As millions across India thronged Durga Puja marquees on the
penultimate day of the festival Wednesday, so did the Jaintias, an
indigenous tribe of Meghalaya comprising Christians, continuing a
400-year-old unique tradition.
Worshipping Goddess Durga with the same fervour and devotion but
with a different set of rituals, hundreds of Jaintias, both
Christians and believers of an indigenous faith, thronged the
ancient temple at Nartiang, about 65 km east of Shillong. The Pnar
people, as Jaintias are known, were also joined by tourists.
The tradition goes back over 400 years.
Perched on a hill top, overlooking the Myntang stream, the Durga
Bari at Nartiang in the Jaintia Hills district was built by the
Jaintia kings in the 16th-17th centuries.
"Twenty-two generations of Jaintia kings worshipped Durga and
Jayanteswari, the ancestral deity of the Jaintia kings," said the
young temple priest, Molay Desmukh.
Desmukh, 20, took charge of the Durga temple five years ago after
the demise of his father Gopendra Desmukh. Interestingly, Desmukh
priests were brought to Nartiang by the Jaintia kings from Bengal,
not Maharashtra as the surname may suggest.
The dilapidated centuries-old temple structure was demolished
recently, and a new one was built with minimal change in design
and material in its place.
Durga and Jayanteswari are placed on the same place and worshipped
together. Both the idols are made of astadhatu (eight precious
metals), and each is about six to eight inches tall.
"The rituals and religious functions during the Durga Puja are
performed as per the Hindu way," the priest said.
The ceremony begins with ablution of both the idols, which are
then draped in colourful new attires and ornaments before the
On the fourth day of the five-day festival, animal sacrifice is
"However, during the royal Jainitia rule there used to be a scary
practice of human sacrifice," the priest said, pointing to a small
He has been told by his father that "the severed head used to be
rolled through the hole connected to a secret tunnel that falls
into the adjacent river Myntang".
It's believed that the practice was stopped by the British, after
the sacrifice of a British subject.
"Instead, now water gourds are sacrificed, along with animals and
birds such as goats, chicken and pigeons," Desmukh said. A human
mask is placed on the gourds, as a symbolic act of human
Apart from this unique tradition, there is another indigenous
feature that marks Durga Puja at Nartiang -- the Durga idol is
permanent and is not sent for immersion after the last day of
However, the priest installs a young banana plant beside the Durga
idol, which is taken out after the completion of the worship and
immersed in the nearby river Myntang. The entire expenditure of
the Durga Puja is borne by the Dolloi (traditional village chief,
who is non-Christian) of Nartiang.
Even though the majority of the tribal population in the state of
Meghalaya has embraced Christianity, a sizeable section of the
community has retained its indigenous culture, religion and
"Nartiang was the summer capital of the Jaintia kingdom, which was
set up at Jaintiapur, now in Sylhet district of Bangladesh," said
historian J.B. Bhattacharjee.
"The palace, though in ruins, still stands there as a testimony to
the Jaintia heritage," he said.
The Jaintia kings spent the summer in the hills to escape the
unbearable heat in the plains and return to Jaintiapur after Durga
The royal tradition continued till the British annexed the Jaintia
territories in 1835, thereby ending Jaintia reign in the plains.