Behdieñkhlam: Fulfilling the Covenant

By H H Mohrmen

It is incomplete to describe Behdieñkhlam by its literary meaning which means, ‘to eradicate or rid off plague, epidemic or pestilence and evil. It is also not about the people and how nature had influence their farming culture and agricultural practices only; it is not just a cultural festival either. In fact it has multiple meanings. It begins with the clans offering food to their ancestors and culminates with the bringing of the ‘rongs’, and the competition amongst the dancer to touch the ‘Symbood khnong and the Khnong-blai’ which will in turn bless them with good health and finally the untying of the knots ‘kdoh sarang’ which is the official closure of the festivals. But the essence of the Behdieñkhlam is in the different meanings that it has which helps people connect with the most important festival of the hills.   

There are altogether six annual Behdieñkhlam festivals celebrated by the Pnars of different communities called Raids at different points of time in a year. The timing is significant because it links with the farming activities of the people. Of the six Behdieñkhlam festivals, the first one is celebrated by the raid Chyrmang, followed by the raid Jowai, Tuber, Ïalong, Mukhla and finally the raid Muthlong and all the festivals have different connotations which is relevant to their own raids. And each and every Behdieñkhlam celebrate by different raids has myriads of meanings unique to the particular area.  

One symbolic representation of the Behdieñkhlam which is rarely mentioned is that it is the fulfilment of the covenant. Yes, Behdieñkhlam is the fulfilment of the covenant between humans and God, before He decided to go settle in his rightful place in the heavens far from his creation. There are two lessons that can be learned from this symbolic meaning of Behdieñkhlam which of course is part of the creation stories according to the Pnar version of the Hynñiewtrep Hynñiewskum.

This implies that like the other monotheistic religions, particularly the Abrahamic religion which include Judaism, Christianity and Islam, the Pnars too believe in a Sky God, or God in heaven who lives far away from his people. Although Pnars also give offerings to the other deities in their pantheon of gods like ‘ka Syiem wabooh, u Ryngkaw u basa also known as ka Syiem Rymaw, ka Syiem Sngi, u Syiem pyrthat and ki blai chnong ki blai raid, yet u Tre kirod is the supreme God in the belief system. But another striking similarity that the Niamtre has with the other monotheistic religions particularly those from Judeo-Christian tradition is the importance of covenants.

According to the Jewish tradition, their God is a covenant-making and covenant-keeping God and there are many instances in the holy book of the Jews or the Hebrew Bible in which He entered into covenant with humans. And in all these covenants made, man is the beneficiary with very little to offer in return apart from loving devotion and faithful service to Him (Deuteronomy 7: 7-11). The word which is used in the original Jewish scripture for ‘covenant,’ is BERITH the origin of which is from a root which means ‘to cut or divide.’ BERITH as the word suggests, means a sacrificial custom in connection with covenant-making; it is a customs of dividing the animal by which the covenant was ratified, and laying them out in two halves for the two or more parties. As is the custom, the contracting parties would then “walk between the pieces” to establish the covenant (Genesis 15:10; Jeremiah 34:18-19).

But when the Holy Book or the Hebrew Bible was translated to the dominant language of the time, and particularly for use by the diaspora or the non-Hebrew speaking Jews, the corresponding word found in the Septuagint, the Greek translation of the Hebrew Bible and in the New Testament Greek is DIATHEKE. The Greek differentiates between a covenant where one party is the benefactor and the other the recipient (diatheke) and other covenants made between equal parties, where the word SUNTHEKE is used. The Greek word ‘Suntheke’ which means to place together, in other words a two way arrangement or coming together in agreement, also carries the original meaning of the Hebrew word.

A ‘diatheke’ covenant can be between a superior person and lesser mortals, such as between a king and his subjects, whereas a ‘suntheke’ covenant is between equals, such as in Romans 1:31 & Luke 22: 5. Every Biblical covenant is a ‘diatheke’ covenant, being instituted by God as the initiator, to humankind who has the liberty to exercise their free will to either accept, or rebel and reject God’s covenants. It may also be noted that the English word used to denote the two books in the Christian Bible is Testament. In the Christian tradition, the Hebrew Bible was designated as the Old Testament, where one can find the old covenant that God had with His (chosen) people which also laid the foundation for the new and the ultimate covenant as found in the Christians scriptures. The Christian scriptures include the four gospels and the other Book written during the early Christian period after Jesus Christ had died.

The point is that God making a covenant with humans is not restricted to the Abrahamic religion only, but it is common even in a tribal religion like the Niamtre. Although Niamtre is not a strict monotheistic religion because they also give offerings to other deities, yet it is a monotheistic tradition which believes in the existence of a Supreme God, U Blai Tre Kirod and the other deities are subordinate to the One. Like the God of the Jews in the Pnar of the Raid Jowai context too, God is not a Father in heaven, but a Supreme Being, the One and the only one. 

Similarly the covenant in the case of the Niamtre according to the creation stories as recorder by the people of raid Jowai, is that after God had placed all creation on the earth he instituted the religion by which people should worship and live their lives. And also after he had established moral laws and customs and traditions, he told them that it is time for Him to leave the Earth and move to the celestial world, his eternal dwelling place. But before He disappeared from their sight eternally, he made a covenant with the people that he will visit them in spirit once a year and asked humans to promise to provide Him special offerings during His annual visit to the Earth. However U Tre Kirod did not ask for assortments of offerings from the people, but he instead asked from them a dance to be performed in His deference with all of their heart and soul. A dance whatever the condition may be, and wherever it may be, and dance which could only be describe as a dance in the spirit.        

Behdieñkhlam is therefore not only about beating the rooftops to chase away illness and evil-spirits; it is the Pnar’s way of honouring the Almighty on his annual sojourn to visit them; it is keeping the covenant they made with U Tre Kirod, when he, in the beginning came down to make arrangements for the seven huts to settle on Earth. The covenant is diatheke wherein God is asking nothing from his children but a dance of a joyful spirit and He in return will bless them with good health and prosperity. The four days and three nights Behdieñkhlam festival is an important time for the people, because it is the time that they not only welcome God to the Raid the chnong, the community or to their hearths and homes but more importantly it is the time when they welcome Him into  their hearts and into their souls.