Tuesday, July 16, 2024
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Significance of Ka Behdieñkhlam

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By HH Mohrmen

Many articles have been written about Behdieñkhlam, but it is not possible to describe the different facets of this great festival in one article or even in a single one book. Many a times the festival is described merely by explaining the name – Behdieiñkhlam. In Khasi Pnar vocabulary, the word khlam is used to describe a contagious illness which affects a large number of people and has the potential to kill many. It’s akin to the plague or pestilence or a disease killing large numbers of people at once.
According to the understanding of the Pnar elders, khlam is airborne or is transmitted from the air but they also believe that it is caused by bad spirits. According to the Pnar belief system, there are two different kinds of khlam, one which affects humans and the other which attacks only domesticated animals. Till date every once in a while, khlam occurs in the village and sweeps all the domesticated animals. As such people experience khlam regularly almost on an annual basis. This is just one description of the festival but an in-depth study of the festival will help one understand the other salient features of the festival.
It is connected to the agrarian culture of the people
The Pnar like those in any agrarian culture are influenced by their farming season and their festivals revolve around those farming activities. Hence, the larger part of the festival also has to do with their farming practices. The Pnar not only practice wetland cultivation but they also have many varieties of rice which prove that they are much ahead of their neighbouring communities when it comes to rice cultivation. Behdieñkhlam therefore, has a very strong link with the farming practices of the people.
Certain rituals performed in preparation of Behdieñkhlam are intricately linked to agriculture. The significace of thoh langdoh is that only after the ritual is performed can people start planting cucumber, pumpkins, beans and various types of vegetables and it is only after another ceremony ka chat thoh is performed, that farmers can start tilling their paddy fields. The last public celebration of Behdieiñkhlam is ka Datlawakor and it is also related to rice cultivation.
So Behdieñkhlam is not merely about the plague but it testifies to the fact that the Pnar of Jañtia were the first tribe in the region to improve their farming practices to a more developed wetland and rain-fed cultivation. Other festivals are either related to sowing or harvesting but Behdieñkhlam though connected to agriculture, is more than just about the farming practices of the people.
Ancestor veneration
In Jowai, the three days and four nights annual Behdieñkhlam festival always starts with the tradition of offering food to the ancestors. This is called ka Siang ka pha or ka Siang ka phur. The festival officially begins on the sixth day ka Pynsiñ of the eight day-week on the traditional calendar of the Pnar. It started with some clans performing the feast of offering food to the dead which is a mark of respect and gratitude to the ancestors, the forbearers of the clan and the tradition.
In the Khasi Pnar concept of the afterlife, departed souls reside with the Creator and eat betel nuts in the courtyard or corridor of his abode. Ki syngngia ki saret or the spirit of the death decend down to the worldly realm every year to partake in the feast provided by the descendants. The offering is 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 offerings because ka siang ka pha has already been offered to the departed souls as part of the last rites of a person.
A testimony to the principle of respecting the paternal family
Ka siang ka pha begins with family informing the children of their maternal uncles or their cousins (ki 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 link with one of the cardinal principle of the Khasi Pnar known as ka tip kur tip kha, respect for one’s family from both the mother’s and father’s side. Hence respect for one’s paternal relation goes beyond the worldly realm. But not all clans perform their offering to the death on pynsiñ. There are also clans which perform ka siang ka pha on muchai or Hat, or even on Khyllaw and some offer even on Musiang the day before the last day of the festival.
In the Pnar clan system, a man in spite of being married and having moved with his wife and children, if and when the man dies the dead body of the deceased is carried to his clan’s ancestral house called i kmai ïung or ïungblai. All the funeral rites are performed in his maternal family home and even the charred bones of the deceased are placed in mootyllein the clan’s repository stone or ossuary. Again, this also has a connection with ka tip kur tip kha one of the cardinal principles of the Khasi Pnar.
Since the offering is for all the departed souls, all kind of foods are placed in brass plates and it must always be in odd numbers five, seven or nine. Care is also being taken that favourite food of the deceased is placed as part of the offering which could be anything from fruits, cigarette or even alcohol.
Rekindling the human connection with the deities
Of course, preparation for the annual Behdieñkhlam festival starts from the month of March 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 before Behdieñkhlam and the kñia pyrthad sacrifice to the thunder god on the Mulong the seventh day of the same week. The main part of the festival is the council of the four high priests of the four raids, the raid Jowai, raid Tuber, raid Chyrmang and Ïalong.
The other significance of the festival is it is also a time to rekindle the connection between humans and God and all the deities and divinities. It is the time when the community invokes God and these deities ki Soo duar Soo luti, the four guardian angels, u blai pyrthad the Thunder god to protect them from plague or pestilence and it is for this reason that the festival is called Behdieñkhlam.
It also tells us about migration
Behdieñkhlam is also like a homecoming of the people of the different raids to the place of their origin. Since time immemorial, people originated from Jowai, Tuber, Ϊalong migrated to different parts of the district in search of livelihoods. Once a year, these people would join their brethren on the last day of the Behdieñkhlam which culminates at their respective place of origin.
People who were originally from the raid but have migrated to ki ryngkaw para or other regions revisit their place of origin during Behdieñkhlam. They make it a point to once a year come back to the place of their origin and take part in the celebration, hence in some ways it is also like a homecoming to their ancestral land and to touch base with the Beiramaw for the people from the raid who migrated to other parts of the district or the state. In the Behdieñkhlam of the raid Jowai, people of Jowai origin living in Shillong and Ummulong joined in the last day of the festival and bring their rots as a mark of respect. The most significance of the festival is that it is a covenant between man and God.
Fulfillment of the covenant
It goes back to the genesis of the Hynñew Trep when the God and his realm parted ways with the earthly beings, but before that the celestial realm and the Earth were connected to the divine. In the Khasi tradition it is believed to be via ‘u Diengϊei’ (the Diengiei tree) and amongst the Pnar ka tangnoop ka tang jri. Before they parted ways, God made a covenant that henceforth the divine realm will be beyond human reach but humans can reach out to the divine only through prayers, sacrifices and oblations, but U Trekirod will visit the earthly beings once a year. Humans on the other hand have to organize a festival befitting the honour of God to welcome Him and that is how the four days and three nights of the Behdieñkhlam came into being. The Behdieñkhlam is a fulfillment of the covenant between humans and God. (Mohrmen, HH (2021) Cultural History of Jañtia Hills in Stories, Stones and Traditions).

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