Buffalo Stories: How He Lost His Upper Teeth


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.

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One Response to Buffalo Stories: How He Lost His Upper Teeth

  1. tiangkaem says:

    Here is an English summary of a story similar to the Vietnamese story. This is a Zhuang story from southern China (not far from the Vietnamese border). The Zhuang are linguistically and culturally related to the Tay and Nung of Vietnam as well as the Thai and Lao. This story is published (in Chinese) in a book called Babao Fensu yu Chuansuo (Babao Customs and Traditions) by Wang Mingfu and Huang Changli, two Zhuang researchers. (Yunnan Nationalities Press, 2001).

    Why the Buffalo has no Top Teeth

    Why the Buffalo has no Top Teeth

    Long ago humans ate grass just like buffalos. Since humans were more agile and intelligent than buffalos, they managed to eat up all of the grass in the plains and meadows and easy to reach areas. The buffalo on the other hand was big, clumsy and slow. The humans were always eating up all the grass before the buffalo could get to it and the buffalo was getting hungrier and hungrier.
    So the water buffalo said to the man, “Little friend, lets think about this. I am big and strong, I could easily help you plow and till fields. With my help you could plant rice and then you would have delicious rice to eat, and you could leave the grass for me.” So from then on, humans began to plant rice and leave the grass for the buffalo.
    One day, the buffalo had helped the man plow for a while and was tired, so the man unhitched him from the plow and let him go eat grass and rest. Meanwhile, the man made a little fire to burn straw and make compost.
    Suddenly a tiger prowled out of the forest and approached the buffalo. “Buffalo, old buddy!” he said scornfully, “You must be the stupidest of all the creatures. Why do you do such hard work for those puny little humans? The grass that is all over the hills wasn’t planted by them, what right do they have to demand that you plow for them in order to eat it? You really are a dumb one aren’t you! You should be more like me and live in the wild. I go where I want, do what I want, eat what I want” The buffalo felt very angry hearing this, but he was loyal beast and insisted that he was better off helping humans. The tiger went on and on mocking him, but he just ignored the tiger and continued munching on the grass.
    Meanwhile, the man snuck up and overheard what the tiger was saying. He was infuriated because he knew he could no longer live without the buffalo’s help. So he sauntered up as if he had not overheard anything and said, “Tiger my friend, I didn’t expect to see you here today. You’re out visiting brother buffalo are you? You must be hungry. I just happened to have roasted a pig today, come on over to the fire, and we can eat it together. ” As soon and the tiger heard the words “roasted a pig” he began to drool. He could think of nothing else but getting some roast pork so he unquestioningly followed the man back to the fire. While the tiger wasn’t looking, the man snatched up a burning stick and whacked the tiger with. The tiger tumbled into the fire in surprise. His beautiful orange coat was singed, leaving black stripes all over it. The tiger leapt up and went yowling off into the forest.
    Seeing all of this, the buffalo fell into a fit of laughter. He was laughing so hard that he didn’t look where he was going and he accidently stepped on a banana tree. He feet went flying out of under him and he mouth hit a rock, bashing all of his front teeth out. That is why buffalos have no front teeth to this day, and why they will always trample banana trees to the ground whenever they see them.

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