By transporting us to a world that is full of uncanny, strange yet infinitely interesting occurrences, Genuica Majaw’s essay makes us informed about many less explored dimensions of Khasi life and lived realities.
It was amidst the pandemic that I came across such fascinating tales about were-tigers or Khlaphuli as we the Khasi calls them. I was helping a junior of mine with a field work, for her dissertation, and because of the restriction in inter-district travelling we had to make do with gathering tales from old women-folk in our very own locality. My aunt (maternal uncle’s wife) narrated wonderful tales about the were-tigers from her village, Mawsaw, near Mawkyrwat. My aunt was closely associated with these two were-tigers in her younger days. One was a Khlaphuli and the other was a Nangkhruk(female were-tiger). The tale of Iawrit Rakhe of Mawsaw village:
“When Iawrit Rakhe’s tiger would hunt at night, the next morning she would be left with an unpleasant feeling and she would be too tired to carry on any work. Her stomach would be too full. Iawrit would tell us that it was because the khla(tiger) would hunt and eat. Her mouth would smell like blood and pieces of raw meat would be stuck to her teeth. Whether she was telling us the truth or not that we did not know. But somehow the whole village believed her as they had encountered her tiger once or twice. She would tell us that if we also wanted to turn into were-tigers we can share rice from the same Larew(plantain leaf) that she ate or bite the same cucumber with her. Iawrit did not transform only when she was asleep but she said that the tiger was always with her. They walk separately but sharing the same entity. The tiger somehow behaves as a guardian deity when she faced any challenges. The tiger would always hide elsewhere but when she was facing danger or enemies the tiger would appear by her side and she knew that it was her rngiew(spirit). They somehow share the same lifeline. She had gained this power to shape shift since she was a child even though their family are devout Christians belonging to the Protestant Church. Iawrit Rakhe told us that the Khla carry on their own rituals before going out on a hunt. If they wanted any cattle to consume the khla would ask the rngiew of the cattle owner for permission and if the cattle owner’s rngiew agreed to it, then, the khla of Iawrit Rakhe would consume her prey. The tigers would ask and not take their prey without consent. Once a cow went missing in the village and when the owners searched for the cow, Iawrit told them that their cow was being killed and consumed by the khla. She said that the khla had asked the owner’s rngiew for consent. I did not know how Iawrit was connected to the tigers. I came to believe that Iawrit could really turn into a tiger when I was just a child. On the occasion that my eldest sister was giving birth to her second child, Iawrit send us to Nah Bre’s house, to ask some thread which will be used to tie the umbilical cord of the newborn child, which is farther from where we stay. The path was not safe as it was surrounded with tree and forest covers from both sides. Iawrit send me along with Nah Bre(who is an adolescent at that time) and, upon knowing that we both hesitate to step out of the house for fear, told us that her tigers would be accompanying us. She said that while her eyes can still see them they will not hear or sense the tigers but when she is out of sight the tigers would be accompanying us. She however warned us beforehand not to scream if we heard the tigers else they would attack. While walking suddenly we heard the rustling of the leaves and the sounds of footsteps bnuipbnuipthrapthrap from both sides of the path. I learned that the sound of footsteps made by tigers is different from those made by humans. We were scared but we dared not scream for fear that the tigers might attack us. We screamed after reaching the house of Nah Bre. Since then I have always believed in the tales of tigermen.”
“Another person in our village who can turn into a tiger is KohSulin. Earlier people of our village would carry on their trade and get their daily supplies from Mawngap and in order to get there they would have to cross the WahRilang (Rilang River) and WahUmsala (Umsala River). Since there were no bridges during that time people would be stuck on the other side for many nights if there was heavy rainfall. KohSulin was the only person who could return to his village even when the rivers are flooded. He would ride on the tiger’s back while the tiger swam to ferry him across the river. One day he went to Mawngap and had to spend the night there. It was unfortunate that the house owner who rented him the room was the menshohnoh(A worshipper of the serpentine demon U Thlen- who devours on humans by taking away their Rngiew which is the essence of human personality). They rented him a room which was separated from the main cottage and this room can be locked only from outside. KohSulin asked the owner not to lock the door from outside as it was against the custom of his village to lock a person up.
The house owner complied with his wishes. KohSulin however, could not sleep that night as he heard many people are gathering in the house-owner’s cottage. He suspected that they were all waiting to murder him. The workers of the house owner had surrounded the small room, which KohSulin was sleeping, around midnight. They had the intention of murdering him in the dead of night. KohSulin having been aware of the condition he was forced into summoned his tiger spirits and his two tigers emerged and lie down on the cot with him. When the menshohnoh opened the door to his room, the tigers roared so loud that it made the ill-intentioned people to turn on their heels and run. The next morning the house-owner apologized to KohSulin begging him not to reveal to the people that she is a menshohnoh. She offered KohSulin many riches if he can keep her secret. KohSulin agreed to keep the secret if the menshohnoh also promised not to kill any more humans to feed the Thlen from that day onwards. Whether the menshohnoh kept the promise or not, it was not known. KohSulin married a woman of Nongstoin village and moved there. While visiting his native village he would always visit our house since we belong to the same clan and are also closely related to one another. When KohSulin passed away, word was sent to our village immediately. On the first night after his death KohSulin’s tiger visited our house and laid down in the area where firewood was kept. After dark that night my father asked me to get some firewood from outside, but on opening the door, I found that a tiger was lying there and his eyes were as big as torchlights that shone in the dark. I told my father that a tiger was outside and father told me to not disturb him as it was KohSulin who came to pay them his last visit. The following night the tiger visited KohSulin’s younger sister’s house. They also knew right away that it was KohSulin who paid them his last visit in his tiger form. On the third night onwards KohSulin’s tiger was no longer heard or seen anywhere. This made me believe that the rngiew of the tiger men also wander around for three nights after his death and would leave after the laitmiet(it was customary for the Khasi to wait for three nights before cremating or burying the dead)”.
These tales, though they can be found mentioned in my friend’s dissertation, kept creeping into the long winding paths of my mind. So often they paid a visit that I wanted to retell them again and again. My aunt would kept these tales hidden in the deep recesses of her mind and when there was time to sit down and have a chat she would recollect her thoughts and tell so many more stories like these to us if we asked her.
Credits to K. Kharbani and S. Iawphniaw
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Hailing from the beautiful hills of Meghalaya, Genuica did her MA on Folkloristics and English Literature from the North-Eastern Hills University. Her interest in culture, traditions, myths and everything that falls under the umbrella of folklore arose out of her love for her own culture as well as a pinch of curiosity. A lover of nature, cats, metal music and the cosmos.