Sunday Feature By Soumyanetra Munshi

Of Roosters, Huts, and “Umbilical Heavenly Peaks”
Glimpses into beliefs of Shillong

On a recent visit to Shillong, during the very scenic drive from the quaint Shillong airport to a resort near the Umiam lake, not surprisingly perhaps, I had noticed several idyllic houses having roosters and chickens running around in their front yards.
I was however surprised when on another ride towards the City of Shillong, I noticed a massive gate sort of a structure with a rooster painted on it.
Almost at the same time, I saw a car passing by (that was being driven by a woman) and which sported a red flag in front of its bonnet. The flag had the silhouette of a rooster in yellow. Surprised, I asked the chauffeur who was driving us, about what it was about.

Albert, who himself was a Christian from the Garo tribe, said it was Jaintia custom to worship rooster.

I later found out that the big gate-like structure was the entrance to U Lum Sohpetbneng, popularly known as “umbilical heavenly peak” or “navel of the earth” (sohpet in Khasi means navel, bneng means heaven and lum means hill).

It wasnear the Umiam Lake (commonly referred to as Barapani), atop the 1,344-metre high peak, 17 km north of Shillong, the capital of Meghalaya, and was on our left when we were Shillong bound from Umiam.
According to a tribal legend, the sub tribes of Khasi race, Khynriam, Pnar, Bhoi, War, Maram, Lyngngam and the now-extinct Diko of Meghalaya, collectively known as Ki Hynniewtrep (hynneiw means seven), which literally means ‘Seven Huts’ referring to the seven families, were the first humans on earth.

According to the Khasi mythology, God, had originally distributed the human race into sixteen heavenly families, seven huts on earth and nine huts in heaven (see the write-up on the board in the picture below), which are connected to the creator by a golden ladder on U Sohpetbneng (literally meaning Mount of the Heavenly Umbilical Cord). “During the Golden Age the sixteen families physically commuted between heaven and earth along the golden oak vine on the summit of U Lum Sohpetbneng. When sin crept and covered the earth the golden bridge was broken. Nine families remain in the celestial abode and seven settled on earth and multiplied.”

People could use the heavenly ladder resting on the sacred Lum Sohpetbneng Peak to travel to heaven whenever they pleased until one day they were tricked into cutting a divine tree which was situated at Lum Diengiei Peak (also in present-day East Khasi Hills district), a grave error which prevented them from going to heavens thereafter. (This myth can, in fact, be perceived to be how nature and trees, in particular, are the manifestation of the divine on earth, so that destruction of it, naturally means severing our ties with the divine.)

Hence the structure is the entrance to the Lumsohpetbneng or the Golden ladder. (It isalso believed that the seven tribes who were left on earth after the ladder broke are like the seven continents and the nine tribes in heaven are like the nine planets.) The golden ladder is no longer there but there are imprints that can be seen today in the rocks, in the vicinity of the summit.

The annual indigenous tribal pilgrimage to the Sacred U Lum Sohpetbneng is held on the first Sunday of February.

Now the symbol used by the believers is the ‘Rooster’ – harbinger of ‘Light and Enlightenment’.The rooster was a universal solar symbol across Eurasia, the Near and Middle East and Europe as a bird that heralded the dawn with its crowing and that would dispel evil spirits as the light of day dispelled darkness. Veneration of the rooster in East Asia is particularly widespread, but is most closely associated with Japan and China where the rooster is entrenched as the tenth of the twelve animal symbols in the Chinese zodiac.

In Japan, its crowing is believed to lureAmaterasu (the principal deity of the Japanese Shinto religion, the sun goddess and ancestor of Jimmu, founder of the imperial dynasty), Goddess of the Sun, out of the cave where she had been hiding. The Japanese (like other Far Eastern people) attribute the virtue of courage to the rooster. The white cockerel is an auspicious symbol in Japanese Shinto (a Japanese religion dating from the early 8th century and incorporating the worship of ancestors and nature spirits and a belief in sacred power of both animate and inanimate things. It was the state religion of Japan until 1945). Chickens are thought of as messengers of the gods at the Isonokami Shrine (one of the oldest Shinto shrinesof Japan, frequented by many members of the Imperial Family, it played a pivotal role in Japan’s early history.The shrine is at the end ofthe oldest road in Japan).

Animism, historically, characterises the belief system of many indigenous peoples, in contrast to the relatively more recent development of organized religions.Animism (from Latin: anima meaning ‘breath, spirit, life’)is the belief that objects, places, and creatures all possess a distinct spiritual essence. Accordingly, “[A]lthough each culture has its own mythologies and rituals, animism is said to describe the most common, foundational thread of indigenous peoples’“spiritual” or “supernatural” perspectives.”
This was my first visit to the North-east. But as a student, I had studied about these parts in Geography at the school level decades back and the only fact that distinctly stuck in mind seems to be the matrilineal system practised amongst the tribes there. Albert said, that was still in vogue and that he has left his parents’ home in Assam to come stay with his wife and her family in Shillong. So it seems that the tribes have largely maintained their matriarchal culture.Jaintias are mostly Hindus while Garos and Khasis were mainly Christians, Albert said.

I asked Albert whether he’s been inside the Lum Sohpetbneng, and he said he was a Roman Catholic of the Garo tribe and he hasn’t been inside. But with the Umiam lake, almost still shedding tears with sombre serenity, the almost living clouds whispering legends, and even the roadside flowers springing colours and almost writing poems, the golden ladder rising high up to the clouds, ready to help us lesser mortals to heaven, almost seems true.

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