Folk and flawedOn the face of it, the ten stories in Folk Gods, a collection of tales from around the sacred Kailash region in Nepal, India and the Tibet Autonomous region of China, are just that—stories about gods and goddesses (if not them, their vessels or other supernatural beings) and their affairs, which usually involve battling demons, witches and ogres or helping humans do the same.
On the face of it, the ten stories in Folk Gods, a collection of tales from around the sacred Kailash region in Nepal, India and the Tibet Autonomous region of China, are just that—stories about gods and goddesses (if not them, their vessels or other supernatural beings) and their affairs, which usually involve battling demons, witches and ogres or helping humans do the same. In ‘The Hungry Ogre’, sage Padmasambhava subdues a child-eating monster that had been terrorising people in the Humla district of Nepal. In ‘The Fall of the Demoness’, a god in human form kills another child-eating monster. And in ‘Puchawa Selzong’, the eponymous heroine battles evil spirits until she loses her magical bird-skin and a witch tears out her heart.
Magic is central to almost all these stories—even in ‘The Clever Ancestor’, a fascinating perspective on the Gorkhali conquest of Garhwal. So are the themes of gods acting like humans, of good triumphing over evil, compassion over fear. What is extremely intriguing and warrants deeper reading, however, is the subtext, especially in stories like ‘Mortal Gods’, ‘The Fall of the Demoness’, and ‘Devbhumi’, where one has to wonder what it means when the gods too are shown to be complicit in perpetuating social ills such as the caste system; in ‘Devbhumi’, they actually maintain it.
In ‘The Fall of the Demoness’, gods too choose sides: the upper caste has their own gods and the lower their own. And in ‘Mortal Gods’, a god that (accidentally) defies the notions of purity and impurity by eating a grain of rice from the hands of beautiful human women is punished for this breach. His punishment is to suffer eternally as a human being with desires. The lesson: you want to be around ‘lesser’, ‘impure’ humans, but do not be one of them.
Of course, these gods are folk gods (as the title of the book suggests), and are, therefore, as flawed as the humans who imagined them. And in their flaws lies the book’s worth. Folk Gods, released recently on August 25, is the product of a three-year collaboration between the New School in New York, the Henry Luce Foundation, and ICIMOD in Kathmandu. According to the introduction by Ashok Gurung, Senior Director at the India-China Institute at the New School, researchers collected the stories by travelling to different villages in the Kailash region. Prawin Adhikari, author of The Vanishing Act, then retold these stories in English and respective translators translated them into Nepali, Hindi, Tibetan and Mandarin. Undoubtedly, as Gurung says, these stories show the readers how the inhabitants of the region, despite being in three different nation-states today, relate very similarly and yet differently to the land around them, and how their memories and perceptions are shaped by what their ancestors left behind in the form of tales. But, as Gurung also writes, these stories also invite readers to “reflect on their own land, air and stories”. A reflection, a study that illuminates the underlying socio-political and historical phenomena that unpacks the nuances in these stories, is what the book begs.
For instance, in ‘The Battle of Brothers’, the story on the outset seems, well, like a battle between two brothers, or two shamans jostling for space, for a voice, but those two shamans belong to two different ‘religions’—a local ancestor-god of the Rung people and a Hindu goddess. What does this simple story about brothers say about the history of religions, especially of the spread of Hinduism, in the area? How did a goddess worshipped in the plains of Nepal become a mountain deity? What does it mean when she defeats the mountain god? What does cholera (the brother who becomes a vessel for the Hindu goddess almost dies of the disease) have to do with it?
Similarly, every student of Nepali history must read and analyse ‘The Clever Ancestor’, a story about an old man who saves his children and grandchildren by throwing Gorkhali soldiers off a cliff. Miraculously, and quite funnily, none of them die. They all fall as a “single clump of limb, beard, teeth, swords and bellies”, but then they untangle themselves and walk away, albeit in fear of the old man. It is hard not to wonder about this strange, magical and compassionate ending. Why did the soldiers, described as cruel looters and murderers, not meet with death at the end of the tale? Is it because Gorkhalis did control Garhwal briefly and if the soldiers did die, the old man would be severely punished? Or is it because murder is against the old man’s (and the storyteller’s) values and, therefore, death has to be done away with when recounting the story? Or is it because, as the story says, the old man could become a god if enough people praised him?
The point is, although the stories in the collection are aimed at young readers, they are rich and fascinating for readers of any age. The collection opens a window to our shared past and history. It is now up to brave ones to peek through and see what lies beneath the stories. Some are simply about the battles everyone fights within, with a torturous but clear road to victory. Others, however, are about battles with forces where victory is not an option.