In a remote part of Meghalaya, India the village of Kongthong celebrates a tradition unique to the region. The villagers practise Jingrwai iawbei where each newborn is assigned two names: a regular name and a melody by their mothers. Surprisingly, their regular name is only used for official purposes and the melody made for them is what they usually respond to. The tradition is passed down from mother to child with the mother creating the tune, often inspired by nature, and singing it to the child within a week of their birth. Other adults hum the tune repeatedly so the child learns to identify with it as their own.
Jingrwai iawbei means a melody sung in honour of the first female ancestor of the clan and reflects the matrilineal society of Meghalaya. Dr Piyusha Dutta, an Assistant Professor at the Amity School of Communication near Delhi explains “you’re not just assigning a tune to a newborn, but also paying respect to and seeking blessings of your root ancestress”.
The melody created can last between 15 seconds to a minute although a shortened version is also often used to call an individual, like a nickname. While no one teaches a mother how to come up with a name, they all have to be unique so each individual is identifiable in their own right. This can prove a challenge as once a person passes away, their melody dies with them and it is never sung again.
While no resident villager can identify the origins of this tradition, many believe that it can be used to ward off evil spirits. The local belief is that spirits can cause an individual to fall sick if they hear their name but cannot by their tune. However, it also serves other day to day purposes as well. It can help to keep track of a person in your company while hunting and a melody is far easier to identify over a long distance especially across valleys compared to a name. For some it is far simpler however. Local woman Shidiap Khongsit describes it as “an expression of a mother’s unbridled love and joy at the birth of her child. It’s like a mother’s heart song, full of tenderness, almost like a lullaby”.