Functions of Community Festivals and a case study of Behdienkhlam Festivals of Jaintia Hills.

By Soumen Sen

Ceremonies have special significance for most, if not all, of the communities of the world. They set aside seasons and portions of their time for celebrations. Usually, the changing of the seasons provides such spaced occasions, both secular and religious. In most cases, however, the line between the secular and the religious is blurred. These ceremonies of recurring significance to a community are called festivals.

It would seem that people need periodic times of escape from work to be 'joyous together' and that is how festivals have evolved. This may be true of limited participation festivals, such as family level festive occasions like birthday parties or anniversaries and celebrations of occupational group. But, community festivals, as universal phenomena, are something more than mere joyous events. To be 'joyous' is indeed an essential element of any festival and its central function seems to be to give occasion for individuals and groups to rejoice together but at the community level, in most cases, its significance is such deeper than seen simply in people's urge for escape from work and enjoyment. It provides opportunities to a community to achieve much more.

Needless to say that community festivals involve a great expenditure of energy by the entire community. A festival is not simply a leisure-time exercise. If we examine the long drawn preparations for a festival, some time spread over a period more than a month or months, we can realize how important it is in the life of a community. It is indeed the most concrete expression of collective emotions and loyalties and serves to perform a number of functions.

One important functions of festival, as already observed, is to give occasion for the members of a community to rejoice together. It is also an occasion for interaction. Such joyous interactions provide satisfaction to each of the participants and that creates a bond between them. In a general participation festival the individual relates to, and identifies himself with the community. Thus the festival is a prime device for promoting social cohesion, for integrating individuals into a society or group and maintaining them as members through shared recurrent, positively reinforcing performance.

A festival thus becomes a part of a system or systems such as kinship systems, belief systems and cognitive systems that order a community's life. For instance, the mythological base of a festival, if any, provides strength to that bond which is deemed so essential for the community's survival and prosperity. In such cases the function of a myth and a festival has a ritualistic base and, most of the community festivals do have ritualistic bases. Rituals are described as implementation of belief and myths as 'charters of belief'. Both reinforce community feelings. Bonds bind people to their fellows and are strengthened by these festivals because 'ritual is the instrument by which conviction is renewed and strengthened (and myth) gives point and meaning to the ritualistic behaviour that derives from its sanctions'. Therefore, festivals derive from collective ritual and involve the participation of the social group i.e. clan, tribe or family i.e. in activities which we held to effect the interest of the whole group. They are often validated by a myth or an origin legend. This is done to provide occasion and form for positive group interaction, the necessary condition for the continued existence of the group.

Another important ritualistic and ceremonial function of any festival is to bring prosperity. Rituals are designed as magical operations to influence both natural forces and supernatural agencies to come to the aid of human beings to see that crops grow, plague and pestilence are warded off, children thrive, wars are won, trade flourishes, evil is suppressed and in sum, people prosper. A major factor in designing community festivals all over the world was the belief of our forefathers that of nature were mysteries, controlled by gods and spirits who could only be appeases or invoked by elaborate rituals which form the part of the festivals.

The Behdienkhlam festival of Jowai, Jaintia Hills, celebrated every year in the month of July, is the most joyous event in the life of the indigenous people of Jowai. This paper highlights only certain important events of their festival and its ritualistic mythic base that are so much significant in the people. These also correspond to the function of a festival as a universal phenomenon discussed in the foregoing section.

Behdienkhlam is celebrated usually after the sowing is done. We can assume that the people of the hills, after the hard work of preparing the soil and sowing of the seeds, set aside portions of their time for this celebration. So , it is a periodic escape from work, time fixed in which the people can be joyous together. It has been observed that the relations of the settlers in Jowai, who had to go outside to earn livelihood, would invariably join their kins and friends during the days of the festival. As is usual in all celebrations, the festival behaviour includes making and decorating a chariot like structure in the shape of Jaintia tomb, called rot, to be taken in procession to a sacred pool called Aitnar on the last day of the celebrations, dancing in full merriment to the ubiquitous music of drums and pipes signifying the joy of living and feast and drink in a ceremonial way.

In such a festival, the interaction of individuals is of the kind that generates a positive emotional response or expresses a positive emotional condition. The traditional forms of festival behaviour can be seen as affective symbols, which function to express and generate desired emotions. It is a shared sequence of emotional experiences based on symbolic interaction. This is seen explicitly in the ritualistic events of the festival and the related myths because they provide social solidarity, enhance the integration of the society by providing a formalized statement of its ultimate value attitudes, afford a means for the transmission of much of the culture with little loss of content, thus protecting cultural continuity and stabilizing the society. In the early morning of the last day of Behdeinkhlam festival a ritual takes place in the courtyard of the house of the chief priestess ( Lyngdoh) when the chief of the locality ( Dolai) consecrates the parom, the narrator of myths, by pouring ricebeer on the courtyard, who then chants the myths of the four ancestresses of the people of Jowai (Soo-kpoh) soo means four and Kpoh means (womb) and the first chief , U Lakriah. After the chanting is over, the people assemble and dance around three logs representing three of the four ancestresses and lift the logs ceremonially with sticks. Dancing , piping and drum-beating continue till the ritual is over. The other ancestress is venerated in the afternoon of the same day in asacred pool called Aitnar where a sacred tree-trunk called Khnong (which was ritually palnted in the morning at a place in a particular locality name as Shiliangraj) is taken in a procession. The myth of soo kpoh narrates the origin of the clans of the people of Jowai and the myth of U Lakriah tells how U Lakriah became the first chief and introduced the religious commandments (Niam) as desired by God.

Social behaviour in tribal societies relies to a great extent upon ritual events and involves the participation of social group i.e. clan, tribe , family i.e. in activities which affect the interests of the whole group. Rituals and festivals are spheres of such collective activities of such groups and myths often perform the function of achieving group solidarity through the performance of rites which in turn perform the functions of achieving group welfare through a sort of magical means. The ritual events in Behdienkhlam and the connected myths of Sookpoh and U Lakriah perform exactly these functions. The myth of Sookpoh being chanted by ritually consecrated Parom reminds the people of Jowai of their common ancestry and recurrent need of communal solidarity. The myth of U Lakriah tells the people about the rules of religious and social conduct, which are 'God given' through U Lakriah, who established order in the society by declaring the commandments. Both the myths tend to explain human social situations such as the origin of the clans, their settlement, their predicament in negotiating with environment situations such as difficulty in cultivation in a hilly terrain, their aspirations, the required clan obligations and the religious norms.

Besides performing the function of achieving continuous group solidarity, the Behdienkhlam festival with its ritual and mythical expression also aim at achieving communal welfare and prosperity. A significant aspect of Behdienkhlam festival is the linkage between myth and ritual with preponderance of veneration of ancestress and Earth Mother by prayer, libation of wine and sacrifices. In the myth of U Lakriah and the ritual events we note a few important points: conception of a supreme God whose commandments from basis of religion ( Niam), who can be approached through the Mother Earth by prayer, Libation and sacrifice and the bones of the dead are to be preserved which has a correspondence with the megalithic myth of sookpoh and the ritual events such as lifting of logs representing three ancestress, and taking the sacred tree-trunk Khnong to go the sacred pool Aitnar, signify the veneration of the ancestors. The festival is celebrated after the sowing of seeds and rites are performed with chanting of myths ensuring good harvest. The ritual is decisively directed towards the veneration of the ancestress and is used for warding off plague and pestilence in order to ensure good harvest. The chanting of the myths of sookpoh and U Lakriah veneration of the four corners of Jowai of four stone deities as protectors of life and agricultural produce with sacrifice, cleaning of clan-cemeteries where bones of the dead are kept along with the use of tree-trunks and branches for warding off evil spirits are indicative of agricultural rites and ancestors veneration. This is usual with farming communities whose rituals are based on vegatation and fertility principles and ancestor cult.

Behdeinkhlam thus performs all the important functions that community festivals as universal phenomena , perform all over the world.