Rivers have been an extremely essential part of people’s lives throughout centuries in all parts of the world. Not only do they offer people a source of drinking water, but also help them to fertilize lands as well as to transport goods between two places. Rivers play an important role in the ecology of rainforest, wetlands as well as provide habitat for wildlife. And while rivers of the world are important in various aspects, they also are very beautiful and manage to attract a lot of tourists from different corners of the world. Such is a river’s mystique – it fills your heart and fills your life. Perhaps that’s why peoples hold rivers as sacred entities the world over.
Among the many rivers in Meghalaya, Umiew and Umngot are two rivers that originated in Shillong Peak.
As with every community, Khasis too are very conscious about their rivers. They have stories about them that are as fascinating as the rivers themselves.
One such story is the story of Umiew and Umngot.
Here's how it goes…
Ka Iew Bad Ka Ngot - Two Daughters of U 'Lei Shyllong
Long ago, when the universe was still young, there were two sisters, Ka Iew and Ka Ngot. They were the daughters of U 'Lei Shyllong, the presiding deity of Shillong. As children of such a high god, the girls were beautiful beyond comparison and fabulously rich too.
The sisters adored each other and were inseparable. They loved to dress with matching outfits and jewellery of gold and silver. Their beauty was matched in equal measure by their impeccable character and bearing. Ka Iew and Ka Ngot were the darlings of everyone.
The elder sister, Ka Iew, had some shortcomings. She thought that because she saw was the first-born she had the first right to everything. She was very touchy and when things didn't go her way, she would get upset quite fast. When she talked she was often abrupt and impetuous. She often said things without weighing her words or thinking about the consequences. Though she loved her sister she was still overbearing and rather harsh on her sometimes.
Ka Ngot, however, was the exact opposite of Ka Iew. Her's was a heart of gold, and her demeanour was soft and pleasing. Her temperament, they say, was as soothing as the tlieng – a supple and much-valued mat made from a special reed. She was ever gentle and smiling, her countenance fresh as a rosebud. Nimble-footed and ever helpful by nature, she never failed to lend a helping hand anywhere she was needed.
A Climb to Shillong Peak
It was a fine autumn day. The sky was clear and bright. Not a speck of cloud blemished its blue dome. The sun's rays had turned gentle, softly caressing everything on the earth as with a comforting balm.
So beautiful was that day that it prompted Ka Iew and her sister to climb up to the topmost point of Shillong peak. From there they took a view of the world around. Far to the north were the lofty, snow-capped peaks of the Lum Makashang (Himalayas).
Far south the wide, wide plains of Bangla country seemed to extend forever, their endless fields and waters reflecting the sun. The sisters were thrilled to see the infinite beauty. How they longed to go to those places and see from close range those shining waters dancing in the sun’s rays.
Ka Iew's Challenge
Ka Iew was particularly enamoured with the idea. She challenged her sister to a race down to the southern plains.
Ka Ngot refused. She wasn't thrilled. She knew the journey would be too far and feared something untoward might happen along the way.
At this, Ka Iew taunted her sister, calling her a coward, timid as a rabbit and weak as a chicken.
Ka Ngot wasn't happy to be so mocked. So she said that if her sister wanted so much to race they should run alongside. She wasn't comfortable because the route was unfamiliar to her and the distance was too great.
Ka Iew interrupted, suggesting they change themselves into rivers and flow down to the plains. Whoever reached first would be the winner.
Ka Ngot, seeing through her sister's conceit, shoved her timidity aside and accepted the challenge.
Both sisters then turned themselves into rivers and started flowing southwards.
The River Sisters' Race
Ka Ngot, the gentle and humble one, sought gentle curves and flowed through valleys and plains. She coursed eastwards before turning southwards. No obstacles hindered these pathways although twists and turns were plenty. She soon reached the Bangla plains at Shilot (Sylhet) and started looking out for her sister.
But Ka Iew was nowhere to be found.
Ka Ngot wondered if something bad had happened to Ka Iew. She kept flowing and looking, winding her way towards Shatok (Chhatak). Not finding her sister there she made a curvy detour to towards Dwara. This curve was so stunning that even the rays of the sun touched and played on her gentle waves, making her waters shimmer like solid silver. People of that place fell so much in love with the silvery river that they named her 'Rupa Tylli' – Solid Silver – till this day.
Meanwhile, the arrogant Ka Iew, with an air of superiority, thought she'd cut straight through the hill country. That way she hoped to avoid the curves, twists, turns and the plains, and flow straight down south to Shella. Thus she pushed relentlessly through mountains and boulders, made gorges where there were none, turned rocks into pebbles. Whatever stood in her way was mercilessly shattered. She hacked her way through without turning left on right, created eddies, cascades and waterfalls in her wake. What a turbulent river she became!
She completed her ruthless journey but at a cost. She lost the race. Her thoughtless cutting through every obstacle made her lose time without her realising it. When she reached Shella, she saw to her dismay that her sister was already there before her!
Both feelings of anger and shame burned inside Ka Iew. What a predicament she landed herself in! What ignominy! To be beaten at her own game by the younger sister she had called timid and chicken-hearted just a while ago!
She’d rather die than suffer such shame!
Ka Iew then thrashed herself about with such violence that she broke into five rivers. They were the Dwara, the Pasbiria, the Kumarjani, the Umtang and the Umtarsa.
From that day Ka Iew remained the river Umiew. People also called her Umiam because she cried so much at her own defeat.
End Of The Race: Blessings Of Rivers
Though Ka Ngot won the race, she never gloated over her sister. Conceit never entered her heart. She remained as gentle and pleasant a river to this day. She's now the Umngot, the river that's most loved in the country of the Khasis and even south of the border.
Ka Ngot has taught the Khasis a life lesson: kindness, graciousness and humility. That is why Khasis never cross over someone who is lying down or deride someone who is down. This is a mark of respect for Ka Ngot who remained humble even as a victor.
Till this day, if you want to taste the Umngot's grace and placidness you can go to Shnongpdeng near Dawki. So calm and crystal clear are her waters there that you can see the riverbed and count the fishes and pebbles below the surface.
The Umiew may be turbulent but like any other river she is vital, supporting life and bringing prosperity and richness everywhere passes through.
All rivers are precious and it is our responsibility to keep our rivers healthy because rivers are life. Healthy rivers make healthy earth, as someone said, and everyone knew.
Do you have a river story too? I'd love to know!