In Kongthong, a remote village in north-east India, the peace and sound of chirping birds offer welcome relief from the hustle and bustle of city life. But it is not just the birds that have their own songs, the villagers do too.
Kongthong is known as the “whistling village” because of its unique tradition of assigning both a regular name and a tune to newborns. The melody stays and dies with them. Nestled on the brow of a lush green mountain and surrounded by forests, Kongthong sits roughly half way between Bangladesh and the Himalayan Kingdom of Bhutan, in north east India.
It has around 80 households and 900 inhabitants who speak the Khasi language and rely on farming for their livelihoods. The villagers live in simple huts made of wood collected from the forest.
Earlier this year, Parida Lynrah gave birth to a girl and two days after leaving hospital, the elated 20-year-old was busy composing a unique, distinct song for the child. This melody will become her daughter’s identity for the rest of her life.
“As soon as she arrived before my eyes, I started humming a song in order to keep the tradition of jingrwai iawbei (mother’s love song) alive. The song comes from the depth of my heart due to my unbridled emotions for her,” she said.
“My love for my child cannot be described in words and those lines which I compose will become her name for the rest of her life.” Her mother was helping her to compose a new melody for the newborn. “We help our daughters to compose the tune,” she said. “The process starts within two to three weeks of the birth. The uniqueness of the song lies in the fact that two songs cannot be similar like the names of the people.
“The song would be immediately changed if it resonates with another person. Ideally, the child has three names, a regular name for official purposes, a long tune and its shorter version. It is almost like a lullaby that stays with the child for the entire life. The longer version, which is around eight to 10 seconds long, is used in the forest or in fields to call fellow villagers from a distance and the shorter form of three to four seconds is usually used in the home. The longer tune is just the repetition of the shorter one.”
When did the tradition of singing tunes for names begin in Kongthong village? Nobody there has the answer. “It is very difficult to say when it began as we have been following the unique legacy of our ancestors. We believe that our forefathers started this practise to keep us safe from evil spirits,” said Shidep Khotsing.
She points out that the composition of a song is different for male and female children. “The song is melodious for a girl while it is manly for boys as they have to be strong and attain manhood.”
At a time when the younger generation in other parts of the world are shifting away from their age-old cultures, villagers in Kongthong are trying their best to preserve the legacy.
Trairilang Khongsit, 21, whose longer name is “kukko, kukko” and speaks fluent English, tries to ensure that her four younger siblings continue their unique culture. “We are proud of our uniqueness as it brings visitors and culture enthusiasts here from across the world,” she said.
The Indian ministry of tourism nominated Kongthong for entry to the UNWTO (The World Tourism Organization) Best Tourism Village awards in India last year.
Despite its fascinating story and the village's a remote location, some of the younger locals say their unique identity helps them survive. “Unlike youths in other parts of the state, we do not have to migrate for our livelihoods as we get tourists across the year,” says a 27 year-old local guide. “Our culture has been our saviour. Our survival depends on its survival. We are doing our best to preserve it.”
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