The Behdienkhlam Festival is one of the most important festivals celebrated in the state of Meghalaya. In 2021, it will fall on 11 July, Sunday. This is a harvest festival that is observed as an appeasement to the gods to ensure that the harvest will be bountiful. It is also observed as an appeal to the gods to ward off any diseases. It takes place for 4 consecutive days.
The festival is celebrated with the most gaiety in the town of Jowai, which is approximately 60 kilometers from Shillong.
It is primarily celebrated among the tribal communities of the district of Jainta, which is a hilly terrain in the state. It is observed by those who belong to the ‘Niamtre’ faith as well as by Hindus.
Behdienkhlam Festival Date 2021
|11 July 2021||Sunday||Meghalaya|
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Origin of the Festival
The meaning of the word ‘Behdienkhlam’ is to 'drive away the evil spirits/demons of plagues/cholera’. For this reason, it is celebrated before the rainy season which also coincides with the end of the sowing season.
The festival begins with the sacrifice of a pig to the god of thunder, called ‘Knia Pyrthat’. Following this, a priest, called ‘wasan’, ringing a bell and walking along the main road of the town to the outskirts where the forest begins. This is considered to be a sacred forest. The villages then collect fallen tree trunks from this sacred forest, leave them out in the woods for a few days, and then come back to collect it and take them back to the village with great fanfare. These are erected in each locality and in front of houses as well. These are called ‘Khnong’.
The festival of Behdienkhlam is celebrated with each of the villages in the district of Jainta creating ‘'raths’' or ‘'rots’' which are tall structures made out of bamboo wood, often 30 to 40 feet tall. These are artistically decorated with colored paper, tinsel, and other decorative elements. These rots are carried in a procession by strong young men to a sacred pool which is called ‘'Aitnar’'. These bamboo poles are then thrown into the waters of the pool as an offering to the gods. The young men then try to balance themselves on the logs while dancing at the same time.
The festival is also celebrated by playing a special game with a wooden ball, similar to how football is played. This game is called ‘'Dad-Lawakor''. It is believed that the winners of the game will gain special blessings from the gods.
Apart from the immersion of the sacred bamboo poles in the sacred pool and the football-like game, there are also folk dances which are organized which people participate in and watch with great enthusiasm and merriment. The most famous of the folk dances is the ‘Laho’ dance, where youngsters interlink their arms, with two young men on either side of a woman, and dance in step with each other. The dancing is set to the rhythmic incantation of a man singing ribald couplets.
There is also a symbolic killing of demons in a ritual called ‘Cher iung blai’ where a thatched hut is made from grass and bamboo. Male members of the tribe come into thatched hut with spears and symbolically kill the demons inside it.
A religious hunting ritual called ‘beh ser soopen’ is also conducted where hunters spread out into the forest after the priest directs them on where to go for the most successful hunt. He does this by breaking an egg. The hunted prey is then brought to the altar and its meat distributed to all in the village.
On the last day of the festival, a priest along with the youth of the village visits every home, climbs to the roof of each house, and beats the roofing with a bamboo stick, in the belief that it will drive away evil spirits. The erected ‘Khnong’ is then pulled down. Home-brewed rice beer is offered to this group by the members of the house.
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Legends of the festival
It is believed that the place which is now called Jowai was once a lush forest with no human habitation. There were only five deities residing there, one of which was a river nymph while the remaining four were stone gods. These five deities longed for human company and made their wish come true by attracting the Mongolian tribes to settle there. Reveling in the company of humans for the first time, the eldest of the deities, called U-Mokhai, broke into a happy dance that resulted in much thunder and lightning. This scared the locals so much that they started leaving the village. However, U-Mokhai appeared before them and reassured them that there was nothing to fear and encouraged them to stay back. Thus began the annual festivities that came to be called Behdienkhlam. These four enormous stones are still kept safe in four corners of the village and can be seen to this day.
The Behdienkhlam festival is a symbol of the joyous connection between nature and humans that is celebrated with great fanfare to this day, year after year, by the people of Jaintia in Meghalaya.
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