the Jaiñtia kings. Tradition has it that the Jaiñtia king adopted the name of the kingdom they had conquered instead of keeping the original Sutnga title, after they had captured Jaiñtiapur. After the victory the capital of the kingdom was also moved from Sutnga to Jaiñtiapur and the kingdom was also named after the new capital.

The other reason could also be because Sutnga or Nartiang as the case may be was located in the hills and in a very remote region while Jaiñtiapur is much closer to the outside world and it was easily connected via water ways and land ways. Jaiñtiapur was easy to access and the people were much more advanced and also the court was run by literate people. Perhaps it was also because Jaiñtiapur was a much bigger Kingdom than Sutnga, that they adopted the title. Hence the name Jayantia got preference over Sutnga in giving the name of the new kingdom after the two were merged. These factors also contribute in making the Jaiñtia kingdom one of the mightiest kingdoms in the region which even had the capacity to issue its own coins. Numismatists of the region are also not certain if there are Khasi kings other than the Jaiñtias who issued coins.

There is a general consensus amongst most of the scholars that before Jayantia was captured by the Sutnga, it was a Brahmanical Kingdom which is believed to be in existence since the 13th century till the Sutnga kings came to power in the 1500, (Bhathacharjee JB, forward in the book (N.G. Rhodes & S.K. Bose The Coinage of Jaintiapur P-1) It was after the Sutnga king was able to subdue the rulers of the Kingdom that it was merged with Sutnga. And when the Jaintiapur Kingdom was annexed by the British in 1835 its boundary extended from Surma to the South (Sylhet in Bangladesh), Gobha –Sunapur on the North (Assam) and it also included the hills which are now part of the Jaintia hills District of Meghalaya. (Bhathacharjee JB, forward in the book The Coinage of Jaintiapur P-1 by N.G. Rhodes & S.K. Bose)

It is worth mentioning that the Jaiñtia royal family did not convert entirely to Hinduism, but adopted only the tantric aspects of the religion while keeping with their culture as the Pnar. The Pnar or Synteng are ethnically kindred to the Khasis, an offshoot of the Austro-Asiatic speaking Mon-Khmer race of Southern Asia. It was not clear when the ruling family of the Jaiñtia Kingdom who were Pnars from Sutnga converted or rather adopted certain aspects of Hinduism as part of their religion. S.N. Lamare attributes the beginning of the influence of Hinduism on the people of Jaiñtia in general and the Royal family in particular to the time of the king whose name is Bor Kuhaiñ (Lamare SN the Jaiñtia Studies and Change P-73). However S.M. Ali pointed out the Jaiñtia King as well as maintaining their culture and tradition also adopted certain aspects of Hinduism when they became the rulers of the grand Jaiñtia Kingdom. He further stated that it was the daughter of the Koch king who came from a ‘supposedly’ more enlightened kingdom who introduced Hindu customs of worship in the Royal family. (SM Ali, the History of Jaintia Hills P-14).

It must be reiterated that till the last of the Jaiñtia Kings, the Kurs remain and continue with the Pnar tradition as well as adopting certain aspects of Hinduism in their day to day life. There are three factors which help us to conclude that they kept the tribal tradition even if they were greatly influenced by the religion and the culture of the plains people. The most important point in justifying this argument is with regard to the inheritance to the throne. Unlike other dynasties in the region, the crown did not pass from the father to the child, but true to the matrilineal system of lineage to the last, it is either the nephew or the niece who inherits the throne from their uncle. The throne was always inherited by the nephew, the son of the youngest sister from maternal uncle who was the king (Shadap-Sen Namita Catherine, The origin and early history… P-90). Except for Raja Bor Kussain/Bar Gossain generally the uncle who took on the mantle to rule the Kingdom remain unmarried, just to keep the throne for their nephew or niece (SM Ali P- 33). The royal family continues to follow the matrilineal custom of inheritance.

They even continue with the tradition of inheriting property in which the youngest daughter gets the lion’s share of the family property. The Jaiñtia royal family keep this tradition even after the Kingdom was annexed by the British and the family remained in Jaiñtiapur and was paid a pension by the British. Visitors to the place also corroborated the fact that they continue to follow the Pnar culture (H.K. Singh, Na Jowai sha Jaintiapur, Ki Diengjat u Longshuwa). The fact that there are also monoliths in and around Jaiñtiapus which are still standing tall till today also validates the argument that ‘ki syiem Jaiñtia’ continue with their tribal customs and tradition even after they have inherited a Kingdom which has a strong Brahmanical tradition.

The reason that the Pnars in Nartiang celebrate Durga puja and other Hindu festivals is because the Jaiñtia Kings practice certain aspects of Hinduism and the people who are close to them also follow their king’s ways and customs. One hopes that this write up will help those who are not conversant with the subject to understand why and how the Pnars in Nartiang celebrate Durga puja. They are the remnants of the people who are close to the royal family; it will however be interesting to study the religious practices of the Pnars who live in Jaiñtiapur which is now in Bangladesh and understand the religion and customs they follow till date. It may be mentioned that although most of the Khasi Pnars who live in Bangladesh have converted to Christianity, the forty odd families in Jaiñtiapur continue with the tradition.

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