Monoliths of Jaintia Hills

Meghalaya is home to monoliths and megaliths that are spread across the state. They are quite literally scattered everywhere. And, if you take a drive in the countryside, you can’t miss them at all. Whenever I see them, I can’t help but wonder how they would have landed into such positions. Some are certainly manually placed, especially the ones in the city of Shillong. But, what about the others? Those that I see randomly placed in the meadows and hills?

Monolith is a geological feature that constitutes a single massive stone or rock. Megalith, on the other hand, is a structure made of large stones interlocking them in a way that does not require the use of mortar or cement.

Cherrapunji, in East Khasi Hills, has a monolith park. I would have most certainly seen the monoliths during my childhood, when going to Cherrapunji happened at the drop of a hat. I do not recall an organized park though. Guess, it would have been created recently to cater to tourists. Cherrapunji remains overcrowded with tourists, which significantly drowns the yesteryear romanticism of clouds, mist, and rains.

Pic 1: Random monoliths clicked somewhere during a long drive in the countryside.

There is another monolith park in Jowai, the capital of Jaintia Hills. This one had aroused my interest sufficiently because of its historical significance and because it has the biggest collection of monolithic stones in one single area. It also boasts of housing the tallest monolith in the state.

So, when cousin and I visited the temple at Nartiang recently it was quite obvious that we would visit the monolith park too. (Read Here) The park is located just a kilometer away from the Nartiang Durga Temple. We were running late after having spent a good amount of time at the village. Cousin was almost about to drop the plan of visiting the park promising to come back another day. I would have none of it, especially after going all the way from Shillong, and who has seen tomorrow! She agreed after I promised that we wouldn’t spend a lot of time there.

Pic 2: Entry gate to Jaintia Hills

It being the pandemic times, there was nobody around when we arrived at the park. The gates of the park were thankfully open. A prominent plaque and a Meghalaya Tourism signboard at the entrance provided a glimpse into certain historical facts. Most importantly, the monoliths were erected between 1500-1800 AD during the reign of the Jaintia Kings. The menhirs, or the single standing erect monoliths, are locally known as Moo Shynrang (meaning men). The dolmens, or horizontally placed flat monoliths, are locally known as Moo Kynthai (meaning women). The menhirs and dolmens are placed rather haphazardly in the park. Locals believe that each monolith marks a specific event or an individual.

The tallest menhir is about 8 meters high and 18 inches thick. It was supposedly erected by U Marphalangki, a trusted lieutenant in the Jaintia Kingdom, to commemorate his victory in a battle. There’s an interesting legend associated with this menhir. It is believed that Mars were giant sized men with exceptional capabilities. They could perform extraordinary feats and were patronized by the Royal Court of Jaintia Kingdom to defeat the enemies at the battlefield. Some say Mars would have probably been a rank in the Royal Army.

Pic 3: No stepping out without the mask whether alone or with others, a grim reminder of the times we’re in.

Legend Associated with the tallest Menhir

Marphalangki decided to seek God’s intervention after several failed attempts to erect the monolith. He performed Oomancy or egg divination (methods of using eggs for predicting future). Based on that he interpreted that a human sacrifice is needed to appease the Gods for the stone to stand tall. It being a market day, people had gathered to watch Marphalangki’s display of strength in erecting the stone. An idea struck Marphalangki and he pretended to accidentally drop the lime and tobacco gold container (locally known as dabi or dabia). When a spectator bent down to collect the container, Marphalangki dropped the huge stone over him. That incident is believed to be the beginning of human sacrifice among the Jaintia Pnar community. A practice that was later banned and ceased to exist altogether. (Story courtesy HH Mohrmen)

Legend Associated with the Dolmens and Menhirs

A Jaintia King by the name of Luh Lyngshkor was at a village called Raliang when it started raining. He requested an old woman to give him the traditional bamboo umbrella (locally known as knup). The woman refused saying that the king was a well-built man and could use the giant stone slab at the market to shelter himself. The king went to Raliang market, lifted the stone slab and used it as an umbrella to protect himself from the rain. He carried the stone umbrella, and reached Nartiang (Nartiang was the summer capital of the Jaintia kings). After that incident, Raliang market was shifted to Nartaing and that market continues to remain at Nartiang.

Nartiang’s Intriguing Heritage

I had heard about this place a million times but never had the opportunity to be here. While my cousin parked the car, I walked ahead and found myself standing right before the red-white unassuming structure. So, this was that temple! The corrugated tin-roofed temple looked extraordinarily simple and plain. No ornate carvings, no elaborate dome, no decorative entrance. If not for the brass bells, I would have thought it was somebody’s house. While I admired the unusual simplicity of the temple, my cousin walked up nonchalantly, and we went inside. She’s been here several times.

Pic 1: The Nartiang Durga Temple

It was a late but comfortably warm autumn morning. We had driven 65 Km. from Shillong and arrived at Nartiang Village. The village is located in West Jaintia Hills. (Meghalaya comprises of Khasi Hills, Jaintia Hills, and Garo Hills). Rich in coal reserves, Jaintia Hills is exquisitely beautiful and scenic. Our destination on this day was the 600-year old temple, located at Nartiang Village that was part of the Jaintia Kingdom. Dedicated to Jainteswari or Jayanti Devi, an incarnation of the Hindu goddess Durga, the temple has interesting legends associated with it.

Jaintias or Pnars are the indigenous tribes of Jaintia Hills and their traditional tribal religion, known as Niamtre, is largely influenced by Hinduism. Nartiang Village is dominated by the Niamtres. In this village, the traditional Niamtre religion blends with Hinduism and the Hindu deities of Durga and Shiva are worshipped in tandem with tribal deities.

Pic 2: The temple deity – Jainteswari Devi, an incarnation of Goddess Durga.

Inside the temple, we sat on the clean marble floor as the priest conducted a puja for us. The marble floor did appear a little out of place though and was clearly done only recently. Originally the temple was constructed like a typical local house of those days having a central wooden pillar (locally known as dieng Blai) and a thatched roof. It was reconstructed by Ramakrishna Mission in 1987. The shrine inside the temple was again simple and unexceptional. The priest informed it was made of Ashtadhatu (also known as octo-alloy, it is a combination of gold, silver, copper, zinc, lead, tin, iron, and mercury).

My cousin pointed out to a pit in the floor that leads to an underground tunnel, which in turn is connected to Myntang River down below. During the time of the Jaintia Kings, human sacrifices were conducted in this temple to appease the goddess. Through this pit, the severed head would roll down to the swift flowing waters of the river. An open window lay just above the pit. I looked out at the lush green hills dazzling in the bright sun, the air was crisp, and the sky clear. I could feel strong positive vibes all around. It was difficult to comprehend the rituals that would have transpired within the walls of this temple centuries ago.

Pic 5: Mynteng River flows silently through the village.

We walked through the village towards the Shiva temple, which is located in another hillock not very far from the Devi Temple. The houses in the village wore a pretty look and we were told that most of them were painted anew due to Durga Puja, which is just two weeks from now.

Pic 6: A pretty little village home. Grains of paddy rice spread out to dry in the sun.

The Shiva temple was nondescript but had a mysterious charm of its own. There were several small Ashtadhatu idols placed in a single row inside. Only one was that of Lord Shiva. The rest were that of Devi in various forms. Interestingly just behind the idols, lay a row of ancient cannons that belonged to the Jaintia Kings. The right place of which should have been a museum.

Pic 7: The nondescript Shiva Temple

There is a prominent pillar in both the temples. These pillars are supposed to be energy centers that are consecrated once in a few years. The pillar in the Devi temple had some inscriptions, not all of it is legible but it did have a date mentioned.

Interesting Stories Associated with the Temple

  • This temple is one of the 51 Shakti Peethas of Hindu mythology, Devi’s left thigh had supposedly fallen here.
  • King Dhan Manik of the Jaintia Kingdom had built this temple. It is said that the goddess had appeared in his dream informing him about the significance of this place and instructing him to build the temple. Nartiang used to be the summer capital of the Jaintia Kingdom.
  • The royal priests of the temple were brought by the Jaintia chieftains all the way from Maharashtra centuries ago. Apparently, priests in and around the region were not ready to conduct the ritual of human sacrifice. Three brahmins from the Deshmukh clan agreed to the ritual, probably because of their upbringing in kshatriya tradition. The temple is still run by the direct descendants of the Maharashtrian Deshmukh Brahmins.
  • Symbolic human sacrifice (locally known as blang synniaw) continues to this day in the form of a strange custom. At midnight of the second day of Durga Puja or Asthami, a spotless black goat is dressed as a human with a dhoti, turban, and earrings. A white mask with a human face is placed on the goat’s head and it is then beheaded. (See the mask in Pic-2 above). The head of the goat rolls down the old tunnel into Myntang River.
Pic 10: Nartiang Village as seen from the Shiva temple

The Humble ‘Kwai’

A Symbol of Hospitality in the East Khasi Hills of India!

The humble Kwai made a very special appearance at my Bangalore home last week. Preciously wrapped in banana leaves, the Kwai had travelled all the way from East Khasi Hills in the North East to the Deccan Plateau in the South. Kwai is nothing new to me and I have my usual rendezvous with it each time I visit home, but seeing it perched on a ceramic plate atop my dining table made me nostalgic and evoked special sentiments in me. My mind immediately took off on a virtual tour of my homeland, Meghalaya – the abode of clouds. Everything associated with Kwai flashed before my mind like a continuous slideshow and I started missing my pretty little homeland with renewed vigor. It suddenly occurred to me that Kwai was such a unique aspect of the culture of Meghalaya and I wondered how many people know about it.

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Kwai is the combination of a neatly folded betel leaf (paan) smeared with a generous dose of lime and areca nut, which is chewed with the optional tobacco leaf. While chewing paan is common place in India, the state of Meghalaya has a very special relationship with their paan and areca nut. All the three tribes of Meghalaya – Khasis, Jaintias, and Garos are equally passionate about it – ‘Kwai’ for the Khasis and Jaintias, ‘Gue’ for the Garos.  An integral part of the traditional tribal culture, Kwai brings people together regardless of their backgrounds and is considered to be an equalizer between the rich and the poor. People irrespective of their age and gender are literally addicted to it. Chewing paan by young children may be frowned upon in other parts of India but not in Meghalaya where even school children can be spotted chewing Kwai even though most schools have it banned. Associated with red lips and a constant chomp, Kwai is of special significance to the tribal etiquette in Meghalaya.

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Kwai is an integral part of all formal and informal gatherings – official, social, or religious. Whenever you visit a Khasi family, you will be welcomed with Kwai and it is considered to be a mark of respect and honour. Women carry Kwai in pouches tied around their waists, while men have it in their pockets. Sometimes, Kwai may also be carried in small tin boxes made specifically for this purpose. It is fairly common to greet each other by offering Kwai, which in turn indicates offering a hand of friendship and honour. Refusing Kwai is associated with bad manners. Besides Kwai is a boon during the cold winter months as it gives an instant boost to the body temperature. The humble Kwai can be used for many other miscellaneous purposes as well. Such as, Kwai-chewers use the coir of the betel nut to clean their teeth and scrub off Kwai stains as it leaves deep red stains on the teeth and tongue.  The importance of Kwai can be gauged from the fact that in earlier days it was used as a unit for measuring distance – how many Kwais are chewed to cover a distance!

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An elderly Khasi woman with lips and teeth stained from chewing Kwai.  (Pic Credit: A.D. Roye)

Scientific researches over the past decades have evidences to indicate the carcinogenic effects of areca nut. Notwithstanding, Kwai is deeply rooted in the culture of Meghalaya, the symbol of hospitality and its significance will not wane away any time soon. The significance of areca nut spreads out to the neighbouring states of Assam, Nagaland, Manipur, and Mizoram as well.

Over the years the traditional Kwai has seen quite a bit of change with the addition of ginger and coconut as other ingredients, surely influenced by the common paan. But most of the local people swear by their traditional Kwai.

But, the one thing that I am most proud of is, despite its obsession, people in Meghalaya manage to keep the red stains of the Kwai on their ever smiling lips. The land is untainted by smear marks, characteristic of the paan chewing habit in other parts of the country. This is probably because of the cleanliness obsessed native people or because tobacco is not usually used in Kwai – a detail that perhaps makes this hill tradition a safer addiction than its counterparts.

I missed mentioning how the Kwai landed into my second home, Bangalore. A Khasi friend was staying with me while on a visit to the garden city. Addicted to Kwai, it was like her lifeline. It baffled me to see that she had gotten 200 rolls of Kwai for a period of four days, which amounts to 50 per day. The sheer number of Kwai neatly stacked in my refrigerator amused and astonished me. It got me thinking about the importance of Kwai in her life and I decided to write about it. 

Kwai Khasi FolkloreThe story behind Kwai, tympew, shun, and duma (betel nut, betel leaf, lime and tobacco):

It’s a tale of friendship between a wealthy woman, Ka Mahajon and a poor man, U Baduk who grow up together. Baduk moves to another village after marrying Ka Lak. Whenever Baduk goes to his ancestral village, he makes it a point to visit his rich friend. Mahajon  in turn would give fruits and vegetables to Baduk to take back home. Baduk and Luk feel they should return the favour and invites Mahajon to come over some day and have dinner with them. Then, one day Mahajon goes to her friend’s house. Baduk and Lak are overjoyed to see her. However, on that day there is no food in their house. Lak goes to the neighbours to request for some food but gets none. Disappointed and ashamed, the couple kills themselves as they cannot bear to face their friend. Mahajon, who was waiting for the couple in the courtyard, wonders what happened and enters the home only to find her best friend and his wife dead. Disheartened and shocked,  she feels her life is useless without her friend. Mahajon too kills herself. In the meanwhile, a thief enters the home while running away from people who were chasing him. He hides for a while in the house and discovers the three dead bodies. Scared of being accused of murder, he too kills himself. The villagers are aghast when they get to know of this unfortunate incident. They pray to God that something like this should never happen again and even the poorest man should have something to offer to visiting guests. God answers their prayers by transforming Ka Mahajon into betel nut, U Baduk into the betel leaf, and Ka Luk into lime. That is why betel leaf and lime are always served together. The thief is transformed into tobacco. The place between the lower lip and gum where Khasi women keep the tobacco is the thief’s hiding place. The humble Kwai was born making the lives of Khasi, Jaintia, and Garo tribes incomplete without it.  

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