Strength for Today and Bright Hope for Tomorrow

Volume 1:7 November 2001
Editor: M. S. Thirumalai, Ph.D.
Associate Editor: B. Mallikarjun, Ph.D.

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A. Bendangyabang Ao, Th.D.


Folktales are found in all cultures and languages. Sometimes the folktales that are narrated orally may be written, and the written stories become standard texts in didactic literature. For example, the Jataka Tales in Buddhism is a great source of instruction and theological exposition for that religion. Hindus in every region in India have their own regional, ethnic, and linguistic folktales. Similarly the Muslims also have their own tales from several sources not excluding the Indian variations relating to the Muslim saints, heroes, etc. Christians in India associate themselves with the native wisdom and narrate the folktales of the mainstream in India. Indian Christians share the ethnic and linguistic affiliations of the community they belong to. Hence, they draw their folktales from their ethnic and linguistic group. Some Christian missionaries in the past have created stories in the Indian languages with characters similar to the ones found in the native literature and folktales. For example, Father Beschi wrote tales in Tamil in the folktale format.


Ao Naga was a preliterate language until the Christian missionaries introduced a script system to write that language and produced textbooks to teach the language to Ao children and adults. (Click here to read my earlier article on this subject, in Language in India, 1:5.)

Like other preliterate communities in the North-Eastern India, Ao Naga is rich with excellent folktales and folksongs. Folktales are told to the children by their parents and grandparents, peer groups, and elders of the community. Folktales are sometimes enacted in the form of dances and singing. There are several characters in the folktales of Ao Naga that come into play a prominent role in many stories. One of the themes generally noticed in the folktales is the life of the community before the people settled down in their present land.

Many folktales have characters that may not be easily understood in the present day context. Obviously several of these stories were originally intended to be humorous, but sometimes the humor of a folktale may not be obvious. Explanation is needed from the elders as to the meaning of such tales and the characters in them. The language has changed a lot, and also these tales were carried over into the present land when the Aos migrated from the other parts of Asia. Another difficulty noticed is that the language in which some of the folktales are narrated may not be fully understood, because these may be replete with words not currently in use.


Ao Nagas are presently Christian in their faith. Ao Nagas are undergoing the processes of modernization and some westernization in the last few decades. This has reduced the need for an absorbing interest in telling and listening to the folktales. It is a common sight that if you ask an Ao Naga to tell you some folktales he may refer to an older person or a person who has the reputation of having this special knowledge about the folktales in the community. Slowly folktales may not be a shared knowledge of the community.

This is an unfortunate situation that needs to be remedied, because folktales are not just myths or superstitions, they are carriers of the culture and a sure source of better socialization processes.


Since this is the condition that is found in almost every preliterate ethnic and linguistic group, it is imperative that the governments in the Northeast must establish a joint machinery to collect, record, analyze, translate, and publish the folktales of the region. Some attempts in this direction have been done in the past by some institutions such as the Central Institute of Indian Languages in Mysore, and the Anthropological Survey of India, Calcutta. But these efforts are thoroughly inadequate.

Collecting the folktales and analyzing these will help us construct dictionaries of native words, idioms, phrases, and metaphors, etc. At the moment we may have difficulty in expressing a concept through our preliterate language because such concepts are being borrowed from other languages, notably English and Hindi. If we study the sentence structure of the folktales, we will be able to identify certain processes that the language uses in conveying difficult concepts.


How is the folktale narrated? There is a special way to start telling a folktale. Many a time it may be the "once upon a time" method. But often the focus is on the emergence of the characters in the story. The locale is indicated, but unfortunately most of these locales could not be identified in the present environment. These locales are from the past, rather from the remote past when people were moving from place to place. Some of the characters assume the form of animals, and then change themselves into humans. Some tales are totally in the form of conversations between characters. However, there are a good many tales that are only narratives, with very few conversations between the characters. A chief characteristic is the dialogue between the characters. They question each other, imbibe motives to each other for their present state, and seek to find fault with the other. At the same time there are many tales that have a direct bearing on the need to develop better character. Entertainment is an important function, but there is also the focus to help the community prosper by cultivating good morals among the people using the folktales.


Here is a sample of Ao Naga folktale. The folktale focuses on the need to work for a living. That is, it exhorts the young people to work hard and not remain idle.

Once upon a time, the Ao people were living in the land of CHUNGLIYIMTI. This happened to be the first village for the Ao settlement after their long migratory journey through South East Asia. There was a poor man named SARILUNGLE. He and his wife were very poor despite their hard work. One day SARILUNGLE had a strange idea and said, "There might be a place where I could survive without hard work." Therefore, he abandoned his wife, everything he had, and wandered everywhere. However, he could not find such a place where he could survive without working hard.

After wandering for long, he finally decided to return home. During his absence, a bird used to sit on a branch and sing "SARILUNGLE, SARILUNGLE". On hearing the song his wife would come out of the house expecting to see her husband. She missed him very badly. Thus passed the time with her sitting in the doorpost everyday with tears in her eyes.

Days, months, and years rolled out, but no trace of SARILUNGLE. One day a gray haired, worn out old man with wrinkles approached the house. He also confronted a gray haired, slim old woman, full of wrinkles. They could not recognize each other. Introduction took some time, and later they found out to their amazement that they were the missing husband and wife. They parted when they were handsome, young, and energetic, full of life, but they now met in an indistinguishable manner. On entering their house, SARILUNGLE told his wife that he would go out and pound SUNGKONG (Log drum), near their house and signal his arrival.

The log drum, sungkong, is made out of giant trunks of a big tree nicely hewn just like a long war canoe. It would be beaten and the sound would convey different messages and signals.

In the meanwhile, he also told her to sit and spin the cotton in the PANGTONG. This is an Ao traditional cotton spin wheel, which will spin even as womenfolk rub on their smooth thigh. However, SARILUNGLE could not lift the pounding pole of the SUNGKONG, on the other hand his wife could not spin due to several wrinkles on her thigh. They still could not believe and accept that they have wasted the prime time of their life when they could spin, weave, pound SUNGKONG and enjoy their youthful days. Disgusted, they both held their hands and sang a song: ASA-A MESAMI, LEMBU-A MEPUMI. It meant that they "Do not like to grow old or like the gray hairs."

This tale was used to educate the Ao Youth, who does not work hard. Taking this good moral for hard work, there seldom existed lazy and idling individuals among the Ao youth.


The language used in Ao folktales is straightforward and simple. Sentences flow in a natural manner. Sentences are not lengthy. The words may not be understood sometimes, but the syntax is very natural, simple, and elegant. There is much similarity between the sentences used in the folktales and the sentences used in ordinary conversation. Hence, the language of the folktales may be used as a model to write stories and essays for the textbooks. Unfortunately we have a tendency to import the English sentence structure into Ao Naga. This tendency should be checked at the earliest in order for the language to develop in a natural manner. Borrowing the English structure for the Ao sentences will result in a style not readily comprehensible to the ordinary folks.

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A. Bendangyabang Ao, Th.D.
Professor of Theology
Acts Academy of Higher Education
Bangaslore, MN 55438, USA