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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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
Khamba and Toibi (Manipuri)
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
Talugathe (the first episode)
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
2. Killing a Demon
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
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.
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.
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.
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
7. Saragur Madappa
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.
Epic of Kot?i and Chennaya (Tulu)
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.
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
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)
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.
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
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.
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.
following table looks more carefully at the potential variables inherent in the
performance traditions associated with these epics.
TABLE :EPIC PERFORMANCE TRADITIONS
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.
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.
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.
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
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.
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.
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.
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
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.
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).
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.
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.
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.
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
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
1978 "Transformations: An Epic at the Civilizational and Regional
Levels (India)". Paper prepared for the Canadian Ethnological Society Meetings,
"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.
1894-7 "The Devil Worship of the Tuluvas." Indian Antiquary.
1973 "Possession, Protection and Punishment as Attributes of the
Deities in a South Indian Village." Man in India, 53:231-242.
Siri Myth and Ritual: A Mass Possession Cult of South Kanara." Ethnology,
"Mayndala: A Legend and Possession Cult of Tulunad." Asian Folklore
1908 The Meitheis. London: David Nutt.
1886 Pad?danolu (in Tulu using Kannada Script). Mangalore: Basel Mission
1978 Heroic Epic and Saga: An Introduction to the World's Great Epics.
Bloomington: Indiana University Press.
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.
1973 Maleya Madeswara - A Folk Epic in Kannada Studies (in Kannada).
Mysore: Institute of Kannada Studies.
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.
1976 Kat?amaraju Kathalu (in Telugu). Two volumes. Hyderabad (A.P.):
Nagalakshmi Art Printers, for the Andhra Pradesh Sahitya Academy.