Short Stories Focusing on Tribal Vision of the Evolution of World

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When the World was Young: Short-stories with a tribal vision of the evolution of the world

by – Ananth Padmanabha Y. Saravandi, Vol.II, Issue.XXII, November 2016

Introduction to the Author:

Ananth Padmanabha Y. Saravandi is a Ph.D. research scholar, department of English, Karnatak University.


 One of the greatest things that could have happened in the colonial period of India’s history was the arrival of Verrier Elwin as a Christian Missionary to India and his association with the indigenous tribes of the country. And what is even more interesting is the fact that he chose to say goodbye to the Christa Seva Sangh after associating himself with the vast tribal population of India. This obviously paved the way for the enrichment of Indian English literature for Verrier Elwin worked untiringly in translating tribal poetry, short-stories, etc., into English. Thus Indian English literature owes a lot to Verrier Elwin for its enrichment.

 Ramachandra Guha, in his foreword written in 1999 for Verrier Elwin’s famous book of short-stories, ‘When the World Was Young’ pontifically states thus:

….But Elwin’s interest in the tribals was by no means a narrowly scientific one. Deeply disturbed by their loss of rights in land and forests, and the erosion of their culture he became a self-appointed yet uniquely effective spokesman for the 25 million ‘adivasis’ of Central India. Indeed, it was chiefly through Verrier Elwin’s books, articles, lectures, films and photographs that urban Indians first became aware of the life and problems of their tribal countrymen. (x)

 Verrier Elwin dedicated his entire life for the noble cause of fighting for the tribals of India. He crusaded against the false beliefs and stereotypes prevalent in the so-called civilized world that the tribals are savage, unclean, uneducated and uncivilized.

            The present work of Verrier Elwin When the World was Young, written in the year 1961 is, as made clear by Elwin himself in the very preface, in fact, a selection of stories from his earlier books- Folk-Tales of Mahakoshal (1944), Myths of Middle India (1999), Tribal Myths of Orissa (1954), Myths of the North-East Frontiers of India (1958) and The Baiga (1939).

            The book, When the World Was Young has 38 short but very beautiful stories arranged under six sub titles-

  1. “The Beginning of Things”
  2. “The First Men”
  3. “Discoveries”
  4. “The Talking Animals”
  5. “Adventures in a Magic World” and
  6. “The End of Things”

The Baigas of Central India, the Kamars and Saaros of Orissa, the Idu Mishmis, the Singphos of North-East India and the Akas of North-East Frontier Agency have their own folk-tales to relate. Thus, inspite of such an immense contribution towards the folk literature of India the fact unfortunately remains that this went without recognition and the tribals were dubbed savage and uncivilized.

Elwin, as a champion of the tribals, has really done a good job in documenting the stories and tales related to the tribal community of India on various subjects under the sun and thus, this volume holds the mirror up to the civilized nature of the tribals of India.

The very first short story, “The Making of the World” of the first category, “The Beginning of Things” has a very interesting story to relate.

Different traditions in the hills and forests of India are connected with the creation of the world. Though some say that it was hatched out of an egg or moulded by God with his own hands, the majority believe, as the Baigas of Central India do, that the earth was brought up from the bottom of a great ocean. The story throws light on the genesis of the earth and the work of the Baiga in making the earth steady. Here, the birth of Agaria and his role in making the earth steady is of great interest.

The tribals, in a way, like geologists, are at their best in narrating the story about the formation of the earth. We learn from the story, that there was, in the beginning, nothing but water everywhere. “There was no voice of God, no voice of demon, no wind, no rocks, no paths, no jungle. As the sky is now, so was water then…” (1). This makes us know about the knowledge of the tribals with regard to physical geography. Moreover, the story relates that the Great God, who sat on the lotus leaf, was all alone and he had asked the crow, which came from the dirt of his arm when he rubbed the same, to bring some earth for him so that he could make a world.

When, after flying a long distance, she falls with a thud on the back of a Tortoise sitting in the water with one arm on the bottom of the ocean and one arm reaching the sky, she is directed by the tortoise to look for the worm, at the bottom of the ocean, who has swallowed the earth. And, they both go to the Lord of Iron, who calls his twelve brothers Loharsur, who worked in iron, the thirteen brothers Tamesur, who worked in copper and the fourteen brothers Agyasur, who worked in fire. Here, a conclusion can be arrived at. One can easily make out that there is a division of the different tribes in accordance with their work in different metals. It is akin to the concept of the division of caste on the basis of the work done.

Further, the crow and the Tortoise are lowered down into the sea with the help of an iron cage made by the brothers of the Lord of Iron. The Worm does not readily agree to give the earth back. When threatened by the crow at first and then by the tortoise that he will get a good thrashing, the worm says that the earth is not with him but with an ogre. He is at once seized by the neck by the Tortoise and then the worm vomits twenty one times and at each time he brings up some part of the earth about the size of a berry. To quote from the story:

His first vomit brought up Mother Earth; his second, yellow earth; his third, black earth; his fourth, sinful earth where a tiger can kill you; his fifth, arid earth where you sow but get no harvest; his sixth, unclean earth; his seventh, untouched earth; his eighth, earth white as milk; his ninth, the good earth; his tenth, the earth that quakes; his eleventh, a mixture of all kinds of earth; his twelfth, red earth; his thirteenth, naked earth; his fourteenth, white clay; his fifteenth, rocky earth; his sixteenth, red gravel earth; his seventeenth, sandy earth; his eighteenth, deaf earth; his nineteenth, fertile earth that gives grain; his twentieth, earth where nothing grows; his twenty-first, virgin earth (4)

These above-quoted lines make us think that the tribals are no ordinary people. They have a rich mental faculty. Their imagination is quite staggering. They have a wide knowledge of the geography of their region.

Thus, the earth was then brought to the Great God who had his own role to play in the formation of the earth. He called a young virgin to make a pot out of leaves, and he put the earth in it, and she churned it. For eight days and nine nights she churned till all was ready. Then God rolled the earth out like a great thin cake, and spread it on the face of the waters, where it grew and grew until it covered it entirely. As such, there is room to speculate how the rivers made their way on the surface of the earth.

Later, it is learnt that God sent his daughter Crow to fetch Pawan Daseri, the Wind-God, when the Wind God is not fully successful in making the earth firm, it was the turn of Bhimsen who first asked for the spirit and when he got plenty of it, he drank the same and then he took to the task of making the earth firm. “Where it was thin he put a mountain, where it was too heavy he made a valley. Where it slipped about, he put trees to hold it together”(5). Thus, the tribals have their own theory of the physical features of the world.

Later, when Bhimsen too was not fully successful, the Nanga Baiga and his wife, who were born out of a crack in the ground, came to the scene. The Nanga Baiga made a fiddle for himself from the Maiden Bamboo and the sound of the same shook God and thus, God got a signal that the Baigas were born. When God calls the Nanga Baiga and asks him to drive his nails into the earth to make it steady, the Nanga Baiga, as he had no nails, cut off the little fingers of his right hand and drove that into the ground. When God was not satisfied and asked for strong pillars, the Nanga Baiga called Agyasur, the God of Fire and he blazed up with the great flames from which the Blacksmith Agaria was born. This Agaria, who was not at all fearful of fire, made twelve pillars of Virgin iron and set them at the four corners of the world. Thus, when the world became steady God sowed seed everywhere, and the earth was made.

The Dancers in the Sky

This story is, in fact, a folk-tale of the Baiga from Orissa that deals with the idea behind lightning and thunder. It narrates the story how the Cloud God when delighted to watch the beautiful dance of the virgin daughters of Jogi Thoria at the year’s greatest festival, retained them in the sky without letting them go back to the earth so that they could dance in the form of lightning and thunder. Here, the Cloud God calls the girls ‘lightning’ and the boys ‘thunder’.

However, the Noctes of North-Eastern India have a different story to relate. According to them, there are two brothers of whom the elder lives on the earth and the younger in the sky. “From time to time the younger brother dances and throws showers of rain drops down. Then he asks the lovely fair-coloured girls of earth whether they have ever had such beautiful beads to wear, sometimes too he throws the lightning down and asks whether the earth people possess such marvellous magic. Sometimes he beats his drums and when it thunders across the sky he asks the earth people whether they have any music to match it”(11).

The Mishmis believe that the clouds are the pigs of the air and when two pigs meet they fight. “Their bristles scrape against each other and lightning flashes round the world. The pigs grunt loudly as they fight and we hear the noise as thunder”(11).

The second set of stories under the caption “The First Men” throws light on how the men were to look at when the world was formed, how they began to talk, how the women were to look at, etc.

“The Bearded Women” is a short-story that is sure to cause much laughter among the readers. It says that long ago women had beard and moustaches. A woman pulled off her beard and moustache and gave it to her she-goat so that she could marry the Tiger’s son. The goat did not turn up again and from then the faces of women have been free of hair.

The third category of stories, “Discoveries” throws light on man’s quest for making his life secure in the world.

The very first story, “How to Build a House” relates that a man called Jangu Saora, used the leaves of the toddy palm and made a house like an umbrella with a circular roof on a single pillar. But it had no walls. The saoras lived in such houses for many years and what is interesting is that they make little temples like their houses even today. “Later, they made proper homes of wood or mud, which were dry and warm. At last, in order to be near each other, they made houses in villages”(30).

However, the Singphos of North-Eastern India have a different story to tell and the story has for its object the idea given by animals to enable man to build his first house.

Two friends, Kindru-Lalim and Kincha Lali-Dam, had made up their mind not to live in caves but to build a house for themselves. In their quest to for an idea as to how to build the house, the elephant tells them to make pillars strong and thick like his legs, the snake asked them to cut the poles as long and thin as himself, the she-Buffalo showed them her dead husband and asked them to put cross poles and make a roof like the bones of the skeleton of her dead husband and at last, the fish asks them to get plenty of leaves and put them on the roof, one above the other like its scales. Thus, the friends got an idea of building a house from some animals.

Wonder how iron is found everywhere? The answer to this question can be traced in the story, “Hammer and Tongs”.

Intupwa, a craftsman, tried to find something better to cut wood and sharp stones. As he had dreamt of something called iron he went in search of the same and asked the trees, the grass and the animals. But they did not tell him about it for they feared that he may make an axe and arrows of the same and kill them. At last, water asked him to go to Numrang-Ningpu to find the iron.

Intupwa found no iron there. But he found a goddess living there who gave birth to a child that very night which was red as fire at the time of birth. But, he became black as iron as he cooled. When Intupwa chopped a small bit off him and took it home the child then broke into a hundred pieces which were carried away by a stream and scattered them about the world. Thus, afterwards, there was iron ore everywhere.

Intupwa learnt to make a hammer out of a stone when he saw an elephant’s feet crush everything. And, when he saw the claws of the crab he made a pair of tongs and was soon turning out axes, knives and arrow-heads.

            “The Talking Animals” is yet another set of short stories. And, the first short story, “The First Monkeys” will make the theory of evolution even more curious.

             The fist short-story, “The First Monkeys” puts forth a strange idea that monkeys descended from men and not men from monkeys. Though it sounds strange it cannot be denied that the tribals too thought of the theory of evolution when, paradoxically, they were dubbed as savage and uncivilized devoid of any capacity of free and practical thinking.

            According to the Juangs of Orissa, it so happens that one day, men went to the jungle to cut down trees and to make a clearing for civilization according to their old custom. What is interesting is that the dry shrubs and branches did not catch fire when the men tried to burn them. Seeing this, they brought fire from the headman’s house, from the priest’s house, from the magician’s house, from the house of the village watchman, etc. But the wood did not catch fire. “Their hands were sore, their faces running with sweat. Their moustaches and beards were burnt, but their clearing was not burnt” (41). Fearing that they would get a scolding from their wives, they made a plan to divert the angry women and tied bits of wood to their backs and started to jump about shouting, ‘Hoop–hoop-hoop-hoop’. “But the bits of wood turned into tails and the dirt and sweat into hair all over their bodies. Now they were monkeys and they went to live on fruit in the jungle”(42).

            But, the Gadabas have yet another story with regard to the monkeys.

            Twelve boys and twelve girls lived in a certain village and were crazy about dancing. One evening a monkey, dressed in a coat and turban, comes to the village and sits nearby on a stone and plays its fiddle so well that the girls dance to its tunes and all the girls are in love with the monkey. This was too much for the boys and they carefully watched the monkey and when they saw its tail stuck out behind, hitherto believed to be a stick, the boys fully realized that it was a monkey.

            Next day the boys put wood round the stone where the monkey always sat and set fire to it, thus making it terribly hot. When the monkey sat on it, it burnt the skin off his back and he ran away screaming with pain. Thus, the monkey ever since has had a red bottom.

            “The Two Friends” is a beautiful short-story throwing light on the intimate friendship of a tiger and a frog. It so happens that the tiger always gave very good food to the frog whenever it paid a visit to the tiger’s house. The Frog too invited the tiger to come to his house and the tiger replied,

            “Friend, I am a meat eater. If you can give some meat I will certainly come to your house”(48).

            The Frog said, “Of course, you will have what you like; come tomorrow to my house” (48).

            Though the frog had invited the tiger to come to his house, he was rather worried as to how he would be able to feed the tiger. He comes across a horse on the bank of a river. He hopped on to its back and tired to bite some of his flesh. But he failed as the horse kicked him off and thus the frog’s legs were broken. “This is why even today the frog cannot walk straight” (49).

            When the tiger came to his house, the frog felt ashamed for he had no meat to offer to him. Thus, he crept slowly up to the left and there began to remove the flesh from his legs. Unable to bear the pain he cried, “O mother, I am going to die” (49). Hearing this, the tiger climbed up to see the frog and thus came to know everything. He felt bad and said, “Friend, there was no need for you to do this. In any case, I wouldn’t eat your flesh”(49).

            The frog felt so ashamed that he left his house forever and went to live in the water. “This is why the frog always lives in the water and why his legs are so thin”(49).

            The next short story, “The Flying Elephants,” answers three important questions: How did the peacock get its tail? What is the reason behind the great leaves of the plantain tree? Why are the elephants afraid of men?

            The Saoras of Orissa believed that elephants originally had wings and could fly about. In fact, they had four great wings. The elephants became a nuisance when the world was made and they caused too much trouble for the people as they would crow like cocks and fly up into the sky; when they were tired they came down and perched on the roofs of the houses, thus making the houses collapse beneath them.

            The great God was so annoyed that he invited the elephants for a great feast and gave them much to eat and drink and when they were asleep he cut off their wings. Then, he gave two of them to the peacock, which originally had no tail, and thus the peacocks came to have its tail. “The other two he stuck on the plantain tree, which accounts for its great leaves”(50).

            “When the elephants woke up and found they had lost their wings, they were very angry; they ran away into the jungle and ever since have been afraid of men” (51).

             Death has always been mysterious to many a people who have tried to know about it but they have met with failure. As such, the concept and idea of death is largely to be found in the domain of the mysterious and the unexplored.

 The very next story “How Death came to the World” is the only story in the last category, “The End of Things” of the present work. However, there are two sub-stories under the same title.

The story goes thus: “At the beginning people did not die and did not know how to weep. They grew very old and as they got older and older their misery increased. They could not walk, they had very little to eat and there was no joy or comfort in their lives” (95).

A squirrel living in a tall tree was killed by a kite and the body was thrown down to the ground. A man called Singra-Phang-Magam saw the dead squirrel and was astonished, for he had never seen a dead creature before. He wondered how it is that his own people do not die even after getting old and lie still being unable to use their arms and legs. He took the dead squirrel to his home and put it in a corner covering it with a piece of cloth. Then he called the moon and stars saying, “A man has died, come and see him” (95). This made the moon and stars come weeping with all the spirits of hill and forest and Singra-Phang-Magam and his wife wept too. And when the Moon and the Stars saw the body of a squirrel they became angry and said that it is not a man but only an animal.

Singra-Phang-Magam told them, “But how has this squirrel died and why don’t men die in the same way?” (96).

            The Moon and the Stars asked, “Do men also want to die?” Certainly they do,” he said. As one grows old, life becomes intolerable”(96).

            Then the Moon and the Stars and all the spirits said, “If you eat the squirrel’s flesh, you will all die”(96).

Thus, Singra-Phang-Magam cut the body of the squirrel into many pieces and distributed the same to all and as all the people ate the flesh death came to them and from then on they learnt how to weep.

            However, the Akas have yet another story to relate.

            According to the Akas, there were two Suns who were men, and two Moons who were man and wife and the heat was so severe that there was great destruction of life and vegetation on the earth. But it so happened that the Sun’s wife and Moon’s husband fell in love with one another and as they could not meet in the sky, they used to come to earth to meet. But whenever they met, everything around them caught fire and that is why today the earth is sometimes red and sometimes yellow; when we see this we know that the Sun and Moon made love to one another.

As the men and animals started running for fear of being burnt to death when the Sun and Moon came to earth, the two brothers Chou-Siphu and Kharo-Libji, came to know what had happened and they resolved to kill these evildoers and when they came, Chou-Siphu and Kharo-Libji shot at them with their bows killing the Sun’s wife at once and the Moon’s husband, who was injured, fled away with the arrow in his body to his own wife and died in her arms.

The Sun said, “My wife had died down on earth, but the husband of my sister the Moon has died here. If now she gives his body to men and animals they too will die”(97).

So he went to warn the men and animals. “When my sister the Moon calls to you,” he said, “make no reply, but when I call you may reply” (97).

When the Moon came out of her house weeping with her husband in her arms everyone was asleep except the barking-deer and the peacock in the forest and the two heard the Moon weeping and they asked about the reason.

When she heard them the Moon let the body of her husband fall to the earth and cried, “As you killed my husband so may you all—men, animals and birds—die too” (97).

This is how death came to the world.

When the cock called the Sun to come and help, he said “it is too late and you all must die” (97).

Verrier Elwin observes:

“But to the hill people death is not the end. The soul lives on, in a village not unlike the villages of earth, and in time he is joined by the souls of those he loved in life. The soul continues to be one of the family: the living put out food for him: he appears to them in dreams. Many of the hill people believe that he returns to earth in another form.” (98)

The very title of the book When the World was Young does have significance, for it points to the fact that the tribals have dwelt a lot upon the idea of the beginning of life on the earth in its nascent stage. The tribals have their own idea with regard to the making of the earth and they deal with the idea of God being the main creator of this world, and like geographers and geologists they speak about the sun and the moon, about thunder and lightning in the sky, about the formation of snow, about the quaking of the earth and then the evolution of man and other animals on the earth and a host of other things that the book presents. What deserves special mention is the fact that the tribals are in no way inferior to the citizens of the so-called civilized world. They are broad-minded too and they too think about the happenings around them and they reflect on the same.

What is more important in this regard is that the tribals are a neglected lot and are marginalized and are the Other, in a way. This fact is yet another image of India wherein a vast mass of people though marginalized and dubbed uncivilized, are in fact more civilized than the other parts of the world. The stereotype needs to be destroyed and tribal literature should be made a part of mainstream literature.

I strongly feel that these kinds of short-stories should become a part of the syllabi prescribed for schools and colleges in India so that one can have a better understanding of the tribal world of India.



Elwin, Verrier. When The World Was Young: Folk-tales from India,s Hills and Forests. National Book Trust, India, 1961. Print.

Devy, G.N. The Oxford India Elwin: Selected Writings.OUP, 2008. Print.

Guha, Ramachandra. Savaging the Civilized: Verrier Elwin, His Tribals, and India. Penguin, 2014. Print.

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