Folklore Foundation

Folklore Foundation

Mahendra K Mishra

The present study is based mainly on the available folklore material of Central India. While studying it, the influence of the Ramayana tradition upon the indigenous tradition has been noted, and the parochialization of the universal characters of the great epic tradition and its influence on many ethnic groups have also formed part of this micro study.

The authors of the epics have given due importance to each and every part of India encompassing lands, rivers, mountains, forests, different ethnic cultures and customs. Again, the assimilation of the Ramayana tradition into regional cultures and subcultures has evolved from a spiritual phenomenon identifying the incarnations of God (avatar) with folk heroes. They are associated with various regional traditions of India. By identifying the respective regions and places with the avatars and their mythical and miraculous events, the local folk groups identify themselves as part of the larger Indian culture, thus contributing to national and cultural unity. Many communities with their regional traditions have been deeply attracted towards the mainstream of the Indian ‘great’ tradition through these epics. Thus the Ramayana forms ‘the center of the integration’ of Indian civilization and has a great influence of the ‘network of regional cultures.

In this context, the aim of this study is to show how the Ramayana tradition has influenced the folk traditions of central Indian regional traditions in general and those of western Orissa and chhattisgarh in particular, with respect to heritage, ethnic group, caste formation, oral traditions, folk religion and rituals and the performing folk arts.


There is hardly any regional tradition in India, which is not associated with the Ramayana. Historically, the Ramayana is held to have spread over to South East Asia before 400 BC In 4th century A. D. The theory of avataravada (incarnation of God in various forms) had already evolved (Shankalia, 1982: 21). It is true that from that time Rama has been associated with an avatar of God.

The region of ancient south Kosala is presently identified with central India, especially the Raipur and Bilaspur areas of Madhya Pradesh and Kalahandi, Bolangir, Sambalpur and Sundargarh districts of western Orissa. The capital of South Kosala was Kusavati, named after Kusha, the son of Rama. Kusavati has been identified with some archaeological sites of Western Orissa and Chhattisgarh (Singh Deo, 1986: 28-32). Historians have discovered the location of Ravana’s Lanka at Sonepur in western Orissa in the context of history realities (Shankalia, 1982: 163). Thus the history and archaeology of South Kosala bear the heritage of the Ramayana. Moreover the oral traditions and the folk rituals have been based on the epic. These show the popularity of the Ramayana in central India.


Some legends associated with the characters of the Ramayana have been found in this region. These include the following:

The Gadhamadana mountain (western Orissa), the Chitrakuta jungle (adjoining Bastar and Koraput) and Malyavantagiri (Malkangiri in Orissa) and Turturia (Chhattisgarh) and some legendary places in central. India bears the holy footmarks of Rama, Lakshmana and Sita. 2. Rama entered Dandakaranya with Lakshmana and Sita. Their Sita bathed in the Savari River (now the Kolab River in Koraput). Rama worshipped a Shivalinga on a mountain, which is known as Ramagiri after him (Sahu, 1977: 333). 3. In the Katpar-Purubadi mountain range of Kalahandi district, a holy place named Patala-Ganga is known for a legend, which says that to quench the thirst of Sita, Lakshmana brought forth water from patala by piercing an arrow into the earth. It is a natural fountain. Here, the footmarks of Rama and Sita are worshipped in a stone. 4. Kusavati Nagara, which was known as the capital of South Kosala, is identified with the archaeological sites of Ranipur Jharial located in the district of Bolangir (Mahapatra, 1971: 67). The Somesvara temple, the Indralath brick temple and sixty-four Yogini temples are in the complex of Ranipur Jharial. Near this place a village named Kahasil is situated. Historians are of the opinion that the name of the village might have originated from Kusasthali or Kusavati. The temple architecture is the work of the Somavamsi kings of South Kosala. 5. Turturia is a place in the Chhatisgarh region. A legend locates Valmiki’s heritage, where Sita gave birth to her twins Lava and Kusha, in this area (Gupta, 1977: 159).
Often the people have exalted their regional gods by associating them with Rama, the god incarnate. The god Rama is found even in the myth relating to the creation of the Gond tribe of Garha-mandala. According to it, the first human being born from Mahadeo and Parvati was a Gond. During the Rama-Ravana war, a Gond couple was in a jungle in the vicinity of Ravana’s Kingdom. In their previous birth, Mahadeo had cursed them, saying that they would remain childless unless they drank the charanodaka (water from the feet) of Rama on his arrival at Lanka. The Gond couple waited for Rama in the forest and when he arrived, they worshipped him by washing his feet with water, which they then drank. Rama blessed them and said, “You will be known as Ravanavasmsi Gonds. You will have three sons, Alko, Talko and Korcho”. Then Rama fought Ravana and killed him. On returning from Lanka with Sita, Rama brought the Gond people with him. They were known as Suryavamsi Gonds, and they have kinship with the Ravanavamsi Gonds. (Naik: 1973: 138)

The Bonda tribe of Malkanagiri has the following myth, which is related to the Rama-Katha. While Rama was wandering in the forest with Lakashmana and Sita, the Bonda women laughed at them for two reasons: one was that there were two males with one female and the other that the female had clothes which were too thin to cover her private parts. Sita’s clothes were given by Brahma. She knew this, so she cursed the Bonda women: You Bonda women will never use cloth and even if you do, your body will never tolerate the heat of the cloth. Till today the Bonda woman are half-clad. Similarly, the myth collected from the Bonda villages by Verrier Elwin also explains why the Bonda women do not use cloth to cover their bodies. This myth is also associated with Rama, Lakshmana and Sita (Elwin 1950: 63-4). A water source named Sitakund is found in Bonda wills.

In the above myths, the tribes have tried to project their ancestors as contemporaries of Rama. This shows the wide reach of Rama-katha among the autochthonous tribal of the different regions of India. The origin myths of the different castes and tribes of central India, especially of those who were known as the ruling dynasties, have accepted particular portions of the Ramayana myth as their own. For instance the story from the banishment of Sita to the acceptance of Kusha and Lava by Rama. The structure of this myth may be divided into the following mythemes.

Sita was banished by Rama because of a public scandal. 2. Sita was pregnant when she was banished and abandoned, isolated and helpless, in the jungle. 3. Sage Valmiki discovered the abandoned Sita. He reared Sita as his own daughter in his ashram. 4. Lava and Kusha were born in Valmiki’s ashram and were reared and educated by him. 5. After showing miraculous and superhuman powers, Lava and Kusha were adopted by Rama. 6. Rama gave North Kosala and South Kosala to Lava and Kusha respectively.
If we generalize these mythemes, we can sum up the following:

A fatherly saint in his house rears an abandoned, pregnant queen of a royal dynasty, found wandering in the jungle. The queen gives birth to twin sons. The children get an education and become heroes by performing miraculous deeds. Finally they regain their hereditary throne by means of their heroic power and with help from the person who had given them shelter.

Some castes and tribes of central India have adapted this particular structure to their own origin myths. Here are some examples.

Bhumij Kingdom of Barbhum: A prince of Rajputana was going on a pilgrimage to Puri with his pregnant wife, who delivered twins near Barbhum. They were left there without the knowledge of the king. A pig reared the twins. A Bhumij of the Gajalgu clan rescued the twins from the pig and named them Svetavaraha and Nathavaraha. Raja Vikramajit of Patkum, convinced of the Kshatriya parentage of the twins, gave them his kingdom (Sinha 1962: 1-34).
The Naga king of Chhotanagpur: A serpent god Pundarika Naga, taking the form of a Brahman, united with a Brahman girl, who delivered a child near Suetambe on the way to Puri. The child reared by Madramunda was known as Phanik Mukut Ray. He subsequently became the Raja of that kingdom (adopted as Nagavamsi Chhatri) (Sinha: 1–34).
The Chauhans of Central India: Ashavati, the pregnant queen of Hamir Deo, the Chauhan ruler of Manikgarh, was found wandering helplessly in Ramud forest. A Binjhal tribal chief reared her as his own daughter. She had a son and named him Ramaideo. A Brahman, Chakradhar Panigrahi, of the kingdom of Patna, taught him where eight tribal chiefs had established an oligarchic rule. Ramaideo killed them and ascended the throne of Patna. Then he regained his parental kingdom, Manikagarh. (Ramsey, 1910: 281-303)
The Raj Gond Myth: A Bhunjia tribal chief in a battle killed Singhalsai, the Rajgond king of Bindra—Nawagarh. A Brahman of Patna gave his pregnant queen shelter, while she was wandering helplessly in the jungle. She gave birth to a son, whom they named Kachra Dharua. He grew up to be a hero, killed the Bhunjia chief and regained his parental kingdom (Gupta 1977: 159).
The Bhunjia tribal chief of Kholagarh was killed by a Gond named Kumdaphulia Raja. A potter gave the chief’s pregnant, helpless wife shelter. She gave birth to a child whom they named Tulsivir. He regained Kholagarh by killing Kumdaphulia Gond. (The origin myth of the Bhunjia tribe of Khalna in the district of Kalahandi is collected by the author, the substance of which is similar to the above origin myth. The informant is Diga Chinda, a village headman of 68 years of age, who belongs to the Bhunjia tribe. We come across similar elements in the origin myths of the royal chieftains of Kawardha, Raigarh, Sakti, Korea and Jashpur (Sinha, 1962).

The above origin myths of different castes and tribes probably depict the same paradigm with a similar objective, i.e. to show their origins in the solar dynasty of Indian mythology. The Ramayana is a story of the kings of the solar dynasty. So they reinforce the stories about the origins of their ruling dynasties by adapting relevant parts of the Lava-Kusha story. Both Sinha and Srinivas, after studying the caste system of Indian society, have opined that with the help of Brahmans, many castes and tribes have gained higher social, political and caste status through the process of Sanskritization.

Ramkatha in oral Narratives:

In the folk oral epics of Central India, especially in Chhattisgarh and western Orissa, we may find some elements of Ramayana influence. Two folk epics are analyzed here in the context of their ethnic cultures and traditions, to show the influence on them of the Ramayana. The first folk epic has been collected from the Gaur (milkman) caste of Kalahandi. It is known as bansgeet. Bans (bamboo) are a three-feet-long musical instrument with five holes in it, which is played by a flutist at the time of singing the epic. The name of the song, derived from the musical instrument, is also bansgeet. The singing continues for nights together. This epic song represents the ethnic culture and tradition of the Gaur caste of western Orissa. In Chhatisgarh also the popularity of bansgeet is predominant, with similar forms and contents, though the language is different from that of western Orissa. The Gaur bard Bahjan Nial of Kapsi village in Kalahandi district is the informant. The name of the epic is Kotrabaina-Ramela, the names of the hero and heroine.

The story form of the folk epic is as follows:

Kotrbaina was a village farmer. His job was to tend sheep and cows and to sell milk and curd. His wife Ramela was extremely beautiful. She had a six-month-old child. The king of the land had an eye for beautiful women. Kotrabaina prevented his wife from going to Bendul City to sell milk or curds, as he was constantly afraid that if the king came to know of beautiful Ramela he might abduct her. One day, when Kotrabaina was away visiting his sister, Ramela could not reset her desire to visit Bendul City. She went there with her milk and curd, leaving her child with her ‘nanad’ (husband’s sister). The king’s soldiers saw her and subsequently the king forcibly took her to his palace.

While Kotrabaina was asleep in his sister’s house, his clan deity showed him the abduction of Ramela in a dream. Hurriedly he returned home to find that the dream was true. He gathered his twelve lakh bulls and twelve lakh sheep, along with a magical bull named Kurmel Sandh and sheep named Ultia Gadra, and attacked the city in order to free Ramela from the clutches of the king. The cattle and sheep destroyed the whole city. Kotrabaina killed the king and freed Ramela. But Gaur society was not ready to accept Ramela without testing her chastity, as the evil king had abducted her. To prove her chastity, she arranged an ordeal by fire and passed it. But the society wanted to test her again, and put forward the condition that if her six-month-old child crawled from his bed to his mother’s breast to suck milk, she would be treated as chaste and accepted by them without hesitation. Ramela was successful in this test as well and she was accepted by Gaur society.

It is obvious that the portion of the Rama-katha from the abduction of Sita to her fire ordeal has been adopted in the folk epic bansgeet. Rama, Sita and Ravana are respectively parochialized as Kotrabaina, Ramela and the king of Bendul. Lakshmana’s warning to Sita not to cross the three lines resembles Kotrabaina’s warning to his wife Ramela not to visit Bendul. Ravana abducted Sita during Lakshmana’s absence. Likewise the absence of Kotrabaina gave Ramela the opportunity to visit Bendul City, where she was captured by the lustful king. Rama destroyed Lanka with a large nonhuman army of monkeys and bears. Likewise, Kotrabaina took the help of bulls and sheep to destroy Bendul City and rescue Ramela. The Kurmel Sandh (bull) and Ultia-gadra (sheep) played roles similar to those of Hanumana and Jambuvana. Sita had to face two tests—the fire ordeal and patalagamana— to prove her purity of character. Similarly, Ramela also faces two tests.

The second folk epic, Lakshmana-jati, is popular among the Baiga tribe of Central India. The Baigas are a subtribe of Gonds who originally belonged to the Dravidian group. This folk epic is the local form of the Rama-katha. But a unique feature of this folk epic role reversal of Lakshmana and Sita. In the Ramayana, the two fire ordeals were meant to test Sita’s chastity. But in the Baiga folk epic, it is Lakshmana who has to face two fire tests in order to prove him to be chaste or jati. The Baiga bard sings the epic of Lakshmana-jati with a kingri (fiddle) for more than five to six hours at night.

The story of this folk epic is as follows:

In a Baiga village of Jajatpur, Rama, Lakshmana and Sita lived in a hut. They led a Baiga life of cultivation and gathering of food. Lakshmana was a brahmachari living a life of penance. So the people called him Lakshmana-jati. He played the kingri so beautifully that Indrakamini of Indrasabha was attracted by his music. She came down to martyapura and after crossing many hurdles finally arrived in the bedroom of Lakshmana. Indrakamini fell in love with him even though he was fast asleep. She tried to arouse his passion. But all her attempts to wake him were in vain. In anger she broke her bangles into pieces and scattered them on his bed. She took off her earrings and left them on his bed with the intention of creating suspicion among the relationship between Lakshmana and Sita. Then she went away. Early in the morning, when Sita came to Lakshmana’s hut to sweep his bedroom, she found some broken bangles on his bed. She immediately reported this to Rama. Rama came and saw not only the broken bangles but also the earrings on his brother’s bed. He woke up Lakshmana and rebuked him for being impure of character. Lakshmana, ignorant of everything, denied it but failed to convince them.

Rama devised a trick to find out owner of the ornaments. He ordered the makaddam (village headman) to call all the women of the village and he measured the broken bangles and earrings with theirs in order to find out who the woman was who had slept with Lakshmana. But the bangles and earrings did not match any of those belonging to the village women. Rama, at last, asked the makaddam if any woman had remained unexamined, to which the latter replied only Sitamai is left to be examined. Hearing this, Rama tested Sita. The bangles and earrings fitted her hands and ears. Rama was convinced that she was having an illicit relationship with Lakshmana. He rebuked his younger brother, who protested and offered to prove his innocence by going through a fire test. Rama accepted this challenge and engaged twelve kamars (blacksmiths) to make a circle of fire, which they did. That very day a Brahman woman of the village had given birth to a child. Taking that child on his lap, Lakshmana entered the fire circle, and to Rama’s surprise, came out unscathed. Next Rama made another fire circle with forest wood. In the second test also, Lakshmana came out unharmed. Rama was sure of his chastity, but Lakshmana, out of grief, requested Prithvimata (Mother Earth) to give him shelter. Prithvimata unfurled her heart and Lakshmana entered it. (Elwin, 1939: 22-7).

The above tribal version related to Rama-katha is nothing but the parochialized form of the events of the Ramayana. In this folk epic, however, Lakshmana is more important than Rama or Sita. Lakshmana, in fact, plays the role of Sita. The main motif of the epic is to show the moral character of Lakshmana as jati or saint. The Indrakamini character follows the prototype of Surpanakha. The classical characters of Rama, Sita and Lakshmana have been changed around by Baiga oral tradition in order to solve a social problem. In Baiga society, the brother-in-law’s authority over his elder sister-in-law or bhabi is next only to that of the husband. In the tribal society of central India it is not unusual to find illicit relationships between a devar and bhabi. This might conceivably create a psychological problem for the elder brother of the family. This phenomenon is found not only among the Baigas but also among the Gond, Kandh, Paharia, Muria, Paraja, Bhatara communities and in some other tribes and castes of central India. As regards the relationship of devar and bhabi of middle India, Verrier Elwin says: “To the aboriginals of middle India Lakshmana is the classic type of the husband’s younger brother who, in most communities, is licensed to enjoy and intrigue with the elder’s wife.” In all these communities there exists the social custom of levirate marriage alongwith the prevalence of extramarital relationships between devar and bhai. This is expressed even in the folksongs of this locality:

sajani, nuamaiji anila bhauja rasia bhatra pila maiji pasori dela O companion, a young bhatara lad brought a new wife, but because of his liaison with his elder sister-in-law, he forgot his new wife. Dalkhaire, andhara gharake mu dhana ghati gali, diara suichhe bali janina parili dharidela dena ki re hitigala guna se gunake dharikari diara, gale dela chuma.

O Dalkhai (leaf eater), I entered the dark room to dry the paddy, not knowing that brother- in-law was resting there. He embraced me and my nose-pin fell down. Picking up the nose- pin, he kissed me on my check. In tribal society, a woman favours the brother-in-law next only to her husband. Here the relationship between devar and bhabi is not that of mother and son, as in the Indian classic tradition, where the elder sister-in-law is more like a mother to the younger brother-in-law as is evident from the characters of Lakshmana and Sita of the Ramayana. (Though this social custom was perhaps prevalent in the Ramayana days. Shankalia observes “the curious social custom of the right of a younger brother to the elder brother’s wife… Sita taunted and scolded Lakshmana when the latter was unwilling to leave her alone by saying that he would not be able to marry her (after Rama’s death). Probably this was the normal practice, that if the elder brother died, the younger could acquire his wife in marriage”. (Shankalia, 1982 : 64).

The Baiga tribe might have taken chaste example of Lakshmana and Sita from the Ramayana and adapted it to their own culture to solve a social problem. This is the process of sankritization, through which a society tries to become more ‘civilized’, giving up its ‘uncivilized’ behaviour and customs in the process. The picturization of Lakshmana as jati serves to illustrate the devar character as a chaste one, an example from which the regional society and culture could draw inspiration.

Besides the folk epics, there is plenty of material bearing allusion to the Rama-katha in the folksongs, proverbs and riddles too. For example, when an aeroplane flies past, the village folk associate it with the pushpaka vimana of Ravana and sing:

sajani, upare jahaja gala, sitake Ravana churai nela lankagade puni dela.

O friend, an aeroplane just flew by. Ravana has stolen Sita away to Lankagarh. In the halia (ploughman) songs of western Orissa, the three brothers Rama, Lakshmana and Bharata, alongwith Sita, are the representatives of a farmer’s family of peasant stock. Here Rama ploughs the field, Lakshmana levels it with a log, Bharata supplies seedlings and Sita plants them in the field. The original song is as follows: Rama Laikahana je duigoti bhai ke phande nangala ke phande ada mai palha paraside bhaire Bharata, rupibe Sitamai ho. Rama and Lakshmana are two brothers. One ploughs the field and the other levels it. Oh, brother Bharata, supply the seedlings and Sita will plant them.

There is a proverb, which says that those who can endure can wander in the forest and those who cannot ruin themselves (Sahelar Je banbas, and nei sahelar je udurnas). Another proverb which says a life is lost for either land or a woman alludes to the story of the Mahabhatara (for land) and of the Ramayana (for a woman). There is puranic knowledge hidden in some riddles. The following one, roughly translated, would be: Two pillars, sixteen ribs, thirty-two gates on it. Rama asked Sita, ‘What fruit does is eat ?’ The answer is—a spinning wheel. The other goes like this : One is sitting on the other, one is coming, counting rosary beads. These three have gathered. These three have seventeen heads. Who are they? The answer to this one is Ravana, Karttikeya and Mayura (peacock).

The third riddle says: An unknown must know it. A couple with twenty-two ears. Who are they? Ravana and Mandodari are the answer to this one. Besides the influence of the Ramayana on folk oral tradition, its direct impact on folk rituals cannot be overlooked.

Two important rituals influenced by the Ramayana performed in this locality are Bhima worship and Bhatrujibanti Osha.

Bhima Worship :

The worship of Bhima found in the cult rites and rituals and in the mythology of central Indian culture deserves a close micro-study. Bhima is a popular rain god worshipped to get plenty of rain and a good harvest. He is worshipped in the form of a phallus stone symbol along with the tutelary deity in each village (worship-hut). In order to tackle the drought situation, the rain god Bhima is invited through the shamanistic process and worshipped for seven days in the villages in a systematic manner. If the crop situation is bad due to lack of rain, the people believe that only Bhima can bring water from lord Indra. In the folk belief, Bhima is the nephew of Indra, the supreme rain god. As the social status of a nephew commands respect from the uncle, the people believe that Bhima can get water from his uncle Indra without any problem. So in each and every village Bhima is worshipped along with the goddess Mother Earth. To appease Bhima, they invite Kandhen who possesses a young girl of the village and the two are united ritually. It is a strong belief that by uniting Bhima-Kandhen the village will get rains. It may be observed that in the Brahman- dominated villages, people perform Rishyashringa Yajna with pomp and ceremony to get water during a drought. The trend of Rishyashringa Varana (invitation of sage Rishyashringa) is nothing but an imitation of the mythic tradition of the Ramayana. In order to get rid of a severe drought in his country, Dasharatha, the king of Ayodhya, had invited Rishyashringa to his kingdom by Jarata (the union of Prakiti and Purusha in the form of Rishyashringa Jarata, symbolizing creation by union). The union of Bhima-Kandhen is the parochialized form of this Ramayanic tradition. Western Orissa and Chhattisgarh are drought-prone areas. The non-Brahman people of this locality try to appease the gods by worshipping them through the Vedic process as the Brahmans do. But as it is not easy for them to get access to the Sanskritic ritual process, they adapt the Rishyashringa jarata episode in the form of the Bhima-Kandhen marriage ritual. To solve the natural problem of drought, the folk people of this locality have imitated that part of the Ramayana where bringing about rain through a supernatural process ends a drought.

Bhatrujibanti Osha :

The other ritual celebrated in western Orissa and Chhatisgarh is the Bhatrujibanti Osha or Bhaijiuntia Osha, performed especially by women. There is a belief that king Dasharatha of Ayodhya had married Kaushalya, the princess of South Kosala. As Rama was thus their ‘brother’, the sisters of this region observed an upavasa or fast before goddess Durga, wishing him a long life. As Kosala is identified with this region, to keep this heritage alive, the women of this region observe the Bhatrujibanti Osha before goddess Durga on the eighth day of the bright moon of Ashwina. There may be no historic accuracy in this supposed link with Rama, but their faith in their religious rituals cannot be ignored.

Claus says : ‘The Mahabharata and Ramayana are continually localized in a welter of folk performance forms all over India’ (Claus, 1981 : 17). It is true that by reading or listening to the puranas, the people quench their religious thirst, but it does not satisfy the masses, as only a particular section of the society listens to it. But on the folk stage, the whole society, irrespective of age and sex, gets the opportunity to witness the Ramalila, satisfies their religious feelings and gives them immense pleasure. Their moral values are heightened by its various ideal characters and events.


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