After two days of hiking up and down, into and out of the valley of the Lyngon, I needed a rest. As there was much yet to learn in Nongnah, staying put in the village for another day made sense. Iawpaw’s mountain still loomed over me, but I had yet to learn what, exactly, the goddess signified to the people of the region. My objective for the next day was thus to absorb as much information about the goddess and the residual pre-Christian animism of the Nongnah plateau as possible.

It so happened that Professor was just about the perfect person to turn to for this mission. MacArthur in Ngunraw, incredibly helpful though he had been, did not seem to be especially knowledgeable about the region’s esoteric spiritual beliefs. He knew of them, but only because he’d spent his whole life around them. But in stark contrast to MacArthur, Professor approached the spiritual realm of the Khasis with a keen interest. Once I had enquired about the subject, he made damn sure to unload as much information on me as he could.

When it came to Iawpaw, my travels thus far had shown me that the goddess was an important figure across a wide swathe of the Khasi Hills. People feared her at least from Mawlongbah to Ngunraw, and it sounded like the goddess was known in some form across the whole of the Khasi Hills, making her a much more substantial figure than a mere ‘basa’ such as Koh Ngunraw. Yet, trying to track down information on the goddess without actually going to Nongnah yields surprisingly few results. Very little solid information is to be found about her in academic literature, and basic internet searches turn up far more information about the cave that she is said to live in than about the goddess herself. A cryptic entry in the turn of the 20th century Khasi English Dictionary (1906) lists the word ‘Iaw-paw,’ though the definition it gives seems only to dimly reflect the information I had received on the ground. The entry, in full, goes: ‘Iaw-paw (shnong-ka), n,the grave; death, (lit. the village on the top of a hill where ka Iaw-paw dwells; the story goes that whoever enters into her village never returns.)’ (pg. 89). The goddess’ status in traditional Khasi lore as a Hades-like figure who resides at the edge of the underworld was confirmed to me by a government worker who lived in another part of Meghalaya, though neither he nor the Khasi English Dictionary made any mention of Iawpaw being a protector deity to Nongnah village.

In short, it seemed that the best way for me to learn about Iawpaw was to talk to someone who truly believed in her and lived in the shadow of her mountain.

“We don’t pronounce her name like they do in the Sohra language,” said professor as he and I walked slowly through the village. Professor’s knee was still wrapped up in a cast, and the leaves had apparently only gotten itchier since the day before. He had to stop every few minutes to scratch, though his discomfort didn’t dampen his enthusiasm.

“We don’t call her ‘Iawpaw,’” he said. “In our local language, we call her ‘Chow Pao.’”

“Can you spell that?”

“No, not really…in our language, we have this ‘Ch’ sound, but that is not there in the Sohra language, so there are no Khasi letters for this. We cannot even write her name properly! Hehe! But she is our goddess. Before, when we were not Christian, we worshiped Chow Pao only.”

“Was she just here? If you went to Ngunraw, would they worship her also?”

“Ah, no, only our people. Mostly, other people, if they come to our place, they will know not to do bad things, because if they do, Chow Pao will do something bad to them.”

“So they knew of her, but she wasn’t their goddess?”

“You can say that. You see, it’s just different, different, different! Hehe! There are lots of different gods and spirits for us Khasis. But, mostly, we believe in, like, equality and all. We just always wanted to do good! But take for example those people from Ngunraw. Before, when the belief in all of these Gods and spirits was very strong, those people would never pee while facing Chow Pao’s mountain. They would always face a little bit to the side to urinate.”

“Wow. So, what, exactly, does Chow Pao do when you worship her?”

“She protects us.”

“But only if you follow the rules?”


“Then, back when she was still being worshipped, how did you know what to do to keep her happy?”

“Like, elder people. Old old people. They used to go and, like, meditate. And then they would decide when we have to go and give Chow Pao something. Like, with other Khasis, when they sacrifice to a spirit, they usually sacrifice a red chicken. But Chow Pao will not take a red chicken, only one which is fully black. No white! Only fully black will do. And if we sacrifice properly, she will give us back many good things.”

“Do people still give her black chickens?”

“No, because we are Christian now.”

“How does Chow Pao feel about that?”

“She feels that we are her sons and daughters, so she says, if we want to become different things, then it is no problem. ‘Do whatever you want. You are grown up now. Just be good,’ Hehe.”

“So, is she happy that you’ve changed?”

“Maybe not happy, but we are at peace. And she’ll still do good things for us. But old people are still scared to go to her place because she is, like, still a little bit dangerous, especially for people who don’t know much about her. For us who live here and know the rules, it’ll be fine, but for others, they have to be good when they are here, otherwise, if they are even a little bit bad, she’ll be much worse than them.”

“So, she continues to protect Nongnah from outsiders?”

“Yeah,” Professor pointed to the hill that rose up behind his house, “but only upstairs from here, not where we are now. She is the ruler of the hill, not the entire mountain. She protects it, and up until now, even we are scared to enter her cave! Hehe!”

“But, don’t guides from Nongnah lead spelunkers into her cave?”

“It’s only OK for certain clans to go. For example, my clan, Langte, can go in, but maybe someone from another clan cannot. She won’t scold someone from my clan as long as we are not doing anything bad. But for other clans it will be a little bit dangerous.”

“This is a strange question, but, you’re Presbyterian, right?”


“So, do Presbyterians still worry about Chow Pao?”

“No! No! No!…well…now we are still just a little bit scared to do bad things upstairs on her mountain. But she also is less now. She will not say anything to us anymore or do anything to us. But we still have to obey her rules. Just a little bit. Because she is also good, in her way, and if we follow her rules, it’ll be fine for us. No problem! Hehe!”

“But, what about when people from other parts of the Khasi Hills come to Nongnah? Do they have to worry about her?”

“You see, before, nobody came to Nongnah because they knew that it was a little bit dangerous, due to Chow Pao. They thought that if they did something bad here, then something bad will happen to them.”

“What sorts of things?”

“Something bad!”

“Like what? I need to know so I don’t make the same mistake!”

“Hehe! Well, one time, a football club went to the top of Chow Pao’s hill. They had just won a match, so afterwards, they went up to the hill to have fun there. They went there and had a picnic and cut a chicken and all. But not a black chicken. It was maybe a white one or a brown one. And the blood of the chicken fell down on that place. Just a few drops.”

“What happened then?”

“She, like, came to them. And she’s a very different goddess! First, something like a snake came. And then after that, it turned into a wild boar. After that, it turned again into a snake. And they were all scared.”

“Then what?”

“They all died.”

“Then how does anybody know about it?”

Professor thought for a moment.

“They all died…but only after some time, hehe.”

Sauntering up the road that ran across the Nongnah plateau, we stopped at several overlooks where we could see the land dramatically fall into the Lyngon valley to the north, and the vast canyon of the Umngi river to the east. Nestled in the plunging hills above the Umngi was Mawpud village and a long, winding, newly constructed road that made its way down to the border settlments of Umpung and Balat. To the west of the road rose the most dramatic face of the great massif that was crowned with Chow Pao’s mountain. Here, numerous steep jungle-clad amphitheaters rose up and up and up until the greenery gave way to black limestone escarpments. According to Professor, Chow Pao was only thought to reside at the very top of the great massif. But was she alone on her hill?

“No!” said Professor. “Many different spirits are there! Khasis have different different kinds of gods! So many! Hehe.”

“Even here in Nongnah?”

“Yes, there are many.”

“Can you give an example?”

“Hmm…” Professor thought about this for a while. “Do you know that Bean movie?”

“Beans? Like Mr. Bean?”

“Hehe. I like him. He’s funny!”

“Mr. Bean is a god in Nongnah?”

“No, no, like, that movie where they plant the beans, and then Jack goes up into the sky to find those giants…”

“Oh! Jack the Giant Killer?”

“Yes, that one. We have a similar type of giant. We call him U-Ramhah.” Professor then pointed out a small, isolated, hill that sprung abruptly out of the tableland on the eastern end of the Nongnah shelf. “There is a story here that says U-Ramhah made that hill. People say that he is very lazy. Whatever he wants to do, he will do it. If he is tired, he will just sleep anywhere, like that. One day, he was carrying a basket full of sand to take to his home. But then that rope that held the basket broke, so all of the sand fell out. But since U-Ramhah is so lazy, he didn’t clean it up. He just left it there. And now there is a hill here. And maybe, if you are not a Khasi, this story is hard to believe, but how else will there be a hill here?”

We wandered on.

“Have you heard of our mermaids?” asked Professor as we came to the hill U-Ramhah left behind.

“I’ve been told that there are spirits in the water…though what I hear differs from place to place.”

“Ah, yes…I should have told you about them before you went to Ngunraw. They can also be a little bit dangerous.”

“Well, what should I do if I meet a mermaid?”

“Here in the West Khasi Hills, we believe that mermaids are scared of brooms and matchboxes. Like, if you carry a matchbox so you can light a fire, a mermaid will get scared. And brooms also.” (I never managed to ascertain why a mermaid should fear a broom.) “We used to say that if someone went to the river alone, and especially if that person is a boy, a Mermaid may, like, propose to him.”

“What do you mean by ‘propose?’” It sounded intriguing. 

“She will try to lure the boy in, and, if she likes him, the mermaid will want him to be her husband. In our village there are two people who are married to mermaids. And we believe that there are two types of mermaids…”

“Wait, there are two people in Nongnah who are married to mermaids?”



“Yes. Hehe. And they also give out medicine. Mostly, people who get married to mermaids, before they didn’t know anything about traditional medicine, but when they got married, they started giving medicine to people. Mostly, that traditional medicine is from, like, roots and all. From the forest. Those mermaid’s husbands will stay alone in the forest for a long time and learn all about the special roots and all. And for around one year they won’t cut their hair. They’ll only cut their hair when their mermaid wife says they can. Hehe. If you go to their house, they’ll only burn a fire in a separate room, but then they will keep another room dark with no windows, and nobody can go in there but that mermaid’s husband. It’s, like, different!”


“But we say that there are two kinds of Mermaids: Black and White, or, Good and Bad.”

“What’s a bad mermaid like?”

“Mostly, if she will come and propose, if you don’t accept, she will hurt you. Even just last month, one guy from Nongktieh was catching frogs to eat from the river, and he said: ‘Someone tried to call me, and I didn’t answer. I got scared, because I thought it was a mermaid. She was saying ‘wait, wait!’ but I didn’t wait. I ran to climb up the stones on the bank of the river to get up the valley and get away. And I kept climbing and climbing. And then she directly chased me, and she caught me, and she threw me, and then pulled me down.”

“And this happened just last month?”

“Yeah. It’s hard to believe, but what to do?”

“What happened to the guy?”

“I guess he got away. That is why we have this story.”

“But how can she chase him? Don’t mermaids only live in the water?”

“Yeah, but in our place they can come on land also. I don’t know about in other parts of Meghalaya.”

“Well, I’ll be looking out for them either way.”

“It’s a good idea, but probably you will not have any problem.”

“Why’s that?”

“Because there are only some clans which can see mermaids. I think Pharengs cannot. And only certain clans can be seen by mermaids.”

“Can your clan see the mermaids?”

“No. Langte don’t see them. I’ve heard that mermaids will mostly be seen by the Ramseij clan. This clan is very spiritually powerful, especially in old times. And there are many Ramseij in Nongktieh. I have some friends from there, and they have a friend who died not long ago. They say he used to turn into things. Like, let’s say, if he wants to get in a house, but the door is locked, he can still enter easily. He can become little and fit through any small hole or go under the door. Hehe.”


“It’s, like, shocking, but what to do? There are so many people like this here. People who have, like, two spirits. They can easily turn into tigers, or into butterflies. It’s very different!”

Now Professor pointed to a small clump of trees in a little dell on the western side of U-Ramhah’s hill. Other than this small patch of verdure, the whole area had been denuded of everything but rough yellow grass.

“This is a Lawkyntang, our sacred forest. No one can cut trees here, or pluck any leaf without permission, or something bad will happen to them. That is why this area is always fully green. We used to say, if you cut something from this sacred forest, ghouls that we call Kohboit will come and bother you at night while you sleep. Hehe.”


“Yeah. They are just small Cartoon People, those ones.”

“Cartoon people?”


“Why are they ‘cartoon people?’” I asked, envisaging a supernatural SpongeBob SquarePants crouched in the haunted recesses of a sacred grove.

 “Because they have, like, colors and all. And they are very short and have special powers. They live in our Lawkyntang, but also you will find many of them if you go to coal caves.”

“Like in coal tunnels? Rat hole mines?”

“Yeah. In there you can find lots of Kohboit.”

“My friend in Sohra told me once about spirits called Baby Ghosts. He said that they’re scary but that they don’t truly mean you harm. Are Cartoon People the same thing?”

“Well, I am not sure what your friend has seen or heard. Sohra is different from here. But Cartoon People here in Nongnah will have long hair, but they are very short, and they have different kinds of powers. And they’re difficult to find. You have to go far back into a cave to see them. But sometimes people want to find them. They say that if you find a Cartoon Person, if you can grab them and hold them down, and then cut two hairs from their head with a knife, the Cartoon Person will say ‘you win’ and leave. And then that Cartoon Person will give you anything you wish for.”

“Have you met anybody who’s done this?”

“No, not personally.”

It did not take more than five minutes to walk from U-Ramhah’s hill to an overlook above the Lyngon valley, where we could see the great northward bend of the river as it flowed beneath the Ngunraw plateau. The Nongnah tableland is here less than 450 meters across, though to the north it gets even thinner, finally tapering to a sharp point.

There, it occurred to me to ask Professor whether or not the people in Nongnah viewed the ficus elastica tree as having any spiritual significance, or if there was any supernatural entity that made the unusual trees its home. This would be a good thing to know if I was going to be spending much of my long trek around the plants.

“Do you know if there are any stories about Di Jroi?” I asked. (‘Di Jroi’ is, if you’ll recall, the local, Maram Khasi dialect term for the ficus plant.)

“Yeah, in the Di Jroi there is a spirit which we call Koh Jat Jang. They are a kind of spirit that we are very scared of. If you stay here a little longer, you will get to know them. If you go to a large forest and you have a fire nearby to a Di Jroi, the Jat Jang will come make you scared. But he won’t touch you. At nighttime, you will hear something screaming. That is the Jat Jang screaming at you! And sometimes he will shake trees all night long or cut them down near you. It’s kind of scary!”

“Is there one spirit in each Di Jroi? Or is there one Jat Jang that travels from tree to tree?”

“It depends on which tree. Mostly, if it is near a village, the Jat Jang will get disturbed, and it won’t stay. But if you set a fire too close to its home, the Jat Jang will do things to you to make you very scared!” Professor said this with a serious tone, as though he felt it especially important that I got it through my head. “And when you wake up in the morning, you will see that the Jat Jang knocked over all the trees around you. But you will never see the Jat Jang himself.”

“Sounds like these Jat Jang don’t like people.”

“Yes, but all they want is for people not to come near their place and start fires. They live in those Di Jroi, and once that tree begins to burn, it is hard to stop due to the sap in the tree, which is very flammable. The tree is the Jat Jang’s home, so he does not want to lose his place.

“There is another guy I know, who met a Jat Jang one time when he went fishing. He went alone to the jungle, and afterwards he said to me: ‘The Jat Jang was angry at me because I went near to that Di Jroi and set a fire. It started playing with me. While I was working, it pulled my leg so I wasn’t able to move anymore. For a long time I was trying to get the Jat Jang to let go, but it kept me there, and I started to cry because I thought I will never be able to go home.’ Anyway, after some time, he remembered that he had a match box with him. So he lit the matches and started a fire, and that scared the Jat Jang away. This is another reason to always have matches or a lighter with you in the forest! Hehe.

“So, if our people are going to the forest, if we are staying near a Di Jroi, we will be scared, because we know that the Jat Jang will always be there. The Jat Jang, he will play, he will do many funny things, just to scare you. But he won’t do evil things. Just to make fun. Hehe.”

It was getting late now. The sun had gone low and red over the Bangladeshi plains. I was looking forward to writing in my journal and then going to sleep. The next day I’d try and make it as far as Balat, and finally leave Chow Pao’s massif behind.

But we had one more stop to make.

Professor led me to the southern side of the Nongnah shelf, to the top of a layer of bare rock many meters thick. At the base of this escarpment was a small blue pool, ringed with stone, into which trickled gently a tiny stream. Since it was the middle of the dry season, the rivulet was little more than a dark discoloration on the surface of the cliff face. But the pool, clearly, was carved by a waterfall; the tiny stream, so gentle and harmless now, was a great powerful deluge in the monsoon.

The whole bare rockface, one of the most spectacular in the area, was known as Riat Phod Sumshreah, or, roughly translated: “The cliff of the bathing monkeys.”

“Why is it called that?” I asked Professor.

“Simple: monkeys like to go there and take a bath.”

After a whole day of the supernatural, I was expecting magic monkeys. Oh well.

“Before,” said Professor, “there used to be one big huge stone in the middle of that pool.”

“What happened to it?”

“One day it vanished. People say that it went to marry some other stone.”

“It married another stone? When did this happen?”

“In the year 2005, or 2008, or 2009. Not sure. But I am sure that this is a true story. I was already born then. When I was a kid, I used to go to that pool. Then, a big big stone was there. It was so big that we could only wash clothes at the pool. We couldn’t go swimming. There was no room! Hehe. But then, one day, that stone vanished. There were no scars or tracks or anything. It just completely vanished! We never saw where it went. But then people said the stone went and married some other stone. Hehe.”

“Where did the stone go to get married?”

“Some say he went to marry in Umpung, some say he went to some other village, but they are not sure.”

Nongnah is not a place with a thriving nightlife. But for the occasional barking dog, the village was quiet by sundown.

 Professor and I returned to the little house his mother had rented to me and had tea. It was getting cold and windy now. From the porch, I could look out across the scattered lights of Nongnah, beyond which was the deep blackness of the Lyngon Valley.

There was one last question I wanted to asked Professor; one that was maybe a bit delicate, but also important. How did the people of Nongnah convert to Christianity when the fear of Chow Pao, strong to this day, must have been even more powerful in times past?

“Well, it mostly happened all at once,” Professor claimed.

“All at once?”

“Not all, but mostly. Long ago, but still much after the British came here. It was maybe in the 1920s or 1930s. Then, there were only one or two families in the village who were Christians. And the other people, they said to them: ‘You will make Chow Pao angry if you convert. Go away from us.’ So they banished those Christians to the jungle.

“Then a great plague came, and many people in the village died, but all of the Christians in the jungle survived. And then the people in the village said: ‘Chow Pao did not protect us, but those who are Christians, they have all survived.’ So then the people all switched to being Christians, except a few who said: ‘Now Chow Pao will curse us all.’”

“Did she?”

“I don’t think so. I think maybe she accepts that we must change. Maybe she is a little bit angry. But she is also, like…what can I say? It’s different.”

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