Riddle also called conundrum, is an important element of folk literature. A riddle is the experiential quintessence of the rural people put in a question form, with the answer contained in it. The totality of a question and its answer to it makes a riddle.
A manifestation of wit and intellect, a riddle has been traditionally considered as an yardstick for measuring the intelligence and wit of a person. But riddles might have also been composed only to confound people. They also make people inquisitive of life and the world around.
Riddles, in the main, have a provocative beginning and some of them, towards the end, even hint at prizes. They are mostly full of words that are solely designed to perplex people. Brevity is what can make riddles wittier. They are composed both in prose and verse. Intellect, subtle observation, creativity, humour, exercise of retentive faculty, use of allegory, metaphor and simile, the sheer joy of solving problems and wit come together in the making of riddles.
Riddles can generally be divided into two categories: literary and folk. Literary riddles are more rhetorical than the folk ones and, at times, a bit more complicated. Literary riddles have been extant since Vedic days. In bangla literature, classic contexts such as charyapada, chandimangal, Dharmamabgala and Shivamabgala, and baul songs, kavigan and the songs of Gopichandra and goraksavijaya contain riddles.
Based on the subject-matter, folk riddles may further be divided into: (1) riddles about mankind, god and goddess, such as a) man and his body parts, b) famous people, c) the Puranic stories, and d) gods and goddesses; (2) riddles about nature, such as a) trees and creepers and b) sky, stars and the nature; (3) related to household affairs, such as a) relatives, b) food items, c) household utensils, d) behaviour and manner and e) rites and rituals; (4) riddles about birds, animals and insects; (5) riddles about musical instruments; (6) related to legends or famous stories; (7) riddles about arithmetic or numbers, and (8) miscellaneous.
Riddles are being passed on from one generation to another as an ongoing process. The use of riddles is common in the social life of Bengal, especially in wedding ceremonies, competitions, village meetings, and other such events. Outwitting the bride and bridegroom and other people in joking relations through riddles has been a part of rural culture from generation to generation. Two riddles for children, for example, are: ektu khani gachhe/rabga bauti nache (A bride in red dances/On top of a small tree)- red chilli; and ban theke elo tiye/lal topar mathay diye (Out of the wood comes a parrot/ with a red turban on its head)- pine apple. These two examples show the aesthetic quality as well as ready wit evident in riddles. Riddle competitions, especially on radio, television and in magazines, attract children. In villages, elders are frequently seen to have been passing time with their children and grandchildren, indulging in riddles. [Shila Basak]
See also folk literature.