Inside the one-room hut with a sloping thatch roof, we sat cross-legged on the wooden floor. In a corner, Khongsit and her husband Bring Khongjee busied themselves lighting the fire. In between nudging the timber to flame by blowing air through a long pipe, Khongsit talked of her four children and sang their tune names for me – each 14 to 18 seconds long and markedly distinct from the other. “These are the longer, original versions that we sing out in the fields, when one needs to call for someone across the hills and valleys,” she explained.
In the past, the melodies were used to keep track of one another in the forest while hunting, and also “to ward off evil spirits”. “We believe that bad spirits that dwell in the forests cannot distinguish our tunes from each other or from animal calls. Hence, no harm comes to you when you’re called by your tunes in the forest,” Khongsit said. She explained that there’s a shorter version too, an extract of the long tune that is akin to a nickname, which is sung when its bearer is closer within earshot, say at home or in the playground. When heard from afar, the tunes sound like whistles, which is why Kongthong has been dubbed the “Whistling Village”.
As Khongsit handed me a cup of piping-hot red tea, served without milk and with a generous helping of sugar, I asked her about the origin of this practice. “Nobody can say for sure when it began, yet most agree that it has been around ever since Kongthong came into being,” she replied. “Kongthong itself has been here even before the kingdom of Sohra was established by our people and by those from other villages in the area.”
Considering that the kingdom of Sohra was founded in nearby Cherrapunji, famous for once being the wettest place on Earth, sometime in the early 16th Century, it places the village’s age – and by extension, the practice’s origin – at more than 500 years. Yet, in all this time, the custom was never documented, until recently.
Dr Piyashi Dutta was born and brought up in Shillong and is currently an assistant professor at the Amity School of Communication in Noida, near Delhi. She learned about Kongthong while researching the topic of matriliny for her PhD. “Meghalaya is a matrilineal society, where the matrilineal principles, ethos, traditions and customs are deep seated into the system and orally handed down generations,” she said. “Kongthong is no exception. Here the practice of tunes or songs as names is rooted in their cultural ethos and passed down orally. It is also a manifestation of their matriliny.”