India, being an old civilisation has rich tradition of folktales. Folklore research of 19th – 20th century discovered many of them. Anyway Folklore studies as a subject was mostly encouraged and funded by western world, European countries or USA. They developed folklore studies as a systematic area of research, discovered stories from different parts of the world, analysed those, found similarities and dissimilarities among different regional folktales. At the same time many stories remained undiscovered. Language and dialects created one obstacle in front of the effort of translating them. Another issue was reaching the locations in remotest corners of the world where a handful of stories could have been hidden.

Being born as Bengali, I had access to good number of Bengali folktales. As I started working on history of Bengali literature, I realised many of the tales of this region are either unknown to the world, i.e. never translated or was translated over hundred years back and then forgotten. Some of those are so old that those make us remember tells of the Puranas, some of them show fantasy comparable to medieval European tells, some carry strong flavour of Bengali societal morals of an unknown era. I thought of presenting some of those stories to my readers to make them aware of the folktale traditions from Bengal. Some of the tales have different version in different districts, also in neighbouring states. Good to remember that political geography of a land changes over the time depending on ruler’s convenience, sometimes making human migration impossible. But change in boundaries of states cannot block stories from traveling from one district to another, even from one part of the land to another – stories are orally transmitted. As long as folk stories are orally created by commoner, also preserved same way, versions change as per storytellers style and understanding – storytellers interpret stories matching to their life’s experience. Interesting is to find similar stories in any two disconnected locations. We can assume similar experiences encourage humans to create similar stories to interpret their world.

The history of Bengali language explains how changes over thousand years, if not more, could have influenced folktales – stories of the commoners developed in this language. We come to know about the existence of some written language in eastern part of India in the Buddhist text Lalitavistara composed not later than 308 CE claiming that Buddhadev learned scripts of Anga, Banga, Brahmi, Saurastri and Māgadhi. And the claim establishes us that there was a distinct script for language spoken in the Banga territory even before the birth of Christ. The geographical boundary of this Banga (Bengal?) before Christ is obviously not very clear to us!


Lalitavistara relief from Borobudur (credit Wikipedia)

The oldest literary work of India, Veda Samhitas including Atharvan do not have any reference to Bangla, or the region Banga. Aitareya Brahmana which is considered one important text among later Vedic literature mentions Vanga as a territory inhabited by barbarian tribes. True that oldest example of Bengali script is found about one thousand years back  — there are manuscripts and inscriptions to support that.


Silver coin with proto-Bengali script, Harikela Kingdom, circa 9th-10th century. Credit: Wikipedia

But a language does not necessarily develop along with a script. History of languages tells that the grammar and script associated to a language usually develop long after the verbal usage of a language starts. And verbal language practice does not leave ‘evidence’ for historians. During colonialist period, a section of European academicians took effort to prove the origin of Bengali language and its script to be somewhere in Europe or Asian territories adjacent to Europe. Problem with those kinds of evidence based historical analysis is, those are based on very limited evidences — those kinds of evidences do not last for centuries. Ashokan inscriptions tell there were around 84000 of them scattered in different parts of the country. We found only around hundred of them! If Samudragupta, the illustrious Gupta King mentioned one of his Bengali subsidiaries in his Allahabad inscription, then there was some language and script in eastern part of the land as early as in fourth century AD. Deciphering inscriptions and manuscripts found in eastern part of India — current West Bengal, Bangladesh, Assam, Bihar, and Odisha, makes us sure of the existence of the predecessor of current Bengali script in 7th\8th century.

Difference between written and spoken language is normal. But when the difference becomes too wide, the written language dies and the spoken modifies to some extent to turn into written language.

Probably same happened in case of Bengali. If Prākrit has replaced Sanskrit in writing, then Prākrit too had to be replaced by its successor in course of time. Scriptural evidences tell us that Bengali was not a cousin, but successor of Prākrit, which began developing as the Buddhist cultural empire started collapsing. Bengali in post-Charyāpada era shows clear changes those make us anticipate that there was some effort to develop Bengali as a sankritised language removing its former Prākrtised form. Medieval Bengali texts like Mangalkavyas in 13th century becomes show signs of this kind of reformed Bengali. Chaitanya literature by 16th century presents the most refined classical form of Bengali in the history of the language. Yet many works of this period till 1st half of 19th century show desire to bring Bengali closer to Sanskrit. Some of the verses written by Bharatchandra Ray in first half of 18th century could be easily designated as Sanskrit verses considering the selection of words, metre and style. Is this an expression against invading Islamic influence on local language and literature? During Islamic rule that started around 13th century AD, Farsi was imposed as official language. Naturally, many of court literature composed in this period shows strong influence of Farsi. In sharp contrast to that, 19th century (during British rule) literature shows an inclination to use Bengali colloquy in literary works, which is no way Prākrit. Anyway most of the Hindu authors in between 18th-20th century mostly used sankritised Bengali as literary language. The Bengali educationist Ishwarchandra Vidyasagar (1820–1891) was the first person who gave Bengali a distinct form as literary language free from the excessive influence of Sanskrit, Farsi and colloquy.

Notable is, considerable section of Bengali folk literature of 17th 18th century also shows lot of influence of Farsi in language. Several hundred years of Islamic rule may have this kind of impact on literary use of language, but how come Bharatchandra Roy’s language is completely free of Farsi influence? Is it possible that different authors of same era opted for different linguistic styles depending on own subject?

Better not to indulge too much in discussing linguistic history . We will discover the stories told in this language – I promise to come up with one of the oldest stories found in Bengali in next episode.

“None knows when the era of Kalidasa was over — only the pundits continue arguing regarding the date and time.” — Rabindranath Tagore

© Kathakali Mukherjee, 2018