“There is a village in Meghalaya where people have a tune instead of a name” – We had heard this from our guide in Cherrapunjee when we had visited Meghalaya for the first time in 2012. I had wanted to visit the village on that trip itself, but we were told that reaching the village is a bit tough. We have to trek about 8-10 km to reach Kongthong, the whistling village of Meghalaya. With our trip schedule, it was difficult to include Konthong in the itinerary. I was disappointed, but I remembered Kongthong and promised myself to visit the place on our next visit to Meghalaya.
Kongthong did not happen in our next visit as well. However, after 7 years of travelling, a few visits to Meghalaya and one travel blog later (We started our blog only in 2014), we finally managed to include Kongthong in our Meghalaya trip. Now, we no longer had to trek, for Kongthong now has a motorable road, however bumpy the ride might be. We visited Kongthong, stayed there with the locals and had a rare and exquisite experience of nature and the Khasi tribes of Kongthong. Here we share with you our account of staying at Kongthong amidst the local people while sharing a meal with them and listening to the whistles and tunes that are used for calling people.
Why is Kongthong Special?
About 60 km from Shillong town in the lap of pristine nature lies Kongthong, the Whistling Village of Meghalaya. Kongthong is just like any other villages located in the East Khasi Hills, peaceful and beautiful. This tiny hamlet in the Khat-ar Shnong area has a population of about 700 people whose main way of living is agriculture and animal husbandry. Dotted with quaint huts surrounded by gardens and betel trees, the village located on a cliff-edge boasts of breathtaking scenery all around.
But this is not what Kongthong is special for. In Kongthong, every person has a unique identity. Apart from their names, each villager also has a lullaby or whistle associated with them. It is like their second name. And each of these lullabies is unique. Unlike our names, no two people have a common lullaby. Isn’t it interesting?
In Kongthong, when a child is about to be born, the mother starts preparing a unique tone for her child. When the child is born, the mother sings the lullaby or tune to the ears of the baby. This tune thus becomes the name and identity, which begins and ends with the individual. The lullaby has no words, it is just a tune. It is a kind of hum that the villagers recognizes and remembers.
After the child is born, all the adults hum this tune constantly, so that the child identifies with the sound. The tune or lullaby is known as ‘jingrwai lawbei’ in the local dialect and is mostly inspired by the sounds of birds and nature. The tune can be half a minute to a minute long. The mothers use this tune to call their children and these little ones respond quickly to the tunes. In the hills sound and echoes travels far which helps in calling people even if they are not close by physically. You might not hear the name, but you can hear the tune for sure.
This age-old tradition has been carried on since time immemorial. No one in the village was able to tell me when this tradition started. Nevertheless, there are a few legends and folklore associated with this. Local folklore relates the story of unseen bad spirits from the nearby forests. If these spirits hear the name of a person, then the person falls ill. So in order to prevent this, the villagers had devised this method of calling each other by a tune. Of course, these are only folklore.
Staying in Kongthong for 2 days – Our Experience
We started from Shillong towards Kongthong. We found that there is only one shared jeep from Shillong Bara Bazar Sumo Stand to Kongthong and it leaves in the afternoon. We went to the Sumo stand a day before and booked 2 seats for us. Right on time, the jeep left the precincts of Shillong and finally we were on our way to Kongthong. The roads were clear, traffic was less and the air was fresh and crisp. We crossed Mylliem and finally arrived at a small town called Mawjrong. The jeep stood there for some time and dropped vegetables, chicken and eggs at the marketplace. Yes, these jeeps carry both passengers and goods to the remote places.
From Mawjrong, the road bifurcates. One goes towards Sohra while the other takes the Khat-ar Shnong Road towards Kongthong, another 26 km away. It was late in the afternoon when we started from Mawjrong and took the hilly roads of Meghalaya. The roads of Meghalaya are quite beautiful, mainly because of the surrounding landscape. But this road had a special charm. For most of the time in Meghalaya, roads are in good conditions and mostly passed through plains. Even the roads from Sohra (Cherrapunjee) are excellent. Here, for the first time in Meghalaya, we travelled on dangerous roads. There was a cliff on one side and gorge on the other. We could see another cliff on the other side of the gorge. And in the middle of the journey, clouds descended out of nowhere.
And then we saw something very beautiful. It was the golden hour time and the sun rays fell on the cliff in a very pretty manner. The sky had a surprisingly beautiful color. We could only look at the sky and admire it. No, we could not stop the jeep to take photographs. But sometimes, such beauty is meant for the eyes only. Trying to capture them would have been futile.
Finally, we reached a junction from where there were no proper roads. Actually, this was the place till where the vehicles used to come earlier. After this point, people had to trek to Kongthong. Now there is a namesake road, but it is not yet constructed. After a short break, we started on the bumpy road towards Kongthong. It was already dark we had another 10 km to go. After a few minutes drive, our jeep stopped. The thing that we mostly dread in the hilly areas had happened. There was a landslide and the water pipe that went to Kongthong was broken. The road further was closed.
Well, what can we do in such a situation but wait? And we waited too. A big yellow JCB was trying to clear the mess and the workers were repairing the water pipe. We waited there for some 2 long hours. Agni was bored, took out his camera and tried to practice night photography. My Kindle saved me from the boredom. Finally, when everything was fine, the jeep started and we travelled towards Kongthong. It was already dark and almost everyone had gone to bed in the village when we reached.
We called up Rothell, our host and informed him that we would be late. We had booked our stay at the Travellers’ Nest. It is located at the end of the village. When we reached there, it was already 8.00 pm, quite late according to Kongthong standards. We simply crashed in our rooms, had our dinner and slept for the night.
We woke up early in the morning to explore Kongthong. The Travellers Nest was the first place we explored. It is a beautiful area surrounded by gardens. There are two huts where 6 people can sleep in each hut. We were the only guests and had an entire hut to ourselves. The kitchen and dining area is separate and you get a lovely view of the mountains from the dining room verandah. Infact, we were served breakfast and lunch there so that we could have our meals with a view.
The caretaker of the Travellers’ Nest became our guide and he took us around the village. The village has a pleasing beauty. We went to the house of one of the oldest man in Kongthong, Babu Derma. He has a profound knowledge about the place and their tradition. But he was such a simple man. When we reached his house, he was getting ready to go to his field. He was a busy person after all. Nevertheless, he stopped to talk with us and told us about jingrwai lawbei’ and Kongthong in general. He then had to go out for work and we went out to explore the village further.
Khasis and their strange names
There are a few waterfalls near Kongthong, but going there involved trekking and involved the whole day. So our guide Feeding Star took us to his home. Yes, Feeding Star is his name. The Christian Khasi people had names like these. The Khasis had always followed animist religion where they prayed nature and natural objects like trees, stones and others. Then the Christian Missionaries arrived in Meghalaya and converted a majority of the Khasis to Christianity. With Christianity, English was also introduced. The local people did not understand the meaning of most words, but to sound important, they would name their children using the English words. Majority of the names are inspired by Biblical words while many parents name their children after famous personalities as well. So we met Feeding Star and Easter at Kongthong, Bright Star at Shnongpdeng and Friday Lyngdoh at another remote village.
While the villagers of Kongthong do have a name, but they never call each other with the name. They use the lullaby or tune to call each other. Infact, while we were exploring the village, we could hear whistling sounds quite often. For a moment we had thought that these sounds were being made by birds. But Feeding Star told us that these are the ‘jingrwai lawbei’, people are calling each other. On the way to his house, we met Easter, a school teacher at Kongthong Primary School.
The Hindi Teacher at Kongthong
Easter has an interesting job. His is a Hindi teacher and his students include the kids in his class as well as the old villagers. During the day, Easter teaches Hindi to the school students and in the evening, his duty is towards the local community. As tourism is increasing in the village, it becomes important for the villagers to know basic Hindi. These days the young people are going all over India, especially Delhi for higher studies. Knowing Hindi would definitely help them. The villagers had built a small wooden hut for Easter to stay. Easter was such an easy-going fellow and there was an instant rapport between us.
Inside a Khasi House
We arrived at Feeding Star’s little hut located right in the middle of the village. His mother welcomed us with a huge smile. Well, she knows no Hindi and we do not know their language. But I guess, the smile is the best language and can be understood everywhere. For the rest, Easter was there. We sat down in the small kitchen cum common room and talked. Feeding Star’s brothers were also there, but they were so shy. His elder brother went out of the room just as we entered. It was not due to any disrespect, these people are really shy. Feeding Star and his mother told us about the family and Kongthong in general. His mother told us about his sons and all about the tunes she made when she was pregnant. Of course, Easter was the translator.
“This tune is unique for each person. It lives with the person and dies with him. The tunes can be similar, but no two people have the same tune. We also have long tunes and short tunes as well. It is just like nicknames. The short tunes are whistled when two people are close by. Long tunes are used when the person has gone to the forests.”
Well, all this was quite fascinating. We then asked her to whistle a tune and call any of her sons. She whistled a nice tune. That was the tune of Feeding Star. Then she whistled another long tune. This was different from the previous one. And soon, her elder son (who had gone out when we arrived) came. That was his tune. We were quite fascinated by all these.
Finally, it was time for us to leave her house. But she won’t let us leave without having lunch. So we had a simple lunch of rice and vegetables and thanked her for her time. Outside we met Easter’s student, a group of village boys. Well, they greeted us with a Namaste and then demonstrated their Hindi knowledge by saying a few Hindi words. Easter seems to have been doing a good job! Easter lives in Mylliem. He invited us to his village the next time we visit Meghalaya. He was also particularly interested in blogging. It was good to know that people from these remote parts are taking an interest in blogging and alternative career options.
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We returned to the Travellers’ Nest and met Rothell. He was in Shillong last night and arrived today with a few guests. Rothell is the community leader and secretary of the indigenous Agro Tourism Cooperative Society Ltd Kongthong, the society working to promote the unique tradition of Jingrwai Lawbei. He is also in charge of Travellers’ Nest. The society is also working to promote community-based tourism taking the villagers into the fold.
Earlier, the villagers opposed the building of the Travellers’ Nest. But later they saw that income was generated from the visit of the tourists. Also, these tourists were buying village products. That also encouraged them to produce honey, black pepper and other organic fruits and vegetable.
We met the other guests at Travellers’ Nest. They were a group of 4 girls from Mizoram and Manipur and had come to spend the bachelorette party of one of them. Zeino, the would-be bride was full of happiness and she invited us to the party the next day. We were leaving the next day and so could not attend the party. She even invited us to her marriage. True to her words, we got the marriage invitation from Manipur a month later!
There is not one village, but a few other villages in Meghalaya that uses the tune for calling each other. Kongthong falls in the Khat-ar Shnong area. The entire area has 53 villages and out of these, 23 villages communicate through whistling and call each other by a specific tune instead of the name. Villages such as Mawshuit, Khrang, Mawmang, Mawsawmah and Warbah have the tradition of communicating by whistling. Khat-ar means an area belonging to 12 clans of Khasi community and Shnong means village. The area comes under the Sohra Hima (a traditional kingdom like administrative unit). Hima is headed by a chief known as Syiem. Well, some parts of Meghalaya still have their traditional ways of administration.
On July 30, 2019, an MP of Rajya Sabha, Rakesh Sinha participated in the Zero hour discussion and urged the government to ensure the inclusion of Kongthong in the UNESCO’s list of Intangible Cultural Heritage. If this happens, it would be a great step to protect this heritage of the Khasis.
“We are proud of this tradition. And now we are even more determined to protect and safeguard the practice of Jingrwai Lawbei”.
Rothell told us as we were leaving Kongthong.
After spending an unforgettable time at Kongthong, it was our time to return. From Kongthong, we took a car to Cherrapunjee, our next destination.
Kongthong Travel Guide (FAQs Answered)
How to reach Kongthong?
- From Shillong Bara Bazar Sumo stand, there is only shared sumo leaving for Kongthong. It leaves at about 2.00 pm and takes about 3-4 hours to reach Kongthong with all the stops in the middle.
- You can also take any shared jeep going towards Cherrapunjee (Sohra). Get down at Mawjrong and from there you will get shared cars to Kongthong. But shared cars are less in number. You will also get reserved taxis from Mawjrong to take you to Kongthong.
- You can also hire a car or taxi from Shillong to Kongthong. It will take around Rs 3500 to 4000.
Where to stay at Kongthong?
Travellers Nest in Kongthong is the best place to stay. You can call at +91 9856060347 for booking. Please remember that you might not connect with the number at the first attempt.
There are two huts at the Travellers’ Nest. The arrangements are basic and the bathroom is outside the hut at the backside. Food is served in the dining room. The place is beautiful and close to nature, but do not expect 5-star treatment here. Rest assured you will get a 5-star welcome from nature!
Where else can we visit from Kongthong?
You can visit the waterfalls in the nearby villages. There are also a few root bridges in nearby villages. But visiting those would involve trekking and can take more than a day depending on the place.
After Kongthong, we had visited Nongriat to see the Double Decker Root Bridge.
How is the mobile connectivity at Kongthong?
Mobile connectivity is poor at Kongthong. We got a poor connection in both Vodafone and Jio. We could make calls, but there was no internet connection.
A Few more Pictures from Kongthong
Did you like the story about the Whistling village in Meghalaya? Would you like to visit Kongthong? Let us know in comments below.
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