Name Magic among the Khasis

Margaret Lyngdoh, University of Tartu, Estonia

The Khasis are an ethnic community inhabiting the state of Meghalaya where they number around 1.2 million. Their origin may be traced to the Mon Khmer and their language belongs to the Austro Asiatic group. The social set-up of the Khasis include the matriliny, a close knit system of clan and familial relationships and, more contemporarily, an uncomfortable relationship exists between Christianity and the Traditional Faith or the Niam Tre. A subgroup of this tribe comprise the Bhoi who inhabit the Ri-Bhoi District towards the northwestern section of the state.

And it is here, that the esoteric magical practice of Jhare finds expression. The terms commonly called pyrtuit, kyrteng or sumon, consists the secret names of objects found in nature and Jhare believes that each object, disease, misfortune etc. has a name and the incantation, and utterance of these, allows the practitioner to assume power over these ills that afflict the patient. The narrative of the origin of this may be traced back to Syngkhoi Jha and his sister, Syndor Pahari where it was she who taught this art to her brother. In this exclusively orally transmitted tale, the figure of Syndor Pahari, the giver of knowledge to Syngkhoi Jha, is portrayed to be a kind of evil spirit who manifests herself in the form of a snake. The narrative origin of this practice, is then, fraught with violence, murder and deceit and as such, Jhare has today acquired a feared, sinister reputation among Khasis.

These Jha or practioners of the Jhare from Bhoi are known across the Khasi Hills for their abilities. Within the milieu of the Khasi social system, the central ritual of the naming ceremony, or Jer Khun follows this same principle and if examined in context, embedded beliefs about the centrality of names and the power they assume in a person’s life are present.
In his Preface to his work on the Jhare, D.T. Laloo issues a grim warning to all his readers:

“I have dared to write this book also, based only on the premise of this warning. If anyone gleans knowledge from this book and because of misfortune, misuses these words of power, he/she will be the bearers of all mortal sins”
(Translated from the Preface to D.T Laloo’s book Ki Bor Phylla U Hynniewtrep)

An attempt will be made in this paper to locate the beliefs about the significance of names and the cultural valuations they engender when they are studied in context. Also, this practice, is not isolated to this community alone but it finds echoes in the greater tradition of the Atharvaveda. This paper will be based on material collected directly from the field area of study, and supplemented by the aforementioned book of Laloo which, I have reason to believe is the only treatise on the subject. General literature on the subject will also be referred to.