Behdeinkhalam, the four-day festival observed by the Pnars of Jaintia Hills in Meghalaya (to drive away the Khlam or pandemic) is off sheen, limited to rituals and religious observance due to the Covid-19 pandemic this year.
“It’s our festival to drive away virus and the disease. We need to dance so that the virus is chased out and Behdeinkhalam is all about this. This year due to Covid-19 restrictions, the crowd is 90 percent less but the festivities must go on. We need to celebrate to the please gods so that our state and the country becomes Corona free” says Paul, a resident of Jowai, Meghalaya.
The word Behdeinkhalam literally means to “chase away or get rid of Plaque, Pandemic or Pestilence”. The Pnar believe that the dance festival originates from U Tre_Kirot the almighty gods wish and will and thus the dance is an act of propitiation in fulfilling his wish.
“This year it’s a must that all participants in the festival are vaccinated. The festival shall observe prayers, libation and oblation, rituals and acts of beating the roofs by offering prayers to the almighty God to bless the family and to drive away the plague, pest and evil spirit from the house. 40 to 20 people for each locality shall be allowed to fetch and carry the scared wood log “Ka Deinkhalam”.10 person band escort shall be allowed ahead of the procession. The most important aspect is that no political participation or audience involvement shall be privileged in this year’s celebration” says O.R Shallam, President Seinraij Jowai.
Celebrated annually in July after the sowing period, Behdienkhalam is the most important dance festival of the Jaintia tribes. This festival is also an invocation of God, seeking his blessings for a bumper harvest. The women however do not participate in the dancing, as they have an important function of offering sacrificial food to the spirits of the forefathers. The festival held at Jowai is one of the most well-known and recreational festivals in Meghalaya.
The Rituals in Behdienkhlam include a series of religious rites been performed by the Daloi (chief). For Behdienkhlam, rounded, polished, and tall trunks of trees are felled in the sacred forest area and left to dry in the woods for a couple of days. With great fanfare, dancing and singing, these huge trunks are then brought to the town. The festival begins with sacrificing a pig to KniaPyrthat -Thunder followed by the ringing of a brass bell (Wasan) by the priests along the main road of the town.
The most striking feature of this colourful festival is the making of Raths - they are huge bamboo structures painted and decorated with colourful papers. Every village creates a rath or a chariot with its own symbols and messages. Around 30 men carry the rath to a sacred pool known as Aitnar, where they are immersed to bring good fortune.
All the villages participate in a type of soccer game with a wooden ball, known as Dad-Lawakor. The villagers compete with good spirits in this game as the winners are believed to gain extra blessings for the coming months. On the day of culmination, i.e., the fourth day, the young men of the town led by the priest visit every house of the town, climb their roofs, and beat them with a bamboo stick to chase away evil spirits.
The climax of the celebration is the fight for a large undressed beam by two groups of people in opposition to each other. This leads to the heavy beam get across a muddy ditch called Wah-eit-nar. A lot of horseplay enters into this part of the event when mud is smeared by the participants on each other.
During the celebrations, the ceremony and rituals are carried out for three days and on the last day, in the afternoon people would gather in a place called Aitnar and both the young and old would dance to the tunes of the pipes and drums. It is desirable that there should be rain on the day of the festival. The highlight of the colourful festival is the people dressed up in their best attire would converge to a place called Mynthong to witness a game played similar to football, called dad-lawakor. The game is played with a wooden ball between the Northerners and the Southerners. The side that wins the match by putting the ball on the other side would signify that in the following year there would be a bumper harvest in that particular region.
“Vaccination is a must and I was the first person to be vaccinated in Jowai town. People have to understand the importance of vaccination. The festival is our faith on the supreme lord to save us from the virus but people have to follow the protocols. The Behdienkhalam this year stands for this as we have stressed upon strict adherence to the protocols and vaccination” says O.R Shallam, President Seinraij Jowai.
Meghalaya today recorded 426 cases with 417 recoveries and 9 deaths. The positive figures outsmart the recoveries in the hill state which is a concern for the state as well as the centre.