How the Peacock Got His Beautiful Feathers : A Khasi Folk Tale

From Folk-Tales of the Khasis by Mrs. Rafy, Macmillan and Co. Limited (1920)

When the world was young and when all the animals spoke the language of mankind, the peacock, U Klew, was but an ordinary grey-feathered bird without any pretensions to beauty. But, even in those days, he was much given to pride and vanity, and strutted about with all the majesty of royalty, just because his tuft was more erect than the tuft of other birds and because his tail was longer and was carried with more grace than the tails of any of his companions.

He was a very unaccommodating neighbour. His tail was so big and unwieldy that he could not enter the houses of the more lowly birds, so he always attended the courts of the great, and was entertained by one or other of the wealthy birds at times of festivals in the jungle. This increased his high opinion of himself and added to his self-importance. He became so haughty and overbearing that he was cordially disliked by his neighbours, who endeavoured to repay him by playing many a jest at his expense.

They used to flatter him, pretending that they held him in very high esteem, simply for the amusement of seeing him swelling his chest and hearing him boast. [11]One day they pretended that a great Durbar of the birds had been held to select an ambassador to carry the greetings of the jungle birds to the beautiful maiden Ka Sngi, who ruled in the Blue Realm and poured her bright light so generously on their world, and that U Klew had been chosen for this great honour.

The peacock was very elated and became more swaggering than ever, and talked of his coming visit with great boastings, saying that not only was he going as the ambassador from the birds, but he was going in his own interests as well, and that he would woo and win the royal maiden for his wife and live with her in the Blue Realm.

The birds enjoyed much secret fun at his expense, none of them dreaming that he would be foolish enough to make the attempt to fly so far, for he was such a heavy-bodied bird and had never flown higher than a tree-top.

But much to the surprise of every one, the peacock expressed his intention of starting to the Blue Realm and bade his friends good-bye, they laughing among themselves, thinking how ridiculous he was making himself, and how angry he would be when he found how he had been duped. Contrary to their expectations, however, U Klew continued his flight upwards till they lost sight of him, and they marvelled and became afraid, not knowing to what danger their jest might drive him.

Strong on the wing, U Klew soared higher and higher, never halting till he reached the sky and alighted at the palace of Ka Sngi, the most beautiful of all maidens and the most good.

Now Ka Sngi was destined to live alone in her grand palace, and her heart often yearned for companionship. [12]When she saw that a stranger had alighted at her gates she rejoiced greatly, and hastened to receive him with courtesy and welcome. When she learned the errand upon which he had come, she was still happier, for she thought, “I shall never pine for companionship again, for this noble bird will always live with me”; and she smiled upon the world and was glad.

When U Klew left the earth and entered the realm of light and sunshine, he did not cast from him his selfish and conceited nature, but rather his selfishness and conceit grew more pronounced as his comforts and luxuries increased. Seeing the eager welcome extended to him by the beautiful maiden, he became more uplifted and exacting than ever and demanded all sorts of services at her hands; he grew surly and cross unless she was always in attendance upon him. Ka Sngi, on the other hand, was noble and generous and delighted to render kindnesses to others. She loved to shine upon the world and to see it responding to her warmth and her smiles. To her mate, U Klew, she gave unstinted attention and waited upon him with unparalleled love and devotion, which he received with cold indifference, considering that all this attention was due to his own personal greatness, rather than to the gracious and unselfish devotion of his consort.

In former times Ka Sngi had found one of the chief outlets for her munificence in shedding her warm rays upon the earth; but after the coming of U Klew her time became so absorbed by him that she was no longer able to leave her palace, so the earth became cold and dreary, and the birds in the jungle became cheerless, their feathers drooped, and their songs ceased. U Slap, the rain, came and pelted their cosy nests without mercy, [13]causing their young ones to die; U Lyoh, the mist, brought his dark clouds and hung them over the rice fields so that no grain ripened; and Ka Eriong, the storm, shook the trees, destroying all the fruit, so that the birds wandered about homeless and without food.

In their great misery they sought counsel of mankind, whom they knew to be wiser than any of the animals. By means of divinations mankind ascertained that all these misfortunes were due to the presence of U Klew in the Blue Realm, for his selfish disposition prevented Ka Sngi from bestowing her light and her smiles upon the world as in former times; and there was no hope for prosperity until U Klew could be lured back to jungle-land.

In those days there lived in the jungle a cunning woman whose name was Ka Sabuit. Acting on the advice of mankind, the birds invoked her aid to encompass the return of the peacock from the Blue Realm. At that time Ka Sabuit was very destitute, owing to the great famine; she had nothing to eat except some wild roots and no seed to sow in her garden except one gourdful of mustard seeds—the cheapest and most common of all seeds—and even this she was afraid to sow lest the hungry birds should come and devour it and leave her without a grain.

When the birds came to seek counsel of her she was very pleased, hoping that she could by some design force them to promise not to rob her garden. After they had explained to her their trouble, she undertook to bring U Klew back to the jungle within thirteen moons on two conditions: one, that the birds should refrain from picking the seeds from her garden; the other, that they should torment the animals if they came to eat her crops [14]or to trample on her land. These appeared such easy terms that the birds readily agreed to them.

The garden of the cunning woman was in an open part of the jungle and could be seen from many of the hill-tops around, and in past days the sun used to shine upon it from morning till night. Thither Ka Sabuit wended her way after the interview with the birds, and she began to dig the ground with great care and patience, bestowing much more time upon it than she had ever been known to do. Her neighbours laughed and playfully asked her if she expected a crop of precious stones to grow from her mustard seed that year that she spent so much labour upon the garden, but the elderly dame took no heed. She worked on patiently and kept her own counsel while the birds waited and watched.

She shaped her mustard bed like unto the form of a woman; this provoked the mirth of her neighbours still more and incited many questions from them, but Ka Sabuit took no heed. She worked patiently on and kept her own counsel while the birds waited and watched.

By and by the seeds sprouted and the plot of land shaped like a woman became covered with glistening green leaves, while the birds continued to watch and to keep the animals at bay, and the cunning woman watered and tended her garden, keeping her own counsel.

In time small yellow flowers appeared on all the mustard plants, so that the plot of land shaped like a woman looked in the distance like a beautiful maiden wearing a mantle of gold that dazzled the eyes. When the neighbours saw it they wondered at the beauty of it and admired the skill of the cunning woman; but no one could understand or guess at her reason for the [15]strange freak and Ka Sabuit threw no light on the matter. She still patiently worked on and kept her own counsel.

Up in the Blue Realm U Klew continued his despotic and arrogant sway, while his gentle and noble wife spared no pains to gratify his every wish. Like all pampered people who are given all their desires, the peacock became fretful and more and more difficult to please, tiring of every diversion, and ever seeking some new source of indulgence, till at last nothing seemed to satisfy him; even the splendours and magnificence of the palace of Ka Sngi began to pall.

Now and then memories of his old home and old associates came to disturb his mind, and he often wondered to himself what had been the fate of his old playmates in jungle-land. One day he wandered forth from the precincts of the palace to view his old haunts, and as he recognised one familiar landmark after another his eye was suddenly arrested by the sight of (as it seemed to him) a lovely maiden dressed all in gold lying asleep in a garden in the middle of the forest where he himself had once lived. At sight of her his heart melted like water within him for the love of her. He forgot the allegiance due to his beautiful and high-born wife, Ka Sngi; he could only think of the maiden dressed all in gold, lying asleep in a jungle garden, guarded by all the birds.

After this U Klew was reluctant to remain in the Blue Realm. His whole being yearned for the maiden he had seen lying asleep on the earth, and one day, to his wife’s sorrow, he communicated his determination to return to his native land to seek the object of his new love. Ka Sngi became a sorrowful wife, for there is no pang so piercing to the heart of a constant woman as [16]the pang inflicted by being forsaken by her husband. With all manner of inducements and persuasions and charms she tried to prevail upon him to keep faithful to his marriage vows, but he was heartless and obdurate; and, unmindful of all ties, he took his departure. As he went away Ka Sngi followed him, weeping, and as she wept her tears bedewed his feathers, transforming them into all the colours of the rainbow. Some large drops falling on his long tail as he flew away were turned into brilliant-hued spots, which are called “Ummat Ka Sngi” (the Sun’s tears) by the Khasis to this day. Ka Sngi told him that they were given for a sign that wherever he might be and on whomsoever his affections might be bestowed, he would never be able to forget her, Ka Sngi, the most beautiful and the most devoted of wives.

Thus U Klew, the peacock, came back to the jungle. The birds, when they saw his beautiful feathers, greeted him with wonder and admiration. When he informed them that he had come in quest of a lovely maiden dressed all in gold, they began to laugh, and it now became clear to them what had been the object of the cunning woman when she shaped her mustard bed like unto the shape of a woman. They invited U Klew to come and be introduced to the object of his love, and they led him forth with great ceremony to the garden of Ka Sabuit, where he beheld, not a beautiful maiden as he had imagined, but a bed of common mustard cunningly shaped. His shame and humiliation were pitiful to behold; he tried to fly back to the Blue Realm, but he was no longer able to take a long flight; so, uttering the most sad and plaintive cries, he had to resign himself to the life of the jungle for ever.

Every morning, it is said, the peacock can be seen stretching forth his neck towards the sky and flapping his wings to greet the coming of Ka Sngi; and the only happiness left to him is to spread his lovely feathers to catch the beams which she once more sheds upon the earth.

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