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The legend of the two sisters: Ka Ngot and Ka Iam

The legend of the two sisters: Ka Ngot and Ka Iam

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Folk tales, culture, human existence are all intertwined in a single thread since time immemorial. One such Khasi legend is a tale about two sisters who transformed themselves into rivers to race against each other. This essay delineating various dimensions of the race between two sisters lays bare an intriguing facet of this cultural narrative.

By Dr. Rekha M Shangpliang

Folk tales and legends play an important role as narratives or social experiences that often reaffirm and restore the moral values and common loyalties of the group. The North-East indigenous communities are rich in folk culture that not only link us to the past but also help us to make meaning out of the chaos of human existence.

Like any tribal community, Khasi legends and folktales often depict the harmonious coexistence between the natural world and human world. The supernatural connotations of rivers and streams(Ki um, Ki wah) have occupied an important place in Khasi customary beliefs that they are the abode of ‘spirits’ and ‘deities’ which hover or roam around and inhabit such natural surroundings as a result of which they influence the daily life and existence of the people.

These so called ‘spirits’ and ‘deities’ are held with great awe and reverence because any failure on the part of humans to appease them would cause harm and injury and even death. It is pertinent to note here that the Khasis divide the realm of spirits into various categories according to their roles and functions towards mankind such as ‘Lei Lum’ or mountain spirits (here ‘lei’ being a prefix of the term ‘Blei’ or God), river spirits or ‘Lei wah’ and forest spirits or ‘LeiKhlaw’ etc.

This reminds one of a well-known Khasi legend “The race between the two rivers.”–Once upon a time U Lei Shyllong (deity of Shillong) had two beautiful daughters named Ka Ngot and Ka lam. They were twins and inseparable. One day they climbed the top of the Shillong Peak and gazed at the beauty of the landscape below. Ka Iam who was the more confident one of the two sisters challenged a race against her sister Ka Ngot.

The sisters decided the starting point of the race from the bottom of the Shillong Peak and the finishing line to the plains of Sylhet.  So the two sisters transformed themselves into two rivers and set out on the race. Ka Ngot silently meandered her way from the bottom of the hill through smooth valleys and slowly but steadily reached her destination only to find that her sister Ka ïam had not yet reached.

Ka Ngot in her dismay panicked and curled her way and took a sharp turn in search of her sister and legend has it that this particular sight was so spectacular and breath-taking as the silvery waters of Ka Ngot was gleaming in the sunlight like a necklace that till today this curved part of the river is known as Rupatylli or a silver necklace.

Ka ïam was delayed because being adventurous she went through a rocky terrain and lost track of time. Ka ïam on reaching the destination felt humiliated because she had already announced to all that victory would be hers. So in order to hide her humiliation she divided herself into five streams, namely KaUmtong, KaTorasa, KaPasbiria, KaKumarjani and KaDuwara to finally join the mighty Surma on its voyage to the sea. This legend exemplifies the spiritual significance attached to the rivers and their personification as deities that have strong connotations of reverence and respect to them even today.

Among the Khasi, water has fostered a strong sense of ‘we’ feeling among the community, thus becoming the main agent for the articulation of several relationships within the society. To cite an example, the practice of maintaining sacred groves (Law kyntang) and village forests (Khlaw shnong) in every village is an indicator that all natural resources such as trees, shrubs, any vegetational growth, water, streams, ponds that lie within the sacred grove or village forest belong to the community or the village and for that reason it becomes their duty to preserve and protect it.

It is also a common practice to have a common water source ‘um tyllong’ within the village which serves the need of the villagers for the supply of drinking water etc. in times of crisis and water scarcity. As such the ‘tyllong um’ becomes an important source of ‘we-feeling’ and an organizing principle among the community.

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Water- the tasteless, odourless, colourless liquid is socommonplace to us in our everyday life that we often overlook the fact that we use it more often than as a biological necessity. Not only humans but no life forms can survive without it. Life itself is said to have originated in water. This belief is not new. Many Holy Scriptures, creation myths and legends abound in narratives that tell us about water as the very essence and source of life. The RigVeda cites an important verse thus:

“Nether being nor non-being existed;

Neither air nor the firmament above it existed;

What was moving with such force?

Under whose care?

Was it in the deep and fathomless water?”

The Bible in the Old testament in the Book of Genesis 1:2 mentions:

“The Earth was without form and darkness was on the face of the deep,and the spirit of God was hovering over the face of the waters”.

Similarly, references from the AlQuran translated by A. Ali reads as follows:

“It is He who created the heavens and the Earth, in six spans and His control was on the waters of life”.

Thus it is here that we begin to understand how nature is used as a ‘cultural space’ expressed through its representation and invocation in myths, legends, beliefs and superstitions.

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