At about the halfway point on the car ride from Shillong to Sohra, just after the village of Mawjrong, the rolling agricultural land of the top of the Shillong Plateau abruptly falls off thousands of feet into the impenetrable green maze of Katarshnong, or the Twelve Villages, the heart of Riwar. The road now proceeds along the edge of a great escarpment. In the daytime, providing the weather is clear, out of the left side of your vehicle you’ll be able to see a vast, steep-sided gorge, with the occasional village just barely clinging to the walls. But at night Katarshnong is a sea of deep black. In the rainy season, when to travel along the edges of the valleys is to be constantly engulfed in rain and fog, one can be riding for dozens of miles along the edge of Katarshnong’s westernmost canyon and not see anything to the east but mist.
But when I was travelling to Sohra one night in February 2015, feeling more than a little apprehensive about the month-long trekking odyssey across the Khasi Hills I had resolved to embark upon, there was plenty of illumination in Katarshnong. The car I was in rounded a bend, and there, ahead but also far below, was a great red glowing cloud filling up the canyon, crawling up the sides. Its light pulsated, sometimes fading almost to brown and sometimes flaring up to a bright orange, bathing the distant jungle walls of Katarshnong, invisible only moments before, in a disastrous, volcanic pale. The air coming in through the windows of the car had the smell of smoke to it. The vehicle came to a point where I could look down directly on the cloud and see through the translucent haze a wide ring of individual points of fluctuating light somewhere thousands of feet below.
The first thought that came to my mind was that I was peering directly down into hell itself. The second: that I had made it my mission to cross the very piece of real estate which lay burning before me. The task had never seemed so formidable. It was of course not perdition that I was gazing upon, but a huge patch of ground being cleared in one of the yearly shifting cultivation fires in which most of Katarshnong’s jungles have already been sacrificed.
But for that instant, gazing out over the burning fields, I think I grasped, if faintly, why local Khasis often find the idea of travelling to unknown villages such a daunting prospect. For many people in Riwar the hills are still a place of spirits, monsters, and entrances to other worlds.
Meghalaya is mostly Christian. Missionaries started operating in the area during the first half of the 19th century, and over time, different Christian sects percolated down into even the most remote corners of the state. But while Christianity is dominant throughout the region, there are still plenty of villages in Riwar where the churches serve a minority of the population. Despite Christianity getting an earlier start here, Meghalaya is not as fully converted as the nearby states of Nagaland or Mizoram. There are still pockets where the worship of and strong belief in spirits continues. And even in thoroughly Christian areas, the old ways haven’t been forgotten, even if the memories are fading.
For example, a Christian fellow I stayed with in a village called Lyngkhom strongly disapproved of any observance directed towards the spirits, evil or otherwise, and felt that the Khasis should move on from what he took great pains to characterize as rank superstition. To him, the spirits were simply manifestations of the Khasis’ collective poor character and self-imposed backwardness.
Yet he was still worried by them. He asserted that there were several families in his village who were possessed by, or at least in league with, supernatural entities. I asked him who they were, and the man replied that he didn’t know; they use their dark arts to hide themselves. They go to church, work in the fields, are your friends, and sometimes don’t even know themselves that they are infested with evil. They are perfectly hidden.
‘If that’s the case,’ said I, ‘how can you be sure such people exist?’
‘I live here.’ Said the man from Lyngkhom. ‘I can’t help it. I think maybe they want you to believe in them, so they use their magic to keep our people from forgetting them. So, some people believe. Believing in the spirits gives them power, makes them stronger. I think you call it “vicious cycle.” That’s why the church kills them, it makes it so people stop believing in the old spirits, and then we forget them.’
‘So, when you’re afraid of them, you make them stronger?’
‘Maybe. But don’t be afraid of them, just ignore them.’
‘Are you afraid of them?’
‘Ah … yes. But I don’t believe in them.’
‘You’re afraid of them even when you don’t think they’re real?’
‘What to do?’
‘Don’t ask me.’
‘But that’s why they disappear now,’ he continued. ‘Everybody has T.V., smart phones, internet. People these days don’t have time for spirits. And so, the spirits are dying.’
‘But they’re still here? Should I be worried?’
My friend thought about this for a moment.
‘Eh, no. Khasis should be afraid of them, but not Phareng.’
‘So, you believe in them, but I shouldn’t?’
‘I don’t believe in them.’
‘But you’re afraid of them?’
‘That’s why they might hurt me. But they don’t hurt Phareng, because Phareng don’t believe in them.’
‘So, what you’re saying is that I shouldn’t believe you when you say there’s still spirits, because if I do the spirits will hurt me?’
One day I was walking down a steep path to the Umngot River with a man named Washington. He was a Catholic, though a very recent convert. His father had switched his family from traditional Khasi animism only around fifteen years before, and not without some controversy.
His reasons were not what you’d expect. According to Washington, the change of faith had been for purely practical considerations. In the animist/pagan traditions of old, great emphasis was placed on the huge bodies of esoteric magical expertise which resided in priests. While there wasn’t a religious text or firmly set dogma, there were rules, lots of them. Every malady and every piece of good luck was the result of some spirit’s intersession. The world itself was alive, and nature crawled with supernatural entities, who, through the medium of spiritual experts, could be worshipped, appeased, avoided, or made to do one’s bidding (at a price). A single creator God had set all of this in motion, and established the basic rules of morality, though for the most part he existed at a distance, preferring to let his creation work itself out.
But as Washington’s dad saw it, even though his village remained majority animist, in recent years the people had started slipping when it came to their spiritual observances. Missionaries were making inroads, communications with outsiders were increasing, and modern technology made the villagers less reliant on the jungle, and so on the spirits who resided there. People still believed in the spirits, but the knowledge required to work with them was eroding. Finding priests who still knew their stuff was getting harder year by year.
Then one day Washington’s brother got sick. His father called in a priest, but his son’s condition failed to improve. Desperate, he decided to give Jesus and the Virgin Mary a shot. After these redirected prayers, Washington’s brother got better, and from that point on, his family joined the village’s small Catholic community.
Washington told me that his family’s beliefs hadn’t changed all that much. They still thought the spirits were real. It was just that praying to Jesus was easier, and in this case more effective. It wasn’t that much of a stretch to equate the Khasi creator God with the Christian deity. Some of the Protestant sects demanded that Washington’s family completely repudiate the older beliefs, but according to him the local Catholic priest said that, while he didn’t strictly think the spirits were real, or something to be especially concerned about, as long as Washington’s family took up a bare minimum of Catholic practices, and included a smidge of Jesus, Mary, and the Pope in their prayers, that was good enough for the time being.
As one might expect, some of the animists in the village were not happy to hear that Washington’s dad had switched sides. They told him that the spirits would be angry, and that the loss of another follower would further degrade knowledge of the spiritual realm.
Washington’s father answered that the spirits weren’t there for him when he needed them, so what was he supposed to do, just let his son get sicker waiting? His conversion wasn’t a judgement on the old way of doing things, the spirits just seemed to be on the way out, which wasn’t his fault. The other animists didn’t really have an answer for this, but, at least in the story, a priest in the village put an evil spell on Washington’s family for revenge. That didn’t work either.
As we descended towards the Umngot, Washington and I came across a small ficus elastica tree. Since we were already on the subject of the supernatural, Washington took that moment to ask me if I had ever heard of ‘baby ghosts.’
‘Are they the ghosts of dead babies?’
‘Not quite,’ said Washington. ‘They’re more like spirits actually, not dead people. But children. Very small ones.’
‘Are they evil?’
‘No. But they’re not good. They’re something in-between. Like children. They misbehave, but you don’t call that evil.’
‘Exactly. If you meet one, it might want to play with you, but it won’t harm you. People say that they live inside of Dieng Jri,’ (ficus elastica trees). ‘Also, sometimes in caves.’
‘What are they like?’
‘Well, they’re about the size of a small child. They’re very pale, and they don’t have eyes. But they can see you. They have feet that turn sideways, inward, so that the toes are pointing to each other. They don’t have hands; their arms end at their elbows, so they only have little stumps. They’re always looking for their parents, but they can never find them, so when they meet an adult they think it’s their mom or dad. They’ll start to play with that person, and if the person leaves, they’ll start to cry and follow them. And they like to do mischief, but they’ll never hurt you. It’s just playing.’
‘Have you seen one?’
‘Noooo! I would hate that.’
We finally made it to the Umngot, which here manifested itself as a huge pool several hundred feet across enclosed by building-sized boulders. The water was clear, yet so deep that we could not see to the bottom. Washington told me that before the pool had always been full of fish. But then one year, slowly, there came to be less and less. As this happened, local people fishing or working in the forest began to notice a great black shadow swimming around in the depths.
As the population of fish declined, the mysterious black form grew bigger and bigger, and a rumor began to spread among the nearby villages that they had a water monster on their hands. Later, so the story goes, a foreign rafting expedition came through the area and saw the black shape in the pool. They reported that this was nothing but a very large catfish, but that didn’t satisfy many of the villagers. The locals didn’t think the expedition members were lying; rather, since they were mostly Pharengs, the villagers felt the outsiders simply couldn’t sense, by virtue of their city upbringing, that the leviathan was not of this world.
‘So, was it just a catfish?’ I asked.
‘I think so. But possibly an evil one. Who can say?’
‘What happened to it?’
‘It swam away.’
‘Don’t know. Maybe Bangladesh.’
Like in many parts of the world, the people of Riwar once viewed, and some continue to view, large bodies of water with suspicion. Few villagers swim. To them, the sight of a giant Phareng happily paddling about in deep water is simultaneously a sign of the foreigner’s admirable fearlessness and reckless eccentricity.
Stories abound of deep pools being the homes of evil spirits. Female water monsters, similar to mermaids, are said to inhabit the inaccessible black depths of the mountain rivers. Far down in the dark and the cold, they have little dwellings. They’ll sometimes come to the surface at night, and if a man happens by and strikes a mermaid’s fancy, she’ll seduce him and force him to live with her under the water forever, with the preternatural catfish and other aquatic spirits for neighbors.
While I can’t say that I’m anything other than an agnostic as far as evil water spirits are concerned, it is worth pointing out that most visiting Pharengs who die in Meghalaya, die in the water. Riwar’s mountain streams are strong and unpredictable and can be just as lethal as they are mesmerizingly beautiful. They’re worth fearing a little.
There are other spirits which are said to inhabit the air itself. One such atmospheric evil is the Devil Cloud, which makes its presence felt only in the darkest, rainiest, parts of the monsoon, when the sun hasn’t come out for weeks. The spirit takes the form of a thick bank of fog, which settles over unsuspecting individuals who have unwisely ventured outside.
As the victim of the Devil Cloud walks along, they will not notice anything out of the ordinary at first, other than that the mist around them is unusually dense. But slowly, the person comes to realize that, no matter how long they walk, they don’t get anywhere. Cocooned in fog so thick they can’t see their hand in front of their face, they enter a sort of misty limbo. If the Devil Cloud is a really nasty one, or if the victim deserves it, the person will be cursed to eternally wander in fog. Otherwise, they’ll be walking and walking and walking, and then suddenly the mist will lift, and the person will find that they’re right back where they started.
But no need to worry about Devil Clouds if you’re thinking about travelling to Meghalaya. A friend from Sohra tells me that these spirits ceased being a threat by around the mid-1980s. According to him, climate change, combined with the declining belief in the Devil Clouds amongst the populace, led to the overall weakening of the spirits. They’re still around, but they’re just not strong enough to carry a human being inside them. A person would walk right through a modern-day Devil Cloud without knowing.
I’ve also heard that it’s possible to employ the services of the supernatural to guard one’s crops. This is especially useful in the case of produce that must be grown out in the middle of the jungle, where anybody with a mind to could come and steal it.
Take pineapples, which in Riwar tend to be cultivated in small patches, or on their own, far out on forested hill slopes. One can easily pluck an unguarded pineapple without any fear of (human) reprisals. But in Katarshnong, so the story goes, the spiky fruit are often cursed so that if a thief tries to steal one, he’ll get stuck to the pineapple as though the fruit weighed a ton and was covered in glue. He will then either die of exposure (and probably embarrassment), be forced to cut off his arm a la Aron Ralston, or be found and suitably punished by the prudent fruit-curser. Given the consequences are so extreme, the mere threat of the Pineapple Curse, even if it’s not believed with 100 per cent certainty, is efficacious.
And that’s just as well. From personal experience, I can say that wandering through the jungle on a hot day, hungry, thirsty, sweaty, and lost, and then being confronted with somebody else’s vulnerable juicy ripe pineapple is about as great a temptation as any man can face. To my everlasting shame, I once failed the test, when I was not even all that hungry (though I was lost). The pineapple in question, plucked from a patch of remote pathless jungle due east of the village of Thieddieng, tasted incredible, and to my relief, I didn’t find myself supernaturally affixed to it. But the guilt of my misdeed stuck to me, at least until the next day, when, for no apparent reason, I had one of the worst falls of my career as a trekker, very nearly breaking my camera and several ribs.
I couldn’t help but link the fruit to the fall. While the spirits seemed to have exacted their revenge, I still felt I owed the good people of Thieddieng an apology. True, if the fruit was jinxed, the spell was a different one from the Katarshnong Pineapple Curse. But this pineapple was not plucked in Katarshnong, and it only stands to reason that, just as the languages of
Riwar vary from one area to another, so too would the paranormal fruit security measures.
Of all the supernatural perils one hears of in the villages, none fills the people of Riwar with more terror than the Nongshohnoh, the Blood Hunters, and the Menshohnoh, the Keepers of the Thlen.
The Thlen is an evil serpent which has kept Khasis and Jaintias up at night as long as there have been historical records, though one suspects it was a fixture in Riwar nightmares going back much, much, further. The snake casts its dark shadow across the hills, yet its story, the behaviors of its followers, and the degree of danger the beast poses, are all things which no two people seem fully to agree upon. That said, even if the details shift from place to place, the fear of the Thlen and of its servants is one of the few true constants I’ve experienced travelling in the region.
As Washington and I were walking back up from the Umngot, he started telling me the story of a local child who had been murdered a few years back. The perpetrators were suspected to be Nongshohnoh. The child’s throat had been slit, and Washington assumed the kid’s blood had been drained and harvested so that it could be given to a Menshohnoh, who would feed it to the Thlen.
‘What good would that do?’ I asked.
‘Menshohnoh have a deal with the Thlen. They keep it in their house, and as long as they feed it with Khasi blood, the Thlen will give them and their whole family good luck. So, the Menshohnoh use their magic to command the Nongshohnoh to go out into the jungle and kill people to get their blood. Then the Menshohnoh will seem to get rich for no reason, but only so long as they keep feeding the Thlen.’
‘Does it work?’
‘I hope not.’
‘Where does the Thlen live?’
‘It could be anywhere in a Menshohnoh’s house. It can shrink very small, so it’s as little as a hair. Then it can grow up again. A person could be keeping a Thlen all their life, but you would never see.’
‘Is there more than one Thlen?’
‘There are so, sooo many, but they’re all the same spirit.’
‘Can a person get rid of one, if it’s in their house?’
Washington thought for a moment.
‘Maybe … I think that person would have to burn everything that they had gained during the time they were living with the Thlen. Even their clothes. And their family couldn’t pass down their house or their land. It would be cursed.’
‘That sucks. And what if the person keeping the Thlen can’t feed it, or what if the Nongshohnoh messes up and can’t get blood?’
‘Then the Menshohnoh get sick … or the Thlen will eat them … I’m not sure. It’ll be bad.’
In Washington’s rendering of the story of the ubiquitous serpent, which seems to be distinctly colored by Christian belief, long ago there was a war between God and the Devil. God won, so the Devil had to escape to Earth. He assumed the form of a giant snake, and then took up residence in a cave and started eating people who happened to walk by. The people then prayed to God to deliver them from the monster. God came down, and again defeated the devil, cutting him into many small pieces. This time, to rid creation once and for all of the evil, God instructed each person who had prayed to him to eat one of the pieces of the vanquished serpent, until every part of the creature’s body was consumed. They all did so, except for one old woman, who set aside a chunk of snake meat to give to her son the next morning. But then she forgot where she had put it, so the meat went uneaten.
Slowly, the misplaced Thlen-bit started to grow, until finally it had regenerated once more into a whole snake and could go back to terrorizing and ingesting the locals. Again, they prayed that God deliver them from the serpent, but this time, God refused. For the sin of failing to adhere to his commandment that they all eat a piece of the snake, they would now have to deal with the creature themselves, and creation itself would be cursed with the Thlen’s evil.
In another version of the story, from the Sohra region, the Thlen’s origins are never (as far as I can tell) explained. It is said to have simply shown up one day in a cave and started eating people. This state of affairs persisted for a long time, until, weary of being terrorized, a brave young man decided to do something about the beast. He approached the Thlen with a heard of goats, and, feeding the animals to the serpent one by one, he slowly won the creature’s trust.
As they were now on friendly terms, the man began giving the Thlen its meals by tossing it hunks of mutton. Every time the man approached, the snake would come out of the cave with its mouth open, and the man would throw in the meat. But this was a trap. One day, the man came with a piece of white-hot iron. The Thlen came out of its hiding place and opened its mouth expectantly, and then the man tossed in the heated metal, killing the serpent. As in Washington’s variant of the story, the Thlen was then cut up into many pieces and distributed to nearby villagers. They were instructed to eat up every piece of the serpent, lest it regenerate, but one bit somehow remained, and from this the snake regrew, and came to be the progenitor of an entire new race of Thlens.
Even the Sohra version of the tale can vary from teller to teller, with different facets of the story being omitted or emphasized. In particular, there are frequently different spins as to why the last Thlen-bit wasn’t eaten. As in Washington’s version, the old woman often sets aside a piece of the Thlen to give to her son, and then innocently forgets it. But there’s another riff on the story in which the woman gets her hands on the Thlen-chunk, and then deliberately hides it, knowing that the snake will regenerate and that if she serves it, it will help her. She therefore becomes the first Menshohnoh.
There also isn’t agreement on the exact behaviors of the Nongshohnoh and Menshohnoh.
Some people think the Nongshohnoh are possessed, and assault their victims in a trance, which makes them the perfect murderous servants since not even they know that they are killers. But others maintain that the Nongshohnoh are fully cognizant of what they’re up to, and share in the Menshohnoh’s evil induced good fortune.
‘Do the Menshohnoh ever try to capture foreigners?’ I asked Washington.
He thought a moment.
‘Maybe….but I don’t think so. Phareng blood probably wouldn’t work.’
I wasn’t sure if he meant this or was just trying to comfort me.
‘The Thlen is only hungry for Khasi blood.’ Then he laughed. ‘But maybe if you stayed here long enough! If you took a Khasi wife, then you’d have to worry about Nongshohnoh! Hahaha …’
Is any of this true? You’d be surprised.
Personally, I suspect people spend vastly more time worrying and making stuff up about the Thlen, Nongshohnoh, and Menshohnoh than real life dark sorcerers spend seeing if any of these black magical procedures truly cut the mustard.
But still, some do try. Sorcery may not work, but sorcerers are real. Black magic murders do happen. The entranced, soul-harvesting Nongshohnoh, patrolling the jungle to unknowingly do their master’s bidding may be more fantasy than fact, but human sacrifices being made to the Thlen are a disconcertingly common occurrence. Cases of genuine bloody witchcraft have been reported in the last few years in Sohra and Shillong, as have instances of people’s homes and lives being destroyed due to the suspicion that they might be harboring the Thlen.
Those are big towns, solidly connected to the rest of the 21st century, peopled undoubtedly just as much by materialists who think the supernatural is entirely mumbo-jumbo and Christians who denigrate anything which so much as smells like the old ways, as they are by genuine, old school, blood and spirits animists. And still, people have died in Sohra and Shillong because of a belief in the Thlen. Who can say what truly happens in the deep jungle villages? There’s a surface I’d rather scratch than break through.
Most visitors to the Khasi Hills are, for good reason, interested in the supernatural beliefs of the locals. But for the passing tourist, the stories of the Thlen, the Nongshohnoh, of water monsters and Baby Ghosts and Devil Clouds and pineapple curses, are all mere entertainment, and perhaps even a little quaint. Hearing about them is like listening to ghost stories around a fire, or going to see a horror movie. In the end, there’s no real danger. Sadako isn’t actually going to come crawling out of the screen.
But to many Khasis and Jaintias, the danger is real. In their world, the jungle is still full of patrolling Nongshohnoh, and other, worse, entities. Their stories are not just meant for entertainment and a thrilling bit of the macabre, but to pass on vital safety information. For them, it would be like watching The Ring not for fun, but to find out how to avoid being the poor jerk Sadako’s crawled out of the T.V. to kill.
In their world, Sadako really is out there.
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