Hues of November: Get to know our Local Festivals
Snow would be the easy
way out – that softening
sky like a sigh of relief
at finally being allowed
to yield. No dice.
We stack twigs for burning
in glistening patches
but the rain wouldn’t give.
So we wait, breeding
Mood, making music
of decline. We sit down
in the smell of the past
and rise in a light
that is already leaving.
We ache in secret,
November for Beginners, Rita Dove
November in Shillong is a sight to behold. As autumn enters its last phase, one gets to see cherry blossoms against the skyline; the morning sunlight brings out the most glorious hues of the blossoms . Then slowly they bid goodbye even as leaves begin to show on the trees. The Cherry Blossom rings in the Wangala Festival, the Seng KutSnem and the Shad Nongkrem before it bids adieu. This year there was no festival to welcome these pink blossoms.
And as we gently slide into the winters, the blue skies too recede and it’s time to be ready for the harsh winter in these hills. It’s also a time when local festivals are celebrated with great gusto.
Before December sets in, people remember and pray to their ancestors, singing songs, united in dance and stories of the past. Come listen to a story of how these festivals began.
Imagine living in 19th century undivided Assam. The year was 1899 when elders of the community like Rash Mohan Roy Nongrum and Chandra Nath Roy Sawian are concerned about the fate of their indigenous ways of life and gather a group of 16 young men from the Khasi community to save their culture and heritage from the British onslaught, and Christian missionary activity. An idea is born and with it, a distinct flag, red in colour with the symbol of the cock inside a white circle that represents the world, gives birth to the Khasi Young Men’s Association to defy British rule. At the turn of the century in 1901, this becomes the Seng Khasi Movement.
Caught in a time warp? Fast forward to 2020 and it’s the 121st anniversary of this Movement, celebrated every year as Seng KutSnem on November 23, a day before the Khasi New Year. It is believed to be the foundation day of the Khasi people. ‘Seng Kut’ refers to the act of building a fortress to protect the values, beliefs, culture and traditions of the community. It has become one of the most important state festivals of Meghalaya. On this day, followers of the Seng Khasi gather to remember their ancestors and the oral traditions, passed down from generation to generation.
People dress up in their traditional attire and elders of the community recall the memories of their predecessors, thankful for their contribution in protecting the rich heritage of the Khasis. Prayer services are held in the Seng Khasi Hall at Mawkhar, followed by flag hoisting by the elders. Traditional games, folk dances and other events mark the day.
Thanking the Gods
Ever since the dawn of civilization, indigenous cultures across the world held dance rituals in honour of powerful Gods and Goddesses associated with the land. A common thread that unites all these deities is the belief that they bless the land, when happy and cause harm to crops when incensed. The purpose of these rituals is to appease these divine creators.
One such dance festival celebrated by the Khasis is held at Smit, the cultural centre of the HimaKhyrimevery year. A five- day long event, this dance is called the Ka Shad Nongkrem (the Nongkrem Dance). Some of the elders used to call this festival Ka PomblangSyiem.
This harvest Thanksgiving festival is held to appease the Goddess Ka BleiSynshar, thanking her for the good yield and praying for peace and prosperity. Religious rituals kick-start the event. An offering is given to Lei Shyllong, the God of Shyllong Peak, for whom, a cock is sacrificed. Goats or ‘kiblang’ are sacrificed. Pom Blang which means slaughtering goats is an important aspect of this festival. Offerings are made, not just to the first uncle of the deity of the Shillong Peak, but also the ancestor and ancestress of the ruling Syiem clan.
People dress in their traditional attire in red and yellow colour combination. The gold and silver crowns stand for the glory and dignity of the Khasi society. Only the young maiden from the SyiemNongkrem family wears a gold crown and she dances under a red umbrella which signifies her royal status, as told by BhadorManikSyiem, nephew of the SyiemNongkrem. She joins the dancers and remains in the centre. Dancers don’t wear shoes.
Sunday Shillong spoke to a member of the Syiem’s family who said that it’s a matter of convenience as shoes would make dancing, uncomfortable. When asked whether it could also mean that the Khasi people are rooted to earth, Mrs KR Syiem said that it may have been so during the ancient times and its, something that evolved organically.
A double-reed, conical-bore wind instrument known as the Tangmuri, and drums are played while the dancers form a ring – women dancing inside the circle subtly while the men are more energetic. They hold swords on their right hand and white yak whisks, on their left. The Tangmuri is regarded to be the queen of instruments and prayers are offered to it. Food also forms an important part of this festival as local cuisine comprising a Khasi form of biryani or jadoh is served with chicken or pork dishes.
Ancient cultures share a close relationship with the circle. It is symbolic of the divine feminine, the Sun and fertility. No wonder then that ancient folk-dance forms are almost always performed in a circle.
Tucked away in the hills is another dance form, celebrated by the Garo tribe. It’s called the Wangala Dance and is their version of harvest Thanksgiving. Some of the other names used to describe this particular festival are the Hundred Drums Festival and WanmaRongchua. Here too, women dance inside the circle while the men dance outside of it with their enthusiastic cries, wielding machete and shield, and paying homage to their warrior roots.
Besides Meghalaya, or more precisely Garo Hills, the Garos also inhabit Nagaland, Tripura and parts of Assam in India and Sylhet, Netrokona and Mymensingh in Bangladesh. This festival is in honour of the Sun-god, Saljong, who is the God of Fertility and is also known as the Great Giver. Religious rituals are performed. The Nokma or the chief takes centre stage as he begins the dance. Rice beer known as Bithchi or Ciu is prepared and the chief passes the same to the young and the elders of the community. Sacrifices are offered to appease the Gods for peace and prosperity.
The Wangala Festival lasts from two days to a week. Drums, horns and flutes are the musical instruments that dominate the music of this festival. In the Garo Hills, followers of the indigenous faith, Songsarek celebrate the festival differently – also every village has a unique way of observing the festival with village haats being an important element of Wangala, celebrated by followers of the Songsarek faith. The playing of 100 drums also has significance from the tourism perspective and is more urban in nature.
Winter in the hills is symbolic of transformation; that abundance will follow. The people of Meghalaya through their age-old traditions know this and gracefully allow change to flow in like the river…just as Spring follows winter.