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Scapegoat for human sacrifice at Nartiang

By HH Mohrmen

I was blessed to grow up in surroundings rife with fascinating folktales and legends that elders tells and retell their kids from one generation to another. I also owe it to my liberal upbringing to be able to appreciate and be objective in my studies on the subject without which, considering my position in the church, I would not even been permitted to do the kind of work I am doing. One of the stories in our folklore which fascinates me most is that of human sacrifices that were performed in the village of Nartiang in Jaintia Hills. The religious practice of the people of Nartiang village is unique in a way that people were able to synthesize the two different religious traditions – Hinduism and the Indigenous faith and blend the two harmoniously. Stories of human sacrifices also flourished since time immemorial in the two systems of religious practices that the people of the village adopted as their faith.

One such story about human sacrifice performed by the legendary Mar Phalangki of Nartiang, but before we continue with the story of this particular incident relating to human sacrifice it is important for the readers to understand who are the Mars in the Pnar of Jaintia folklore? Mars were men with extraordinary caliber patronized by the Royal Court of the then Jaintia Kingdom. It is believed that Mars were giant sized people and the Kings used them in the battlefields to defeat the enemies and also to perform extraordinary feats for him. Another opinion is that Mars is a rank or status in the Royal army. Mar is perhaps the equivalent of a general.

In the famous Nartiang monolith park, the big and small monoliths and megaliths have one common story – that they were put up to commemorate the reign of certain Jaintia kings. But it is the largest and the tallest monolith of them all which has a unique story. This monolith in the park and perhaps in the entire Khasi Pnar state is believed to be the handiwork of u Mar Phalangki. The giant tried to erect the monolith several times but failed to do so; finally they decided to seek god’s intervention by performing egg divination. The divination was interpreted to be a sign that the gods required a human head, meaning that a human has to be sacrificed for the stone to stand tall. It was market day and people gathered around to watch the show of strength and finally Mar Phalangki came up with an idea to appease the gods. He pretended to accidentally drop a lime and tobacco container made of gold (known locally as dabi/dabia). Without any suspicion of the deadly trick, one of the spectators immediately went down to collect the golden container from the pit dug for the monolith. Mar Phalangki immediately lifted the huge monolith and put it into the pit over the man’s body. Thus began the first human sacrifice. The monolith stands tall to this day.

Legends have it that the person sacrificed was a “Bhoi” the name local used for the people we now call Karbis. Legends and folktales provide evidence that the Pnars of Jaintia Hills and the Karbis shared a very strong bond and to an extent even a common culture since time immemorial. For instance the Karbis also have a legend that there was a Mar from the Karbi tribe who served the erstwhile Jaintia king and his name was Thong Nok Be from the Teron Clan. Ma Dontha Dkhar also said that elders in Nartiang told him that once the time to sacrifice approaches, by divine intervention, a man mostly a Bhoi or somebody from the elaka Nongkhlieh would in a way voluntarily come to offer himself for sacrifice.

The other human sacrifice is a tradition that continues to this day and is performed by the Priest of the Durga temple in Nartiang of behalf of his King (the last of the Jaintia Kings adopted Hinduism) in the ancient times. If one visits the Durga temple in Nartiang, and is lucky to be greeted by Uttam Deshmukhya, (the young priest of the temple who claims to be the 27th descendant of the first Priest instituted by the Jaintia King) he would take the very old traditional warrior’s double-edged-sword (wait thma) of the Pnar from the wooden rack over the head of the goddess’ image and proudly show visitors what is believed to be the sword used to perform human sacrifice to appease goddess Durga or her many incarnations in the days gone by.

In front of the sanctum sanctorum there is a square hole believed to be an opening of a tunnel from where the severed head of the person offered for sacrificed rolled down to the Myntang river hundreds of meters away from the temple. He would also tell visitors that in the days gone by his ancestors performed human sacrifice on behalf of the King and also inform that human sacrifice was banned by the British, but that is not the end of the story. Taking visitors around the sanctum sanctorum the priest will take a white mask of a human face hanging on one of the wooden posts near the goddess’ image and tell them that though the British had banned human sacrifice it was not for good. Symbolically human sacrifice continues but instead of humans a goat in the garb of a human is sacrificed in the Durga Temple every year during Durga Puja.

According to tradition a goat representing a human, is offered till date by the Daloi on behalf of the King. Though the Kingship and the Kingdom are passé the tradition continues. The black goat that the Daloi offers must be healthy and spotless and is not sacrificed along with other animals on the day scheduled for animal sacrifice. The symbolic human sacrifice known in local parlance as “Blang synniaw” or mid-night goat is performed in the dead of night before the common sacrificial day. Before the goat symbolizing a human is sacrificed, a Pnar turban is put on its head and a pair of earrings known as ‘kyndiam’ are hung on both ears of the goat and a dhoti (yu-slein) is tied around its waist. To complete the formal transformation of the goat to a symbolic human, a white mask of a human face is placed on the goat’s face and the goat is ready for a special sacrifice. The symbolic human sacrifice is not only very strangely performed in the middle of the night, but the Priest also informs that while performing the sacrifice, the temple is completely closed to anyone except the Priest and the sacrificial goat. Even the Daloi is privy to only a part of the sacrifice that is performed on the same night in front of the temple. He is barred from being part of the symbolic human sacrifice. In other words the tradition of human sacrifice still continues albeit only the offering (thank goodness) is not a human anymore but a real scapegoat.

So, if you think that the English invented the word “scapegoat,” think again because the Durga temple in Nartiang has literally killed a he-goat every year instead of a human. A he-goat which symbolically represents a human is sacrificed every year to appease the deity for the sins of human beings. The sacrificial goat is literally a scapegoat because it has taken the place of a human in the altar.

(The author is a research scholar and social thinker)

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