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Definitions and Classifications of Indian Folktales

Written jointly with Mrs. Jagjeet Kaur, Research Scholar, Department of English, APS University, Rewa, MP.


Folktales are important pedagogic tools for generations. Folktales are part of folklore. Folklore is oral tradition of a particular society or community or a group of folks. Folktales are as important as any other artistic or literary work. This paper aims at defining folktales from Indian point of view. We intend to understand how scholars have categorized folktales. It is important to understand the perspective on which the classification is based. While one classification bases itself on psychological types; the other relies on cultural types. When we study folktales as a literary genre, we need to understand all perspectives. Various scholars have given classification and definitions of folktales. But these classification systems alone seem to be insufficient. The study of folktales is important to understand their place and significance in society. Researchers and scholars are working on re-establishing venerable place of folktales in modern times. This paper aims at defining and classifying folktales. This paper focuses at comprehensive study of folktales as a genre.

Key words: culture, oral traditions, folklore, folktales, classification, India, society.

In modern times oral storytelling has become a thing of past. Middle aged people may remember oral stories being narrated to them by their grandparents. But today’s generation, the millennial may not remember any such thing. All that they remember is watching You- tube and online videos. Oral storytelling was an integral part of life in good old times. It used to create and nurture a deep bond between grandparents and grandchildren. So many values, wise thoughts, sanskars used to go down from one generation to another generation through oral storytelling.

The Royal Institute Dictionary (1999) gives definition of “Tales” as the “stories that are passed down orally for generations such as, Jataka Tales and the Tales of Aesop.” There are definitions of tales given by scholars, like King Attakorn (1976). They tell us that tales run through generations. They are passed down from parents to their children and grand children. These tales are an important part of our culture. They are part and parcel of our traditions. Most of the tale traditions are oral in nature. The basic nature of folktale is reflected through the spoken word. Now today in the age of digitalization these tales have been written and preserved for posterity. The origin of tale is not very important. Everyone can take liberty with the storyline. Folktales are flexible. In folktales details are less important, only message is important. The main aim of a tale is to entertain. They create an atmosphere which brings joy, enhances happiness and lessens the day to day burdens of life. The purpose of tales is to bring fun and enjoyment. The other aim of tales is to train young minds and set the standards of morality. Its moral function sometimes comes naturally. Sometimes it is added to the tale intentionally. Tales are not meant only for children. They are designed for the grownups as well. The tales of grownups are apt only for them.

Kulrab Millikamas (1975) said that the “Tales” are the stories that are oral. They are narrated by the people to provide entertainment. They are part of our traditions. They are our heritage literature. These are stories which help in strengthening faith in divinity. They are holy in nature and bring mankind closer to God. They serve various purposes such as giving moral lessons. They help us to develop better coordination with environment and laws of nature. The tales are stories which offer different moods and shades of human nature such as adventurous, jealous, comic, superhuman or supernatural. There are varieties of characters in folktales. Folktales have humans as characters. They also have supernatural characters. There are kings and queens, prince and princesses on one hand. On the other hand, there are common labourers, workers and housewives. Then there are ghosts, witches, angels, gnomes and mermaids. Each character is unique. The characters behave as per the setting of the story. They have their own code of conduct. A psychological study of the mentality of characters would be interesting. Sometimes they behave like ordinary human beings and yet sometimes they outperform themselves. They become extraordinary. Folktales reflect the atmosphere in which the narrator lives. Folktales also strike a common cord with the audience. In this way they are close both to the narrator and the audience. It becomes a cosy circle where emotions and passions are shared. The narrator and the audience become one. Folktales are all about erasing boundaries. They reflect all aspects of the human minds, its foolishness as well as its sharpness. Like a river flowing down the mountains, folktales splash humour, irony, joy, pain, challenges, ambition, anguish and suffering. Folktales become synonymous with life. The outer details may differ from region to region, culture to culture and faith to faith but the deep emotions are the same. Folktales tell us that all human beings are alike. The joys and sorrows of humanity are the same.

Sumamal Pongpaiboon (1997) pointed out that “Tale” is a Bali word and it means “story-telling”. Folktales are strictly oral tales. The tales in written form share lot of commonness with the oral tales.

To put it simply, the tales are the proof of the human intellect. The tales are tools invented by the human brain to establish morality in the family and community. The stories are told by using power of word without using any material thing. The tales become a powerful medium to transmit values like brotherhood, kindness, honesty, compassion and love for nature. It is done in a very spontaneous manner. The tales are devices to put things in order, to maintain mental hygiene of a community and thus become part of oral traditions. The tales can serve variety of purposes depending on the demand of time and place. The tales are designed by common people called as folk. The tales which belong to common people are called folktales

Folktales are influenced by the specific culture. They are used to record events, important people and places. Folktales give information about religious rites and ceremonies of a particular region. They are entertaining and fictional. They embody fundamental teachings about human life and nature. They contain belief system by which people have lived for centuries. They are considered as formulaic narratives as they include traditional expressions and repetitions like seven sons, seven queens or seven fairies. They are simple as well as imaginative. All these things make folktales popular among children as well as grownups. The characters are imaginary with focus on action. Supernatural elements provide thrill and amusement. The folktales result in justice both for the good and the evil. The good is rewarded. The evil is punished. Most of the folktales are an effective lesson in the law of “karma”. Many times a person is served with the same gloves with which s/he treats others. They teach wisdom. Folktales may be defined as short stories of unknown authorship which are transmitted orally for centuries and during their journey some of them are recorded in text form. Folktales are stories of people and they narrate how folks live and learn. Imaginative power of folks gives the stories better form and content.

According to William Bacsom “Folktales are prose narratives which are regarded as fiction. They are not considered as dogma or history... although it is often said that they are told only for amusement but they have other important functions, as the class of moral folktale should have suggested. Folktales may be set in any time and any place, and in this sense they are almost timeless and placeless.” (

Indian folktales are both in verse and prose.

A.K.Ramanujan gives a unique definition of folktales in preface to his book Folktales from India “a poetic text that carries some of its cultural context within it; it is also a travelling metaphor that finds a new meaning with each new telling.” Folktales are fluid in nature. Ramanujan says that no selection can truly represent the multiple and changing lives of Indian tales. His definition of folktales does not limit the tales to oral or written forms. He frees the tales from oral and prosaic forms and presents them as our Indian folktales truly exist. He goes on to tell us that folktales are “literature of dialects of villages, street, kitchen, tribal hut and wayside teashop.” They are common to rural folks. Folktales travel by themselves. They help in cultural exchange. They travel when they are told. Folktales cross linguistic boundaries when a bilingual person tells it or hears it. The structure of folktales does not change from teller to teller but cultural details get changed.

There are no watertight compartments or categories to classify folktales. Efforts are made by various scholars to classify and categorize folktales in various ways. Classification of folktales can be done on patterns, themes, content and purpose of tale telling. Folklorists have contributed a lot to define and classify the folktales. Indian folktales are unique. Their classification must be done accordingly. Indian folklorists have contributed a lot to classify Indian folktales.

A.K. Ramanujan is well known as a poet, translator and humanist. He received the prestigious Padma Shri award from the Government of India in 1976. He inspired a generation of scholars in Indian literature, folklore and linguistics. Ramanujan was born in 1929 in Mysore city of Karnataka. Karnataka is a Kannada speaking state. He got his primary education in Mysore. He received B.A. and M.A. degree in English literature from the University of Mysore in 1949 and 1950 respectively. After 1950 he started his carrier as college lecturer. He taught at several colleges of south India. In Belagaum during his teaching carrier he started collecting folktales from various resources. Any person like his mother, a teacher, school children, house maids, servants, aunts, men and women of his village who could tell him a story became his source. He continued collecting folktales until about 1970. His passion and interest for collecting folktales was extraordinary. Whenever he was invited to give lectures somewhere he used to collect the tales from school teachers, carpenters, tailors etc. He recorded the tales by using pen and paper as well as a tape recorder. Ramanujan, as we all know is one of the celebrated poets of Indian writings in English. His poetry is known for its symbolism and imagery. He has dealt with highly philosophical concepts in his poems. He was awarded Padma Shri for his contribution to poetry. Collecting and classifying folktales was his hidden love. Folktales always fascinated him. He never knew that posthumously his works on folktales would be considered seminal. In this sense his work on folktales is unintentional. Ramanujan read folktales extensively. He read Tales of Grimn Brothers, Tales of Aesop, Panchatantra, Boccaccio, the Ocean of Story (Katha Sarit Sagara) and tales that appeared in any children’s magazine. In 1956 Ramanujan met Edwin Kirkland who worked in University of Florida and came in Mumbai. This meeting proved to be very important. Kirkland suggested to Ramanujan to translate the Kannada tales into English. Kirkland wanted them to be published in the United States. This recognition and appreciation motivated Ramanujan to study folklore at Indiana University, Chicago. Later he joined Department of South Asian languages and Civilizations as teaching faculty. He received his doctorate from Indiana University of Chicago in 1963. He taught there for thirty years. During this period his love for Indian folklore and folktales flourished. Ramanujan studied folktales as a scholar. He wanted to clear the confusion and present a neat classification. Ramanujan considered folktales as a complete universe within themselves. He studied the structural aspects of folktales. He also studied the thematic aspects of folktales. He did a psychological and cultural patterning of folktales. It was Ramanujan’s firm belief that folktales are not secondary to devotional or mainstream literature. He underlined the cultural importance of folktales. His classification, therefore, is unique and detailed. Ramanujan’s classification is also important because it is a complete Indian point of view. India has a wide, complex and diverse culture. In maintaining traditional languages and customs from different region, religion and groups, we need a clear understanding of folktales. Folktales have a very powerful influence over popular imagination. The heroes of folktales are worshipped in villages. Ramanujan was particular about the context of a tale. As we know flavour is more important than accuracy. As the tales get retold in villages, streets, kitchens, tribal huts, wayside tea shops, market places and friendly chat rooms. They change colour. Most of the tales have rural setting and describe common people. Even the tales where queens and kings are involved, the masses have a strong role to play. There are many repetitions and similarities in folktales across the Indian sub continent. Ramanujan says, “It is well known that such folklore items, like many other sorts of items in cultural exchange, are autotelic: that is, they travel by themselves without (often) any movement of populations. A proverb, a riddle, a joke, a story, a remedy, or a recipe travels every time it is told. It crosses linguistic boundaries any time a bilingual person tells it or hears it.” The structure remains the same but cultural details change. (

Male- centered tales

The male is the doer in such tales. A man usually leaves his native place in search of job or some hidden treasure or just to complete a responsibility. In the process he faces many challenges. He overcomes the problems and is successful in the end. He is rewarded by wealth. Often he is rewarded by a bride in the end. Many folktales end in marriage. “In The Barber and The Brahman Demon, (Bengali) an idle barber does no work all day but sits in front of the mirror and preens. One day, scolded by his mother, he decides to leave home to try and amass some wealth.

In A Musical Demon, (Tamil) a very poor Brahman grows sick of his poverty and sets out on a pilgrimage to the holy city of Kashi. In Outwitting Fate, (Tamil) a young Brahman sets forth in search of a great sage who he hopes will impart knowledge. In Winning A Princess, (Tulu) the youngest of three sons leaves home to try and win a princess who has thus far refused all suitors including his older brothers.

In these stories, the journey is long and hazardous, and the way is beset with perils in the form of wild animals or supernatural beings. While the men end up succeeding in their near-impossible missions, the women in these tales are typically just pawns or prizes or, at best, helpers.”

Women- centered tales

In these tales women outshine men. Women are shown active, brave and intelligent. They often help men who are in trouble. In these tales roles are reversed, men are stupid and women are wise. One example is of the clever daughter in law who escapes tyranny of her mother in law and establishes her place in family. In another Kashmiri folktale named “the wife who refused to be beaten” a young woman deftly tackles marital conflict by her wit and intelligence. She refuses to be ill treated. They have control over the situation. They rescue males who are often stupid and weak.

Family centered tales

Indian society has always been about family. Ramanujan says that a psychological reading of these tales reveals about Indian family structure, competition, love, hatred, cooperation, incest and betrayal within family. The family is the world. The setting is patriarchal, therefore a feminist reading is also imperative. In the end these tales are all about benevolence within family. The story of Savitri is relevant in this regard. As a young woman she goes out and finds her man Satyavan. She marries him against the stars. Finally she wins him back from the clutches of death, by her single minded devotion and purity of heart. These tales are about siblings, parents, aunts, uncles and grandparents. The relations portrayed in these tales are vivid. They portray bonds of affection and care as well as rivalry and betrayal. These stories offer psychological insights that how families share love and hate relationships. Mothers, step mothers, wives, fathers, step fathers, husbands, brothers and sisters- all relations are interwoven with variety of human nature. These stories help us to understand the social system regarding practices of marriage and other beliefs as well. These family tales offer insight and understanding of conscious and sub-conscious human mind. The family tales offer stories of kings, queens and struggles inside their family to gain power or love.

Divinity centered tales

In these tales magic, supernatural beings, forest spirits, demons, brahmarakshas, magical pots and plants are there to provide awe and amusement. In these tales gods appear living and behaving like human beings. They perform all bodily functions. In these tales supernatural beings are defeated and befooled by ordinary humans. Indians have their theory of fate (bhagya) and human efforts (karma). Many of these stories tell us that a human cannot fight against the fate but many tales affirm that we decide our own fate by hard work and effort. This reaffirms Indian philosophy of Swa + bhava (to each his own). Indian philosophy gives the individual the freedom to choose his/her Ishta (god) according his/her nature, circumstances, time and place. We can also choose our theory of life. We find that in these tales depiction of gods and goddesses is raw. When these tales enter the realm of mythology, religion and history, they became polished and lose their wild colours. In folktales we find the characters near to life and even full of follies. For example the character of Bheemsen in the epic Mahabharat is different from Bheem of folktales. In folktales he is shown as a tribal. His wife Hidimba also belongs to tribal community. In many folktales he said to have changed his rural appearance and disguised himself as a woman. So much so that in tribal groups of today’s India the first salutation is Jai Bheem.

Animal centered tales

Ramanujan goes further into his classification with animal centred tales. There is a huge treasure in the form of Jataka tales and Panchatantra which humanize animals and pass on eternal values in an interesting manner. The story of The Monkey and The Crocodile, The Tortoise and The Geese, The Cave That Talked are some popular examples.

Humorous tales

As the name suggests these tales make us laugh and enjoy the flavor of the story. Tenali Rama and Akbar Birbal are some of the well known examples. Gopal Bhar was one of the nine gems of the court of Raja Krishna Chandra of medieval Bengal. Stories of Gopal Bhar are witty and comical. They amuse children.

Stories about stories

We can also call them stories within stories. A fine story in this section says that a farmer had many interesting stories with him. But he did not share his stories with others. The stories got angry with him and left him. Stories must travel from place to place and time to time. Another story says that a woman was very lonely. She was full of the burden of untold stories about her troubled life. She grew fat and fat with stories. She had no one to share her stories with. One day she decided to tell her story to her favourite wall. She poured all the stories on the wall. The wall fell with the burden of stories. The lady felt light and happy. This is a deeply psychological tale. Untold stories cause misery, pain and heart burn. Chatting, laughing and sharing stories are essential for healthy human life. Walls are broken when stories are told. These walls can be walls of self, identity, territory, languages, nationality, gender or class. (Mukherji,2016)

Another important folklorist Prof. K.D. Upadhyaya has given another classification of Indian folktales. He founded Indian Folk Culture Institute at Allahbad. The purpose of the institute was a systematic and scientific study of folklore. He wanted a coordinated study of different wings of folklore namely folktales, folk music, folk songs, folk dances and folk painting. Various scholars were working on the subject across India. Professor Upadhyaya wanted to bring the contribution to one forum. The institute coordinated well with many Asian, European and American folklore institutes. Professor Upadhyaya had presented his work at Indiana University around 1963.(Dorson,1963)

Religious tales

These are tales which have fructified from core religion. They may not be part of Vedas and Upanishads but they are popular among the masses. These stories educate people with a sense of authority. For example there is a story of two brothers Lord Ganesha and Lord Kartikeya. The two brothers enter into a competition where they run around the whole world. The one who completes the race first would be the winner. Kartikeya starts his journey on his vehicle peacock. Ganesha goes to his parents Lord Shiva and goddess Parvati, walks around them in a circle and sits. When Kartikeya comes after completing his journey, Ganesha says that he covered his world earlier. His parents are his world. This is how Ganesha wins the competition. This is religious folktale which imparts family values.

Didactic tales

Jatak kathas which are about the previous births of Buddha are examples of didactic folktales. Here the element of entertainment or Rasa is less. The element of giving a lesson and imparting a moral message is more important.

Love stories

K.D. Upadhyaya has given a category to all great love folktales of India. Love has always been a strong motive of expression and literature in general. Saleem and Anarkali, Sohni and Mahiwal, Bajirao and Mastani, Prithvi Raj and Sanyukta, Shivaji and Saibai, Dhola and Maru, Mirza and Saahiba and Sassi- Punnu are some of the popular and important love folktales of India.

Tales of Entertainment

Certain folktales are created just for the sake of entertainment. It has no purpose other than giggling, tickling and connecting with the folks. In north east there is a folktale that a sage wanted to wake up to meditate but he fell asleep again and again. He got angry with himself and plucked his own eyelids. As the eyelids fell tea plants grew up. This is how tea became an invigorating and awakening drink.

Local Legends

India is a land of local legends. Every nook and corner has local heroes. For example Alha and Udal the two brave brothers are local legends of Bundelkhand and Baghelkhand. Pahalwan Gama, the fabled servant of Royal household and Ghag, Dak are local legends of north east and surrounding areas.


The last category given by Prof. Upadhyaya is that mythical folktales of India. This is where the boundary between folk and myth is merged. Vikram and Baital, Sulsa and Satuka and stories of various dreams of kings and queens constitute mythical folktales. The story of Savitri and Satyavan can also be clubbed in this group. (Upadhyaya, 181-196)


We can see in modern India serious attempts have been made to understand and explain folktales. The simplicity of folktales has attracted scholars as well as common readers. Folktales do not demand much intellectual exercise and still convey the essence of living beautifully and simply. Preservation of the folktales of India is our responsibility. Stories grow our hearts. Folktales enhance our personality. We need to tell and retell these wonderful tales. They cover many aspects of life and provide simple solutions. The world of folktales is that of easing the senses and soothing the mind


Web resources

  • Bascom, William. “The Forms of Folklore: Prose Narratives.” In Sacred Narrative: Readings in the Theory of Myth, ed. Alan Dundes. Berkeley: University of California Press, 1984. 5-29. 
  • Dorson, Richard M. “News and Notes on Asian Folklore.” Asian Folklore Studies, vol. 22, 1963, pp. 367–381. JSTOR, JSTOR,(
  • Mukherjee, Oindrila.“AK Ramanujan’s ‘Folktakes from India’ could be the starting point for reading Indian fiction in 2016.” Jan 03, 2016.
    ( all-over-again)
  • Ramanujan, A.K. “Where Mirrors are Windows: Toward an Anthology of Reflections.” History of Religions, vol.28, no.3, 1989, pp.187-216. JSTOR, JSTOR, (
  • Upadhyaya, K.D. “A General Survey of Indian Folktales” Midwest Folklore, vol.10, no. 4 1960, pp.181-196. JSTOR,JSTOR,


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