The Tribune - Spectrum

, March 10, 2002

Preserving folklore for posterity
Aradhika Sekhon

The legends of Punjab by R.C. Temple Published by Rupa. Rs 795

THE Legends of Panjab, a book in two volumes, was compiled by R.C Temple, an official posted in India in the latter half of the 18’th century. In the introduction by Kartar Singh Duggal, a noted Punjabi writer, it is stated that " from all accounts, he [Temple] is the pioneer in the Panjab folklore as a discipline followed by Bawa Budh Singh, Devinder Satyarthi and Dr. Wanjara Bedi much later." In fact, the book treats folklore and folksongs as a social science or, " an autobiography of a people". Temple himself believes that the representation of folklore should be undertaken as a science, except for which, it is not worth serious study at all. Thus, he has undertaken the research of original folklore in a truly anthropological spirit.

The Legends’ is a collection of bardic narration and simple folk narrative that R.C Temple has been able to requisition from travelling minstrels, mirasis and bards. Temple calls himself ‘a folklorist’, and in his book set himself the task of accurately and comprehensively gathering and recording poems and tales. He lays more emphasis on poems since he believed that folksongs, in the form of odes, ballads etc. are more authentic than tales because they are ultimately "based on the poetic effusions of earlier times". He believed that the bardic poem is fastened onto really historical characters and mixed up with the narrative of bona fide historical facts, which is not necessarily the case with folk tales.


The method that Temple adopted to gather his material was both logical and simple. He searched out bards in various regions and villages of Punjab, and thus came across the various categories of bards- the bard proper, at the courts of kings, singing of national legends and warlike feats and family histories of his patrons. The swangs were semi-religious metrical plays sung by Brahmins about the sacred legends of Hindus. Then were the professional ballad singers or mirasis who accompanied dancing girls and sang for hire at various joyous ceremonies. Temple met " the wandering jogi, the mirasi, the Brahmin, the faquir, and such folk in the streets and roads and stopped them and made them divulge all they knew."

The largest portions of the legends were recorded under the supervision of Temple himself. He trained munshis of his own to do the work of the recording in the Persian script and as authentically as possible, the outpourings of the bard. Temple himself then transcribed it into Roman characters and translated it in consultation with the munshis.

In the preface, Temple seeks to examine the general trends, salient features and devices in the folklore that occur and reoccur, their origins and usage, for example miracle workers. "They perform any and every miracle that man can conceive or want". Of the miracles recorded in The Legends, we come across Namdev, raising a dead cow to life, of Puran Bhaghat, restoring life to a dried up garden, of Sakhi Sarwar turning the gold of an unfaithful follower into brass, of Rode Shah making the dry grass green and sweet forever in reward for furnishing him with a bed of itself, of Ranjha transporting a saint by holding his hand. Another recurring feature is stepmothers who appear in most of the tales and are generally the enemies of the heroes and heroines. " Sometimes they are surviving co-wives, and sometimes successors to deceased wives"

The device of metamorphosis is often used- the metamorphosis of the dead into the living, dead into inanimate objects, deities into animate objects, of superhuman creatures like ogres, angels, vampires into beautiful women, flowers or birds. Marriages occur in every tale, usually after a considerable ordeal and are often the trigger behind the purpose of the story. Temple explores the characters, the movement, the features, the customs and the motifs of the tales under scrutiny.

Before each legend commences, a brief description of the mode of its requisition, plus an overview of the historical significance of hero of the legend is given. References to other works wherein accounts of this hero maybe found are also given. Details of the bard who recited the folklore are meticulously recorded.

Though titled Legends of Panjab, the book contains tales of Padmini and Raja Rattan Sen of Chittor, about Namdev, the celebrated bhakti poet and Marathi poet who vastly influenced the founder of the Sikh religion and Sakhi Sarwar of Multan among others. The text is in authentic Urdu; Punjabi, Brajbhasha or the vernacular used by the bard who sang it for Temple. This fits in with Temple’s ‘favorite theory that the average villager one meets in Punjab and North India is at heart, "neither a Mohammedan, nor a Hindu nor a Sikh, nor of any other religion, such as is understood by its orthodox exponents, but that his ‘religion’ is a confused unthinking worship of things held to be holy, whether men or places."

The two volumes contain 38 legends including those of Raja Rasalu, Princess Adhik Anup Dai, Raja Mahi Prakash of Sirmaur, Raja Nal, the genealogy of Lal Beg, the tale of Raja Chandrabhan and Rani Chand Karan, a hymn to Abdul Quadir Jilani, the marriage of Heer and Ranjha. The English translations strive to be as true to letter and spirit as possible but, as is the tragedy with most translated works, lose out on some of the veritable essences in so doing.

Doubtless, The Legends of Panjab is a work of significance, compiled, as it was, in 1883-1885. It puts together significant poems and ballads handed down through the centuries, which could, with the dying out of the bardic traditions, too easily be forgotten.