An ancient funeral epic—twice the length of Homer’s Iliad —is being recorded for the first time

Performed from memory, the Kecharhe Alun is a significant death ritual of Assam’s Karbi tribe. The oral epic has never been properly studied, recorded, or documented — until now.

When a neighbour died last week, Kasang Teronpi, was summoned immediately. The news was shocking, but the call was routine.

For years now, the 80-year-old resident of Taralangso village near Diphu in Assam’s Karbi Anglong district, has been visiting the homes of the dead  — relatives, friends, strangers — on call.

“If we don’t do it, who will?” asks Teronpi.

Teronpi is a charhepi, or a female dirge singer, who plays an important role in the death rituals of the Karbi tribe, one of the largest ethnic groups in Northeast India.

It is something she always wanted to be — ever since she was 10, and she first heard the Kecharhe Alun, or the Karbi funeral epic, when a relative had died. “I never went to school, I never learned how to read or write, so I thought to myself that I must master the art of dirge singing,” says Teronpi.

In Langokso village, where Teronpi grew up, she says that being able to sing the Kecharhe Alunwas an honour for women, almost “equivalent to getting an educational degree”.

After she got married, she went to a master to learn the oral epic, and soon could remember it by heart.

According to the death rituals of the Karbi tribe, it is only when the Kecharhe Alunis performed that the soul of the deceased is able to journey to the village of ancestors (‘village of the dead’) — a mandatory  journey for the soul to rest in peace. “If not, the soul will be stuck between the world of the living and the world of the dead,” says Teronpi, “That is why it is important we never forget the Kecharhe Alun.

Over the last two years, Teronpi has been working with a group of people to do just that: record the Kecharhe Alun for posterity. For that, they have traversed into the most secluded forests of Karbi Anglong — the rules don’t allow the dirge to be chanted within the village boundaries — where Teronpi has sung, explained and recorded, the 32-hour-epic from memory.

This article was originally published in The Indian Express in September 2019. Full article here.