Held in the courtyard of the Nongkrem Syiem or chief’s residence in the picturesque town of Smit, the Nongkrem Dance is a significant festival of the Khasis. The venue, the Iing Sad itself is a very important symbol of the Khasis – a large thatched building (or palace) that was constructed without the use of metal parts. The Nongkrem Dance festival is a five-day-long event and there are many rituals performed involving the current royals of the Khyrim Hima (kingdom). The members are widely recognized and revered in traditional administration and remain torchbearers for the centuries-old indigenous practices of the Khasis. The pomblang or goat sacrifice ceremony precedes the dance, where unmarried maidens and male members of the community constitute the dancing troupe. All participants are attired in the best of traditional outfits.
A festival of the Khasis celebrated in April or May, the Umsan Nongkharai is a festival held to honour the major deity of the Khasi religion, the Lei Shyllong, after whom the town of the Shillong and the highest peak in the state is named.
The rituals start at midnight – prayers are offered and Umsan Nongkharai also involves an animal sacrifice to the deity. The drums and flutes – important parts of the Khasi musical set-up – provide the soundtrack to a group of males dancing till the break of dawn. Umsan Nongkharai continues for five days – each day with dedicated themes and prayers. Devotees pray for a good harvest and protection from the extreme weather elements like hail and storms, and they also perform fertility rituals. The last day is when most public rituals are performed and sees the largest crowds.
Chad Sukra is the sowing festival of the Jaintias or Pnars. It is one of the most significant dates on the Niamtre (indigenous religion of the Pnars) calendar. The Pnars believe that before the sowing seasons begin, there should be prayers and rituals performed for a prosperous year and bountiful harvest. Chad Sukra is an occasion for visitors to see the communities in their best traditional outfits and many dances of the Pnars are performed.
Laho Dance is another colourful and vibrant festival of the Jaintias or Pnars. The Laho Dance includes the participation of the men and women of the community, as they link their arms together and perform synchronized steps (usually two men on both sides of the female dancer). Accompanying the dancing entourage, there would usually be a narrator who spontaneously recites entertaining verses. The Laho Dance is also known as the Chipiah Dance and can be witnessed in local events, especially those celebrating the indigenous culture.
Other Important Festivals of the Garo Hills
There are many more rituals and festivals celebrated across the state, most increasingly restricted to the more rural areas. Rongchu Gala and Den Bilsia are two important Garo rituals which involve the sacrifice of a fowl – many Garo festivals and dances are associated with different events of the Jhum cultivation cycle.