Priests and elders of Seiñ Raij consecrating the Sacred Log at Pohsawiar locality in Jowai in Meghalaya. Photo- Courtesy- MS S. POHTHMI
Priests and elders of Seiñ Raij consecrating the Sacred Log at Pohsawiar locality in Jowai in Meghalaya. Photo- Courtesy- MS S. POHTHMI

Meghalaya’s festival to ward off pandemic allows only vaccinated participants

Every dear during the Behdieñkhlam festival, evil is chastised and any plague and pestilence is banished from the land through rituals that are being summoned this year against the coronavirus.
By David Laitphlang
PUBLISHED ON JUL 11, 2021 11:11 AM IST

The annual Behdieñkhlam festival in Meghalaya is being celebrated on Sunday without mass festivities and fanfare by the Jaiñtia tribe- also known as the Pnars of Meghalaya due to Covid-19 fears. Only those vaccinated agains the deadly infection are being allowed to participate in the festival’s rituals and ceremonies, meant to drive away ‘Ka Khlam’ or the pandemic in Pnar language.

Behdieñkhlam literally means “to expel and eliminate plague, pestilence or any form of contagion” and during this festival, the Seiñ Jaiñtia faithful led by their leaders pay obeisance to U Tre Kirot, the Almighty and invoke his divine protection and blessings by various forms of acquiescence.

Every dear during the festival, evil is chastised and any plague and pestilence is banished from the land through rituals that are being summoned this year against the coronavirus. However, the celebrations will be subdued because except for leaders, priests and chosen faithful of the Seiñ Raij, the indigenous faith of the Jaiñtias, no public participation is permitted. Jaintias are a sub-tribal group of the Khasi people indigenous to the state.

Local cable networks are transmitting coverage of the rituals and scaled-down revelry to ensure people watch them safely from home. “We’re trying our best to ensure seamless live coverage of the festivities so that people can participate in Behdieñkhlam while maintaining safety protocols,” Russell, the producer of a popular Pnar news and entertainment portal said.

“This Covid has really spoilt everything for us … actually we are meant to participate in large numbers in the procession specifically meant to drive away the evil plague which according to me is this virus the world is suffering from today, but sadly we cannot because of the restrictions,” said a local resident Desmond, who doesn’t live far away from ‘Madan Aitnar’, the place where all festivities culminate.

Ma OR Shallam, the president of Seiñ Raij Jowai said all efforts have been taken to ensure proper celebration and though the people’s absence is a major dampener, it will not prevent the faithful from appeasing the almighty following all rituals.

“The festival shall observe prayers, libation and oblation, rituals and acts of beating the roofs by offering prayers to the Almighty to bless the family and to drive away the plague, pest and evil spirit from the house. Up to 40 people from each locality shall be allowed to retrieve and physically ferry the Sacred Log ‘Ka Deiñkhalam’, also known as ‘Khnong Blai’,” Shallam told HT.

Only ten persons will be permitted to lead the procession carrying the sacred log to Madan Aitnar and Seiñ Raij chief said unauthorised people will not be allowed to converge at the venue or gather along the route of the procession and no dignitaries have been invited like previous times.

Celebrated annually in July after the re-seeding period, Behdeiñkhlam besides expelling away pestilence etc. also seeks the lord’s blessings for a bountiful harvest.

While the men folk take care of all the rituals and physical activities, the women folk stay home to prepare an assorted feast first offered in obeisance to U Tre Kirot and then the consecrated offering is partaken by the entire household.

The traditional chieftain known as the Doloi watches over intricate spiritual rites performed by spiritual leader titled Wasan.

The festival begins with the ritual Kñia Pyrthat, which is the sacrifice of a pig to the God of Thunder. Following this, the Wasan walks around town ringing a bell and steadily heads towards the sacred forest. The faithful then collect the seasoned tree trunks from this hallowed place and return back with them where a series of more rituals are performed. Known as ‘Symbud Khnong’, these sanctified trunks are then kept at the six localities before being taken to Madan Aitnar for final immersion.

On the last day of the four day festival, the Wasan accompanied by youths of the village visits every home, climbs up the roof of each house, and wallops the roof with a thin bamboo signifying the driving away of evil spirits. The erected ‘Symbud Khnong’ is then taken down while awaiting the final procession to the sacred Madan Aitnar for the culmination.

The pinnacle of the celebration is the tussle for the Khnong Blai or Ka Deiñkhlam, the main sacred log. Loud splashes and ebullient shouts of glee and cheer take over the sacred pool with people throwing mud at each other relentlessly as they battle it out for the prestigious and sacred beam which they believe will usher in happier and more prosperous days ahead.

Towards sunset, all roads lead to Mynthong locality where people dressed in their carnivalesqué best converge to witness the exciting ‘Dad-Lawakor’, a football like game but played with a wooden ball. The first team that nets the ball wins and propitiously prognosticate a bountiful harvest for the side.

On the sidelines there is also an emblematic killing of demons in a ritual called ‘Cher Ïung Blai’ where only males enter a thatched hut made from bamboo and grass and symbolically kill the demons inside it with spears.

Meghalaya today recorded 485 new positive cases with 506 recoveries and 7 deaths. Jaiñtia hills, consisting of East and West districts, have a population of a little less than 700,000. Till date, the region has recorded a total of 5,962 positive cases including 635 active cases and 107 deaths. The state with an estimated population of around 3.2 million has administered 809,519 doses so far.

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