Breathe Meghalaya: A Tribe Of Secrets?

1st Oct 2016

Our India is more beautiful than we can ever find out..

Photo of Breathe Meghalaya: A Tribe Of Secrets? by Mukul Bhandari

Who are we? How was the first society? Which was the first language? Aren't words and languages made out of random noises.

Why do our names make sense? What if they were just random tunes? What if your name was a beautiful song?

Then what? Any point thinking about it when it can't be true?

Welcome to Kong Thong. The land of fantasies.

What is Kong Thong?

After wandering about in the dreamy Meghalaya 2 years ago, the plan was still in the making.

I took the company of the really talented filmmaker Jatin Bajaj and left for the adventures of Meghalaya.

Precisely to find the remote tribal village KongThong. The village I read about in a magazine, but on ground nobody had any clue about. A place where everyone has tunes apart from names to call each other by.

Was this true? Does this place really exist? The longer it took to plan and reach, the higher our anxiousness rose.

2000 km from New Delhi, the nearest railhead and airport are in Guwahati 120 km from Shillong.

60 km South from Shillong is district Khatarshnong of Khasi tribe. There are 36 villages in this district, and one of them is Kong Thong. Having no sign board, tucked in deep in the valley it took us 5 hours to reach.

Photo of Breathe Meghalaya: A Tribe Of Secrets? 1/4 by Mukul Bhandari

The 3 Uncommon Things About Kong Thong

1. Calling Each Other By Tunes

Lost really long in time, Kong Thong has this age old tradition of calling each other by tunes instead of names.

Like you know, in some world of fantasy. If I have to call you, I swing across the ropes and yell "kukukukooooooooo..."!

And then you respond with a specific confirmative sound. That's what is here, without the swinging around though.

Each person has his own distinct tune given to him by his mother when he was born.

They call this tune Jingrwai Lawbei.

As the child is born, the mother feels a lot of love and emotions. To express her love she hums a tune, which is inspired by the love for her child.

The composition of the song starts from scratch and takes anywhere from a week to months to complete. She also seeks beautiful sounds from the nature, the waterfall, the birds and wherever she possibly can for inspiration.

While composing it is compared with other tunes and it is kept in mind that no two people have the same tune.

After composition, the song is gifted to the child, and the title of the song becomes his name. The child too responds to the tune and learns to resonate faster than words.

Apart from this they have usual "verbal" names like us too to have written names and a regular life such as ours.

So when they have to converse with each other, when they have to talk about each other. When they have to write their name somewhere they have Khasi names like Jipson, Barailang, Rothelle.

But when they have to call somebody at distance. When the mother has to call her child who's gone out to play. When a brother has to call his brother who is lost in the jungle they use Jinwei Lewbei.

Legend says that the villagers would make use of JL to find out each other's location while hunting, without letting the prey getting to know.

This tune is an integral part of their childhood and their life. Consequently if there are 300 people in the village, there are 300 unique tunes. Names can be the same, but the tunes will always be unique.

And when the man dies the song dies.

Even after death, nobody takes up the same tune.

There is no written records for these tunes. So to make things easier, today's generation keeps each other's tune recorded and uses it as a ringtone for the person calling.

Since now the villagers rely on mobile phones to remember, they don't keep the other person's tune in memory and tend to forget. The tradition is getting a little left behind.

2. Living Root Bridge

I think it won't be wrong to call this the biggest natural heritage of India.

A Living Root Bridge is made to cross the river by connecting the live roots of two trees on either sides of the river.

Years of working hard with nature and patience results in a masterpiece like this. These bridges can hold as many as 70 people at a time, and only grow stronger with time.

The double decker bridge at Nongriat takes the innovation to another level.

The one in KongThong is about 200 years old.

These glorious gems are found nowhere else but only in the backyard of our country in this entire world.

Taking a dip in the crystal clear and absolutely peaceful blue Phylad river flowing under the root bridge holds you still in the world of magic.

The whistlings and callings of the villagers mixed with the sounds of the birds, the river and nature is all you could hear and all you want to hear.

Later on we got more chance to spend time with them and to understand them by having food with them, playing football and listening to their stories.

Honestly, it doesn't take that much to realise that these people are very gentle, warm and extremely hospitable.

3. Breaking Patriarchy? Matriarchal Society

It was another magic to see a matriarchal society in existence.

Coming from the world of patriarchy (of course), it was a very refreshing change.

Women were mostly heading the shops, working happily in the fields with the child tugging on to them. Big groups of girls walking through the vast zig-zag roads to school was a common site.

Though shy, they still were more open to talk to.

It was a really free and serene environment to be in. Carefree-ness and a feeling of satisfaction prevailed.

We all remember seeing pictures of women in the north east working in the field with the a big cane basket in the back and the child in the front.

We saw it for real for the first time. It was a beautiful moment.

The calmness on her face is what put us at rest too.

Photo of Breathe Meghalaya: A Tribe Of Secrets? 2/4 by Mukul Bhandari

4. Between the Two Rainiest Places on Earth

Apart from this another challenge was the weather.

Falling between the two places with highest and second highest rainfall in the world Mawsynram and Cherrapunjee, the weather of KongThong is always unpredictable.

One minute it is bright and sunny, and the other it pours leopards and wolves.

Often the weather around Cherrapunjee would be very misty. You wouldn't realise that it's raining but later you'd find all your clothes drenched.

It'd get impossible to shoot. The moisture in the mist too would get all inside the lens and choke the filmmaker in us.

But rain is what feeds the waterfall.

We saw waterfalls dry in front of us, and then coming to life and flowing with full power after a downpour of rain in a matter of minutes.

Photo of Breathe Meghalaya: A Tribe Of Secrets? 3/4 by Mukul Bhandari

Staying at one place, living a specific kind of life shows you things that only one specific part of the huge world can.

But traveling to other places shows you a variety of situations, circumstances and ways the people handle them that you didn't even think of thinking before.

We absolutely love to travel to different and such extreme places which broaden horizon to another possibility.

As a child we always wondered how did humans used to call each other before we had names. Was there a time where they used to talk without words? And with the help of only tunes. The truth, as we saw is, that there still is such a place.

Traveling in the absolutely beautiful Meghalaya, and reaching the mystic KongThong and getting the sense of all that was in the fantasy was real, felt like a dream.

And then capturing it in our passion, making a documentary out of it is what we live for. That's what lets us breathe.

Photo of Breathe Meghalaya: A Tribe Of Secrets? 4/4 by Mukul Bhandari

Reading about Kongthong, the fascination, the unsurity about its existence and the tribal people, and the realisation marked the story of a lifetime. And it has been like a dream to be able to document all this and present all this to you in our travel documentary Breathe Meghalaya.

The full documentary will be on Youtube soon. For now, we've done a screening at Antisocial, Hauz Khas, New Delhi. And will be coming to Guwahati and Shillong for the same.

Please ask me all the questions you have in the comments section, I'd answer all of them in the next post. Until then, see you later :)


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