Central & South Asia

Myth, Memory & Folktale of The Wancho Tribe of Arunachal Pradesh: The Stories of Our Ancestors

The Wancho tribe is an indigenous community from Arunachal Pradesh, India. Their myths, folklore, and oral histories emphasize cultural importance and moral teachings. The dynamic nature of storytelling preserves community memory and connects generations. These stories reflect their relationship with the environment and traditions.
Arunachal Pradesh

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July 06, 2024 07:17 EDT

The myths, folklore and remembered histories of the Wancho overlap and intertwine with one another in the oral tradition of transmitting stories from one generation to the next. There are mythical stories to contemplate the primary themes of the origins of the world and of humankind; these stories contain insights that are fundamental to the traditions, customs and rituals of the community. Numerous elementary and often humorous folktales are inclined to reflect on the outcomes of particular actions and guide moral behaviour; these stories which communicate the interplay of respect and restraint between beings, humankind and the ecosystem are intended to articulate the right relationship to each presence. The archive of folklore is the collective memory of the community, and the stories are not ascribed to individual authors; the format by which each teller recounts the tale according to personal memory, understanding and interest, illustrates how Wancho folklore is constantly evolving and retains vitality over time.

There are stories to explain the presence of a particular stone (The Story of Kamhua Noknu village; The Story of the Stone), tree (the banyan tree at the centre of the village, in the Kamhua Migration Story) or the origins and characteristics of various animals and plants, mankind and his institutions. Two narratives, How God Settled on Earth and The Story of the Two Gourds, recount the activities of semi-divine heroes. In the former story, the lower world becomes the human domain but there is no description of a glorious heaven as in the Christian traditions. We are told instead that the upper and lower worlds are close and that it is possible to move from one to the other by a ladder. Topa, who is the hero of the latter story, is claimed as an ancestor to a family that currently resides in the village and by the melding of fiction and fact, the story is anchored to specific territory which makes it personal and meaningful. For the Wancho, life after death was imagined to be a natural continuation from life on earth and in one story a boy undertakes a journey with his mother to the world of the dead, and he is sent back to earth.

Illustration by Tara Douglas accompanying The Story of the Two Gourds.

Wancho fables that ascribe human qualities to animals sometimes enclose a moral message, although it is not always explicitly stated. The Wancho people are fond of anecdotes that are based on sharpness of wits and the interest of stories that show the cleverness of one animal and the stupidity of another, lies in the humour of the deceptions. Clever Tortoise (Mongman Khunkhalo) is a variation of a familiar story about a race that was popularised by Aesop, and appears in cultures from eastern Asia to Native America. In the local version, it is the tortoise and the tiger that are competitors and the story meanders beyond the conclusive deception that secured the race to relate how the tiger’s desire for revenge was repeatedly foiled by the clever tortoise. In contests with stronger opponents, the weak hero always enjoys the favour of the storyteller. For instance, The Story of Tiger, Man and Cicada shows weak but clever Ajusa (who, as a human being, is the hero of the story), defeating the strong tiger in a series of contests by seeking alliances with smaller creatures: the cicada and the bulbul. In another tale, the deceptive boasts by the small (but cunning) Porcupine (Odee) makes him thoroughly intimidating to the elephant. The archetypal mischief-maker, who features in the myths of Native America and Canada, appears in The Story of Flying Fox (Loakla): this flying fox is a liminal being that is not easily categorised, and acting as a double agent, he becomes the instigator of conflict between species. Trickery is a recurring theme of the historical recollections and if the pranks appear unsophisticated to the newcomer, the presentation is easy to recollect.

The spoken memories of the Wancho storytellers convey realistic, fluid portraits of reality and human nature: of lived experience, its textures, sights and senses at a particular period of history. Territorial rights are the common cause of bitter disputes, and covenants or pacts are drawn between villages over land, as recalled by The True Story of how Lonu (Ogamaan) Jing was given to Kamhua Noknu by Mintong Village. In the separate account of The Story of our Village and the Village in Myanmar the kinship relations of Kamhua and Kahdan (a village in Myanmar) are exposed in the extraordinary alliance that had been considered necessary for the security of the village at the time. Hence these memories shed light on historical relationships between villages: the social hierarchy between paramount and subsidiary villages and the resilience of the Wancho people during volatile periods that were sometimes characterised by immense physical hardship.

Some Wancho stories are recollections of the journeys of migration from specific villages and the subsequent establishment of new villages. The storytellers of Kamhua Noknu summon vivid details of the strategies that were mobilised by the people of nearby Nyinu to outsmart the rival villagers and lay claim to the land. Chailai Pansa also reported that Nyisa had once been comprised of inhabitants from Nyinu and from Wakka, the two powerful villages on either side. The notorious villagers of Nyinu had succeeded in outsmarting their rivals who were compelled to relocate to another place.

[Niyogi Books has given Fair Observer permission to publish this excerpt from Myth, Memory & Folktale of The Wancho Tribe of Arunachal Pradesh: The Stories of Our Ancestors, Tara Dougals and Jatwang Wangsa, Niyogi Books, 2024.]

The views expressed in this article are the author’s own and do not necessarily reflect Fair Observer’s editorial policy.


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