Meghalaya, the ‘Scotland of the East’, is no longer known only for its pristine natural beauty, the many festivals held in the State are also bringing in their share of fame. The Nongkrem Dance Festival is one such attraction that carries with it a fair touch of the bygone Khasi civilisation. Characterised by a striking tribal dance by young Khasi women and men, the Nongkrem festival is a sheer delight.
The Nongkrem festival is a five-day affair, comprising of religious rituals and sacrifices, and celebratory dancing known as the Nongkrem dance or Shad Nongkrem at the end. It is one of the most important festivals of the Khasis or the Khyrim as they were known earlier. The Syiem or the King of the clans as the administrative head of Hima (Khasi state) leads the rituals with the high priestess, Syiem Sad, who is the caretaker of all religious activities. The rituals comprise of offerings to the ancestors and the gods in order to thank them for a bountiful harvest and pray for continued generous favour in the future.
The festival takes place at Smit, the cultural centre of the State, 15 kms southwest from the capital city of Shillong. This village in the Khasi Hills was the capital of Khryim Syiemship and sees people from different communities attending the five-day extravaganza. Lunar positions determine the time of the event but for convenience, over the years, it has been celebrated in the month of November.
Pomblang or Sacrificial Rituals
The word Nongkrem actually means ‘goat killing ceremony’ and has no reference to the word dance! In earlier times, the tribes in Meghalaya used to perform Pomblang or the sacrifice of a goat to appease their gods. The entire event was/is called Ka Pomblang Nongkrem where prayers are made for a bountiful harvest.
Sacrifice forms an important part of this event, the Pomblang is offered to ancestors like Kalawbei U Thawlang of the ruling clan and Suidnia, the first maternal uncle; a cock is also sacrificed to appease the God of Shillong, or Lei Shyllong. The Syiem (King/Chief) of the Khrym along with the High Priest performs the ceremony that initiates the festival.
The Dance or Shad Nongrem
The religious part of the event is superseded by the famous Nongkrem Dance. Unmarried girls are dressed in their traditional attires accessorised by the crown of silver and gold on their heads decorated with spiked yellow and red flowers and heavy ornaments. The men are dressed in their traditional Jymphong or a long sleeveless coat without a collar over a full shirt, an ornamental waist band, a turban and a dhoti.
In Ka Shad Kynthei, the young unmarried girls move within a circle as they dance barefoot holding each other by the waist. Their moves are lithe and graceful, unlike the men, who dance vigorously with hard footed steps. Ka Shad Mastieh sees men dancing in the outer circle holding swords in their right hands and white Yak hair whisks in their left. Their movements are rhythmically upbeat to the changing tunes of the Tangmuri (pipes), brass cymbals and drum beats.
The dancing takes place in front of the Ling Sad or the thatched palace, a wooden house exemplifying traditional Khasi architecture, and is dedicated to appease the Goddess Ka Blei Synshar for a generous yield on the fields and welfare of the community. The fourth day is generally the day of this exquisite dance which gathers crowds from across the State and outside to be an audience to this lively performance.
Nongkrem Dance Festival is more than an obligatory ritual to the old gods. The carnival is pays due reverence to the past faiths and customs which have created an identity for the Khasi community over the years. The festival not only annually brings the Khasi community together in one area to celebrate their roots but also allows the perpetration of this common knowledge of their genesis to the newer generations.
As the young dancers Shad Nongkrem spring to the beats of their traditional instruments, the legacy of the Khyrim continue to remain immortalised by the gratitude of its own people.