Religion and Folklore of Northern India

Item Code: NAE425
Author: William Crooke
Publisher: Rupa Publications Pvt Ltd
Edition: 2005
ISBN: 9798129107915
Pages: 471
Cover: Paperback
Other Details 8.5 inch X 5.5 inch
Weight 450 gm
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About the Book

A keen observer of the Indian way of life during his time as the Magistrate and collector of Revenue in the united provinces of Agra and oudh, William Crooke's fascinating account of the religion and folkflore of northern India remains as important as it was written in 1926. This detailed account of the religious customs and habits of the peasant folk of the region distinguishes between Brahmanic gods and village 'godlings', examing how the people's survival in the natural world and their attempt to extract meaning from it are intricately linked to their religious beliefs. Through this process springs various folklore and stories which become an important part of their history and identity.

Religion & Folklore of Northern India has remained a central source of imformation for both the scholar and the interested reader.

About the Author

William Crooke was Magistrate and collector of Revenue in the united provinces of Agra and Oudh and Director of the Ethnographical Survey of the province. He first complied a book called An introduction to the Popular Religion and Folklore of Northern India. His book Tribes and Castes of the North Western Provinces and Oudh was published in 1896


All students of primitive religion will welcome a new edition of the late Dr. Crooke's Popular Religion and Folk-lore of Northern India in which are embodied the results of many years' reseal subsequent to his retirement from the Indian Civil Service.

I have elsewhere drawn attention to the fact that writers on t subject of primitive practices have gathered their Indian material almost entirely from Dr. Crooke's work. In recent years there have been numerous and valuable additions to the store of knowledge available for reference in the case of India; but Dr. Crooke's lit book and Campbell's Notes on the Spirit Basis of Belief and Custom remain the most complete surveys of peasant beliefs in tl interesting country.

It is a sobering reflection that few of those on whom the ultimate responsibility for the destiny of the Indian Empire rests would be able to explain the meaning of the terms deva, deota, and devak. Yet in these three words lies the beliefs which animate all but a small minority of india’s vast population. The dividing line between the deva or god of hindu scriptures and the deota, i.e. the godling of the country-side, is, as Dr. Crooke shows, not always distinct. Broadly speaking, the devas of Brahmanical tradition are the great gods of orthodox Hinduism. The deotas embody the fears and hopes of the ignorant masses. In one locality or another a deota can be found representing almost every ill that flesh is heir to. The devak is the totemistic spirit contained in some tree, animal, or material object which, in addition to being the subject of special worship, regulates the marriage laws of many primitive sections of the population. In origin it appears to have been an ancestral spirit.

. Dr. Crooke’s study of the people of Northern India, based on personal observation, leads him to the conclusion that the religion of the peasant is largely based on a feeling of fear. Research in other parts of India has led to the same conclusion. Campbell has maintained, with a mass of circumstantial evidence, that this fear of spirits, originally disembodied ancestors, to whom disease and many other evils are attributed. Recognizing the essential accuracy of these conclusions, the student should be prepared to accept with caution the picture of the common beliefs of Hindus drawn by scholars from a study of Sanskrit literature. Spirit-scaring are to be traced in the Vedas; but primitive thought and practice in India rest largely on a system of goding worship and spirit scaring that is older than the Vedas.

It will be observed that in this new work Dr. Crooke has, with few exceptions, limited his field of inquiry to Northern India, the Deccan, and the Bombay Presidency, abandoning the comparative references to similar practices in other countries that his earlier work contained. With the growth of investigation into popular beliefs and customs, such a restriction of scope in a work of this nature is to be welcomed. The student is otherwise likely to be overwhelmed by an avalanche of word folk-lore. For Indian research, limitation of area and a common basis of investigation, such as Dr. Crooke’s Questionnaire, are greatly needed.

The story of Momiai, given at the close of chapter III, will recall to many readers an incident connected with the outbreak of bubonic plague in the city of Bombay in 1896. The work of removing the stick to hospital and the segregation of their families was gravely hampered by a strange rumour that these measures gave rise to. It was generally asserted that the officials were seizing men and boys with the intention of hanging them head downwards over a slow fire and preparing a medicine from blood drawn from the head. In panic the population left the city in thousands, scared by the fear of falling victims, not to the disease, but to the Europeans’ nefarious scheme for preparing Momiai. It is also of interest to note that the plague epidemic led to the installation and propitiation of a plague godling. Dr Crooke tells us that she was known in Bengal as the Bombay godling, the disease having originated in the city of Bombay. In exercising their magisterial powers, officials in India are frequently called upon to deal with exercise who, in their efforts to derive out an evil spirit, have seriously injured or perhaps killed the victim of their ministration. The murder of children to assist the discover hidden treasure, or to cure barrenness, is of common occurrence. The following pages throw light on these and many more primitive practices. They will be valued not only by members of Dr. Crooke’s former service, but by a far wider circle of readers. It has been my privilege to pay a last tribute to an old friend and helper in the folk-lore field in seeing the proofs of his work through the press.

Author Preface

During my service in India my attention, aroused by a study of the village population, by experiences as Magistrate and Collector of Revenue in the United Provinces of Agra and Oudh, and by constant camping during cold-weather tours, was directed to' the beliefs and ritual of the peasantry, as contrasted with that described in the official Sacred Books of the Brahmans. The study of the peasant religion and folk-lore showed that though Brahmanism had absorbed much of the beliefs of the peasantry, their religion, usages, and traditions represented a type very different from that of the priestly class, and this result was confirmed by my experience as Director of the Ethnographical Survey of the Province. In 1894, under orders of the Local Government, I compiled a small book entitled An Introduction to the Popular Religion and Folk-lore of Northern India. This book owed much to the Census Report of the Panjab for 1881 by the first worker in this field of inquiry, the late Sir Denzil Ibbetson, two chapters of which dealing with Ethnography were republished in 1883 under the title of Outlines of Panjab Ethnography, I was also deeply indebted to another scholar, the late Sir. M. Campbell, the learned editor of the Gazetteer of the Bombay Presidency, who published in 1885 his Notes on the Spirit Basis of Belief and Custom, republished in an extended form in the Indian Antiquary.

My little book was written in the scanty leisure which a District Officer is able to secure, mostly in camp and at a distance from books of reference. But despite its many imperfections, it was received with favour as opening up lines of inquiry to which little attention had hitherto been directed. It soon fell out of print, and the demand for induced me to prepare a second edition which the pressure of official duties allowed me to improve only in a very superficial way. This, the second edition, was published in London in 1896 under the title of Popular Religion and Folk-lore of Northern India. It was more successful than it deserved to be; it was quoted as an authority in many works by European workers in the field of Comparative Religion and Folk-lore, and this edition, too, fell out of print, and can now only with difficulty be procured.

Meanwhile, up to the close of my service in India I continued the examination of the beliefs and usages of the peasantry so far as occasion allowed. Fortunately I was placed in charge of the district of Mirzapur, of which the more secluded tracts are the homes of an interesting group of tribes-Kols, Korwas, Bhuiyars and their brethren-who have been much less exposed to Brahman influence than the people of the neighbouring valley of the Ganges. In my Tribes and Castes of the North- Western Provinces and Oudh, published in I896, I was able to give some account of these interesting tribes, and at the same places in Hindu cities like Mirzapur and Benares I was in a position to obtain information regarding the cults of the godlings or minor gods, those of the rural population who have been absorbed or are in process of absorption into the Brahmanical pantheon. Much of this information was published in five volumes of North Indian Notes and Queries, which I found time to edit. On my retirement from service in India I was able to study at the India Office and other libraries much of the literature of the subject, and I thus collected the materials which were used in the numerous articles on Indian religions contributed to the Encyclopaedia of Religion and Ethics, edited by the late. Rev. J. Hastings, the publication of which extended from I908 to I92I.

I had been urged by many friends who valued this book on Popular Religion and Folk-lore more highly than I did myself, to issue it in a new and improved edition; but other engagements have hitherto prevented the execution of this project. I have now been able to find time to undertake this task, and the present edition has been entirely rewritten, and the bulk of the materials has been drawn from sources which were not available at the time of the preparation of the earlier editions. The bibliography appended gives a list of these authorities. The works which have proved most useful are the provincial accounts of tribes and castes-Mr. R. E. Enthoven for Bombay; Sir H. Risley, Bengal; the late Mr. R. V. Russell, Central Provinces; Mr. H. A. Rose, Panjab and the North-West Frontier Province; the series of Settlement Reports from 1881 to 191I, those for 1921, except Bombay, being at present unpublished; the valuable series of monographs issued by the Government of Assam; Rev. S. Endle, the Kacharis; Lt.-Col. P. R. T. Gurdon, the Khasis; Mr. T. C. Hodson, the Naga tribes of Manipur and the Meitheis; Major A .. Playfair, the Garos; Mr. E. Stack and Sir C. Lyall, the Mikirs; Lt.-Co. J. Shakespear, the Lushai Kuki Clans. Much information has been culled from the monumental Bombay Gazetteer by Sir J. M. Campbell, Panjab Notes and Queries edited by Sir R. Temple, and North Indian Notes and Queries edited by myself. In fact, the abundance of useful material is so great that it has been necessary, owing to considerations of space, to reject much that is valuable, and to quote the passages selected only in an abbreviated form. I have not attempted to treat the subject in a comparative way by including parallel beliefs and ritual from races outside India, save those on the immediate borderland. But I have occasionally given references to standard works on Comparative Religion and Ritual, such as those of Sir J. Frazer, Dr. E. S. Hartland, Sir E. Tylor, Professor L. Westermarck, and others.


The investigation of the Peasant Religion of Northern India forms an important chapter in the study of the beliefs and usages of a race of the lower culture. The first difficulty is to decide the geographical limits of the inquiry. Hindustan, in the usual sense of the tern, includes Northern India bound on the south by the Narbada river. But it is impossible to exclude from the population that of the west coast and the Deccan now included in the province of Bombay. The Dravidian races of Southern India, which have been fully described by Mr. E. Thurston, Bishop H. Whitehead, Mr. Anantha Krishna Iyer, the late Dr. W.H.R. Rivers, and others, fall into quite a different category, and, except incidentally, are not included in this book.

The objection will naturally be made that in the region here included there are all sorts and conditions of men. But from the earliest ages the population of Northern India has been the result of the amalgamation of many streams of foreigners with the indigenous races, or those who occupied the land before the dawn of history. The linguistic survey of India shows that at least as far west as Nimar in the Central Provinces the most primitive stratum was that of the Mon- Khmer people, Mongoloids from Eastern Tibet and the head- waters of the great Chinese rivers, now represented by tribes on the Assam frontier and by the Kols and their brethren in the range of hills crowning the Peninsula from the west to east. Next came the Dravidians, who are represented by tribes like the Gonds and Oraons who are later emigrants from their original home in Southern India. The population in the north, particularly in the Panjab, is of a mixed character, the original stratum, whatever it may have been, having been leavened by successive immigrations from regions beyond the Himalayas-Indo-Aryans, Persians,Greeks, Sakas, IndoParthians, Huns, Mongols. These foreigners quickly succumbed to the influence of their new environment and became Hinduized, one Hun tribe,the Gurjara, being the ancestors of some of the Rajput clans.

At some recent enumerations of the people an attempt was made to distinguish between Hindus and Animists, but it was found impossible to frame any adequate definition of the term 'Hindu' or 'Animist'. Many tribes on the borderland of the two regions retain or have acquired the characteristics of both. Some of them, like Mundas, Gonds, or Bhils, may prefer to call themselves Hindus, because the adoption of Hinduism involves a rise in their social status. The chiefs of such tribes may outwardly conform to Hinduism by worshiping, themselves or by the vicarious service of a Brahman priest, some of the Brahmanical deities, while they retain the cults of their own tribal gods. Or, among the lower classes of the people of the northern plains, the local village, caste, or tribal godlings still receive worship, particularly by women, or both sexes resort to him for protection when some crisis, such as drought, famine, pestilence, or murrain, occurs. Hence, even if Hinduism has gained a nominal influence over such people,they, in their turn, have contributed much to Hinduism. It is so eclectic and tolerant that it recognises the combination of the local with the orthodox cults, and some of the Animistic godlings have been promoted to the orthodox pantheon,

Thus, for example, the Avataras or incarnations of Vishnu include Varaha, the boar; Kurrna, the tortoise; Matsya, the fish; Narasinha, the manlion; and so on, relics of a primitive theriolatry or totemism. In the case of the goddesses the cult of the benign Devi may be traced back to one of the varied manifestations of Dharti, the earth mother; Kali is a deified tigress, Durga Sinhavahlni a lioness. Others who have not quite reached orthodox rank are Hanuman, the ape, Ganesa, the rat or mouse. Such deities disclose their origin when they rank as Dvarapalas, 'door-keepers' of temples of the greater gods, who are not yet admitted to full franchise in the orthodox pantheon.

Thus, in a survey of the beliefs of the lower culture it is impossible to draw a clear line of distinction between those tribes, like those on the Assam frontier, Mundas or Dravidians, from the peasantry of the northern plains. Both retain certain beliefs and usages which, in default of a better term, may be called ''Animistic', some have been, at least nominally, absorbed into Hinduism; in others the process of absorption is still in progress. But all these varied strains of blood which flow in their veins have been controlled by the influence of their environment.

If an attempt is made to describe in a summary the characteristics of this type of religion and ritual, we may notice the feeling of pessimism, a tone of thought based on the exposure of the people to dangers resulting from their environment-fierce heat, torrential rain, the prevalence of malaria and epidemic disease, the periodical occurrence of drought and famine, the economically low standard of subsistence due to the pressure of a superabundant population and the disinclination to adopt improved agricultural methods. This growth of pessimism accounts for the contrast between the happiness and cheerful view of life characteristic of the Vedic culture as compared with the theology and ritual of the Brahmanic period which succeeds it. This feeling was translated into the official religion, the doctrines of the illusory and worthless character of the world which Buddhism inherited from the Hinduism prevalent at the time of its origin. Hence the religion of the peasant is largely based on a feeling of fear which it has never wholly shaken off. There are, it is true, some beneficent deities-the kindly spirits of the ancestral dead, who become testy if they fail to receive due suit and service, the house, cattle, and field guardians enumerated in the following pages. But, alas, as will be seen by numerous instances, the peasant is encompassed by myriad forms of evil-the Evil Eye, the Bhiit, and other demons, the godlings which cause disease, the machinations of the witch.

Secondly, the influence of· these godlings is essentially local, confined to the village, tribe, or clan. The village, in its most typical form, is a community closely linked together by sharing a common life and common interests, with the natural result of the absence of privacy, the subordination of its members to the community represented by a village council. Among its members the highest in rank, who gained possession of the area by conquest, state grants, or peaceful settlement, are represented by a heal man or body of joint proprietors, often drawn from the higher castes, while below them is a body of cultivators, artisans, traders, or menials, who serve the community. The entry of a stranger being a source of risk, the village depends for its protection from spiritual or temporal evil on its own godling, served not by a Brahman priest, but by an officiant of the lower grade who, being supposed to be autochthonous, understands the ways of the local spirits and knows how to conciliate or coerce them. When one of these shrines reaches a special grade of efficiency, by the working of miracles or the cure of disease and the removal of other evils, its reputation begins to extend beyond its original boundaries, and in time it is taken over by a Brahman who manages it to his own advantage, and the local godling eventually blossoms out into an incarnation of one of the greater gods or goddesses. Hence the number of these manifestations is great. Originally many of them possessed no cult title, but in 'the process of time they became known by some descriptive name or one derived from their place of origin, like the great Kali of Calcutta, the Vindhyavasini, 'dweller on the Vindhya Hills', the patroness of the Thugs, whose shrine is at Bindhachal near Mirzapur.

In the same way those groups which still preserve the tribal organizations, Mundas, Gonds, and the like, each have their tribal or local godlings, and each under Brahman control assumed its present rigid form, enforcing marriage within the group, or endogamy, combined with exogamy, when the bride must be selected from a section different from that of her husband, and stringent rules prohibiting eating of smoking with members of a different group or even touching, contact with whom involves pollution. This process of morcellement thus tends to the appearance of one god or godling under many names, but these cult titles are often so inexpressive that in contrast with other religions, like that of the Greeks, they seldom supply any material useful for the discrimination of character or function. Nor is the information we possess at present regarding these godlings sufficient to tempt us to undertake the task. We know vaguely that hillmen or artisans in the plains have special godlings which control the chase, processes of agriculture or industries. But we can arrange them in groups only in an imperfect way, either because each of them has no special cult, or its worshippers are unwilling to disclose its nature lest a stranger, when he understands it, may destroy its efficiency. In the same way, when a certain belief or piece of ritual is reported from a frontier tribe in Assam, a hill tribe in the Central Provinces, and a menial caste in the Panjab, we may be sure that it is generally accepted, and that further inquiries will show the missing link between the various groups of people among whom it has been observed.

Though the nation of India is deeply influenced by custom and respects the wisdom of the old men, inherited according to the theory of reincarnation from their earliest progenitor, even the religion and cults of the peasants are liable to change. The railway and road communication provided by the British Government reduces to some extent the parochialism of rural life, and the effect of Christianity and the more clearly-cut monotheism of Islam tends to encourage the belief in a Father deity which recent observers have reported to be on the increase among the peasantry. He is, of course, vaguely conceived, and is known as Paramesvar, 'great god', or Bhagwan, 'the worshipful, sometimes identified with Vishnu. But in the present intellectual and economic stage of peasant life there seems little chance of the decay of this rural worship: its ultimate fate will be a more or less complete absorption in Hinduism, whatever may be the form which that complex of beliefs and ritual chances to assume.

Meanwhile, if we are to attempt to understand the mentality of the peasant-and in the kaleidoscope of Indian politics it is well we should do so-the present attempt to bring the facts into a semblance of order may be found useful to students of Indian rural life and to those who devote themselves to the comparative treatment of belief and ritual. I think that in its improved from it may still be useful to my brother officers of the I.C.S. for whose use the first imperfect edition was written.


Editor’s Perface
Author’s Preface
I.The godlings of Nature25
II.The Village Godlings83
III.Worship and Sacrifice to the Godlings103
IV.The Godlings of Disease114
V.The Kindly Dead: the cult of Ancestors: Worship of Heroes146
VI.Special Hero Cults173
VII.The Spirits of the Malevolent Dead, and Demons183
VIII.The conciliation and Repression of the Ghost227
IX.Fertility and Agricultural Rites241
X.The Evil Eye276
XI.Luck and IIIluck: Omens: Divination308
XII.The Worship of Material Objects317
XIV.Animal Worship348
XV.Serpent Worship383
XVI.Tree and Plant Worship400
XVII.The Black Art: Witchcraft419
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