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The Seven Tribes

A traditional story of the Khasi people, as relayed by Darihun Khriam, the first woman minister in the Khasi Hills.

Early in the history of the world, heaven and earth were connected by a great tree that grew on the crest of a high hill. Using this tree as a ladder, the sixteen families of heaven could move back and forth between earth and heaven, enjoying the bounty of each as they liked. The people lived in peace and prosperity for many years. But, eventually, they became discontented that the great tree was so large that it covered all the land with shade. This made it hard to grow crops, and they longed for the sunshine. Some say it was the urging of an evil spirit that led them to the plan of cutting down the tree. Perhaps it was just their own hubris deciding they no longer needed this connection to heaven, but the people set to cutting down the tree with axes and saws. Although they worked all day, they could not cut through the great girth of the tree so at nightfall they took their axes and their saws, and returned to their homes to rest.

In the morning when they returned to their work, they found no sign of the progress they had made the day before. The tree had healed completely! And so they set to work with greater urgency the second day, but again were unable to cut all the way through the trunk in the span of that day. And when they returned the next day to complete the task, again, the tree had healed leaving no sign of their work. This went on, day after day until, in their confusion and frustration, the people called a council to see what was to be done. At the council, a small bird gave them the solution to their problem. Each night, after they returned to their homes, the tiger would come and lick the wounds of the tree. He would lick and lick until he had erased all traces of the cuts and the tree was made whole. To cut down the tree they must stop the tiger.

Accordingly, at the end of the next day's work, the people left their axes and saws in the tree, with the cutting blades pointing outward. That night when the tiger came, the tools cut his tongue, and he was unable to heal the tree. In this way the people were able to complete the destruction of the tree. It is said that the branches that fell on the Bengali country flattened the land into plains, and the leaves created a rich mulch to make that land fertile. The thickest branches fell on the land of the Khasis creating great mountains and gorges so rugged that they exist to this day.

But, mostly, the result of felling the great tree was to sever the link between heaven and earth. Those who were on the earth could no longer visit heaven, and those who were in heaven could no longer visit the earth. There were seven families on the earth that day, those who became the ancestors of the seven tribes of the Khasi Hills.

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Last updated on Wednesday, October 26, 2011.

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