June 16, 2015

Around the World: Folktales of India, By Christina Ruth Johnson, Vintage Fairy Tale Sleuth

The first international stop in our Around-the-World Fairy-Tale Tour is India, home to one of my favorite cultures in the world. The food! The clothes! The dancing! And, of course, the stories.

Researching Indian folktales for this post actually turned out to be an intriguing process. From our (at least, my) place on the other side of the globe, we tend to conceive of India as one homogenous nation. It’s not. This is one of the things that make it such a fascinating country to study and admire.

Indian edition of the Kathasaritsagara, early 17th century.
Metropolitan Museum

India is made up of 29 states and 7 union territories. Various sources and sites state that up to 1650 languages are spoken there; only a handful, however, are spoken by a majority of people. Over 12 are specifically literary languages. There are also 10 different writing systems. Within these regions and language groups and writing systems are many different traditions and sub-cultures, which give birth to many, many different folktales, some unique, and others with related stories around the world.

Attention turned to collecting Indian folktales in the nineteenth century when such studies gained popularity in western Europe (the era of the Grimm brothers, etc.). Since India was a colony of Great Britain up until 1947, most of those who collected Indian tales were European colonists, especially women (wives and daughters of ambassadors, soldiers, etc.). This led to publications of stories that had been “doctored” for content, or written in a literary style incongruent with the tales’ sources.

One nineteenth-century tale, “collected” by Flora Annie Steel, is a fascinating variant on “The White Hind” in which the deer, instead of turning into a lovely princess, is actually a witch in disguise. It is up to the king’s young son to defeat her and rescue his seven mothers. A clever princess helps out. You can find a link to read it below under Resources.

Syrian edition of the Panchatantra, 1354: the rabbit fools the elephant king.
Bodleian Library

Fascinatingly, at that time India was considered to be the original source for the folktale tradition in Europe. Many ancient Indian texts had been translated into European languages from the original Sanskrit as early as the European medieval period by way of Arabic and Latin. One such text is the Panchatantra, a collection of about 87 animal stories first compiled between the third and fifth centuries AD but likely originating around 200 BC or earlier, possibly in Kashmir. For comparison, the earliest known collection of animal fables attributed to the legendary Aesop comes from the fourth century BC. (Fun side note: someone who writes or compiles fables is called a “fabulist.”)

One unique story from the Panchatantra involves the king of the jungle, who is an elephant, a bullock advisor, and a tiny ant. The ant challenges the elephant, who scoffs at his diminutive size. We can all guess how this tale ends: the ant triumphs. But he does so by going up inside the elephant’s trunk and into his brain. All ends well, and the elephant gains much greater respect for the insect. (Beck #69)

Pakistani edition of the Kathasaritsagara, 1590:
King Putraka in the Palace of the Beautiful Patali. LACMA

Another famous Indian story collection is the Kathasaritsagara (“The Ocean of the Streams of Story”) compiled sometime in the eleventh century AD. The publishers of the Penguin Edition describe it as “an uninhibited and bawdy celebration of earthly life.” These tales influenced or provided source material for Arabian Nights and the Decameron. Even Shakespeare based a couple of his plays on these early Indian stories: Cymbeline and All’s Well That Ends Well. We also see in the Indian folktale tradition variants of some of the most well known stories in the western world: Cinderella, Oedipus, Lear and his daughters, among others. One tale from South India follows the Oedipal storyline but swaps the genders of the original Greek story: a woman is fated to marry her son, which of course ends up happening despite everything she does to avoid it.

Today, scholars are working to compile oral stories that are still in existence from all the disparate regions, languages, traditions, and sub-cultures of India. These have been translated into English with the goal of remaining as faithful to the originals as possible. Ramanujan and others have published a couple of excellent anthologies (which are listed under Recommended Reading below), which categorize these stories by genre and language/region. Some tales have religious/sacred roots, others have roots in the upper-class literary traditions, and still more come from the “folk” or lower-class traditions.

One fun tale from Karnataka is about the god Krishna and deals with the jealousies of co-wives. The story includes magical flowers, 1001 parrots, cross-dressing, and one woman turning (herself!) into a golden fly. (Beck #44)

Pakistani version of the Kathasaritsagara, 1590:
Somaprabha and a Celestial Nymph listening to Music. LACMA

Within this plurality, we are at the very least able to pinpoint prevailing themes and motifs that appear across regional and language boundaries. These are themes of familial relationships (between parent and child, between siblings, etc.); marital relationships (between betrotheds, between husband and wife, and including adulterous situations--often humorous); origin stories; stories about stereotypical character-types (the fool, the underdog, the trickster, etc.); and stories lauding (or disapproving) specific character traits--lauding cleverness, selflessness, courage, and religious dedication; disapproving foolishness and egoism. Many tales fit into more than one category. Women are typically given prominent places, often appearing in semi-magical roles or in disguises. Ramanujan points out that women tend to embody universal roles, while men embody specific cultural identities.

This does not mean that women are not cast as comic characters. In one story from Kashmir, seven sisters have ridiculous speech impediments, which their mother desperately (and, of course, futilely) tries to hide from the matchmaker. (Beck #27)

Which Indian folktale is your favorite? Check out the Recommended Reading list below, and then join Enchanted Conversation to let us know! Feel free to vote in the comments on where our journey will take us next.

Christina Ruth Johnson has her M.A. in Art History with a research focus on the ancient Mediterranean. She is currently working as a teacher and freelance writer. Her other great love is fantasy literature and folklore from ancient times to present day.

A.K. Ramanujan. “Foreward.” Folk Tales of India. ed. Brenda Beck, et al. Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 1987, xi-xxi.
D.L. Ashliman, ed. “The Panchatantra.” University of Pittsburgh. Accessed 5 May 2015. http://www.pitt.edu/~dash/panchatantra.html.
Encyclopedia Britannica, “Aesop.” Accessed 6 May 2015. http://www.britannica.com/EBchecked/topic/7451/Aesop.
Flora Annie Steel. “The Son of Seven Mothers.” Tales of the Punjab. London: Macmillan, 1894. UPenn Digital Library. Accessed 7 May 2015. http://digital.library.upenn.edu/women/steel/punjab/punjab-10.html.

Recommended Reading
A.K. Ramanujan, ed. Folktales from India: a selection of oral tales from twenty-two languages. New York: Pantheon Books, 1991.
Brenda E.F. Beck, et al. Folk Tales of India. Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 1987.
C.H. Tawney, trans. “Katha Sarit Sagara.” Project Gutenberg. http://www.gutenberg.org/files/40588/40588.txt.
D.L. Ashliman, ed. “The Panchatantra.” University of Pittsburgh. http://www.pitt.edu/~dash/panchatantra.html.
Flora Annie Steel. Tales of the Punjab. London: Macmillan, 1894. UPenn Digital Library. http://digital.library.upenn.edu/women/steel/punjab/punjab.html.
Maive Stokes, coll. and trans. Indian Fairy Tales. Project Gutenberg. http://www.gutenberg.org/files/31209/31209-h/31209-h.html.

1 comment