15 August, 2010
Have you ever seen how the water buffalo (Thai, kwai; Vietnamese, con trâu) has no upper teeth? They only have a row of bottom teeth but lack a matching set on the top. Well, I’m partial to buffaloes, because my Vietnamese birth year makes me a buffalo, and I’ve learned how practical they are and how much farmers cherish them in Southeast Asia. Trekking around Northern Vietnam (near Sapa) with my brother last year, we walked across terraced rice paddy fields and literally through people’s backyards. There were friendly and amusing water buffaloes everywhere. In Bodh Gaya, India, we used to toss finished apples’ cores at them from a distance for fun. The buffalo is slow, headstrong, and stubborn, yet hardworking and faithful.
I’ve heard two different folktale versions of how the buffalo “lost” his upper teeth, one in Vietnam and one from Burma. Each version has a couple of animal characters. The Vietnamese tale goes something like what follows:
The tiger roamed free in the jungle, running to and fro as he pleased. In olden times, the tiger had no stripes (an important anecdote that will come into play later in the story!). He noticed that the buffalo was yoked to a plow and worked hard for the farmer. Though the buffalo was large and strong, he toiled to plow the fields of the smaller man. What was the secret, the tiger wondered, to the farmer’s control over the mighty buffalo?
Well, the tiger decided to ask the buffalo, so he approached him one day. “Why do you, a large and strong animal, submit to this farmer as if he is your master?” asked the tiger. “Well, the master has a hidden asset that he calls his wit,” replied the buffalo. “What is wit?” asked the tiger. The buffalo told him that he couldn’t explain it, because he had never seen it; it was intangible. “Go and ask the farmer if you want to know what his wit is,” he suggested.
So the tiger approached the farmer now, asking him what this wit was like and how he might acquire it for himself. Afraid of the tiger, the farmer was taken aback, but he was clever enough to think up an answer on the spot: “I’ve left it in the marketplace,” said the farmer. “I’ll have to go get it to show you. But how can I trust you not to kill my loyal buffalo while I’m gone? If you want to see this wit, I’m going to have to tie you to a stake where you cannot kill the buffalo. Deal?” The tiger paused, but he agreed to be tied up, aspiring to get the farmer’s wit.
So off the farmer went to the market, where he purchased some kindling wood. He came back to the farm soon enough, where, to be sure, the tiger was still tied up just where the farmer had left him. And he proceeded to start a fire under the bed of hay where the tiger lay. The tiger began to jump and twist, trying to free himself as the flames grew higher. The buffalo, meanwhile, was laughing so hard at the tiger’s misfortune that he swung his head down and hit a rock, on which he knocked out all of his top teeth. The tiger acquired his stripes from the lacerations of the hot flames. However, he somehow freed himself and ran away back to the jungle, where he has remained, wary of the farmer’s dangerous “wit.”
Thus goes the Vietnamese version of the story of how the buffalo lost his top row of teeth and how the tiger received the black stripes that cover his coat. A Burmese friend of mine, on hearing this story, told me the version of the story she’d grown up with in her country:
There was a time when the buffalo had his top teeth but the horse didn’t. Admiring the buffalo’s pearly whites, the horse made a request of him. He wanted to borrow the buffalo’s teeth in order to improve his own good looks. So the buffalo agreed to lend the horse his teeth temporarily. Meanwhile, the buffalo and horse called in a cow that they might have an impartial judge of the horse’s new appearance. Awash with pride, the horse ran off with the buffalo’s teeth. The buffalo gave chase, yelling, “They’re mine! They’re mine!” And the cow followed, shouting, “They’re not yours! They’re not yours!” But the horse just laughed. Running away, he could be heard chuckling, “Hee, hee, hee, hee, hee…”
And that is the comical Burmese tale of how the buffalo lost his teeth to the horse. I think both these stories are fun and telling of the playful nature ascribed to certain animals. I’m still trying to find a similar Thai folktale, but I haven’t heard it yet. I would welcome any comments with an equivalent story of the water buffalo from another country.