Khasi:The Legend of the Iei Tree

This story is part of the Khasi Folktales unit. Story source: Folk-Tales of the Khasis by Mrs. K. U. Rafy (1920).

The Legend of the Iei Tree

Some eight or ten miles to the west of the town of Shillong is seen a prominent hill range, a place much renowned in Khasi folk-lore. It is known as the Mountain of the Iei Tree and is a very romantic spot even in the present day, although divested of its former reputed glory. Its slopes are studded with thriving villages and cultivated fields and at its foot the river Umiam (the Wailing River) curves its dolorous way to the plains, at times leaping wildly over rugged precipices, scattering its spray in the sunshine, at other times lying almost motionless in the bosom of a valley, reflecting the beauty of myriad trees in its clear depths.

According to tradition, this hill, and the land around it, was the most fertile land in the world; broad acres lay under cultivation and its forests yielded the largest and most valuable timber. It was also famous for the grandeur of its scenery; fairies and nymphs were said to have their haunts in its green glades, birds of lovely hues lived there and made their nests amid flowers of sweetest scent; there happy maidens loved to roam, and there young lovers met and plighted their troth. Such was the Mountain of the Iei Tree in the days of the Ancients.

On the summit of the mountain there grew a tree of fabulous dimensions — the Iei Tree — which dwarfed even the largest trees in forests. It was of a species unique, such as mankind had never known; its thick outspreading branches were so clustered with leaves that the light of the sun could not penetrate through and the earth beneath its shadow became barren and unfruitful.

The fame of the tree spread abroad and people from many lands came to see it, but there were none who dared to cut a twig or to scratch its bark, as it was commonly believed that the tree was the abode of some unknown and powerful god, to offend whom would bring destruction.

The Iei Tree continued to grow through many ages, and year by year its malevolent shadow spread further and further, and the area of the barren land increased season by season until at last it became a serious menace to the world, and the very existence of mankind was at stake. People could no longer live on the slopes of the mountain, cultivation became impossible for many miles around, and the one-time prosperous families had to wander abroad as homeless fugitives, fleeing from the ever-pursuing, ever-threatening shadow. The pathways and pleasant nooks whence of old had echoed the merry voices and laughter of children were now become the lurking-places of dragons and the prowling-grounds of savage beasts whither no man ventured to roam.

A Durbar of all mankind was summoned to consider the situation and to devise some plan to save the world from its impending doom. After long and solemn deliberations, it was resolved to mobilise a party of the bravest and most skilled wood-cutters to go into the mountain to hew down the Iei Tree so as to admit the sunlight once more to the earth. In the course of time the wood-cutters came and entered the mountain, defying all danger and risking the possible wrath of the unknown god whom they believed to haunt the tree.

When they reached the Iei Tree, they plied their axes with skill and toiled vigorously till night came on, but the wood was so hard and so tough they only succeeded in cutting a little below the bark that day. They consoled themselves, however, by reflecting that so far there had appeared no signs of anger from the unknown god forasmuch as no misfortunes had befallen them, so they retired to rest, sanguine that by perseverance their gigantic task would in time be accomplished.

Next morning they returned early to their work, but, to their consternation, they saw that the incisions made by them the day before at the cost of so much labour were obliterated, leaving the trunk of the tree as solid and unscathed as before. Many of the wood-cutters were so superstitious that they feared to approach the tree again for they were now confirmed in their fear that the place was enchanted, but when their more stoical comrades reminded them of the great peril in which mankind stood, they plucked up courage and for another day they toiled laboriously, only to find their work obliterated next morning.

As no personal harm had befallen any of them, the wood-cutters determined to continue their attack, but no matter how patiently they worked during the day, the tree would be healed up in the night. They grew more and more mystified and discouraged, and the strain of living in that weird region was becoming intolerable. At last, they decided to return to their fellow-men, preferring to endure the foreseen doom of the shadowed world rather than face the unknown and mysterious terrors of the land of the Iei Tree.

As they sat, gloomy and disconsolate, brooding on their defeat, a little grey bird — Ka Phreit, the Khasi wren — came, chirruping and twittering, close to the wood-cutters, and she began to talk to them, urging them to keep up their courage, as she had come to help them. Now, in spite of their spiritless condition, the woodsmen could not help laughing to hear Ka Phreit — the smallest of all the birds — so impudently offering to help them — the picked wood-cutters of the world — to cut down a tree. But when the wren saw them laughing, she chirruped and twittered still louder, and drew still nearer, and with great excitement she said, “No doubt you are great and wise, for you have been chosen for a great task. You are unable to perform it, yet when I come to offer assistance, you laugh at me. It is true that I am the smallest of all the birds, but that has not hindered me from learning the secrets of this forest, which you must also learn before you can cut down the Iei Tree.”

On hearing the sage words of the wren, the woodmen felt ashamed for having laughed at her, seeing that she meant nothing but goodwill towards them, so they got up and saluted her, and begged her pardon, and asked her to teach them the secret of the forest.

Thus mollified, Ka Phreit informed them that the tree was not healed by any supernatural agency as they had supposed, but that it was U Khla, the big tiger, who came every night to lick the tree and to heal it for he did not want it to be cut down as its shadow made it possible for him to prowl for prey in safety.

This news cheered the wood-cutters’ hearts, and they lost no time in beginning another attack on the Iei Tree, and when night fell, instead of carrying their axes home as before, they planted them in the tree edge outward.

When the tiger came to lick the tree that night (all unconscious that the wren had disclosed the secret to the men), the sharp blades cut his tongue, and he fled in terror, bleeding and howling, and never more returned to hinder the work of the wood-cutters, who, now that they were able to carry on their task undisturbed, succeeded in time in cutting down the Iei Tree.

Thus Ka Phreit, the smallest of all the birds, helped mankind to bring back sunshine and prosperity to the world.

(1300 words)

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