Indian Folklore - 1
Proverbs and riddles

The discussion at the workshop began with each member reviewing the work done in his language on proverbs and riddles. Later, each member provided information from his language about different varieties of proverbs and riddles as well as about their function and context. The following essay is based on the material supplied by the members of the group.

Proverbs and riddles have attracted the attention of many folklorists in India. The importance which folklorists give to this genre of folk speech is evidenced by the numerous volumes of proverb and riddle collections which exist in the many languages of Indian. Each member of the group recalled at least six or seven examples of published prov erb collections in his language. The bibliography is not evidence provided by the participants indicates that the amo unt of work done thus far in this area is very large indeed.

Nevertheless, on closer inspection, it became clear that nearly all the work has been limited to alphabetical listings of proverbs, sometimes itemized by subject. Riddle collections have always included solutions to riddles, and often, though not always, the riddles were also alphabetized. Some anthologies of proverbs have included comparative material from other languages to the extent that the compiler presented, along with each proverb, proverbs from other languages which translate similarly.

It is apparent from this information that a study of the context of proverb used and of their function with reference to their users is sadly lacking in work done to date by proverb collectors and compilers of proverb anthologies. An additional problem in proverb anthologies for some language, chiefly Telugu, is that their editors and compilers oft
en altered the text of the proverbs to conform to the standards of accepted scholarly language. this practice distort ed the texts, making it difficult to determine their origins. Consequently, although the work on proverbs and riddles in Indian languages is available, most of it needs to be done again with appropriate methodological care.

To begin with, the term proverb seems to be a cover word for a complex cluster of folk speech forms. Borrowed
by nearly every writer who wrote in English on this subject, this term masks a number of terms in regional languages. A survey of these terms reveals a variety of concepts. Some terms, such as kahania (Gujarati) and soloki (Bengali), indicate a genre. kahania represents a song in couplets sung by women. Soloki means a proverb with a story.
Words like sameta (Telugu) and samite (Kannada) point to the concept of analogy underlying the use of proverbs.
Both of these terms are derived from Sanskrit samyata, "equivalence". The Bengali term provad, as well as theTamil p?r?muri suggest the legitimizing function of proverbs. The words mean "words of the ancients" or "saying of the community". Also, sastram, used in Telugu and lokokti, attested to in several languages, indicate a similar legitimiz
ing function.

A significant feature of proverbs in all the Indian languages discussed by the group is that they are attributed to unidentified persons from the past. Also, many proverbs, when they are used in specific contexts, are structures as reported speech. They are embedded in sentences such as "They say…" or "It is like saying…..", "Someone(male or female, depending on the context) said …..", and so on.

An example from Telugu:

ma tatalu netulu tagaru
ma mutulu vasana cud?amannad?at?a

"They say, he said, 'my ancestors ate (clarified)
butter. You may smell it from my mouth?"

This proverb is used to comment on the futility of ancestral pride. Eating clarified butter indicates a rich life style. One's ancestors might have been rich, but if a person is poor himself, his ancestors' riches have no value for him. The flavor of good food does not show in one's mouth unless one eats it himself. Similarly, one cannot use wealth unless one owns it himself. Among many creative uses of this proverb is the ridicule of people living with dreams of past glory. Attributing this statement to a person from legendary times confirm it as a real occurrence. The user of the proverb is only utilizing it as an analogy.

Unlike the previous example, proverbs which present a value to be emulated or a convention to be observed are attributed to a group and not to a single person. This group, by implication, is the group of community elders from unknown, old times.

An example from Telugu:

ceppu unnavad?itonu vel?l?oddannaru

"(Elders) say, 'Do not go with one who has debts and one who has shoes".

A person who owes money to people in the village takes a circuitous route to reach a place in order to avoid meeting his lenders. If you accompany such a person, you always walk longer than necessary to reach your destination. A useful piece of advice, indeed, since debt is usually considered ruinous to one's finances in the traditional economy of India. An analogous image of the converse situation is presented in the case of a person who has shoes. His feet are protected and, therefore, he can walk over thorns and rocks with no concern for his companions who might not have shoes.

Some proverbs which look like aphorisms are not necessarily used in the structure of reported speech. An example has been provided by Ved Vatuk in the following Rajasthani aphorism.

ek akkhar pad?hai raja banai
do akkhar banai di"van
ti"n akkhar pad?hai banai bam?n?a

"One who learns one syllable becomes a king;
One who learns two syllables becomes a minister;
One who learns three syllables becomes a
Brahman begging from house to house".

This proverb, referring to the poor life of learned Brahmans, does not seem to be used in discourse as a reported statement. How, then, it is precisely utilized in discourse is not clear. Investigation needs to be done to determine if such aphorisms have an implied reported structure. Also unclear from the example is whether the proverb functions as an analogy to comment on the condition of a particular Brahman who may be poor and learned or if it is used more abstractly to comment on the uselessness of book learning which leaves a person without skills to make a living, except to beg, as Brahmans sometimes do. Monitoring the actual use of proverbs in real life situations would give rich detail essential for determining their actual function and meaning.

Most proverbs discussed by the group have an analogy either explicit or implied. If the use of a proverb as a reported statement endows it with legitimacy, its analogical form establishes it as evidence of the point of view presented. The following Bengali proverb, supplied by Dulal Chaudari, is a good example.

naste na janle uthan banka

"One who does not know how to dance (well)
blames it on the platform".

This proverb is used to indicate that the person given by a person for his or her inability to accomplish a task is only a cover for lack of skill. The situation in which this proverb is used itself is not accompanied by any substantial evidence of the alleged lack of skill. It is significant that the use of the proverb effectively substantiates such absence of skill. In the past, there was a person who blamed his inability to dance on the platform. This instance is shown to be similar to the present situation in which a person offers a specific reason for his failure. The analogy here is not meant to be merely illustrative; it is provided as proof that the person in question is behaving in the same way as the unskilled dancer in the past who blamed the platform. That such analogies function as evidence of an accusation is characteristic of proverb use. Example from several languages indicate that in many instances analogy serves as an equivalent for proof. This appears to be an essential feature of folk thinking. Further investigation could reveal significant information leading to possible application in many areas of Indian culture.

Another important aspect of the use of proverbs relates to the hierarchy of the users of proverbs. A proverb is considered appropriate only when the user is superior in status to his or her listeners. Like water, proverbs flow from a higher to a lower level and never vice versa. Proverbs are used by older men when they talk to younger persons or by socially superior persons to socially inferior persons. Also, they may be used among social equals. But even then, the person who uses them establishes for himself the status of a wise man. Or, if the user of proverbs happens to be a woman in mixed company, she is either older and also of higher status than all the men in the group or at least of equal age and status as the men. in the case of husband and wife, a wife could, and often does, use proverbs aimed at her husband only if such proverbs are "female proverbs", about which more will be said later.

Use of proverbs by children in the company of elders is strictly prohibited, as is their use by servants before their masters. A proverb often used to reprimand a younger person who uses proverbs before elders is reported from Hindi.

an?d?a kahe beccese chichi matkar

"The egg says to the bird, 'Don't make noise.'"

Proverbs with similar uses are attested in many languages. In Telugu, they say:

gud?d?occhi pillani vekkirincindit?a

"The egg (it is reported) made fun of the bird."

pit?t?a konchem, kuta ghanam

"The bird is small but its sound is big."

If servants or persons of low status ever have to use a proverb to liven up a conversation, they often preface their proverb with a humble statement, "As they say in the proverb" or a similar phrase. Even then, the proverbs they use may not be critical of the actions of their listeners.

Evidence presented by Mrs. Sashikala Chandervakar, who assisted her husband in quoting a number of Gujarati proverbs, suggests that a division exists between male and female proverbs. Proverbs related to relationships between mother-in-law and daughter-in-law and a married daughter's attitudes towards her father-in-law's household are included in the category of female proverbs. Telugu also distinguishes between male and female use of proverbs. One such proverb:

cinnan gavali
cintaku kavali
melimi gavali
med?a diragali

"Although the gold be no more than a cinnam (a tiny quantity, not more than a grain).
I want it to be made into tamarind leaf (design).
It should be pure (no other metal should be added to it),
and I want to go around my neck."

When a housewife is asked to use a small quantity (of food or money) and make it last for a long time, she quotes this proverb. A woman who demanded of her goldsmith to make a necklace of intricate design using only a small weight of gold serves as an analogy in this proverb. Proverbs of this type are not usually quoted by men; if so, this suggests that they have an effeminate quality. Similarly, the male proverbs used by women indicate a socially undesirable, masculine tendency in them. more evidence is necessary to establish the context of these proverbs as well as to find out if such division operates in other languages of India. Further, it appears that there are only a certain number of proverbs perceived as male or female. Many proverbs seem to belong equally to either group.

It is only stating the obvious to observe that proverbs reflect the wisdom of the community. Even a sample list of what they include is staggering. Caste tensions, personality conflicts, relations between kin groups, self-criticism of communities, tips about family skills, medical information including knowledge of herbs, seasonal changes of weather, crops, qualities of food items, childrearing practices, behavior codes for different social situations ----- these are just a few of the items noticed in the sample provided by the group.

That proverbs acquire textual status when they are perceived by the community as collective wisdom authored by elders form legendary times is evidenced by an experiment made by Pushkar Chandervfakar in 1936. he coined new proverbs and published them in his journal, Rekha. He reported in the workshop that they failed to acquire acceptability among the people of Gujarat. To succeed, proverbs must not have known authorship.

However, antiquity is not by itself a deciding factor in acceptance of a proverb. New ideas and new items form new proverbs all the time. Ved Vatuk presented a proverb of recent origin in Hindi.

chor khaddar me, khadar me

"There are thieves in khaddar (handspun clothes) and in
khadar (a place known for thieves)".

Apparently, this proverb incorporates the recent feeling among many people that members of the Congress Party who wear handspun khaddar to symbolize honesty have been corrupted by power and are no better than thieves who live in khaddar.


As contrasted with the multiplicity of terms used for proverb in Indian languages, the term used for riddle are equivalents of the English term. vid?ukathai (Tamil), ukhana (Marathi), prahelika dhandha (Bengali), varat (Gujarati), paheli (Rajasthani), catur (Assamese), pod?upukatha (Telugu)----- all these words, the members of the group felt, may be comfortably translated by the term riddle.

Riddles are more formally structured than proverbs. Available in rhythmic prose, verse, or song, they have a tighter text that is less frequently changed in use than are the texts of proverbs. It was suggested that riddles are more frequently used by children and young adults than by older people. Further discussion of this suggestion indicated that children use riddles in games while adults use them in rituals. Also, adult use of riddles occurs in tales presenting problem situations, such as marriage, selection of a husband by a woman, selection of a minister by a king, and selection of a successor to the throne. Utterances of wise people, statements of lovely ladies to young men, and utterance of deities or their priests are made up of riddles.

It was also suggested that children's riddle games are close to adult rituals. A riddle is an open-ended problem with only one correct solution. One who knows the answer by virtue of prior knowledge alone will be able to give the right solution. By definition, it is not resolved by intellectual abilities such as logical thinking or methodological investigation of information. Therefore, it is significant that riddles should be related to rituals and tales of problematic occasions. Like terms associated with ritual around the world, may of the terms for riddle in Indian languages literally mean some sort of opening up to find out the answer. This suggests that knowledge pre-exists, and it is revealed to the knower. Problematic situations such as choosing a husband, king, or minister in folk tales reflect the world view that a certain person is predestined to fill the role. The task is not choice of a suitable person for the position so much as learning who is destined for that particular purpose. Viewed as such, it is interesting that what appears open-ended is actually a closed statement to be opened by the person with the right knowledge.

Another interesting aspect of the group discussion was the opportunity for each member to see how similar or different are the text and/or the function of proverb and riddles in the various language areas. A comparative study of proverb use in Indian languages has immense potential for mapping folk concepts and themes. It is too early to predict, but a dense, shared occurrence of similar proverb structures and functions across two or more language areas would indicate a pattern of shared wisdom or world view. In any case, it is doubtless that an exciting field of study is available for folklorists in this area which remains largely untapped.

Velcheru Narayana Rao
University of Wisconsin, Madison

1. The following paper was generated form the discussion at the workshop on Indian Riddles and Proverbs held during the Indo-American Seminar on Indian Folklore at the Central Institute of Indian Languages, Mysore. The participants at the workshop were: Velcheru Narayana Rao (coordinator and editor), Pushkar Chandervakar, Dulal Chaudhuri, Prabhakar Mande, M. Shanmugam Pillai and Ved Vatuk.