The hill people have many theories about the origin of mankind. Some say that God fashioned the first people from clay with his own hands; some say that they were hatched from enormous eggs. They emerged from a crack in the ground, from the womb of Mother Earth; they were born of a goddess; they were even born of animals.

How Men Lost Their Tails [Illustrations by: Amina Jayal]
How Men Lost Their Tails [Illustrations by: Amina Jayal]

But all agree that, however they came into being, they were very different from what they are today, as the following stories show. According to the Saoras of Orissa, for example, they originally had tails.

In the days when men had tails they used to sweep the ground with them. But as the population increased, they got in the way and at marriages and funerals, people used to tread on each others’ tails and trip over and this caused a lot of amusement.

One day the Great God Kittung went to a bazaar and found it crowded as usual. As he went round looking at the stalls and searching for some good tobacco, someone trod on his tail and he went sprawling on the ground. Unfortunately he fell against a stone and two of his front teeth were knocked out. The whole bazaar roared with laughter and Kittung lost his temper. He picked up his own tail, pulled it out and threw it away. When the other tails saw this, they were frightened and they all of their own accord detached themselves from their bodies and ran away. Kittung’s own tail became the sago palm and the rest turned into the grass which is now used for making brooms.

The Little Men | By: Verrier Elwin; Illustrations by: Amina Jayal; Published by National Book Trust, India

The Murias of Bastar say that at first people were tiny creatures.

When this world was made originally there was neither Sun nor Moon, and the clouds and the earth were like husband and wife, they were so close together. Men had to be very small, for they had to move between them. They ploughed with rats and if they wanted to pick brinjals they had to reach up for them as though they were getting mangoes from a tree. As they walked about they used to knock their heads against the clouds.

After they had put up with this for a long time, they all got very tired of it. One day an old woman was sweeping the garden round her tree and hit her broom on the sky. She really lost her temper and gave the sky a mighty shove and away it went, to where it is today.

After that there was plenty of room for people to grow to their proper size.

The Discovery of Fire | By: Verrier Elwin; Illustrations by: Amina Jayal; Published by National Book Trust, India

In the days before people knew the use of fire, Cat and Bear were married, and all the animals in the world came to the wedding. There was a fine feast, but of course nothing was cooked, and the guest grumbled, saying, ‘we’re not going to eat this raw meat. We want something tasty. What about getting some fire?’

Panther said to Hyena, ‘You go and fetch it.’

Hyena retorted, ‘No, you get it.’

Leopard said, ‘No, someone very strong should get it.’

At last Tiger said, ‘Very well, I’ll get it.’ And he went off to try and find some fire.

Now Firefly had collected all the fire in the world in her tail and was sitting on it. When Tiger found this out, he began to fight for it, but Firefly turned him into a leaf and the wind blew it into the air. But the leaf called on the name of the wizard Jhinjha Guru and became a tiger again.

Tiger returned to the fight and now Firefly turned him into dust and the wind blew it about. The dust called on the name of the wizard Jhinjha Guru and became a tiger again.

Tiger returned to the fight and this time got hold of Firefly and was about to crush her in his jaws when she said, ‘Let me go and I’ll let you have it.’ Tiger let her go and she cut her tail and let a drop of blood fall on a leaf. Tiger ran off with it and when he reached home, made a bundle of spear-grass and let the blood fall on it, whereupon it burst into flames. The wedding-feast started all over again; the meat was roasted, and now guests had no cause for complaint.

One day while Cat was wandering about, he came to a village. He saw a house and wondered what it was. He went in and there was a pot of milk. He drank some but did not like the taste. ‘It ought to be cooked as at home’, he thought. He went back, got a bit of fire in a stick, tied it round his neck, and lit a fire and so boiled the milk. But the people came home and Cat ran away. They drank the boiled milk and liked it, and since then men have cooked their food.

The Flying Elephant | By: Verrier Elwin; Illustrations by Amina Jayal; Published by National Book Trust, India

There is a very widespread belief that originally elephants had wings and could fly about. Typical of many is this story, told by the Saoras living in the beautiful Orissa hills.

In the old days elephants had four great wings, and God himself used to ride on one of them. But after the world was made and men began to live on the earth, the elephants became a nuisance. They crowed like cocks and flew up into the sky; when they were tired they came down and perched on the roofs of houses. They were so heavy that the houses collapsed beneath them.

When God heard of this he was annoyed, and decided that he would have to do something about it. So one day he invited the elephants to a feast and gave them so much to eat and drink that they staggered away to a quiet spot and lay down to sleep.

While they were asleep, God cut off their wings. Two of them he gave to the peacock, who in those days had no tail, and that is how the peacock got his tail. The other two he stuck on the plantain tree, which accounts for its great leaves.

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.

1122 words | 11 minutes
Readability: Grade 5 (10-11 year old children)
Based on Flesch–Kincaid readability scores

Filed under: folktales
Tags: #tigers, #wings, #feast

You may also be interested in these:
Elephants and Leopards
Something Special
Excerpts From 'The Wonderful World of Insects'
It's a Beetle's World
Christmas Favourites