by Gertrude Lamare
It was June of 2015, and we were on the road, travelling down to Umwang village in Assam, to witness the completion of a much-delayed burial of a woman who had died a hundred years ago. She was a member of the Makdoh clan of the Khasi-Bhoi tribe. Umwang village technically fell under Raid (Common Land) Nongtung and Hima (traditional Khasi tribal state) Khyrim, but after colonial boundaries made their way into the region in the early twentieth century, it found itself politically under the state of present-day Assam. On its soil the geo-politics of the new and the archaic conflate; while the people here are represented in the Assamese Assembly and derive political rights from Assam, they still seek (primarily symbolic) protection from the Chief of Hima Khyrim.
Khasi Chiefs no longer have direct juridical power over land; that power is now vested in the Autonomous District Councils, which were federal structures established in tribal areas of India under the Fifth and Sixth schedules. The ADCs are understood as parallel administrative structures which grant tribal communities some level of political autonomy. Of course, old kingdoms are superseded by the echoing power of modern statehood but amidst the people’s banal existence, the spirit of ancient identities loom high. It is here, in this endless battle between the past and present that I locate my journey into these zon
The woman, whose burial we came for, was the last member of the Makdoh clan to remain a follower of the indigenous faith—who did not fall prey to Christian missionaries. We arrived at a hill where her cremation was allegedly performed; amongst us were filmmakers, folklorists and writers—all of whom were there to document and capture through visuals and words this monumental event. There were two makeshift huts which the Makdoh clan members had built—both were meant to symbolize the dead woman’s home. The Lyngdohs (village priests) and other men who would participate in the rituals sat inside as younger women were walking around with bamboo baskets on their back, serving rice beer in bamboo cups.
“You see, she is one of our ancestors, we have to finish the rites, even if all of us are Christian now,” reasoned Bah Iohannis Makdoh, our host for the next two days. “We have to respect ka niam ka rukom[rites and rituals] no matter what or else a curse may befall on us,” he continued in a serious tone, one indicating complete reverence for the ceremony we were about to witness. Makdohs from villages near and far had travelled all the way to be a part of this occasion where the ashes of their ancestress from a hundred years ago would finally be transported to a sacred forest where the clan’s Mawbah (cairns) are. The death ceremony of the indigenous faith entails cremation followed by the deposit of ashes under giant clan stones called Mawbah. Architecturally, the Mawbah is made to rest half a meter above the ground on four or five short erected stones, leaving some space for ashes of the dead to be kept. This entire ritual is called Thep Mawbah.
“We don’t want to attract the wrath of our ancestors, and therefore, must finish this last ritual. I don’t know why we waited for a hundred years though,” Iohannis interjected as I sipped on the cold rice beer under the shade of a tree. I hated this moment; this was when my own Khasiness swiftly melts away; here I am but an outsider, a city-dweller, an English-speaker. Eyes would alternate between my immodest beer-drinking and the spectacle of the ritual. Here I was, with my smartphone camera, all ready to observe, to absorb meaning, to give meaning but was being observed and decoded instead. But truly, who was I in this playfield? A Khasi person condemned to a third-world modernity, great enough to distance myself from my own community? Of course, I would be othered by my own. “Let’s just watch,” I told myself.
Soon, everybody circled around a young goat that was tied to a tree, ready to be sacrificed. Blood is an essential ingredient in ka knia ka khriam—Khasi religious rites which necessarily involves the breaking of eggs, animal sacrifice, chanting and alcohol consumption of the priests or shamans, all of which is supposed to smoothen human communication with ancestors.
The Lyngdoh who was responsible for the decapitation stood there eying the animal, deeply intoxicated. He strove for balance and held the sword in position, aiming for the goat’s neck. There was silence and solemnity in the air. Gazes and cameras were fixed on the animal, waiting to witness fresh blood spilling on the ground. I closed one eye and shut the other; I had never seen this before—I was scared. In one second, the Lyngdoh swung his arms and before we knew it, the little goat was fleeing hurriedly across the fields. As it turned out, the blade preyed on the rope instead and not the goat’s neck at all. Laughter was reverberating all around. People were in shock and the Lyngdoh’s visage was drenched in shame. Some men ran after the baby goat and brought it back—the poor thing would be put through another trial of death. The Lyngdoh was partially successful at best, in the second attempt; everyone looked with horror at the baby goat who was half alive and half dead. The blade only cut through halfway, leaving the rest of the head drooping over the body. It was painful. Here, the dignity of the act was severely deflated; the glamour of a clean chop was probably lost in the hundred years of Christendom, or so people joked.
But meaning encoded in rituals is not always fixed, and it doesn’t always carry within it the essence of a collective consciousness. Perhaps, the essence of any tribe is always something yearned for, something that remains a spectre; it’s never really there. In fact, what if this search for the spectre is what brings everyone together, that determines the people as one? What if the quest itself is the binding factor and not the thing quested for at all? The failed decapitation of the goat embodies not the lack of a target but the target that is always already running away. Indeed, the ritual exists, it is embedded with meaning, but the elements of the ritual are broken and in a state of disorder all the time. Therefore, isn’t the coming together of people for this event the essential substance of the sought-for collective cultural meaning?
“What is pure culture then?” I asked myself, “Was it ever there at all?” In this space of cultural liminality, people are grappling with an evolving conception of life and death, of being and existence in a postcolonial neoliberal reality. They are caught in the huge web of identity politics, democratic principles, economic plans, folklore and religion. They bear Christian names and go to church while holding onto a belief in the power of ancestors, in the virtue of sacrificed blood. It is pure epistemic chaos.
A few minutes later, we moved to a cleared part of the hill and there, clan members performed the shat-pylleng (a rite that involves the use of an egg to determine location of the buried ashes), accompanied by chants. I remember watching a young man recite verse after verse in loud delirium; his energy was felt by all. I was told that each verse was a meticulously constructed poetic oration addressed to the ancestors and that all of it was fetched partially from memory, and partially through a clairvoyant ability. The soil (which was supposed to be representative of the Makdoh’s woman ashes) was then clawed from the ground and packed in a leaf to be taken to the sacred forest where the mawbah of the clan were. But there was one condition—the person who takes it has to be a clan member and s/he has to travel on foot all the way. The forest was at Ummat, a village another five kilometres away from the spot. Most people, including us, went ahead in vehicles and got to the forest early. I soon learned that the forest had mawbah of other clans like Sten and Lamare as well. These mawbah were scattered amongst ancient trees with impenetrable canopies, and although there was no signboard or any written identification of the stones, people somehow knew which belonged to their clan. An invisible system of signage which was understood by all seemed to be in place. Rice beer was again distributed as we waited for the arrival of the soil-carrier.
Once the soil arrived, it was deposited under the Makdoh mawbah and this was accompanied by the killing of a rooster whose blood was sprayed all over the stone. All was performed by the Lyngdoh. The spraying of the blood was precise and was a form of writing, as if blood was language itself. Soon, food was also kept under the mawbah as a gesture of appreciation for the ancestors; this ritual is called “ka jingai bam syrngi”. Amidst it all, two men appeared cawing like predatory birds. They moved closer to the mawbah and pranced around. A woman next to me said, “Ah, now the ancestors are pleased and have accepted the food.” I was utterly confused and didn’t understand the gravitas of this new development, because yes, all rituals are performances but was this potentially-comedic sight of cawing men also given that much semantic importance? I soon understood that alongside the collective acknowledgement of the present tangible “real” and intangible “non-real”, was a larger shared faith in the performance itself; the performance here traversed these two worlds, it bridges the somewhat metaphysical and transcendental universe of the ancestors with the physical life experiences of the community.
Evening approached and kerosene torches lit a spot in the forest where people gathered with food and drink. Cicadas were getting louder with each step into the night and the wilderness was bursting with human energy for once. We were all to sleep there until morning, in small sheds that were erected for the occasion, but sleep could come only after much consumption of kwai and rice liquor. Conversations knitted around scattered bonfires echoed all night and dissolved in the backdrop of my sleep, until I woke at five in the morning to the shrill cry of a barbet. Above me was a thick canopy which allowed for small doses of sunshine to come through. I was disoriented and uncomfortable, yearning somewhat for a clean bathroom and some morning tea. My head was heavy from the previous day’s mixture of intoxication and sensorial shock from all that I witnessed. The whole process of going back and forth, constructing and deconstructing meaning, searching for Khasiness within myself and in others around me, nearing and distancing myself from them—tribal collective which supposedly makes me—was immensely exhausting. The entire day was spent being rational in one minute and dismantling one’s sense of reason the other, and diving into a new system of signs the next—what is comprehensibility, what is knowledge anyway? I found a bush somewhere and urinated in the silence of intimidating nature and realized how such outdoor peeing episodes could very well qualify as epiphanic moments, where one drifts to aspiringly profound conclusions about the world. But of course, I was an urban clown there and nobody has to take this reflection seriously. It’s probably closer to a middleclass wet-dream.
At this point, the purpose behind me writing this is untraceable. All of what was narrated happened three years ago but several times each of those past years, memories of that trip pinched me annoyingly and some sensations and sights refused to be erased. But let us come back to this question—is culture ever pure? Will we ever be sure? Because as much as everything is mediated through historical existence (personal and otherwise), it is also wired by elements beyond the temporal realm; the blood, the stones, the ashes, the eggs, the alcohol, the human, all exist together in this whirlwind with spirits and shadows of the ancestors, and gods and goddesses.
As we left Ummat that morning, I clearly remember the uneasiness of hazy thoughts about the entire experience. We laughed at the realization that we actually had to cross the border over into another state, far from home, to learn more about what remains of our very own Khasi culture. While unanswered questions were still swimming turbulently inside our heads, we were already sitting on plastic chairs eating Chinese food at a highway restaurant, slowly re-entering our predictable lives—away from myths and the voices of ancestors. We were the liminal ones after all.
Gertrude Dondor Lamare is a student on the MA in the Anthropology of Development and Social Transformation at the University of Sussex. She belongs to the Khasi community, which is an indigenous matrilineal group in North-East India.