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In Meghalaya, celebrating Durga Puja differently

Wednesday October 05, 2011 03:02:36 PM, IANS

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Nartiang (Meghalaya): As millions across India thronged Durga Puja marquees on the penultimate day of the festival Wednesday, so did the Jaintias, an indigenous tribe of Meghalaya comprising Christians, continuing a 400-year-old unique tradition.

Worshipping Goddess Durga with the same fervour and devotion but with a different set of rituals, hundreds of Jaintias, both Christians and believers of an indigenous faith, thronged the ancient temple at Nartiang, about 65 km east of Shillong. The Pnar people, as Jaintias are known, were also joined by tourists.

The tradition goes back over 400 years.

Perched on a hill top, overlooking the Myntang stream, the Durga Bari at Nartiang in the Jaintia Hills district was built by the Jaintia kings in the 16th-17th centuries.

"Twenty-two generations of Jaintia kings worshipped Durga and Jayanteswari, the ancestral deity of the Jaintia kings," said the young temple priest, Molay Desmukh.

Desmukh, 20, took charge of the Durga temple five years ago after the demise of his father Gopendra Desmukh. Interestingly, Desmukh priests were brought to Nartiang by the Jaintia kings from Bengal, not Maharashtra as the surname may suggest.

The dilapidated centuries-old temple structure was demolished recently, and a new one was built with minimal change in design and material in its place.

Durga and Jayanteswari are placed on the same place and worshipped together. Both the idols are made of astadhatu (eight precious metals), and each is about six to eight inches tall.

"The rituals and religious functions during the Durga Puja are performed as per the Hindu way," the priest said.

The ceremony begins with ablution of both the idols, which are then draped in colourful new attires and ornaments before the rituals.

On the fourth day of the five-day festival, animal sacrifice is carried out.

"However, during the royal Jainitia rule there used to be a scary practice of human sacrifice," the priest said, pointing to a small square hole.

He has been told by his father that "the severed head used to be rolled through the hole connected to a secret tunnel that falls into the adjacent river Myntang".

It's believed that the practice was stopped by the British, after the sacrifice of a British subject.

"Instead, now water gourds are sacrificed, along with animals and birds such as goats, chicken and pigeons," Desmukh said. A human mask is placed on the gourds, as a symbolic act of human sacrifice.

Apart from this unique tradition, there is another indigenous feature that marks Durga Puja at Nartiang -- the Durga idol is permanent and is not sent for immersion after the last day of worship.

However, the priest installs a young banana plant beside the Durga idol, which is taken out after the completion of the worship and immersed in the nearby river Myntang. The entire expenditure of the Durga Puja is borne by the Dolloi (traditional village chief, who is non-Christian) of Nartiang.

Even though the majority of the tribal population in the state of Meghalaya has embraced Christianity, a sizeable section of the community has retained its indigenous culture, religion and customs.

"Nartiang was the summer capital of the Jaintia kingdom, which was set up at Jaintiapur, now in Sylhet district of Bangladesh," said historian J.B. Bhattacharjee.

"The palace, though in ruins, still stands there as a testimony to the Jaintia heritage," he said.

The Jaintia kings spent the summer in the hills to escape the unbearable heat in the plains and return to Jaintiapur after Durga Puja.

The royal tradition continued till the British annexed the Jaintia territories in 1835, thereby ending Jaintia reign in the plains.







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