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Priyanka Rajkhowa
Date of Publish: 2017-07-01

The Oral Traditions of the Singphos



India’s Northeast region is known for its richness in folklore heritage. The region with more than 200 different tribes and communities is a major attraction for anthropologists and tourists from all over the world. Each of these tribes and communities has its own distinct cultural identity markers of art forms, attire, traditional cuisines, folk music, folk dance, folklore etc. Folklorists and other scholars have been conducting studies on these identity markers. Apart from these markers the verbal art is also an integral part of any community’s culture. The tribes are rich in oral tradition. Oral narratives like myths, legends, fables and folktales are an integral ingredient of the cultures of all societies and are accepted as the three basic forms of narratives of universal distribution. Ballads are also a form of verbal art prevalent in most of the tribes, which are stories told in the form of songs. Narratives are told and retold and passed down from generations. These oral narratives give an interesting picture of the beliefs of different tribes inhabiting in the region from ages.

Photo courtesy : The Miao Times https://www.facebook.com/miaotimes/

The Singphos are a colourful tribe of the region very rich in oral folklore, yet very less is talked about it. The Singphos are a hilly tribe of mongoloid origin but some of them are also settled along the Patkai foothills in Assam. Their abode was in the hills of Singra-Boom in Tibet and from there they formed several groups among themselves. Of these groups one went to China, one to Myanmar and one of them migrated to the Indian hilly region.

This traditionally rich tribe have no written history of their own. After the Indian Independence the geographical location of the Singphos got scattered and as a result a section of the community settled in Lohit and Changlang districts of Arunachal Pradesh and the rest stayed in the foothills of the Patkai range, the region covering Bisagaon, Inthem, Ketetong, Khalanpani, Ulup, Hassaeik village etc in the Margherita sub division under Tinsukia district in Assam. The Singphos are considered as one of the most powerful tribes, having played an important role in shaping the history of the northeastern region.

Besides being the pioneers in introducing tea to the masses, the Singphos are rich in oral folklore. They have unique and interesting folktales which are passed through many generations. Story telling has been an indispensable element of the Singpho culture, throughout their history. Stories about unusual happenings, stories purely imaginary in nature are told and retold.

For instance, the Singphos have a famous myth that the earth had two suns. There was no night time and people had to bear the heat throughout all the hours of a day. One day a boy who was exhausted by unbearable heat shot an arrow at one of the suns. The sun fell down and suddenly people experienced night time. This was how the days got divided into day and night. But at the same time the Sun in the sky felt lonely and requested the fallen sun to get back to the sky. The fallen sun disagreed to it so a rooster was to be companion of the sun. The rooster convinced the sun to get up when it hears it crow in the morning. The sun finally agreed to the rooster. The sun at sky being lonely turned pale and it is believed to be the moon. From that day the sun rises whenever the rooster crows and at night the moon shines.

Photo courtesy :http://singphoecolodge.blogspot.in/

The Singpho fable about an elephant and a tiger is also very popular. One day a tiger who was very proud told an elephant “I am the most powerful animal in the world and no one is worth being the king of the jungle than me.” The elephant said: “Let’s see who’s more powerful, you or me”. So they decided to test who is worth being the king of the jungle and went to the nearby village. They saw a paddy field and decided to test their claim over the forest. First the elephant went near the paddy where the crops were ready, seeing the elephant the owner of the field decided to take out its gun and fire. Sensing threat to his life the elephant escaped from the farmer’s area. Then the tiger said, “You coward, it’s my turn now.” Saying so the tiger went to the same paddy field and seeing the tiger the owner cried out in fear and begged the tiger to spare them. The tiger now came to the elephant and proudly said, “Did you see? They are so scared of me, that they begged for their lives. This proves I am the king of the jungle and you are worth nothing. So just leave my area.” The elephant sadly walked away and his tears flowed into a dry drain. A tadpole happened to cross the drain and wondered how come this dry drain has flowing water because it is always dry and then to his surprise he saw the tears of the elephant falling into it. The tadpole decided to go to the elephant and help him. Listening to the whole story from the elephant it said, “Friend, just wait and see.” Seeing the tadpole the tiger said, “you little worthless creature, I am the king of the jungle. Better live following my rules or else you get killed.” Listening to the tiger the tadpole said, “I don’t believe that you are powerful, you need to prove it to me.” The tiger became ferocious listening to him and said, “Just say, what’s the challenge” The apt tadpole asked the tiger to jump and cross a drain, by the time the tiger crossed it the tadpole caught hold the tiger’s tail and crossed the drain before the tiger. The tiger stood surprised and asked how come you reached before me. The tadpole spitting out the hairs of the tiger’s tail said “because I am the one who ate your mother. I swallowed her.” Hearing this, the tiger ran away scared and then the tadpole told the elephant, “my friend now you are free to live happily in the jungle” and he winked. From then the tadpole and the elephant turned to be the best of friends. The fable carries the moral that no matter how huge or fierce you are it’s your presence of mind and tactfulness which makes you strong and worthy.

Photo courtesy : The Miao Times https://www.facebook.com/miaotimes/

There are many such interesting folktales of the Singphos which catches our attention no matter what age group you belong to. They abound with rich oral tradition which includes folktales, myths and legends related to the local history. These tales have been the prime source of value education as well as entertainment in the Singpho community. But with the coming up of the commercial entertainment these oral traditional forms of entertainment are getting extinct. Oral tradition gives us an insight into the local history, beliefs and the relationship between man and his natural environment. They deserve to be preserved in the forms of documents otherwise this very interesting form of folklore might disappear completely in some years.


Priyanka Rajkhowa


( Priyanka Rajkhowa is an independent journalist based in Guwahati. She can be reached at prajkhowa25@gmail.com )



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