The yeti-lore would significantly expand if we study the Kashmiri legends of the yatsh or yaetch, whose meanings range from “hairy creature” and “bear” to “ogre” and “monster”. The word “yeti” is derived from a Tibetan compound term that means “mountain bear”. The yatsh are demonic yetis.
The most significant feature of the yatsh is their one large eye on the forehead, a feature they share with the jinn. They are nocturnal, and have a talent for squeezing themselves and disappearing into small holes in the ground, which may explain why they are elusive.
The yatsh hold the sun and the moon sacred. They once ruled over the mountains, fought back against humans who tried to cultivate lands under their rule, dragged them down into their subterranean lairs and devoured them. According to local legend, after the introduction of Islam in the region in the 14th century, the demons gave up their possessions, although not their hostility towards humans, and may still inflict harm on them given the opportunity.
Humans seem to enjoy a kind of general amnesty from the yatsh during their wedding season, when the yatsh clandestinely borrow their human neighbours’ clothes and household items for use. It should be noted that these objects are returned at the end of the ceremonies in their original condition. During that time, if any human strays into a yatsh gathering, where there is much drinking, eating and singing, he or she might even return with gifts of miraculous objects, as illustrated by the following account.
At the beginning of autumn, a hunter wandered deep into the mountain recesses and ran out of provisions. He went to sleep from exhaustion but pangs of hunger woke him up in the middle of the night. As he resumed his search for food, he saw a fire burning at some distance and headed there. Upon approaching, he saw to his horror that it was a large assembly of the yatsh, who were eating, drinking and singing. The hunter tried to escape but a squint-eyed yatsh saw him and invited him to join their party. When the hunter expressed fear for his life, the yatsh swore by the sun and the moon that he would not be harmed.
Soon, the yatsh assembled around the bonfire pulled out a plant from the ground and a small aperture appeared. They threw their belongings into it, and then vanished down the narrow hole themselves. The squint-eyed yatsh took the hunter by the hand; they too glided through the hole to the other side, into a marvellously illuminated chamber. The yatsh hid the hunter where he could not be observed and gave him food to eat. He saw a wedding ceremony in progress and the mother of the bride tearfully singing a song at the departure of her daughter to her new home. The hunter was engrossed in the sight when the yatsh told him that it was time he left.
The hunter cast a last look around and realized that one of the yatsh was wearing his shawl, another his favourite pyjamas, and yet another his many coloured stockings. He also noticed that not only his own, but also the valuable household items of his neighbours were being used freely by the yatsh. Seeing one of them armed with his gun made him very afraid but there was no time left, and the yatsh conducted him out of the dwelling through the same hole to the other side, and gave him three loaves of bread for his journey.
The hunter ate two loaves on the way to his village, and of the last one he gave half to his father and the other half to his mother. His father ate the loaf but his mother put her share in the granary where they had stored flour for use during winter. The half-loaf brought them luck and the granary always remained full.
The hunter checked the items he had seen being used by the yatsh but did not find anything amiss or damaged. His neighbours, too, had their belongings. Much later, an old wise woman told the hunter that it was the custom of the yatsh to borrow the property of humans for their weddings, and return the objects in their original condition.
From the details of the lore of the yatsh it is tempting to find a connection between them and the yakshas, the sylvan spirits who guard the natural treasures hidden in the earth and tree roots. However, the yatsh had a more prosaic beginning: They are closely related to the bears whose human forefather, according to legend, took to the mountains to escape his creditors.
Musharraf Ali Farooqi is an author, novelist and translator. He can be reached at www.mafarooqi.com and on Twitter at @microMAF.
This monthly column explores the curious world of the myths and folk tales of South Asia.
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