The epic of Pabuji is an oral epic in the Rajasthani language, which is performed to the present day in the Indian state of Rajasthan. It is the subject of the book The epic of Pabuji: a study, transcription and translation, by John D. Smith: Cambridge University Press, 1991. These pages draw heavily on that work; I am grateful for the permission of the copyright-holders, the Faculty Board of Oriental Studies, University of Cambridge, for their permission to reproduce material from it.
A second edition of The epic of Pabuji, aimed more at the popular end of the market, was published in 2005 by Katha, New Delhi. Katha are also due to publish a CD-ROM containing an electronic revised edition of the original Cambridge book, together with audio and video extracts from epic performances.
Click on any of the pictures below to see a larger version.
The historical Pabuji was a mediaeval Rajput prince; he is now widely worshipped as a deity by Rebari herdsmen and others throughout the Rajasthan countryside; and he is served by low-caste Nayak priests.
The most striking feature of the cult of Pabuji is its principal ritual. Singer-priests (bhopos) of Pabuji perform a liturgical epic telling of the life, death, and avenging of their hero-god; these performances take place at night, typically in front of a par, a long narrative cloth-painting simultaneously depicting the events of the story and serving as a portable temple to the deity. For a brief synopsis of the epic story, click here. For a movie clip of an extract from a performance of the epic, click here. (If you experience problems playing this on your PC or Macintosh, you probably need to download the free DivX codec from http://www.divx.com/divx/download/).
Pabuji was a Rathor Rajput, a member of what was to become the ruling line of Jodhpur. As the junior son of a junior son, he seems not to have been involved in the main territorial struggle, contenting himself with settling personal feuds and rustling livestock. Nowadays he is revered as a great hero throughout Rajasthan; but, more important, he is also worshipped as an incarnate god by many rural Rebaris and Rajputs. This claim to divinity is not accepted by higher-caste orthodox Hindus, and Pabuji is not served by the brahmins, the priests of the "official" Hindu deities. Instead, his priests (bhopos) are drawn from the Nayak caste, which is one of the scheduled castes of Rajasthan -- the Nayaks occupy a very low rank in the social hierarchy.
Pabuji lived in the remote desert village of Kolu, and in that village are to be found the only well-known conventional temples to him -- two small temples within a single compound, where puja (worship) is offered to the deity. Small shrines, commemorative stones etc. abound, but, outside Kolu itself, the absence of actual temples is conspicuous. There are two reasons for it: first, Pabuji has yet to achieve sufficient prestige as a god to warrant the construction of pieces of architecture; and, second, many of his worshippers -- in particular, many Rebaris -- are semi-nomadic, and are thus not in a position regularly to visit a temple in a fixed spot.
So, instead, the temple visits the worshippers. The bhopos are itinerant, and they carry their temple about with them. It takes the form of the par, a cloth-painting about fifteen feet in length and between four and five feet in depth. In transit the cloth is kept rolled, rather than folded, presumably in order to avoid cracking the paint; by unexplained custom, it is always rolled from left to right, with the result that, after some time, the exposed right-hand edge begins to show signs of wear. The painting depicts the narrative of Pabuji's life, his various exploits, and the vengeance taken by his nephew upon Jindrav Khici, who killed him. Iconographically, it is extremely complex and intricate; its images are organised according to a strict logic which has more in common with a road-map than with a comic-strip.
This very fine par is dated 1938 A.D. and is the property of the Royal Tropical Institute, Tropenmuseum, Amsterdam, to whom I am grateful for permission to display it here. The right-hand edge has been damaged by wear: Ernst van de Wetering has supplied an indication of the content of the missing fragment.
Having arrived in a village or town, the bhopo erects his "temple" in a suitable public place shortly after nightfall. Since the par functions as a temple, it is a holy object, and various ritual rules have to be observed: the ground beneath it must be swept clean and incense must be burnt before it. Other rituals also take place: the bhopo performs arati (worship with a flame) before the central figure of Pabuji, and devotees may make cash offerings to the god; if the donor is both sufficiently munificent and sufficiently literate, he may perhaps record his gift in writing on some unpainted spot on the cloth, while the bhopo blows a conch-shell, one blast for each rupee given. Then the liturgy can begin.
The liturgy of Pabuji consists in the singing of an epic recounting the same narrative as is depicted on the par. More precisely, it consists in the singing of as much of this epic as can be accommodated in twelve hours or thereabouts: since the epic is long, and pauses for food, rest, tobacco etc. are fairly frequent, it is never possible to sing the whole story -- the assembled audience will request the bhopo to perform this or that episode, necessarily omitting parts of the narrative as a result. The performance goes on throughout the night, and terminates in the early morning (the par is not supposed to be opened during the day).
Parbu Bhopo of Marwar Junction and his wife Rukma Devi performing the epic of Pabuji for a small audience in their own village in 1989. Parbu is using the bow of his fiddle to point to a narrative detail on the par while he chants the equivalent section of the epic story.
The singing of Pabuji's epic may constitute a religious liturgy, but it is a fairly informal and cheerful event. The audience does not sit still or maintain a devout silence. In the course of performance the bhopo may crack jokes or make deliberate mistakes, and in return he may be chaffed by his listeners. He sings with his wife (bhopi) to the accompaniment of a spike-fiddle (ravanhattho); his wife holds an oil-lamp to illuminate details of the painted par in the darkness. In between songs he declaims the narrative in a vigorous chant; during some songs he will dance, the bells round his ankles jingling and his red robe swirling about him. There is no doubt that the performance -- the "reading of the par", as it is called -- is an entertainment as well as a religious observance.
Parbu Bhopo singing, playing the ravanhattho fiddle and dancing as he performs the epic in front of his par. Parbu is the bard from whom the version of the epic transcribed and translated in John Smith's book The epic of Pabuji was recorded.
The two principal tools of a bhopo's trade are thus his fiddle (ravanhattho) and his portable temple (par). Normally he owns both, but he may borrow from friends or relatives. The fiddle he constructs for himself; the par, however, is painted for him -- at a price -- by a professional painter (citero). The painters of pars have the lineage-name Josi; they are members of the Chipa caste, whose traditional function is textile-printing. The Josi painters are, and appear to have always been, concentrated in South-East Rajasthan, almost entirely in the towns of Bhilwara and Shahpura; at the present day it is reckoned that there are seventeen or eighteen of them involved in painting pars.
Srilal Josi is one of the best-known of present-day par painters. These two pictures show him at work on a Pabuji par at his home in Bhilwara. He is applying green paint to the top left-hand corner of the cloth, where the image of the elephant-headed god Ganesha can be seen. Yellow and flesh-colour have already been filled in. The painters apply colours one at a time to the entire cloth, starting with the lightest; the black outline round each figure is added last.
You can download the complete text of the epic, in Roman script using CSX encoding.
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