Welcome

Some bilateral aspects of folklore

Article

Over the centuries legends and stories from the Indian literary dources, be it oral traditions or story collections in Sanskrit, travelled overland, undergoing a number of translations and adaptations, and were incorporated into German – and European - narrative traditions.

India, the legendary country of wonderful treasures

For Germany, India has always been the legendary country of precious stones, valuable pearls, elegant textiles of royal grandeur and wonderful jewellery, and of a wide range of rare spices, fragrances, luxury items and masterly crafted unique pieces of art. The bilateral trade did not only bring these treasures and items of desire to Europe, but in its trail followed tales of wonder of the Indian people, their habits, religious beliefs and knowledge systems. Over the millennia the metaphysical teachings of the Indian sages, religious and philosophical ideas, knowledge of astronomy, mathematics, health systems, geography, literatures and collections of folk stories traveled to Europe.

Indian legends, fables, stories

There is hardly any doubt that the Jatakas, the pre-birth legends of Buddha containing a wealth of local narrative elements, animal parables and religious tales of the pre-Christian centuries, were known in Europe, and Germany for that matter. Motifs and ideas taken from these Indian legends and fables were incorporated in a number of German and European folk stories, often in adapted and transformed versions. It is well-known that the most famous Indian fable book, the Panchatantra, composed by the Brahmin Vishnusharman as aid to teach young princes the intricacies of diplomacy and political theory through animal characters, became known in Germany already during the 11th century. According to historical records, it was translated by Anton Pforr into German on the order of South German Count Eberhard im Bart (1145-1496), a man of letters, who founded the University of Tübingen in 1477. The German translation, however, was not done from the Sanskrit original, but from a Latin translation which in turn was a rendering of Hebrew, Arabic and Persian versions.

Brothers Jakob (right) and Wilhelm Grimm were pioneers in collecting and preserving German folk stories and legends, and inspired the same trend in India
Brothers Jakob (right) and Wilhelm Grimm were pioneers in collecting and preserving German folk stories and legends, and inspired the same trend in India© dpa

The brothers Grimm knew about this Indian story book and some of their own folk story collections were adapted from there. The Grimm brothers, Jacob (1785-1863) and Wilhelm (1786-1859), started to explore and document the folklore and popular traditions of the common people. During the 19th century, this urge for preserving one’s own tradition of legends and folk heritage also took root in India. Under the Swadeshi movement folklorists such as Lalbehari Dey, who knew of the brother Grimms’ work, started to collect Bengali folk stories.


Brockhaus is a name that everybody in Germany knows since it is synonymous with encyclopaedic knowledge. Very few, however, know that Hermann Brockhaus (1806-1877), whose father had a publishing house in Leipzig, studied Oriental languages in Leipzig and was interested in Indian mathematics. He is best known for his German rendering of the Indian story book, Kathasaritsagara, (which translates into “Ocean of Stories”), a true treasure-trough for comparative folklore. Brockhaus’s publication, entitled Katha Sarit Sagara, Die Märchensammlung des Sri Somadeva Bhatta aus Kashmir, Erstes bis Fünftes Buch, Sanskrit und Deutsch, was published in Leipzig and Paris in 1839. Hailing from a bookprinters’ family, he was particularly concerned to find a method how to mechanically print Sanskrit texts. In 1841 he wrote a treatise on how to print Sanskrit works with Latin alphabet letters, in which he argued that a clear transcription based on scholarly principles would enable printers to do without the complicated and expensive Devanagari types. About two decades later, the German Sanskritist Theodor Benfey (1809-1881) elaborately studied comparative folklore. His book Pantschatantra, Fünf Bücher indischer Fabeln, Märchen und Erzählungen (“Pancatantra, five books of Indian fables, fairy tales and stories”) published in 1859, became widely popular in Germany. It was part of the ethos of the times to enhance the study of comparative mythology of the Indo-European peoples and to think that “… a number of mythological and religious concepts as well as the foundations of law and customs were common to the Indo-European people”, as put by cultural historian Adalbert Kuhn (1812-1881).

Top of page