Folklore of India

From New World Encyclopedia
The culture of India has been broken down into five main geographical regions.

The folklore of India comprises the folklore of the nation of India and the Indian subcontinent. Folklore is the body of expressive culture, including tales, music, dance, legends, oral history, proverbs, jokes, popular beliefs, customs, and so forth within a particular population comprising the traditions (including oral traditions) of that culture, subculture, or group. The subcontinent of India contains such a diversity of ethnic, linguistic, and religious groups that it is difficult to generalize widely about its folklore. India has 24 officially-recognized languages, and an estimated 1,200 languages in all, including many that do not have written scripts. Each of these has its own subculture, local customs, and oral traditions.[1]

The folklore of India is distinguished from classical Sanskrit literary traditions by its colorful local bias. Stories and oral epics glorify local heroes and places and are expressed in local languages and dialects. Folklore is created and enjoyed by the lower castes and classes who often use it to champion their values and to raise themselves above their social circumstances. Most Indian folklore has a religious character and may be associated with sacred rites or festivals. Folklore heroes are frequently defied and worshiped in their communities. Collections of Indian folktales have circulated in written form throughout Indo-European world for centuries and have inspired numerous translations and derivatives. India has a rich tradition of folk painting and the decorative arts which is appreciated and enjoyed all over the world today. Several popular modern board games, including Chess, Parcheesi and Snakes and Ladders, originated in India.

A seventeenth century Mughal painting

Characteristics of the folklore of India

Much of Indian folklore has a religious character. Hinduism, the religion of the majority of the citizens of India, is a heterogeneous faith with diverse local manifestations. Folk religion in Hinduism may explain the rationale behind local religious practices, and contain local myths that explain local religious customs or the location of temples. These sorts of local variation have a greater importance in Hinduism than comparable customs would have in religions such as Christianity or Islam.

Social stratification and the Hindu caste system also influence the character of Indian folklore. Members of poorer classes and lower castes have traditionally not had access to the formalized Sanskrit literature of the educated Brahmins, and have developed oral traditions of their own that sometimes mimic and sometimes parody that literature. The great pan-Indian epics, such as the Ramayana, Bhagavadgita and Mahabharata, were oral traditions long before they were written down in Sanskrit, and drew from numerous local myths and heroic legends, but over the centuries they have become standardized. While these standardized literary epics promote a strong sense of national identity, indigenous oral epics embody local legends, occupations, culinary traditions, community heroes and the customs of specific castes and sub-castes.

Oral folk epics seek to strengthen the legitimacy of local rituals and practices, and to preserve a history of the names of all the important people and places in a community. They are typically performed as offerings to local deities or at religious festivals. The heroes of local oral epics are often from lower castes, such as cowherds, farmers or cobblers, and the singers who perform these epics are also from lower castes. The desire for upward social mobility is evident in these epics as these heroes become divine or achieve great material success, and local deities increase their status.


Bhutanese painted thanka of the Jataka Tales, eighteenth-nineteenth century, Phajoding Gonpa, Thimphu, Bhutan.

Indian folktales may be used to teach religious precepts or moral lessons to the young, or simply to entertain. The oral tradition is one of the oldest continual traditions in the world. Several written compilations of Indian folk tales have been in existence for more than a thousand years, and have circulated through the Indo-European world, inspiring numerous translations and derivatives. Many of the same themes are found in the folktales of other cultures, either because of cultural contact or because they are so universal that they occur wherever people live together in a community.


The Panchatantra [2][3][4][5] (also spelled Pañcatantra, in Sanskrit: पञ्चतन्त्र, 'Five Principles') or Kalīleh o Demneh (in Persian: کلیله و دمنه) or Anvār-e Soheylī[6][7][8] (another title in Persian: انوار سهیلی, 'The Lights of Canopus') or Kalilag and Damnag [9] (in Syriac) or Kalīlah wa Dimnah [10] (in Arabic: كليلة و دمنة) or Kalila and Dimna[11] (English, 2008) or The Fables of Bidpai. [12][13] (or Pilpai, in various European languages) or The Morall Philosophie of Doni (English, 1570) was originally a canonical collection of Sanskrit (Hindu) as well as Pali (Buddhist) animal fables in verse and prose. The original Sanskrit text, now long lost, and which some scholars believe was composed in the third century B.C.E.[14] is attributed to Vishnu Sarma. However, based as it is on older oral traditions, its antecedents among storytellers probably hark back to the origins of language and the subcontinent's earliest social groupings of hunting and fishing folk gathered around campfires. It illustrates, for the benefit of princes who may succeed to a throne, the central Hindu principles of Raja niti (political science) through an inter-woven series of colorful animal tales. The five principles illustrated are:

  • Mitra Bhedha (The Loss of Friends)
  • Mitra Laabha (Gaining Friends)
  • Suhrudbheda (Causing Dissension Between Friends)
  • Vigraha (Separation)
  • Sandhi (Union)
A page from Kelileh va Demneh dated 1429, from Herat, a Persian translation of the Panchatantra derived from the Arabic version—Kalila wa Dimna—depicts the manipulative jackal-vizier, Dimna, trying to lead his lion-king into war.


Hitopadesha is a collection of Sanskrit fables in prose and verse, similar to, though distinct from, the Panchatantra. The only clue to the identity of the author of Hitopadesha is found in the concluding verses of the work, which gives us the name Narayana (नारायण), and mentions the patronage of a king called Dhavalachandra, of Bengal. No other work by this author is known, and the ruler mentioned has not been traced in other sources. Hitopadesha, derives from two words, hita (हित) and upadeśa (उपदेश), and means "to counsel or advise with benevolence." The author, Narayana, says that the main purpose for creating the Hitopadesha is to instruct young minds in the philosophy of life so that they are able to grow into responsible adults. The stories feature animals and birds as the protagonists and are written so that the moral lesson of each tale is clear and obvious.

Originally compiled in Sanskrit, it was rendered, by order of Nushiraván, in the sixth century C.E., into Persic. From the Persic it was translated into Arabic in 850, and thence into Hebrew and Greek. It circulated widely in its homeland. The Emperor Akbar, impressed with the wisdom of its maxims and the ingenuity of its apologues, commended the work of translating it to his own minister Abdul Fazel, who put the book into a familiar style, and published it with explanations, under the title Criterion of Wisdom. An English translation by Sir Edwin Arnold, then Principal of Puna College, Pune, India, was published in London[15] in 1861.[16]From its numerous translations came Aesop’s Fables, The Instructive and Entertaining Fables of Pilpay. (1709) and Goethe’s Reineke Fuchs. It has some representative in all the Indian vernaculars.

The Jātaka Tales

The Jātaka Tales (Sanskrit जातक and Pali, Malay: jetaka, Lao: satok) is a voluminous body of folklore-like literature concerning the previous births (jāti) of the Buddha. The word Jataka most specifically refers to a text division of the Pali Canon of Theravada Buddhism, included in the Khuddaka Nikaya of the Sutta Pitaka, comprised of 547 poems, arranged by increasing number of verses. A commentary of prose stories provides context for the poems. Alternative versions of some of the stories can be found in another book of the Pali Canon, the Cariyapitaka, and a number of individual stories can be found scattered around other books of the Canon. Epigraphic and archaeological evidence, such as extant illustrations in bas relief from ancient temple walls, indicate that the Jataka Tales had been more-or-less formally canonized from at least the fifth century. The fables of Jataka are intended to impart values such as of self-sacrifice, morality, and honesty.

Many of the stories found in the Jataka have been found in numerous other languages and media—many are translations from the Pali but others are instead derived from vernacular traditions prior to the Pali compositions. Sanskrit (see for example the Jatakamala) and Tibetan Jataka stories tend to maintain the Buddhist morality of their Pali equivalents, but re-tellings of the stories in Persian and other languages sometimes contain significant cultural adaptations. Some of the apocryphal Jatakas (in Pali) show direct appropriations from Hindu sources, with amendments to the plots to better reflect Buddhist morals.

Folk epics

India possesses a large body of heroic ballads and epic poetry preserved in oral tradition, both in Sanskrit and the various vernacular languages of India. One such oral epic, telling the story of Pabujii, has been collected by Dr. John Smith from Rajasthan; it is a long poem in the Rajasthani language, traditionally told by professional story tellers, known as Bhopas, who deliver it in front of a tapestry that depicts the characters of the story, and functions as a portable temple, accompanied by a ravanhattho] fiddle. The title character was a historical figure, a Rajput prince, who has been deified in Rajasthan.[17]

In the south of India, the Telugu the folk epic, The War of Palnadu, translated into English by Dr. Gene Waghair, tells the story of Balachandra and the Andhra Kurukshetra War, which weakened the power of Vengi Chalukyas and paved way for the emergence of Kakatiyas as a great Telugu dynasty. The Tulu folk epic Siri tells of Siri, a royal heroine who, during an annual Siri festival, is believed to confer her powers on women in trance.

Indian folk heroes

Ancient heroes of the Sanskrit epics, historical figures and modern heroes of the Indian independence movement are well known to everyone and occupy a place in written literature, but their greatest presence is in the Indian cultural sub-system. Indian folk heroes are most popular. Regional heroes, local and tribal folk heroes are alive in the collective memory of the people with diverse language, religions and cultural traditions. "Beer Kherwal" and "Bidu Chandan" are heroes of the Santals[18], one of the earliest tribal groups of India known to have migrated southward from the Northwest. "Chital Singh Chatri" is the folk hero of the Gonds. "Lakha Banjara" and "Raja Isalu" are Banjara folk heroes. The Banjara epics feature heroines, reflecting the "Sati" cult.

Oral epics have resulted in "counter texts," variations of classical epics in which the heroes and heroines do things that would be impossible in a classical epic, such as a younger brother becoming a hero and killing his elder brother. Folk heroes are sometimes deified and are worshiped in a village or region. The protagonists of Indian folklore are often romantic as well as mythical heroes.

Like formal classical epics, which are often performed in a religious context, oral epics such as the Kalahandi epics are performed as both sacred ritual and social entertainment.

Indian folklorists

The scientific study of Indian folklore, using anthropological disciplines and methods to conduct systematic surveys, began after Indian independence. Under the British Raj, administrators reported on local cultural knowledge and folklore in order to better understand the people they wanted to rule. Christian missionaries sought to learn folklore so that they could create religious literature for evangelistic purposes. Early collectors felt more freedom to creatively reinterpret source material, and collected their material with a view to the picturesque rather than the representative. The British writer Rudyard Kipling, who had dealt with English folklore in Puck of Pook's Hill and Rewards and Fairies, created similar works with Indian themes. Kipling had spent a good part of his early life in India, and was familiar with the Hindi language. His two Jungle Books contain stories written after the manner of traditional Indian folktales. Indian themes also appear in his Just So Stories, and many of the characters have names from Indian languages. During the same period, Helen Bannerman wrote the now notorious Indian-themed tale of Little Black Sambo, which represented itself as an Indian folktale.

After Indian independence in 1947, scholars began to search for their national and local identities through legends, myths, and epics. Devendra Satyarthi, Krishna dev Upadhayaya, Jhaberchand Meghani, Prafulla Dutta Goswami, Ashutosh Bhattacharya, Kunja Bihari Dash, Somnath Dhar, Ramgarib Choube, Jagadish Chandra Trigunayan, and others pioneered the collection of Indian folklore, although their approach was more literary than scientific.

During the 1970s, Indian folklorists trained at universities in the United States began to employ modern theories and methods of folklore research. Academic institutions and universities in India established departments to study the folklore of their respective regions, particularly in south India, with the aim of preserving their cultural identity and languages. They have produced thousands of trained folklorists, and in the last five decades, much has been done to collect and preserve folklore. During the 1980s the Institute of Indian Languages and the American Institute of Indian Studies began a systematic study of Indian folklore. Contemporary Indian folklorists include Jawaharlal Handoo, V. A. Vivek Rai, Komal Kothari, M.D. Muthukumaraswamy, Birendranath Dutta, B. Reddy, Sadhana Naithani, P. Subachary, Mahendra Mishra, Molly Kaushal, and Raghavan Payanad. Finnish folklorist Dr. Lauri Honko conducted important field work on the Siri Epic, and by analyzing tales and Indian art, classified rituals into three main categories, rites of passage, calendrical rites and crisis rites, stressing the importance of interpreting these within the context of the religious culture. American Peter J. Claus made a critical study of the Tulu Epic, which originated in the Tulu language, which never had a written form, and derive from non-Vedic sources. The tales are enacted as narrative songs in the Mysore area of Southern India, traced back to the sixteenth century, based on rice paddy songs of the women who are in trance.

The linguistic diversity of India, with 24 officially recognized languages, and hundreds of non-official living languages, is such that the folklore of different regions can only be compared by translating it into a common language. Since 1990, a number of epics have been collected and translated into English, with critical notes and introductions.

An emerging trend among folklorists, initiated by A. K. Ramanjuan (1929 - 1993), endeavors to interpret folklore from an Indian point of view instead of using a Western model. Folklore is still alive and functional in Indian communities, continuing to develop and fulfill an active social role. Folklorists prefer to acquire an understanding from those who create and consume folklore. The National Folklore Support Center in Chennai supports the continued study and development of Indian folklore and attempts to bridge the gap between academic folklorists and the active folklore community.

Folk arts of India

A rare Tanjore style painting from the late nineteenth century depicting the ten Sikh Gurus with Bhai Bala and Bhai Mardana.

India has a wide range of exquisite folk art traditions, including folk painting; jewelry making; embroidery, tie-dyeing and other decorative textile arts; and the fabrication of beautiful objects from wood, leather, 'papier mache' and cloth for ritual and everyday use. Tapestries, in particular, were elaborate backdrops for the dramatic narrative poetry that conveyed language, values, religion, and morality in migratory societies, where the tapestries could easily be folded and carried. Today, decorative Indian items made of cloth, wood or leather are sold all over the world as fashion accessories and accents for home décor.

Folk painting

Folk painting is done by artisans or craftsmen, in workshops or in the home. Some styles died out long ago, but the extant works capture many details of the clothing and lifestyle during the periods when they were created. Each school has unique features, subject matter and color palettes. Modern folk artists create copies of ancient styles to sell on the popular market.

Mughal paintings, miniatures illustrations for books or albums, emerged from Persian miniature painting, with Indian Hindu and Buddhist influences, and developed during the period of the Muslim Mughal Empire (sixteenth - nineteenth centuries). Highly colored Rajsthani miniatures, which developed simultaneously, portray Hindu deities and courtly scenes from Hindu epics, as well as scenes of everyday life.

Tanjore paintings (Tamil Language: தஞ்சாவூர் ஓவியம், Thanjavur Oviyam) native to the South Indian town of Thanjavur (anglicized as Tanjore) in Tamil Nadu, originated around 1600 C.E., and are known for their surface richness, vivid colors and compact composition. Created as devotional icons, they depict Hindu gods, goddesses, and saints. They are painted on wood panels and incorporate gold foil, semi-precious stones known as Jaipur stones, lace or thread in the ornamentation of the figures.

Madhubani painting, or Mithila painting, is practiced in the Mithila region of Bihar state, India. It was traditionally done by women on freshly plastered mud wall of huts, but now it is also done on cloth, hand-made paper and canvas. The paintings are two-dimensional and are painted with plant dies, ochre and lampblack. The style and content have remained unchanged for centuries. Madhubani paintings mostly depict nature and Hindu religious motifs, and the themes generally revolve around Hindu deities like Krishna, Ram, Shiva, Durga, Lakshmi, and Saraswati. No space is left empty; the gaps are filled with flowers, animals, birds, and even geometric designs.

A painting on a wall of a Warli house

The Warli, or Varli, an indigenous tribe whose beliefs, life and customs have little in common with Hinduism, produce ritual wall paintings for special occasions such as weddings or harvests. Painted in white on a background of red ochre, they use circles, triangles and squares to depict Palaghata, the mother goddess, in a central square surrounded by scenes portraying hunting, fishing and farming, festivals and dances, trees and animals.


Embroidered Phulkari from Patiala, Punjab region, India

The embroidery of India includes dozens of regional embroidery styles varying by region. The most ornate and tedious form of Indian embroidery is the Zardosi workmanship, using metal thread to cover a fabric, usually silk or velvet, with a pattern embellished stones or beads. Ari, or hook embroidery, is done by stretching the fabric on a frame and creating flower designs in concentric rings of chain stitching with a long a needle that also carries sequins, beads, and other embellishments. Kashmiri embroidery, or kashida, draws inspiration and colors from nature, incorporating motifs such as flowers, creepers and chinar leaves. The whole pattern is created using only one or two embroidery stitch styles. Chain stitch, satin stitch, the slanted darn stitch, stem, herringbone and sometimes doori or knot stitches are used but not more than one or two at a time. Sozni embroidery or dorukha is often done so skillfully that the motif appears on both sides of the shawl, each side having a different color. In 'papier mache' embroidery, flowers and leaves are worked in satin stitch in bright paint-like colors and each motif is then outlined in black. This is done either in broad panels on either side of the breadth of a shawl, or covering the entire surface of a stole.

Traditional board games

Iranian shatranj set, glazed fritware, twelfth century. New York Metropolitan Museum of Art.

A number of popular contemporary board games originated from ancient Indian games. Shatranj, the forerunner of modern chess, was introduced from India to Persia in the 1st century C.E.[19]. The word shatranj is derived from the Sanskrit chaturanga (chatuH= four, anga= arm). Snakes and Ladders originated in India was played widely in ancient India as Moksha Patamu, and the earliest known Jain version, Gyanbazi, dates to sixteenth century. Moksha Patamu was perhaps invented to teach Hindu children about the consequences of good deeds and bad deeds. The Ladders represented virtues such as generosity, faith, and humility, and the Snakes represented vices such as lust, anger, murder, greed and theft. The game taught that a person can attain salvation (Moksha) through performing good deeds, while evil deeds result as rebirth in lower forms of life (Patamu). The number of Ladders was less than the number of Snakes as a reminder that the path of goodness is very difficult compared to the path of evil.

Parcheesi is an American adaptation of the Indian Cross and Circle game Pachisi. The game is often subtitled "Royal Game of India" because Pachisi, created in India around 500 B.C.E., used red, yellow, blue and green pawns as dancers on palace grounds. Pachisi is the national game of India but has been played throughout the world for many years. It also very popular in Pakistan. In Europe the best known version of the game is Ludo. Pachisi is the oldest version of “Cross and Circle” board games played on boards which usually feature a circle divided into four equal portions by a cross inscribed inside it. Markers are moved around spaces drawn on the cross shape, and the winner is the first player to move all of his or her markers all the way around the board. The board may be seen as a mandala symbol showing Heaven and Earth, or the self and the four directions signifying the Universe.

See also


  1. Indian Folk Epics: Kannada Dr. C.N. Ramachandran. Retrieved September 15, 2008.
  2. Visnu Sarma, The Panachatantra, translated from the Sanskrit by Chandra Rajan, (London: Penguin Books, 1993). (This translation is from the Jain monk Purnabhadra's 1199 C.E. so-called North Western Family Sanskrit text that blends and rearranges at least three earlier versions.)
  3. Panachatantra translated from the Sanskrit by Arthur W Ryder, (Bombay: Jaico Publishing House, 1949) (from Ryder's esteemed original 1924 translation, also from the 1199 C.E. North Western Family text.)
  4. The Panachatantra, The Book of India's Folk Wisdom, translated from the Sanskrit by Patrick Olivelle, (Oxford, UK: Oxford University Press, 1997) (This translation is from the so-called Southern Family Sanskrit text, as is Franklin Edgerton's equally esteemed 1924 version [see Note 21 below].)
  5. Krishna Dharma. Panchatantra - A vivid retelling of India's most famous collection of fables. (Badger CA: Torchlight Publishing, 2004). (Accessible popular compilation derived from a Sanskrit text with reference to the aforementioned translations by Chandra Rajan and Patrick Olivelle.)
  6. The Anvari Suhaili; or the Lights of Canopus Being the Persian version of the Fables of Pilpay; or the Book Kalílah and Damnah rendered into Persian by Husain Vá'iz U'L-Káshifí, translated by Edward B. Eastwick, (Stephen Austin, Bookseller to the East-India College, Hertford 1854.)
  7. The Anwar-I-Suhaili Or Lights of Canopus Commonly Known As Kalilah And Damnah Being An Adaptation By Mulla Husain Bin Ali Waiz-Al-Kashifi of The Fables of Bidapai, translated by Arthur N. Wollaston, (London: W H Allen, 1877)
  8. The Lights of Canopus, described by J. V. S. Wilkinson, (London: The Studio Limited, 1930)
  9. Kalilah and Dimnah or The Fables of Bidpai by Ion Keith Falconer, (Cambridge University Press, 1885; reprinted by Amsterdam: Philo Press, 1970)
  10. Kalila and Dimna or The Fables of Bidpai by Rev Wyndham Knatchbull, Oxford 1819 (translated from Silvestre de Stacy's laborious 1816 collation of different Arabic manuscripts)
  11. Ramsay Wood. Kalila and Dimna, Fables of Friendship and Betrayal,Introduction by Doris Lessing. (London: Saqi, 2008). Retrieved September 17, 2008.
  12. The earliest English version of the Fables of Bidpai by Joseph Jacobs, edited and induced from The Morall Philosophie of Doni by Sir Thomas North, 1570. (London: 1888)
  13. The Fables of Pilpay, facsimile reprint of the 1775 edition, (London: Dwarf Publishers, 1987)
  14. The earliest English version of the Fables of Bidpai, by Joseph Jacobs, (London: 1888), Introduction, xv:

    "The latest date at which the stories were thus connected is fixed by the fact that some of them have been sculpted round the sacred Buddhist shrines of Sanchi, Amaravati, and the Bharhut, in the last case with the titles of the Jatakas inscribed above them. These have been dated by Indian archaeologists as before 200 B.C.E., and Mr Rhys-Davids produces evidence which would place the stories as early as 400 B.C.E. Between 400 B.C.E. and 200 B.C.E., many of our tales were put together in a frame formed of the life and experience of the Buddha."

  15. The Book of Good Counsels. Hitopadesa, translated by Sir Edwin Arnold on the Net. Columbia University. Retrieved September 17, 2008.
  16. The Fables of Pilpay, online, in English,The Fables of Pilpay, extract From The Bibliophile Library of Literature, Art, & Rare Manuscripts, Vol. VI, compiled and arranged by Nathan Haskell Dole, Forrest Morgan, and Caroline Ticknor; (The International Bibliophile Society, New York-London; 1904), 1765-1785. Retrieved November 21, 2008.
  17. A par or narrative painting, used by storytellers, depicting the story of the Rajasthani folk hero Pabuji (1938).Columbia University. Retrieved September 15, 2008.
  18. Sitakant Mahapatra, Bhubaneswar, Orissa, Folk Hero in a Tribal Society.ciil-ebooks. Retrieved November 21, 2008.
  19. David Pritchard. The Encyclopedia of Chess Variants. (Games & Puzzles Publications, 1994. ISBN 0952414201)

ISBN links support NWE through referral fees

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  • Appuswami, P. N. Tamil verse in translation: Sangam age. (Tamilp patalkalum avarrin Ankila moli peyarppum). Chennai: International Institute of Tamil Studies. 1987 (IITS publ. 131)
  • Pālacuppiramaṇiyan̲ Ci. Papers in Tamil literature. Madras: Narumalarp Pathippakam. 1981.
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  • Bugge, Henriette. Mission and Tamil society: social and religious change in South India (1840-1900). Nordic Institute of Asian Studies monograph series, no 65. Richmond, Surrey: Curzon Press. 1994. ISBN 070070292X
  • Casie Chitty, Simon. The Tamil plutarch: a summary account of the lives of the poets and poetesses of southern India and Ceylon from the earliest to the present times, with select specimens of their compositions. New Delhi: Asian Educational Services. 1982.
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  • Clooney, Francis X. Seeing through texts: doing theology among the Śrīvaiṣṇavas of South India. (SUNY series, toward a comparative philosophy of religions.) Albany, NY: State Univ. of New York Press. 1996. ISBN 0791429954.
  • Civattampi, Kārttikēcu. Drama in ancient Tamil society. Madras: New Century Book House. 1981. (A pioneering work, in which the author applies the method of historical materialism)
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  • Dharma, Krishna. Pancha Tantra - Five Wise Lessons: A vivid retelling of India's most famous collection of fables. Badger CA: Torchlight Publishing, 2004. ISBN 1887089454.
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  • Honko, Laurie: The Siri epic Part I: as performed by Naika, Gopala. Reviewed article by Mark Bender, Journal of American Folklore (July 1, 2001).
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  • Pritchard, David. The Encyclopedia of Chess Variants. Games & Puzzles Publications, 1994. ISBN 0952414201.
  • Wood, Ramsay. Kalila and Dimna, Fables of Friendship and Betrayal, Revised and Updated ed. Introduction by Doris Lessing. London: Saqi Books, 2008. ISBN 0863566618.


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