Indigenous tribe celebrates Durga Puja in northeast


Nartiang (Meghalaya) : Durga Puja may be one of the biggest festivals of Hindus. But Pnars, one of the indigenous tribes of Meghalaya, too worship the goddess of power with equal fervour and devotion.

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Hundreds of Pnar people – as Jaintias are known – Christians, believers of indigenous faith and tourists – throng the ancient temple at Nartiang, 65 km east of Shillong, Meghalaya’s capital, during the five-day Durga Puja.

The tradition goes back to over 500 years even as differences of opinion exist about its antiquity among local historians and tribal leaders.

Perched on a hill top, overlooking stream Myntang, the Durga Bari in the Jaintia Hills district – named after the tribe, Jaintia – was built by the Jaintia kings sometime in the 16th-17th centuries.

The temple is austere looking made of baked bricks, situated in the heart of the village.

Some portions of the wall are still intact while the southern portion is in a dilapidated state.

“Nartiang was the summer capital of the Jaintia kingdom, which was set up at Jaintiapur in Sylhet district of Bangladesh,” said J.B. Bhattacharjee, a noted Indian historian.

“The palace, though in ruins, still stands there as a testimony to the Jaintia heritage,” he said.

The Jaintia kings, Bhattacharjee said, used to spend the summer in the hills to escape the unbearable heat in the plains and return to Jaintiapur after Durga Puja.

The royal tradition continued till the British annexed the Jaintia territories in 1835, thereby ending the Jaintia reign in the plains.

“Twentytwo generations of Jaintia kings worshipped Durga and Jayanteswari, the ancestral deity of the Jaintia kings,” said the young temple priest, Molay Desmukh.

Molay took charge of the Durga temple six years ago after the demise of his father Gopendra Desmukh. The Deshmuks were brought to Nartiang by the Jaintia kings from Bengal.

They are there at Nartiang for generations, with Molay representing the 26th lineage, and are adapted well to the local culture, social milieu and even married to tribal families.

Durga and Jayanteswari are placed on the same place and worshipped together. Both idols are made of astadhatu (eight precious metals). Each is about six-eight inches tall.

“The rituals and religious functions during the Durga Puja are performed as per the Hindu ways. The ceremony begins with ablution of both the idols, which are then draped in colourful new attires and ornaments before the rituals,” the 20-year-old said.

On Navami, sacrifice of animals is done.

“During the royal Jainitia rule, humans were sacrificed,” the priest said, pointing at a small square hole inside the temple near the altar.

“The severed head used to be rolled through the hole connected to a secret tunnel that falls into the adjacent river Myntang,” Molay narrated a story told to him by his father.

It’s believed the practice was stopped by the British after the sacrifice of a British subject.

“Water gourds are sacrificed along with goats, chicken and pigeon,” the priest said. A human mask is placed on the gourds as a symbo of the once routine human sacrifice.

But the Durga idol at Nartiang temple is permanent and is not sent for immersion after the last day of worship.

However, the priest installs a young banana plant beside the Durga idol, which is taken out after the completion of the worship and immersed in the river Myntang.