Selected writings by anthropologist Verrier Elwin (1902-64)

“Is it eccentric to live in beautiful scenery in the hills among some of the most charming people in the country, even though they may be ignorant and poor?” – Verrier Elwin quoted by G.N. Devy in The Oxford India Elwin >>

The Oxford India Elwin
by G.N. Devy (ed.) 
440 Pages | 80 line illus. & photographs
ISBN: 9780195697919, Rs. 795
From presenting Elwin’s work among the tribal peoples of central India, to affording glimpses of his seminal work on the unique institution of the ghotul among the Murias of Bastar, or relating Elwin’s attempts at understanding the high incidence of murder and suicide among the Bison-horn Marias of Bastar, The Oxford India Elwin looks beyond the general and the oft-repeated to include within its covers the many fascinating discoveries that Verrier Elwin made while working among the different tribal communities in India. It comes with a useful and perceptive Introduction by G.N. Devy.

Source: The Oxford India Elwin – Verrier Elwin – Oxford University Press
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Date Visited: 30 September 2021

Table of Contents

Publisher’s Note
1. Forward: Leaves from the Jungle
2. ‘Dear as the Moon’: The Tribal World of Verrier Elwin
3. ‘Philanthropology’: Philanthropologist: Marias; Murias; Kuttia Konds; True Treasure; Bondos; Saoras
4. ‘Organization of the Tribe’: The Murias and Their Ghotul: The Clan System; Clan Rules; The Family; Summary: An Evening in the Ghotul; Songs; Ghotul Discipline
5. Preface: Philanthropologist
6. ‘Priests and Shamans’: The Religion of an Indian Tribe: Priests and Shamans; The Buyya; The Kuranmaran; Reminischence; The Idaimaran; The Art of the Ikon; Ikons Designed to Promote or Preserve the Fertility of the Crops; Ikons Dedicated to Gods to Avert Disease; Ikons Made to Assist Childbirth; Ikons which Represent Shrines and Hills; Ikons Made in Honour of Tutelaries
7. ‘Folksongs of the Maikal Hills’: Philanthropologist: Introduction
8. ‘Introduction: The Creation of the World and Mankind’: Myths from Middle India: Agaria; Muria; Bharia; Baiga; Rajnengi; Pardhan; Gond; Ahir; Kol; Dhulia; Dhanwar; Pardhan; Ojha; Panka; Bhui Maria; Lohar; Kahar; Kond; Lanjhia Saora; Gadaba; Jhoria; Kamar; Gogia Pardhan; Chokh Agaria; Asur; Bondo; Muria; Some Aspects Religion: Ahir; Witchcraft and Magic: Dewar, Pardhan-Festivals, Song, and Dance: Badi, Gond
9. ‘Travels in the NEFA Highlands’: Philanthropologist: A Pilgrimage to Tawang; A Scramble among the Tagins; Promenades in Siang; The Strange Fascination of Lohit; Visits to Tirap
10. ‘The Art of the North-East Frontier’: Philanthropologist: Introduction: A Frontier of Hope
11. ‘Nagaland’: Philanthropologist: A Fine People; The Kiratas; The Naga Countryside; The Word ‘Naga’; The Naga Groups; Naga Life and Culture; The Naga Villages and Homes; Religion; Feasts of Merit; Head-Hunting; The Naga Languages; Naga Poetry; The Bird Replies: A Time of Change
12. ‘Myths of the North-East Frontier’: Philanthropologist: Introduction
13. ‘Democracy in NEFA’: Philanthropologist: The Tribal Councils in NEFA
14. Folk Songs of Chhattisharh: Selected Songs

Source: The Oxford India Elwin – Verrier Elwin – Oxford University Press
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Date Visited: 24 December 2022

The best of what is in tribal culture owes to the ghotul [learning centre]. However, under the influence of the new education, the ghotul has suffered a systematic disintegration.

Uma Ram in Issues in Tribal Education in Bastar >>
Writings of Verrier Elwin on tribal education and more >>

Learn more about Jawaharlal Nehru’s “five principles” for the policy to be pursued vis-a-vis the tribals >>
Photo © Indian Express

Pramit Bhattacharya,, May 24, 2014
Verrier Elwin influenced Nehru’s policies for India’s tribes
A few months before Nehru breathed his last, his close friend and adviser, Verrier Elwin, died in February 1964. A self-taught anthropologist, Elwin’s ideas and research had an overwhelming influence on Nehru’s vision and policies on India’s tribes. An ordained priest in the Pune-based Christa Seva Sangha, Elwin gave up his commitment to proselytize and dedicated his life to research and to help preserve tribal life and culture. In his later writings, Elwin took care to stress that he was not against assimilating tribals into the mainstream. He only wanted such assimilation to occur at a pace, and on terms, that suited the tribals. Elwin’s critics say he was an anti-modern romantic whose influence on policy further marginalized tribals. Elwin’s admirers argue that without him, tribals would have suffered an even worse fate. While his legacy is contentious, the ideas Elwin engaged with continue to be relevant. Earlier this month, the first train service to Arunachal Pradesh was suspended after protests by locals, who fear that the unchecked entry of “outsiders” could destroy the delicate social and ecological balance of their state. Elwin echoed these fears more than half a century ago.

Source: Nehru’s India – Livemint
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Date Visited: Sat Oct 04 2014 18:21:45 GMT+0200 (CEST)

Dr. Ivy Hansdak clarifies that during the early twentieth century, “two main streams within Indian anthropology influenced the literary and visual representations of tribes by mainstream writers, artists and film-makers. One group was led by GS Ghurye (the assimilationist position) and the other by Verrier Elwin (the isolationist position). Later, Elwin shifted to the intergrationist position. According to the former, tribes were seen as ‘backward Hindus’ and an attempt was made to assimilate them into the Hindu fold. The identity of tribals as ‘vanavasi‘ comes from this position. Elwin, on the other hand, wanted to preserve their distinctive culture and often glorified them as the Noble Savage. Elwin’s views influenced Pandit Nehru’s tribal policy. Today, most tribals are being clubbed together with the scheduled castes (SC or dalit) with whom they share reservation in college admission and jobs. In the government documents, ‘SC/ST‘ are usually written together. The certificate that is issued to those claiming reserved status is also called ‘caste certificate‘.” (email dated 26 April 2023)

The people among the tribal communities who get into ‘the mainstream‘ of Indian society by landing a job after some education are in a small minority. They are made to feel inferior by the major communities in governmental or commercial administration. […]

Verrier Elwin began life as a missionary among the tribals but later gave up Christianity, married a tribal woman, and devoted himself to the study of tribal society. Jawaharlal Nehru was among the few people who understood Elwin’s belief that tribal society must be allowed to evolve in its own distinctive manner and its culture must not be violated. Elwin was for a long time his major adviser on tribal affairs. Not that Nehru was altogether able to prevent the exploitation of tribals and the violation of their culture; but at least he kept it in some check. | Read the full commentary >>

Source: “Hands off tribal culture”, Guest Column (India Today, 9 January 2014)
Date Visited: 3 October 2021

Verrier Elwin (29 August 1902 – 22 February 1964) was an English self-trained anthropologist, ethnologist and tribal activist, who began his career in India as a Christian missionary. He was a controversial figure who first abandoned the clergy, to work with Mohandas Gandhi and the Indian National Congress, then converted in Hinduism in 1935 after staying a Gandhian ashram,[1] split with the nationalists over what he felt was an overhasty process of transformation and assimilation for the tribals. Elwin is best known for his early work with the Baigas and Gonds of central India, and he married a member of one of the communities he studied there, though he also worked on the tribals of several North East Indian states especially North-East Frontier Agency (NEFA) and settled in Shillong later in life, apart from Orissa and Madhya Pradesh.[2]

In time he became an authority on Indian tribal lifestyle and culture, particularly on the Gondi people.[1] He also served as the Deputy Director of the Anthropological Survey of India upon its formation in 1945.[3] Post-independence he took up Indian citizenship.[2] Nehru appointed him as an adviser on tribal affairs for north-eastern India, and later he was Anthropological Adviser to the Government of NEFA (now Arunachal Pradesh).[4]

His autobiography, The Tribal World of Verrier Elwin won him the 1965 Sahitya Akademi Award in English Language, given by the Sahitya Akademi, India’s National Academy of Letters.

Source: Verrier Elwin – Wikipedia, the free encyclopedia
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Date Visited: Sat Oct 04 2014 18:01:10 GMT+0200 (CEST)

Lila Elwin © The Hindu| Read the full obituary by Teresa Rehman >>

Lila Elwin, widow of noted anthropologist Verrier Elwin, travelled a long distance in her life, criss-crossing geographical and psychological barriers.

Daughter of a Pradhan Gond tribal chieftain from a remote village in Madhya Pradesh, she never went to school and never had more than a smattering of English, but married an Englishman and went on to play hostess to scholars and politicians with effortless ease. She passed away in Mumbai on July 14 after a brief illness, (aged around 80), bringing to a close a fascinating cross-cultural chapter in the history of tribal India.

Lila came to Meghalaya’s capital as the young bride of one of India’s most celebrated anthropologists, whose books on the tribals of Bastar, Orissa and Arunachal Pradesh — or NEFA as it was then known — are still regarded as classics. She never went back to her native village Patangarh in Mandla district of Madhya Pradesh. […]

She was cremated according to Buddhist rites as per her last wish, like her husband. […]

Source: “Lila, wife of anthropologist Verrier Elwin, passes away” by Teresa Rehman, The Hindu, July 20, 2013
Date Visited: 30 September 2021

[Bold typeface added above for emphasis]

“We shall first have to give up this hubris of considering tribes backward. Every tribe has a rich and living cultural tradition and we must respect them.” – Vice President M. Venkaiah Naidu on the constitutional obligation to respect the cultural traditions of India’s tribal communities

Gandhiji at Prayer Time, Parnakuti, Poona (1944) by Chittaprosad, the great advocate of the rights of workers and revolutionary artists. | Learn more in “Gandhi, Secularism, and Cultural Democracy” by Vinay Lal >>
Gandhian social movement | Constitution | Adverse inclusion >>

“Air is free to all but if it is polluted it harms our health… Next comes water… From now on we must take up the effort to secure water. Councillors are servants of the people and we have a right to question them.” – Mohandas K. Gandhi, Ahmedabad address on 1 January 1918; quoted by his grandson, Gopalkrishna Gandhi, in “On another New Year’s Day: Mahatma Gandhi’s ‘khorak’ a 100 years ago” (The Hindu, 1 January 2018)

“The world has enough for everyone’s need but not for anyone’s greed.” – Mahatma Gandhi quoted by Medha Patkar and Baba Amte (Narmada Bachao Andolan)

See also

Baba Amte



Community facilities

Ecology and environment

Economy and development

Forest Rights Act (FRA) | Legal rights over forest land


Gandhian social movement

Health and nutrition | Recommendations by the Expert Committee

Narmada | Narmada Valley

People’s Archive of Rural India (PARI) |

Seasons and festivals

States along the Narmada river’s course (source to Arabian Sea):
Madhya Pradesh | Maharashtra | Gujarat

Tribal identity

Worship and rituals