There are many tiger stories in the culture and milieu of the Pnar of Jaintia hills and though there are quite a few varieties of tigers in the area like leopard, royal Bengal tiger and clouded leopard but the stories mostly refers to the majestic royal Bengal Tiger known in local parlance as ‘khla-thoh-larein.’ Pnars who belong to Rymbai clan are nicknamed as ‘Rymbai-bah-khla’ referring to the legend in which the Tiger saved the progenitor of the clan. This is one such story which has tiger as a main character. But this is a story about a different type of Tiger; rather it is a story about a man who can transform himself into a tiger.
Since my childhood days I was fascinated by the stories of human or man in particular who could transform himself to a tiger. The folklore of the Pnars of Jaintia Hills in particular abound with stories of men who can change themselves to tiger (ki bru kylla khla). It is a common belief that such people are are shaman or traditional healers, also believed to processed certain kind of supernatural powers. In the olden days shamans are looked upon as people who not only heal people from all kinds of ailments but also possesses mysterious powers including the ability to transform themselves to any form, shape and figure or even the power to transcend beyond the ordinary worldly realm. In the past people are believed to suffer from being possessed by evil spirits or by being cursed by fellow human beings or living under a curse because of sins or transgressions of the previous generation. We believe that a person who misbehaves is attacked by spirits which dwell in the forest, the hills and the rivers.
My late father was not a traditional healer per se but by virtue of being someone who lived in the Bhoi Karbi Anglong a good part of his life, he is believed to possess healing powers for certain ailments. The Pnars generally believed that the Shaman from Bhoi known in local parlance as “ki stad Bhoi” possessed great supernatural powers which enable them to wrestle with any evil spirit including ghosts. I have close affinity with the place where my father spent his adolescence and I enjoy visiting Karbi area partly because my work too requires that I make frequent visits to the area. In search of the Tiger man in Karbi Anglong, I met an elderly man whose name is Elisar Bongrung from Longduk Anglong (previously known as Umkhyrmi/Lummoojem) who went to school in Shangpung. I asked ma Elizar if he knows or has heard about men who can change themselves to tigers because the Pnars believe that it was the Bhoi shaman (stad Bhoi) who could do so. The old man replied saying ‘ka Pnar sea wa juh kylla Khla’ (no it is the Pnar who can change themselves to tiger). The statement proves one thing, that both the Karbi and the Pnar share the legends of a tiger man albeit understandably with little variation.
In the Karbi tradition, they too have a legend of man who can transform himself into a tiger and he is known as, “Killing Chongkret”. My source informed that the word Killing could possibly has some connection with Killing a village in the Ri Bhoi District. And the tiger man they know has his origin in the Killing village of Ri Bhoi district. Killing Chongkret according to the Karbi is a weird looking animal with the body of a tiger, the face of bear, the foot of a pig or an elephant so on and so forth. In other words it is a beast with some feature of every animal in it. The Karbi’s tiger man is different from that of the Pnars because the Tiger man that the Pnars believe in is that of a man who can transform himself to a tiger and nothing but a tiger no more; no less.
My father used to narrate stories of the past when people would kill a tiger and on a closer inspection realize that it was a tiger-man or a man who had changed himself to a tiger that was killed. How did they arrive at the conclusion? The reason is because sometimes the dead tiger had ear rings on both ears and sometimes rings on its toe; and sometimes its foot still appears to be partly human not completely transformed to that of a tiger’s foot. This they believe proved that it was a tiger man that was killed.
In one of my visits to Musiaw village in search of the tiger man, I met a grand old man S. Dhar who told me the story of u Kat Ymbon of Shangpung village who can change himself to a tiger. U Kat Ymbon was the brother of u Joh Ymbon, Shangpung’s own Nostradamus who foretold many thing that really happened. Ma Shining Star Laloo had written a book about Joh Ymbon and his prophecy. Like Socrates Joh Ymbon was branded a lunatic by his contemporaries because they thought he was out of his mind and spoke nonsense.
It is part of the Pnar culture that during the sowing and harvesting season, farmers in the village usually help each other in a tradition call “chu-nong.” The tradition requires that the entire community join hands together in helping each other complete the sowing or harvesting of rice. The tradition is basically a process where each family helps another without having to pay anyone any wage except to provide food to the volunteers. It was said that in one such chu-nong that the community came to help Kat Ymbon. After they had completed with the day’s work on returning home, on the way Kat saw a fat pig which belong to a certain old woman. He asked her if she would sell the pig to enable him to feed his guest. The Old woman was not willing to sell her pig and Kat cursed that the tiger would come and eat the pig. As soon as eh said that a tiger came and killed the pig. The legends say that it was Kat Ymbon who transformed himself to a tiger and killed the pig and carried it to his hut in the village to feed his guests. Heibormi Sungoh who like me is a lay folklorist told me that the legend is still part of the traditional Niamtre home consecration ceremony of the Ymbon clan. Every time families from Ymbon clan sanctify a new home, the legend of u Kat Ymbon who can transform himself to a tiger is always part of the chanting that is being recited.
People in Mukhap village also share the legend of a medicine man from Karbi who was called to treat a person who was in a serious condition. The legend goes that after he had checked on the sick person, he looked inside his bag and realized that the particular item he needed to treat the person was missing. He told the family of the sick person what had happened and said that he had to go back to his village and collect the required medicine. But the problem is his native village is very far in the Bhoi area (now known as Karbi Anglong) and the way to the village is through a dense forest infested with all kinds of wild animals and which is therefore not safe to walk especially during the night. He told them not to worry and he would be back in no time. The legend has it that throughout the journey he alternately changed himself to a tiger and also to an eagle and returned to treat the sick person in time.
Legend also has it that men who can change themselves to a tiger did so with the help of a certain kind of a mysterious stone. The walking-tiger-man or rather the walking-man-tiger always has the unique stone close to him and whenever the situation warrants he would go find a secluded place where nobody can see him and lick the stone and he is immediately transformed to a ferocious tiger. The power is only used for good and noble purposes and a person’s exceptional power to turn to a tiger is a closely guarded secret, which one is not supposed to be reveal to anyone and that leads us to the last known story of tiger man, the story I call ‘the last of the tiger man.’
(The writer is a researcher and social thinker and can be contacted at email@example.com)