Book: Contesting Authority
Chapter: After-life Belief and Death Ritual among the Khasis of North Eastern India: Contested Beliefs?
The Khasi ethnic community comprise about 1.2 million and they inhabit the state of Meghalaya in North Eastern India. They are composed of five main sub communities namely, Khynrian, Pnar, Bhoi, War and Lyngngam. I will focus on the Lyngngam sub group who further divide themselves into the Lyngngam, Muliang and Nongtrai and they live in West Khasi Hills District. For the sake of clarity, I will use the term Lyngngam to refer all three sub groups, unless specifically mentioned.
The most important life event of Lyngngam people is death. Various rituals performed after death are place and context dependent. Perhaps the most well-known after-death ritual is the Phor Sorat which is performed only after divination is carried out, and according to some, the last recorded ceremony was performed in 1992. The Lyngngam are now almost 100 percent Christian converts and death rites follow the Christian burial rites as consequence.
However, dying, death and after-death experiences as the most important rite of passage exists in the culture’s comprehension of life, death and beliefs about the afterlife which predates the new religion and is transmitted through the oral tradition and beliefs associated with this. People who have died come back to life if they are unable to cross the river of forgetfulness (Umbylleiñ), and dead bodies reanimate in order to demand human heads if their spirit is unsatisfied. On one hand Christian precepts are utilised in a manner so as to rationalise traditional practices and understandings of death. And on the other hand, the native epistemology is still adhered to (with regards to death rituals) in contradiction with the official religion.
As a result of fieldwork carried out over the space of four years among the Nongtrai and the Nonglang inhabited areas, with narratives also collected about the Lyngngam funerary rites, multiple variants of death rituals, customs and beliefs were collected. This article will focus on the Lyngngam traditional death practices and how they are translated to accommodate Christianity. It is only in the realm of the vernacular - belief, religion, practice and narrative - that the individual creates meaning for his/herself. In the light of such contradictory meaning-making, the community has evolved a vernacular realm where the official religion and traditional belief are expressed in an alternative spiritual space.