Decoding mystery behind “Khasi demonology”

Indigenous beliefs go parallel with Christianity among Khasi people of Meghalaya


By Ibankyntiew Mawrie

Shillong: Margaret Lyngdoh is on a unique mission: to analyze the supernatural traditions and “dark folklore” practices within the Khasi community of Meghalaya, a Christian-majority state in northeastern India.

She delves deep into the narratives to examine how marginalized genres of folklore express themselves in, and are related to, socio-psychological tensions in the Khasi community.

Born and brought in Shillong, Lyngdoh, a junior researcher at the Department of Estonian and Comparative Folklore, University of Tartu, Estonia is on a mission – to unravel the mystery behind Khasi demonology.

A resident of Mawblei, Shillong Margaret completed her MA in 2006 from North East Hill University (NEHU) and later worked as an entertainment content writer at The Northeast Today magazine. After three months, in 2007, she became a research scholar at NEHU in the Cultural and creative study department.

In 2009-2010 when Margaret attended a workshop on magic at Maiong in Assam she met Prof Ulovalk from the University of Tartu, the man who assisted her to the realms of the supernatural. After being offered to join the university as a visiting scholar for her PhD study, Margaret didn’t think twice and pursued her research on Khasi demonology or the believe in super-naturals.

Through her research, she found it possible to deconstruct and unravel stereotypes through research and documentation. In 2013, she carried out fieldwork and made a documentary film about the Chomangkan death ritual of the Karbi ethnic community.

Her publications include, “The Vanishing Hitchhiker in Shillong: Khasi Belief Narratives and Violence Against Women” (2012); “On Wealth and Jealousy among the Khasis: Thlen, Demonization and the Other” (2015); “Tiger–Transformation within the Khasi Community of Northeastern India: Belief Worlds and Shifting Realities” (forthcoming), and “Dealing with the Dead: Vernacular Belief Negotiations Among the Khasis of North Eastern India” (forthcoming).

Her current research explores the topics of magic practices and divine possession among the Khasis.

Here is a case study seen from the context of marginalization, the indigenous heritage and conflicted intentions where belief becomes suggestive of a community’s need to come to terms with it’s own place alongside other ethnic identities.

The analyses showed how the existing structures in society were subverted as a result of the circulation of the revenant narratives. The consequences of the circulation of “dark” and malicious folklore often lead to the loss of life, mob violence and “othering” of groups of people within Khasi society.

In Meghalaya, majority of the population have converted to Christianity but the indigenous beliefs still linger. Shillong in particular is modern but not modern enough to denounce their belief on supernatural powers, mythical creatures and dark practices such as Khap Thlen, Shwar, Taro, Ngat Puri, Jharei, Hiar Blai, Nongbylli and so on.

If you’re thinking that with the spread of Christianity, the people have renounced their indigenous beliefs, you are wrong! Indigenous beliefs go parallel with Christianity, Margaret remarked.

In her research, Margaret looks at the various social mechanisms that are employed toward reconciliation with modernity and Christianity whilst retaining a sense of what it means to be Khasi.

“Most of my works are based on narratives, interaction with the locals, visiting the rural areas, listening to their age-old stories and thorough field work. Why I chose a long distance approach to make sense of everything? It is because it becomes all the more easy to centre upon reasons, to focus at the inputs/topics that I have gathered so far because Tartu centres on research, developed theory and I feel fortunate to be part of the development theory of folkaristic because they have research focus on Northeast India.”

East Khasi Hills: The popular belief in the district is the Ngat Puri (bewitched by a water spirit) which people believe could lead to madness, illness and even death.

Then there is a belief about U Thlen, a mythical giant serpent believed to have been a predator of innocent blood to sustain himself. According to Margaret, U Thlen is a ‘Minister of God.’ The story goes – When God bestowed the 12 ring of power (12 bor) to humans, like Lucifer in the Bible, U Thlen became jealous and came down to earth to challenge the order of things and hence the Fallen Angel.

West Khasi Hills: The belief of U Nongbylli (Powerful sorcerers—there can be two sources – Deity (Kam Khar) and Ngariang (Water spirit) are very prominent in this district.

Jaintia Hills: There is the Hiar Blai (divine possession), Sang Khni (people transforming into snakes), Taro (bewitched/ possessed).

Ri Bhoi: A belief in the mythical creature ‘Jharei’ or a man who transforms into a tiger.

“While growing up, I have heard many stories about supernatural entities which exist in the society as people termed them as ‘Taboo’. “When I was a young girl, my mother would often tell me not to go there, not to eat that, not to meet that person for some weird reason, fearing he/she might cast a spell or conjure some dark magic on me and so on so forth.”

“If you go by the rhetoric, the supernatural appears to be powerful and fierce but the scarier it gets, the more interesting it becomes”.

But there is one thing you have to understand — Beliefs is the result of inter-cultural transaction and I hope that through my research, I can help undo the stereotypes between ethnic communities. Talking about these beliefs, one can look at it from various perspectives – like how do beliefs express itself, it is not tangible, it is more of an expression and the tough part is – How to verify it.

People are carriers of his/ her traditions and beliefs exist in their cultural memories as they are being orally passed on from one generation to another. And their oral tradition assumes a major significance in the lives of the Khasis.

(The writer can be reached at iban@thenortheasttoday.com or mawrie.iban@gmail.com)

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