On our trip to New Zealand, two years ago, one of the highlights was our stay in Rotorua. It is a very scenic place and we enjoyed our visits to the hot springs and the glowworm caves. We also took in a Maori cultural show where my lasting memory is of a war dance where the muscular blue-tattooed Maori ‘warriors’ brandished their clubs and spears as they advanced upon the audience.Then they did something entirely unexpected. Still uttering their guttural war cries, they flared their eyes wide open and stuck out their tongues as far they could. Apparently, the gesture was intended to provoke fear and terror in their enemies but their grimaces evoked a completely different response in me and others in the audience.
Here, in the West and elsewhere, sticking out your tongue is a sign of derision. It’s what children do when they mock their playmates and it is often accompanied by taunting like ” Nyah, nyah , na nyah, nyah”. When I was confronted by those Maori warriors sticking out their tongues, I was seized with an urge to laugh and I only managed to restrain myself with difficulty. I saw their others in the audience were also struck by the same impulse and struggling to resist it.
Cut to two years later…
Last week, I’d been to Ananda Mandir, the nearby Hindu temple, dedicated to the worship of Kali, Lord Shiva’s consort. Kali is usually depicted in her horrific aspect, the one in which she is shown the demon Mahishasura, Her many arms brandishing a fearsome assortment of weapons she is shown running the demon through with her spear. Her dark visage is frozen in a grimace, her eyes wide open, and … you guessed it … her red tongue is sticking out as far it can.
There was never any contact between the Hindus of ancient India and the Maoris of New Zealand. Could it be that sticking out your tongue to intimidate, to inspire fear, is a fundamental human impulse?