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8. U Rngiew–The Dark One

Translation and Notes © Janet Hujon, CC BY 4.0 https://doi.org/10.11647/OBP.0137.08

Scenes from myth along with multiple images of terror and menace are used to describe how the twisted nature of evil wreaks moral havoc. Here is a place that is dark and forbidding where the deadening sense of miasmic heat and torpor is inescapable. Images of sick elephants tottering helplessly into murky swamps and serpents coiling around every tree add to the atmosphere of malaise and prowling treachery. Nightmares peopling the Khasi imagination are given free rein, like the pursuing “hounds released by their Mother Fear”. The ruling deity and embodiment of all evil is The Dark One—U Rngiew—shape-shifter par excellence possessing the ability to lure and entrap.

The Dark One1

Far from the city where humans dwell

A forest grows where the Dark One lives

Here the face of the Moon is dark

Here the eyes of the owl burn bright

Eternal are the clouds that shroud

This hometown of the Nongshohnoh2

Here it was since Time began

That Evil came to dam a swamp

In tottered elephants seizured, sick

Darkly heaved the ponderous ooze

With kindling from Satanic Fires3

The prowler lights his furtive path

A squelchy mire which smoke calls home

Where toxic fumes douse glowing fires

Here one finds there’s no escape

From the dragging-down oppressive heat

Indecision with her lonely face

Has feet imprisoned in the clay

Everywhere the air reeks stench

Serpents wrapped round every tree

In every chasm every gulf

Evil’s jaw a trap full primed

Oh you who throng the vault of heaven… listen feel and wonder why

An uproar churns in Earth’s dark belly

Feline offspring his face soot-black, knocks and begs from door to door,

Shape-shifter from the Hill of Death

A stag one moment, a tiger the next

Stampedes wild bison which scatter confused,

A goddess at times, a monster at others

The day before a strand of pearls, today a serpent’s coil

Hound with flung-bone pinion in his throat

Transforms with ease to a docile lamb

His coat is soft… so tender-soft

His words beguiling gentle flow

Yet herded to the pen at dusk

Straight he streaks to the deepest cave

The Rakot’s bones hard limestone layers

Her blood congealed to coal,

Khyrwang-draped U Ramshandi,4

His mighty club heaves to anoint

Head over heels his victims roll

Roars the abyss in vast applause!

A black wind rises in the forest

With every breath of the Serpent King

From shadow worlds he drags down low

Ka Shritin-tin, Ka Mistidian

Along with seizure-blighted vultures

Oh what these spectres! Ram Thakur!5

Meanwhile Ka Lapubon, Lotikoina

Sing their spells in the dead of night

Release caged torment long confined

In the prison owned by the King of Death,

Words they use to hook to bait

Nine times over Truth is twisted, turning cartwheels without end

An unblemished Name is a mighty shield

Protects the unkempt destitute6

“God of Truth”—“The Nine Above”

“The Words of Those Who Came Before”,7

While God calls man to heaven above

U Rngiew drags him down to Hell’s Nine Tiers

Rogue elephant U Pablei Lawbah,8

Trumpets long from forest fringes

The untouched beauty of the moon

Forever bruised and blemished since

The medium’s speech a bewildering babble

Forked the tongue of this Red-Crested One

Towards him sludges the Umsohsun9

Turbid with the rush of rot

The human face tough-skinned, dull-browed

A mask for evil locked within

The red-headed god lifts to his lips

A lavish feast of toads and frogs

The nine clear springs will soon run dry10

And so will haunting pools of tears

Demonic howls will rent the skies

A clamorous din will swell the earth,

When man ingests all that he can

That day will be his last on earth

Kyllang, Symper of might profound11

Will either drown or float away

The hardest flint of stubborn mould

Will detonate in a firestorm

The inferno consumes Bah-Bo Bah-Kong12

The Black Serpent King is drenched in red!

His peeling skin with ease sloughs off

Child of change he now can fly

Alone he circles shadowy lands

And then at last a fire-serpent

Wicked heart of toxic envy

Burns reduces all to ash

At the city-gates where The Dark One lives

Stand barking dogs bred to attack

Chants are heard, apparitions haunt, creepers hide malignant imps13

There also thrive—fevers, pestilence perplexity plague;

The Sanctified Spirit offered to all14

By he now ordained—“Venerable Uncle, Respected Father”

Mindless Terror the Cavern King

Night and day He seeks out prey

In every home a pack released

Hounds unleashed by their Mother Fear

From hellish gutters come these dogs

Howling devils who roam the earth

Like the hornet, ravenous demon

U Rngiew delights in startling prey

(In the crook of her arm, secure on her hip, Death safely holds her child Lament)

He gorges on from dawn till dusk

Through Spring and Summer, Autumn, Winter

Day after day and night after night, helplessly caught in the grip of greed

Stirring flames to wild abandon

The Serpent’s hiss illumes the night

From tops of boulders rough and craggy

The grey owl moans “Kitbru, kitbru!15

Unbroken howls on snow-capped peaks

Jackals wailing without end

Many are those who hide from him

They burrow deep into their beds

In homes in caves in tall spared grass16

They sleep by day, are awake by night

Women, children fear the dark

Sinister shadows, shaggy-haired… menace prowls outside their doors

From deep within the midnight dark

The devil’s blaze sheds fitful light

On the dancing wraith upon a Phiang,17

Kyndong-dong-dong goes the tapping drum

And when the jaws are poised to clamp

Strange markings streak the earthen pot

A windrush stoop to Pamdaloi18

From where he journeys round the world

He hovers in wait by that open door

Once inside, a vessel his haven

The life of their souls entrusted to him

Forever a king in bliss and contentment

In ancient hamlets back in time

One word echoes—“Curse!”—it calls

In those dwellings where he lives

Light struggles hard to defeat the dark

Hope takes flight, rejects, abandons,

The homes of the Thlen—they wither die out

Red-hot spike lodged in his craw19

They pulled him out of his ancient cave

They chopped his body into bits, to feast on his remains,

But a morsel forgotten grew into a seed

Invasive hungry rampant wild

Spawning swarms in sites undreamt—those caverns of the human heart

Where pitch-black are the sun and moon

Far reaches where the wraith sheds tears

The lovely maiden a wandering recluse

Why does she roam wild-eyed alone?

The serpent’s coils are tightly wrapped

Around the blooming Amirphor.20

Listen to an audio recording of the poem at https://doi.org/10.11647/OBP.0137.20


1 As mentioned earlier, “U” in Khasi is masculine and “Ka” is feminine. So the Dark One, a malignant being, is a “he”. Usually “rngiew or “ngiew is associated with the sinister as in “syrngiew (shadow) or “i ngiew” (looks or feels dark and disturbing). Interestingly however “Ka Rngiew”, therefore feminine, has little to do with “U Rngiew or that sense of “ngiew. See p. 38, n. 8.

2 Henchman employed by families who worship the Thlen—the man-eating snake. The word literally means “he who does not hesitate to strike (a blow)”, once he has cornered victims whose blood is needed to placate the wealth-providing but ever-hungry Serpent Deity.

3 The “kindling” used is actually dry bamboo—“prew”—which burns easily and brightly. Bamboo grows widely in the Khasi and Jaiñtia Hills and is a wonderful natural resource with a variety of practical uses.

4 Limestone and coal are minerals found in the Khasi and Jaiñtia Hills. The word “Rakot is the Khasi corruption of “rakshasas” the demons of Hindu mythology who, as shape-shifters, can be either male or female. According to H. W. Sten in his book Na Ka Myndai sha Ka Lawei, Tham here illustrates the concept that evil appears in different guises, such as The Dark One and U Ramshandi (a blood-thirsty deity). As a sorcerer Evil works his dark magic even on heavenly beings like Ka Shritin-tin, Ka Mistidian, Lapubon and Lotikoina who become agents of his dark arts. See ns. 5 and 8 below for more information.

Khyrwang is a piece of cloth woven from eri silk (now also known as ahimsa-silk) worn as a shawl by men and wrapped sarong-style by women. Its distinctive stripes make it instantly recognisable as a traditional product of the Ri Bhoi District of Meghalaya. For more on this see https://yourstory.com/2015/07/daniel-syiem/ and http://www.vam.ac.uk/blog/fabric-of-india/guest-post-eri-weaving-in-meghalaya

5 Ram Thakur could be (1) the Hindu God Ram. Or (2) Ram Thakur who lived between 1860 and 1949. His followers believed he was an avatar of Truth, a deity who appeared in human form to bring salvation to all. Given that this stanza is about false gods and demons, I feel Soso Tham here is not calling upon God Ram or Ram Thakur for help. To Tham the devout Christian and a patriotic Khasi, Ram Thakur represents a baneful threat. As S. K. Bhuyan writes in his introduction to Ki Sngi Barim, Soso Tham’s “… patriotism has led him to an overwhelming bias for the manners and traditions of his native land”.

6 According to Sten, Tham is probably referring to the manipulative Pablei Lawbah (see footnote 8 below) who was protected by a number of eminent citizens of Khasi society who believed him to be a (Khasi) god-incarnate.

7 The words within quotation marks are supposed to be those uttered by Pablei Lawbah whom Soso Tham denounces as a false Messiah.

8 Again according to Sten, Tham here intertwines two stories—that of U Dormi called Pablei Lawbah by his followers, and U Rngiew. U Dormi was a cult figure who proclaimed himself the reincarnation of U Sohpet Bneng and was by some looked upon as a deity. Soso Tham was horrified that a mere human being should call himself a God (Pa means father and blei means God) and thus run counter to the original Khasi belief in the one and only Creator-God. So the specific details relating to Pablei Lawbah as being the medium through which God spoke to the people, are recounted here to explain the poet’s wrath at an impostor who, as a medium, is supposed to have spoken in the voices of alien deities like Ram Thakur (see footnote 5 above) and (now) evil female spirits (Ka Shritin-tin, Ka Mistidian, Ka Lapubon, Ka Lotikoina). With his “forked tongue” he bewitched a susceptible audience. Pablei Lawbah is a travesty of the real Saviour—the Noble Rooster who according to Khasi belief, interceded with God. In the Christian context he was a Pretender to the throne of grace on which sits Christ the saviour. Pablei Lawbah is like the mythical U Rngiew who also adopts several guises to lure and ensnare his unsuspecting victims.

9 A locality in Shillong named after the stream Umsohsun (Um means water). Filthy waste from part of the town drains into the stream which consequently never runs pure.

10 These are the nine springs on Shillong Peak from which our rivers take their being.

11 Kyllang is a dome of granite rising from the countryside of Hima Nongkhlaw, and Symper found in Hima Maharam, is a hill covered in lush forests. Hima means kingdom or fiefdom. Kyllang and Symper are said to have been the abode of two mountain spirits, brothers whose rivalry led to a bitter battle recounted in a legend that explains the particular physical aspect of these two hills. See Kynpham Singh Nongkynrih’s Around the Hearth: Khasi Legends, pp. 80–83.

12 The legendary forests on the slopes of Bah Bo Bah Kong in Narpuh (Jaiñtia Hills) are now no more thanks to the unholy alliance between greedy politicians and cement companies. What Tham thought unimaginable in his lifetime has tragically come to pass.

13 Khasis tell tales of a will-o-the-wisp creature that lures unsuspecting travellers. One traveller managed to wound one such spirit with his arrow and, following the trail of blood left by the spirit, finally came to a dead end by a creeper where the evil sprite is said to have taken refuge.

14 Devotees of the Thlen are said to set aside rice beer for a year by which time the drink is so strong as to cloud the drinker’s judgement, emboldening him to commit murder without a shred of regret. This is the “consecrated spirit” given to their henchmen—the nongshohnoh. Rice beer also forms part of the main Khasi socio-religious ceremonies (weddings, naming ceremonies, death). All these are conducted in places that have been blessed and designated as hallowed and sacred. The use of this staple ritual to further evil underlines the twisted blasphemous nature of U Rngiew and those who purportedly worship the Thlen.

15 In keeping with the ominous nature of night, the call of the owl—“kitbru, kitbru”—definitely carries a sinister message. Kit means carry away and bru means people.

16 The “tall spared grass” refers to swathes of grass left uncut and never cleared for cultivation or eaten by grazing animals. It is usually found on the peripheries of villages. The grass follows its own cycle of life, death and regeneration, thriving on the rich organic matter into which it breaks down. It is so lush and thick that it is said to make a comfortable bed for a tiger.

17 Phiang is short for “Khiewphiang”, a water pot found in most Khasi homes. The “he” referred to here is the Thlen. It is said that when devotees bring him offerings of human blood, the victim appears as a spirit dancing to the accompaniment of drums on a silver plate, casting a shadow on the side of the water pot.

18 The name of the village where the Thlen’s cave is located. The verse shows how evil personified by the Thlen and U Rngiew, enters homes whose inhabitants have an intense desire for wealth. Again a reference to the legend of the Thlen, who was nurtured by humans who tried unsuccessfully to destroy him—a metaphor for man’s endless struggle against the lure of wealth.

19 Another reference to the legend of the Thlen whose own greed ultimately caused his downfall. Accustomed to being fed human flesh he opened his huge mouth to receive more, realising too late that a red-hot stake had been hurled into his throat. He died in torment and it is believed that his writhing caused earthquakes so strong as to alter the topography of the land forever. Myths about the history of the land ascribe the Khasis’ fold mountains to this event. See Nongkynrih, Around the Hearth, 64–72.

20 The word is probably Sanskrit or Persian in origin. “Amar” in Sanskrit means immortal and “Amir” in Persian is one whose soul and memory does not die. “(Amir)phor” would be the Khasi pronunciation of “phol”or “phal” which in Hindi means fruit. So perhaps this is a reference to an Immortal Fruit or Flower, which makes sense within the context of cultural jeopardy that so troubled Soso Tham.