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12. Lum Lamare–Lamare Peak

Translation and Notes © Janet Hujon, CC BY 4.0

This section is a dreamlike meandering through memory, myth, reflection and the immediacy of experience found in the simple pleasures of daily life. It is an account alive with movement marked by telling image and detail. Tham names flowers, waterfalls and rivers not only because he delights in them or because of the stories they tell, but to also underline the imaginative rapport that exists between the people and the wonders gracing their land, all of which make him finally pose the question “Which gods have made your slopes their home?”

Lamare Peak

O land of mine! When will the high Himalaya

Turn their gaze away from you?

Wind which moves to cool the hills

Will your freshness ever fade?

Yet looking back as here I stand

Was it all a passing dream?

Slow from you the flight of darkness

Well-watered tender grows your face

Orange glow in ripening groves1

Your granaries brim with gathered grain

Perchance in time I then can dream

Of flowering gardens everywhere

The land forever tilled and living

They toil from dawn till dusk drifts in

Seeds dropped by chance unnoticed scattered

Nurture raise O Mother Earth.

Plants wild with zest our people eat

Unrivalled the taste of Ja on the hills2

Did they ever know cold? Did they ever feel heat?

Were there any tomorrows? Did night ever exist?

With burdens braced, swift, swift they raced

The whistling soared as the head strap pressed3

With firm support from joints robust

Thus seldom work was left undone

Girth of trees first measured then felled4

“Slaves from the lowlands” brought in to work5

Groves of maturing kwai and fruit

Flocks on hillsides multiplied

Clean fresh skies above a land

Where baskets brimmed, were ranged in rows

Betel-nut split on knee-caps hard6

Sohriew soaked, simmered and strained7

Milk was shunned, butter unknown

Their choice a broth of boiled beef bones

Supple-limbed, movement lithe

Deserving of ease upon a prah8

Ka knup, ka khoh, u star they wove9

(In forge of stone they smelted iron

Furnace-tempered knife sword axe

Fine-tipped tweezers for the offending barb)

They wandered by rivers to drink the wind

Placing baskets and snares to net a catch

United they were, agreement prevailed

(Unbroken respect for U Kñi and U Kpa)

Those were the days when maidens and men

Ploughed, sowed, weeded, hoed

So tell me then O Lum Rapleng10

Did Heaven have borders and where did they end!

Over hillside and forest profusion abounds

Vast the array of names they bestowed

U Tiew Japang on sheer cliff sides11

On river banks U Tiew Tyrkhang12

The light of genius now all but snuffed

Today who would know U Tiew Khmat Miaw?13

Birdsong rises from the thicket

Moans the bee within his hive

The Jalyeit sings inside his cage14

While flowers in their gardens bloom

When U Tiew Lyngskaw is with turban crowned15

We gaze and gaze till all longing is spent

Their bowstrings drawn archers dance in a circle

Quiet the eye trained true on the target, steady the hand that rests on the ear,

On that soaring spray of black and white

On the Sohpdung or the wagers at stake,16

Couplets are chanted in mockery playful,

The ceremony of banter declares its intent

Under skies with a dusting of puffed-rice-clouds17

Applause breaks out again and again

When victory is won by a village entire

They dance in a circle on the Great Market Hill18

Back in those days which forever belong

To Sohra’s young women and Sohra’s young men

Soil-soaked stained throughout the day

At night they rest on beds of skin19

Days in the forest setting dogs on the scent

Nights spent courting away from home

Mindful to leave by the first cockcrow

Not a moment is wasted as they tear away home

At break of day they descend to Riwar20

At nightfall sweat wiped clean away

By day they follow the honeybee

Convivial the nights made light with their banter

Unending the splutter of pot-roasted maize

Unforgettable the taste of honey-spread yam

O Moon who blooms for fourteen nights

O Night whose arms hold safe the stars,

The owl alights upon a branch

U Nongshohnoh—he lurks close by21

But under a sheet of coarse cotton or silk

The tired rest easy round a slow-burning fire

Varied the tales that they then told

Some raised laughter, others tears

Ki Moin Manik, Ki Lar Morti22

Lent their brilliance to another time

To a place some called “a savage forest”

A home to monkey langur wild!

And so they told in fable tale

Of heroes and their immortal fame

Of gardens in bloom, orchards with fruit

Lands where people lived in peace

How a pure and righteous Age

Secures accord for one and all

Kynting-ting-ting through the quiet night

The Marynthing goads the tiger to dance

Laughter joy piping strumming

Together beneath a smoke-shafted roof

Kynting-ting-ting until the dawn

Vivid pathways of colour to enchantment beyond

U Tiew Japang with turban brocade

Captured by kings to wed royal daughters,23

Fish, Palm, Turtle, Egg

Leitmotifs familiar from ancient chants

Ka Mawtyngkong, Ka Wahrisa24

Poised they pose at the head of the gorge

The Lynx slings Thunder’s sabre across his chest25

Ka Lalyngngi still combs her hair on precipitous cliffs26

Ka Syntuksiar drapes herself in silk27

Ka Umngot will snatch victory from her sister28

Now tell us then Bah-Bo-Bah-Kong29

Which gods have made your slopes their home?

Listen to an audio recording of the poem at

Living root bridges of Nongriat village in East Khasi Hills district (2014). Photo by PJeganathan, CC BY-SA 4.0,,_Meghalaya_JEG7363.jpg

1 The glow of both ripe orange and betel nut.

2 Ja is rice in its cooked form. So important a staple is rice in Khasi culture that the word for a meal is simply “Ja”. To have a meal, whatever the accompaniments, is to “eat ja”—“bam ja. A meal without ja, no matter how nutritious and filing, is not worthy of the name! And the deliciousness of “Ja on the hills” (“Ja ha lum”)—a meal eaten out in the fresh hill air—is truly a pleasure that must be tried. Soso Tham is of course specifically referring to simple rural delights.

3 This head strap is called u star—also mentioned a few lines further down below—and it is used in conjunction with a tapering basket called a khoh carried on the back (see p. 53, n. 10).

4 Like many indigenous peoples Khasis once worked with the land. Only trees of a certain girth were felled—i.e. those whose trunks could be encircled by the entire length of a head strap (star) without any evidence of slack. Alas today that is no longer the case. Commercial gain is now the sole consideration.

5 Khasis were able to hire people from lands beyond their own kingdoms—most probably the plains of present-day Bangladesh.

6 This is not a tall story. I have seen this done—knowing how hard a betel nut is, splitting it on the knee cap indicates that the bone used as a “chopping board” is rock-hard.

7 “Job’s tears”: Coix-lachryma jobi—belonging to the family of Grasses.

8 A prah is a round flat woven tray usually used for winnowing grain. Wheelchairs are relatively new to the region and the old, infirm and immobile were lowered onto a prah on which they sat either indoors or out in the warm sunshine. My great-grandmother lived so long that she reigned in state over her family in this manner. To live a long life is an achievement and the old are respected and cared for accordingly.

9 The knup is the Khasi farmer’s rainshield and is made of palm leaves stretched and held in shape by a framework of bamboo cane strips. When viewed on the wearer’s back its shape is, appropriately enough, reminiscent of a shield beetle. The knup protects the head and body and leaves both hands free to carry out all the tasks in the field. There is also a smaller knup which functions as a parasol during hot sunny days.

10 Rapleng Peak lies east of a village called Nongkrem in the Khasi Hills but is clearly visible from the Jaiñtia Hills where Soso Tham worked as a teacher.

11 Primula denticulata.

12 Khasi Ferns: Dryopteris filix, Osmunda regalis. Ferns are referred to as flowers (tiew) because of their subtle perfume.

13 “Flower with the face of a cat”—an orchid: Dendrobium chrysanthum.

14 Golden fronted chloropsis. A songbird par excellence, able to imitate the songs of other birds.

15 An orchid: Dendrobium densiflorum.

16 The two rival teams were identified by the colour of their arrow-feathers, which were either black or white. Sohpdung—the big tubercular root of a certain plant used as a target during archery matches.

17 A scattering of small cumulus clouds. This expression comes from the sight of puffed rice (i.e. boiled rice mixed with yeast to make rice wine) scattered on the floor after the cat has knocked the pot over.

18 Markets in the Khasi Hills were places where people from surrounding areas converged to buy and sell and were held in different villages on different days of the week. The Great Market at Sohra (former Cherrapunjee) was one of the better-known.

19 The skins were usually made of cow hide.

20 Riwar: the land of a distinct group of Khasis who call themselves Wars or War Jaiñtia. It resides in the region south of the Jaiñtia Hills.

21 See p. 43, n. 2. The nongshohnoh is the henchman of families who worship the man-eating serpent, the Thlen.

22 Precious stones.

23 This refers to a practice in the past, commemorated in a folktale, when young men from the plains were taken captive by Khasi rulers as husbands for their daughters.

24 Waterfalls east of Sohra. Their names are evocative—[the waterfall at] “the stony threshold” and “the river’s applause”.

25 Jealous of the Lynx’s ability to wield his silver sword during a dance, the Thunder God (U Pyrthat) asked to borrow the weapon, saying he wished to try the same moves himself. The Lynx happily handed the sword over and the God immediately leapt into the sky leaving the Lynx without his prized sword. The flashes of lightning seen when thunder rumbles during a storm come from the Thunder God brandishing the sword he stole from the Lynx. The Lynx’s habit of leaving his droppings in a mound is supposed to be his attempt to build a mountain that will enable him to climb to heaven and retrieve his beloved sword.

26 Hedychium gardnerianum. A Khasi legend tells the story of Ka Lalyngngi, a beautiful maiden who arrived late for The Dance of the Flowers because she spent far too long getting herself ready. Filled with shame that all her efforts to be the belle of the ball had been in vain, she flung herself off a cliff hoping she would die at the bottom of the gorge. But she was stranded midway and transformed into a flower that now bears her name.

27 Syntuksiar means the golden flower (of the Jaiñtia Hills) referencing the golden paddy fields along the Myntdu river valley.

28 Ka Umngot is a river that rises in the Khasi hills and ends her journey in the plains of Bangladesh. The meandering course of the Umngot gave rise to a legend centring on a race between two sisters. Though infinitely more powerful, the older sister—Ka Iam—loses. Puffed with conceit Ka Iam had taken her time to start and found that her hard-working sister (Ka Umngot) had long reached the finishing line.

29 The legendary forests in Narpuh, Jaiñtia Hills. See p. 47, n. 12.