After-life Belief and Death Ritual among the Khasis of North Eastern India: Contested Beliefs?

Contesting Authority - Vernacular Knowledge and Alternative Beliefs - Marion Bowman

Margaret Lyngdoh [+-]
University of Tartu
Margaret Lyngdoh is a P.hd Student in Folkloristics at the Department of Estonian and Comparative Folklore, University of Tartu, Estonia. As a Khasi indigenous scholar, she is working on the supernatural folklore of the Khasi, Karbi and other ethnic communities of North Eastern India. Her work focuses on the vernacular interpretations of belief and the relationships that are fostered in the society as a result of the changing contexts of religion and tradition. She has previously published an article on Khasi urban folklore in the journal Asian Ethnology (2012), another article on Khasi Tigermen is scheduled to be published in Journal Anthropos (2015), and an article to be published on the devastating consequences of narrative about a Khasi demon in journal IQAS/Asien Forum (2015).


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.

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Lyngdoh, Margaret. After-life Belief and Death Ritual among the Khasis of North Eastern India: Contested Beliefs?. Contesting Authority - Vernacular Knowledge and Alternative Beliefs. Equinox eBooks Publishing, United Kingdom. Oct 2021. ISBN 9781781792377. Date accessed: 23 Jan 2020 doi: 10.1558/equinox.29223. Oct 2021

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