This is the first part in a series of articles that will be brought out on the Ramayana Parampara of Poorvottar Bharat, which is today almost on the verge of extinction because of a wide array of religious and socio-cultural factors. Just like any other state in the rest of Bharatvarsha, Maryada Purushottam Shri Ram occupies His own place of cultural, spiritual, and religious importance in the lives of the people of Poorvottar Bharat too, including the many different groups of vanavasis residing in different areas of this region. This series shall cover all the eight different North-Eastern states and their historical and socio-cultural connection with Shri Ram and the story of the Ramayana.
The first state that has been taken up for this purpose is Meghalaya, with reference to the Ramayana Parampara still prevalent in some form among the three most important vanavasi communities, i.e. the Khasis, the Garos, and the Jaintias, who constitute a significant percentage of the population of today’s Meghalaya. One of the most pristinely beautiful states of the North-East, Meghalaya is also popularly known as the ‘Abode of Clouds’. The overall storyline of the Ramayana that used to be popular among the people of Meghalaya before the advent of a foreign religion into their land is very much the same as that of Valmiki Ramayana, the only difference being the names of the different characters and as well as the names of the places which have a local, regional touch.
In this context, we need to understand that the different religious belief systems and modes of worship of the Khasis, Garos, and Jaintias share a close resemblance with Sanatan Dharma. This, in part, explains the cultural and spiritual significance of Ram and the Ramayana as a text in their lives. Various reasons have been responsible for causing a decline of Dharmic faith systems of these different vanavasi communities in today’s Meghalaya. This has impacted people’s understanding of their own itihāsā, their origins, and most importantly, the cultural connect that they share with their fellow brethren in the rest of the country through the Ramayana and the Mahabharata.
Very often, we have heard from a certain lobby in this country that Shri Ram has absolutely no connection whatsoever with the North-East, and especially with regard to the predominantly Christian hill states of Nagaland, Mizoram, and Meghalaya. This has been a very well-crafted propaganda to present before us a bunch of lies and deceptions that the North-East was never a part of Bharatvarsha and more so, the religious belief systems and lifestyles of the people here have no resonance with people in the rest of the country. This however, is only a half-baked truth that has been responsible for so many of the different problems that the North-East is today grappling with, whether it be insurgency, religious proselytisation activities led by the Church, drugs and arms trafficking, etc.
Meghalaya is a sparsely populated, landlocked hilly state situated along the south-western borders of Assam and Bangladesh. Besides Mizoram and Nagaland, Meghalaya is the third state in Poorvottar Bharat where the population is predominantly Christian. While almost 90% of the Khasis and the Garos profess Christianity, Dharmic faiths and belief systems are still very much prevalent among the Jaintias. As mentioned above, all these three communities – the Khasis, the Garos, and the Jaintias – have their own versions of the Ramayana. It was in the beginning of the 19th century that well-known social reformer Babu Jeebon Roy, who was also the founder of the Seng Khasi Movement in Meghalaya, first brought out the story of Shri Ram in the Khasi language. It was titled Ka Ramayon.
We shall briefly understand the significance of the word Ka in Ka Ramayon, with reference to the Seng Khasi movement which was all about reviving the lost civilisational heritage of the Khasis of Meghalaya in the face of the aggressive evangelist missions of the Church. With the gradual popularity of Christianity in Meghalaya during the late 18th and the early 19th centuries and the hostile attitude of the Christian missionaries towards Ka Niam Khasi, i.e. the traditional Khasi religion, it became offensive for the leaders of the Niam Khasi faith in particular and to those Khasis who had yet not converted into Christianity. The situation eventually led the leaders of Ka Niam Khasi or Niam Khasi in short, to form a local association with the objective of creating a sense of awareness and identity among the non-Christian Khasis about their Sanatan Hindu heritage.
Along with Babu Jeebon Roy, Chandranath Roy, Shiv Charan Roy and a few other senior leaders of the Khasis decided to revive the lost practices and traditional belief systems among the people of the Khasi and the Jaintia Hills of Meghalaya. They therefore worked towards the establishment of an organisation exclusively devoted to bring back the lost cultural and civilisational heritage of the Khasis. Bhagwan Shri Ram constituted a very important part of this heritage. This association was thus aimed at spreading the message of the Ramayana among the younger generation of the Khasis, and also to look after the welfare of those in the community who had been the victims of persecution at the hands of the missionaries, only because of the reason that they refused to embrace Christianity.
Preservation of the traditional Khasi culture in general and the Niam Khasi faith in particular was, by and large, focussed on educating people on the life of Shri Ram through the Ramayana, and as well as that of Shri Krisnā through the teachings of the Bhagawad Gita. Eventually, it was on the 23rd of November, 1899 that the Ka Seng Khasi Movement was inaugurated in the Khasi hills of Meghalaya, with Babu Chandranath Roy as its first Secretary. In the Khasi language, the term Seng implies ‘the beginning of a new dawn’. At this time, there was a rapid progress of Christianity in terms of the establishment of missionary schools, hospitals and Churches in the Khasi Hills. Hence, the Seng Khasi Movement was a struggle for the survival and preservation of the cultural and traditional values of the Khasis.
The official patronage provided to the evangelists made it apparent that the traditional Niam Khasi religion would be extinct very soon. Babu Jeebon Roy, who is even today adored as the apostle of the Khasi Renaissance, and his men introduced several measures aimed at the preservation of their religion, language and culture. It was this cultural awakening which, in due course of time, found its expression through a literary movement initiated by Babu Jeebon Roy himself. The leaders of the Seng Khasi were strongly influenced by the Bengali Hindus and their cultural and religious belief systems. Precisely because of this reason, there is an overwhelming influence of Krittivasa’s Ramayana in Bengali in the different stories of the Ramayana prevalent among the Khasis.
Babu Jeebon Roy had a profound knowledge of Hindu religious texts such as the Bhagawad Gita, Puranas and Upanishads, Ramayana, Mahabharata and other masterpieces in Sanskrit and Bengali religious literature. He regarded the Niam Khasi religion as an inseparable and indistinguishable heritage of Sanatana Dharma. The Ramayana and the story of Shri Ram was at the core of this culture which was dying a slow death at the hands of the missionaries. This movement thus strengthened the solidarity of the people to a great extent. The gradual revival of the story of Ram and Lakshman helped the Khasis as a community to unite and put up a valiant resistance against the onslaught of the Western civilization in their lives through a foreign religion. It was also an attempt to preserve and protect the traditional customs, laws and rights of the Khasis through different ways and mechanisms.
The regional versions of the Ramayana have survived in Assam, precisely because of the reason that Sanatan Dharma is still the predominant religion there. But, the advent of Christianity in the other states of Poorvottar Bharat has virtually pushed those versions of the text belonging to the vanavasi communities into oblivion and out of circulation. The Khasi Ramayana was a part of the ballad tradition and used to be sung and narrated by the elder members of the family to the young children while sitting near the fire and cooking food. The names Rama and Lakhan were very popular male names for twins in the traditional Niam Khasi religion. It is believed that the story of the Ramayana among the Khasis was heavily influenced by the neighbouring Bengalis residing in the plains of Sylhet district which is now a part of Bangladesh.
The leaders of the Seng Khasi Movement were inspired by their deep-rooted allegiance to traditional values as enshrined in the Ramayana. It was with a view to promote religious unity among the non-Christian Khasis that Babu Jeebon Roy wrote two books on the Niam Khasi religion – one was titled Ka Niam Jong Ki Khasi (The Religion of the Khasis) and the other was Ka Kitab Shaphang Uwei U Blei (A Book on One God). The story of Shri Ram and his war with Ravana constituted an important moral aspect of both these writings. Soon after, Jeebon Roy had translated into Khasi the Hitopadesa, Buddha Deb Charitra, and the Ramayana. Jeebon Roy’s Ka Niam Jong Ki Khasi opens with an invocation to other Khasis to write about their Hindu heritage, thereby pointing towards a shift which was gradually beginning to take place in the community and the need felt by writers, as early as 1897, to preserve a culture, which would have otherwise been forgotten.
Until the publication of this text, i.e. Ka Niam Jong Ki Khasi, most writings on the lives and culture of the Khasis were by people who were not from the community. Ka Niam Jong Ki Khasi is a short but detailed account of several religious and socio-cultural practices of the Khasis which were considered as strange and alien by both the State and the Church. The use of the word Niam served to highlight not only religious practices and rituals but also social customs and conventions which were a part of everyday life in the Khasi community. In fact, Ka Niam Jong Ki Khasi happens to be the first Khasi book written by an indigenous writer, who uses writing as a tool to emphasize upon the ability of the natives to represent their Hindu civilizational heritage with pride.
In this book, Babu Jeebon Roy provides an alternative narrative based on instilling pride in the worship of Shri Ram and Shri Krisnā both. It opposed the dominant narratives of the Church and the State at that time to undermine Niam Khasi cultural beliefs by explaining the basic tenets of the Khasi religion in which Ram and Krisnā were inalienable entities. There is an oft-repeated theory in certain circles that the Khasis, or for that matter, the Nagas, the Mizos, the Garos, and the Jaintias alike were not Hindus. But, there is substantial material evidence to support the claim that they were, indeed, Hindus and most importantly, their pre-Christian religious faiths and belief systems were not different from Sanatana Dharma. E.g. in several places of Meghalaya even today such as Dāwki and Syndai, huge ancient rock-cut sculptures of Sri Ganesha, along with a few other local Devis and Devatas, are to be found.
Now, why is the traditional religion of the Khasis also known as Ka Niam Khasi? What is the religious and cultural significance of the word Ka in this context? A popular belief that prevails in the region is that the famous Sāktipeeth of Ma Kamakhya in Assam was originally a sacred Khasi site, and this is a point which has been acknowledged by the Temple Management Committee at Kamakhya in several of their publications as well. So, Kamakhya, in the ancient times, was a place where a form of Supreme Sākti resided. She was called Ka Mei Kha by the Khasis, which over time became transformed into the name Kamakhya. Interestingly, among the Khasis, the Garos, and the Jaintias, the matriarchal family system is still prevalent and the non-Christians among them are of the firm belief that the supreme authority of the Universe is a female form.
They are believed to be the original priests at the Kamakhya Devi temple, and even today a considerable section of the population of the Jaintias worship the Devi as Ma Jāyānteswari at the Nartiang Durga temple in Jowai, Meghalaya. Many attempts have been made by Christian Khasis backed covertly by the Church and the state to impose curbs and discourage Seng Khasi festivals and functions from time to time. In the 1980s, Doordarshan had successively televised both the Ramayana and the Mahabharata in the form of serials. These serials, although they were in Hindi, had an unprecedented response from the vanavasi communities of Poorvottar Bharat, including Meghalaya. Especially, their impact on the impressionable minds of the young kids was quite visible.
This disturbed the Church organizations hugely. They viewed it as the influence of Hinduism and imitation of Hindu ways and lives by the vanavasi people. They therefore asked the parents to stop viewing these serials and restrain their children from playing games based on them. In several areas of Mizoram and Meghalaya, the Church had to finally issue a diktat asking people to stop watching these serials. The Church’s attempt was to sanitize the Christian culture from external cultural influences. But, this was an impossible task since cultural contacts and influences are natural. They come with a baggage of memory passed down through several generations. Hence, they cannot be manipulated.
Very conveniently, the Church whitewashed the fact that the Ramayana was a not just a sacred text of the Hindus in the rest of the country but an indispensable part of the oral traditional cultural heritage of the people of Poorvottar Bharat too. In due course of time, the manipulation of facts and evidences associated with the Sanatan Hindu heritage of the vanavasis in this region of the country has been responsible for giving rise to a host of unending problems. The notion of a separate identity which is different from the larger Bharatiya identity is deeply instilled in the minds of the newly-converted people by the Church. This soon transforms into an anti-India, anti-Hindu mindset that breeds secessionism, mostly led by the neo-converts. Followers of the Niam Khasi faith are continuously on the decline because of various factors, the foremost among them being the open threats issued to their religious preachers by the Church.
The next article in this series will be based on the almost near-to-extinct Ramayana Parampara among the Garos and the Jaintias of Meghalaya.
Acknowledgement: A mere note of thanks is simply not enough for my Guru, the Late. Bhadrakrishna Goswami Ji, who first introduced me to this topic and himself took the pain, even during his old age, to access the required primary sources and encouraging me to document them. Thanks to Delina Ji for enlightening me about the Seng Khasi Movement, and as well as the staff of the Department of Historical and Antiquarian Studies at Guwahati for always being there.
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