Indian Folklore - 1
Indian Folklore


The Workshop on Epic Tradition explored Indian oral epics from a comparative perspective. The epics we took under consideration came from widely dispersed regions of India: Manipur, Karnataka, Andhra Pradesh.

There was no pretense intended that these epics were representative of the hundreds of oral epics found around India. The epic traditions which happened to be available to us did not include several of the more renowned oral epic traditions such as the Guga Epic or the Alha Khanda; nor, for that matter, any of the oral epics of the Indo-European languages. We were aware that the epics we chose not even adequately represent the full range of epic we choose not even adequately represent the full range of epic traditions existent in the particular regions we studied.

However, each of the epics is authentic. Each is popular in its region and shows the characteristic form of elaboration found among other epic traditions in that region. In any case, the purpose of the workshop was to demonstrate the usefulness of applying comparative methodology to these folk traditions. No doubt the generalizations and extrapolations we made on this small data base would be altered greatly if more epic traditions has been included. But what was remarkable was that so many new and useful observations could be made on even this limited sample. Some of these observations stand to contradict (as well as greatly broaden) an understanding of Indian epic traditions based only on the "great tradition" epics, the Mahabharata and the Ramayana.

Oral Epic Traditions

Interestingly, while the great tradition epics are termed itihasa (history) or kavya (poem), folk epics find different terms in the various languages. Only Manipuri seems to have a distinct term for epic, wori or sayon (incarnation) wori. Kannada and Telugu use kathe and katha, respectively, meaning literally 'story'. Tulu and Gujarati use a term connoting 'song', pad?dana and gana respectively.

In each case, the folk epic appears to be some sort of compilation, rather than a single extended narrative, or story line. In the Manipuri case, the epic is a part of a seven-cycle dealing with one of the incarnations of the hero and heroine. However, the order is important, giving recognition to the native concept of seven cycles. In this case, each of the cycles deals with a single episode in the hero's life and each episode may be sung independently, without regard to the chronological order on successive nights. The Telugu epic, too, consists of loosely knit parts, each of which can be sung independently. The Tulu epic also shows evidence of having been pieced together from independent sources, and the parts-most commonly the large last section - may be sung separately.

Given the nature of the terminology for epics in the various languages and the divisibility of the components in each case, one might question the applicability of the label "epic" to this material. Indeed, in some ways the more vague term "extended oral narrative" might be a preferable label. On the other hand, each of the traditions deals with a popular folk hero (or heroine), however on might define the term, and each tradition is very long and popular. It appears that in the Indian context it is only when the extended narratives become a part of the literary tradition that they become more tightly and invariably welded in a fixed narrative series. However, when even "great tradition" literary epics are performed at the folk level, frequently only episodic fragments are elaborated with little concern for placing these in their larger context. In both the great and local traditions the characters and the general story line are known to even the illiterates among the village audience. There thus appears to be a conceptual reality to epic traditions even though they are usually performed only in fragments- often, in fact, informs having distinct genre identities.

In the following paragraphs we present synopses of the four epics. Following this we discuss very briefly certain common features of themes and the context of presentation. Finally, we present in tabular form comparative material on the larger epic performance tradition.

Khamba and Toibi (Manipuri)

The story of Khamba and Toibi is the seventh part of an epic cycle called Moirangsayon. Each of the cycles in the epic concerns the incarnation (sayon) of two lovers of the place called Moirang. The Khamba and Toibi cycle is the most popular and the longest in the epic cycle. It relates the lives of the lovers and the struggles they underwent before their love could be fulfilled. The story is said to exemplify pure love and devotion between man and woman. While Khamba exemplifies Manipuri heroism, Toibi personifies the ideal womanhood. Both are regarded as deities.

Khamba was born the son of a great general of Moirang. But Khamba was orphaned, along with his elder sister, when he was very young. Without mother or father the young children were neglected and ill treated. They were forced to beg for their food. Khamba, in search of work, went to the palace. Although the Prince (brother of the childless King) did not recognize him, he was so moved by Khamba's condition that he offered Khamba generous charity. But Khamba refused, telling the Prince he had come for work. So, the Prince gave Khamba the job of tending a ferocious palace bull. Khamba accepted the job, but let the bull roam freely around the town. The bull caused such mischief that the people complained to the Prince. The Prince in turn instructed Khamba to get hold of the bull and restrain it. When Khamba went up to the bull, the bull immediately submitted to Khamba's control. The Prince then wanted to adopt Khamba, but Khamba refused.

Khamba returned to where his sister awaited him and related his adventure to her. She was horrified that others should recognize him and find out that they were orphans. She advised him to remain incognito.

Khamba returned to Moirang but avoided association with others. One day, though, the Prince's daughter, Toibi, decided to organize a fishing party made up of her female friends at Lake Lok Dak. The Prince ordered that no man should go near Lok Dak on that day. Khamba, however, didn't pay heed and went in his boat near to where the girls were fishing. There he saw Toibi and immediately fell in love with her. Toibi, too fell in love and with the excuse of capturing this errant boy, went up to him and prevented him from passing. They told one another of their past and vowed to marry.

When told of their plans, Toibi's father did not agree. He had planned that Toibi should marry Kongyamba. Khamba was caught and tied up. the Prince threatened that unless Khamba renounced his desire for Toibi he would have him crushed by an elephant. Khamba refused to quit his love for Toibi. Toibi, meanwhile, saw the threat against her lover in a dream which was sent by a deity. She rushed to the place and freed Khamba and accused her father and Kongyamba of mistreating Khamba. The evil-doers were tried and sent to jail for six months.

But even when they were let out they continued to scheme against Khamba and Toibi. So Toibi and Khamba suffered many trials and tests of their mutual devotion. In one, Khamba is order to capture the royal bull of Burma. After doing so, the bull promises to submit to sacrifice and then to change into a tiger and, in that form, to kill Kongyamba. The Prince one day arranges a duel between Khamba and Kongyamba but it is interrupted by the roar of a nearby tiger. The duel changes to a competitive hunt in which Kongyamba is killed by the tiger - the bull is changed form.

Eventually Khamba and Toibi marry. One day, though, Khamba decided to test the faithfulness of his wife. Late at night he stood outside the door and pretended to be a past lover and entice her out. Toibi became angry with this presumptious "stranger" and thrust a spear in the direction of the voice in the dark. The spear struck Khamba and killed him. When Toibi saw what she had done she committed suicide.

Madeswara (Kannada)

The Madeswara epic consists of seven cycles, or episodes, depicting the life of a religious saint, or hero, called Madeswara. Each episode centers around one or more miracles Madeswara performs. In each case the miracle serves to demonstrate Madeswara religious power in the face of those who challenge or doubt it. As such, the Madeswara epic bears many resemblances to both oral tradition and literary puranic accounts of the exploits of deities. Indeed, Madeswara is regarded by his followers as an incarnation, or amsha, of Shiva.

1. Talugathe (the first episode)

Madeswara appeared for the first time in a place called Bhi"manakali as a Shaivite saint (jangama). He went to the house of a pious couple where he performed a miracle and they became his devotees. He then proceeded to Suttur, a Virashaiva mat?h. The guru of the mat?h refused to acknowledge Madeswara's powers until he proved himself by undertaking a certain task. Madeswara again proved himself by performing a miracle. Then, after visiting other mat?hs and at each performing a miracle he retired to a valley in the mountain country to the East and practiced tapas (meditation).

2. Killing a Demon

There was a terrible demon called Shravan?a in Bankapura, a place in the mountainous country. The demon had such tremendous power he was able to capture many gods and kept them as servants at this palace. When Madeswara went to test the demon's powers he saw the gods serving in their various capacities. Shravan?a ordered Madeswara to make special sandals for him. Madeswara agreed, but while making the sandals, concealed explosives in them. When the demon put them on he was killed and the gods were released from his service.

3. Junje Gowda

Madeswara then visited the house of Junje Gowda, a wealthy landlord of the Kuruba (shepherd) caste and a devotee of the god Beredevara. There he performed miracles to convince Junje Gowda of his power and in the end won Junje Gowda to his following. Junje Gowda is said to be responsible for all the temples built in the mountainous region of eastern Karnataka called the Madeswara Hills.

4. Sankamma

Sankamma was a beautiful woman and a devotee of Madeswara. She was married to a cruel man called Nele Gowda. One day Nele Gowda left her tied up in the forest while he went in search of food for himself. Madeswara encountered Sankamma, untied her and blessed her that she might have many children, on the condition that they should be given over to him as devotees when they were born. Nele Gowda returned home after several days and Madeswara punished him for his cruelty. Nele Gowda, too, became a devotee and gave his children to Madeswara.

5. Bevinakali

Originally Bevinakali was a devotee of Madeswara and by the grace of Madeswara became very rich. Afterward, Madeswara wanted to test her gratitude. He appeared before her at harvest time and asked for a small portion of grain, but Bevinakali refused. Her harvest and all of her wealth were magically destroyed by Madeswara as a punishment.

6. Devamma

Devamma was an evil woman who would invite Shaivite saints (jangama) to her house and feed them poisoned food. When Madeswara came to her house he was given poisoned sweets. He, in turn, gave them to Devamma's son, who ate them and died. Thus Madeswara taught her a lesson. He later brought the son back to life and both became his devotees.

7. Saragur Madappa

Ramavve, the mother of Saragur Madappa, at first refused to allow her son to become a devotee of Madeswara. She was a follower of Biligiri Rajaiah. Madeswara performed several miracles but failed to convince her of his powers. Finally, when her son was killed by the bite of a poisonous snake and Madeswara brought him back to life. Both she and her son became devotees. Madappa was selected to be in charge of preparing Madeswara's oil bath.

The Epic of Kot?i and Chennaya (Tulu)

The epic of Kot?i and Chennaya is linked with a cult devoted to their worship as heroes. The epic is usually only sung as a part of the cult activities. There it is sung only by members of the Parva caste, a low untouchable caste of sweepers, despite the fact that the caste of the epic is the Billava (Toddy-Tapper) caste, whose members make up most of the cult's devotees. The epic is recited throughout the night after a ritual funeral feast in honor of the slain heroes in a shrine structure called a garad?i, or gymnasium. On the following night, a dance dramatization (kola) of their story is performed by the same Parva caste members.

The story begins at a cosmological level with two birds created by Shiva. The eggs which they laid gave birth to several heroes whose legends are sometimes sung in conjunction with this one. On egg fell to earth and was found by a childless Brahman family, where it opened to reveal a baby girl. The girl, named Deyi Baidedi, when she was grown, attained puberty before marriage and had to be abandoned in the forest. There she was found by a Toddy Tapper. She married and had a daughter. When she was pregnant her second time she save the life of the King with her knowledge of medicine. The King promised to treat her as his mother, and her children as his brothers. The children she gave birth to before she died were the twins, Kot?i and Chennaya.

Much of the story relates their various acts of violence and heroism. Even as children they became rivals of the Kings' minister. In several episodes this minister attempted to cheat and deceive them, but always the twins were able to see through the minister's wiles. Eventually, the younger brother, Chennaya, loses his temper over the minister's insults and kills him. The King, too, ill treated them and they left for another kingdom where they fought a battle over a boar which they killed at the border of the two kingdoms. They died heroically in battle and became protective spirits, promising to return to the world when their devotees need them.

The Epic of Kat?amaraju (Telugu)

The Kat?amaraju epic- is often refereed to as a ballad cycle by Telugu scholars. It is comprised of a number of episodes which are often sung independently. During the annual ceremonies honoring the lives of the deified heroes of the epic, large numbers of people of the Shepherd (yadava) caste and kommavaru, an untouchable caste, gather on the banks of the Paler River where the great battle took place and perform a ritual dramatization in connection with the recitation of the epic.

The epic recounts the story of Kat?amaraju, a Yadava king who fought a battle with nalla Siddi, the king of Nellore, on the banks of the Paler River in the Thirteenth Century. Kat?amaraju, due to severe drought conditions, had migrated with his people to the fertile lands of Nellore. There he entered a covenant with the king of Nellore for grazing his cattle and sheep. Due to a misunderstanding, the covenant was broken and resulted in a tremendous battle in which many of the great heroes on both sides lost their lives.

Discussion of the Narratives

The central characters of the four epics range from low caste warriors to kings; from religious saints to devoted lovers. There appears to be little consistency between the social relations of the main characters. Although each of the epics concerns a hero, or set of heroes, it does not seem likely that the standard lists of heroic characteristics apply very broadly to them. In each of the male characters we find their heroic acts defined in terms of defeating an adversary. But, curiously, the morality of their actions is obscure. In most cases, they cause the very disarray that their valor corrects.

There is more consistency in the fact that the heroes become deified, and in that epics form a part of a performance tradition. In most cases, the performance is a part of a larger ritual in which the hero is worshipped as a deity. These characteristics together perhaps link folk epics to a very widespread and ancient mode of hero worship in India.

The following table looks more carefully at the potential variables inherent in the performance traditions associated with these epics.


Each of the epic traditions reflects aspects of society in the manner of their performance more so than in the narrative text. Among the Manipuri (a Tibeto-Burmese language-speaking people) there is no caste system. Audience and performers and drawn form the community at large. Among the Telugus, Kannadigas and Tuluvas---- all Dravidian language speakers --- a caste system is an important part of the social context. The epic heroes, the performers and a large part of the audience are in some way associated with particular castes. Thus, the Kat?amaraju epic is especially associated with the Shepherd (yadava) caste and the Kot?i - Chennaya epic is associated with the Toddy-Tapper (bil?l?ava) caste. The Madeswara epic is more generally associated with a local Shaivite sect, but draws heavily from the Shepherd and Untouchable castes, a feature which perhaps could be linked to references in the text to Madeswara's leather-working and early conversion of Shepherd caste leaders. The persistent association of Untouchable castes to the South Indian epic narrative and ritual performance traditions, as well as the specific link between Shepherd castes and Untouchable castes (seen in other epic traditions as well, such as the Telugu Palnad?u Epic) cry out for more extensive research and comparison.

Another common feature of the South Indian Epics is the absence of Brahman caste participation. This becomes more significant when we learn (below) that each of the traditions is associated with religious ritual, a cultural arena usually strongly associated with Brahmans. It does not seem to be the case, however, that Brahmans are excluded from participation, and some do occasionally take up even specialist participatory functions, but rather, simply that these folk traditions are not theirs.

Each of the epics is found in a performance tradition which includes some form of dramatization, song and instrumentation. Some are known less by the name of the epic than by the name of the performer, the performance or the special instrument (eg., the Kannada kamsale, a large cymbol). The nature of the performance and instrumental ensemble, however, varies quite widely among the different epic traditions. The inclusion of a percussion instrument in order to provide rhythm seems to be the only common feature to be seen in each of the traditions.

An important common feature of the South Indian performance traditions is that they include a form which is part of a religious celebration. This form (the epic tradition may include other forms which are also influenced by religious beliefs) is specific with regard to its time and location of performance. It is enclosed in a more or less elaborate ritual context which includes a variety of ritual activities. Commonly, possession by the epic heroes is a part of this ritual repertoire. The recitation of the epic is altered as a part of the ceremony, and may also be regarded as one of the ritual acts. These ritual celebrations of the epic heroes are such tightly integrated complexes, in fact, that it does not seem unwarranted to suppose that this is the "original" context from which South Indian epic traditions arose. Certainly, a great deal more research should be done in all areas of India on epic traditions in their ritual context. As it stands, even our scanty knowledge of Indian oral epic traditions is largely based on texts taken down in secular recitations, presumably with the aim to record the most elaborate and literarily sophisticated version.


The need for more research on Indian oral epics is clear. With hundreds of oral epic traditions found around India today, the standard work on comparative epic studies, Heroic Epic and Saga, by Felix J. Oinas (1978), represents India with a brief account of the Ramayana and the Mahabharata. Even in this case it is a single literary version which is chosen, and no mention is made of the myriad of folk versions of these epics.

This conference and workshop devoted to Indian oral epics has only touched upon the surface of the phenomena yet to be uncovered. There is an enormous amount of collection work to be done in all parts of India. This workshop has, however, been somewhat of a breakthrough in that perhaps for the first time folk epic traditions have been looked at comparatively. Up until now the vast majority of folk epics which have been collected have not been translated into a common language such as English which would facilitate their comparison. We have learned much from this brief exercise, and we have pointed the way toward some intriguing future research.

A second breakthrough may be that it is now clear that it is essential to collect, as well as to analyze, India's folk epics in their performance context. Much of the commonality of the folk epic traditions lie in the manner in which they are performed and perpetuated. In any case, collection and translation of only the more literarily sophisticated oral forms distorts and misrepresents the folk mode of expression. Several important studies by Professor Brenda E.F. Beck (1978, 1979) on the An?n?anmar Kathai ("The Epic of the Brothers", Tamilnad) have shown that some versions of folk traditions may represent transformations of local folk themes in the direction of universalization by reference association to the literary epics, the Mahabharata and Ramayana. If this is so then we stand to learn less about folk epics by collecting the more elaborate bardic and local printed versions than we do by studying the ritualistic versions of the traditions. We should keep in mind, too, tat the Mahabharata and Ramayana are continually localized in a welter of folk performance forms all over India. The mutual exchange of folk and literary traditions is, obviously, complex and intricate and central to our study.

To end on an encouraging note, one may say that despite the vast amount of research that still needs to be done, a rather substantial amount of work has already been done on Indian epic traditions. There is enough, at least, to begin to put the pieces together and begin to see patterns emerge.

Peter J. Claus
California State University, Hayward


1. The following paper was generated from the discussions at the Workshop on Indian Oral Epics held during the Indo-American Seminar on Indian Folklore at the Central Institute of Indian Languages, Mysore. The participants at the workshop were: Peter J. Claus (coordinator and editor), Nabanita Dev Sen, Wendy O'Flaherty, J.S. Paramasivaiah, Irom Babu Singh, B. Rama Raju, David L. Szanton, S.A. Gulverjau, V.N. Shivaramu, and D.G. Veena. The workshop also benefited by the comments made by the conference participants during an oral report of its findings.

2. In each of the regions chosen a large number of epic traditions could be mentioned. But, for only a very few do we have even minimal published research reports. Notable in this regard are: Roghair 1977, 1978, (in English) and Subba Rao 1976 (in Telugu), for Andhra; Hodson 1908 (in English) for Manipuri; Rajasekhar 1973 (in Kannada); and Manner 1886 (in Tulu), Burnell 1894-1897 (in English) and Claus 1973, 1975, 1978 (in English).

3. It may be noted that the story line of most of the folk epics of India may be found in a variety of genre. Several important criteria associated with the epic genre have been emphasized by several scholars. Oral epics find their fullest expression in public performances of regional bardic professionals. A wide-spread distinction is made between these occasions in which the story in sung, and the more variable situations in which the story is merely told (usually in personalized synopsis). Sometimes a further distinction is made within sung versions between shorter formulaic versions associated with cult rituals which often concentrate on specific quintessential episodes of the heroes lives, and longer, more elaborately descriptive versions sung by traveling bardic professionals.

4. A brief synopsis of the entire Moirangsayon may be found in Hodson, 1908, pp. 130-151. This also contains the entire Khamba and Toibi episode.

5. A transcription of the Madeswara Epic has been published in Kannada (Rajasekhara, 1973), but there is no English translation available. The Kannada work is over 1,600 pages long, including a 100 page introduction.

6. The Epic of Kot?i and Chennaya was transcribed and published in Tulu by A. Manner in1886. Three versions - the above and two other - were translated and published by Burnell in Serial form in the Journal Indian Antiquary between 1894 and 1897.

7. The Kat?amaraju Epic was transcribed and published in Telugu by T.V. Subbarao in two volumes (1976) of nearly 800 pages each. No English translation is available as yet.


Beck, B.E.F.
1978 "Transformations: An Epic at the Civilizational and Regional Levels (India)". Paper prepared for the Canadian Ethnological Society Meetings, London, Ontario.

1979 "Oral, Ritual and Printed Texts: Six Versions of a Folk Epic Compared." Presentation in the Symposium on Oral, Written and Printed Media in South Asian Folklore, American Folklore Society Annual Meetings, Oct. 24-28, Los Angeles.

Burnell, A.C.
1894-7 "The Devil Worship of the Tuluvas." Indian Antiquary. 23 Seq.

Claus, P.J.
1973 "Possession, Protection and Punishment as Attributes of the Deities in a South Indian Village." Man in India, 53:231-242.
1975 "The Siri Myth and Ritual: A Mass Possession Cult of South Kanara." Ethnology, 14:47-58.

1979 "Mayndala: A Legend and Possession Cult of Tulunad." Asian Folklore Studies, 38:95-129.

Hodson, T.C.
1908 The Meitheis. London: David Nutt.

Manner, A.
1886 Pad?danolu (in Tulu using Kannada Script). Mangalore: Basel Mission Press.

Oinas, F.J.
1978 Heroic Epic and Saga: An Introduction to the World's Great Epics. Bloomington: Indiana University Press.

Raghavan, V.
1959 "Methods of Popular Religious Instruction in South India." in Traditional India: Structure and Change, ed. By Milton Singer. Philadelphia: American Folklore Society, pp. 130-141.

Rajasekhar, P.K.
1973 Maleya Madeswara - A Folk Epic in Kannada Studies (in Kannada). Mysore: Institute of Kannada Studies.

Roghair, G.H.
1977 The Epic of Palnadu: A Study and Translation of Patnati Vi"rula Katha, A Teluga Oral Tradition as sung by Alisetti Galeyya. Unpublished Ph.D. dissertation, 2 vol., University of Wisconsin, Madison.
1978 "The Role of Brahma Nayuda in the Epic of Palnadu". Journal of Indian Folkloristics.

Subbarao, T.V.
1976 Kat?amaraju Kathalu (in Telugu). Two volumes. Hyderabad (A.P.): Nagalakshmi Art Printers, for the Andhra Pradesh Sahitya Academy.