uploaded 6/5/03

Verrier Elwin's Kingdom of The Young
Ramón Sender Barayón

Born in 1902, the son of a eccentric and impoverished Anglican bishop, Verrier Elwin at twenty-five left behind a budding career as a clerical don in Oxford to join the Christa Seva Sangha in India, a missionary group that allied itself with Gandhi's non-violent reform movement. Five years later he parted paths with the missionaries, unwilling to continue proselytizing the Hindus and having lost faith in the Christianity of his forebears. Instead he 'went native,' living in mud-and-thatch huts in impoverished hill villages of the Gonds and walking barefoot on his journeys. With a few others, he involved himself in building a small ashram based on a mixture of Franciscan and Gandhian ideals.
Becoming more and more interested in what he called 'philanthropology' research, he began a series of moves from village to village, opening schools and dispensaries, treating leprosy and syphilis as well as other ailments. He married a Gond tribal woman. When they divorced after some years, he later married a Pardham woman. He published a series of translations of tribal poetry followed by his first major works, The Baiga, Folk-Tales of Mahakoshal, and Myths Of Middle India. He also wrote numerous monographs as well as two novels. Moving later to Maria tribal territory in Bastar State with the official status of Honorary Ethnographer, he published a detailed study of murder and suicide among the villagers.
His most important work in Bastar was his study of the 'ghotul,' the unique dormitory-club of the boys and girls of the Muria tribe that lived to the north of the Marias on a large wooded plateau with a good climate.
Quoting from his autobiography 'The Tribal World Of Verrier Elwin', Oxford University Press, 1964: "The ghotul was the central focus of Muria life, coming down to modern times from Lingo, the heroic ancestor of the tribe (and founder of the first ghotul)...
"Similar institutions are widely distributed among communities of the Austro-Asiatic cultures, but it seems probable that the Muria ghotul was one of the most highly developed and carefully organized in the world. ; For what was a village guardroom for the Nagas, a boys' club among the Uraons, a refuge for temporary sexual association in Indonesia, was for the Murias the center of social and religious life. Although the ghotul was an independent, autonomous children's republic, it had an all-pervading influence on the grown-ups, who could not manage any social function without its help.
"All the unmarried boys and girls of the tribe had to be members of the ghotul. This membership was elaborately organized; after a period of probabtion, boys and girls were initiated and given special titles which carried with them graded ranks and social duties. Leaders were appointed to lead and discipline the society... Boy members were known as 'cheliks,' and girls as 'motiaris.'...
"The cheliks and motiaris had important duties to perform on all social occasions. The boys acted as acolytes at festivals, the girls as bridesmaids at weddings. They danced together before the clan-gods and ... formed a choir at funerals. Their games and dances enlivened and enriched village life, and redeemed it from that crushing monotony which was its normal characteristic in other parts of India.
"It was natural that the ghotul... should foster every kind of art... The boys made and decorated charming little combs fo rthe girls, and elaborate tobacco-boxes for themselves; the girls made necklaces, pendants and belts of beads and cowries. The boys carved the pillars and doors of their ghotul building, which was often the finest house in the village... And above all they danced.
"But this is common to many cultures. What gave the ghotul its unique interest was the approved and recognized relationship between the boys and girls.
"There were two types of ghotul. In the first, and probably the oldest... the rule was that of fidelity to a single partner during the whole of the pre-marital period. Each chelik was paired off with a motiari; he was formally 'married' to her and she took the feminine form of his title as her own. Divorce was allowed, though 'infidelity' was punished.
"In the second type, any kind of lasting attachment between chelik and motiari was forbidden. No one could say that such and such a motiari was 'his' girl; his attachment was rationed to three days at a time.
"Although outwardly both types of ghotul were the same... the cutoms and atmosphere of the more modern latter type were entirely distinct. Here everything was arranged to prevent long-drawn intense attachments, to eliminate jealousy and possessiveness, to deepen the sense of communal property and action. There was no ghotul marriage, there were no ghotul partners. 'Everyone belonged to everyone else' in the very spirit of Brave New World. A chelik and motiari might sleep together for three nights; after that they were warned; if they persisted they were punished. If a boy showed any sign of possessiveness for a particular girl, if his face fell when he saw her making love to someone else, if he got annoyed at her sleeping with another chelik, should he be offended if she refused to massage him and went to someone else, he was forcibly reminded by his fellows that she was not his wife...
"This was sometimes called the 'changing ring' ghotul; because in it you changed from girl to girl just as you changed your rings from finger to finger.
"...At any time after supper, the cheliks began to assemble. They came one by one, carrying their sleeping mats and perhaps their drums. The little boys brought their daily 'tribute' of wood, 'clocked in' by showing it to the official responsible... The elder boys gathered round the fire; one took a half-smoked leaf-pipe from his turban and ignited it..., another played a few notes on his flute... Then the girls came in with a rush, all together, and gathered round their own fire. After a while they scattered, some sitting with the boys, others singing in a corner.
The others occupied the time in pleasant harmony; sometimes they danced for an hour or two; the smaller children played rampageous games; sometimes they just sat around the fire and talked... Often they sang lying down, two by two, chelik with motiari, or in little groups. A boy told a story; they asked riddles; they reported on the affairs of the day; there was sometimes a ghotul trial; they planned an expedition or allotted duties at a wedding. I shall never forget the sight in some of the larger ghotuls of sixty or seventy youngsters thus engaged.
"After an hour or two of dancing, singing, games or storytelling, certainly not much after ten o'clock, the serious business of the evening began. The little boys went round saluting their elders, a ritual then repeated by the girls. One of them distributed finely-powdered tobacco from the ghotul store, to which all the parents contributed. Then the girls each went to her partner of the day and sat down behind him. First of all, she shook out and arranged his hair and then combed it. When this was done, she massaged him, sometimes with oilseed, sometimes rubbing his back with her comb, and then she cracked his fingers one by one.
By then it was fairly late, and the boys and girls prepared to sleep. The little boys and girls slept in long rows, while those who had a partner lay down with them in each other's arms on their sleeping-mats...
"At least at the time I knew them, the Murias had a simple, innocent and natural attitude to sex. In the ghotul this was strengthened by the absence of any sense of guilt and the general freedom from external interference. The Murias believed that sexual congress was a good thing; it did you good; it was healthy and beautiful; when performed by the right people (such as a chelik and motiari who were not taboo to one another), at the right time (outside the menstrual period and avoiding forbidden days), and in the right place (within the ghotul walls where no 'sin' could be committed), it was the happiest and best thing in life.
"This belief in sex as something good and normal gave the Murias a light touch. Their saying that the young lovers were 'hassi ki nat,' in a 'joking relationship' to each other, expressed their attitude exactly. Sex was great fun; it was the best if ghotul games; it was the dance of enraptured bodies... It ought not to be too intense; it must not be degraded by possessiveness or defiled by jealousy...
"All this was, of course, very shocking to the conventionally-minded. Yet there was much to be said on the Murias' side. In the first place, the cheliks and motiaris were wonderfully happy. Their life was full, interesting, exciting, useful. The ghotul was, as they often said, 'a little school.' The cheliks were 'like Boy Scouts,' as I was told in a village which had a troop in the local school. There was no comparison between these children and the sad-eyed, dirty ragamuffins in villages at a similar cultural level elsewhere. In the ghotul, the children were taught lessons of cleanliness, discipline and hard work that remained with them throughout their lives. They were taught to take pride in their appearance, to respect themselves and their elders; above all, they were taught the spirit of service. These boys and girls worked very hard for the public good. They were immediately available for the service of State officials or for labor on the roads. They had to be ready to work at a wedding or funeral. (In contrast) in most tribal villages of the Central Provinces, the children were slack, dirty, undisciplined and with no sense of public spirit. The Murias were very different.
"With all this, the missionary or social reformer would be in agreement. 'But,' they would say, 'that is not the point. Our complaint is that these boys and girls sleep together.' It was at least one point in their favor that this sleeping together did not seem to do them a great deal of harm. There were no signs of corruption or excess; these bright-eyed, merry-faced boys and girls did not give you the impression of being the victims of debasing lust...
(Elwin then argues that ordinary villages experienced more sexual excess among the children than existed in the ghotuls.)
"Another interesting and curious point is that there were few people with a stronger sense of domestic morality and conjugal fidelity than the Muria. Adultery was very rare, and was visited with supernatural punishment when it did occur. You could not find happier and more united fmailies. One of the reasons for this was that the ghotul system discouraged the custom of child-marriage which was then rapidly spreading though tribal India...
"Now one of the drawbacks of semi-tribal India is domestic infidelity. Divorce is universal, elopement common, adultery an everyday affair. The ghotul villages have a much higher standard in this respect. The incidence of divorce in Bastar was under 3 percent. An examination of 50 marriages in Patangarh (another state) showed 23 divorces or 46 percent.
"We may also consider how the ghotul boys and girls were almost completely free from those furtive and unpleasant vices that so mar our modern civilization. There was hardly any masturbation; where it was practiced, it was due to the mistaken efforts of reformers to improve the ghotul. Prostitution was unknown, unthinkable. No motiari would give her body for money.
"The village dormitory is a symptom of a certain stage of cultural development. We ourselves consider that we have outgrown it; we may grow into it again. In the days when I shared the free and happy life of the Murias, I used sometimes to wonder whether I was a hundred years behind the times or a hundred years ahead. I do not suggest we replace our Public Schools by ghotuls and turn out own children into cheliks and motiaris, but I do suggest that there are elements in ghotul life and teaching which we should do well to ponder, and that an infection of the Muria spirit would do few of us any harm.
"The message of the ghotul -- that youth must be served, that freedom and happiness are more to be treasured than any material gain, that friendliness and sympathy, hospitalty and unity are of the first importance, and above all that human love - and its physical expression - is beautiful, clean and precious, is typically Indian."
Elwin published his study of the Muria as a 750-page book entitled 'The Muria And Their Ghotul,' later translated in a abridged edition into French and Italian. In 1968, an abridged English edition was published by Oxford University Press under the title 'The Kingdom Of The Young. He became a citizen of India in 1954, and died in 1964, a few months after finishing his autobiography. Altogether, he was another of those erudite, charming -- and somewhat unusual types that England seems to produce.