Verrier Elwin

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Verrier Elwin
Born (1902-08-29)29 August 1902
Died 22 February 1964(1964-02-22) (aged 61)
Alma mater Merton College, Oxford
Occupation anthropologist, ethnologist
Known for Study of Tribes of India
Notable work The Baiga (1939)
The Muria and their Ghotul (1947)
Awards Padma Bhushan (1961)

Verrier Elwin (29 August 1902 – 22 February 1964)[1] was an English-born Indian 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 to Hinduism in 1935 after staying in a Gandhian ashram,[2] and 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.[3]

In time he became an authority on Indian tribal lifestyle and culture, particularly on the Gondi people.[2] He also served as the Deputy Director of the Anthropological Survey of India upon its formation in 1945.[4] Post-independence he took up Indian citizenship.[3] 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).[5]

The Government of India awarded him the third highest civilian honour of the Padma Bhushan in 1961.[6] 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.[7]

Early life and education[edit]

Harry Verrier Holman Elwin was born on 29 August 1902 in Dover, the son of Edmund Henry Elwin, Bishop of Sierra Leone. He was educated at Dean Close School and Merton College, Oxford,[1] where he received his degrees of BA First Class in English Language and Literature, MA, and DSc. He also remained the President of Oxford Inter-Collegiate Christian Union (OICCU) in 1925.


In 1926 he was appointed Vice-Principal of Wycliffe Hall, Oxford and in the following year he became a lecturer at Merton College, Oxford. He went to India in 1927 as a missionary. He first joined Christian Service Society in Pune. The first time he visited the central India, current states of Madhya Pradesh, Chhattisgarh, and parts of eastern Maharashtra was with another Indian from Pune, Shamrao Hivale. Their studies are on the tribes are some of the earliest anthropological studies in the country. Over the years he was influenced by the philosophies of Mahatma Gandhi and Rabindranath Tagore. He participated in the Indian independence movement and in 1930 Gandhi said he regarded Elwin as a son.[8]

He came out with numerous works on various tribal groups in India, the best acclaimed being those on Maria and Baigas.

After India attained independence in 1947 he was asked by Jawaharlal Nehru to find solutions to the problems that emerged among the tribal peoples living in the far northeastern corner of India, the North East Frontier Agency (NEFA). NEFA is now the State of Arunachal Pradesh, just north of Assam. He also remained a Fellow of the Indian National Science Academy.[9]

The historian Ramachandra Guha's biography Savaging the Civilized: Verrier Elwin, His Tribals, and India (1999) brought renewed attention in India to Elwin's life and career.

On Ghotul[edit]

Verrier Elwin wrote – "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, hospitality 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."[10]

Personal life[edit]

Elwin married a Raj Gond tribal girl called Kosi who was a student at his school at Raythwar (Raithwar) in Dindori district in Madhya Pradesh. She was 13 and Verrier 38 at the time of their marriage on 4 April 1940. Elwin made his wife Kosi the subject of his anthropological studies including publishing intimate sexual details in what is called participant observation. They had one son, Jawaharlal (Kumar), born in 1941. Elwin had an ex-parte divorce in 1949, at the Calcutta High Court. He remarried a woman called Leela, belonging to the Pardhan tribe in Patangarh (Pathangad)Chhattisgarh. They had three sons, Wasant Nakul and Ashok.[11] Elwin died in Delhi on 22 February 1964 after a heart attack.[2][5][12][13]


  • The Dawn of Indian Freedom, with Jack Copley Winslow. G. Allen & Unwin, 1931.
    • Gandhi: the Dawn of Indian Freedom, with John Copley Winslow. Fleming H. Revell company, 1934..
  • Truth about India: can we get it?. G. Allen & Unwin, 1932.
  • Mahatma Gandhi: sketches in pen, pencil and brush, with Kanu Desai. Golden Vista Press, 1932.
  • Songs of the Forest: the folk poetry of the Gonds. with Shamrao Hivale. London: G. Allen & Unwin, 1935.
  • The Agaria. H. Milford, Oxford University Press, 1942.
  • The Aboriginals. H. Milford, Oxford University Press, 1944.
  • Folk-songs of the Maikal Hills. with Shamrao Hivale. H. Milford, Oxford University Press, 1944.
  • Folk-songs of Chhattisgarh. G. Cumberlege, Oxford University Press, 1946.
  • The Muria and their Ghotul. Oxford University Press, 1947.
  • Myths of Middle India, Indian Branch, Oxford University Press, 1949.
  • Bondo Highlander. Oxford University Press, 1950.
  • Maria Murder and Suicide, Oxford University Press, 1950.
  • The Tribal Art of Middle India: a personal record. Indian Branch, Oxford University Press, 1951.
  • Tribal Myths of Orissa. Indian Branch, Oxford University Press, 1954.
  • The Religion of an Indian Tribe. Oxford University Press, 1955.
  • Myths of the North-east Frontier of India, Volume 1. North-East Frontier Agency, 1958.
  • India's North-east Frontier in the Nineteenth Century. Oxford University Press, 1959.
  • The Art of the North-east Frontier of India, Volume 1. Pub. North-East Frontier Agency, 1959.
  • The Fisher-Girl and the Crab
  • A Philosophy for NEFA. S. Roy on behalf of the North-East Frontier Agency (NEFA), 1960.
  • A New Deal for Tribal India. Abridgement of the tenth Report of the Commissioner for Scheduled Castes and Scheduled Tribes for the year 1960–61. Ministry of Home Affairs, 1963.
  • When the World was Young: folk-tales from India's hills and forests. Publication Div., Ministry of Information & Broadcasting, Govt. of India, 1961.
  • The Tribal World of Verrier Elwin: an autobiography. Oxford University Press, 1964.
  • Religious and Cultural Aspects of Khadi. Sarvodaya Prachuralaya, 1964.
  • Democracy in NEFA.. North-East Frontier Agency, 1965.
  • Folk Paintings of India. Inter-national Cultural Centre, 1967.
  • The Kingdom of the Young, Oxford University Press, 1968.
  • The Nagas in the Nineteenth Century. Oxford University Press, 1969.
  • A New Book of Tribal Fiction. North-East Frontier Agency, 1970.
  • Folk-tales of Mahakoshal. Arno Press, 1980.
  • The Baiga. Gian Pub. House, 1986.
  • Leaves from the Jungle: life in a Gond village. Oxford University Press, 1992.
  • Verrier Elwin, Philanthropologist: Selected Writings, Ed. Nari Rustomji. North-Eastern Hill Univ. Publications; Oxford University Press, 2002, ISBN 0-19-565801-9.

Further reading[edit]

  • Anthropology and archaeology: essays in commemoration of Verrier Elwin, 1902–64. Ed. Mahesh Chandra Pradhan. Oxford University Press, 1969.
  • An evaluative study of Verrier Elwin, folklorist, by Bhabagrahi Misra. Indiana University, 1969.
  • Verrier Elwin: a pioneer Indian anthropologist. Asia Pub. House, 1973. ISBN 0-210-40556-2.
  • Verrier Elwin and India's north-eastern borderlands, by Nari Rustomji. North-Eastern Hill University Publications, 1988.
  • Din-sevak: Verrier Elwin's life of service in tribal India. Daniel O'Connor, Christian Institute for the Study of Religion & Society, Bangalore, 1993. ISBN 81-7214-069-X.
  • Savaging the Civilized — Verrier Elwin, his tribals and India, Ramchandra Guha. University of Chicago Press; OUP. 1999.
  • Against ecological romanticism: Verrier Elwin and the making of an anti-modern tribal identity, by Archana Prasad. Three Essays Collective, 2003.
  • Verrier Elwin as remembered by his family and friends, by B. Francis Kulirani, Bibhash Dhar. Anthropological Survey of India, 2003. ISBN 81-85579-80-6.
  • Between Ethnography and Fiction: Verrier Elwin and the Tribal Question in India. Tanka Bahadur Subba, Sujit Som, K. C. Baral (eds.). New Delhi: Orient Longman, 2005. ISBN 81-250-2812-9.
  • Sharma, Suresh Kant (2005). "1. The North East Frontier Agency by Verrier Elwin". Discovery of North-East India:. Mittal Publications. ISBN 81-8324-036-4. 

See also[edit]


  1. ^ a b Levens, R.G.C., ed. (1964). Merton College Register 1900-1964. Oxford: Basil Blackwell. p. 143. 
  2. ^ a b c World of Verrier Elwin[permanent dead link] by K. L. Kamat,8 August 2000.
  3. ^ a b Linebaugh, p. 162
  4. ^ Anthropological Survey of India Anthropological Survey of India, Kolkata, website.
  5. ^ a b "British scholar's Indian widow in penury". BBC News. 4 May 2006. 
  6. ^ "Padma Awards". Ministry of Home Affairs, Government of India. 2015. Archived from the original (PDF) on 15 November 2014. Retrieved July 21, 2015. 
  7. ^ "Sahitya Akademi Awards 1955–2007". Sahitya Akademi Award Official listing. Archived from the original on 11 June 2010. 
  8. ^ Mandelbaum, David (1965). "Verrier Elwin (1902–1964)". American Anthropologist. 67 (2): 448–452. doi:10.1525/aa.1965.67.2.02a00140. 
  9. ^ Science Academy, Indian National (1995). Biographical memoirs of fellows of the Indian National Science Academy, Volume 20. p. 101. 
  10. ^ "Archived copy". Archived from the original on 30 October 2007. Retrieved 13 February 2009. 
  11. ^ The Tribal World of Verrier Elwin: an autobiography
  12. ^ How a tribal girl's life became a book on sex Archived 3 February 2014 at the Wayback Machine. Indian Express, 5 March 1999.
  13. ^ "Elwin and Kosi were incompatible". The Indian Express. 10 March 1999. 

External links and further sources[edit]

  • The Muria and Their Ghotul by Verrier Elwin
  • Warren E. Roberts, 'Verrier Elwin (1902–1964)', Asian Folklore Studies 23:2 (1964), 212–14
  • The Tribal World of Verrier Elwin, An Autobiography, Oxford University Press (1964)
  • Beating a dead horse Verrier Elwin