Behdieiñkhlam: Reliving the stories

Behdieiñkhlam is often defined by its literary meaning which comprises of three words beh-dieñ-khlam. ‘Beh’ literarily means to chase or to rid off and ‘dieñ’ means wood, tree or log and ‘khlam’ means plague, epidemic or pestilence. So literarily Behdieñkhlam means the festival to get rid of epidemic, plague and pestilence but is that what Behdieñkhlam is all about?

There are those who are of the opinion that “Behdieñkhlam is an agrarian festival which testifies to an advanced culture of wetland cultivation as against Jhum cultivation practiced by other indigenous communities.” It was also said that “during the festival family members and relatives experience the joy of homecoming. It is a time to be at home with Mother Nature and dance on its lap, its soil and its water. Behdieñkhlam also expresses the relationship between man and god, man and nature and man with fellow men.”

K.C. Rymbai Daloi of the elaka Jowai confirmed to this writer that the festival indeed has a fine connection with the agricultural activities of the people. The main part of the festival is the council of the four high priests of the four raijs, the raij Jowai, raij Tuber, raij Chyrmang and Ialong. Rymbai also said that every part of the rituals performed throughout the year in preparation of Behdieñkhlam are intricately linked with agriculture. The significance of Thoh Langdoh is that only after the ritual is performed then people can start planting cucumber, pumpkins, beans and various types of  vegetables and it is only after another ceremony ka Chat thoh that farmers can start tilling their paddy fields.

The various Behdieiñkhlam klam festivals celebrated by different raij also indicate the many important events of rice cultivation. The first raij to celebrate Behdieñkhlam is the raij Chyrmang and it indicates the beginning of the season for tilling the paddy fields. The Jowai Behdieñkhlam signifies the season when seeds have been placed on the lap of mother nature and the raij Tuber’s Behdieiñkhlam coincides with the time that farmers have done with weeding their fields. The raij Ialong celebrates its Behdieiñkhlam when the rice plants start to flowers and the celebration of the raij Mukhla’s festival indicates the advent of the harvest season.

The four days and three nights Annual Behdienkhlam festival of the Pnars always starts with the tradition of offering food to the ancestors. In the afternoon of the first day, families prepare offerings with all sorts of foods bought from the market to offer to their ancestor in a tradition call “Ka Siang ka Pha” or “Ka Siang ka Phur.” Therefore part of the festival also has to do with veneration of the loved ones who are no more.

Of course preparation for the Behdieñkhlam festival starts several months ahead 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. But the festival officially begins on the sixth day (Pynsiñ) of the eight- day week traditional calendar of the Jaintias.

In every Behdieñkhlam festival, nine huge trees (Dieñkhlam) and hundreds of 15 to 19 feet trees called ‘ki Dieñkhlam khian (small Dieñkhlam) are cut by the followers of the Niamtre. Two or three tiny Dieñkhlam are kept at the frontage or veranda of every house of the followers of the Niamtre. The tiny Dieñkhlam are used when the community dancers come to bless the house and use it to beat the rooftop of the house symbolizing ridding off plaque/epidemic and evil spirits from the house as well as invoking the Almighty God to bless the family.

But the main part of the festival is the coming together of all the khon (children) ka Niamtre at the sacred Aitnar, a pond where the last significant part of the festival is performed. The dance symbolizes the oneness of the people and everyone joyfully joins without any distinction. The traditions of ‘ïa knieh khnong’ where men compete to set foot on the ‘khnong’ symbolize cleansing of the souls and blessing of the Almighty for good health.

There are altogether six Behdieñkhlam festivals celebrated by the Pnars throughout the year. The first is  celebrated by the raij Chyrmang followed by the raij Jowai, Tuber, Їalong, Mukhla and the last Behdieñkhlam is that of the raij Muthlong.

The largest of all the Behdieñkhlam is that of Tuber Kmaichnong, which has the highest  number of “Rots” or rongs. Altogether 25 villages from different parts of the district bring their “rots” to Tuber Kmaichnong. The 25 villages are situated in different parts of the district from Jalaphet in the Sutnga- Sumer area to Mupyut in the Elaka Amwi and Mihmyntdu and Khliehtyrchi in Elaka Jowai.

Behdieñkhlam is also like a homecoming of the people to Tuber; the place of their origin. Since time immemorial people who originate from Tuber 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 culminate at Tuber Kmaichnong.

Therefore the other significance of the Behdieñkhlam festival is that it is a time for homecoming for the people who originate from the Raij and had migrated to other parts of the District. In the Behdieñkhlam of the Raij Jowai too, people of Jowai origin living in Shillong and Ummulong join in the last day of the festival and bring their rots as an offering and to celebrate.

Similarly, khon ka Niamtre from the Wahiajer who originally hails from Їalong also take part in the Behdieñkhlam at Їalong and carry their rots to the aitnar. Ki khon ka Niamtre from Їongnoh join their counterparts in Chyrmang for the last day of the Behdieñkhlam. So the annual Behdieñkhlam festival is also like going back to the roots as well as celebrating the present.

But Behdieñkhlam is also about stories and reliving those folk tales. The tradition of ‘ka Bam tyngkong’ led by the Daloi at the residence of the representative clans of the first four settlers of Jowai town, is a ritual which is being performed in honour of the first settlers of Jowai town, ka Wet, ka Bon, ka Teiñ and ka Doh. So it has to do with the story of the people who first settled in the area now called Jwai.

Behdieñkhlam also has a profound connection with the creation narrative of the Pnar and u Lakriah who delivered and helped the seven huts to settle on earth. The story goes that after God was done with creation and saw that the seven huts had finally settled and everything that he had created is good and fruitful, he decided to go back to where he dwells. But before the Creator departed and left the seven huts he entered into a covenant with the seven huts and told them that he will now go far away from them, but he also promised to visit the ‘ynñiaw wasa-ynñiaw wasung’ once a year and during his visit he will be with them for the period of four says and three nights.

The ‘ynñiaw wasa-ynñiaw wasung’ on their part too, promised to welcome the Creator in a befitting manner with pomp and gaiety and also pledge to celebrate his coming by offering him the festival. Of course people make various offerings to God and his deities throughout the year, but Behdieñkhlam is the biggest and the greatest offering that they can offer. Behdieñkhlam therefore also has to do with the creation stories of the Pnar. It is the fulfillment of the covenant by the seven huts. It is also a yearly reenacting and reliving the creation narrative.

In fine it can be concluded that Behdieñkhlam shares something in common with many  other religious festivals in the world which re-enact or relive their creation stories. If one looks at all the major festivals; be it Christmas, Easter, Eid, Dussehra, Durga Puja, Pesach and others, there is always a story behind the festivals. The stories are like the structures and the festivals are like flesh. In other words the festivals are derived from the religious narratives. Every time the festival is celebrated, it is also reliving the stories one more time.


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H. H. Mohrmen Written by:

H. H. Mohrmen is an environmentalist, Unitarian Minister and author based in Jowai, Jaintia Hills, Meghalaya

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