May 19, 2020

Folklore & Spirits & Bohemian Rhapsody, Oh My!

Inevitably, when we travel, we come across stories of people we meet and the places we visit. 

These stories shape our perception of possibilities, hopes, and dreams. We have an opportunity to give different depths and meaning to our lives from the words we choose to hear and share. 

When I pinned Meghalaya in Northeast India for a trip, I didn’t anticipate any extraordinary experience. I only knew that it was a picturesque destination, as claimed by Google. Amongst all its towns, Cherrapunji (locally referred to as Sohra) became my favorite place. Rich hues of candy pink and orange engulfed the sky in the evenings. It was cool breezes on a sunny warm day, beautiful valleys amongst plateaus, and the kindest locals. The glory of Sohra rejuvenated me. 

My hotel was a bit off-road between the clouds. It had stone-age architecture, with small cottages spread across the landscape and a stream flowing on one side. It could’ve been straight out of a Flintstone movie. Instead of dinosaurs, they had a pack of friendly street dogs.

One Friday night, I met the in-house band after dinner. The band played old classic rock numbers. Drunk guests swayed their hips to the tunes of “Bohemian Rhapsody.” Tanny was the lead guitarist and vocalist, Boy was the bass guitarist, and Rex was the drummer.

Live music became my evenings. Eventually, I became a part of their jamming sessions, bantering in the local language, and sharing in their smoking breaks. The longer I stayed here and got to know them, the more I was getting attached to Sohra, especially the hotel. 

One such night, after the music session was over and other guests started making their way toward their rooms, I offered these boys a hand to pack their equipment. With my vacation coming to an end, I didn’t want to miss any opportunity to spend some more time with them.

Out of the blue, we heard a peculiar uproar—a loud howling. In two shakes, the pack of dogs gathered and ran toward the darkest corner of the hotel land. In unison, they howled a loud, ear-splitting distress call. Trust me. This wasn’t normal. Goosebumps covered my arms, and my heart was pounding. Visibly shaken, I looked around to check others. The band was calm. They didn’t even flinch.

To break the silence and make me comfortable (or uncomfortable), Rex casually said, “I think they just saw spirits.”

Just saw spirits? How could everyone be so frivolous about it? 

I was intimidated. Tanny smirked at my bewilderment. In his deep voice, he clarified, “The Khasi tribe believes in a dwarfish human species that are not visible to everyone. These spirits are harmless. They are just here to enjoy, like you. They don’t create any havoc.”

As much as it was frightening, I was intrigued. I wanted to know more. I asked, “Is there anything you are afraid of?”

Boyin a soft, confident voice, replied, “Yes! U Thlen, the demon serpent. It feeds on human blood.” Rex added, “We have been advised since childhood to avoid unusually charming people, especially in Upper Shillong. As per a Khasi legend, this snake vampire usually takes a hypnotic appearance to find its prey. There have been mysterious deaths and disappearances.” I was enthralled. After a long pause, Tanny intervented, “Well, you can befriend U Thlen if you want to be safe.” 

“Friends with a snake?” I questioned, amusingly. 

Boy, hesitantly replied, “You’ll have to feed him in one way or the other. You have to pay a price. However, in return, U Thlen would bestow you with great riches.”

Their naivety (or cultural upbringing) was fascinating. The night was coming to an end. An eerie wind surfaced and filled me with a sense of conformity. Beyond the waterfalls and visible lush frondescence of Meghalaya, there are tales of magical deities, human creation, and kindred forest spirits.

Legends can simply be stories, but to others, they are a reality. From aliens to Sasquatch, every place has its folklore. Are they just tales, modern-day superstition, or more?

The truth is, we need these stories. Stories connect us, stories give us hope, and stories reaffirm the significance of our existence. 

When we listen to these narratives, we are taken on a journey with it. With each journey, we have the power to decide how we decipher them. And from our interpretation, our own story emerges.

After bidding them goodbye, I strolled toward my room and switched on my phone light (looking around for spirits). Fortunately, or unfortunately, I found none. Regardless, this tale stayed with me.

Meghalaya is underrated. It is much more than photos we see on the Internet. From folk legends to juicy pineapples, modified Maruti cars, and bamboo trails, Meghalaya was exquisite in every way possible.

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