India’s vast and varied story traditions continue to exist orally across languages, cultures, and religions. Folktales featuring village deities and spirits, riddles that reference local flora and fauna, songs of specific marriage customs and rituals sit side by side with the grand narratives of pan-Indian epics and myths. But even the epics are brought down to earth, as it were, when we are told that the god-human heroes and heroines rested a while under the village tree during their exile, that an unlikely stream was actually created when they were thirsty, that these were the very flowers that the princess put in her hair. Thus, a local landscape becomes part of a sacred geography, touched by the gods who walked, talked, ate, and slept in our small corner of this otherwise vast and unknowable universe.
Oral narratives that are categorized as being “folk” and part of the so-called “little traditions” are highly localized and very particular to place. In them, the conflicts are not on a cosmic scale, good is not battling evil. Rather, a local farmer might encounter a very attractive stranger by a well at night and have to face the consequences of being seduced, a miser might bury his money by the roots of a tree and have it stolen by a passing traveler, fish can give you advice, a snake might fall in love with your wife, the night-singing bird yearns for the scar-faced moon. Folktales abound in lessons that might be learned though they rarely preach morality and ethics. But despite their specificity, these tales transcend the places that produced them and throb with a universal appeal. We may not always be able to comprehend the ways of gods from different religions, but we are always able to feel familial with human beings from faraway times and places.
These stories are from the Kinnaur and Spiti districts of India’s northern state of Himachal Pradesh. With Tibet nestling comfortably on its eastern flank, this region of high mountains and deep valleys that are often cut off from the rest of the world has sheltered Bon, Buddhism, and various smaller tribal and local religious practices within its ancient, craggy arms. In the mountains, the gods are always close and so it is that sacred places are often shared, different traditions and religions all acknowledging their power and energy in stories and songs.
Winters are fierce in Kinnaur and Spiti. There are storms and blizzards; people stay indoors as their fragile huts are battered and bruised by snow, hail, and howling winds. Firewood is scarce and often the only way to get through the perilous dark hours is to tell stories—stories of summer days and sweet breezes, of love and hope, of prosperity and abundance. While the stories might be from the past, they are never from far away; they happened right here, in this village, by that stream, on that mountain slope. The people in them are familiar, the places are known.
Between 2002 and 2014, Noor Zaheer collected stories from the many oral traditions that animate the Kinnaur and Spiti valleys, traditions that knot the people of this sparsely populated area into tight little communities. Noor, a writer, theatermaker, and political activist, traveled to the northwestern Himalayas in order to learn more about local theater practices. While she was there, she realized how endangered the old stories, passed on from teller to teller, from mouth to ear to mouth to ear, had become. Speaking of the paradox of documenting a living, breathing, fluid, and dynamic tradition, Noor says, “I did realize that documenting the oral traditions was taking the life out of them, in a way, by making them static. Documenting a version of a story that develops and transforms with each telling was putting a stop to the most fundamental aspect of creation within the oral tradition. But changing lifestyles and the ever-growing presence of the mass media had already made drastic erosions into these forms, even before our work had begun. There was no other way to preserve these forms other than to document them.”
Noor gathered her stories from men and women, from senior lamas in monasteries and from nomadic shepherds who moved with their flocks according to the season. Languages and dialects vary from valley to valley and from community to community. Also, the language spoken by a learned lama is bound to be different from that of a wandering shepherd. Sometimes, Noor transcribed the stories herself; other times, they were repeated to her by an interpreter. In each case, however, Noor translated the stories into English.
Noor also performed another act of translation for these endangered stories. Disturbed by the process of having to “stabilize” the stories by presenting them in a single version, she says, “Perhaps as an apology for what I was doing, I developed six full-length plays from the stories and tales that I collected, hoping to keep the forms moving, changeable, alive.”
The region in which Noor lived and worked is Buddhist, but its Buddhism is deeply influenced by the Tibetan Bon religion and other local cults. In the stories, you can see how different worldviews and ways of being are held simultaneously, how they inform lives and practice with no apparent contradiction. Take, for example, the tragic love story of Sunni and Bhunku from Kinnaur. The catalyst of the story, which is set in an obviously Buddhist milieu, is a fraudulent sadhu who appears to be Hindu. The Buddhist Zhering has no problem appealing to him for help. But, there is also another way to read this Buddhist story, and that is to see it as a critique of a rival religion whose holy men cannot be trusted.
Folktales told around the world also display readily identifiable tropes that allow the stories to resemble each other. “The Girl Who Turned into a Crocodile” brings to mind the tales of swan maidens who were so poignantly transformed by Hans Christian Andersen in the nineteenth century and the Selkies that lurk on edges of Scottish lore—these are women who can move between human and animal form by taking on and shedding their skin, who are elusive, mysterious, dangerous to love. The love and mutual dependence of the brother and sister in the Kinnauri story also recalls the close bond shared by Hansel and Gretel, for example, or the relationship between the sister and her brothers in Andersen’s “The Twelve Wild Swans.”
“When the Deer Moved Away,” a story from the Spiti region, fits nicely into the category of an origin story which tells us why things are the way they are in the place where the story comes from. “Why do the deer never cross the river and come to our village,” a little child might ask. And someone will reply, “Let me tell you why. Once upon a time, long ago, a herd of deer would stay around our village even though other herds had moved further south for the winter. But then . . .”
These three stories share the idea of migration. We can see that the story of Bhunku, who is himself a nomadic shepherd, is told by other nomads who move with the weather, seeking the high grassy meadows in the summer and moving down into the valleys in winter. So, too, the herds of deer move to the lower slopes in the winter, counting on food and sustenance from the villages they pass. These are the gentle, natural migrations made necessary by the seasons; they involve periods of work and periods of rest and recovery for both humans and animals. Together, the stories sit firmly in the physical and spiritual cultures of the Kinnaur valley, where migration is not only about crossing space, but also about crossing time and even about crossing bodies. Love makes Chering move into the body of a crocodile, leaving her human life and world behind. Sunni and Bhunku now inhabit an afterlife, their separation being played out night after stormy night as their restless souls reach for each other. The majestic male deer in the herd seems to embody the consciousness of an enlightened soul, perhaps of the Buddha himself. He sacrifices himself so that his herd might live. This migration of souls is also a natural movement in a world where all forms of life are connected and sacred.
Noor Zaheer’s sensitive and conscientious translations presented here are a small part of a much larger collection of oral stories from Kinnaur and Spiti. We are fortunate to have such a delightful sample of oral culture from such a remote part of the world, from a region where traditional lives, livelihoods and cultures are fast disappearing.
© 2019 by Arshia Sattar. All rights reserved.
Note: All translations in this feature were created and edited in 2018 through the Yali program for Indian language translations.