Faint whistles are overheard while crossing the Khat-ar-shnong valley en route to Meghalaya's Whistling Village, Kongthong, 52 km from Shillong. My excited guide tells us that the sounds signify that we are fast approaching our destination. Even in the bountiful Meghalaya (the abode of clouds), where every bend in the road leads to a breath-taking vista, each waterfall is tailor made for an Instagram grid, and even butterflies flit about in shades that would put a colour shade-card to shame, this village is a unique cultural experience.
Kongthong is a small village of 700-odd people and bestows upon every child born a tune by which the person is known throughout his/her life. Twenty-nine-year-old Phidingstar Khongsit explains, "Everyone in my village has three names a regular name for government documents, a longer tune composed within weeks of a child's birth by his mother, and a shorter tune to call out with when the child is nearby."
The intriguing tradition known as jingrwai iawbei loosely translates into Song of the Clan's First Woman, is a nod to the region's matrilinear society. Mothers compose the tune, but both parents address their children using those tunes, and even the kids reply in kind, with a short tune, when addressed
Doing It Differently
No two whistles are similar. Even when a person passes away, the tune is not given to anyone else or replicated. The more extended version of the tune is around thirty seconds, while the shorter one lasts just ten. They are reminiscent of the calls of birds, and interestingly, the names for girls tend to be softer than ones composed for boys.
Khongsit explains that there is no connection between the name and the tune. "The tune is composed by a mother in a moment of love and comes from the heart," he says, and adds, "No one knows when this tradition started. Some elders say it is to protect us from forest spirits, while others say it was an easy way to call out to the kids while foraging for food in the valley."
Open To Tourism
In 2021, The Ministry of Tourism nominated Kongthong for the World Tourism Organization's Best Tourism Villages award, placing it on the epicentre of the tourism map. The village, the largest supplier of brooms in the region, is full of Pintrest-y views from every corner. There are stunning panoramas of lush foliage as far as the eye can see. It currently has four Khasi huts (small but cozy) where visitors can stay overnight.
Trekker and tour guide Banshngainlang nongkynrih of Sohra calls the tunes the village's identity. He adds, "It is more of humming than whistling. Three other villages in the vicinity (that we know of) follow this tradition, but they do not interact with the outside world. Kongthong village is unique as it allows others to understand its tradition while continuing with their cultural legacy." In the village square, the women wearing vibrant jainsems sit in close-knit groups while their rosy-cheeked children prance around. They say that they only call out to their kids with their regular names when they are angry with them
As India discovers the Northeast in a frenzied travel boom of the post-Covid world, experiences such as these are as easy to come by as the caves, waterfalls, and sacred forests that the region is famous for. As we bid adieu to the picturesque village and its smiling residents, Shidalin calls her daughter, humming a soft melody. It is said that all the feelings that a mother carries inside her for nine months are reflected in the tune. Little wonder the lilting sounds reflect a mother's love warm as a hug and wide as the world
How to get there
By air The Guwahati airport is 168 km, and Shillong airport is 79 km from Kongthong.
By railway The Guwahati railway station is 145 km away.