Stories have a way of touching souls. The tellers of tales among the Khasis have a way of telling emotive stories that reach out to the hearts and minds and teach generations, the necessity of empathy.
The story of the handsome stag, U Sier Lapalang, is one such tale: poignant, and sure to bring many a tear and rend many a heart. But it also teaches us to be mindful of the feelings of others, especially in times of bereavement. Compassion and kindness are supreme and take precedence over every other human behaviour.
U Sier Lapalang, Only Son of his Mother
Long ago, when the sun and the moon were still young, and the trees and stones spoke the language of the humans, at the foot of the hills beyond the Khasi country, lay the placid plains of the Ri Dkhar (the Bangla plains).
Rivers and streams meandered through these plains, roaring throughout the seasons, rich with fishes and ferns, reeds and duckweeds, water lilies and bulrushes and every kind of water plant. Patches of verdant forests dotted the banks and waved with rich vegetation, be it summer or winter.
In the midst of this verdant and idyllic countryside, touched by sunshine all year round, there lived a deer and her only son, a stag she named 'U Sier Lapalang'.
The mother-deer loved her son more than any mother did. Her Sier Lapalang was her life, her joy, and she doted on him, catering to his every whim and fancy.
He was indeed handsome and regal-looking. His coat was a gold-tinted fawn colour, downy with white spots, which graced his lean and muscular body. His head stood erect, eyes a piercing brown and from his forehead, full-grown antlers spread majestically like an intricate crown. He stood out from the rest and the mother’s heart swelled with pride as she watched him move about effortlessly with easy litheness and agility through the bushes, rocks and mounds.
Lapalang, Apple of his Mother's Eye
Apple of his mother's eye, he was pampered in every way even as he grew in age and stature. To a mother, he was the brightly shining Mankara, the morning star.
Unfortunately, he also grew in arrogance and conceit precisely because of his mother's coddling. As the years passed he began to get restless at the humdrum life they led, eating only the 'khah and nor' (common aquatic plants), never venturing out of the monotonous plains days in and day out.
Often his gaze went up the hills that his mother used to talk so much about. His young blood yearned to go romping about to the mountains, gorges and woodlands. He was growing tired of the wide, treeless plains and being tied to his mother's apron strings all the time.
U Sier Lapalang Leaves for the Hills
And so, one fine spring day, as the golden rays of the sun seemed to spray their golden hue on the trees and flowers on the hillsides, U Sier Lapalang's desire for adventure reached its zenith.
He looked up to the hills on the north and said,
'Oh, mother, how I long to go to the hill country that lay so peacefully on the slopes. It seemed rocked to sleep by the sun's rays and birdsong of myriads of birds! Sometimes I see the silvery glitter of the springs and cascades as they flow down the hillsides, dancing in the sun. I see the flowers nodding their heads to the gentle breeze! I can also feel their sweet scent wafting down to my nostrils!'
'I want to taste and see', he continued, 'the country of the gods, feel the zephyr on my face, drink of the perennial springs that well up from the rocks and savour from close range the beauty of the cascading, milky-white waterfalls'.
He told his mother he was tired of the monotonous life they were living so far. He especially wanted to taste the bitter but delicious herb, jangew-jathang, which his mother used to talk so much about.
His mother shuddered with alarm at his intentions and said to him,
'My darling child, the Khasi country may be where the gods live, filled with good things as I have told you, but it is also fraught with danger, inhabited by a ferocious people who will never spare you once they see you. They have mighty bows and lethal arrows and one of them will surely find its mark in you'.
'Mother!' he replied back, 'You worry unnecessarily! I am strong and able-bodied, sharp of hearing and swift of foot. You yourself have said so. I will never allow any Khasi arrow to outrun me'.
His mother tried to hold him back but he would not listen. 'I’ll be gone for just a few months, mother', he said, 'I promise I'll be back soon'.
With those words, he trotted off.
His Mother Tried to Stop U Lapalang
'No, no, son!' the mother cried after him, 'don't go to the Khasi land, the land of the strangers. Danger lurks everywhere. You will not know what can happen to you. Please come back, my darling son, come back! We'll survive on the khah and nor rather than face death'.
But it was no use. Her words of warning fell on deaf ears. U Sier Lapalang had already sauntered off to the hills.
Poor mother deer! How she anguished over her son's absence!
For days she worried over him, neither eating nor drinking nor sleeping. Days turned into weeks and weeks into months and still, her son didn’t return. Her heart was heavy with sadness and worry and her health was also deteriorating. At last, she decided to journey to the Khasi hills in search of her son.
Meanwhile, U Lapalang was thoroughly enjoying his new-found freedom and the variety of food on the hills, so much so that he forgot his promise to his mother. From the southern slopes, he ventured up and up north till he reached the peaks of Shillong. There he found his favourite 'jangew-jathang' growing plentifully. He grazed away to his heart's content, unaware that he was noticed by some herdsmen.
U Lapalang Spotted by Men!
Word soon spread about the presence of the sier – the stag – and people came swarming to where he grazed, armed with bows and arrows, swords and javelins.
The ancient Khasis were warriors that were quite adept in archery and swordplay. They were excellent marksmen with their longbows. Their 'nampliang' – arrows with barbed arrowheads – are lethal once they hit their target, which they seldom miss.
In no time, people started hunting Sier Lapalang down. He tried to escape, relying upon his swift feet but he soon discovered that the humans were cleverer. They had hemmed on him from four directions, pincer-style, and so whichever way he turned they were waiting for him. He was trapped!
Exhausted, he slumped to the ground to catch his breath. But that was the moment he became a soft target for a deadly nampliang.
As he saw archer coming his way he rose but an archer released his arrow that flew with deadly precision, straight through his great chest into his heart. He fell, crying out his mother's name, recalling her anguished cry at his departure.
Then the great Lapalang breathed his last.
A Mother Finds her Slain Son
At around the same time, the mother deer had reached the slopes of the Shillong mountain ranges after moving about for several days through hills and vales, dales and glens, scouring the nooks and crags, raising her head to the wind in case she could get a whiff of his scent.
She climbed atop a hillock to get a better view around when suddenly she heard a commotion in the valley below. She raised her head and saw a crowd shouting and rejoicing, carrying a limp animal body tied and slung over a bamboo pole, carried by people. It was the body of her beloved son, U Sier Lapalang.
Numb with deep sorrow, she dropped to the ground.
Heaven and earth had closed in on her, it seemed. The hapless mother then let out a long, heart-rending cry. So mournful was her song of grief that even the trees and the stones wept along with her.
A Mother's Mourning Song
Unmindful of danger, the old mother stag heaved herself up and rushed towards the human habitation, chanting her dirge of grief:
Wow! la shet ka 'tieh pongdeng, Ia ka rynnieng u kynrem reng,
(O! The tightly drawn bow has had its revenge, On the noble stature of the antlered stag,)
Wow! la kjit u 'namsarang, Ia ka mynsiem u Lapalang.
(O! The rusted arrow has sucked the soul out of U Lapalang.)
Ko Lapalang! Phrangsngi jongnga, Kumba tyngshain u Mankara,
(Oh, Lapalang! My firstborn, my darling son, Shining like the Mangkara,)
Khlem sngap ki ktien sangsot i mei, Me shem lanot ha ka pyrthei!
(You listened not to a mother’s words of woe; Now, this world has struck on you a cruel blow!)
Nga ong ko khun ynnai leit kiew, Sha ri khasi sha ri ki briew,
(I told you, son, not to venture out, To the Khasi land, the alien shore,)
Ngin shong ha la ri them ri thor, Ngin bam d'u khah ngin bam d'u nor.
(We’ll stay and live in our native plains, We’ll eat our humble khah and nor.)
Me ong men wad jangew kynthong, Men leit ban mad jathang oh-shrong,
(You said you’ll search the jangew bush, You’ll taste the serrated jathang leaf,)
Ia nga mynta ka kmie marwei, La dum ka bneng, khyndew, pyrthei.
(But for me, your lonely mother, My sky has darkened, my earth filled with grief.)
Bynriew u ieng la ksaw la ksong, U iarisa ha rngi Shillong,
(The humans celebrate their victory, In jubilee on Shillong’s slopes,)
Ia nga ko khun phrangsngi i Mei, La jah burom ha ka pyrthei!
(But I, beloved firstborn of mine, Have lost all glory under the sun!)
Death of U Lapalang's Mother
As she finished her song, the mother stag collapsed on the ground. Her poor, loving heart gave way. She too died and left this cruel world forever, rejoined with her beloved Lapalang in the other world.
The people's jubilation turned into deep sorrow.
Never have they seen such love of a mother before and never have they heard such soulful mourning. So heart-rending was the old stag's song that not a soul among the crowd was left with dried eyes.
And so, from that day onwards, whenever there was mourning, the mourners would pour out in song words of deep sorrow that touch hearts just like the stag mourned for her beloved Lapalang.