Nestled amidst the verdant East Khasi Hills in the state of Meghalaya in India’s remote north-east, is the village of Kongthong, accessible by a three-hour drive from the state capital, Shillong.
It has a unique, centuries-old tradition where every inhabitant is given both a regular name and a song at birth, both of which become their identity.
The around 650 people who call Kongthong home, have a normal name that they use for official purposes, as well as unique tunes composed for them by their parents at birth.
These songs are made especially for them, are used as their bearers’ names throughout their life, and die with them when their time comes, never to be repeated for anyone else ever.
Because everyone in Kongthong uses their song name locally, the beautiful community has become known as India’s Whistling Village.
“It is an expression of a mother’s unbridled love and joy at the birth of her child. It’s like a mother’s heart song, full of tenderness, almost like a lullaby,” Shidiap Khongsit, a woman belonging to the Khasi tribe, one of the tribe that inhabits Kongthong told BBC.
Called jingrwai iawbei, literally “grandmother’s song”, it has been a tradition in Kongthong for as long as anyone can remember.
The three tribes that call this village home once believed that using songs for names while hunting in the forest kept evil spirits away, as they couldn’t discern between them and animal calls.
But, over the years, the whistle-like songs received a more practical function, as they made it easier for locals to call to each other over long distances.
Each newborn in Kongthong is given a unique jingrwai iawbei by their mother.
Technically, they are given two, as each song has a short version, which is used as a sort of nickname when its bearer is within earshot, and a long version (between 10 and 20 seconds long) that are sung out in the fields, or when one needs to call out to someone over mountains and valleys.
“Nobody can say for sure when it began, yet most agree that it has been around ever since Kongthong came into being,” Shidiap said. “Kongthong itself has been here even before the kingdom of Sohra was established by our people and by those from other villages in the area.”
Considering that the kingdom of Sohra was founded in nearby Cherrapunji, famous for once being the wettest place on Earth, sometime in the early 16th Century, it places the village’s age and also the practice’s origin at more than 500 years.
Every person in Kongthong learns both their sung names and those of their family and friends the same way we learn and use our regular names, by listening to them since birth and saying…no, singing them regularly.
However, like many other rural dwellings in India, Kongthong has seen a mass exodus of its youths in recent years. They move to cities like Shilong, located about 60 kilometers from the village, in search of jobs and an easier life, and this threatens the unique whistled name tradition. But, luckily, the power of internet may help prevent that.
Thanks to online exposure of its unique jingrwai iawbei names, Kongthong has started to realize its tourism potential, with thousands of tourists coming here every year to hear the sung names of the locals and admire the impressive natural surrounding.
In 2014, a road was built to Kongthong that replaced the previous hiking trail through the mountains.
There was a time when the people of Kongthong didn’t even realize that their sung names could prove a draw for tourists, it was just part of their culture.
Today, things are changing, and it just might save this special tradition.
Images from web – Google Research