In most ways, Kongthong resembles countless other villages nestled in the lushly-forested East khasi Hills of Meghalaya. Dotted by quaint huts and farms fringed with betelnut trees, this tiny hamlet is inhabited by nearly 700 villagers who cultivate the land, hunt in the forests and live a peaceful pastoral life.
However, it is the sounds, not the sights, that make Kongthong different. For generations, villagers have communicated with each other using a unique form of whistled identity instead of names!
In Kongthong, every time a baby is born, the mother composes a lullaby that becomes a unique identity of the child for life. Moreover, the lullaby has no words and is just is a tune, a kind of hum that only the villagers are able to recognise and remember.
“When a woman is pregnant, she thinks of a particular tune, sometimes a bird call, which becomes the name of the newborn. After the birth of the child, adults around it constantly hum that tune so that it identifies with the sound. This is an age-old tradition the origin of which is as distant as the region itself.
It is particularly useful during hunting expeditions. When a group goes hunting, they use these sounds to alert fellow members without arousing the curiosity of another group that may be after the same prey,” Ever E F Sancley, a PhD scholar at the North Eastern Hill University, told Times of India.
Typically inspired by nature and natural sounds, each lullaby – or jingrwai lawbei in the tribe’s dialect – is anything from half-a-minute to a minute long. The mothers of the village use these melodious tunes to call out to their children, who learn to respond to them quickly. after it has been ensured that the whistled lullaby is distinct from all others, it becomes a permanent identity marker for the child.
Interestingly, its only the title of lullaby (about 5-6 seconds long) that is used by the villagers to call out to each other. Among themselves, they never use their official names!
“We never repeat a tune. Even when a person dies, the tune which was used to call him is not given to anybody else. And though they may seem similar, we can always distinguish one tune from another,” Darmasius Rani, a village advisor of Kongthong, told The Telegraph.
What’s more, this musical heritage also plays an important role in the courting rituals of the village. Every summer, on a full moon night, the villagers light a bonfire and take part in a celebration in which every unmarried young man sings his own tune. The one who does this the best is usually chosen by the prettiest single woman as her groom!
As for the origin of this unusual tradition, it remains shrouded in mystery but the villagers believe that if unseen spirits of the nearby forests hear someone’s name being called out, it makes the person fall ill. So, using the lullaby is a way of protecting them from danger.
Local folklore also includes tales of villagers being saved from attacks by dacoits thanks to this system of communication – the person under attack would give a distress call using their specific lullaby, outwitting the goons and getting rescued in no time!
According to eminent linguist Dr Pabitra Sarker, Kongthong’s tradition is similar to a native American cult in which the tribals believe that every child born has a counterpart in the world of plants or birds.
The village’s practice of whistling to each other also makes a lot of practical sense. In the mountains, the sound of a name can often get diffused when shouted out over ridges and valleys. A distinctive tune, on the other hand, reverberates and travels much better, thus reaching a person in no time at all.
Interestingly, an identical tradition can also be observed in Kuskoy, a remote mountain village high above Turkey’s Black Sea coast, whose residents communicate through a series of earsplitting, warbling whistles that strongly resemble birdsong.
In the last few years, several scholars from Europe and USA have spent time in the village to study and understand its unique system of communication. Sadly, this rich oral tradition has remained little-known in its own country, with the government doing little to protect this cultural heritage or give it the recognition it deserves.
The good news is that the local administration has started steps in the right direction. A homestay called Traveller’s Nest has been set up at Kongthong to boost tourism and efforts are being made to preserve the indigenous culture.
So if you are in Meghalaya, remember to take a detour to Kongthong for an experience that is sure to be unforgettable!