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U Thlen The Snake-vampire






Source: Folk-tales Of The Khasis

U Thlen is one of the legendary Khasi gods, whose worship is limited to
a few clans and families. From participation in it all right-thinking
Khasis recoil with loathing and horror, inasmuch as it involves
the perpetration of crimes, for this god can only be propitiated by
offerings of human sacrifices, with many revolting and barbaric rites.

The clans who are reputed to be the devotees and worshippers of the
Thlen are regarded with aversion and fear throughout the country, and
to them are attributed many kinds of atrocities, such as the kidnapping
of children, murders and attempted murders, and many are the tales of
hair-breadth escapes from the clutches of these miscreants, who are
known as Nongshohnohs. Within quite recent times murders have been
committed which are still shrouded in mystery, but which are said
to have indications that the victims were killed for the purpose of
Thlen sacrifice.

The following folk-tale purports to give an account of the origin
and propagation of U Thlen, the most remorseless and cruel of all
the Khasi deities.

According to tradition the Hima (state) of Cherra was, in olden times,
the haunt of many famous Bleis (gods) who dominated the lives of
men. These deities were said to dwell in certain localities, which
in consequence came to be recognised as sacred places, and frequently
to be called after the names of the Bleis. Foremost among these gods
was U Mawlong Siem, and the hill where he was supposed to dwell is
called after his name to the present day, and the inhabitants of
certain villages still offer sacrifices to him.

In common with mankind, U Mawlong Siem is described as having a
family, who, also in common with mankind, took pleasure in dancing
and festivity. It is said that people sometimes hear the sound of
revelry and the beating of drums within the mountain, supposed to
be the drums of U Mawlong Siem beaten to the accompaniment of the
dancing of his children, the sound of which invariably portends the
death of a Siem or some great personage.

The only one of his family whose name and history have been
transmitted was a daughter called Ka Kma Kharai, which signifies one
that roams about in trenches or hidden nooks. She was well known in
the Blei-world, and she possessed the power of assuming whatever form
she pleased. She often assumed the form of a woman and mingled with
mankind without anybody suspecting her identity. Many of the Bleis
sought her in marriage, but U Mawlong Siem, her father, would never
give his consent, lest his prestige be lowered among the Bleis.

There was one suitor whom Ka Kma Kharai specially favoured. He was
the god of Umwai, but her father forbade the union so sternly as
to dispel all the hopes of the lovers. This so angered the young
goddess that henceforth she rebelled openly against her father, and
by way of retaliation she encouraged the attentions of strange and
undesirable lovers.

When it was discovered that she was with child, she fled from her home,
fearing the wrath of her father, and put herself under the protection
of her maternal uncle, who lived in the Pomdoloi cave, and was one
of the famous dragons, or Yak Jakors of the country. In this cave a
son was born to her, who proved to be a monster of hideous aspect,
having the form of a snake and the characteristics of a vampire,
who could be appeased only when fed with human blood. This monster
they called U Thlen.

Unlike his mother, U Thlen could not transform himself into any
likeness but that of a snake, but he had power to diminish or to
enlarge his size at will. Sometimes he appeared so small as to be
no bigger than a string of fine thread, at other times he expanded
himself to such dimensions that he could swallow a man bodily.

In those days there was much intercourse between the Bleis and
mankind. The latter were privileged to attend the Iew-blei--the fair of
the Bleis--at Lynghingkhongkhen, the way to which passed the Pomdoloi
cave, and many unwary and unprotected travellers fell a prey to the
greed of U Thlen and his associates.

The commonest mode by which these poor unfortunates were lured to their
doom was through the blandishments of Ka Kma Kharai, who approached
them in the form of a woman merchant, and dazzled them with the
brilliancy of the jewelry she offered for sale. She refrained from
killing her captives on occasions, but induced them by promises of
riches and immunity to pledge themselves to the services of U Thlen,
her son. To such as these she gave a magic ring, known in ancient lore
as the Yngkuid Ring (Sati Yngkuid) which was believed to possess magic
that enabled the owners of the ring to obtain all the desires of their
hearts, but this magic was dormant until the owners fulfilled their
obligations to U Thlen and brought him human victims to feed upon.

The method by which U Yak Jakor captured his victims was to waylay
lonely travellers and to club them to death. U Thlen himself, when
he grew old enough, also hunted men to death, so that between the
three murderers the ravages made upon mankind were becoming grievous
and intolerable.

Mankind sought divinations and offered sacrifices to the gods for the
cessation of these atrocities, upon which a Durbar of the Bleis was
called. U Mawlong Siem, who was a powerful Blei and a blood-relation
of the murderers, overruled the Durbar, declaring that no authority
could deprive the Bleis, or the demons, of any power they possessed,
be it for good or for evil; but to mitigate the distress of mankind
a decree was issued, restricting the number of people to be devoured
to half the number of captives. If U Thlen captured two victims, one
was to be released, if he captured ten, five were to be released. It
transpired, however, that this decree helped but little to allay the
sufferings of mankind, for murders continued at an appalling rate.

Mankind again sought divination and took counsel together, and it was
made evident that the only one who could successfully help them was U
Suidnoh (the fleeting demon), an erratic and insignificant being who
haunted the forest of Lait-rngew to the north of Cherra. The Khasis
hitherto had never recognised him as worthy of homage, but they went
to offer him sacrifices then, according to the divinations. U Suidnoh
volunteered to rescue them, but affirmed that the Snake could never be
overcome without the sanction of a Blei, and inasmuch as the Bleis of
the Cherra Hima had already refused their aid, he urged them to go and
sacrifice to U 'Lei Shillong--the god of the Shillong mountain--and to
invoke his aid and win his favour. So mankind offered sacrifices to U
'Lei Shillong, and received his sanction to wage war against U Thlen.

U Suidnoh, equipped in all his strength, went forth to Pomdoloi and
ordered the Khasis to bring to him many fat pigs and goats. These
he killed and carried regularly to feed the Thlen in the cave, and
this was the manner in which he made his offering. He bored a large
hole in a rock roofing the cave, so that the carcases might be passed
down without being seen by U Thlen, and so he would not discover that
they were not human bodies. He assumed the voice and manner of a Thlen
worshipper and called out: "My uncle, I have brought my tribute, open
your mouth that I may feed you." U Thlen is described as being slothful
and sleepy, never rousing himself except to seek food. When he heard
the call from above he would shake himself and expand to a great size,
and open wide his jaws, into which the meat offering was thrust. In
this way mankind had respite for a time, and the hunting of men ceased.

It was evident, however, that they must resort to some other measures,
for it was impossible to continue to keep up the supply of fat
animals. The Khasis began to grumble at the extravagant proceedings of
U Suidnoh, but he always replied to their complaints with the words,
"Koit, koit," signifying that all was well. After a time he told them
to hire the services of U Ramhah, the giant, to assist him in his
final struggle against the vampire. When U Ramhah came he bade him
build a smelting-house near the cave, and to make a pair of giant
tongs, and such was the strength of U Ramhah that it only took him
one day to build the smelting-house and to make the giant tongs. Next
day U Suidnoh told him to heat a large piece of iron, and to bring
it when it was red-hot in the big tongs to the rock on the top of the
cave. When this was done U Suidnoh called out according to his custom:
"My uncle, I have brought my tribute, open your mouth that I may feed
you"; so the Thlen shook himself and expanded his body to a gigantic
size, and opened his jaws for the offering, whereupon the red-hot iron
was thrust in. Upon this there followed the most terrible contortions
of the Thlen's body, as he tossed about, writhing in his death agony,
till the earth shook so violently that U Suidnoh and U Ramhah swooned
from the concussion. When the disturbance subsided, and they had
revived, they looked into the cave and found U Thlen lying dead.

U Suidnoh sounded a big drum to summon the people together, and great
jubilation and dancing took place when it was announced that their
enemy was dead. From that time the Khasis have offered sacrifices to
U Suidnoh, and he is held in great honour.

The people held a council to consider how to dispose of the body of
the Thlen, and it was decided that to make their triumph complete
it was better to prepare a feast and to eat the body of U Thlen,
so the carcase was dragged out of the cave and was divided on a flat
rock into two portions. One portion was given to the people of the
plains from the East, to be cooked after their manner, the other was
given to the Khasis from the hills and the West to be cooked after
their manner. The marks of the axe are said to be seen on the rock
to this day, and the place is called Dain Thlen (the cutting of the
Thlen). The hole which was bored by U Suidnoh in the top of the cave
is also said to be visible to this day.

It happened that more people came to the feast from the plains than
from the hills; moreover, they were accustomed to eat eels and snakes,
so they considered the Thlen meat very palatable and savoury. They
ate the whole of their portion and departed to their villages happily,
and they were never afterwards troubled by Thlens. On the other hand
the Khasis were unused to the flesh of reptiles, and they found the
Thlen meat very unsavoury and strange-flavoured, so that when their
feasting was done, a great portion of the meat remained uneaten.

This caused no little perplexity, for it was deemed possible for the
Thlen to come and reanimate the unconsumed portions of his body, so
they kindled a big fire to burn all the fragments of meat to ashes,
after which they gave a glad shout, believing themselves for ever
safe from the ravages of U Thlen.

A certain woman, whose son had neglected his duties and stayed away
from the feast, was sorely troubled in her mind, fearing that some ill
luck might befall him, and a curse come on the family, because her son
had wilfully disregarded the feast of conquest. While helping to gather
the fragments of meat for burning, she surreptitiously hid a piece in
the fold of her dress to take home to her son. When she reached her
house she put the meat away in a covered vessel pending her son's
arrival. When the son returned he brought news of many misfortunes
which he had met that day, and particularly of the loss of much money,
which loss he attributed to his neglect of the important feast;
but when his mother told him how she had contrived to bring him a
little of the Thlen meat, he was somewhat cheered, hoping that by this
participation he might be helped to retrieve his fallen fortunes. To
their dismay, when they uncovered the vessel, there was no meat left,
only a tiny live snake wriggling about. They were preparing to destroy
it when the little snake began to speak to them in their own tongue,
beseeching them not to kill him. He said he was U Thlen come back to
life, and that he was there by the decrees of the Bleis to bring them
good fortune for as long as they gave him harbour and tribute.

It was a great temptation, coming as it did, when they had met
with great losses, so, without thinking much of the consequences,
they allowed the Thlen to live, harbouring it in secret without the
knowledge of outsiders.

When U Thlen had fully regained his vitality, he demanded human
sacrifices from them, which made them shudder with horror. But U
Thlen was relentless, and threatened to devour them as a family, if
they did not comply with his request, and when they saw one member of
the family after another beginning to languish, fear for their lives
drove them to hunt their fellow-men and to murder them, to propitiate U
Thlen and to keep his good favour. Gradually U Thlen cast his sway over
other families also, and won them to give him tribute. As his devotees
increased he reproduced himself mysteriously, so that in place of one
Thlen living in a cave where everybody knew him to be, there arose
many Thlens, living concealed in the houses of the Nongshohnohs who,
to preserve their own safety and the goodwill of U Thlen, have become
men-hunters and murderers, of whom the Khasis live in deadly fear to
this day.





Next: How The Dog Came To Live With Man

Previous: U Biskurom



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