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Introducing & Classifying Mizo Folktales

Introducing & Classifying Mizo Folktales

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(Presented by Lalrinmawii Tochhawng, Sr. Lecturer in English, Govt. T.Romana College, Aizawl & Ph.D. Scholar, Dept. of English, SOH, IGNOU at the National Seminar on ‘Traditions of Folk in Literature’, IGNOU, August 30 & 31, 2010)

The Mizo people trace their origin to Chhinlung, a crevice within the earth literally meaning ‘closed stone’. Based on the rich oral tradition that has been passed on from father to son through many generations, they believe
(Presented by Lalrinmawii Tochhawng, Sr. Lecturer in English, Govt. T.Romana College, Aizawl & Ph.D. Scholar, Dept. of English, SOH, IGNOU at the National Seminar on ‘Traditions of Folk in Literature’, IGNOU, August 30 & 31, 2010)

The Mizo people trace their origin to Chhinlung, a crevice within the earth literally meaning ‘closed stone’. Based on the rich oral tradition that has been passed on from father to son through many generations, they believe

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Published by: tochh.shrugged on Sep 10, 2010
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(Presented by Lalrinmawii Tochhawng, Sr. Lecturer in English, Govt. T.Romana College, Aizawl & Ph.D. Scholar,Dept. of English, SOH, IGNOU at the National Seminar on ‘Traditions of Folk in Literature’, IGNOU,August 30 & 31, 2010)
The Mizo
people trace their origin to
a crevice within the earth literallymeaning ‘closed stone’. Based on the rich oral tradition that has been passed on from father toson through many generations, they believe their forefathers emerged from this fissure incouples to populate the earth. Although the ‘A, Aw, B’, the Mizo alphabet was framed only inthe 19
century by Welsh missionaries, the oral tradition, in the absence of a written language,had given the Mizo his identity, origin and history.The folktale comprises a large body of this oral tradition. A problem arises in definingfolktales because there is a continuing debate about the relationship between various forms of traditional literature, identified as folktales, myths, legends and fables. While some scholarsaccept the different forms as types of the folktale, some others regard the forms as distinct butoverlapping. It may be best at this point to accept the lines of demarcation between the variousforms as existing, yet difficult to clearly define. In the Mizo language, ‘thawnthu’ is the termgiven to all forms of traditional narrative making the distinction even more complicated.However, in this study, I have only included traditional narratives that feature elements commonto folktales although some may verge on the legendary or mythical.
Folktale classification:
After the pioneering work of Stith Thompson and Antii Aarne in the early 20
century,folktales are now arranged in international catalogues according to the motifs or themes in them, by numbers, titles and summaries of the content. Despite many criticisms, the A-T numbers have proved to be practical tools in the study of folktales. Clear-cut divisions are impossible and thereare obvious cases of overlapping but the tale-type index remains popular and folktales arecategorised into sets on the basis of their similarities. It should be kept in mind, though, thattales are continually shifting function and definition as the folk migrate, mingle and change beliefs. A story earlier accepted as explanatory may survive as fancy and is therefore well-accepted that the “
definition of any folktale depends on its function in a society and the way thenarrator and the audience think of it at the time of performance.
Salient Features of the Mizo Folktale:
Mizo folktales have been told mainly for the purpose of entertainment and much of their dissemination has been through the telling of tales to children. In the process, the oral tales haveserved to preserve tradition and history and have been vehicles for education. The generalelements that go into the making of the Mizo folktale can be summarised as follows:a)Setting: In most Mizo folktales, the time is quickly set in the introduction with thewords,
‘Hmanlai hian mawm’ 
(A very long time ago). This establishes the tale ashistory, or as a story that has actually happened at one point of time, a time that isundetermined or unspecified. Place is usually generalised as one village or a certainforest. Very rarely is the place named in the folktales. However, there are now many places named after characters in these tales and believed to have been the actualsettings for important episodes although the tales themselves make no mention of these locations.
The Mizo people are the people inhabiting Mizoram and spread over other hill states in North East India. They are made up of different sub-tribes, the most dominant of which are the ‘Lusei’ or ‘Lushai’.
"Folktales," Microsoft® Encarta® Online Encyclopaedia 2006http://encarta.msn.com
 b)Characters: The characters are usually flat and do not undergo much emotionaldevelopments or mental torment, show little or no reaction to startling events. In thestory of 
for instance, the heroine shows absolutely no reaction when her husband morphs into a tiger. The more common and stereotypical human charactersare the stepmother, the orphan, the beautiful daughter of the chief or an affluent manand the ugly, poor or ‘different’ suitor with some magical or un-natural power. Quitea few stories also mention a
meaning a non-Mizo
, and ‘
(hinting at the Mizos’ interaction with outsiders and their opinion of neighbours. Spirits of different kinds also feature as characters in many of the tales,in roles of both helper and villain. Of animals, the monkey is the most commoncharacter, very often in the role of a trickster. Appearances of the snake, tiger, cat and bear are also more common than others.c)Plot: The plots are simple and swift-moving. Repetitious patterns are commonalthough recurrences of the number 3 and 7 are not as common in Mizo folktales.Explanations are kept to the minimum and action is concentrated. There are a fewtales that consist of more than one plot, with episodes yielding new functions andcapable of being treated as new tales in their own right. We find in
aresolution of one conflict in the killing of the heroine by her father. This isimmediately followed by the tale of one of her snake-offspring terrorising peopleleading to the establishment of a village.d)Theme: Many Mizo folktales are didactic in nature. The themes espouse goodnessand hold up a mirror to the lives of the folk. Punishable offences include cruelty to astep-child, jealousy, pride and treachery. Folktale themes revolve around character and almost all Mizo folktales are named after the lead characters. Tales almostalways carry a moral while religious themes are non-existent in the body of Mizofolktales. Money is never an issue although trade in the form of barter features prominently in some tales. Themes of romance and relationships are common.e)Style: Mizo folktales are oral, employing a language rich in imagery whiledispensing with lengthy descriptions. Dialogue is rare and there is a formulaicintroduction to the tales although the endings are varied. An interesting stylisticelement is the use of verse, both as dialogue and as an expression of emotions. Theuse of stress on individual words is common, to show intensity, be it foexaggeration, the passage of time or the depth of emotions. This intensification alsohelps to heighten the drama and increase suspense during narration.f)Motifs: Motifs of character include- the cruel stepmother, the poor or mistreatedstep-child, the good younger sibling and mean elder one, the weak-willedhusband/father, the underdog hero, the kind/brave/handsome hero victimised bycircumstance, the monkey trickster, the tiger-man. Magical objects like seeds of fire,stones and thorns,
 Bahhnukte, Sekibuhchhuak 
and others are motifs of objects.Besides common motifs like transformations, journeys, and tasks, there are uniquemotifs of events and action like splitting bamboo, the giving of bride-price, thecelebration of 
a traditional game.
Classification of Mizo Folktales:
An analysis of Mizo folktales clearly shows that some of the tales defy a simple thematicclassification. Many of the tales may have more than one dominant theme or motif so a single
Vai is a term formerly used to refer to all non-Mizo people, now popularly used for the people of the plains.
A tribe closely akin to the ‘Lusei’. The term was used in a derogatory manner to refer to people of such a tribe who often traded in and beyond the Mizo hills.
An expensive ceremony performed in several stages to ensure the performer’s entry into
or Paradise as opposed to the common
Mitthi Khua
or ‘Land of the Dead’
tale may thus find mention in more than one class of tales when broken down into themes andmotifs for a deeper analysis.In this study an attempt has been made to catalogue fifty-two tales from four popular written sources under different tale-types according to dominant themes and motifs found in thetales. The themes and motifs understandably overlap but leading features within the tales allowclassification into accepted tale-types. Some of these tales do verge on the mythical andlegendary. However, they are narrated not as fact, even if they aren’t considered whollyfictional. Moreover, these tales are not marked by specific time or place and on this basis have been included among folktales generally accepted as fictional.
Animal Tales
Mizo animal tales are non-mythological in that they do not feature fantastic animals thatare culture heroes responsible for the good or bad in the life of the tribe, as for instance, theCoyote in tales of the American Indian tribes. The only special quality given to the animal inmost tales is their ability to speak and this is a universal feature of animal tales around the world.The number AT 2075 is used to index tales in which animals talk. Traditional Mizo literatureasserts that animals were at par with human beings at the beginning of creation and that bothspecies could communicate freely. Two explanations are given for the animals’ subsequent lossof speech- a) that of the legendary event of ‘
’ where many humans were transformedinto animals thus losing their power of speech, and b) the request made to God by his daughter who had married a human. Anthropomorphosis is another feature of Mizo animal tales. In
’, the heroine of the tale is carried off by a ‘Keimi’, which can be literally translatedas ‘tiger man’, thus meaning a tiger which can change into a human being as and when hewished to do so. There are several instances of transformation to animals but the
appearsto be the only one with the ability to shift shapes.Many animal tales contain elements of a trickster tale and the monkey is the mostcommon trickster. The monkey, through its wit and cunning, gets the better of some other animal. But in the end, the monkey is often required to pay the price of his cunning, usually withthe same coin. In the story, ‘
The Tortoise and the Monkeys’ 
, it is a group of monkeys that takeson the role of trickster. They trick a tortoise into climbing a tree and leave it there while they runoff with the salt the tortoise had brought from town. The tortoise pays them back by makingthem eat its defecation. When the monkeys make an attempt to do the same to the tortoise, their  plan backfires and they end up rolling down a steep cliff and die. Such tales approach the kind of tales called fable, carrying a moral and a lesson for posterity. The underlying lesson in thesetales is that crafty schemes to benefit from others’ misfortunes do not pay.The monkey is by far the most commonly featured animal in Mizo folktales. The snake probably comes second by way of the number of appearances made. It is difficult to assign atypical characteristic trait to the snake for it appears in different roles in the tales. One thing thatis clear, though, is that the perception of the snake as a sly, wily animal in Western cultures isnot shared by the pre-Christian Mizo society. It is rather looked upon as a powerful creature to be feared and revered. In the story ‘
Chungleng leh Hnuaileng Indo’ 
War of the Birds and  Animals)
, the leader of the creatures on land is a snake. Although it is not worshipped, there arecertain superstitions associated with the snake and the entry of a snake into the house is lookedupon as extremely unfortunate. Ritualistic cleansing is considered to be necessary should asnake happen to enter the living quarters (Shakespeare, 107).
is the tale whichsupposedly explains the origins of the ‘Rulpui’ or the big snake. Chawngchilhi had a snake for alover and when Chawngchilhi’s father found out about their affair from her younger sister, hewas angered to the point of killing the snake and his own daughter who had by then been

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