Tales for all times: What makes ‘Panchatantra’ stories timeless and universal

‘Panchatantra’ is part of UNESCO's Memory of World Asia-Pacific Regional Register

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Stories know no bounds. Throw the rules governing time and space at them, and they would probably guffaw in unison.

While traces of knowledge exchange between continents remain debatable, striking parallels found in Indian and Greek epics stun readers to this date. One such significant export of knowledge from the Indian subcontinent remains that of the Panchatantra tales, which has been translated from Sanskrit to Middle Persian or Pahlavi, Arabic, other eastern and western languages over the years.

Much of the wisdom contained in the Panchatantra is relevant today. The stories resonate with people of all ages, at different levels, in different ways, everywhere.―Rohini Chowdhury, who translated the original Panchatantra into English

The Panchatantra’s time- and space-travelling ability was the running theme of the exhibition titled ‘From Kalila wa-Dimna to La Fontaine: Travelling through Fables’at the Louvre Abu Dhabi. Open since March, the exhibition traces the journey of the animal fables from their ancient Indian origins to their Arabic avatar―Kalila wa-Dimna―and the French version―Jean de La Fontaine’s Fables.

Moreover, this May, the Panchatantra―reportedly written between 200 BCE and 300 BCE by Vishnu Sharma―got UNESCO recognition. The Panchatantra, Ramcharitmanas and Sahrdayaloka-Locana were included in UNESCO’s Memory of the World Asia-Pacific Regional Register.

Author and literary translator Rohini Chowdhury, who translated the original text to English in 2017, says the Panchatantra is not just a work for children. “It is, rather, a masterly treatise on politics and government and a manual for conducting our daily lives with wisdom and common sense,” she says. “It was devised to educate the three foolish sons of a king in the ways of the world. Where traditional methods had failed with the princes, the fables of the Panchatantra succeeded―by teaching them practical wisdom, and by awakening in them a curiosity about the world. Much of the wisdom contained in the Panchatantra is relevant today. The stories resonate with people of all ages, at different levels, in different ways, everywhere.” The translation was published by Puffin Classics, the children’s imprint of Penguin Books.

According to Chowdhury, there are more than 200 versions of the Panchatantra across the world, in more than 50 languages. While translating the text, her intent was to correct the belief that the Panchatantra stories are meant for children and to keep its story-within-a-story structure intact. So it took two decades for her to finish the translation.

Wisdom in words: The Panchatantra, published by Puffin Classic. Wisdom in words: The Panchatantra, published by Puffin Classic.

Chowdhury shares that the Panchatantra was first translated into Pahlavi by Barzoi in the sixth century BCE. This translation became the source for the first Syriac translation of the Panchatantra in 570 CE. Some two centuries later, Barzoi’s Pahlavi version was translated into Arabic―Kalila wa-Dimna―by Abdullah Ibn-al-Muqaffa. Extremely popular, this translation gave birth to more translations, including a later Syriac version (c. 1000), another Persian version (c.1130), Hebrew (c. 1250), eastern Turkish and Greek (between the 11th and the 13th centuries), Latin (1480), German (1483), and Italian (1563) versions. The work thus became well known in both Muslim and Christian literature. In Europe, it became known as the Fables of Bidpai, and its influence can be seen in Arabian Nights, as well as in the fairy tales of the Brothers Grimm. The stories also travelled to Indonesia in both oral and written forms.

One would think the animal fables would be a tad travel-weary by now. Not really. Sohini Mitra, publisher, children and young-adult, Penguin Random House, says that the Panchatantra stories always sell as parents find it “useful and important”to transmit that magic of ancient wisdom and life lessons to the younger generation. “The illustrated editions of Panchatantra are popular, especially for gifting, and these are also sold as bedtime stories,”she says.

Mitra says that retellings of the classic are popular among younger readers who may not have the attention span to read the original longer piece of work with its frame stories. “We have published our translation from the original Sanskrit text, maintaining the structural integrity and form,” she says. “We wanted this to be the go-to edition for literature lovers who seek to read the work in its original form with the context in place.”She calls the text “complex and multi-layered, much like life itself, and full of practical wisdom that also sparks curiosity among the youth―the reason for its enduring appeal”.

Stories from the Panchatantra, published by Amar Chitra Katha Stories from the Panchatantra, published by Amar Chitra Katha

The reason why the Panchatantra remains a timeless classic is the fact that the universal animal stories teach basic acts of kindness and morals relevant for every generation. They do so by giving voice to the voiceless, agency to the ‘othered’ beings, using them as subjects to impart important life lessons. One such story is that of a flight of pigeons trapped in a net, flying together to lift it and escape. It teaches one that there is strength in unity.

Reena I. Puri, editor-in-chief, Amar Chitra Katha, does not fear the essence of the ancient fables being lost in translation; rather, it adds more value to the text, she says. “The Ramayan has various versions, yet the original text remains the most popular. So, stories are never lost,” she says.

In India, the Panchatantra stories are extremely popular in regional languages, adds Puri. “They sell really well in Bengal, Assam, Tamil Nadu, Kerala and Maharashtra,” she says. “We publish in local languages based on demand.”

Puri also says that the way the Panchatantra stories are written have undergone changes with each passing decade and author. “The language is more contemporary today in order to resonate with today’s generation,” she explains. “Each author brings her own perspective and style.”

Keeping up with technological advancements, Amar Chitra Katha has also moved the Panchatantra stories to their digital platforms, and the animated versions remain popular.