Sitakant Mahapatra
Bhubaneswar, Orissa

This paper seeks to analyze the creation of mythical folk heroes and their use in a tribal society to help the process of reinterpreting its tradition and cultural self-image. The tribe in question is the Santal, a primitive tribe which, along with the Gonds and the Bhils, is one of the most numerous in India. As per the 1971 Census of India, their population is a little over four million. They are spread over a near contiguous geographical area in the three States of Bihar, Orissa and West Bengal, where they live as neighbors of the Mundas, Hos and Oraons. The Santals are a tribe obsessed with the sense of a Great Tradition (Orans 1965). In supposedly historical times they are said to have risen to great heights of economic prosperity and cultural attainment. From their original homeland in north-western India they are supposed to have migrated later down the Indo-Gangetic plain until they came to south Bihar, i.e., the Chotnagpur plateau and then spread over the area across the Damodar river into Orissa and West Bengal. They fought many wars and drove away the non-tribal groups which were opposed to them. There have been several attempts to delineate this past and its cultural excellence (Soren 1955). This supposedly historical migration is also ingrained in a number of legends and myths current among the Santals.

Anthropologists Redfield (1961) and Singer (1959) used the concepts Great Tradition in analyzing the part played by cities in the development of culture. Martin Orans adopted the model and designated the twentieth century growth-pangs in Santal society as a search for the "great-tradition". Since a great tradition incorporates qualities of systematic and well-integrated world-view, a self-conscious sub-structure of ethical mores and a degree of expressiveness regarding its individual excellence vis-à-vis the neighbouring communities, Orans also looked into the growth, dynamics and distortion of these qualities in the historical process. A great tradition calls for a psychological motivation for justifying the present "fall" in terms of historical decadence due to the greater community encysting the limited tribal community. It also incorporates a noticeable tendency to romanticize the past (Mahapatra 1977).


Folk heroes in Indian conditions, both in the tribal and the non-tribal world, are generally intertwined with myths which are primarily etiological. They use narrative forms to interpret the link of the life of the heroes described with the human world and through this intimate link seek to embody significant and dynamic processes of myth making. The etiological motivation derives from the story itself. There may be various approaches in such interpretation. Sometimes the present degeneration of social norms and values are held to be the result of certain moral decay which enters the social fabric or the personality structure of the group from outside. This latter phenomenon could be either due to the attack of what Toynbee, in a very different context, calls "the external proletariat". It could also be due to the anomie within. Whatever the reason, the golden age of the past is then contrasted sharply with the present degeneration and an attempt is made to revitalize the old values and norms to give them a new contemporary relevance and to seek the modalities of bringing them back into current usage.

In such circumstances, the interpretation of mythological folk heroes serves the dual purpose of harking back to a Great Tradition and also exhibiting the current decay and degeneration in the harsh light of that mythical past. The emphasis then turns to finding out the causes of such decay and seeking a remedy to counter these processes of decay and bring about a regeneration. Secondly, the folk hero could also represent certain universal qualities which inspires the group and is built into the personality structure through the process of socialization in childhood. It may not be directly inter-linked to any attempt at reinterpreting the mythical golden age of the past or the picture of present social decay. I this second category there is thus no obsession with the revitalization of an ancient lore and, therefore, the folk hero is less allegorical and more direct. In the first category the primary hypothesis of presenting the folk hero is to demonstrate myths of fundamental explanations and to show that they contain not merely intellectual but also emotive factors. The qualities of emotional stress and fancy play an important role in the presentation of folk heroes even though there is also the flow of an intellectual element which seeks to explain both the past and the present in terms of certain predetermined values. Behaviour and attitudes are sought to be crystallized and articulated through the folk heroes and social norms are sought to be built up.


Viewed in this light, the total work of Pandit Raghunath Murmu and more particularly his attempt to create folk heroes such as Bidu and Kherwal assume a special significance.

Pandit Raghunath Murmu, who hails from Rairangpur Sub-division of Mayurbhanj district in Orissa, is called as Guru Gomkey or the great spiritual characters Bidu and Kherwal, and presented them in two plays, namely, Bidu Chandan and Kherwal Bir respectively. Pandit Raghunath Murmu is one of the most articulate of the Santal leaders. A teacher by profession, he has a flair for writing. He has sought to revitalize the traditional myths with a view to strengthen the Santali search for identity, cultural self-image and the concept of a Great Tradition. The two characters delineated in the two plays referred to above are imaginary and are supposed to belong to a mythical time in the past. In the plays they represent those qualities of character and personality which Murmu feels are essential for a stable social order. They illustrate what he considers is the true Santal personality and its deep commitment to social welfare and the solidarity of the community.

The Santal leader Jaipal Singh had once said, "a thousand years back we did possess a civilization which could have challenged the world civilizations. You should be proud of that ancient civilization". Jaipal Singh in fact was trying to take "his people" back to the sense of a Great Tradition. The stories and legends of migration from mythical original kingdom where the Santals once lived are familiar to every child. Later, as they grow up, the listen to it in the evening storytelling session at the Gosane ghar or the community house. The Binti song recited by a group of a singers at the time of the marriage ceremony also makes pointed reference to such migration from the mythical kingdoms of Chaigal, Chapagal and Bahagal somewhere in the West. Risley has pointed out that the tribe moved from place to place in the old days (Risley 1891). Datta-Majumdar (1956) also refers to a series of legends connected with mythical places such as Hihiri, Pipiri, Hara Duttie, Chai Champa etc.

Raghunath Murmu has perhaps made the largest single contribution towards the strengthening of the sense of Santali and Mundari solidarity by redefining and re-interpreting what according to him constitutes the essential ingredients of Santali heritage and culture. His writings, activities and inspiration are possibly the greatest singly unifying force in the Santal community and have helped mold a sense of its identity. In 1954 he discovered the 01 script. Jaipal Singh called him an anthropologist and a Pandit. The Mayurbhanj Adivasi Mahasabha honoured him with the title of Guru Gomkey. The Dhumkuria Ranchi conferred on him the degree of D.Litt. in appreciation of his contribution to Adivasi literature. Martin Orans admired his 01 script for the Santali language and called him a spiritual guru of the Santals. Apart from discovering the 01 script, Raghunath Murmu has written a number of primers in this script to enable the Santali children to have education through their own script. Through a number of private schools opened by the Adivasi Socio-Educational and Cultural Society, Rairangpur, attempts have been made to teach the children through this script.

Basically Raghunath Murmu believes that the present degeneration in Santali society is due to growing individualization and decline of the sense of community. It is also partly due to what he calls a growing "softness" induced by too much of drinking and surrendering to the temptations of material affluence offered by the larger society surrounding the Santal society. He believes, for example, that drinkin of handia (rice-beer) is permissible only during religious ritual celebrations and not on other occasions. Handia can be taken only after it has been offered to the gods or goddesses during the worship. At other occasions it is like any other intoxicant and to be avoided. He also believes in austerity, in total fidelity in marriage and family life, the need for encouraging saving habits and the capacity for hard work. In brief, his idea of Santal personality is of dedicated and stern individuals who perform their duties selflessly and are not prey to the evils of the flesh. Secondly, so far as inter-personal relationship is concerned, he emphasizes that the prevalent dominance of pleasure-seeking has to yield place to a sense of solidarity with the community. According to him the traditional Santali world was dominated by living in and through society and through participation in the life of the community, in its songs and dances, in its ritual celebrations and economic activities.

Viewed in this context, the delineation of his two folk heroes Bidu and Kherwal acquires a special meaning and relevance. Raghunath Murmu composed the plays Bidu Chandan (Oriya edition, 1942; Bengali edition, 1948) and Kherwal Bir (Oriya edition, 1944; Bengali edition, 1952) to delineate his views on the predominant socio-cultural questions like individual morality and social ethics, the propitiation of gods and the need for physical culture. These two plays are extremely popular as they are very much stage-worthy and have an intense and rich story content. Both have been staged by professional and amateur groups in Santal society over the years and almost every village has seen the performance of the two plays sometime or other. The children have seen them staged and have grown up with them. Both hark back to a mythical time in the past through their protagonists, Bidu in Bidu Chandan and Kherwal in Kherwal Bir. Murmu has sought to project certain human qualities and values which according to him are essential features of true Santal character. There might have been degeneration and corruption in historical times due to evil influences of the non-tribal world to which the Santal has fallen a prey but these are superficial trauma which would be rectified by a proper understanding of and return to the rots of the culture. This is why myth, history and current social concerns mix interestingly in these two plays.

Kherwal Bir depicts a ethical past in which an intensely humane king called Manmi rules over his subjects. In course of time the population goes on expanding, there is poverty and want, some people become greedy, rapacious and take to evil means and irreligious paths. They form a group and worship dark witches and evil gods or bongas and start human sacrifice to gain power and authority from such gods. This group is called Danmi. Gradually, their numbers and power grows, they defeat the Manmi group and capture the kingdom. The latter run away to the jungles but even there, there is no respite for them from the attacks of the Danmis. They capture the selected heroes and warriors of the Manmis and offer them in sacrifices to the evil gods and enslave the rest of the group. The Manmi king hides in the forest with his queen. He loses the battle, is captured and killed. His wife who is with a child gives birth to a glorious son who is protected from various attacks of wild animals and the agents of the Danmi king by Dharam Baba (another name for Maranburu the highest god in the Santali (pantheon) in the shape of a lion and lioness. The boy grows up as a healthy child in strict austerity, practicing physical culture, including archery, and is immersed in the glorious traditions of his tribe which he listens to as stories from his mother. He inspires the small loyal group of Manmis to new heights of confidence by regular practice of physical culture and archery, by character-building and abstinence. When the boy is fifteen the queen has a dream that he would be called Kherwal and would defeat the Danmis. The Danmis are ultimately world. In his preface to the play, Raghunath Murmu has insisted that the play relates to the divine play of a god and a goddess and that he has tried to describe only a fraction of their universal and comprehensive divine lessons. In the play Bidu is the self-sacrificing men in society look upon him as mad. He, however, has dedicated himself to do good to the entire community. Chaigad and Mangad are two small kingdoms established by two renowned Santal headmen (Manjhis) in ancient times. The two kingdoms are perpetually fighting each other. Chandan is born as the daughter of the chaigad manjhi. Bidu is born as a nomadic boy in a country called Bahagad whose location, seems unknown to everybody and even Bidu maintains that "it is somewhere there, far far away, perhaps a mystic land" but adjacent to the two warring kingdoms. He seeks shelter in Chaigad as also in Mangad alternatively but is misunderstood by both groups as an agent of the other side andis turned away. The daughter of the manjhi of Chaigad, Chandan, falls in love with him and it is through the newly-found or newly-revealed script, the 01 chiki. Secret rendevouz, places of hiding, secret messages and directions are communicated on stones and trees. Bidu wants to do good to both sides and put an end to their factionalism. The birds and beasts are his friends. His search is to find an identity for himself as an escape from his loneliness and he discovers the meaning of life through sacrifice, love and good deeds. Bidu and Chandan have understood the spirit of the forgotten script and in critical times Bidu is also able to communicate through that script with his beloved Chandan. The script is thus, at one level, the language of life; on another level, it is the revealed language of the gods known only to those who have the mystic power to discern it by love and sacrifice. Thirdly, the script also partakes of all the exclusiveness of the tribe. It is supposed to exclude the others. It has thus elements of secretiveness, mystery, divine dispensation and solidarity.

At the end of the play, Bidu and Chandan vanish from the scene. Divine dancers, as they are, they have to return to their fold of divinity. But enough has happened for both the people of Chaigad and Mangad to realize their ignorance and folly in not recognizing these divine agents and they atone by coming together and resolving in prayer to abide by the lasting human qualities of life. The age of guilt ends and a genuinely humane culture and community is born.

Bidu also typifies Murmu's idea of not merely a dedicated social being who means no ill will or harm to others, but is prepared to serve as a bridge between groups and factions in society. He is the good Samaritan prepared to sacrifice his own interest and his own comforts so as to bring about community welfare he is also, like Kherwal, extremely Spartan in habits and even when Chandan has fallen in love with him he is not given to relaxing his efforts to bring about general welfare and does not get enmeshed in the quest of individual happiness or the bliss of marital life. Even when he is rejected by different groups he keeps preserving and bears no ill will against anybody. Kherwal is not merely a man of great prowess; he is also dedicated to retrieve the image and glory of his group. In the fight of the Danmis and the Manmis he knows that he is to strive hard, put in all possible efforts, organize men and inspire them to new heights of confidence if they can defeat the powerful Danmis.

These two imaginery and mythical folk heroes have thus served the essential purpose of typifying and illustrating what Murmu considers are the essential qualities of Santal personality and social ethics. Through them he suggests remedies for the current evils of Santal society which, according to him, are due to the dominance of the "pleasure principle", the inability to work hard and save, the tendency to over-spend on festival-ritual occasions and the inability to resist the temptation of drinks and other tinsels which the more affluent non-tribal society offers.



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Murmu, Raghunath






Bidu Chandan
, Oriya edition (Play in Santali)

Bidu Chandan, Bengali edition (Play in Santali)

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