The Living Word by Randhir Khare, celebrated Indian poet and writer.
Randhir Khare is an award winning poet, artist, writer, playwright, folklorist and distinguished educationist who has published numerous volumes of poetry, short fiction, essays and novels and educational handbooks and has travelled widely, reading and presenting his work, nationally and internationally. He has presented his work at the Nehru Centre in London, at the Ubud Writers Festival in Bali, the India Festival In Bulgaria, at the Writers Union in the Czech Republic, in Bulgaria, Slovenia and at the Europalia Arts Festival in Belgium. In India, he has performed his poetry with various traditional and contemporary musicians and founded (and leads) MYSTIC, India’s first poetry-music band. Randhir is the recipient of The Sanskriti Award for Creative Writing, The Gold Medal for Poetry awarded by the Union of Bulgarian Writers, The Human Rights Award, The Residency Grant 2009 for his lifetime contribution to literature in English awarded by The Sahitya Akademi and The Palash Award (for his lifetime contribution to education and culture) among others.
In tribal India, stories have always occupied a special space in the life of the individual, the family and the community because they hold within them the collective wisdom and lore of past generations, kept alive by the word and passed on through the oral tradition.
Because of this, they carry the richness of individual and collective awareness, understanding and perception of the world around and the reverence for all living beings. Probably as important as this, is that they seek to explain the environment around, natural and supernatural phenomena and the whole gamut of human existence including the origins of communities, customs and attitudes. In this way, a single story is multi-layered and swollen with cultural symbols.
I discovered that the stories that I collected during my travels were rich with cultural symbols that had been carried along by a language which was emotive, vibrant and throbbing with reality. They were soaked in centuries of reverence for life and reflected the awareness that the environment within which the community survived wasn’t merely earth, rivers, trees, animals, birds, plants, insects…waiting to be pillaged. It was the cradle of its culture and the regenerative force that kept its identity alive.
According to the Konds of Kalahandi, there was a deluge which destroyed every living being except two children who were fortunate to have been washed up on a hill. They remained there for ages, struggling to keep alive. And then the salap tree gave them its juice and saved them from starvation. When the waters settled down and dry land appeared everywhere, the children grew up and multiplied, creating the Kond community of Kalahandi. Because it had nurtured the first Konds, the salap tree is still considered sacred.
The Gonds of Koraput believe that in the beginning there was a divine cow. Man and woman were created from her feet, and that is why they are called Gond. The Ankiya Konds of Ganjam say that they are descendants of a Kond man and woman. These two beings were made from various trees, vegetables and fruits such as the bael, saral wood, karela, mushrooms, oranges, lemons, brinjals, onions and wild mangoes which were sour and green. The Saoras describe their first couple as having popped out of a gourd. Some of them are of the view that it wasn’t a gourd but a tobacco plant. The Saoras god Kittung created all other living beings from parts of his own body. A lover of nature, Kittung blessed every form of life that he had created, especially the sago palm, the date palm and the palmyra palm.
From the Hill Saoras of Koraput, there is a story which celebrates Kittung’s compassion. One day, the story goes, Kittung was out in the forest, taking stock of his creations when he came across a dove who complained, “Lord Rama has killed most of my family.”
Kittung was furious. He confronted Rama who refused to mend his ways. “I have created this forest out of love,” cried Kittung, “how can you lay your trap here?”
“I am Lord Rama,” the other replied.
“So what?” asked Kittung and destroyed the trap. He turned the birds into fruits, the cords into a vine, the bladder into leaves and the trap into a siari vine. “Instead of birds,” said Kittung, “roast the seeds of the vine and eat them, use the leaves for your sacrifice and the vines for your ropes.”
“And if I don’t?” asked Rama.
“I shall turn you into the scum of the earth,” replied Kittung.
Interestingly, this story also reflects, in a subliminal way, the struggle of hunter-gatherer communities against settled ones – as well as the confrontations between traditional faiths and beliefs and emerging new ones ( a confrontation that exists even today in the tribal lands of the Indian sub-continent. There are of course, numerous stories that describe the mythic creation of tribal lands. The Bhils and their relatives the Bhilalas of the Jhabua and Alirajpur region of Madhya Pradesh in Central India have a lucid explanation of why their lands are drought prone. According to them, in the beginning, there was only water. Jugnu Mata stood on the surface of the water and wondered to herself, “Will anything good ever come of this water? Will there ever be something like firm land?”
But she received no answer. So she set out on a great search everywhere. All that she ever saw was water and more water. She flew up into the air, high up, high up – beyond the clouds and searched there too, hoping to find land floating in the air. But there was no land. Nothing as far as the eye could see. Only water and more water. She divided herself into four parts and sent each part out in search of land. One went east, the other west, and north and south. For hundreds of years they searched but could not find land. They then decided to look for God. After a very long search they finally found Him. He was on holiday in his mahal in the sky. The four Jugnu Matas went into the mahal and found him sleeping on his bed in a secret chamber.
He had been drinking mahua, the traditional liquor, and didn’t want anyone to catch him. So the four Jugnu Matas stood around his bed and started shaking his body, “Get up you drunkard,” they shouted. But he didn’t wake up. So one Jugnu Mata caught one hand and the other caught the other hand and the third caught one leg and the fourth caught the other leg. They pushed him and pulled him and bounced him on his bed and then they jiggled him around. They put him down and tickled him too. But God didn’t get up. He was drunk. Asleep. And on holiday.
One Jugnu Mata changed herself into an egg and they placed the egg near God, on the bed. The egg grew until it cracked open and a baby was born. Now this baby lay next to God who was drunk and asleep, and started crying.
This forced God to awaken. He was surprised when he saw the baby crying near him so he stuck his finger into the baby’s mouth. Milk came out of his finger and the baby started drinking greedily. As she drank milk from God’s finger, her body became bigger and bigger. God became weaker and weaker. This confused him. He didn’t know what was happening. So off he went to a palmist and astrologer who sat floating on a lily leaf. “Please tell me what is happening. There’s a baby in my bed and she’s growing bigger and bigger and because she drank milk from my finger, I have grown very weak. Tell me, who is this baby?”
The palmist and astrologer told God that the Jugnu Matas had created the baby because they wanted to wake him up from his slumber and find out from him if he could find land for them. “And will I find land?” asked God.
“No” said the palmist and astrologer.
So God made himself invisible and hid from theJugnu Matas. They searched for him everywhere. Finally, one Mata created four bumblebees from the dirt between her breasts. And the four bumblebees helped the Matas to find God, even though he was invisible. The moment they found God they gave him a good thrashing. He pleaded to be spared and asked them instead to go to the palmist and astrologer. So they went to the palmist and astrologer who sent them instead to Kanikarchoob the crab. But the crab couldn’t help. She was far too busy sharpening her pincers. She sent them instead to Kalikarchab the tortoise.
When Kalikarchab heard their request he went down into the depths of the waters and after five hundreds years came up with an egg. “Take care of this egg,” he said “let it be touched by the sun and the wind and the rain and one day it will hatch.”
And so they followed his instructions and looked after the newly hatched land so well that it grew and grew and never stopped growing … that’s why today the region has so much land and so little water.
Other clans of Bhil even have stories about how they were created. According to one clan, a fish brought news one day of an approaching deluge. No one believed .his story. Up and down the river course he went, warning other creatures, but no one would take any notice of him. Finally, he met a proud cock staring at his own reflection in the river. “The world is going to end, the world is going to end,” said the fish. So carried away was the cock with his own image that he was sure it was his reflection talking to him.
He rushed off and informed his master who was a washerman. The young man quickly made a large box and put his sister and the cock inside it, along with a supply of food. Then he climbed into the box himself and sealed it when the rain started.
For many days it rained and the seas and the rivers overflowed their banks and all living things on the face of the earth were drowned. Only the box remained, floating in the flood. Once the rains stopped and the water returned to the rivers and the seas, the cock began to crow. Just at that moment, the messengers of God were flying overhead. They heard the cock crowing and located the box. When they opened it in God’s presence, the three creatures came out. “I thought I had destroyed every living creature on the face of the earth. How did you survive?” asked God.
The frightened washerman narrated his story.
God turned to his messengers. “I had planned to let the earth rest a while before I created new creatures to live in it. Now what am I going to do with these three? Should I sacrifice them?”
“You have sacrificed all creatures that once lived on the face of the eartp. You can’t perform another sacrifice so soon,” they replied.
“But if they are brother and sister, how can they multiply? Besides the cock cannot be mated with the girl,” said God.
“But Lord,” said the first messenger, “this is a New World. The Old World has passed away. In this New WorId past relations do not matter any more. They are now only man and woman. Surely they can be mated.”
Gqd listened carefully and then agreed. He made the washerman stand facing east, then west, then north and then asked him to swear that the woman with him was in fact his sister. The washerman did as he was told and swore that the woman with him was his sister. God then asked him to face southwards and close his eyes. The washerman did that. Then he made his sister stand naked in front of him. “Stretch out your hands before you,” God said, “and tell me what is it that is before you, a man or a woman?”
The washerman did as he was told and then answered, “My sister.”
God repeated his question, “Is it a man or a woman?” The washerman replied, “A woman.”
God asked, “Is it a beautiful or an ugly woman?” The washerman replied, “How will I know Lord, I cannot see.”
“See with your hands,” said God.
So the washerman saw with his hands and indeed what he saw was beautiful.
God asked, “Is it a beautiful or an ugly woman?”
“Lord, she is beautiful,” he said.
“Then take this woman as your wife,” the Creator said. When the washerman opened his eyes, he had forgotten that it was his sister who was standing before him. All he saw was a beautiful woman. As time moved on, they had seven sons and seven daughters. These children grew up and inter-married. God blessed the first son and gave him a horse. But the young man didn’t know what to do with it. So he set it free and went away to live in the forest. He was the first Bhil.
Stories of creation of either land, human beings or customs and beliefs abound in all communities. Consider the pastoral Todas of the Nilgiris for example. They believe that in the beginning, there was only the sky and the earth. Haen, the first Toda flew across the open blue in search of an ideal place for The Land of Belonging. After centuries of travelling, he finally found himself hovering over the beautiful blue mountains of the Nilgiris. Circling the verdant region, he saw endless cool grasslands, fruit trees, flowering shrubs, streams, rivers, waterfalls, wild animals, birds, insects and all manner of living beings, except of course humans. It was then that he realized that in fact this was the Land of Toda Belonging that had been created specially for the community and had been waiting through the centuries to be finally inhabited. And so, Haen descended and stood with his feet firmly on the soil of the Nilgiris. When he did this, an amazing power coursed through him like a brilliant white light. When surge of energy subsided, he saw before him – his wife. Now the two of them created the first Todas on earth and they multiplied like the stars in the heavens – hundreds of them, thousands. When the land was sufficiently populated, he divided it into the land of the Living and the land of the Dead (which he called Amunore). Once this was done, Haen decided that his task in the world of the living was over and he retreated to Amunore, becoming the Lord of the Other World. He left the world of the Living in the charge of his beloved daughter Porshaey.
Porshaey was an enlightened young woman who was endowed with the power to create the religious, social, cultural and economic identity of the Todas. She divided her people into fifteen clans and gave each a specific geographical location to settle and live in. Then she created a separate divine female force to be worshipped by each clan in their mund (or settlement), along with prayers and family, religious and social rites and customs, attire and eating habits. When this was done she chose a sacred space where she sat and prayed.
One day, after she had concluded her prayers, she drew a magic circle on the earth. The moment she did this, the earth opened up and she leaned in and began to draw out one sacred buffalo after another. Then the Creator stroked the bird’s back and it became gold. This is why, till today, the woodpecker has a golden back and a crimson crown. Another story tells about how the Black Winged Kite got the markings on its wings.
There was a time, a long long time ago when the world was white with ice and snow. It was bitterly cold and creatures everywhere had to live in holes in the ground. Because of this, they lived in darkness. The sun did little to help because he too was frozen stiff. The people were amazed and watched in awe as fifteen animals emerged from the earth. The sixteenth to appear had deformed horns so they began laughing. The process of creation stopped. One sacred buffalo was assigned to each temple of the fifteen clans and the sixteenth animal did not have sacred powers but it gave birth to innumerable others who formed the vast herds of the Todas, supplying them milk – the very basis of their economy.
Porshaey marked out the sacred and ordinary migration routes for buffalo herding and ensured that the seasons provided the right support for special varieties of grass to grow that would provide feed stock for the animals. Since she ruled the Land of the Living and had placed female sacred powers in each clan temple, the Toda woman became the embodiment of the community. This is why even till today Toda women do not worship at the temples. In fact they maintain a distance from the temple’s precincts. The men are assigned the task of worship at the temple.
Muthanad mund is the place where Haen first arrived on earth and created the first Todas. It is also the place where Porshaey created religious, social, community and economic customs. Located near Ooty, a popular hill resort, the mund is tucked away among the woods. The sacred spot is marked by a Toda ‘cathedral’. Not far from this spot is a circle of stones in an open field which marks the place where Porshaey created buffalos. And so the Todas continue to regard the Nilgiris as hallowed ground and their people, animals and customs as sacred.
The tribal world, if one can use such a term, also endows birds and animals with powers. These powers are manifested in the stories that describe their origins. According to traditional communities of South Gujarat birds are more than just birds. They are carries of folk tales and ancient lore. The Golden Backed Woodpecker for example. As a traditional tale goes, long ago, this was a very ordinary looking bird.
One day it came across a tree-trunk that promised to be full of juicy insects and grubs. So without much ado, it set to work tapping rat-a-tat-tat on the trunk. It was so full of delicious little creatures to eat that the bird went higher and higher. Suddenly it realised that it had climbed the roots of a divine tree that was growing in paradise above. At that very moment, God was tending to his garden. The bird popped out of the earth before his eyes and gave him such a start that his gardening tool slipped and fell, cutting off his toe. The woodpecker used a blade of grass and with his beak stitched the toe back on.
Then he bowed down and wiped away the blood with his head. “I forgive your act of carelessness,” said God, “because you used your presence of mind and that beak I gave you, thank you.”
One day all the creatures got together and had a meeting to try and work out what was to be done. There were many wise ideas and suggestions but they were of no help at all. Then a flock of swallows said that there was a shell of ice that covered the entire world like the shell of an egg. This stopped the world from warming up. This shell had to be broken. A scouting party consisting of other birds accompanied the swallows one day to see if it was true. Sure enough, there it was – the thick shell of ice. So now, the creatures met again to decide how to crack this shell of ice. Many birds offered to help but were unable to fulfil their promise. Finally, the birds requested the tallest teak tree in the forest to help.
“If you give me enough food and water I’ll be able to grow fast,” said the teak tree. And so that’s what they did and the tree grew so fast and tall that it went right up into the heavens and cracked open the shell of ice.
The shell cracked of course but not enough to let enough light and heat in. So a flock of white kites offered to make their way through and represent the case to the Creator. When they flew out into the beyond, they discovered the world outside was a blazing furnace. Flying through the furnace they reached the home of the Creator.
“But I created the ice shell to protect you from the heat,” said the Creator.
‘We’d prefer the heat,” they said.
So the Creator melted the ice shell and the world was filled with light and heat. Of course, it is not hot all the time because the earth floats away from the furnace when it gets too difficult to stand the heat. And that’s the way we have both heat and cold and even rain. Even today teak trees grow straight and tall as if they are trying to touch the sky. And the snowy white kites? Well, they burnt their wings black when flying through the furnace. Even today, all kites of this family have black markings on their wings to remind them of the great feat of courage that their ancestors performed.
Let me close the living book of tribal tales for the moment, and allow you to reflect on the amazing inner life that each story carries. And while you reflect, listen to the song-poems of tribal composers and singers…and to the words of the elders…
© Randhir Khare