Origin Stories and the Lake of Milk
The inhabitants of the remote Nepalese village of Tarang tell an interesting story about how their village came to be. Tarang is a hamlet of a few hundred souls clinging to the mountainside in the out-of-the-way Tichurong valley in the Himalayas (check it out at these coordinates: 28°52'47.3"N 82°58'52.0”E). Tarang’s origin myth is a great template for devising an origin story for somewhere your PCs are going to spend a lot of time, helping establish a real sense of place.
(Note that I’m pulling from Dr. James Fisher’s information from his 1968-1969 field research in the village. Given Nepal’s turbulent history, the village is likely to have changed dramatically since then. Nonetheless, I’m hesitant to use the past tense.)
Tarangites are farmers and traders, shuttling goods between Nepal’s Hindu south and Buddhist north. In this way, the village serves as something of a ‘hinge’ between two culturally dissimilar regions. To accommodate their lifestyle, most Tarangites speak three languages:
- Nepali, the language of Tarang’s Hindu neighbors to the south
- Tibetan, the language of Tarang’s Buddhist neighbors to the north
- Kaike, an indigenous language spoken only in Tarang and two nearby Tichurong villages
The village of Tarang, clinging to the mountainside. It looks almost identical today.
Tarangites trace their origins to a single pregnant woman. She fled war in her native village and traveled a few days east to Tichurong, which was then uninhabited. There, she settled down and gave birth to a son.
The boy grew up, and one day, while tending his single cow, he saw seven goddesses bathing in a lake of milk. (The image of divine beings bathing in milk is common to both Buddhism and Hinduism.) His mother saw this as an opportunity for her son to capture himself a bride. At his mother’s urging, the young man touched one of the goddesses with the tail of his cow, which, being impure, nullified her magic powers. The goddess could no longer escape, and became the young man’s bride. Both he and his mother were surprised to discover the goddess spoke a language they’d never heard before. They learned her tongue, and called it ‘Kaike’, the language of Tarang.
In time, the young man and his goddess wife had three sons: Jei, Quay, and Ging (‘smiling’, ‘suitable’, and ‘proud person who upsets people’). When the three sons grew up, they had no one to marry. No one else lived in Tichurong, and the goddesses and their lake of milk had presumably wised up and moved elsewhere. So the three sons left Tichurong to find brides and bring them back. Jei went south and brought back a Magar bride (The Magar are an indigenous caste/tribe in which most Tarangites claim membership.) Quay went west and brought back a high-caste Nepali Hindu bride. And Ging went north and brought back a Tibetan Buddhist bride. Additionally, the three sons discovered a baby boy in the hollow part of a bamboo stalk.
The four primary clans of Tarang descend from these four men (Jei, Quay, Ging, and the boy in the bamboo). Most later arrivals in the village have adopted one of the four clan names, creating a new lineage in an existing clan. ‘Three-Eye’ Rokayas claim descent from a three-eyed Tibetan hero who slew a giant in Tichurong, and are considered part of Jei’s clan, more or less. Palpali Budhas descend from a Nepalese soldier who passed through Tichurong during the mid-19th century during a war with Tibet, and are considered more or less part of Quay’s clan. Each villager takes the clan identity of her father, but marriage within the clan is forbidden, so generations of intermarriage have left everyone related to everyone else.
Women in Tarang, 1968
If your PCs are going to spend a lot of time somewhere (maybe your campaign is set in a single city or valley), an origin story can be a great way to establish a sense of place. Let’s break down how Tarang’s origin story reinforces what makes the village interesting:
- Tracing everyone’s ancestry back to a single woman living alone in the valley reinforces Tarang’s remoteness.
- All four clans can trace their ancestry back to a supernatural being that is native to the valley: either the goddess in the lake of milk or the baby in the bamboo. This helps Tarangites claim they are of Tichurong, not merely people who resettled here.
- Bringing in the Magar, the high-caste Hindu, and the Buddhist wives makes Tarang’s nature as a hinge between Nepali Hindu and Tibetan Buddhist worlds inherent to the village as long as it’s existed.
- By folding in the three-eyed hero and the 19th century Nepalese soldier, the origin story acknowledges the myth and history that have occurred since the village’s founding.
Several houses in Tarang, 1968
Additionally, once you have an origin story, you can tie various aspects of the setting back to that origin story to make them feel coherent. For example, if you were running a campaign set in and around Tarang and you wanted to inject some politics into it, you could make the four clans your primary political factions. If you give each clan political goals and methods that relate to their role in the origin story, it can make the political factions feel less arbitrary.
So there you have it! To construct an origin story for somewhere the PCs are going to spend a lot of time, first figure out what features of the setting make it special and interesting. Then build a story that incorporates those features, and add a few elements of the fantastic. You can even do this after the campaign has already started! Then, going forward, you can tie newly-introduced elements of the setting back to the origin story to make them feel like they belong.
(This post draws heavily from Trans-Himalayan Traders: Economy, Society & Culture in Northwest Nepal by James F. Fisher. All the photos were taken by him too! He's a super friendly guy, and asked that I include his email address in the post. It's jfisher at carleton dot edu)