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Shillong Remembers Its Departed on All Souls Day

Families and relatives cleaning up the graves at daytime
Families and relatives cleaning up the graves at daytime
A cross on a grave at a cemetery in Shillong
A cross on a grave at a cemetery in Shillong
Graves sparkling at night with thousands of lit candles
Graves sparkling at night with thousands of lit candles
A family member replacing a burned out candle
A family member replacing a burned out candle
Candles lit on a grave
Candles lit on a grave
Catholica nuns huddle over a grave to pray for the departed soul
Catholica nuns huddle over a grave to pray for the departed soul
Visitors at the Laitumkhrah Cemetery
Visitors at the Laitumkhrah Cemetery
A beautiful rose wreathe adorning a grave
A beautiful rose wreathe adorning a grave
Graves richly adorned with flowers
Graves richly adorned with flowers
A man looking over the graveyard
A man looking over the graveyard
A family grave at Laitumkhrah Cemetery on All Soul's day in Shillong
A family grave at Laitumkhrah Cemetery on All Soul's day in Shillong
A lonely grave warmed only by a candle lit by a visitor
A lonely grave warmed only by a candle lit by a visitor

On November 2nd each year, graves come alive with lights and colors. It is All Souls Day, a day (and night) to commemorate the departed souls. It is solemn and at the same time festive.

I spent my day at Guwahati, but I didn't want to miss the All Souls Day which happened just once in a year. And so I went to Kamakhya Temple in Guwahati in the morning and rushed back to the city to catch a Jeep to Shillong. After a three and half hours ride I arrived in Shillong to a glorious sunset. I passed a small cemetery at Nongshylliang and I stopped there to watch the locals decorating and clearing plants and grass from the graves. The sun slanted straight from the hills and it felt as if the last rays of the setting sun were perched upon that graveyard.

After sunset I set out for Laitumkhrah Cemetery. There were hordes of people on the streets walking towards the cemetery. All the cemeteries were well lit and decorated but, Laitumkhrah Cemetery is definitely the most popular. As I walked down the street after an early dinner I felt a chill in the air. Winter sets in much earlier in Shillong, but going for a walk that night reminded me of the bitter winter that was yet to come.

Mainly observed by the Catholic Church, All Souls Day is believed to have originated from the belief that departed souls do not attain sanctification when they died. They go through purgatory after death to enter heaven. The living can therefore intercede for the souls of the departed to attain forgiveness and sanctification. There are other similar practices throughout the world. Most of these are believed to have their origin in folklore. The Chinese have the Ghost Festival, the Japanese have Bon Festival and the Mexican have their Day of the Dead. All of them have different interpretations but they are in some ways or the other connected through rituals like lighting candles and adorning graves. Some tribal practices go as far as keeping food on the grave for the departed.

The murmur grew as we closed in to the cemetery. The entrance was guarded by police and local authorities, to avoid any commotion, which happened often. There were makeshift shops that sold candles and flowers outside the graveyard. The grave yard is on a little slope, and surrounded by pine trees and it glowed with the illumination of thousands of candle; it made the air even warmer. Graveyards remind us that all happy things must come to an end; but on this day you don’t feel sad. It felt as if the magical glow had driven away the gloominess. Flowers and wreathes were placed on the nameplates and candles lit around each grave as if to warm the departed souls.

The crowd was so big that it could have either annoyed or surprised the dead. It’s odd but people love having their photos taken in the graveyard. Normally it would send shivers down your spine to visit a graveyard so old, but it was like a grand gala or an exhibition. People examined each an every grave with much interest.

You could make out the state of the family by the decors and candles on the grave. Some graves are so well lit and decorated, some uncared. I came upon a small grave; nothing remained except for a rusted iron cross. Grass had begun to grow on top of the earth. Just as I closed in to take a picture of this grave a young visitor rushed in with a candle and placed it on the grave. Somehow it made me feel better. Maybe these small gestures make more difference to the living than they do to the departed.

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