India is a land known for its traditions, cultures and beliefs. Within this diverse land of India, there is a village in Meghalaya, northeast of the country, known for its whistling culture. Kongthong village, also known as the whistling village, has been nominated as the Best Tourism Village by World Tourism Organisation. The village has also been aiming for the status of UNESCO’s intangible cultural heritage. But what’s so special about this small village in the east Khasi hills of Meghalaya? Isn’t it just another remote, serene and picturesque hill village?
The village is known for its unique tradition. Every villager in the village has two names – a regular one and a tune name. This tune name tradition of the village is called “Jingrwai Iawbei.” The tradition is such that, within a week of childbirth, the mother sings a tune or a lullaby to her newborn kid, which becomes their tune name.
During this time, the mother is given a very important responsibility according to village traditions. It is to create an entirely different tune compared to the ones that the villagers already use. This is to ensure that the child has his own unique identity. Once a person in the village dies, their tune name dies with them. The name is not repeated for anyone else ever. Thus, making it unique to that one person only.
This is a matriarchal tradition passed down by the females in the family. The mother uses a specific tune repeatedly so that her kid is accustomed to it and responds to it. The villagers here are also habituated to talking in tunes and songs. The regular name of the child is used only for official purposes.
Kongthong village has a matrilineal society, i.e., the principles, ethics, customs and traditions are orally handed over by the community’s women. The idea behind it comes from the belief that a woman isn’t taught how to create tunes. It comes to her naturally during childbirth.
There are many beliefs and stories associated with this tradition. One of them is paying respect to the root ancestress. Each clan of the village has a root ancestress, and the spoken language of the village is Khasi Language. Jingrwai Iawbei means “the melody sung in respect of the root ancestress” in the Khasi language. Thus every time a tune is created for a newborn, respect and gratitude is paid to her.
This belief, in turn, triggers a series of matrilineal traditions attached to it. Not only does the tune name give a permanent identity to the kid in the community, but it also restores the idea of the villagers of creating a name that is only understood by them.
The ancestors of the village developed the tune language due to the geographical isolation of the village. There is a belief that evil spirits resided in the forests of Khasi Hills, and the villagers used the language to protect themselves. The belief is that these evil spirits cannot distinguish between these tunes and animal calls. Hence, they were used to form communication between the villagers.
Interestingly, it is due to this belief that every villager has two varieties of tune names: a short one and a long one. The short one works like a pet name and is an expression of the mother’s love and joy and is full of tenderness. The long one is generally fourteen to eighteen seconds long and is used to communicate across fields, forests and valleys.
This is the unique way of communication formed by the villagers of Kongthong village throughout history. Currently, this language has only 700 practitioners and is composed of floating sounds without any lyrics or proper musical notes. The villagers are looking for ways to conserve it and pass it on to younger generations. Multiple language researchers from the USA, Germany and Japan are now making an attempt to conserve it by taking up the whistling language as a research topic.