Philosophy is a term coined by the Greek philosopher, Pythagoras-(c 570-495 BC).It is a study of the fundamental questions connected with reality and our existence and act as a guiding principle for our thoughts and way of life.
Philosophy is expressed in varied ways in all the civilizations in the world throughout the ages. Before we learned to read and write we expressed our philosophy in our prayers, songs and dances and other art forms. This Paper explores this aspect of philosophy
Khasi philosophy is based on our firm belief that we come into this world to earn righteousness and walk on the path of Truth, (Kamai Ia Ka Hok), to be aware of the divinity within to be able to connect with the divinity beyond, (Tip riew-Tip Blei) and to know our agnates and cognates, our maternal side and paternal side and conduct our social behavior accordingly, (Tip Kur-Tip-Kha).All the three precepts are the base of the religion and philosophy of the Niam Khasi -Niam Tre of the Khasi-Pnar of Meghalaya.
I begin with the discussion of the annual thanksgiving dance, Shad Suk Mynsiem, the Dance of Peaceful Hearts of the Khasis held in April each year. Besides rituals, dance is an integral part, in all the religious festivals of Meghalaya. The Shad Suk Mynsiem is the only form of community worship among those who still believe in the indigenous religion, Niam Khasi. Otherwise prayer is a personal communication between Man and God, U Blei, in the simplest of language anywhere, any time. The Khasis believe that every house is a temple and every inch of the earth is worthy of prayer and every good word, thought and deed is an offering to U Blei and a form of worship unsurpassed by any other. U Blei is the Great Divinity, Omnipresent, Omniscient, Omnipotent, imageless and formless. There are only three main ceremonies-Naming, Marriage and Death (the last rites) which each family perform when the occasion arises.
Dance is the truest form of expression of a community. To understand a people one must be part of their festivals and watch and understand their dance. Among the important festivals in Meghalaya we have the Chipiah Dance and Behdeinkhlam of the Pnars of Jaintias Hills, the Shad Nongkrem and the Shad Suk Mynsiem of the Khasis, the Wangala festival of the Garos. This article focuses on the Shad Suk Mynsiem of the Khasis.
This spectacular dance is celebrated in Shillong and all over the state in the months of April and May every year. The first one is held in Shillong, in Lympung Weiking. The maidens gloriously attired in traditional finery, dance to the music of drums, flutes and cymbals. Their movement is slow and studied, their eyes cast down, their feet firmly gripping the ground, their faces calm and peaceful because it is a dance of worship.
The female dancers are all virgins and they symbolize Purity-one of the most important goals of our earthly life-ka jingim ka ba khuid bad ba suba (a life that is clean and unblemished). The men as grandly attired dance around the maidens, their movement confident and energetic as they wave their yak tail whisks and flashing swords. They symbolize Protection, protection of the purity of the entire race. The maidens are referred to as ‘thei sotti’- thei means girl and sotti is pure. This is meant to remind us of the Age of Innocence and Truth, Sotti Juk, a period in the history of Mankind that one must try to recapture to the best one’s ability and to nurture the divinity within each one of us which is essential for leading a life of honour and integrity. This is the essence of this annual festival of dance, Ka Shad Suk Mynsiem. In one visual sweep, as one watches the dance, the philosophy of an entire community is unraveled.
The music changes from time to time symbolizing that life is a movement of different, ever-changing hues. The dancers perform, with full respect and sincerity, to each beat with peace and understanding knowing that it has its own time and glory and will soon give way to yet another mood breaking the monotony, adding to the excitement. The dance encapsulates Life where every experience, bad and good, traverses through one’s life and one has to accept it with grace and humility for everything comes from the Almighty, U Blei who is Omnipotent, Omniscient, Omnipresent, imageless and formless. The brilliant colours that are worn represent Joy and the positive energy that one must always focus on and radiate to bring about all that is good and true. A good soul is an ever joyful soul for it has complete faith in God.
During the three days of the festival the people show their gratitude to U Blei for all the blessings that He has showered on them throughout the year, for the abundant yield of crops and rich harvest, for all the fine clothes, gold and silver that they wear during the dance. Each item, they believe, is a sign of His blessing and generosity, His reward for their hard and sincere work and efforts. That is why one sees the extravagant and lavish display of the most exquisite jewellery and clothing. Traditionally, the Khasis are not attuned to displaying their material wealth. It is not part of their culture and way of life and thought. This dance gives them an opportunity to do so as a mark of respect and gratitude to God.
The festival commences with a prayer said by an elder in the Seng Khasi Hall in Mawkhar in Shillong, the capital of Meghalaya. The dancers stand in a row with their swords and whisks by their side. The senior members of the Seng Khasi stand on either side of them. The elder who will pray, along with other elders, face the dancers while the musicians and the flag carrier stand on the left.
The prayer in brief is as follows –‘O God Lord, Master, Creator, Today the time has come as scheduled to set forth, to rejoice, to dance/Lord Creator with hearts filled with peace and contentment we bow to Thee, We bow to Thee in gratitude for Your love and mercy, blessings and care throughout the year. We set forth to dance according to our religion and culture based on Truth and Righteousness, We aim and pray that we may engage only in what is good and true so that our land may prosper, progress and shine according to tradition So that we may gain wisdom and learning, wealth and prosperity, prestige and honour, etiquette and exemplary behaviour according to thy will/Bless us all-the dancers, the musicians, our kith and kin, our friends and well wishers and all those who will come and be with us, Give your blessings O Lord so that the festival be one of peace and splendor, joy and harmony.
This is followed by the collective prayer in which each one gathered there declares himself a good Khasi “who is well versed about one’s cognates and agnates ”and who will adhere to the rules and regulations of tradition as they set forth to worship U Blei in a dance of reverence and jubilation. The prayer is said on all three days of the festival at the Iing Seng, Seng Khasi Hall in Mawkhar, Shillong.
The prayers, too, encapsulate the philosophy of the Khasis based on Man’s deep connection with God as he expresses all his thoughts, his hopes, aims and achievements to the Creator in the simplest of language. It shows his sincere belief that the Almighty and His love is all-encompassing. It exemplifies Man’s deep gratitude to the Almighty based on the belief that everything comes from Him and must be shared and blessings are, therefore, showered upon one and all with whomsoever one interacts with-including the audience, from far and near who have come to the festival. They are also blessed by their presence on this occasion of joy and prayerful gratefulness to the Creator.
After the collective prayer by all those present, the flag carriers lead the procession, the musicians play the Ksing Lynti as the dancers and the rest of those present walk behind the flag and musicians till they reach the venue, Lympung Weiking, one and a half kilometers away. Once they reach Lympung Weiking the procession takes three full rounds of the grounds after which a prayer is said and the Seng Khasi flag is hoisted. The musicians then play the beat, Ksing Lum Paid to announce that the dance is ready to begin. This is followed by the Ksing Mastieh as the male dancers dance while the maidens are engaged in the final touching up of their costume, hair and make-up and then slowly make their way to the ground. The dance then begins with the Ksing Padiah. There are six different kinds of beats, Ksing Nalai, Ksing Padiah, Ksing Dum Dum, Ksing Klang, Ksing Mastieh and Ksing Lynti.
What beat is played as the dance progresses depends on the conductor-u nonglam ksing-he keeps changing the beat which finally, ends, with the awesome shad mastieh performed by the boys and men. This dance of joy, jubilation and victory represents the success and culmination of the day’s celebrations and a show of reverence to U Blei who made it so for without His blessings nothing is possible.
The attire and the jewellery worn by the dancers are part of the history of the people. The intricate and detailed designs speak of influences that that have come from beyond these hills. Gold and silver are used along with coral. Coral is the only stone used probably for its hardiness and supposed qualities to protect one from negative influences and other medicinal benefits including curing infertility. The girls wear long- sleeved, high necked velvet blouses, silken wraps and the dhara. The main pieces of jewellery are the pansngiat, the crown traditionally embellished with the fragrant cactus flower, tiew lasubon. This flower blooms with a rarity that indicates its beauty and exclusiveness, like Purity. On their necks they wear a choker, khonopad and on the arms and wrists, the taad and mohu, the long, multi-stringed silver sash drapes the body from shoulder to the waist. On their hair styled into a chignon bun, the sai khyllong hangs right down to the lower back. She is covered from head to foot with the fine clothes and jewelry for she worships with her head, her heart and her soul.
The men wear a beautifully embroidered sleeveless jacket(jainphong), a dhoti(jainboh) and a turban(jainspong). His turban is embellished with the thuia, feathers of birds, depending on the area the dancer comes from. It is commonly believed that it stands for manliness. More importantly, however, birds signify Truth, Honour, Strength and Freedom. Birds are closest to the sky above, that is their realm, this enables Man to communicate with the Almighty and also attain celestial wisdom and power to complete his duty on earth while he dances in worship. The quiver, also a wondrous piece of jewelry has three arrows in it. ‘Nam Blei, ‘Nam Thawlang, ‘Nam Iawbei. This represents the trinity of the three most potent influences of his life-God, the First Paternal Ancestor, the First Maternal Ancestress.The three arrows are meant to protect himself and his family, his clan and community, his hima (state) and country.
The Shad Suk Mynsiem in Shillong is followed by dances in the village greens all over these hills. Though these dances are on a smaller scale the fervor and energy is made more special by the quaint and picturesque settings and the charming simplicity of the participants. There they dance “like no one’s watching/like no one’s listening/like they have never been hurt/like it’s heaven on earth.”
We are totally connected with the Divine in the dance. The religion is based on the precept Tip Briew -Tip Blei. Its literal translation is Know Man-Know God which actually means godliness is also within us and we must know it and connect with it at all times to enable us to live a life correctness and virtue.
The religion and philosophy is based on Truth as the Ultimate Reality and Respect for all God’s creations animate and inanimate. From the highest mountains to the smallest rivulets, from giant trees and plants to the littlest blade of grass, animals and birds of all sizes, flowers of all hues and scent and all the peoples of the world irrespective of caste, creed, colour class. We are not animists. We show respect to everything in Nature because we revere U Blei, the Creator.
Etiquette is also linked to respect and it is, for the Khasis, not merely social grace. It is also an integral part of our way of life and philosophy that when we respect all God’s creations we are revering U Blei, the Creator. The book of etiquette and ethics by Rangbah Radhon Sing Berry Kharwanlang is a literary masterpiece, Ka Jingsneng Tymmen, was first published in 1901 by my maternal great-grand father, U Jeebon Roy Mairom in his printing press Ri Khasi Press, established with the specific purpose of publishing works on indigenous literature. I had the privilege of translating it into English in 1997 and it was published in the same press and now the subsequent editions have been done by Vivekananda Institute of Culture, Guwahati. The Teachings of Elders was handed down from time immemorial through the oral tradition until 1843 when the Welsh missionary Reverend Thomas Jones introduced the Roman Alphabet.
The Teachings of Elders consists of a hundred and nine stanzas with perfect rhyme and meter and written in exquisite Khasi.I quote a few lines :
Whatever you now whatever you gain, It’s useless if not by Truth sustained; Even if very rich you become If no one respects you, what use is the pomp? All superficial pomp and ostentation; Undermines Truth and is the root of destruction; Once your character is destroyed; Whatever you achieve no one will applaud.
I end with these lines from the song, To Sngew, To Sngap, from the Seng Khasi book of songs, Ki Jingrwai Seng Khasi which expresses with depth and beauty the Khasi philosophy of life and living. It was written by Rangbah Nalak Sing Iangblah in early twentieth century soon after the Seng Khasi was established in 1899.
“La duk te lei, sha! La shitom te lei ? Burom kaba tam hangne ha pyrthei.” Even if you are poor, even if you are suffering how does it matter? Honour is of paramount importance in this life of ours.”
These beautiful lines are an integral part of Khasi philosophy.
Kong Bijoya Sawian is an acclaimed translator and writer. The Teachings of Elders, Khasi Myths, Legends and Folktales, The Main Ceremonies of the Khasis and About One God are four of several books that she has translated from Khasi into English. Her works of fiction include Shadow Men -A Novel and Two stories (Speaking Tiger Books 2019) and A Family Secret and Other Stories (Zubaan2014).