Landscapes of Enchantment and their Usage: A Critical Case Study from the Khasi Ethnic Community of Meghalaya
Margaret Lyngdoh [+]
University of Tartu
Question: That big stone Bah, why is it standing there in the middle of your field? Answer: That, Kong (madam), is a Ryngkew (guardian deity) – I don’t know it well, but it is said that late at night, it walks to the river to drink water. Among the Khasis of Northeastern India, the construction of sacred places requires the validation of community: it constitutes a physical manifestation of narratives and beliefs, which become relevant within a given community. Places and the meanings they create are interwoven into the fabric of human existence. Place expresses epistemology. In the mentioned quote, the relevance that a particular, “special” stone has within the village is supported by the belief that to the traditional Khasis, each hill, river, mountain or a place with a special geographical feature is the dwelling place of a ryngkew or basa in the Khasi vernacular language. Ryngkew are always associated with specific places. In the rural areas of the Khasi Hills, ryngkew are numerous because of the place–making traditions which necessitate creation of a meaningful place in a location where accidents, bad deaths or religiously significant events have taken place. Non-human entities or ryngkew of place are thus created. In the framework of the set of practices commonly attributed to constitute the indigenous Khasi belief system, place plays a central role. Traditionally, there are cursed places as well as sacred places. Whereas holy places commonly comprise sacred groves and places of dwelling of guardian deities; cursed places are places which invite misfortune of a similar nature. For example, the Mawphlang sacred grove is the most popular and well preserved grove in the Khasi Hills. It has a guardian deity who manifests in the guise of a snake or a tiger. The concept of “sacred” in the traditional Khasi view is not equivalent to “holy” as in Christian understanding. Among the Khasis, “sacred” is associated with places which are free from the influence of tyrut which is a “curse” associated with place. Curses associated with families are called raibi and can transcend generations. Sacred is also connected with a code of conduct to be observed at the sacred space and the consequences of violations against this code. Sacred places are created by their identification as the sites of settlement by non human entities. A cursed place on the other hand, is always connected with misfortune which is recurrent. To exemplify, about six kilometres from the urban city centre in Shillong is a short stretch of road famously named, “Ryndang Briew” or “human neck”. It is located close to the Umiam lake which provides Shillong with electricity and which is also a highly folklorized space in terms of sacred myths, legends and water spirit sighting narratives which circulate around it. Ryndang Briew, is the place that the most number of accidents take place. From data I collected from the Umiam Police Station, I found out that from 2009 until 2011, 13 persons died and 10 persons were injured in four separate road accidents. Numerous reasons are cited as the cause of the accidents that take place here; and yet, having been a life-long resident of Shillong, I will not claim that this area has very special or dangerous geographical features. However, it is a straight stretch which allows vehicles to speed and this perhaps lends some influence on the frequency of accidents occurring there. This article will attempt to show how the place, as a concept, discursively shifts in the new context of Christianity and how Khasi Christianity has to accommodate the Khasi need for “sacred” and “cursed” places to ritualise. Further, Khasi Christianity has served to create binaries in how place is perceived which had hitherto not existed.