Philosophy behind ka Rongbiria (Khasi Archery)


By Fabian Lyngdoh

     ‘Ka Rongbiria’ is the most popular sport or game among the Khasis. Before the Khasis establish any type of social activity, they institute a covenant as the ground of which that activity is legitimized. Hence, to institute ‘ka hok’ (rights, privileges or rationale) for the sport of ‘ka Rongbiria’, the ancestors of the Khasis stood on the covenant of a mythology that ‘ka Mei Hukum’ (legislative attribute of God) has gifted this form of sport for pleasure, joy or merriment to ka Shinam and her husband u Mangring, who in turn handed it over to their sons, u Batiton and u Shynna.

     The life of a Khasi is bound by religious and social covenants. He is always surrounded by what he should do and should not do. First and foremost, a Khasi is bound as a member of his clan. He has to swim or sink together with his clan. The Khasis also believe that spoken words always constitute a covenant whether in favour or against the wellbeing of the speaker. The freedom of speech for a Khasi is bound by stringent restrictions. A Khasi therefore has to walk the straight but narrow path all through his life; he is expected to hold fast to customs and traditions, to obey without demure the instructions of his uncles. His life is surrounded by numerous religious covenants, social covenants as well as individual covenants which he has created in his social interactions.

But the ancestors of the Khasis had understood that the lives of individuals in such stringent social situations would have been boring and mentally exhaustive, and it is for this reason that they instituted a covenant to establish the sport of archery which acts as a relief or a safety valve to reduce the stress and strain of normal daily life. The purpose of ‘ka Rongbiria’ is to release man from all covenants, and from relationships with spiritual beings other than ka Mei Hukum, so that he may experience and enjoy free and simple childlike pleasures. It is a sanctioned break or relaxation from the following aspects of the normal way of life:

     First, it is a break from the circle of the clan. In normal life, whatever a Khasi does is always in the name of his clan, and for whatever he does or speaks, his clan is collectively responsible. But in the ‘Rongbiria’ a man enters the field in the name of his team and whatever he does or speaks would affect the victory or defeat of his team, but in no way would there be any repercussion to his clan. In normal life it is a serious taboo for a man to counter his uncle or any member of his clan in any situation. But in the ‘Rongbiria’ he can enter the field with a team opposite to his uncle’s team, and he can even speak derogatory words against his uncle for the sake of victory at the target because ‘ka Mei Hukum’ has given the permission to two brothers, u Batiton and u Shynna to compete against each other in the game.

     Second, it is a break from the covenant of the word. During the game of the ‘Rongbiria’ whatever a man speaks begins and ends within the field of the game, and does not constitute a covenant that would have repercussions on his normal life in the society. So, a man can speak whatever he likes within the capacity of his human intellect to institute his offensive argument (siang-nia) or to return defensive arguments (said-nia) to neutralise the offensive argument put forward by the opposite party. His argument concerns only with his winning or losing in the game and that is decided by the number of his team’s arrows hitting the target (skum). During the game of ‘ka Rongbiria’, players can even speak words that would be immoral in normal life, or they can speak derogatory words against their opponents because they are permitted to do so by the covenant of the game. It is believed, that victory depends not so much on the skills of the archers, but on the strength of the offensive and defensive arguments of the leader of the team. In ‘ka Rongbiria’ no one can invoke the intervention of any cult in the names of gurus, deities of hills and forests or spirits of the dead.

     Third, it is a break from the covenant of ka Hok (Divine Justice). In normal life, a Khasi fears ka Hok and dreads its punishment because the favour of ka Hok always stands on the side of the righteous. A thief, murderer, adulterer, nongshohnoh etc. is despised by the people, and he lives in continual fear of the judgment of ka Hok. But in the field of ‘ka Rongbiria’ even such a person is absolved from his sins because ka Hok does not interfere in the game of ka Mei Hukum. If he has the skill and the argument, even a sinner can win and the holiest man can lose when ka Mei Hukum decides the victor at the target.

     Fourth, it is a break from the covenant of ‘ka sot’ (religious covenant). In the field of ‘ka Rongbiria’ the individual covenants of all participants are stripped off, and they are also released from the provisions of ka sot. In normal life, a man who has no clan or whose clan has become extinct loses all rights in the socio-political and religious affairs of the society however wise or intelligent he might be. But that socio-religious code is not applicable in ka ‘Rongbiria’. A person of an extinct clan without ‘ka sad ka sunon’ is equal to anyone else in the field of ka ‘Rongbiria’, and depending on his own ‘ka rngiew’ (spiritual personality) he may even defeat the ‘syiem’ (secular leader) or the ‘lyngdoh’ (religious leader) of the community. In ‘ka Rongbiria’, ka Mei Hukum does not judge man’s victory or defeat on the basis of his personal covenant but on the basis of his physical skill and verbal argument.

     Fifth, it is a break from ‘ka kambhah-kam-bynta.’ The Khasis believe that man’s life is determined by his fate. But man’s fate is not determined by God or by any other authority but by his own choice. Khasi folklore says that before a man is born into the world by his mother, ‘ka Lei Synshar’ (God, the Allocator and Ruler) has allocated (buh-bynta) and laid out various types of fate (siang sla) before him from among which he has to choose only one without knowing what kind of fate that ‘sla’ has in store for him, otherwise he cannot come into the world. It may be a ‘sla’ of good luck or bad luck, of victory or defeat, of wellbeing or poverty. This act of choosing one’s fate is called ‘ka kambhah-kambynta’. But in ‘ka Rongbiria’ even this self chosen fate does not apply, as ka Lei Synshar too does not interfere with the will of ka Mei Hukum. In the field of ‘ka Rongbiria’ there is no good luck or bad luck; everybody is equal to anybody else, and victory depends on who can manipulate the prevalent situations according to the conditions laid down by ka Mei Hukum.

     Besides the above five socio-religious breaks, the game of ‘ka Rongbiria’ is also a practice or training in the art of physical warfare as well as in the art of making offensive and defensive arguments for verbal warfare. For physical warfare, the youth are trained to handle the bow and arrows; and for verbal warfare, the elderly men train themselves in the art of launching offensive arguments to establish a covenant of victory called ‘ka siang-nia, and returning of defensive arguments called ‘ka said-nia’, to nullify the victory covenant of the opponent. The Khasis believe that victory in war does not depend only on the strength and fighting skills of the warriors, but it depends mainly on the favour of ka Hok (Divine Justice). When engaging in a war, the people of one hima (state) should establish sufficient reason to justify why they have to fight a war, and why they have to win and the other hima is to be defeated. It is for this reason that the Khasis call a war, ‘ka thma-ka ktien’ (the war-the word).

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