The Legend Of The Iei Tree
: Folk-tales Of The Khasis
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, which
appear from a distance like a bit of British landscape. 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.