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.