The Epic of Pabuji

The Epic of Pabuji

FREE Delivery
Ships in 1-3 days
Item Code: NAG578
Author: John D Smith
Publisher: Katha
Language: English
Edition: 2012
ISBN: 9788187649830
Pages: 186
Cover: Paperback
Other Details 9 inch X 6 inch
Weight 250 gm
About the Book
Pabuji, a medieval Rajput hero from the deserts of Marwar, is widely worshipped as a folk-deity capable of protecting against ill fortune. The principal form of worship entails the night-long singing of Pabuji's deeds by bard-priests or bhopos. This takes place in front of a long painted cloth, or par, which functions as the temple of the deity and depicts those same deeds. This book chronicles the epic narrative in English free verse as well as interesting details about the words, the music and the par itself.


In the 1970s, when I carried out the fieldwork on which this book is based, the tradition it describes appeared to be in robust health. There were many performers of the epic of Pabuji active in different regions of Rajasthan, and I found it necessary to hold auditions to choose between them. Sometimes epic-singers who were previously unknown to one another would meet as a result of working with me, and I would overhear them discussing the similarities and differences between their versions of the narrative; on one occasion I found myself in a room surrounded by seven or eight separate bhopos, the performers, and was able to organize a light-hearted competition between them. There seemed little reason to fear for the future of the tradition, particularly since epic performance was not merely a form of entertainment, but constituted a religious ritual.

By the time the first edition of The Epic of Pabuii appeared in 1991, things were already very different. A few months after publication I travelled back to Rajasthan with a film crew to make a television programme about the tradition.' We found that most of the bhopos whom we met had given up performing, and instead had taken up work such as pedalling cycle-rikshas or sweeping out temples: they told us that people were no longer interested in hearing the epic performed. Even bhopos who were still active were now turning increasingly to the tourist trade for their income, and were singing Hindi film songs rather than episodes of the epic. Ten years later the situation had deteriorated yet further, and a second documentary released in 2002 depicts a largely deracinated tradition, in which performances for devotees of the deity Pabuji take place ever more rarely, while bhopos are compelled to play and sing for tourists, or even to provide "exotic" entertainment at smart urban restaurant , in order to earn enough to eat. It is clear that the tradition of epic performance is rapidly dying, and even some bhopos acknowledge this.

What happened to cause this sudden decline? The answer is to be found in various aspects of modernization in late twentieth century India. The chief worshippers of Pabuji have always been Rebari pastoralists, but recent changes in patterns of land use in Rajasthan have had a severe impact on their semi-nomadic lifestyle, and many of them have abandoned it altogether. Having lost their flocks, they have lost their chief connection with Pabuji, who is above all associated with the welfare of livestock.

Perhaps equally serious has been the enormous spread of television, of merely have the large numbers of cable channels now available throughout India accustomed their audiences to more sophisticated forms of entertainment, they have also begun to have a standardizing effect on Hindu mythology, which will inevitably weaken local variants such as the Pabuji story. Television has even begun to usurp the ritual function of performance traditions such as the epic of Pabuji, as became clear in the 1980s when the national channel Doordarshan screened its 94-episode serialization of the Mahabharata, and audiences responded by offering arati and burning incense in front of their television sets, After all, if the par, the cloth painting of Pabuji can function as a portable temple, what is to stop a television from functioning as a temporary shrine?

Thus a performance tradition that was still flourishing in the 1970s - though even then promoting attitudes that seemed to belong to a much earlier age - has, by the beginning of the twenty first century, almost completely lapsed, and a book that was intended as a description of present day practice has become a work of history.


The epic of Pabuji is an oral epic in the Rajasthani language, which is performed to the present day in the state of Rajasthan, situated in the west of northern India. Rajasthan is in fact the second largest Indian state with an area slightly smaller than that of Japan. To its north east are Punjab, Haryana and Uttar Pradesh, to the south east Madhya Pradesh, and to the south west Gujarat. To its west and north west is Pakistan.

The principal geographical feature of the region is the Aravali mountain range, which runs from south west to north east across the state. These mountains are not very high. evertheless the Aravalis have a decisive effect on the geography and climate of Rajasthan as a whole, for they divide the state into two remarkably different parts, a large, mainly desert area to the north and west, and a smaller, fertile area to the south and east. The Thar Desert lies to the west. Here the villages lie half-buried by sand and are fenced by dry thorn bushes. Here fields of millet are often watered by nothing but dew and deep wells contain brackish water or no water at all; an undulating, shifting landscape of sand dunes with few trees, punctuated here and there by sudden high-walled fortresses. To the east is the fertility of north India, where water is freely available for irrigation and as a plaything, and the fields are bright with sugarcane, maize, or opium poppies.

Extremes of contrast in Rajasthan are not restricted to geography. Here, in a single state, terrible poverty and vast wealth coexist; tiny villages and lavish courts; illiterate epic-singers and virtuoso classical poets; impossibly high-minded rulers and sly wheeler-dealers; the remains of mighty empires (Delhi itself was once feudatory to the princes of Sambhar) and one-village principalities. Much of this is the general condition of all India, especially those parts of India which, like Rajasthan, were never taken over by the British, remaining instead under "feudal" native rule until 1947. Yet in many important respects a common inheritance links all extremes. For instance: the vast treasure of the rulers of Jaipur was guarded by Mina tribesmen, and "So tenacious and secretive were the Minas that no Rajput ever knew what wonders lay in their keeping. A maharajah was allowed to see the trove only once during his tenure and could select a single item from it." There are many parallel stories. In Rajasthan, the rulers never fully divorced them elves from the common people on whose support they depended, and from whose ranks they had themselves no doubt once sprung.

The rulers of Rajasthan were hereditary kings of the caste called Rajput; a name which it elf means "prince." The Rajputs claim descent from the Kshatriya monarchs of the ancient period, and support this claim with a variety of myths expounding their ultimately divine origins. Modern historians have generally viewed the earlier parts of their impressive genealogies with suspicion. Everything we know about the early Rajputs suggests that they were initially simply rulers of small localised districts who succeeded over a period of time in extending their control and power until eventually they could claim the title of king.

The different Rajput clans emerged at different periods: the great empire of Sapadalaksa, controlled by the Chauhans of Sambhar, was well established by the end of the first millennium AD but other major dynasties took several centuries more to assert themselves. It was not until the coming of the Mughals in the fifteenth century that the political map of the region began to asume the shape it was to retain into the British period. By 1500 AD the major kingdoms were all established: Mewar under the Sisodiyos, Jodhpur (Marwar) and Bikaner under the Rathors, Jaisalmer under the Bhatis, Jaipur (Dhudhar) under the Kachvahos, and Bundi (Hadauti) under the Hado Chauhans. Pabuji was a Rathor, a member of what was to become the ruling line of Jodhpur, but at the time in which he is believed to have lived, the early fourteenth century; the Rathors were not yet established as a ruling dynasty. Kolu, over which Pabuji is said to have ruled, was and is a tiny and insignificant desert village; Kolu has certainly gained more prestige from its association with Pabuji than Pabuji could ever have gained from his control of Kolu.

Rajasthan is an entity within Hindu India, and the culture of Rajasthan is of necessity a Hindu Indian culture. Nevertheless, Rajasthani culture is unique to itself. In the "fine arts," Rajput miniature paintings have won a lasting and international esteem (as current market prices regrettably testify). Less well known outside Rajasthan itself is the enormous vernacular literature in the Rajasthani language, perhaps greater in extent and scope than its neighbour Hindi (Hindi in fact claims Rajasthani as a dialect of itself, much as if French were to lay claim to Italian). From the fifteenth century onwards a great mass of literature was produced; the bulk of it is the work of Chaarans, a caste traditionally devoted to producing eulogies of the ruling Rajputs. In addition to these poetic texts, there exist prose chronicles, which relate the history of one or more of the ruling dynasties. The earliest of these to attempt a fairly generalized historical account of all the main Rajput kingdoms is the seventeenth century Khyata of the Rajput Muhato Nainasi;' Nainasi includes in his work an important version of the story of Pabuji, which is translated in Appendix 1 of this book.

The high culture of Rajasthan, is dependent on royal and, to a lesser extent, priestly patronage, and these patrons like any other elite, draw their power and influence in part from the very fact of their relatively small numbers. The phenomena, which form the subject matter of this book, occur much lower down the social hierarchy: the Pabuji of history may have had patrician blood in his veins, but the Pabuji of modern worship is an almost exclusively plebeian deity.

In Rajasthan there is an almost bewildering multiplicity of lower castes.

The Ethnopraphic Atlas if Rajasthan, which refers only to the "scheduled castes" and "scheduled tribes" (Le. those of sufficiently debilitating status to merit positive governmental discrimination), lists 55 castes and six tribes, accounting for somewhat less than 30% of the entire population of the state. G Morris Carstairs found the contrast between high-caste village Hindus and the Bhil tribals so overwhelming that he entitled the chapter in which he made this report "The reverse of the Medal." He recorded his assessment of the differences he found: the "noise and vigour and exuberance" of the tribals, as opposed to the "high-caste Hindus" ... ever-shifting uncertainty together with a longing for "stability and assurance." To some extent the Same "exuberance" can be seen also among the lower Hindu castes. Here rates of literacy and education are very low, living conditions very poor, upper-caste hatred and contempt very widespread; and there is little social mobility. As Chogo Bhopo, a professional singer of the epic of Pabuji, replied when asked whether his children would be singers in their turn: "The children of rats cannot be other than rats."

In between the brahmins and the landed Raj put gentry on the one hand, and the lowe t castes and tribals on the other, comes the great mass of the people of Rajasthan. Most typically they are cultivators or herdsmen; they live in house built of mud in relatively small village ; th Y use money little, keeping their personal wealth in the form of livestock and gold or ilver ornaments for the women, and conducting most transactions through barter. By no stretch of the imagination could any of them be called rich, but their poverty is different from the grinding poverty of most of the "scheduled castes" - at least until drought (in the west of the state) or flood (in the east) strikes to threaten livelihood and life itself.

All three of the broad social strata distinguished here are involved in the cult of Pabuji. Pabuji himself was a Rajput prince; he is widely worshipped as a deity by Rebari herdsmen and others throughout the Rajasthan countryside ; and he is served by scheduled caste Nayak priests. Thus he himself forms a part of the "common inheritance linking all extremes," to which I have already referred to as a factor binding together the exceedingly heterogeneous society of Rajasthan. More significantly, however, his story emphasize certain themes, which are of central importance in the Hindu culture of western India, in particular certain ideals for human behaviour. Pabuji the Hindu warrior opposes and overthrows the barbaric cow-killing Muslim ruler Mirza Khan, and protects women from attack. He maintains his honour and the honour of his family by pursuing blood feuds (vair), and his nephew Rupnath does the same. Despite all this, Pabuji is devoted to the principle of ahimsa, non-violence. His strength derives in large measure from sexual continence: h marries, yet, by a quirk of the narrative, remains celibate. The womenfolk of his story too represent cherished ideals: both his bride and his sister-in-law become sati, that is, follow their hu band into death by committing ritual suicide on a blazing pyre.

What is most acutely evident in thi sample list of the ideals portrayed in the story of Pabuji is that they are rarely if ever attainable in normal life. Some of them (marriage and celibacy, warfare and non-violence) are mutually incompatible; others, (blood feuds, ritual suicide) have become illegal. onetheless, taken together, they constitute what is felt to be a noble and virtuous way of life. The mutually incompatible ideals are clearly expressive of tensions that members of the society feel about themselves, and they are echoed in other Indian oral epics as well as in the Sanskrit Mahabharata and Ramayana. As for the others, it is easy to understand that when traditional conceptions of nobility and virtue are rendered unrealizable by social change, stories embodying those conceptions assume a new and vital significance. Whatever else they may be, Pabuji and his associates serve as projection screens for the frustrated aspirations of a certain class of Hindus. This too is probably a major function of epic heroes everywhere.

Thus the very forces of modernization in India which seem mo t likely to weep the Pabuji cult into oblivion may also, paradoxically, reinforce its power; by placing yet further obstacles in the way of one particular road to Hindu self realization. "The admiration for great doings lies deep in the human heart, and comforts and cheers even when it does not stir to emulation. Heroes are the champions of man's ambition to pass beyond the oppressive limits of human frailty to a fuller and more vivid life.


Map of Rajasthan8
The words and music of Pabuji's epic18
The pictures on Pabuji's par29
Pabuji the god43
Note on the illustrations55
The Epic of Pabuji
Sample Pages

Add a review
Have A Question

For privacy concerns, please view our Privacy Policy