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Pnars in Meghalaya celebrate Durga Puja

 Nartiang (Meghalaya), Oct 15 (IANS): As millions across India thronged Durga Puja marquees on the penultimate day of the festival on Sunday, so did the Pnars, an indigenous tribe of Meghalaya comprising Christians, continuing a 400-year-old 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, came to 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 to over 500 years even as there are differences of opinion among some historians and tribal leaders over it.

Perched on a hilltop, overlooking stream Myntang, the Durga Bari in the Jaintia Hills district, named after the tribe Jaintia, was built by the Jaintia kings sometime in the 16th-17th centuries.

The temple is austere looking made of baked bricks, situated in the heart of the village. "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, 24, took charge of the Durga temple nine years ago after the demise of his father Gopendra Desmukh. Interestingly, the Desmukh priests were brought to Nartiang by the Jaintia kings from Bengal, not Maharashtra.

Some portions of the wall are still intact while the southern portion is in a dilapidated state. "Nartiang was the summer capital of the Jaintia kingdom, which was set up at Jaintiapur in Sylhet district of Bangladesh," said JB Bhattacharjee, a noted Indian historian.

"The palace, though in ruins, still stands as a testimony to the Jaintia heritage," he said. The Jaintia kings, Bhattacharjee said, used to spend the summer in the hills to escape the unbearable heat in the plains and return to Jaintiapur after Durga Puja.

The royal tradition continued till the British annexed the Jaintia territories in 1835, thereby ending the Jaintia reign in the plains. 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 rituals.

On the fourth day of the five-day festival, animal sacrifice is carried out."However, during the royal Jainitia rule, there used to be a scary practice of human sacrifice," the priest said.

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 customs.

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