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The Legend Of U Raitong The Khasi Orpheus

Source: Folk-tales Of The Khasis

A few miles to the north of Shillong, the chief town of the Province
of Assam, there is a fertile and pleasant hill known as the Hill of
Raitong, which is one of the most famous spots in ancient folk-lore,
and for which is claimed the distinction of being the place where
the custom of suttee--wife-sacrifice of the Hindus--originated. The
legend runs as follows:

Many ages ago there lived a great Siem (Chief) who ruled over
large territories and whose sceptre swayed many tribes and clans of
people. As befitted such a great Siem, his consort, the Mahadei, was
a woman of great beauty: her figure was erect and lissom and all her
movements easy and graceful as the motion of the palms in the summer
breeze; her hair was long and flowing, enfolding her like a wreathing
cloud; her teeth were even as the rims of a cowrie; her lips were red
as the precious coral and fragrant as the flower of Lasubon; and her
face was fair like unto the face of a goddess. Strange to relate,
the names of this famous royal couple have not been transmitted
to posterity.

It came to pass that affairs of the State necessitated the absence of
the Siem from home for a protracted period. He appointed deputies to
govern the village and to control his household during the interval,
while the Mahadei, who was unto him as the apple of his eye, was placed
under the joint guardianship of her own and his own family. When he
had made all satisfactory arrangements he took his departure and went
on his long journey accompanied by the good wishes of his people.

Among the subjects of the Siem was a poor beggar lad, who was looked
upon as being half-witted, for he spent his days roaming about the
village clothed in filthy rags, his head and face covered with ashes
like a wandering fakir. He never conversed with any of the villagers,
but kept muttering to himself incessantly, lamenting his own forlorn
and friendless condition.

His name was U Raitong. Formerly he had been a happy and well-cared-for
lad, surrounded and loved by many relatives and kindred, until a
terrible epidemic swept through the village and carried away all
his family and left him orphaned and alone, without sustenance and
without a relative to stand by his bedside in time of sickness or to
perform the funeral rites over his body when he died. Overwhelmed
by grief and sorrow, U Raitong vowed a rash vow that all the days
of his life should be spent in mourning the death of his kindred;
thus it was that he walked about the village lamenting to himself and
wearing ragged clothes. His neighbours, not knowing about the vow,
thought that sorrow had turned his head, so they treated him as an
idiot and pitied him and gave him alms.

His condition was so wretched and his clothes so tattered that he
became a proverb in the country, and to this day, when the Khasis
wish to describe one fallen into extreme poverty and wretchedness,
they say, "as poor as U Raitong."

At night time, however, U Raitong considered himself free from the
obligations of his rash vow, and when he retired to his rickety cabin
on the outskirts of the village he divested himself of his rags and
arrayed himself in fine garments, and would play for hours on his
sharati (flute), a bamboo instrument much in vogue among the Khasis
to this day. He was a born musician, and constant practice had made
him an accomplished player, and never did flute give forth sweeter
and richer music than did the sharati of U Raitong as he played by
stealth in the hours of the night when all the village was asleep.

The melodies he composed were so enthralling that he often became
oblivious to all his surroundings and abandoned himself to the charms
of his own subtle music. His body swayed and trembled with pure joy
and delight as he gave forth strain after strain from his sharati;
yet so cautious was he that none of his neighbours suspected that he
possessed any gifts, for he feared to let it be known lest it should
interfere with the performance of his vow.

It happened one night that the Mahadei was restless and unable to
sleep, and as she lay awake she heard the faint strains of the most
sweet music wafted on the air. She imagined that it was coming from
the fairies who were said to inhabit certain parts of the forest,
and she listened enraptured until the sounds ceased. When it stopped,
a feeling of great loneliness came over her, so overawing that she
could not summon enough courage to speak about the strange music she
had heard. She went about her household duties with her thoughts far
away and longing for the night to come in the hope that the music
would be wafted to her again.

The following night, and for many successive nights, the Mahadei lay
awake to listen, and was always rewarded by hearing the soft sweet
strains of some musical instrument floating on the air till she
imagined the room to be full of some beautiful beings singing the
sweetest melodies that human ears ever heard. When it ceased, as it
always did before daybreak, the feeling of desolation was intense, till
her whole mind became absorbed with thoughts of the mysterious music.

The fascination grew until at last it became overpowering and she could
no longer resist the desire to know whence the sounds proceeded. She
crept stealthily from her room one night, and following the direction
of the strains, she walked through the village and was surprised to
find that the music emerged from the dilapidated hut of U Raitong.

The heart of the Mahadei was touched, for she thought that the fairies
in tenderness and pity came to cheer and to comfort the poor idiot
with their music, and she stood there to listen. The strains which
she could hear but faintly in her own room now broke upon her in all
their fulness and richness till her whole being was ravished by them.

Before dawn the sounds suddenly ceased, and the Mahadei retraced her
steps stealthily and crept back to her room without being observed by
any one. After this she stole out of her house every night and went
to listen to what she believed to be fairy-music outside the hut of
U Raitong.

One night, when the power of the music was stronger than usual, the
Mahadei drew near and peeped through a crevice in the door, and to her
astonishment, instead of the fairies she had pictured, she saw that
it was U Raitong, the supposed idiot, who was playing on his sharati,
but a Raitong so changed from the one she had been accustomed to see
about the village that she could scarcely believe her own eyes. He
was well and tastefully dressed and his face was alight with joy,
while his body moved with graceful motions as he swayed with rapture
in harmony with the rhythm of his wild music. She stood spellbound, as
much moved by the sight that met her eyes as she had been by the charm
of the music, and, forgetful of her marriage vows and her duty to her
absent husband, she fell deeply and irrevocably in love with U Raitong.

Time passed, and the Mahadei continued to visit the hut of U Raitong
by stealth, drawn by her passionate love for him even more than by
the fascination of his sharati. At first U Raitong was unaware that he
was being spied upon, but when he discovered the Mahadei in his hut,
he was greatly troubled, and tried to reason with her against coming
with as much sternness as was becoming in one of his class to show to
one so much above him in rank. But she overruled all his scruples,
and before long the intensity of her love for him and the beauty of
her person awoke similar feelings in him and he fell a victim to her
wicked and unbridled passion.

The months rolled on and the time for the return of the Siem
was advancing apace. People began to discuss the preparations for
celebrating his return, and every one evinced the most lively interest
except the Mahadei. It was noticed that she, the most interested
person of all, appeared the most unconcerned, and people marvelled
to see her so cold and indifferent; but one day the reason became
clear when it was announced that a son had been born to the Mahadei
and that her guardians had locked her up in one of the rooms of the
court, pending the arrival of the Siem. She offered no resistance and
put forward no justification, but when questioned as to the identity
of her child's father she remained resolutely silent.

When the Siem arrived and heard of his wife's infidelity he was bowed
down with shame and grief, and vowed that he would enforce the extreme
penalty of the law on the man who had sullied her honour, but neither
persuasion nor coercion could extract from the Mahadei his name.

It was necessary for the well-being of the State, as well as for the
satisfaction of the Siem, that the culprit should be found; so the
Siem sent a mandate throughout his territory calling upon all the
male population, on penalty of death, to attend a great State Durbar,
when the Siem and his ministers would sit in judgement to discover
the father of the child of the faithless Mahadei.

Never in the history of Durbars was seen such a multitude gathered
together as was seen on that day when all the men, both young and
old, appeared before the Siem to pass through the test laid down by
him. When all had assembled, the Siem ordered a mat to be brought
and placed in the centre and the babe laid upon it; after which he
commanded every man to walk round the mat in procession and, as he
passed, to offer a plantain to the child, inasmuch as it was believed
that the instincts of the babe would lead him to accept a plantain
from the hand of his own father and from no other.

The long procession filed past one by one, but the babe gave no sign,
and the Siem and his ministers were baffled and perplexed. They
demanded to know what man had absented himself, but when the roll
was called the number was complete. Some one in the throng shouted
the name of U Raitong, at which many laughed, for no one deemed him
to be sane; other voices said mockingly, "Send for him"; others said
"Why trouble about such a witless creature? He is but as a dog or a
rat." Thus the Durbar was divided, but the ministers, unwilling to
pass over even the most hapless, decided to send for him and to put
him through the test like the other men.

When the Siem's messengers arrived at the hut they found U Raitong
just as usual, dressed in filthy rags and muttering to himself,
his face covered with ashes. He arose immediately and followed the
men to the place of Durbar, and as he came people pitied him, for he
looked so sad and forlorn and defenceless that it seemed a shame to
put such an one through the test. A plantain was put into his hand
and he was told to walk past the mat. As soon as the babe saw him he
began to crow with delight and held out his hands for the plantain,
but he took no notice of the well-dressed people who crowded round.

There was a loud commotion when the secret was discovered, and the
Siem looked ashamed and humiliated to find that one so unseemly and
poor was proved to be the lover of his beautiful wife. The assembly
were awed at the spectacle, and many of them raised their voices in
thanksgiving to the deity whom they considered to have directed the
course of events and brought the guilty to judgement.

The Siem commanded his ministers to pronounce judgement, and they with
one accord proclaimed that he should be burned to death, without the
performance of any rites and that no hand should gather his bones for
burial. In this decision all the throng acquiesced, for such was the
law and the decree.

U Raitong received the verdict with indifference as one who had
long known and become reconciled to his fate, but he asked one boon,
and that was permission to build his own pyre and play a dirge for
himself. The Siem and the people were astonished to hear him speak in
clear tones instead of the blubbering manner in which he had always
been known to speak. Nobody raised an objection to his request, so
he received permission to build his own pyre and to play his own dirge.

Accordingly on the morrow U Raitong arose early and gathered a great
pile of dry firewood and laid it carefully till the pyre was larger
than the pyres built for the cremation of Siems and the great ones
of the land. After finishing the pyre he returned to his lonely hut
and divested himself of his filthy rags and arrayed himself in the
fine garments which he used to wear in the hours of the night when he
abandoned himself to music; he then took his sharati in his hand and
sallied forth to his terrible doom. As he marched towards the pyre
he played on his sharati, and the sound of his dirge was carried by
the air to every dwelling in the village, and so beautiful was it and
so enchanting, so full of wild pathos and woe, that it stirred every
heart. People flocked after him, wondering at the changed appearance
of U Raitong and fascinated by the marvellous and mysterious music such
as they had never before heard, which arrested and charmed every ear.

When the procession reached the pyre, U Raitong stooped and lighted
the dry logs without a shudder or a delay. Then once more he began
to play on his sharati and marched three times around the pyre, and
as he marched he played such doleful and mournful melodies that his
hearers raised their voices in a loud wail in sympathy, so that the
wailing and the mourning at the pyre of the unfortunate U Raitong was
more sincere and impressive than the mourning made for the greatest
men in the country.

At the end of his third round U Raitong suddenly stopped his music,
planted his sharati point downward in the earth, and leaped upon the
burning pyre and perished.

While these events were taking place outside, the Mahadei remained
a close prisoner in her room, and no whisper of what was transpiring
was allowed to reach her. But her heart was heavy with apprehension
for her lover, and when she heard the notes of a sharati she knew
it could be none other than U Raitong, and that the secret had been
discovered and that he was being sent to his doom.

As before, the notes of the sharati seemed to call her irresistibly,
and with almost superhuman strength she burst open the door of her
prison. Great as was her excitement and her desire to get away, she
took precautions to cover her escape. Seeing a string of cowries with
which her child had been playing, she hastily fastened them to the
feet of a kitten that was in the room, so that whenever the kitten
moved the noise of the cowries jingling on the floor of the room
would lead those outside to think that it was the Mahadei herself
still moving about; then she sped forth to the hill in the direction
of the sound of the sharati and the wailing. When she arrived at
the pyre, U Raitong had just taken his fatal leap. She pushed her
way resolutely through the dense and wailing crowd, and before any
one could anticipate her action she too had leaped into the flaming
furnace to die by the side of her lover.

The Siem alone of all the people in the village had withstood the
fascination of the dirge. He sat in his chamber morose and outraged,
brooding on his calamity. Just when the Mahadei was leaping into the
flames a strange thing happened in the Siem's chamber--the head-cloth
(tapmoh) of his wife was blown in a mysterious manner so that it fell
at his feet although there was not enough breeze to cause a leaf to
rustle. When the Siem saw it he said, "By this token my wife must be
dead." Still hearing sounds coming from her room, he tried to take
no heed of the omen. The foreboding, however, grew so strong that he
got up to investigate, and when he opened the door of the room where
the Mahadei had been imprisoned he found it empty, save for a kitten
with a string of cowries fastened to its feet.

He knew instinctively whither she had gone, and in the hope of averting
further scandal he hurried in her wake towards the pyre on the hill,
but he was too late. When he arrived on the scene he found only her
charred remains.

The news of the unparalleled devotion of the Mahadei to her lover
spread abroad throughout the land and stirred the minds of men and
women in all countries. The chaste wives of India, when they heard
of it, said one to another, "We must not allow the unholy passion
of an unchaste woman to become more famous than the sacred love of
holy matrimony. Henceforth we will offer our bodies on the altar
of death, on the pyre of our husbands, to prove our devotion and
fidelity." Thus originated the custom of suttee (wife-sacrifice)
in many parts of India.

The Khasis were so impressed by the suitability of the sharati to
express sorrow and grief that they have adopted that instrument ever
since to play their dirges at times of cremation.

The sharati of U Raitong, which he planted in the earth as he was
about to leap to his doom, took root, and a clump of bamboos grew from
it, distinguishable from all other bamboos by having their branches
forking downwards. It is commonly maintained to this day that there
are clumps of bamboos forking downwards to be found in plenty on the
Hill of Raitong.

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