In this remote Indian village, every person's name is a song
In the village of Kongthong, villagers don't call each other by their name; instead, they call out using unique, bespoke tunes that resemble birdsong.
- In the remote mountain village of Kongthong, villagers call out to each other using short tunes that resemble birdsong.
- These songs act as a second name for each villager, and are used more frequently than a villagers "real" name.
- The practice is called jingrwai lawbei, which translates to "song of the clan's first woman."
If you were to approach the mountain village of Kongthong in India, you might notice the cacophony of peculiar bird calls echoing through the jungle. They wouldn't sound like any birds that you had heard before, though — these songs come from the villagers themselves.
They call to their neighbors in song. They sing to their children in to eat. They rhapsodize to find each other in the jungle.
Each song is unique, and each one refers to a specific individual. The practice, known as jingrwai lawbei, means each villager is given a musical name alongside their more traditional one.
Kongthong is an isolated, ancient village that's been in the mountains of the Indian state Meghalaya for five centuries. It only become electrified in 2000, and until 2013 when a dirt road was constructed, it was a several-hour hike from the nearest town.
Villagers say that jingrwai lawbei is an expression of maternal love — the term itself translates to "song of the clan's first woman," and so the practice is in honor of the mythical woman who first established the community.
Kongthong is a matrilineal village, unlike most other Indian villages. Husbands take their wives' names, and property is passed down from mother to daughter, but it's not entirely as idyllic as it sounds. Women don't have much decision-making power, and male and female roles are clearly defined. Raising children is distinctly a female job, while males make most of the major decisions in the village.
When a child is born in Kongthong, their mother gives them song. Often, the father composes a song as well, until eventually, the best tune is selected. They come in two versions: a short version and a longer one, which lasts about 30 seconds or so. In the house, the shorter tune is used, but in the forest, the longer one is used. This practice partly began from the superstition that if a ghost in the jungle learns your name, then they can take it, making you sick and causing your subsequent death.
Why use jingrwai lawbei?
What is the difference between jingrwai iawbei and a regular name? "Calling out by jingrwai Iawbei is calling with love and respect," the villagers say. "Jingrwai Iawbei is unique for it lives as long as the person lives."
"It expresses my joy and love for my baby," said 31-year-old mother Pyndaplin Shabong to the AFP.
They're not used all the time, either. Rothell Khongsit, a community leader, explained that "if my son has done something wrong, if I'm angry with him, he broke my heart, at that moment I will call him by his actual name."
The songs have no specific meaning, and no words are involved — instead, they resemble bird song. "We are living in far-flung villages, we are surrounded by the dense forest, by the hills," said Khongsit. "So we are in touch with nature, we are in touch with all the gracious living things that God has created. Creatures have their own identity. The birds, so many animals, they have ways of calling each other."
An Indian villager whistles as he calls to a friend in a field in Kongthong village. Photo credit: Biju BORO / AFP
Unfortunately, modernity threatens to undermine the tradition. Music from the outside world has influenced the practice, with one woman naming her child after the tune from the Bollywood song "Kaho Na Pyar Hai." As mobile phones become more common in the village, it's become easier to call one's peers rather than to sing out their name.
In order to preserve this practice, Khongsit and other village leaders believe that they need to open the village up to the world. They've constructed cottages for tourists, who are drawn both by the unique singing tradition there and the many living root bridges that are throughout Meghalaya.
When adults are challenged to behave like adults, by a child, they can go in one of two directions.