Film to preserve tribal culture - Catholic missionary makes documentary on Lyngngam tribe

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  • Published 11.11.13

Shillong, Nov. 10: If there is one major area of concern among minorities across the world amid the onslaught from globalisation, is the preservation of their identity, their roots, their culture and their tradition.

If globalisation tends to standardise the way of life, there is a tendency on the part of minorities to retaliate to protect their roots. No community, however miniscule it may be, dreams of being uprooted, defaced, demolished or annihilated by the popular global culture.

With a concern on these lines, a Roman Catholic missionary has come up with a documentary film on one of the communities of Meghalaya popularly known as “Lyngngam”.

Roots and Longing (The Lyngngam experience in and around Nongjri-Kulang coal belt) is a documentary film by Fr Siby Sebastian Thomas of the Claretian congregation. The missionary has spent nearly eight years working among the Lyngngam people in the West Khasi Hills.

The documentary, which focuses more on the origin of the Lyngngam tribe, was released last evening at the St Paul’s Seminary, Upper Shillong, by Fr Sylvanus Nongkynrih.

The Lyngngam tribe, generally considered a mixed tribe of Garos and Khasis, live mainly in the area within the West Khasi Hills, said Fr Thomas, who is originally from Kerala.

“A large group is found in Bangladesh as well. With regard to their ethnical origin, there is no consensus among scholars. The Garo tribe considers them (Lyngngam) as one of the 12 sub-tribes of the Garos called Meghams. However, their language is a mixture of both Khasi and Garo dialects. The very ambiguity of their origin has placed them in an ambivalent identity,” he said.

“The Lyngngam themselves like to be considered Khasis while the historical antecedents reveal a closer kinship with the Garos. The etymological roots of their language can be traced to some Khasi dialects while the syntax often slips into Garo linguistic matrix,” the Roman Catholic priest said.

Moreover, Fr Thomas said the geopolitical arrangements of Meghalaya placed the Lyngngam people under Khasi hills and under the influence of Khasi texts and culture.

“This has unintentionally, at least, added to the confusion and to some extent, erosion of their identity. Some serious efforts to uphold their identity are found among their Bangladeshi counterparts,” he said.

The Lyngngam, he said, did have a culture of their own, a form of worship, and a dance form typical of all the tribes of Northeast. They also have a peculiar way of conducting the rites of the dead, the priest said.

However, Fr Thomas said the tribe is undergoing a tremendous change under the modern education system.

“They (Lyngngam) have proved themselves equally intellectual if not more with the other tribes of the Northeast. They are afraid of the cultural erosion, which happens because of the exploitation of their land for mining activities. Their land is no better for cultivation, thus, resulting in their people to leave their homeland and migrating to other places for cultivation and work. The flow of outsiders to their land for mining activities also a reason for the cultural erosion,” he observed.

This documentary is intended to develop a sense of identity among the Lyngngam people, and to bring in the awareness that “development is not all about throwing away one’s culture”, but retaining one’s valuable antecedents and to merge with the national polity without sacrificing the identities.

It is also intended to block the complete disappearance of the Lyngngam culture and to display a tribal identity that is under constant onslaught of globalisation/modernisation.

Unless serious efforts are initiated to upkeep them, their tribal identity will be lost forever, Fr Thomas said.

“This is an introductory project for a bigger story telling about the Lyngngam tribal culture. The elders of the tribe feel that their culture is facing problem as coal and limestone mining are exploiting their inhabited land,” Fr Thomas said.

According to him, the Lyngngam people are being displaced as the land is no longer cultivable. Moreover, he said, people from “outside” are flocking to their land in search of labour in coal mines, which has become a major threat to their culture.

He also said the documentary, edited by Conrad Syiem, is a simple initiative on behalf of the Catholic church to upkeep the tribal identities, which are endangered because of modernisation.

“The church has always been in support of protecting the indigenous cultures. The archdiocese of Shillong together with different religious congregations has taken several steps in keeping up the indigenous cultures and traditions,” the Catholic priest said.

He also said the development of the Lyngngam tribe dates back to the time of late Fr Emmanuel Albizuri, one of the pioneer missionaries to Northeast India.

“The Lyngngam people have grown in faith and education ever since the foundations he (Fr Emmanuel Albizuri) laid many years back. Now, it is time to consolidate the growth by galvanising them to the root of their culture,” Fr Thomas added.

While releasing the documentary, Fr Sylvanus Nongkynrih, who is the rector of St Paul’s Seminary, appreciated the initiative taken to preserve the culture and identity of the tribal communities.

It may be reminded that in 2011, Fr Thomas had produced a documentary — Dark Money — to sensitise the people on the adverse effects of “unscientific rat-hole mining” in Meghalaya.