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A Tribe That Uses Songs, Not Names, To Call Each Other: The Many Wonders Of Meghalaya

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Who are we? How was the first society formed? 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? Think about it, it can it be true?

Welcome to Kong Thong. The land of fantasies!

What is Kong Thong?

It had been two years since the wandering around dreamy Meghalaya had happened for me and this plan was still in the making. Then, finally, I took the company of the really talented filmmaker Jatin Bajaj and left for the adventure that is Meghalaya. To find the remote tribal village called KongThong. I had read about this village in a magazine, but I did not know anybody who had any clue about it.

A place where everyone had a specific musical tune that they used to call each other.

Was this true? Does this place really exist? The longer it took to plan and reach, the more anxious we got.

2000 km from New Delhi, the nearest railway station and airport are in Guwahati, which is 120 km away from Shillong, Meghalaya’s capital.

60 km south of Shillong is the district of Khatarshnong that belongs to the Khasi tribe. There are 36 villages in this district, and one of them is Kong Thong. Tucked in deep in the valley, with no sign boards to guide us, it took five hours to reach the place.

Photos of Breathe Meghalaya: A Tribe Of Secrets? 1/4 by Mukul Bhandari
A playground in Kong Thong, Meghalaya, by Mukul Bhandari

Uncommon Things About Kong Thong

1. They Call Each Other By Singing Tunes

Kong Thong, a place that seems like it is lost in time, has this age-old tradition of calling each other by tunes instead of names.

It feels like you are in some fantasy land. Imagine, if I call you, by swinging across the ropes and yelling “kukukukoo…!” And then you respond with a specific confirmative sound. That’s what happens here, without the swinging around though.

Each person has his own distinct tune given to them at birth by their mother. They call this tune ‘Jingrwai Lawbei.’

When a child is born, to express her love, a mother hums a tune, which is inspired by the love for her child. The composition of the song takes anywhere from a week to months to complete. She also seeks beautiful sounds from nature, sounds of the waterfall, birds and wherever she can derive inspiration from.

While composing it, 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 hum it faster than words.

Apart from this, they have usual “verbal” names.

So when they have to converse with each other, they use these tunes. 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 these tunes to find out each other’s location while hunting, without letting the prey 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 are 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. And the tradition is getting a little left behind.

2. Living Root Bridge

It won’t be wrong to call the root bridge of Meghalaya 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 side of the river.

Patience and years of working hard with nature 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 in the world but only in the backyard of our country.

Taking a dip in the crystal clear and absolutely peaceful blue phylad river flowing under the root bridge grabs hold of you and transports you to a world of magic.

The whistling sounds and callings of the villagers mixed with the sounds of the birds, the river and nature are all you can hear and all you want to hear.

Later, we got more chance to spend time with the villagers, 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 a patriarchal world (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 was a common site.

Though shy, they still were more open to talking 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 Northeast working in the field with a big cane basket on the back and the child in the front but we saw it for real for the first time. And it was a beautiful moment.

The calmness on their faces put us at rest too.

Photos of Breathe Meghalaya: A Tribe Of Secrets? 2/4 by Mukul Bhandari
A tribal woman from Kong Thong, 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 Kong Thong 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. And a spectacular sight that is. We saw waterfalls dry in front of us, and then coming back to life and flowing with full power after a downpour of rain in a matter of minutes.

Photos of Breathe Meghalaya: A Tribe Of Secrets? 3/4 by Mukul Bhandari
Waterfalls in Kong Thong, Meghalaya, by Mukul Bhandari

Staying at one place, living a specific kind of life shows you things that you wouldn’t get to witness in any other part of the world.

But traveling to other places shows you a variety of situations, circumstances and the ways people handle them that, something that you could never have imagined.

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

As a child, I always wondered: how did humans call each other before the concept of name was invented? 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, reaching the mystic Kong Thong and getting a sense of all that taught us that in the ‘fantastic’ lived the real. It truly felt like a dream.

Capturing such a place is our passion, and making a documentary out of it is what we live for. That’s what allows us to breathe.

Photos of Breathe Meghalaya: A Tribe Of Secrets? 4/4 by Mukul Bhandari
A shot of the football field and its players in Kong Thong, Meghalaya, by Mukul Bhandari

After reading about Kong Thong, the place,  the culture of the tribal people, and battling that feeling of unsurety about its existence,  when we finally visited the place, it marked the story of a lifetime. And it has been nothing short of a dream, to be able to document all this and present it to you in our travel documentary ‘Breathe Meghalaya’.

The full documentary will be available on YouTube soon. We’ve done a screening at Antisocial, Hauz Khas, New Delhi. And will be traveling 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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An ambassador and trained facilitator under Eco Femme (a social enterprise working towards menstrual health in south India), Sanjina is also an active member of the MHM Collective- India and Menstrual Health Alliance- India. She has conducted Menstrual Health sessions in multiple government schools adopted by Rotary District 3240 as part of their WinS project in rural Bengal. She has also delivered training of trainers on SRHR, gender, sexuality and Menstruation for Tomorrow’s Foundation, Vikramshila Education Resource Society, Nirdhan trust and Micro Finance, Tollygunj Women In Need, Paint It Red in Kolkata.

Now as an MH Fellow with YKA, she’s expanding her impressive scope of work further by launching a campaign to facilitate the process of ensuring better menstrual health and SRH services for women residing in correctional homes in West Bengal. The campaign will entail an independent study to take stalk of the present conditions of MHM in correctional homes across the state and use its findings to build public support and political will to take the necessary action.

Saurabh has been associated with YKA as a user and has consistently been writing on the issue MHM and its intersectionality with other issues in the society. Now as an MHM Fellow with YKA, he’s launched the Right to Period campaign, which aims to ensure proper execution of MHM guidelines in Delhi’s schools.

The long-term aim of the campaign is to develop an open culture where menstruation is not treated as a taboo. The campaign also seeks to hold the schools accountable for their responsibilities as an important component in the implementation of MHM policies by making adequate sanitation infrastructure and knowledge of MHM available in school premises.

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Harshita is a psychologist and works to support people with mental health issues, particularly adolescents who are survivors of violence. Associated with the Azadi Foundation in UP, Harshita became an MHM Fellow with YKA, with the aim of promoting better menstrual health.

Her campaign #MeriMarzi aims to promote menstrual health and wellness, hygiene and facilities for female sex workers in UP. She says, “Knowledge about natural body processes is a very basic human right. And for individuals whose occupation is providing sexual services, it becomes even more important.”

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MH Fellow Sabna comes with significant experience working with a range of development issues. A co-founder of Project Sakhi Saheli, which aims to combat period poverty and break menstrual taboos, Sabna has, in the past, worked on the issue of menstruation in urban slums of Delhi with women and adolescent girls. She and her team also released MenstraBook, with menstrastories and organised Menstra Tlk in the Delhi School of Social Work to create more conversations on menstruation.

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A student from Delhi School of Social work, Vineet is a part of Project Sakhi Saheli, an initiative by the students of Delhi school of Social Work to create awareness on Menstrual Health and combat Period Poverty. Along with MHM Action Fellow Sabna, Vineet launched Menstratalk, a campaign that aims to put an end to period poverty and smash menstrual taboos in society.

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As a Youth Ki Awaaz Menstrual Health Fellow, Nitisha has started Let’s Talk Period, a campaign to mobilise young people to switch to sustainable period products. She says, “80 lakh women in Delhi use non-biodegradable sanitary products, generate 3000 tonnes of menstrual waste, that takes 500-800 years to decompose; which in turn contributes to the health issues of all menstruators, increased burden of waste management on the city and harmful living environment for all citizens.

Let’s Talk Period aims to change this by

Find out more about her campaign here.

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A former Assistant Secretary with the Ministry of Women and Child Development in West Bengal for three months, Lakshmi Bhavya has been championing the cause of menstrual hygiene in her district. By associating herself with the Lalana Campaign, a holistic menstrual hygiene awareness campaign which is conducted by the Anahat NGO, Lakshmi has been slowly breaking taboos when it comes to periods and menstrual hygiene.

A Gender Rights Activist working with the tribal and marginalized communities in india, Srilekha is a PhD scholar working on understanding body and sexuality among tribal girls, to fill the gaps in research around indigenous women and their stories. Srilekha has worked extensively at the grassroots level with community based organisations, through several advocacy initiatives around Gender, Mental Health, Menstrual Hygiene and Sexual and Reproductive Health Rights (SRHR) for the indigenous in Jharkhand, over the last 6 years.

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