Travelling is not just seeing of sights. Sound matters! Darkness fell over the village, while we arrived at Kongthong, a small hamlet in the Khasi hills of Meghalaya. As soon as we got down from the car, we heard a high-pitch sound like birds chirping! Then again, another sound! And another! Yes! Here we come! Kongthong, the village of musical names!
They call this custom ‘Jingrwai lawbei’, meaning ‘song of clan’s first woman’ and this first woman means the mythical original mother of Khasi people. In this village, everyone owns a special tune which is used by others while addressing him or her. These tunes sound like birds’ call. Apparently the tunes seem similar, but if you listen carefully, you will find that every tune differ from other. Unlike namesakes, here nobody’s name-tune matches with other’s one. These musical names die with the dead ones, as they are never re-used for next generation kids.
These unique melodies come directly out from mothers’ hearts. This is a spontaneous expression of a mother, while cuddling her newborn; and thus mother’s love remains lifetime with a kid as his/her identity.
Kongthong is surrounded by forests and here many people earn their livelihood by collecting honey and woods from the forest. Their musical names have longer and shorter versions. While in forest, if they are far away from each other, they communicate with the longer tunes, those may last up to 30 seconds; otherwise the shorter ones, lasting 2-3 seconds are commonly used. Well, they have official names too! Though rarely used; especially when one is angry with other, that time he/she applies the word-name for addressing.
As night fell before our arrival, therefore we did not get much exposure to this local tradition of Kongthong, but the unique designs of the wooden huts with thatched roofs, what they call ‘Ka lngtrep’ presented us a good glimpse of local life. The exteriors and interiors of the huts of our guest-house are also designed in this way. It was a winter night and we were happy to see an arrangement of wood-fire inside the hut, surprisingly with proper ventilation. A hanging loft was there loaded with more woods. Here, family members gather around the fire at night, chat, cook, take meals and keep them warm. There are small chambers, partitioned by curtains along the walls of the hut, where people sleep at night.
Interior of the hut allotted to us was so neat, systematic and well-maintained for guests that it seemed a little bit artificial to me; still we spent a wonderful evening around the fire; sipping local wine made out of rice & honey.
The welcome tea was served with a bowl of local honey. This honey was freshly extracted from the bee-hive and no alteration was done before serving. That is why beeswax was mixed with it. I have never tasted anything like it before.
After dinner, Rothell, the owner of the guesthouse sang his and his sister’s melodies for us. I thought that on next morning I would ask villagers their tunes and record them.
Morning came with a beautiful sunrise, but my expectation led me to complete disappointment, when we started exploring the village-life on next morning. Here, people are too shy to sing in front of us. Even the kids were running away when they were asked to sing their musical names. Only one lady introduced a boy with his designated melody. Here is the one and only one sample of ‘Jingrai Lawbei’ what I could record.
With time, we realized that we are actually making some stupid attempts. Calling each other by musical names is an age-old tradition. For us, the outsiders, it may seem amazing, but that does not mean that they would be ready to ‘perform’ their name-tunes, which is nothing but a daily life practice for them. Do we ever ask a stranger’s name without any context? Asking Kongthong people to sing name-melodies is equally awkward.
This reoriented mind set up actually helped us to explore things in the way they were coming naturally. We noticed how kids playing in the village playground were making tunes for communicating each other. A lady, standing on her doorstep sang a short melody and her little daughter came thereafter. A passerby stopped in front of a door and whistled addressing the people inside.
It was a bright sunny morning. The gentle breeze, the lusty-forested surroundings, the rolling hills around, the un-spoilt simplicity of the villagers…. What else do you need for a perfect bliss of leisure? It was Christmas morning & a differently able person was singing something from Bible in Khasi language; though here 80% of the villagers follow Niam Khasi, which means Khasi religion. We played some games with village kids; an old man was smoking local tobacco from a long wooden Khasi pipe & we got some counter! When both of us could manage to smoke from it, that became a spectacle for the villagers and we found us surrounded by kids, who had left their playground to observe this outsiders’ ‘show’! Anyway, we never smoke in front of the kids. So we stopped smoking.
While returning from Kongthong, we saw village-ladies placing stones on the road for making it paved. That means the bumpy, dusty road that we traversed through on yesterday would be no more. Good road-connectivity will draw more tourism, more money, and more professionalism. Will the villagers remain as simple and shy as today? Or will ask for money for ‘performing’ their musical identities as an obvious consequence of ‘human tourism’, which is happening all over today’s world!?
Call/WhatsApp : Rothell Khongsit +91 98560 60347
We paid Rs 2000 for a 4-bedded hut. Non vegetarian lunch/dinner – Rs 300 and breakfast Rs 100 per head (According to December 2018)
How to reach
Kongthong is around 54 kms away from Shillong, the capital of Meghalaya. The most hassle-free way to be there is by hired car. For direction, please click here:
The scenic beauty of the road towards Kongthong may make you take several photo-stops, so keep spare time in hand.
Wander with Reshmi & Saikat