Treatment of Geo-Cosmology in Select Toto Myths

Essay 2017 7 Pages

Cultural Studies - Miscellaneous



B. D. Mandal

Even at this stage of history of India the study of the contributions of the Mongoloid peoples has not offered much importance to. It has remained a much neglected chapter of Indian history though the school of the subaltern dominates the realm of Indian history discourse. But an exhaustive study in this field could bridge many gaps and could address many hitherto unanswered questions linguistic and cultural. The impact of the Mongoloid culture on the mainstream Indian culture is deeply rooted and indelible. And this impact has been assimilated into the course of living culture to such an extent that instances of such impact cannot be separated and easily looked upon. Suniti Kumar Chatterji has rightly observed:

An appraisement of the role of the Mongoloid peoples in the development of the composite Hindu or Indian culture in its expansion in North-eastern and Eastern India through Mongoloid contact or participation – should be looked upon as an important line of enquiry in tracing the history of Indian civilization. Yet so far as I know this has not been viewed in its proper perspective by any scholar… and there is reason for this neglect (Chatterjee: 1951, 2014, p-18)

Studies in this field will be helpful to a better understanding of these mongoloid people and their culture and at the same time these will come to use of understanding the Indian culture in a broader perspective.

It would be judicious to know in brief about the Totos and their settlement before delving deep into the discussion of their cultural life. The Totos are one of the underdeveloped tribes of the Mongoloid group of West Bengal, residing in the sub-Himalayan region. Others of the group include the Meches, the Garos, the Lepchas and the like. They now live exclusively in Totopara, a small hamlet at the foothills of the Bhutan Himalayas along the Indo-Bhutan border of the Indian subcontinent. Totopara, the village of the Totos is now under the Madarihat Police Station of the Alipurduar district. But prior to their concentration in this village, they used to live in different parts of the northern West Bengal. C. C. Sanyal observes:

Although the Totos are now found in only a single village there is evidence of other Toto settlements in the Western Duars, a tract of country spreading from the river Teesta on the west up to the river Sankosh on the east, within the district of Jalpaiguri in West Bengal. The old settlements generally lie along an old road from Champasuri ferry ghat on the river Teesta within the deep Chumkdangi forest of Baikunthapur at the northern apex of the district of Jalpaiguri through the forest of Western Duars to Alipurduar and thence to Sankosh ferry on the border of Assam (Sanyal: 1973:3).

Numerous socio-economic factors including ethnic clashes with other tribes forced their settlement in this small village. But some traces of their earlier settlements can be found out. The traces are not in physical forms. Mostly they remain in the place names and in other linguistic forms.

They generally live on agriculture. They grow rice, maize and oranges. Sometimes they hunt wild cocks, birds and boars but they are not proverbial hunters. In ‘Toto Society and Change: A Sub-Himalayan Tribe of West Bengal’ (1993) Amitabha Sarkar has presented a detailed picture of the social, economic and cultural life of the Totos. Descriptions of their different rituals, gods and goddesses and traditional medicines are also discussed in this book. The language which the Totos speak belongs to the Tibeto- Burman family as classified by George Abraham Grierson (1851-1941) in his book ‘Linguistics of India’ which documented Grierson’s findings of a long search of 34 years, from 1894-1928 in the British India. This book has been reissued in 11 volumes in 2005. Now it is a mystery how this tribe came to be known as ‘Toto’. Amitabha Sarkar has tried to demystify it by stating:

There is a legend that a few people were engaged by Britishers, during the fight with Bhutan in 1864-65, as a labourer to carry the baggage of tota (cartridge) and hence in due course this group of people were known as Toto (sic) (Sarkar: 1993:2).

But it remains a mere conjecture due to want of enough historical evidences to substantiate it. A thorough research in languages and linguistics of the Mongoloid tribes of the Sub-Himalayan region may provide a clue to this question.

Discourses on the Toto life and culture are still now inadequate. Very few books which can explore in details their life and culture have been written so far. So, the Totos and their culture have still remained mysterious to the common readers of the culture of the Indian tribes. In his seminal book ‘Kirata Jana Kriti’ published by The Asiatic Society, Kolkata (1st edition in 1951) Suniti Kumar Chatterji has extensively recorded the contributions of the Indo-Mongoloids to the history and culture of India. In this pioneering book the writer has surveyed how people of this Mongoloid origin contributed to the mainstream Indian culture. They have added variety and richness to the hitherto known sanskritised version of our culture. But Suniti Kumar Chatterji’s study has ruefully left the Totos and their culture out of his intellectual inquiry. But later on some researchers have come forward to bridge the gap. C. C. Sanyal and Bimalendu Majumdar are two researches who have done extensive researches in the Toto- culture. Further studies must get benefitted from their views and analysis. In spite of that, possibilities of new studies have not been exhausted. A study of their oral literature may prove fruitful in bringing out a new identity of their selfhood and culture which do not get always reflected in empirical study based on data and facts. In this present paper our attempt is directed to document the inner life of the Totos by exploring their hopes, aspirations and dreams which have got encoded in their myths and folktales.

A critical perusal of the Toto myths and folktales explores that people of this ancient tribe of India have attempted to explain the mysteries of cosmology in their own unique way. In their folktales the Toto people have tried to find an explanation to the birth of the moon, the sun and the stars and that to the question of the creation of the rivers and springs. These are their origin myths. Branches of modern science do not correspond to their explanations but beauty of their imagination cannot be denied. All these myths and folktales collectively attest to the quality and character of the imaginative and intellectual life of the Toto people. This present paper will critically analyze select Toto myths to give a brief outline of the Geo-cosmological views of this tribe to a wider readership. And here will be an attempt of finding out the uniqueness of the views, wombed within these tales. It is in a way to make a study of the cultural life of the Toto people in respect to their geo-cosmological views and also to find out the geo-sociological factors which have contributed to the shaping of their views. In his book on the Totos Bimalendu Majumdar has recorded some of the Toto myths and folktales. Rudra Kinshuk has retold a few myths and folktales of theirs into Bengali and these translations or retellings have been collected in his book ‘Tari-Sani: Toto Lokkatha’, published by Purva, Kolkata in 2009.

Myths, on the basis of thematic pattern and construction may be classified into several groups and sub-groups. Some myths deal with the birth of the sun and or that of the moon. Some are possible explanations of the creation of the rivers and the mountains. The Totos do not have any sense of sin and piety. But they have much reverence for the sky and the sun. They believe that the sun is the source of all life and life goes back to the sun after death. In a myth the birth of the sun has been conceived beautifully. Let us recount the tale in brief:

It is believed that Ishpa, the Creator first created Tari, the moon and placed him in the sky. Tari used to wander in the vast blue sky alone. Loneliness gradually grew intolerable to him. So he implored Ispha to give him a companion. And Ispha went out of his heavenly abode ‘Ni-an-kosha’ in search of a suitable companion for Tari. He moved here and there but his search resulted almost in futility. Then he entered the dense forest ‘Utanchu’ and found a big hen hatching on eggs. He drew near the nest with a hope of getting some information from the hen. The hen saw the huge figure of Ispha approaching the nest; it got startled and left the nest to perch on a high branch of the tree. This sudden and hasty movement caused the fall of an egg on the ground. The egg yolk came out and started leaping. Ispha took hold of the lively yellow yolk and hurled it into the blue sky. It became Sani, the sun. And since then Tari and Sani have been two friends in the blue celestial space over us (Kinshuk: 2009:23)

It is to be noted that life in the egg is the source of the sun which is in turn the source of life in this world. And as the hen is mother of the sun, its call wakes the sun up every morning. The hen occupies an important space as a recurrent motif in the myths and tales of various tribal communities residing in different parts of West Bengal. As the references to hens, cocks and fowls are found in Toto myths, tales and traditional folk songs, such references to this bird and the like abound in the traditional Santal folk literature. And hence fowls and hens are necessary offerings to the Toto gods and goddesses. Fowls and eggs are important ingredients of the Toto religious rites. ‘An egg’ as a source of life is to be found in different literatures. A Santal myth recounts that Pilchhu Haram, the first father of mankind and Pilchhu Burhi, the first mother of mankind came out of eggs a mythical bird. In a Greek myth it is found that Helen, Clytemnestra and their brothers were born of eggs which their mother, Leda whom Zeus seduced in the disguise of a swan delivered. But the imaginative quality as well as the poetic beauty associated with the Toto myth is really remarkable. Life begets life. The sun produces and sustains life as it itself is born of an egg, the life symbolized. And it is implied that the sun is a bird of fire and it has received the colour of the egg-yolk.

In another myth the perpetual life of the stars has been explained. This can be grouped as a cosmological myth or as an etiological myth that explains some geographical or natural phenomena. To put it in a simpler way we may grouped these myth as ‘geographical or geological myths, as these myths in their own ways deal with the questions which are the concerns of the sciences as Geography or Geology. Let the myth be recounted here:

Ispha created human beings and other creatures to get this lonely earth peopled with. He left all the creatures in a secured place with an intention to breathe life into them. He wished to get human beings endowed with an immortal life.

And he made arrangements accordingly. But taking advantage of his absence Pidua, the Satan breathed life to human beings. So the Satan is the cause of life in humanity. When Ispha found it out, he became sad and angry. He punished Pidua and cast ‘pieces of immortality’ to the shy. And those pieces turned to be the immortal stars. And due to Pidua’s mischief man has been deprived of immortal life (Kinshuk: 2009:21)

The average life span of the Totos is very short. Malaria, deadly Thalassemia, unhygienic life style, sheer poverty, illiteracy and want of medical treatment has made death a daily phenomenon. In the past severe ethnic clashes were there to make their life-span drastically limited. So fear of death and aspiration of a long life are expected to be a recurrent issue in the Toto myths and tales. The Totos always apprehend of being extinct. So, this myth somehow explains their fear psychosis of getting extinct. This myth has another aspect to take notice of. Here we find that human beings are getting life from Pidua, the Satan. The binary opposite of Ispha, representing the good and Pidua, representing the bad is implied here. The perennial battle of the two contrary forces is on. And it reminds the readers of a distant parallel in the myth of the fall of Man in the Bible. A parallel story of deprivation of immortality is there in a Rabha myth though the Rabha myth has an extra dimension of the female supremacy in the act of creation of humanity as suggested by a feminist perspective of reading. This myth of creation of humanity and its deprivation of long life belongs to the etiological or explanatory group. But on the basis of its cosmological essence it can also be categorized as a cosmological one.

In the Toto oral literature there is a myth which explains the coming into existence of the rivers and another myth finds answer to the cause of the earthquake. Both of the two are of the etiological character. A critical analysis reveals that people of this ancient tribe like people of all other tribal communities tried to find out causes behind the natural phenomena which now modern Geography explains differently. The inquisitive bend of mind is distinctly revealed here. I. M. Lewis observed as Bimalendu Majumder quoted him in his discourse:

These types of etiological myths are found to exist throughout the world. Inquisitiveness of man about these types of occurrences are endless (sic). And these sorts of etiological myths originated as an explanatory answer to rationalize the inquisitiveness. There is a primitive folk belief among the tribal people that the subject matter of these types of folk tales had been revealed to ‘Old Wise Men” or ‘Witch-Doctors’ through their meditations or through the Cosmic dream (Majumder: 1991:85)

A close analysis of these tales brings out that people of the ancient tribes were minute observers of life and what happened around life. Observation and imagination what they had were put together to find out answers to the questions which persistently trouble their physical life as well as the mental one. Let us make a summarized and synthesized version of the two myths together in the following:

Once Pidua, the demon stole all water from the earth and concealed it deep within the heart of the Badu Hill. All life suffered due to dearth of water and prayed Ispha. Ispha could understand it to be a mischief of the demon. He could also understand where water was concealed. In spite of his repeated queries the hill did not reveal the truth. So Ispha got angry and pierced severely the heart of the hill with the Patang, his strong sword. And concealed water gushed out of and began to flow into numerous rivers. Life on the earth was saved. Getting displeased with Pidua due to his mischief and misdemeanor Ispha once got him locked with in a deep pit of the Badu Hill and covered the pit with a stone slab. Bur soon the fierce demon came out of the pit and his severe movement within the pit shook the entire hill violently and this caused the earthquake (Kinshuk: 2009:15, 19).

It is to be noted that water is an important component of life. And it is also an important component of human civilization. So the story of civilization is in a way is the story of water. So references to water are abundant in every cultural life. The Toto culture is no exception. So the Toto habitats in the past were along the course of the river of Torsha. Their present settlement, Totopara is also on the Torsha bank. As in the case of cultural life of all tribal communities water is an integral part of different Toto rituals. So dearth of water must be a concern to the Toto people. That perennial concern has been the central metaphor in the myth of river-birth. The binary relation of the good and the bad has also been implied here in both of the etiological myths. Pidua is always ready to do some mischief to harm mankind and also to displease and dispose Ishpa. The persistent fear of dearth of water and apprehension of death together form an archetype which has various manifestations in myths and diverse forms of literature. Such an archetypal expression is underlying in the myth regarding the birth of river.

Fundamental questions of life disturbed the ancient forefathers of the Toto people and they tried to explain these questions in their own unique ways. They used their life-long experience, intelligence and imagination to make negotiations with the problems which life makes them face. It is important to study these myths and stories to analyze different socio-economic and ethnic questions. Patterns of thoughts, attitudes to life, women and children as well as all that emerges out of life as the Toto look at, live, discard or celebrate are somehow encoded in these stories. Apart from this, it is important to read these myths for sake of their evocative quality in expression and poetic beauty. The images, symbols and archetypes are so strikingly novel that they sustain our imagination and get ourselves overwhelmed with a sense of wonder and joy which poetry provides.

Works cited:

1. Chatterjee, Suniti Kumar---Kirata Jana Kriti,The Asiatic Society, Kolkata, 14th Reprint, 2014
2. Majumdar, Bimalendu---A Sociological Study of the Toto Folk Tales, The Asiatic Society, Calcutta, 1991
3. Sanyal, C.C—The Meches and the Totos: Two Sub-Himalayan Tribes of North Bengal, The University of North Bengal, Darjeeling, 1973
4. Kinshuk, Rudra--- Tari-Sani: Toto-Lokkatha , Purva, Kolkata, 2009



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Title: Treatment of Geo-Cosmology in Select Toto Myths