Mother-of-four Phibashisha Khongsit, age 39, is seated in the shade outside her thatch-roof house. Khongsit’s daughters—aged 14, 10, and 6—are playing nearby in the yard. It’s almost lunch time, so she wants to get their attention: She croons a lilting five-second tune in a high pitch. She takes a deep breath and follows it with a different melody . . . and then another. Khongsit’s daughters have musical names—and they’re certainly not the only ones around.
In the remote, sylvan village of Kongthong in the northeastern Indian state of Meghalaya, every resident has a song for a name. Meghalaya is not a big tourist hub like Uttar Pradesh or Rajasthan; rather, travelers come to Meghalaya for its natural wonders and Indigenous cultures. Visitors in the know make their way to Kongthong to experience the tradition of musical names, a practice completely unique to this village.
Khongsit and the rest of Kongthong’s approximately 700 residents belong to the Khāsi community, the largest of the region’s three major ethnic groups. The Khāsi are a matrilineal community, who trace their lineage through their mothers. Along with the Garo and the Jaintia ethnic groups of Meghalaya (the other main Indigenous groups in the state), the Khāsi are among the last in India to do so. Girl children are welcome here, unlike in most of India where boys are preferred.
Kongthong, however, is the only village known to practice the ancient musical naming tradition of jingrwai iawbei, a phrase in the Khāsi language that translates literally to “a song sung in honor of the ‘root ancestress’ [founding female ancestor].” Following matrilineal and jingrwai iawbei custom, mothers compose short melodies for their children that are used as their names. Names are unique to each individual and once a person dies, their musical name dies as well. In the past, the community passed down traditions orally, so it’s not certain when the custom of jingrwai iawbei first arose.
“The jingrwai iawbei practice has given Kongthong a very unique identity [in the region],” says Dr. Piyashi Dutta. Born in Meghalaya, Dutta is the coauthor of the first written documentation of the jingrwai iawbei tradition. “The meaning of jingrwai iawbei has a direct connection to matriliny and how much the mother and the [founding female ancestor] of the clan are respected. The process of composing the tune, and the tune itself, are a means of remembering the founding female ancestor, seeking her blessings, and thanking her for protecting the clan.”
In the village, both those who follow the Indigenous Niam Khāsi religion (a monotheistic faith that about 85 percent of Kongthong’s population follows) as well as Christian residents, practice jingrwai iawbei. Everyone is addressed in the same manner—with a tune—irrespective of gender, age, relationship, and social status. Khongsit’s oldest daughter, who’s now resting in the shade with her mom, shows me how she calls out to her mother with a tune.
Immediately after giving birth, every new mother in Kongthong composes a unique melody for her child that will serve as their new baby’s name. It is said that after nine months of carrying a child, mothers feel an immense joy when they meet their newborn. All of those emotions are so overwhelming, in fact, that the feelings aren’t expressed as words—they arrive in song instead. “It’s easy for me to compose a tune,” says Khongsit with a smile, as she holds her two-month-old baby boy. “I can do it in minutes.”
There are two types of melodic names in Kongthong: there are 15- to 20-second songs used for calling people over long distances, say across a field or meadow, and a shorter 5-second version of the same ditty used to summon who is nearby, like Khongsit did earlier—she sings me both the long and short versions of all her children’s names. “The shorter tune is the equivalent of a nickname,” explains Phidingstar Khongsit, a local guide.
Along with their musical names, children also receive an unsung, more formal name either in a Niam Khāsi ceremony called jer khun or in a Christian baptism, depending on the family’s faith. In keeping with Khāsi matrilineal customs, the child’s official name is chosen by the father’s mother or sometimes the father’s sister. However, these conventional names are used for governmental purposes only, such as for identification. The jingrwai iawbei is the only way the people of Kongthong address each other on a daily basis—a person’s melodic name is their identity for life.
The people of Kongthong believe that musical names have the power to protect loved ones from evil spirits. So when villagers venture deep into the forest to forage for food or to gather bamboo for construction materials, they will only use musical names instead of conventional names, so that evil spirits cannot identify them and bring them ill fortune.
Kongthong’s jingrwai iawbei practice has caught the attention not only of academics like Dutta but also content creators and creatives like filmmaker Oinam Doren, whose 2016 film My Name Is Eeooow, is the only documentary to chronicle the practice. In 2017, it won the Intangible Culture Prize at the 15th RAI Film Festival. “No one in Kongthong has the same jingrwai iawbei,” Oinam says. “In that sense, they are copyrighted names.”
The 52-minute movie focuses on the uncertain future of the naming custom as many of the young people in the village move out of Kongthong (which relies primarily on subsistence farming and growing a specific type of grass for brooms) to pursue higher education and better work opportunities.
“The danger is that oral traditions like the jingrwai iawbei can die a natural death,” warns Dutta. According to her, if the villagers are able to earn enough to sustain themselves without leaving the village, then the practice will have a better chance of survival.
There have been some recent infrastructure developments in the village, including the construction of new roads, which has improved the village’s connection to the outside world and increased business opportunities. And lately, growing broom grass has gained popularity in the region. Residents will make brooms and sell them to traders (at about 80 cents per pound of brooms) who come to the village from Shillong. In Khongsit’s yard, feathery tufts of broom grass have been spread out to dry in the sun. As more people learn about jingrwai iawbei, tourism is also on the rise and is providing supplemental income to villagers. The Indigenous Agro Tourism Co-operative Society organizes tours within the village and can be contacted via its Facebook page. Tours start at around $7 per person.
As Kongthong’s residents become more exposed to popular mainstream Indian culture, the jingrwai iawbei custom is also changing. Recently, one woman in the village named her child after a popular Bollywood song from the romantic action flick Kaho Naa . . . Pyaar Hai (2000). Oinam, however, is not surprised and has a rather pragmatic outlook on the new change. “Cultures and traditions are not museum artifacts,” he says. “They are not static. They are bound to change with time.”
For now, the air in Kongthong is still filled with the sounds of musical melodies, as villagers call out to their loved ones. But back on Khongsit’s front porch, the air is still and quiet as she cradles her baby boy, who sleeps soundly in her arms.