The Epic of Pabuji in Western Rajasthan

in Overview
Published on: 31 May 2018

Dr John D. Smith

Dr John D. Smith is emeritus Reader of Sanskrit at Cambridge University. His research has primarily consisted of research on the literature, performative arts and culture of Rajasthan and has published a book on the hero-deity Pabuji titled 'The Epic of Pabuji', by Cambridge University Press, 1990.


The epic of Pābūjī is a long heroic narrative performed in Rajasthan. Performances normally take place at night, and have a religious purpose: the hero Pābūjī, a Rāṭhoṛ prince believed to have lived in medieval times, is nowadays regarded as a deity by some pastoral communities (principally Rebārīs), and epic performance constitutes the chief ritual for worshipping him. Performance takes two forms: in one, two male performers sing the narrative verse by verse, simultaneously playing  earthen kettledrums (māṭā), while in the other, the performers are normally a man and his wife (bhopo and bhopī) performing in front of a long narrative cloth-painting (paṛ or phad) depicting the events of the story. In this, the more widespread type of performance, the bhopo dresses in a red robe and accompanies the sung verses on a fiddle (rāvaṇhattho) made from half a coconut shell and a length of bamboo. On the bow are small bells which jingle as he plays, and he also has bells round his ankles; occasionally he will dance while he sings and plays, and then these bells too will be heard. In between sections of song (gāv), he intersperses passages of arthāv (literally ‘explanation’), in which he tells the story in declamatory, chanted form, while using the bow of his fiddle to point out the relevant scenes on the painted paṛ behind him.


Fig 1: The bhopa or bhopo  and bhopi narrate the epic of Pabuji in front of a long painted backdrop where the Bhopo points out the important characters, events and incident with the bow of his fiddle locally called ravanhattho (Courtesy: Rupayan Sansthan, Jodhpur


We have little historical information on the tradition of performing the epic of Pābūjī. What we do know is that something very similar to modern performance in front of a narrative cloth-painting existed in the early years of the nineteenth century, thanks to a reference by James Tod (1829:729–30) to ‘Pabooji … whose exploits are the theme of the itinerant bard and showman, who annually goes his round, exhibiting in pictorial delineations, while he recites in rhyme, the deeds of this warrior to the gossiping villagers of the desert.’ A possible earlier reference is provided by the seventeenth-century politician and chronicler Mũhato Naiṇasī, who speaks of the bhopos of Pābūjī as being well established in the early sixteenth century (Bhāṭī 1969:12, 28–9). The modern epic performers are known as bhopos, and it seems quite likely that Naiṇasī too was thinking of narrative performers of some kind, particularly bearing in mind that he himself tells a version of the Pābūjī story (Sākariyā 1964:58–79; translated Smith 2015:342–50).


It is not surprising that there should be few written references to the Pābūjī tradition, since its performers belong to a scheduled caste (they may refer to themselves as Nāyaks, or Nāyak Bhīls, or simply Bhīls, though they are distinct from the Bhīl tribal group), and few of them can ever have had any contact with literacy until quite recent times. Thus the performers of the principal form of worship of the deity Pābūjī are drawn from a socially lower group than the chiefly Rebārī audiences for whom they perform. Performance of the epic is an example of something increasingly rare in the modern world—an entirely oral tradition, bearing no visible trace of interaction with the literate world.


The traditional bhopo’s life was always a hard one: he had to travel, together with his wife and family, from village to village, sleeping in a tent or in the open, looking for a patron willing to put up the few rupees needed to commission a performance. At nightfall he and his wife would perform, and their children would watch until they fell asleep. Regular attendance at school was impossible for such children, so they would grow up non-literate and ill-equipped for any job other than that of bhopo; for this, however, they would have absorbed most of what they needed to know from observation of their parents at work. When the time came for a young man to marry, he would marry a girl with the same background, and it would not be long before the two were able to perform together as bhopo and bhopī.


Fig 2: A patron and the bhopo making salutations to the mobile shrine of Pabuji before embarking on the all-night performance of the epic of Pabuji (Courtesy: Rupayan Sansthan, Jodhpur)


It is probably largely the maintenance of the tradition within a single social group, criss-crossed by numerous ties of blood and marriage, that accounts for a curious phenomenon. It is well known (for the best-known statement see Lord 1960) that traditional oral epics have no fixed text, but are rather composed anew during every oral performance; the performer assembles the narrative as he goes along, relying heavily on themes (stock scenes such as the departure of a wedding procession or a battle with an enemy) and formulae (stock phrases that express a particular idea in metrically convenient form). In this the epic of Pābūjī is no exception, but it does differ from the norm in the close similarity that generally exists between different performances. If one compares two recordings of the same performers, even when several years intervene between the two, the similarities are usually such that a transcription of one can be used as an approximate transcription of the other: the same choice of events is narrated using the same themes, and these in turn are expressed using the same or similar formulae, and sung to the same or similar tunes. Even performances by different performers who are unknown to each other often show striking similarities. This may be partly because bhopos attempt to adhere to what they believe is the true story of their deity, and do not allow themselves the freedoms enjoyed by bards in traditions where the heroes are mere human beings. But it is likely also to be related to the caste- and family-based transmission of the tradition: there clearly exist ‘reservoirs’ of themes and formulae that are available in closely similar forms to bhopos from many different parts of Rajasthan.


The central element for the entire ritual of performance is the painted cloth, or paṛ, in front of which the bhopo and bhopī perform—indeed, the bhopos’ term for their performance is paṛ vā̃cṇo or ‘reading the paṛ (aloud)’. The paṛ, with its huge central representation of Pābūjī, serves as a portable temple in honour of the deity, and epic performance serves as the means by which the bhopo explains the meaning of this sacred object to the watching and listening audience. Naturally, the bhopo has to observe various rituals with regard to his paṛ: he should avoid opening it before nightfall; the ground where it is erected must be swept and sprinkled with water; incense must be burned before it. When a paṛ has become too worn and damaged for further use, it must be ‘cooled’ like any other spent holy object, by immersing it in a suitable body of water (ideally Pushkar Lake). He will then have to acquire a new one, which he will purchase from one of the various professional painters of paṛs operating in the towns of Bhilwara and Shahpura.


Fig 3: The long neck of the ravanhattho lends itself to being held up and played by Nayak or Bhil bhopas as a part of their performance of the epic of Pabuji. The sound of the ghunghroos attached to the bow are an instrinsic part of the instrument's music. The resonator is made of coconut shell, and one string of the horse-tail hair and one or two of steel stretch across the long neck of the ravanhattho (Photo by: Dinesh Khanna)


The paṛ of Pābūjī is a large and complex painting. Typically, it measures between four and five metres in length, and has a height of about one metre. All paṛs bear, in essence, the same set of representations, though naturally there are differences between individual paintings in terms of detail, style, quality, etc. In the centre, and depicted in a very large scale, is Pābūjī’s court in the village of Koḷū, where the hero is shown seated with his four companions. Other smaller courts are located at other points on the cloth: a prominent one to the left is that of the Soḍho rulers of Ūmarkoṭ, together with the figure of Pābūjī, arriving as a bridegroom on his black mare Kesar Kāḷamī. There are court-like structures also at the extreme right and left ends of the painting: on the left is Laṅkā with its ten-headed demonic ruler Rāvaṇa, and on the right are the courts of the two human villains of the story, Jindrāv Khī̃cī at the top of the cloth and Jaisiṅgh Bhāṭī below.


What is most noticeable about the painting is that in and between these fixed points, filling practically all available space, are depictions of hundreds of human and animal figures: processions, battles, journeys on horseback or camel-back or in a carriage drawn by oxen, people talking to or challenging each other, and much else besides. The painters of paṛs have solved the problem of depicting a long and complex narrative in the form of a single pictorial representation by laying the elements of that narrative out geographically: events are depicted according, not to when, but rather to where they took place. So, to take a single example, it has already been mentioned that the court of Ūmarkoṭ shows Pābūjī arriving there on his black mare for his wedding to the princess Phulvantī; but it also shows Phulvantī herself (central among a group of women at the top of the structure) receiving news of Pābūjī’s death from a parrot. Thus the paṛ depicts relevant events but gives no hint of their sequence: that is for the bhopo and bhopī to provide in their epic narration, their ‘reading of the paṛ’.


It is worth recording that a similar, geographical organisation for large-scale narrative depictions has been noted for some of the Buddhist cave paintings at Ajanta (see Dehejia 1991, 1997, 1998).


Bhopos typically speak of the story they perform as being divided into twelve episodes (parvāṛos), though the boundaries between these are not formally marked in any way when they perform. An examination of these episodes reveals that they are, indeed, quite well-differentiated narrative entities (Smith 1986), with one marginal exception—each episode is separated from its neighbours by a journey, and these journeys are uniformly significant for the unfolding of the story as a whole, either introducing major new narrative developments or bringing earlier developments to a close. Another noticeable feature is that while the action in the earlier episodes is initiated by the hero Pābūjī himself, the later ones generally begin with a narrative transition away from Pābūjī to one or other of the characters who pose a threat to him, and they culminate in tense scenes or ‘epic moments’ highlighting the dilemmas that he faces (Hatto 1980:4–6; Smith 1986:62–4). These observations reinforce the general impression one gains from listening to the narrative that Pābūjī is a hero who finds himself increasingly constrained by impossibly conflicting demands. He is in the middle of his own wedding ceremony with the princess Phulvantī when he receives a summons from his protégée, the lady Deval, to win back her cows, stolen by the wicked Jindrāv Khī̃cī: should he complete the ceremony or ride at once to rescue the cattle? He chooses the latter course, but shortly after returning Deval’s beasts to her he finds himself directly facing Khī̃cī in battle: if he kills him, he will widow his own sister, who was married long ago to Khī̃cī in an unsuccessful effort to settle the feud between the two families. In this case, he opts instead for death at Khī̃cī’s hands, and is last seen ascending to heaven in a palanquin.


The story of Pābūjī thus contains elements typical of other Rajasthani heroic tales: tales of heroes who rescue cows, or who allow themselves to be killed in order to keep faith (the story of Tejojī, for instance, contains both elements). But what makes it stand apart from such tales is the fact that the events of the Pābūjī narrative all form part of a cosmic plan: there is unfinished business remaining between gods and demons, and they choose to settle it by assuming human form and enacting their conflicts as human ones. Pābūjī is an incarnation of Lakṣmaṇa, younger brother of Lord Rāma: he is committed to marrying Phulvantī, incarnation of Śūrpaṇakhā, sister of the demon Rāvaṇa. But as an ‘immaculate deity’ he is also committed to celibacy: he ‘cannot look at the face of an advancing woman or the back of a retreating woman’. Khī̃cī is an incarnation of Rāvaṇa himself, to whom Lakṣmana promised the chance of a return lethal blow, while the lady Deval too is an incarnate deity, acting to ensure the fulfilment on earth of the plan the gods have hatched. (For fuller details of this plan and the way it unfolds, see Smith 2015:58–61.) Thus Pābūjī is a hero continually subjected to contradictory demands, forced on him both by his own relationships with other people on earth and by the requirements of the gods in heaven. He is a hero caught in an impossible existential crisis: a deity, but also a very human hero.


References and Further Readings:


Bhāṭī, Nārāyaṇsiṃh ed. 1969. Mũhatā Naiṇasī rī likhī Māravāṛa rā paraganā̃ rī vigata. Jodhpur: Rājasthān Prācyavidyā Pratiṣṭhān.


Dehejia, Vidya. 1991. ‘Narrative Modes in Ajanta Cave 17: A Preliminary Study.’ South Asian Studies 7: 45–57.


Dehejia, Vidya. 1997. Discourse in Early Buddhist Art: Visual Narratives of India. New Delhi: Munshiram Manoharlal.


Dehejia, Vidya. 1998. ‘India’s Visual Narratives: The Dominance of Space over Time.’ In Paradigms of Indian Architecture: Space and Time in Representation and Design, edited by G. H. R. Tillotson. Richmond: Curzon Press.


Hatto, A. T. 1980. General introduction to Traditions of Heroic and Epic Poetry, Volume One: The Traditions, edited by A. T. Hatto. London: Modern Humanities Association.


Kamphorst, Janet. 2008. In Praise of Death: History and Poetry in Marwar (South Asia). Leiden: Leiden University Press.


Kothiyal, Tanuja. 2017. Nomadic Narratives: A History of Mobility and Identity in the Great Indian Desert. New Delhi: Cambridge University Press.


Lord, Albert B. 1960. The Singer of Tales. Cambridge, Massachusetts: Harvard University Press.


Sākariyā, Badrīprasād ed. 1964. Mũhatā Naiṇasī rī khyāta. Jodhpur: Rājasthān Prācyavidyā Pratiṣṭhān.


Smith, John D. 1986. ‘Where the Plot Thickens: Epic Moments in Pābūjī.’ South Asian Studies 2: 53–64.


Smith, John D. 1991. The Epic of Pābūjī: A Study, Transcription and Translation. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press.


Smith, John D. 2015. The Epic of Pābūjī: A Study, Transcription and Translation, second edition. Online at (viewed on August 13, 2017).


Tod, James. 1829–32. Annals and Antiquities of Rajast’han or the Central and Western Rajpoot States of India. London: Smith, Elder & Co. and Calkin & Budd.