Veiled Realities: Reimagining the Chethuang (Saptarni/Devil’s Tree) Folktale

By Pankaj Debbarma

November 13, 2023

The Chethuang tree, with its enchanting fragrance, is in full bloom this autumn, prompting me to delve into the folktale surrounding it and reevaluate its meaning. Folktales have long functioned as mirrors reflecting the collective consciousness of societies, delving into the human experience through imaginative narratives. The Chethuang folktale, a cherished story within the Tipra community, is no exception. Despite its surface appearance as a mystical and allegorical tale, a closer examination reveals underlying themes of taboo, familial conflict, and the tragic consequences of societal norms. This essay seeks to explore the nuances of the Chethuang folktale, shedding light on the use of euphemism and mysticism as narrative devices to cloak harsh realities.

Euphemism and Concealed Realities

The Chethuang story begins innocently enough with the portrayal of an unusually close bond between a brother and sister. However, as the narrative unfolds, it takes a darker turn, exposing the brother’s inappropriate desires for his sister. Recognizing the sensitivity of the subject matter, the storyteller employs euphemism to obscure the stark reality of incestuous desire. This euphemistic language allows the audience to engage with the story without directly confronting the uncomfortable truth.

The Chethuang Tree as a Symbol

At the narrative’s core is the mystical Chethuang tree, a pivotal symbol in interpreting the folktale. As the sister seeks refuge in this tree, imploring it to grow taller so she can ascend to heaven, the storyteller introduces a fantastical element that veils the tragic undertones of the story. The tree serves as a metaphorical barrier between the harsh reality of the sister’s distressing situation and the audience’s reception of the narrative.

Cultural and Symbolic Layers

The Chethuang folktale incorporates cultural and symbolic layers that contribute to the narrative’s reinterpretation. Ritualistic elements, such as the sacrifice of animals, the ascent to heaven, and the dropping of a white thread by heavenly grandparents, add depth to the story. These elements allow the audience to engage with the narrative on a symbolic level, transcending the explicit nature of the underlying issues. The cultural context provides a lens through which the story can be understood and appreciated within the framework of Tipra beliefs and norms.

Reimagining Incestuous Desire

Through a reinterpretation of the Chethuang folktale, one can view it as a cultural expression grappling with the complexities of incestuous desire within a family. The use of euphemism and mysticism serves as a coping mechanism, enabling the community to discuss a taboo subject indirectly. The Chethuang tree, in its perpetual growth, may symbolize the ongoing struggle against societal norms and familial expectations.

The folktale of Chethuang, with its euphemistic language and symbolic elements, invites us to explore the hidden realities beneath its mystical surface. It serves as a reminder that folk narratives, while fantastical and imaginative, often grapple with profound and sometimes uncomfortable aspects of the human experience. Through the reinterpretation of such tales, we gain insight into the cultural psyche and the ways in which societies navigate complex and sensitive issues, veiling them within the folds of myth and euphemism. The line, “kicking the Chethuang tree, she rose to heaven,” resonates as a veiled revelation, emphasizing the gravity of the sister’s fate and casting a shadow on the broader implications of societal norms within the intricate fabric of the Chethuang folktale.

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174 thoughts on “Veiled Realities: Reimagining the Chethuang (Saptarni/Devil’s Tree) Folktale”

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