Ancient Life and Research, Ancient Travellers, Explorers and Documentarians, Madhya Pradesh, Narmada River, Oral Stories from Rural India, Reformers Politics and the World, Tales from Rural India
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Leaves from a Jungle: The Life of Verrier Elwin living with the Gonds in Central India – I/II

My co-travellers here on the Road to Nara, must already know and have experienced by now how much there is to absorb in India that is Bharat. Every state works like an organ. Each region in contrast to the other in food, language yet somehow bonded by sense and tradition.

In my brief career as a traveller, I have desired not just to travel as much, but also to learn, research and document life of other travellers who once walked and measured this nation in a different light, time and dimension. The ones who somehow recorded the flow that once was; those happenings which can only be dreamt of today but can never again be touched.

Also Read: How Jyoti Bhatt inspired the new age Travellers and Documentarians with his life?

The Tribal Art of Middle India as seen outside homes

I was an NCC(National Cadet Corps, youth wing of Indian Armed Forces) Cadet during my university years and had a brief opportunity to rigorously walk throughout the Central Indian State of India, Madhya Pradesh for over a month.

During one such walk on a sunny afternoon, I was passing through the outskirts of an ancient Gond village. When I saw an old man intently looking at me. He looked literally like he had come out of Earth; raw, bare, venerable to my eyes. He was saying something while innocently piercing my gaze, when i realised he was speaking in English. Of course not at all English like but once I put my mind to understand him, he was only asking my name. It amused me. I walked up to him, shook his hand as he started asking me to come to his home, which after my initial indecision gave in and started walking with him towards his home. Those many walks that i was taking everyday with my Unit, that particular short walk to his home remains my most cherished memory that i remember towareds a stranger’s home. Gond women, men, their children and adults started lining up to greet me and follow. It suddenly felt so important. That I was someone important in their eyes. In cities where you hardly get noticed, here they were putting an effort to know me or to show me something of their own. As I walked, there were few laughs and chirps but there were no conversations. They were as amused by my being as i was, looking at them.

One of the many homes of Gonds in Madhya Pradesh

I entered his home. It looked huge from inside. It was cold and the air moved like there were fans moving. It was painted green and pink and had many caricatures made on the floor and the walls. After meeting his wife and children, i was looking at things keenly to absorb everything from this limited and extraordinary time when my gaze stopped at a photograph of a man on the green wall which surprised me. Somewhere the man looked like me and it could be one reason why the old man had initiated the talk. It was an image of a foreigner in tribal clothes standing at a local wedding. Which i learnt much later that it was him who was getting married. It was an old black and white image. Upon asking i couldn’t really understand what the old man said and moreover i did not pay much heed soon as i was getting late then to join my unit. But once i got back to Delhi and remembered this incident, I started finding about this man whom I learnt about sooner than i had thought. The traveller on the wall whom i saw in the village, i learnt lived in this village around 80 years ago, then. Even before India’s Independence.

I distinctly remember almost everything i saw that afternoon. Also because i carried no gadgets then. No phone. No camera. And hence, as soon as i got back to my home in Delhi i started finding the whereabouts of that photograph and to my amazement, the man who was walking that same earth almost a century ago was someone named Verrier Elwin.

Verrier Elwin’s first wedding with Kosi, early 1940s

Verrier Elwin was a British born Indian Anthropologist, Ethnologist and a tribal activist who began his journey in India as a christian missionary. But in due coarse abandoned the clergy to work with Mohandas Gandhi and the Indian National Congress. He then soon converted to Hinduism in 1935 after staying in a Gandhian ashram.

Mohandas Gandhi. Photograph by Verrier Elwin. 1940s

Verrier Elwin is best known for his early work with the Baigas and Gonds of Odisha and Madhya Pradesh in Central India. He moved to the Gond village in 1937 and married a Raj Gond tribal girl, Kosi- 13 Year old at the time, who was a student at his school in Raithwar. They had one son born a year later in 1941. Elwin later had an ex-parte divorce in 1949. In his autobiography, he wrote “I cannot even now look back on this period of my life without a deep sense of pain and failure”. Elwin remarried a woman called Lila, belonging to the Pardhan Gond tribe in nearby Patangarh, moving with her to Shillong, the hill capital of Meghalaya in the early 1950s.

Verrier Elwin getting married in Patangarh, Madhya Pradesh mid-1940s

Verrier Elwin was a prolific writer, and photographed immensely while studying these communities. While researching on his work I came across some writings that he wrote for The Illustrated Weekly of India. I identified some paragraphs written by him that would convey an overview of his personality, experiences and philosophy to accompany the photographs. But his work on field is so intensive that shares conversations, interviews and even philosophies of so many tribal men and women that i must dedicate a separate post for it to take us back to that time and life of Central India.

A Gond house where Elwin lived for over a decade

As time passed and India got closer to the Independence, he became an authority on Indian Tribal lifestyle and culture, particularly on the Gondi People. He served as the Deputy Director of the Anthropological Survey of India upon its formation in 1945. Post-independence, he took up Indian citizenship.

First Prime Minister Jawaharlal 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). And it is believed that his philosophy towards the north-east was partially responsible in its disconnect from the modern world.

The Government of India later awarded him the third highest civilian honour of the Padma Bhushan in 1961. 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.

Also Read: When a Wedding Arrived Magically in Rajasthan

But before we end, let me share an account that Elwin had written about how hard the life in a tribal village was around Eighty years ago (1941) :

Elwin recounted how he had endured frequent bouts of physical illnesses and he also commented on the hazards of an isolated existence far removed from any medical facilities. On recollecting a septic boil as one of his more severe ailments, he openly acknowledges that the effort by the village residents to carry him to the hospital over 120 miles away had effectively saved his life. This anecdote specifically highlights his vulnerability and the acknowledgement of his dependency on the local people, as well as the communal engagement and sense of interconnectedness that defines the tribal ethos.

V. Elwin with village Kids

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  1. This installment of the author’s epic effort to preserve and document the ancient culture of
    the tribes of Bharat is as interesting as the previous ones. In today’s post, Narayan portrays
    the anthropologist and writer, Elvin Verrier, who was acknowledged as a document maker of
    Gond’s ancient tribe, its beliefs, rituals, and philosophy, and that without his detailed work not much would be known today. That this knowledge is essential to the history of India today and to future generations, goes without saying. One can only congratulate Narayan for his dedication to ensure that this knowledge will never be lost.



    • Thank you for your support Joanna. It is very interesting how Elwin did this all, coming from a foreign country and achieving all what he did. Very inspiring for me.

      Thank you Joanna.


  2. Dearest Narayan, such an amazing trail of events, leading from one story being weaved to suddenly a whole new turn. What an experience it must’ve been the moment you’d realised the picture was of Elvin Verrier,just reading itself gave me goosebumps. I’ve only heard narrations about Gond and many tribes of MP from my Grandparents ( my grandmother used to be scout n guide head of Rajasthan), maybe some day shall visit those places 🙂. As always your journeys and the course of events through your writing is mesmerizing


    • Richa, thank you for acknowledging this special work, by someone who is not known as much he should have.
      You are right in understanding that feeling of connecting one thing to the other. I was astonished when I realized actually where I was and even asked myself several times quietly, if it really means something for me to be there in the first place.

      Rajasthan is magic. Howsomuchever one goes digging there, one finds more.

      Took my parents to Pushkar only this week Richa.

      Liked by 1 person

      • “If it really means something for me to be there in the first place”The first thought actually that comes to one’s mind are actually definitely these lines. Coincidence somewhere are just planned incidents🙂.
        Pushkar is just peace, used to be 25 min scooty ride from my place in Ajmer, so every Sunday morning ritual of Malpua n kachori, and yes on n off sneaked up drives to the valley simply to enjoy the view n ride. Nausar mata temple gives complete panoramic view of Ajmer and just after rains this route is simply heaven. Hope your parents enjoyed the visit.


        • Yes, planned accidents 🙂

          Cannot tell you how i feel after hearing your Pushkar experiences. And how close you have been to this magic land, really hard to leave it to tell you, because it is magnet like. So vast like that view from Nausar Mata and so deep the the Brahma kund. As much as i have spend time there, i always feel it is not enough. May be i get to live more of Rajasthan one day.

          Liked by 1 person

  3. You bring out the essence of India from deep within, through your travels Narayan. There is so much to our culture and people which we are unaware of. Thanks for bringing it to the fore and sharing it with us. Stay blessed my friend 💖🙏


    • And i am happy that we have someone like yourself, who is as much immersed and understands us dear Radhika.

      We are like the Banyan Tree or even the peepal. Connected under earth as much our roots connecting others above.

      I imagine, Elwin’s next post will be a bit more interesting as i myself want to immerse in that time of India when he was moving around.

      Thank you so much dear Radhika. Stay healthy and in joy.


  4. Fascinating post. I believe old cultures should survive though in today’s world they are so fragile. There is much to be learned from them, qualities that modern people have lost or never knew in the first place. I always found, when I travelled and particularly when I met tribal people that they were very friendly and anxious to show how they lived. It would be nice to think that generosity and good will are a default of humanity, rather than hostility and aggression. In 1956 Cambodia I was taken with my father to remote Cambodian villages where they had never seen a white child.. Women came to touch me as if I wasn’t real, but they were unfailingly kind. Cambodia was a wonderful place and I always remembered the people with great fondness. It was absolutely shocking to me that it became a place of horror not so long after. I ended up getting a degree in anthropology (from an unheard of American University) because I was always fascinated by people who were different. So your writing is important to me. Thank you.


    • Caro. It is heart melting account how it even is reaching me here.

      Somehow i feel it has come upon them to fight because we, the people and their children who are breeding on this digital and processed food culture are kind of virus that are reaching far and beyond like plastic. They are so fragile caro, absolutely and i completely agree with you and kind of understand what you mean. Also from the aspect of the Cambodian people as i went there on a month assignment to work on a story. I have been mesmerised with their innocent and simple living. Apart from what i have seen in my country, Cambodia was another world to learn from.

      And to know that you went there years ago from the horror that the cambodians saw, o man i cannot really fathom. Not even crying, nothing will make way for it.

      You know i wasn’t expecting this kind of response but as much hearing from you i feel this kind of surmises my way to be. And if i can really put my pen in restoring this life in years to come, i will be a happy man.


    • I cannot thank you Caro, for your heartfelt comment here. And it feels special to know about the experience you had.

      I do not know if you have seen the work i created in Cambodia, but even if you do; i am certain it will evoke emotions that you may find yourself going right back there again.

      I am sharing the link and please let me know when you do. Lots of love and wishes.

      I had named it ‘Singsong’ –


  5. KK says

    What a chance encounter! Was it in the Dindori district of MP? I enjoyed reading this post, as I have worked with Gond people in Damoh district. I’ll look forward to your next post. Thank you, Narayan ji for such an informative and captivating posts.


    • Thank you for your delightful comment Kaushal ji. You are absolutely right. It was in the Dindori district.
      I feel joy and even excited to know that you were there at some point of your life. It will be great to probably hear about your experiences of that time someday. For which I shall write to you separately.

      Thank you again Kaushal Ji. I will try to bring as much in the following post on Verrier Elwin’s life.

      Liked by 1 person

      • KK says

        Thank you, Narayan ji for your kind response. And yes, I would share with you whatever I came across. As a banker, I was more associated with them in two adopted villages of Damoh district for their financial needs. I had formed Krishak Mitra Mandals for interacting with them on Sundays. I tried to form a cooperative society for Gond people, but miserably failed. I’ve shared these things in my posts.

        Liked by 1 person

  6. Michael Graeme says

    What a fascinating character, Narayan, and – in your earlier post – a memorable encounter with the man himself. As always, such a wonderful read, and these old photographs are enchanting.

    Liked by 1 person

  7. Very interesting site you have. I remember reading a book about Verrier Elwin. He was quite a man


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