The Bardic Tradition in Hinduism

Bards, in the English Oxford Dictionary, are defined as poets who recite epics and are tied to a certain tradition. India’s bards were not merely poets, rather, they had numerous duties which were much more intricate. Bards were genealogists, astrologers, praise poets, historians, court minstrels, and artisans (Balfour 341). They were responsible for reciting genealogies at weddings, keeping family history and lineage, and performing praise-poetry to deities and chiefs. They would also recite history and myths during festivals or rituals. In the past, they would announce and salute their kings in a social setting, and were regarded as sacred or Brahmin-like. Possessing a sacred status allowed bards to find employment guarding caravans or travellers, and to witness contracts and financial arrangements by threatening self-mutilation (traga) if one were to renege (Snodgrass 2004: 276). In 1885, it was reported that bards were found all over India, but were concentrated in Rajputana (modern day Rajasthan), and that every family of importance in Rajputana had at least one bard to announce their tittles and achievements (Balfour 342). As a result of British colonial rule and laws, many services that bards would have provide are now obsolete, such as announcing tittles for their kings, as India is no longer a monarchy. Rajasthan is one area that maintained bardic tradition and culture. As a result, many bards still reside and make a living there today (Snodgrass 276). Modern bards make a living as musicians, puppeteers, genealogists, religious teachers, agriculture farmers, and reciters of historical knowledge.

Bardic hierarchy was dependent on how close to centres of wealth and power they were, and the reputation of a king often depended on his bard. A king or warrior would desire a loyal, talented bard, to ensure “his name will survive his death” (Hardy 112). The relationship of bards and their patrons was one of gifts in exchange for services (Basu 85). Jeffery Snodgrass reports a myth told to him by Narayan Bhat, a Rajasthan bard, that illustrates the powerful influence bards possess due to their mastery of language (Snodgrass 2004: 270). In the myth, Man Sing, king of Jaipur, gifts his bard with an elephant for praising his son’s birth. The bard was upset that he had an elephant but not the equipment to ride it and the king noticed, asking him what more he would want. The bard explained and the king was enraged, to which the bard replied that the king should shove the elephant up his ass (Snodgrass 2004:271). Man Singh then had to travel to a wedding without his bard to accompany him, where all of the other guest bards were reciting praise poetry. This elevated all other guests above Man Singh. The bard had come secretly, and was then spotted by the king, distressing him. He feared the bard would insult him in front of everyone. To avoid this, the king motioned to the bard that he would receive 4 elephants if he raised his honour. The bard created a verse that compared Man Singh to Visnu, able to destroy Ravana’s fortress, a member of the solar system himself This won the competition and impressed all the other kings. The bard received his four elephants for his work. (Snodgrass, 2004: 272). The myth exemplifies the influence of bards on kingly reputation, the interdependence of kings and their clients. Bards used their influence over reputation in other ways, being masters of language and regarded as sacred, some bards were said to have “the power of the ‘word’, the corpus of sounds by which the moral order of society is maintained and altered” (Kamphorst 228). Certain bards were regarded as rsi-poets, able to curse, predict the future, or cure ailments. Others would simply jest and satire a person publicly for disgrace or mistreatment. In this way, bards would promote Dharmic behaviour through their mastery and clever use of language (Basu 220).

Modern Rajasthan, an Indian state that has maintained strong bardic identity, holds two main classes of bards: Bhats and Charans. These words are derived from Sanskrit roots. In the Dictionary of Spoken Sanskrit, Bhat comes from a Sanskrit translation meaning ‘scholar’ or ‘lord,’ while Charan is said to mean ‘god’s feet’ or ‘son or daughter of the goddess.’ These definitions introduce an important concept regarding the status of these two Bardic classes, that Charans are perceived as elite over the Bhats (Kamphorst 225). In Hindu mythology, there is a story of how Mahadeva (Siva) created a Bhat to attend to his lion and bull, but every day the bull was killed by the lion. Mahadeva, tired of creating a bull daily, created Charan, equally devout as the Bhat but of bolder spirit, to watch over the lion and the bull. From that date on the bull was never slain again (Balfour 341). This gives Charans a strong identity, that allegorically they are guardians of justice, in the from of the bull, against savage violence, as the lion (Kamphorst 225). This myth highlights differences in the tradition of the two classes, such as their claim of different ancestry, and subsequently their identity as separate Indian castes.

In Rajasthan today, Bhats are low caste bards who mainly make a living as entertainers. Most commonly they are puppeteers who make a profit by selling their puppets to tourists after a show. They claim descent from Brahmins who composed Sanskrit verses of praise on stone tablets in temples (Snodgrass 2004: 275). They currently serve an untouchable caste of leather workers called Bhambhis through jokes, dramas, stories, and music. If they share food with these patrons, they are moved into the lowest caste with them in the view of Brahmin and other orthodox adherents (Snodgrass 2004:273). The Bhats perceive themselves, however, as equal if not greater than Brahmins. This is a result of their culture of language and learning: they create myths that make the other castes of society seem dependent on their skill over words. In their view, remembering history is a process that keeps the past alive and is an act of reconstruction (Snodgrass 2004: 282). This also identifies them with the Brahmin, as the ideology behind Hindu ritual sacrifice is to reconstruct the dismemberment of Purusa.

Colonialism had a large impact on the livelihood of these bards. The need for bards as messengers and negotiators faded as Britain demilitarized regions of India. Their function as guardians of caravans and contracts dissipated as railways replaced caravan routes, and acts of self mutilation (traga) were outlawed. Replacing feudal landholding and the patron-client economy with commercialization deprived bards of their property, status, and income (Snodgrass 2004: 277). Modernization extinguished many bardic duties, though some have survived in new contexts. Genealogies are still recited at weddings; also, hotels, restaurants, nobles, and militants hire Bhats to present history and epics through puppeteering and storytelling. This allows them to make a living through an art of their past. They are also employed at folklore festivals, singing and poetry competitions, and maintain some of their power over reputation during elections. When the Babri Masjid Mosque was destroyed in 1992, the Baharatiya Janata Party hired Bhats to spread anti-Muslim sentiment and help them gain popularity to win the upcoming election (Snodgrass 2004: 279).

Charans are an elite bard caste in western India that identify with the Ksatriya, rather than the Brahmin varna. The root of the word Charan can be traced back to the Rajasthan words caranau (to graze or wander), uccaraṇ (the art of recitation, verbal expression), or chahaṛ (love, justice). Each of these relate to Charan lineage and identity as cattle and horse traders, linguistic masters, and agents of loving devotion (bhakti) to goddesses (devi) (Kamphorst 224). Charans fulfill the same roles as Bhats, while possessing a unique identity of their own as more courageous and fierce. The Mahadeva bull myth is likely the origin for this difference. Their courage is attributed to their role as royal bards who would ride into battle with their kings. Being on the battlefield allowed them to create ballads that would commemorate the deeds of their warriors. Charans have distinct literature on this; Vira kava, a genre of warrior and king hero praise, and panegyrics: praise of battle-field bravery, victory, royal generosity, and sacrifice (Basu 83). Charans experienced significant loss of their culture, as Bhats did, during colonization. When Europe colonized India there were no longer frequent battles over territory, the result of this was evident in Charan literature. They could no longer compose praise about the best warriors, so they began to glorify the best hunters. Eventually, modernization caused them to become praise poets of their own caste (Basu 90).  Praising themselves and their tradition allowed them to become unique. As bardic tradition came to an end throughout much of India during British rule, they maintained an active and strong culture. Ancient bardic tradition and practices still thrive daily in Kacch, and a festival dedicated to Charan lineage takes place there every year.

In Kacch, to applaud, glorify, adore, or eulogize the qualities of an exalted being is considered a vocal art. Charans have mastered this art and made it a part of their social identity (Basu 81). 35000 people in Kacch identify themselves as Charans, which entails: having the ability to compose poetry, recite in many different styles, remember history, love the play of words, and be inclined to asceticism. They have a uniform dress code and claim that Sarasvati, the goddess of knowledge, language, and learning, gifted them with their nature. Charans are mainly praise-poets, who doubled as herders, agricultural workers, and artisans. In Kacch they played a larger role in ritual over Brahmin priests. During Navaratri, a 9 night goddess festival, a buffalo is sacrificed and a Charan women would be the first to drink its blood and become host to the goddess for the rest of the royal sacrifice, embodying her. Charan Matajali are human-goddesses, said to have the power to destroy enemies, spontaneously produce water, and uphold the moral status of kings by cursing or rewarding their actions. Some Charan women are deified after death, Ai Sri Sonal Mataji is one of these women who was born in 1920, and passed away in 1975. Sonal Mataji was born into a time of colonial rule in India and was a guide for her people during the changes brought with modernization (Basu 89). She emphasised a vegan diet, meditation, asceticism, anti-alcoholism, and rejected blood sacrifice. The Charan Caste Council created a festival that begins on her birthday, and last two days each year: the Sonal Mataji. The festival allows these bards to keep many of the traditions used by their ancestors in the past. It begins with ritual praise worship, and is followed by praise poetry of the goddess. Lectures are then given on the history of the Charan caste: their origin in the peaks of the Himalayas, their descent down from the mountains, the breeding of cattle, attaching themselves to patrons, their role as warriors, and lastly their establishment in Kacch. The Following Speeches relate these stories to present morals that are expected of these bards today: to be loyal, have dharmic action, and to sacrifice oneself for moral cause. Many performances of poetry, song, and recitals are performed over the two days, creating a sense of belonging that embodies loving devotion (bhakti) to the goddess (Basu 96). This is a modern example of bardic tradition that flourishes today.

An example of Bardic tradition in the past is a 19 night long story that was recorded by a scholar in 1965 (Beck 13). Olappalayam was a village in south India when Brenda Beck conducted her fieldwork. The story is called The Elderbrothers’ Legend, and was conducted by firelight in the evenings with costumes, body paint, drums, and poetic recitation. The story referenced places in past that still exist today, providing geographical information about specific areas and their history. The story also revealed the relationship of kings with their subjects, and illustrated the ethnic and moral code of the area. Beck reported that local ritual, praise, and mannerism, mirrored practices within the story, stressing how important bards are in transmitting Hindu ideology and behaviour. Beck also stated that the story encompassed the regions unique culture and history, revealing the devastating loss of culture from modernization which make it difficult for these stories to be told in the same way today. (Beck, 17)

Bardic tradition is an important aspect of Hindu culture that has experienced drastic change during the period of colonization and industrialization of the world. In the past, bards were considered a sacred order and thus could work as grantors. They were messengers, exclusive educators, court minstrels, could dictated a nobles’ popularity, and would ride into battle reciting warrior praise. In exchange for their service they would receive gifts, such as animals and land. In modern society, they make a living mostly as teachers and agricultural workers, while performing poetry and history on the side. Most bards are now found around Rajasthan, and view themselves as a third social body in the caste system. Genealogies and recitation of family history is part of Hindu weddings still today, and a few bards still make a living as story tellers through theatre (Snodgrass 2004: 278). Some areas of India have defended their bardic lineage and still practice it today, such as the Charans. Overall, bards continue to serve Hinduism by spreading mythology, composing praise, promoting dharmic behaviour, and keeping history alive across generations.


Balfour, Edward (1885) The cyclopaedia of India and of Eastern and Southern Asia,             commercial, industrial, and scientific; products of the mineral, vegetable, and animal             kingdoms, useful arts and manufactures, volume 1. London: London B. Quaritch.

Basu, Helen (2005) “Practices of Praise and Social Constructions of Identity: The Bards of         North-West India” Archives de sciences sociales des religions, Vol. 50, No. 3: 81-105.

Beck, Brenda (2011) “Discovering a story.” In Studying Hinduism In Practice. New York:   Routledge. pp.10-23

Hardy, Friedhelm (1995) The Religious Culture of India: Power, Love and Wisdom. Cambridge:                 Cambridge University Press.

Kamphorst, Janet (2008) In praise of death: history and poetry in medieval Marwar (South Asia). Leiden: Leiden University Press.

Snodgrass, Jeffery (2006) Casting Kings: bards and Indian modernity. New York: Oxford            University Press.

Snodgrass, Jeffrey (2004) “The Centre Cannot Hold: Tales of Hierarchy and Poetic Composition               from Modern Rajasthan.” The Journal of the Royal Anthropological Institute, Vol. 10,     No. 2. pp. 261-285

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Article is written by: Ashley Rewers (March 2016) who is solely responsible for its content.