Kongthong: A place Where People Don’t Call Your Name, But Sing It
When a child is in its mother’s womb, parents delve into finding the best possible names for the coming new born. They put in a great deal of effort to find the best name for their child. Naming ceremony is also organised where a new-born is officially given a name. This practice is followed by different countries differing over cultures and religions. But it is only in Kongthong where, when a child is about to be born, the mother starts preparing a unique tune for the child - a tune which is its name, a mark of identity that begins and ends with the individual. Even though the people of Kongthong have common names like us, this tune is their special identity which is unique to each individual in that village.
Kongthong is a calm and beautiful village nestled in a remote area of the Khasi Hills. It is located in Khat-ar-shnong Laitkroh Tehsil of East Khasi Hills district in Meghalaya, India. It is situated 28 kms away from the office of sub-district headquarter Khatarshnong - Laitkroh block and 56 kms away from the district headquarter, Shillong. According to 2011 census, there are 567 people residing in Kongthong.
Until a few years back one had to trek in order to reach the village but today one can easily reach the village by car. The same however, is time consuming as the roads are small and not well constructed.
“When a child is born the mother composes a song or a small tune which becomes the child’s official tune. They have their official names too but this tune is their identity in the village. All the villagers call each other by the tune assigned to them. Every tune is born with the birth of a child and stays with him through his life. A tune once assigned to a person is not repeated,” said Rothell Khongsit speaking to G Plus.
Rothell is the community leader and secretary of the indigenous Agro Tourism Cooperative Society Ltd Kongthong, the society which has been working to promote the unique tradition of Jingrwai Lawbei.
Adding further he said, “These tunes are unique as they come straight from a mother's heart for her new born child. Each tune is different from the other and represents different people. Each tune or Jingrwai Lawbei in their language becomes a permanent one only after ensuring that it is different from all others.”
Jingrwai Lawbei means a song from the mother’s heart. Jingrwai means song and Lawbei means the first mother of the clan.
“My Jingrwai Lawbei or tune is what the people of my village recognize me with. I am proud to say that since time immemorial till today we are practicing this unique cultural custom,” said Rothell.
He added, mothers assign different tunes for every child and it is seen as an expression of maternal love. Each tune traditionally has two versions - a smaller one and a longer one. The tune is easier to call our friends or relatives when we are far away as the tune is unique to each individual and it doesn’t create any confusion.
“This practice has been going on since generations. Each tune is thirty seconds to one minute long. One may not call out the whole tune but just its title which is enough to be recognised,” said Rothell speaking to G Plus.
Explaining he said, the tunes are generally inspired by nature and birds and other living beings. People of the village are not sure how the practice started, but there is a belief among the villagers that there are unseen ghosts and spirits in the dense forests or in the rivers, and if they hear somebody’s name being called out it makes the person sick. So, the tunes are used to call out to people, as a way of protecting them. In the hills sound and echoes travels far which helps in calling people even if they are physically not close by. One’s name may not be audible but the tune is easily audible.
“This unique practice has also been helpful to the villagers. Some folk tales depict how people were saved from thugs because of the unique method of using tunes to call out people in the village. As the village is surrounded by forests if any fellow villager was stuck with the thugs he would inform his mates by humming the unique tune assigned to them and his mates would rescue him”, said Rothell.
Though the village has started to receive some recognition in the past few years, until 2013 the roads connecting the village didn’t exist. After the visits of several researchers and journalists the villagers saw the potential of tourism development. The villagers along with the heads started making small guest houses of bamboo so that the tourists who visited could stay in the village and enjoy its beauty.
Talking about growth of tourism in the village Rothell said, “When we initially started making bamboo guest houses for tourists, the villagers didn’t like the idea but now when the tourists are coming and buying our products they are supporting it. We can now sell all our organic products in our own village to the tourists who visit us. People of the village have realised that this will help us upgrade both our income and lifestyle. And it will also encourage us to work hard and upgrade our agricultural production. The services and products that we sell will help us gain employment in the village itself and have a better standard of living.”
Numerous tourists from India and around the world have visited Kongthong. Countries included USA, Germany, France, Russia, Israel, New Zealand, China, Bangladesh and Thailand to name a few. Tourists visit the village throughout the year, but mainly between March and August, Rothell told G Plus.
The major agricultural produce of the village include honey, betel nuts, bay leaves, oranges, jack fruit, pineapples and white and black pepper to name a few. All the agricultural products grown in the village are organic and indigenous, produced without the use of any pesticides, Rothell told G Plus.
Currently there are three lower primary and one upper primary school in the village. Hence for further studies children have to go to the other parts of Meghalaya.
On July 30, 2019 BJP MP Rakesh Sinha, during the zero hour of Rajya Sabha, urged the government to make a heritage library in Kongthong and requested for a UNESCO intangible cultural heritage tag for the unique whistle IDs that every child in the village has. During his visit an elderly women from the village created a tune for Narendra Modi inviting him to visit the village.
“We feel that if Prime Minister Narendra Modi visits our village we will be known worldwide because of his growing popularity among the people of India as well as around the world,” said Rothell.
Speaking about UNESCO’s special tag Rothell said, “If UNESCO is willing to give us the special status of intangible cultural heritage they should include the other villages too who have the same tradition. There are a few other villages nearby who claim to practice the same tradition. I am not sure about it but we have to find out.”
The village has a pleasing beauty. It is surrounded by water falls, small ponds, root bridges and more. People go to camp in the village or stay in the guest house in order to enjoy the beauty of Kongthong.
The mesmerizing natural beauty and the unique culture of whistling have not only made the village of Kongthong special but it also stands as a mark of Incredible India.