Photographs of the final day ceremony in Changpung Market by Luddite Ned
After 45 long years of neglect, the people of the Pohchnong locality in Changpung village in West Jaintia Hills District of Meghalaya, stirred their spirits to awaken their long neglected traditional marriage system in an attempt to revive their culture and to infusing in the upcoming generation the importance of traditional family values as propounded by the ancestors. The reorganization of the marriage system in the ‘pure’ manner, i.e. traditional style, is indeed a rare occurrence at a time when most people adopt the ‘Western’ form of marriage ceremonies and have almost given up even the symbols of tradition associated with marriage. This event has also attracted people from the neighbouring villages who arrived to eagerly witness and experience this sacred observance.
A lot of questions arose in my mind when I heard that such an event was going to be held (I had arrived in Changpung along with my friends and teachers to conduct a field survey for our master’s dissertation). I became curious to know more about the ceremony and the main purpose behind it – the reawakening of the traditional system. Through helpful conversations and interactions with the local people, I was able to collect some information. In the process I came to learn more about it and I am very grateful for that.
Pohchnong is the name of one of the localities of Changpung village. Changpung, which is a large village has eight headmen in total and consists of more than 500 households. The village is divided into different localities based on the religions the people follow, i.e. Christians and their traditional counterpart, Niam Tre. Pohchnong is the locality in which the followers of the traditional religion are dominant and are found to stay together. The Niam Tre religion which is the traditional religion of the Jaintias is strongly organized in this area.
The traditional marriage ceremony stretched for a period of ten days. Thus, the marriage took place from 17th of December and lasted till 27th December 2015. It was very lengthy ceremony. One of the advantages that the local people mentioned about this type of marriage is its complicated process of divorce. When the couple are married in the traditional manner, they cannot get a divorce at will. They would need to go back to the place of the ceremony, seek the will of nature and do so in the presence of witnesses. On looking back it is perhaps this peculiar and tough process of divorce which is the reason for the comparatively low divorce rates among the people of Pohchnong. This should be the antidote to the brittle nature of Khasi marriages and it would be preferable for the future generations to revert to the traditional form of marriage to reduce the divorce rate. Also it would be much better for the people to follow their traditional marriage systems than to borrow from other cultures when they have a better way. In my opinion this system is more meaningful for the Jaintia people not only to revive their culture and create awareness about it for the future generations but also because they can reclaim a part of their past history.
The main reason, as already discussed, is that it will help in bringing down the divorce rate. In today’s world we regularly see the ruins that broken families bring about. Children growing up in such a family suffer from adverse effects on mental health which also affect their future. Furthermore, it creates a cycle of brokenness and affects the society as a whole. Societies are after all made up of individual families and problems in the latter are inevitably transferred to the former. By discouraging easy divorce the traditional form of marriage could help in saving families from breaking too easily, which is the norm now-a-days. Therefore, the traditional marriage system, although lengthy and complex is much more preferable. Difficulty in getting divorce does have disadvantages but in a society which is becoming highly individualised, engagement of the community (possible through the traditional process) has greater benefits.
However, and more importantly, it is a good practice to keep up and preserve traditional culture which can stand as a challenge and example for the other tribes of North-East India to emulate. It is a challenge because many of them have also neglected many of their traditional cultural practises and Pohchnong can be an example to emulate. All of us are well aware of the overbearing influences of western cultures on our lifestyles. It is frightening to imagine the prospect of the complete eradication of our traditional value systems within a few decades if we do not create barriers against those cultural assaults. Of course it is very difficult to preserve our traditional culture in this age of globalisation and cultural assimilation but nevertheless we can still retain and retrieve whatever we can. I hope this type of marriage system becomes more popular among the Jaintia people, which in turn will encourage and enthuse them to revive the other old, good practices as well.
On the other hand, this event also made me think about the rapid changes that have overtaken our value systems and lifestyles due to the advent of the European culture before and after Independence. When we trace back our history we find that our country, especially the north-eastern states, had largely remained untouched by the processes of modernization. After the British came in the 19th century, they introduced modern education system and provided other important facilities that improved our lifestyles and enabled us to progress along with the rest of the world. But it is also true that colonization has damaged our beautiful culture and our worldviews as well. Introduction of western education is one of the best things that the British did for the Indian citizens. But along with it, we were also exposed to European culture which led us to imbibe it in our lives. In the process we started ignoring our own culture. We have developed a mindset where jeans and t-shirts are much better than jainsem or dhoti. If you have a choice, where would you go for lunch, KFC or jadoh? This mindset is not just the product of the present modernization process but had in fact started with the arrival of the British.
I am not suggesting that eating KFC or wearing jeans or t-shirt is a bad thing but only using them as examples of the changes that have taken place in our value systems and mindset brought about largely by western culture. In this 21st century, the mindset of our teenagers is influenced largely by American values disseminated through the power of media. Like it happened previously with the European influence, the copying of American lifestyles by teenagers today who look down upon their own culture is not surprising. In contrast to all this, I am reminded of the story of a man who had lived in Indonesia for several years. He said that most of the people in Indonesia follow Islam and they love their traditions and customs. Even though the missionaries preached to them, they were unwilling to convert because they feared that the new forms of religions might shatter their long preserved culture and tradition.
When I heard this story, it challenged me and got me thinking that cherishing one’s own culture and tradition by giving it the deserved admiration is the best way to expose ourselves to the world. Even though the tax rates are one of the highest in the world, Britain still follows the monarchy system because the people cherish the traditional system and are willing to pay higher taxes to continue with it. If others could, why can’t we cherish our tradition and fight to preserve and revive the old systems? One may follow any religion, Christianity, Islam, Hinduism, or Niam Tre but is it justified if it makes us abandon our tradition and culture. This is the question I have been constantly asking myself.
Apart from reorganizing their traditional marriage system, the people of Pohchnong also strictly manage their sacred groves where the ritual ceremonies are held periodically. All these activities clearly expose the rigidity and boldness of their mind to preserve their own culture. The other north-eastern tribes should look at Pohchnong’s efforts and take possible steps to acknowledge the worth and importance of their own culture and tradition.