An ancient Khasi festival


The Northeast Khasi festival of Shad Nongkrem symbolises an unbroken tradition of rituals that have continued from ancient times. Longnam Kharpuri elaborates.

I am writing this article to not simply lend another space of tokenism to tribal beliefs and practices for tourist consumerism, but rather a deeper insight into the intricacies of being a Khasi by looking at one sacred festival held annually every year. This is the Jinglehniam Hima Khyrim or popularly known as Shad Nongkrem.

A truly old festival

The Shad Nongkrem is the only large scale Khasi festival that is being held today that has stuck to the ancient roots in which it was first established: The festival goes back to the very first Syiem or Khasi Monarchy that being a woman, Pahsyntiew, believed to have been sent by a god U ‘Lei Shillong embodied in the hill that tourists now know as Shillong Peak. The festival derives its name “Nongkrem” from the place that the original Syiems stayed at, that being a place of the same name. However, due to some feud that broke out during the British rule, the Iing Sad (sacred building where all assemblies of state and religious observances are done) burnt down and the Syiems, u Syiem Klur Singh and ka Syiem-sad Jir Kiri, fled to Smit where the dance is now being held every year. The dates for the the Shad Nongkrem are usually set between the end of October and the beginning of November depending upon the favourability of the rituals and the phase of the moon: The Shad Nongkrem always falls on an auspicious full moon night. This festival lasts six days and encompasses elaborate rituals and sacrifices on different Khasi market days: Ïew Pamtiah, Ïew Umni, Ïewduh, Lyngka, Ïew Nongkrem, and Ïew Mawlong.

Even though the above dates are when the rituals and various sacred dances happen, the preparation starts way before: The preparation of the Ïingsad/ sacred house is done on the day of Ïew Rynghep by the replacement of the thatch of the roof. This is mandatorily completed in a day. Before they initiate the process, the Sohblei Mawroh (the priest), has to first climb up and start the process. On the next day of Ïew Shyllong, the Dhulia/ musicians come to stay at the Ïingsad (nowadays two weeks before the main festival), and continue with the process of preparation for the main festivities. On the next day in the evening of the Ïew Umni, the Dhulia soak Thribah/cane strings in water. In the very early hours of the morning of Ïewduh, they weave the strings in a specific way. The weaves tell the populace that the rituals are to start soon. These same weaves are sent to the different leaders that are the Lyngdoh and the Basan Raid, and in turn these leaders direct their raids and shnong to send goats to the Ïingsad for the ritual of Bujai Blang and others. On the day of Ïew Rynghep, in the week when the rituals are to start, the Syiem Sad soaks Jyndem/fermented rice in a basket which will be used in the rituals. On the afternoon of Ïew Shyllong, the Dhulia go to the river to wash their musical instrument that will be used in the sacred rituals. After they are finished the Dhulia come back to the Ïingsad and play on the Tyngkong/ Verandah and they do a dance called Shad Mastieh. On this same day the Lyngdoh Lawai or priest brings the diengsning/ Khasi oak to tie with the Rishot Blei/ God Pillar in the Ïingsad.

The main day of the festival

We will now discuss the fourth day of the festival on the day of Ïew Lyngka which often is considered the main day and known as Shad Nongkrem by popular understanding. This day begins with the Shad Nohkjat by the women Syiem who are unmarried. These maiden Syiems dress in the attire suitable for the religious dance executed by Syiems before them. They are decked in silks, golden crowns, and other gold ornaments and are accompanied with music played by the Dhulia on a type of drum called Ksing Kynthei.

By this time the male members of the family and the Khasi noble men are present in the Shlur of the Ïingsad. The women Syiem stand surrounded by their maternal uncles, father and their brothers and they hold each other by the cloth that is tied around their waists. In this way they form a kind of chain and the noblemen and two of the senior Dhulia join. The Dhulia each hold a symphiah and they wave it around while everyone moves around the hearth three times. They repeat this same dance in the compound outside the Ïingsad except they dance around the Dhulia instead of a hearth. This dance is called the Shad Nohkjat as the Syiem have to dance the first steps on the lympung shad/ dancing ground before the dancers from the general public take part. After the Syiem initiate the dance the dancers from the general public join in all their traditional finery, right from the golden and silver crowns, silk dhara, and gold ornaments fitted with priceless stones. The men wear their feathered turbans, their silver quivers, coral and gold beads, their dhotis, black embroidered vests and carry a symphiah in their right hand whipping it around as they dance. The men dance on the outer circle and the women in the inner.

Male Syiems in feather turbans and traditional wear dancing at Shad Nongkrem

This dance goes on till evening and in that time the Syiem Sad prepares for the rituals and executes them with the Suidñia Longsyiem (maternal uncle of the Syiem) and the heads of clan Mawlieh come to give their offerings of produce taken out of the ground. The ritual signifies the sanctification of the fertility of the soil and a good harvest. In the evening when it is time to do the ritualistic sacrifice of the Pomblang Syiem the general dance is ended. The priests in charge of this part of the ritual collect the items needed from the Syiem Sad in the Shlur of the Ïingsad. Then the Kñia Khadar Sla happens in this same area which pays homage to all the Khasi gods and guardians (12 in number) of the hearth, agriculture and political administration. Following this are the rituals in the compound just outside the Ïingsad where the same priests set up their seating areas along with many other items needed for the ritual. Again, an elaborate and systematic ritual is carried out to mark out the portents of the future and to pay respects to Ka Blei Longsyiem and U Blei Shyllong. The goats are also sanctified before sacrifice and separated based on their gender. Based on their sex the sanctification is also done accordingly through the male god or the female god. After this sanctification the ruling Syiem takes his position with his dao/ heavy long bladed sword like implement and sacrifices the goats accompanied by rifle shots into the night sky. The goats’ innards are studied for signs and portents and pieces of meat are taken by the priests following the division of the flesh among them. Then homage is paid to the following gods: U Saidni Longsyiem, U Kapitor u Kha, U Bakhraw U Basan, and U Shakri Shakor

After their dance the Dhulia change the music to celebrate the Risa Blang where the general public participate joyfully. A ritual is again carried out by the Syiem Sad after all the priests come back inside the Ïingsad with the items used for their ritual. She progresses to the fire roasting meat and distributing it for 15 gods. The five Lang Synran or special goats are sacrificed only by the Syiem and the other younger male Syiem. Again the goats brought by the public are never sanctified or used in rituals. They are brought only out of the generosity of the public to pay respect to the rituals and also add more grandeur to the festivities. These are consumed by the public.

I would like to mention here that the practice of this festival entails much of the Khasi way of life that prioritises the family and the hearth, the clan, the society, and our relationship with our environment, be it the soil, the forests and the rivers. At first glance a festival is just taken for its display of tradition through attire, dance and music; my attempt however is to give a deeper glimpse of the significance of such a festival handed down from time immemorial, in a vastly oral culture that is matrilineal in essence.

Longnam W. Kharpuri

Longnam W. Kharpuri is an M.Phil student at Delhi University.