As the monsoon makes its presence felt across the hills, the Pnars of Meghalaya have their biggest celebration of the year – Behdienkhlam. The term Behdienkhlam refers to the driving away of evil spirits. The festival has many more layers to it and provides a chance for the people to celebrate their indigenous beliefs, history and folklore via various acts and rites.
Behdienkhlam is the largest festival of the practitioners of the Niam Tre religion and is dedicated to a good harvest and a year of plenty. The biggest Behdienkhlam festivities can be experienced in Jowai (West Jaintia Hills) and in Tuberkmai (East Jaintia Hills).
There are many ceremonies and rituals leading up for many days to the final Behdienkhlam ‘procession’. One of them involves the beating of the homes with long bamboo sticks – as the evil spirits that cause disease and misfortune are driven away. Offerings are also made to ancestors and clans. The Daloi, or chief religious figures of the community, conduct prayers and customs as the crowds swell and the excitement rises. Polished logs of wood and artistically designed rots (bamboo structures) are carried through the neighbourhoods before they reach a central pool or pond – Ka Aitnar (located in Longpiah) – and are immersed. There is a lot of fanfare around these rituals and the streets are filled choc a bloc. The sacred pool in the Tuber Behdienkhlam festival is located at Ka Biar Blai in the village of Tuberkmai Shnong.
Behdienkhlam is a very happy and boisterous affair and usually coupled with rainy weather. It is a time when the traditional games get the spotlight, fun for participants and observers alike and accompanied by raucous cheering. Revellers representing their localities try to push a wooden log across the sacred pool. An interesting game played between teams during Behdienkhlam is Dat-lawakor, a football-like sport played with a wooden ball. Iatan-Bhang is a tug of war played between members of the northern and southern part of the region – the winners are believed to be blessed with a prosperous year and more.
The sounds, the colours, and the energy of the festival coupled with the imagery of the crowds and intricately designed rots towering above them make Behdienkhlam one of the most arresting and visually stunning cultural experiences in Meghalaya.