A Divine Offering
Devang Singh & Varud Gupta’s Bhagwaan Ke Pakwaan gives readers a unique travelogue that couples as a cookbook – exploring the nexus of food and faith through the various indigenous communities of India. Excerpts:
A scene from the movie Ratatouille: A tall, lanky man walks into a classy French establishment and opens the menu. His name is Anton Ego. The waiter, Mustafa, walks in.
Mustafa: Do you know what you'd like this evening, sir?
Anton Ego: Yes, I think I do. After reading a lot of overheated puffery about your new cook, you know what I'm craving? A little perspective. That's it. I'd like some fresh, clear, well-seasoned perspective. Can you suggest a good wine to go with that?
Mustafa: With what, sir?
Anton Ego: Perspective. Fresh out, I take it?
Mustafa: I am, uh . . .
Perspective was what was on our minds as we rumbled along the dirt paths into Rongmesek, our last stop of this journey. It's hard to come by these days.
With all the advances in technology one would think that we've become more global of a community, when the reality is that we're still living in bubbles – from newsfeeds to friend circles – huddled together in Plato's cosy cave.
But as we turned away from the concrete and into a lush wilderness tucked behind the hills of Meghalaya, a tribal community changed all that. Before we knew it, it had started. That indescribable ooey-gooey warm brownie feeling deep in our souls in a week that began with an animal sacrifice and ended with a fashion show.
There's a lot going on in this community straddled between a traditional past and modern future. Perspective is ripe and served daily.
SPIRITS OF LIFE
As with most days in Ri-Bhoi, there was a glass of rice beer in our hands before we trekked behind Albinus Timug, the head of this riad, or village-state, to one of the sixteen communities on the outskirts. (It's quite possible that we accidentally called him Albus a couple times. Although unfortunately not a wizard, he was equally eccentric.)
It was there that we would witness a ceremony only imaginable in a Hogwarts Divination class: a reading of entrails. But before we could take our seats Albinus spotted our bamboo mugs were empty and called for a refill, an offer we couldn't refuse.
A chicken slowly bled to death in the hands of one of the village elders who chanted from the depths of his throat.
Next to us sat Dr Fabian Lyngdoh – also with a bamboo mug of rice beer – translating the local Khasi dialect of the man to his right (he wasn't having any rice beer so we question his judgment).
The ritual that was unfolding in front of us was one that falls under 'animism' or an indigenous faith sometimes referred to as Ancient Hinduism – but due to the variety of influences from East Asia, these titles are mere political classifications rather than a true reflection of the faith. What exists here
is a rich and robust tradition with unique mythologies such as the mythical bird, voplakpi, that propagated mankind.
Before the elder were two gourds – representing two deities, or Spirits of Nature. According to myth, one of these deities, Peng, was at first a wild, evil 'forest entity' with a proclivity for trickery. After mankind tamed him, he took his spot above their doorways, protecting them from other malevolent spirits as the new household guardian (in exchange or the occasional meal).
The ceremony continued as the elder placed the chicken at the foot of these deities and brought out a bamboo mug of his own. These deities were being called upon through these prayers to aid in the village's request, to ensure a successful start to the sowing cycle that would begin the next day. He sprinkled the rice beer on to the gourds, inviting the deities to give their blessing. After this, he made an incision in the chicken's rear end to pull out the entrails. Took a moment with them. Then finally announced that the ceremony had been a success – how he determined so was not something we were made privy to.
But the village elder wasn't alone in that decision. To help him, he had, at the very beginning, also called upon his ancestors, another important facet of their faith. From deities to ancestral spirits, these communities pay homage to their lineage as well as nature, fostering a connectedness to the world around them.
The offering of rice beer represents their gratitude, but no ceremony can end without feeding the deities. The chicken, along with rice used in the ceremony, was then cooked and served to the deities before parting ways.
VILLAGE ON FIRE
Some traditions, however, fade with time. The vibes of the main town of Rongmesek are more modern. And smack dab in the middle is a church.
Our story begins in Rome, 1889. A religious congregation – the Society of the Divine Saviour – is preparing to send the German Father Otto Hopfenmuller to Assam to indoctrinate communities into their faith. Otto makes his way over to Shillong where his first few months are spent learning the tribal culture and translating Christian scriptures into Khasi.
The legend goes, as Dr Fabian's brother, Constantine, narrates, that there once was a village called Phahamingding, or the village on fire. For years a great mystery had plagued the residents: every spring, a fire would ravage the village, destroying land and houses alike. Until one fortunate day a
French priest encountered this village and baptized its community into the Catholic faith, and suggested they rename the village to Rongmesek. Then—the fires stopped.
Becoming Christian has made this community no less Indian
But faith was only a pinch of what followed. A church was founded in the heart of the village, and a school at its side. Education led to improvements in language, agriculture, macro-economics and societal welfare. To appease the pessimist in you, crediting the new life of this village – away from magical fires – to education wouldn't be a stretch.
Today, Sunday mass has become an ingrained part of the lifestyle with the entire town closing for the day. While the Catholic doctrines might not have changed, the spirit of Karbi culture has affected how Christian practices manifest themselves in this once burning village: during mass, traditional dances are a part of the ceremony. The custom of blessing grains with the ceremonies of the indigenous faith continues in its own fashion at the church.
Constantine finds an enthusiasm behind the newfound Christian faith. There's a joy that this once isolated village has now become part of a bigger community. Whether wrong or right, everything that happened has led to this moment for the village. We have no control over the past. There is no point in regret.
Whether it was truly a miracle, coincidence or simply strategic planning—ultimately faith is what you make of it. And in this community, it served as a step forward. In the month of August, prayers are dedicated to India with the national flag proudly swaying inside the church.
(Photographs extracted and text excerpted with permission from Bhagwaan Ke Pakwaan; written by Devang Singh & Varud Gupta; published by Penguin. The excerpt here is a part of the chapter titled 'Rongmesek, Meghalaya'.)