And so it began...: A new book offers insight into rich Indian creation legends - Hindustan Times

And so it began...: A new book offers insight into rich Indian creation legends

Jun 14, 2024 01:20 PM IST

Lopamudra Maitra’s collection draws from little-known communities and forgotten myths. Starting points matter, she says, as do the journeys our tales take.

According to Aka-Kede legend, the world was created by Paluga, the deity who created the first man and woman.When they had too many children, he armed them with different dialects as survival tools as they spread all over the world.

A historian, ethnographer and author, Maitra, 46, became interested in such lore while studying Ancient Indian history at Kolkata’s Presidency College. (HT Photo: Samir Jana) PREMIUM
A historian, ethnographer and author, Maitra, 46, became interested in such lore while studying Ancient Indian history at Kolkata’s Presidency College. (HT Photo: Samir Jana)

The Aka-Kede language, spoken by the indigenous people of Andaman went extinct by 1950 as per official records, but their stories have lived on through visual anthropologist Lopamudra Maitra’s book, How The World Was Born: Wondrous Indian Myths and Legends (June; Aleph Book Company).

The collection of 108 myths from across the length and breadth of India, offers a peek into creation tales: the birth of celestial bodies such as the sun and moon, fierce demons, the beginning of lightning strikes and the formation of the 3500-year-old Khecheopalri Lake in Sikkim.

A historian, ethnographer and author, Maitra, 46, is visiting faculty at the National Institute of Design (NID), Gandhinagar. While it was her academic journey that brought the Kolkata-based Maitra close to different communities of Asia and their folklore, the seeds of this pursuit were sown much earlier in her childhood.

“I still vividly remember the first time my father told us the story of Dhruva (dhruv tara or the pole star),” she says. A busy doctor, her father, Tushar Kanti Maitra, rarely got a chance to do this, but every time he did it left a powerful impact on Maitra. She was five years old, and her cousins were spending their summer vacations with her in Kolkata when he narrated the legend of Dhruva in Hindu mythology.

“The story of a brave child who won the love of Lord Narayan by pleasing him through penance to become a shiny pole star, captivated my little mind,” she recalls.

There were several aspects of the story that stayed with her for years on. She kept thinking about how the sky was the narrator of the story and why the little boy left home.

She realised the potential of unlocking the memories of a childhood full of tales when she began her journey of understanding the stories of India while studying ancient history at Kolkata’s Presidency College in 1999 and during her postgraduate dissertation in ancient Indian history, culture and archaeology while at Deccan College, Pune in 2001.

While exploring agrarian festivals in India and their correlation with monsoon patterns across the country, during her dissertation, she realised that a treasure trove of myths and legends were waiting to be explored. “I found that some of the festivals observed during spring and autumn today, can be traced to specific celebrations in ancient India,” she says.

This later became Maitra’s PhD topic in anthropology, taking her back to West Bengal where she focused on three western districts of Bankura, Purulia and West Midnapore, home to indigenous communities, such as the Santhal, Bhumij, Bauri and Bagdi.

“I started getting very interested in the local narratives. As I dug deeper, I realised that stories that seemed very simple, were in reality, very layered,” she says.

In Bankura, she stumbled upon a village, Penchashimul, which was named after a poem that was a part of the local legend. The name is a combination of the words pencha (owl in Bengali) and shimul (silk cotton tree in Bengali). The poem, written like a riddle, tells the story of the village being named after the tree a king meditated under and his pet owl that was blind during the day. Most of the young people in the village were unaware of how the village earned its name, she says. It took a chance meeting with a village elder who recalled the story behind the origin of the village.

It was at this point that an old dictum she had read on UNESCO’s intangible culture website rang true for her: when an elderly person dies, it’s like a library burning. “It was also when I decided that I must do something to preserve these stories,” she says.

By 2020, she got a chance to string these stories together into a more accessible form. How The World Was Born is Maitra’s second book on stories that have carefully been passed down through the ages among communities in India. Her first book, The Owl Delivered the Good News All Night Long (Aleph Book Company) published in 2021, was a similar collection of 108 folk tales, legends, and stories from more than 57 languages and dialects.

Maitra also wanted to break away from the usual ways of telling stories. “You cannot create new myths but there is just so much treasure out there that you can always find new layers to add to the already known stories,” she says. This is evident in her book, where an entire section is dedicated to only water bodies. It not only includes the larger bays, oceans and seas but also smaller water bodies like wells. “This special attention to the section is rooted in my personal belief to spotlight water and its fantastic contribution to our lives,” she says.

Maitra explains that her purpose of preserving and re-telling these stories today is not just driven by academic exploration. “It is important to go beyond the immediate text. There is so much to learn from the relationship people had with the world around them,” she says. An integral example is the personification and even deification of rivers, she says. We have come across hordes of stories about big and small rivers. “The story of Ganga being brought down to earth from the heavens is a part of Puranic literature, making it very sacred. But if we continued to have the same relationship with our rivers, they would not be in the situation they are in now,” she says.

Though there is a lot of misunderstanding and debates around the role of mythologies today, Maitra had a free hand in selecting and writing her stories. She is also optimistic that young readers are aware of the power of stories and know how they can be used in a responsible way.

“Most young people know that there are numerous ways mythical stories can be retold. There are innumerable examples in cinema and books around us that show these creative retellings,” she says.

However, now more than ever, it is important to be able to tell fact from fiction. “We need to be able to look at all narratives presented to us within historical as well as socio-cultural, political and economic contexts.”

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