Ka Lukhmi – A Mythical Story on How The Khasis Started Growing Rice!
Popularly known as the 'Seven Sisters,' Northeast India is a rich mosaic of different cultures. The hundreds of ethnic communities with its own unique languages and cultures make the region remarkably diverse.
Food is one important way in which this diversity is manifested. Every food preparation and delicacy have a distinct flavour and aroma that sets one community apart from the other. The way and how food is made and tastes provide a lot of insights about the one behind the cooking!
Regardless of this profusion in the palate, there is a centre towards which all culinary delicacies In Northeast India gravitate. The perennial grass– rice!
Rice is the staple food for the most part, if not the entire region of the Northeast. Paddy or rice cultivation covers around 61 percent of the total arable land. Rice is cultivated in 'pani kheti' (wet rice cultivation), which is widespread in the plains of Assam and the dry rainfed terraced cultivation popular in the hilly terrains. The centrality of rice in the cultural imagination of the region is explained by the association of rice with various myths and rituals.
'Ka Lukhmi' is one such mythical narrative prevalent among the Khasis of Meghalaya.
The Story Goes Like This...
Once a 'Karew', a man from the hills travelled with his wife and daughter to visit a 'Kharsari,' a man from the plains. The two were dear friends.
In the garden of the plainsman, grew a beautiful but strange flower. During their stay at the Kharsari's house, the daughter became sick and refused to eat anything.
The following morning the girl's mother took her out, carrying her on the back to get some fresh air. Outside, the girl started pointing at the garden and led her mother to where the strange flower grew. She insisted on having the flowers.
The girl was inconsolable, and seeing this, the Kharsari asked the girl's mother to pick a bunch of the flowers and give it to her. The girl became calm and peaceful after this.
After the family returned to the hills, the flower which the little girl carried with her was swept aside, and the whole incident forgotten. Until one day, when they discovered rice-stalks growing in their backyard. They found several varieties of rice growing but eat they did not dare! Being apprehensive, the Karew first fed a dog and later an old woman. When they both grew plump and healthy, they realized the value of the plant and started cultivating it.
The family of the Karew soon grew into a prosperous household, and all the people from the neighborhood thronged his home for a handful of rice.
The wife of the Karew was reluctant to share this wondrous crop with anyone. But when the whole village persisted, she was forced to relent. However, she boiled and dried the rice grain, and only then did she share with the rest of the people in the village.
Nothing grew, and all their effort in cultivating rice was in vain. Consequently, the wife of the Karew also became anxious as she finished the last remaining grain that she had stored. She had never imagined that the same flower that had brought them immense prosperity would leave them despondent one day!
As she pondered restlessly over the prospect of feeding her many children, the sound of rice falling on the mud floor broke her reverie. There was a rat in the ceiling which had hoarded some rice stolen from the granary.
The incensed wife took a big wooden baton and began clubbing the rat. Afraid that his life may not be spared, the rat pledged the Karew's wife that he would bring back the rice grains that had brought her family into deprivation. The woman let him go.
The rat went down to the plains where there lived the three sisters. There was a bathing pool where the sisters took a bath three times a day every day.
The clever rat waited for the sisters to disrobe and took away their clothes. After they finished bathing, the sisters searched frantically for their clothes. While two of the sisters got their clothes back, one of them remained naked! A long search for the clothes ensued and eventually found the clothes near where the rat sat.
The rat refused to part with the clothes and would agree to do so only if she accompanied him to 'Ri' or the land of the Khasis. The naked sister agreed to go with him but later went back on her words.
The same drama unfolded again and again, and every time the rat would be deceived! However, the rat was resolute and eventually succeeded in persuading the eldest sister 'Ka Lukhmi' with his cunning to journey with him.
The naked Ka Lukhmi dressed herself up and sat with the rat on the boat and travelled to the land of the Khasis (in Ri-Bhoi). As she left the plains, the pumpkin, the yam, the arum, the gourd, the sesame and so forth followed her.
When they reached the village, they were greeted first with the crow of the rooster, then the cry of the pig, goat, and cow soon filled the air. "What is all that sound?", inquired Ka Lukhmi. "That is all for you during the performance of ceremonies and rituals", replied the rat. Impressed by this benevolence and generosity, Ka Lukhmi decided to reside in the hills forever.
Finally, arriving at the home of the Karew, Ka Lukhmi took out the rice and blessed the house with bounty and prosperity. For his effort, the enterprising rat claimed for himself the first seeds of the bounty, the first sample from the fields, the first grains from the granary. "To Ka Lukhmi", declared the rat, "men will pay obeisance to you, consecrate and make you eternal!"
To this day, Ka Lukhmi or the spirit of the paddy is still coaxed in the annual three-day Khasi performance of 'Ka Kroh Lukhmi' around January.
Thus, through its association in mythical narratives and performance in ceremonies, the centrality of rice in the Northeast has transcended its material bounds as a commodity for consumption to a spiritual plane where the grain of rice becomes a manifestation of a cosmic deity to be entreated and celebrated!