Jayanta Chakraborty, an avid explorer and an expert on North East India, went to Meghalaya and stumbled upon a truly unique festival in the Khasi Hills. Known as Shad Suk Mynsiem, celebrations at the Maidens Festival of Meghalaya held him in awe and inspired him to share it with others.
For those who do not know what northeast India is like, it comprises of eight states – Arunachal Pradesh, Assam, Manipur, Meghalaya, Mizoram, Nagaland, Sikkim, and Tripura. The Himalayas and its waters define the region’s terrain, climate, rich biodiversity, and the peculiar indigenous lifestyles her people follow. That NE India is bound by Bhutan, Nepal, and Tibet to the north, Bangladesh to the south and west, and Myanmar to the east hints at the eclectic mix of cultural, ethnic, and linguistic diversity. This is where elements of Asia come together to do what they do best – cast a spell.
Meghalaya – The Abode of Clouds
Home to the wettest places in the world, the state is organized into three areas viz. Garo Hills, Jaintia Hills, and Khasi Hills. Towns like Cherrapunji (also known as Sohra) and Mawsynram are known to record highest rainfall on earth. It sports few of the wildest national parks, some breathtaking waterfalls, rivers, and lakes, and the famous living-root bridges.
Meghalaya’s matrilineal society, wherein the youngest daughter inherits the family wealth, lends it a unique characteristic. Besides, it is one of the few states of the country where lottery is legal. So, when visiting, do not forget to buy yourself a teer-lottery ticket – it is based on a system that declares winners on the outcome of an archery event held in its capital, Shillong. All of this merely scratches the surface.
The Lazy Backpacker
Once upon a time … since most stories I read start with the phrase “once upon a time, there was a king …” , let me begin on a familiar note. But, please wait for the story of the king – it follows after my experience of this amazing festival. So, here we go..
Once upon a time, I was enjoying a pleasant home-stay experience in Meghalaya’s oldest village called Nongrim in its popular tourist district of Sohra. I lazed the last 48 hours in the natural beauty of the surroundings, indulging in relentless chatter. Somehow, I enjoy learning about the place (that I am visiting) from the locals. I love it when they narrate stories for me to take back home.
In the midst of one such session on a morning, my host and village-head, Shri Softender Shyrwang, nudged me out of my slumber and told me about a festival event just half-a-mile away. Since it wasn’t too far, I mustered the courage to go, give it a try.
Shad Suk Mynsiem – A Seng Khasi Tradition
While Christianity remains the dominant religion of Meghalaya, few communities preserve their indigenous culture. One such is the Seng Khasi community that continues to fiercely protect its traditional practices and proudly showcase their lifestyle through various events and festivals.
Given that India’s North East itself is somewhat unexplored, not a lot of people know about its subcultures. Hence this short article – to share the excitement of my discovery, and to encourage people to learn about one more colorful, yet a relatively low-profile festival of the region.
Shad Suk Mynsiem or Meghalaya’s Maidens’ Festival
A Dance of Happy Hearts
Dance of Peaceful Hearts, Dance of Happy Hearts, or The Thanksgiving Dance, as the festival’s Khasi name is varyingly translated, celebrates the rejuvenation of nature and marks the harvest season. The festival represents women as seed bearers and men as cultivators and is an expression of people’s gratitude to God.
Though Shillong, the state capital, remains the epicenter of the celebrations, the festival troupe travels and performs through the Khasi towns and villages. At the time, it was in Sohra. The way this annual and almost month-long festival is organized, it invariably ends on a Sunday.
A Dance of Grace
Men and women, dressed to the occasion, donned colorful ethnic attires with traditional crowns. Elaborate designs in gold and silver, a symbol of prosperity, topped their accessories. In addition, the men carried arms (ornate swords or arrows) symbolizing their willingness to defend their families. The dance formation, with women flanked by men, denoted the matrilineal nature of Meghalaya’s society wherein women play a central role and men act to protect them.
The inquisitive chatter in me found out that, keeping with the tradition, only maidens are allowed to participate in the festival, while such restrictions do not apply to men. Through the performance, maidens hold a white handkerchief that indicates their status.
On that day, I was spellbound by the bright reds, vivid yellow, and sparkling whites moving in the chill of an early spring. The interesting thing to note of this dance form is that the women do not lift their toes off the ground, symbolizing their connectedness with their cultural and familial roots. The men, with their fur whisks, circled the girls and moved in complete synchronicity. The troupe’s graceful moves to the enchanting folk music played on a khol (a type of flute), pipes, and a set of drums melted my heart. It felt, as if, the community’s bond of love was on display here.
Bonus: The Khasi King’s Story
The event had fired my inquisitiveness about the Khasis. So I did what I do best – talk. The thing about interacting with locals is that you get to hear and learn more than what you came visiting for. So I figured there used to be a King and his Queen in Sohra. Though both died few years ago, their last rites are yet to be performed and their ashes are preserved in the heart of the community, safe in this oldest village of Nongrim.
It turns out that there is now an acting king, until heir to the throne, 20 years old, is sworn in – something that can only happen when he turns 40. It is then that the last rites of the erstwhile royal couple would be conducted by the new King. Guess what? I figured all this from a fellow spectator, who turned out to be a minister of this Kingdom – Mr. G.T. Kynta – Lucky me!
When to Witness Shad Suk Mynsiem?
Spring. Commencing from the second week of March, it goes on till second week of April. The condition for each participating villages is simple – they must organize the festival in a way that it ends on a Sunday. So, in case you are planning a trip to Meghalaya in March / April, consider a weekend to enjoy this fascinating event for a slice of indigenous culture – that blooms in the hearts of proud Khasi men and women. For details of upcoming Seng Khasi events, you may follow their Facebook page.
Spring season brings festivities and makes for an wonderful time for you to experience the vibrant communities and their celebrations. Heading out to North East India? Here’s another gem to consider: Manas Spring Festival. Enjoy the Bodo community’s ethnic delicacies and their excellent hospitality – all surrounded by the wilderness of Manas National Park!
Think North East India
The region’s innate charms have remained under-explored. Travelers, who figure out how to backpack in North East India, find gems such as Dzükou Valley all to themselves. Importantly, the hospitable people of the region make sure that visitors take back the choicest of memories.
Meanwhile, pick up a copy of Backpacking North East India: A Curious Journey. It covers over two dozen places and attempts to answer the question – what is it like to travel in the region? Give it a read and make your own choices. Buy now!
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