Triveni Journal

1927 | 11,233,916 words

Triveni is a journal dedicated to ancient Indian culture, history, philosophy, art, spirituality, music and all sorts of literature. Triveni was founded at Madras in 1927 and since that time various authors have donated their creativity in the form of articles, covering many aspects of public life....

Snake in Khasi Folk-lore

H.I.S. Kanwar

By H. I. S. KANWAR
Superstition amongst humans is as old as the hills: When some evils struck, the search for a remedy was on. Some myth was then built up to calm the simple folk. In this respect, the Khasis of Assam are no exception. Bivar, an authority on the Khasis, has given one of the best definitions of Khasi religion, “as forms used to cure diseases and to avert misfortunes, by ascertaining the name of the demon, as the author of the evil, and the kind of sacrifice necessary to appease it.”

Generally, Khasis worship both good and evil spirits. They also worship their ancestors whom they appease by performing special ceremonies. They believe that there is existence after death, and that, after funeral ceremonies have been observed, the spirits of the dead live in the garden of God, which is full of betel-nut trees.

The Khasis have many supernatural beings in their folk-lore. One of them is U Thlen, believed to be a huge snake requiring appeasement by human sacrifice.

In a cave near Cherrapunji, so goes the tale, there once lived a huge snake or thlen, which created great havoc among men and animals. None ventured to go near the cave fear of being devoured by the thlen. But one youth, braver than the others, cautiously entered the cave with a herd of goats, which he offered to the thlen one by one. Soon the snake became so friendly that, at a word from the youth, it began to open its mouth to receive lumps of flesh.

With confidence thus established, the youth following the advice of the god, U Suidboh (who, according to belief, lives in a grove near Sohrarim) heated a lump of iron red-hot in a furnace. Making the monster open its mouth at his usual signal, the youth threw in the red-hot iron, and killed it. Cutting the monster’s body into small pieces, the brave youth sent them in every direction with orders for the people to eat them. Wherever these orders were obeyed, the country was freed of the thlen. However, it is said, one small piece remained uneaten. From it arose many more thlens to infest the residents of Cherra and its environments.

When a thlen began to live in a family, there was no means of getting rid of it, although it is said that occasionally it left of its own accord. Often it followed family property, given away or sold. The reason was that the thlen attached itself to the property, bringing prosperity and wealth to the owners on condition that it was supplied with blood. Its craving came on at uncertain intervals. Then there was illness or increasing poverty of the family owning the property. It could only be appeased by human sacrifice, and, since no human killed himself for it, a murder had perhaps to be committed.

Before setting out on his unholy mission, the murderer prepared himself by drinking “ka’iad tang-shi-snem” (liquor kept for a year), which was thought to give him courage and power of selecting a suitable victim for the thlen. He had to provide himself with “u’khaw tyn dep” (rice mixed with turmeric after certain incantations had been sung), a pair of silver scissors, a silver lancet to pierce the inside of the nostrils of the victim, and a small bamboo cylinder to receive the blood drawn there-from. He had to arm himself with a short club for killing he victim, hence his name “nongshonoh” (one who beats), for it was taboo to slay a victim on such occasions with an iron weapon, because iron had proved fatal to the thlen.

The nongshonoh made it a point to catch his victim unawares, and threw a little rice over the latter. This was supposed to stupefy he victim, who then fell an easy prey to the murderer. After the killing, the nongshonoh cut off the tips of the hair of the deceased with the silver scissors, and also the finger nails. He then extracted from the nostrils of the victim some blood, which he put into the bamboo cylinder. He took them home and offered them to the thlen.

Since it was not always possible to kill a victim outright, the murderer resorted to other ways to appease the thlen. He cut off a little of the hair or the hem of the garment of the victim, which he offered to the monster. The effect of this was considered to be disastrous to the victim, who eventually died after becoming ill. The songshonoh sometimes contented himself with merely throwing stones at the victim or knocking at the door of the latter’s house at night, after which he returned home. He would then inform the thlen that he had tried his best for a human sacrifice, but had been unsuccessful. This was supposed to appease the snake-god for a while. Soon the thlen would manifest its displeasure for the failure to supply it with human blood by inflicting sickness on one of the family of its keeper.

The thlen was said to have the power of reducing itself thin as thread, thus rendering it convenient for its keeper, called “nong-ri thlen”, to secure it in an earthen pot or in a basket kept in a safe place. When the selected hour, usually at dead of night, struck for offering a sacrifice to the thlen, the keeper would spread costly clothes on the floor of his house. keeping all the doors open. He would then lay a brass plate on the ground, in which he placed the blood or the hair or a piece of cloth of the victim.

After the family had gathered round, an elderly member began to beat a small drum, invoking the snake-god by chanting, “Oh maternal uncle, father, come out, here is some food for you. We have done all we could to satisfy you, and now we have been successful. Give us thy blessing, that we may attain health and prosperity.” The thlen then crawled out from its hiding place, after which it expanded to its full size and approached the plate, where it remained expectant. The victim’s spirit then appeared, standing on the plate, laughing. Beginning at the feet, the thlen gradually swallowed the figure, immediately after which the victim died.

People in the Khasi Hills, known or even suspected to be thlen-keepers, were dreaded. The superstition was so deeply rooted amongst the Khasis that, until recent times, in Cherrapunji, and even in places in and around Shillong, the Khasis dared not venture out alone after dark, for fear of being attacked by a nongshonoh.

In the days gone by, to get rid of the thlen, “all the money, ornaments and property of that house or family must be thrown away”, as in the case with persons possessed by the demon, ‘ka Taroh’, in the Jaintia Hills. None dared touch any of the property for fear that the thlen would follow it. Since it was commonly believed that a thlen could never enter the Siem’s clan or his house, the Siem could conveniently appropriate the thlen-keeper’s property.

There is a story dating some sixty years ago. A Mohammeden domestic in Shillong once fell victim to the charms of a pretty Khasi maiden, and proceeded to live with her. Soon he learnt that his mother-in-law kept a devil in the house. Although he asked his Khasi wife many times to allow him to see the devil, she evaded an answer. After a long time, however, and extracting from the Mohammedan a solemn promise not to divulge the secret to anyone, she took him to a corner of the house, where she showed him a little box in which there was a tiny snake, thin as the spring of a watch. When she passed her hands, over it, the snake grew until it became a huge cobra with, hood erect. The Mohammedan was scared almost to death. He begged his wife to lay the spirit. She then passed her hands down the monster’s body which eventually shrank to a tiny size.

Authorities on the subject state that many Khasis, especially in the Cherra, Nongkhrem and Mylliem Siemships, until recent time regarded the thlen with great awe and respect. They also dared not even mention the names of the thlen-keepers for fear that evil might befall them. Snake-worship had an ancient origin not only in East Asia, but also in adjacent territory, where the serpent race or Nagas who may have given their name to Nagpur, had long been held in superstitious reverence.

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