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3. Khasi Folktales About Darkness and Light

© Janet Hujon, CC BY 4.0

Long, long ago before anyone can remember, there was a Time we now call the Ancient Past. She holds and protects all the days that once were young but have now grown old, that once were new, but now have aged. No one has ever seen her, but we all know her. Khasis call her Myndai or Ki Sngi Barim—the days that make up Time long gone.

In that Time lived peace and harmony guarded by the Seven Families, who, in answer to the prayers of the Great Spirit of Earth, Ka Ramew, were sent down by God to care for all living creatures and forces—rivers, trees, animals, flowers, fruit. From their grass-thatched homes (Ki Trep) the Seven (Hynñiew) went forth, increased and multiplied. These Seven Families are the first clans, the mothers and fathers of all Khasis today. They are the Hynñiew Trep.

Although they lived on earth, the Hynñiew Trep were able to visit the other Nine Clans who still lived in Heaven. They could do this because there was a Golden Ladder bridging the space between heaven and earth. This ladder was on the sacred mountain—U Lum Sohpet Bneng—a mountain that stood at the centre of the world and was therefore known as the navel of heaven—u sohpet. The Golden Ladder was the umbilical cord linking terrestrial beings to their celestial beginnings.

So for a time all on earth was as God had ordained until the Seven Clans forgot their duty to their Creator and to one another—to Tip Blei, Tip Briew—to know and honour God and each other. Swallowed by Greed they were reborn as creatures who no longer saw with the eyes of contentment. They no longer revered the might of the great mountains and waterways that protected and fed the green world they lived in. They feverishly took from the earth, refusing to listen to her cries of protest. Finally, exhausted, the earth fell silent.

God looked down in despair at his chosen people. Custodians appointed to care for creation had broken their word. Anger grew in his heart. He turned his face away and destroyed the Golden Ladder. From that day onwards the Hynñiew Trep never again knew the freedom of being allowed to walk in heaven.

Their misfortune increased when a monstrous tree—the Diengïei—began to push its way through the soil. The tree grew and grew until its branches covered the face of the earth: a canopy so dense that not even the strength of the sun’s rays could push through. The land lay dying yet the Diengïei kept growing. Stricken with terror the people seized their blades and axes and began to hack at the solid trunk. They knew that without light they too would die. Every evening they returned to their homes having left a gaping wound in the trunk and always determined to return the next day to finish their task. But each morning they returned to find the wound had healed. The trunk looked as good as new. What was going on?

Worn out and weary in spirit the people looked at each other in despair. Then suddenly in the silence they heard the voice of the Phreit, a tiny wren-like creature—“If you promise to spare me some grain after every harvest, I will tell you why all your efforts are in vain.” At first the people refused to believe her, but seeing no other explanation for this mystery, they agreed to grant the little bird’s request. “From this day onwards” they said, “You and all your descendants will always have a share of our harvest.”

And this is what the Phreit told them: “Every night after you return to your homes, the Tiger arrives and licks the cut clean. By morning the tree is renewed and the gash is sealed. So no matter how hard you hack you will not be able to fell the Diengïei.” The words of the little bird plunged the people into an even deeper darkness. Then she spoke again: “But I know a way out of this.” Immediately they looked up. “Tell us,” they implored, “Tell us little bird!” “This is what you must do. This evening, before you go home, leave an axe in the wound of the tree. Make sure the blade is facing outwards”. The people did as they were told. In the morning they returned to find a blood-stained blade and the tree unhealed. It was not long before the mighty Diengïei came crashing down. Light and life returned to earth and the people remembered to keep their promise to the Phreit.

But one day darkness once again returned to the earth and this is how it happened:

For a while the people remembered their suffering. They kept the laws and looked out for each other. With the return of peace and harmony they decided to celebrate life in a dance to which the Sun, her brother the Moon, and all living creatures on earth were invited. Arriving late after her day’s work, the Sun abandoned herself to the happiness of the moment as she danced with her brother in an arena by now emptied of all other dancers.

Suddenly a hum like the moaning of bees and wasps rose into the air: murmurs of disapproval from the crowd that watched the siblings move in absolute surrender to the joyous freedom of the dance. Doubts darkened the onlookers’ minds—should a brother and sister move together in such blatant unison? Had they broken the most sacred of all taboos? The clamour grew louder and finally became so unbearable that the Sun decided to leave, but not before she had vented her rage on the crowd for their harsh and hurtful words. “Never again”, she said, “will I bring you my blessings of warmth and light.” With those ominous words hanging in the air she left and plunged into a deep dark cave—Ka Krem Lamet Ka Krem Latang. Because the people saw evil where there was only joy and shame where it did not exist, they were punished. And once again human beings had to look for a way out of Darkness and into Light.

Time became an unending stretch of all-enveloping night in which the people were lost. Filled with remorse they pleaded with the Sun but she refused to emerge. Who could they find to placate the enraged Sun? Then Hope came in the form of the lowly Rooster—an unadorned creature who hid in shame from other living beings. If the people draped him in beautiful silks, he said, he would feel confident enough to stand before the nurturer of life and bow before her flaming throne to plead their cause. The people agreed. He was garbed in the finest and richest of silks—the fabric reserved for the rich and for royalty. When they had finished he had been transformed. Turquoise melted into the dark blue of night. Carmine, terracotta and gold fired the gloss of darkness while grey and white flowed in gentle stripes. And as the ultimate mark of distinction a red crest was placed on his head. Before them stood a prince!

He set off on his long journey. Often he took shelter and rested in the branches of the rubber tree and the venerable oak. Finally he arrived at the entrance of the Krem Lamet and in his many-splendoured robes he faced the Sun. With a voice clear and true he said: “I stand here before you O Great Being to seek your forgiveness for a people who now know they acted in ignorance and have repented. I have come here to offer my life in exchange for their freedom from this punishment. Return to their midst, Great One, restore light to their lives.” Moved by his simple request and selflessness, the Sun not only relented but also spared the Rooster’s life.

The Rooster bowed in humble thanksgiving and said: “From now on, O Great Being, I will remind myself and the world of the mercy you have shown us. At the beginning of each day I will announce your coming with a bugle of three calls so that all living creatures will know you have returned in order that the earth might live.”

As a token of remembrance for the kindness shown to the Rooster by the rubber tree, the oak, and the leaf (Lamet), these three are always included in Khasi rituals, commemorating forever the significance of Gratitude and Memory in the lives of the Khasis.