Paul Olaf Bodding

Paul Olaf Bodding

Here we will discuss Paul Olaf Bidding and his published works relating to folklore. It discusses his role in documenting the oral folk literature of the Santal tribal community of Santal Parganas.

It goes on to discuss the three-volume ‘Santal Folk Tales’ translated by Paul Olaf Bodding and studies various folkloric elements present in the folktales.

The tribal groups of Jharkhand

The tribal groups of Jharkhand are societies that had an oral tradition till European ethnographers; started documenting and writing down their traditions like folk epic, myths, legends, folk tales, proverbs; and riddles, folk songs, poems, and performances associated with them.

These oral narratives constituted a body of knowledge and the collective memory of the people. Much of the early work of collecting and documenting the oral narratives of the Jharkhand tribes was done by anthropologists; folklorists, and missionaries working in the region.

These collected narratives were often written down in European languages; and sometimes in the tribal languages themselves using the popular existing scripts like Roman, Bengali, and Devnagri.

Some scholars took it upon themselves to translate their folk tales, poems, songs; etc into European languages like Norwegian and English. A number of such translations were published and archived for research.

For a long time, these writings were considered to be of interest only for the social scientist and anthropological; and ethnographical research but a growing interest in oral narratives across the world has changed this attitude.

The study of oral narratives of the indigenous communities in Africa, America; and Australia has been introduced in many Universities; and schools across the world as academic courses in Oral Literature, Orature, and Folklore Studies.

Tribal oral narratives in India have now gained recognition as the ‘voice of the subaltern’ within the broad sphere of Literature from the Margins.

The Santal society

Santal or Santhal society was a pre-literate society till the mid-nineteenth century. The first attempts to write in Santali were made by an American Baptist missionary of Jellasore Rev. Jeremiah Phillips (1812-1879); when he published ‘An Introduction to the Santal Language’ in 2 1852 using Bengali alphabet to write Santali.

In 1873 Rev. Lars Olsen Skrefsrurd (1840-1910), a Norwegian Lutheran missionary of Benagaria Mission in Dumka; published ‘A Grammar of the Santal Language’ used the Roman alphabet to write Santali.

Paul Olaf Bodding (1865 – 1938)

Rev. Paul Olaf Bodding was a Norwegian missionary who came to India in 1890 and immediately set about learning Santali. His work in India was mainly to take over and continue the literary program initiated by Rev. Lars Olsen Skrefsrud of the Santal Mission in Santal Parganas.

Santali is a difficult language and he spent much time with the people to learn it thoroughly and idiomatically. He had undertaken the study of languages and ethnography in school to prepare for this task.

The “Bodding kora” (Bodding boy) as the Santals fondly called him was exceptionally gifted and very capable of discovering the specialties of the Santali language.

In the Introduction to ‘The Folklore of the Kolhan’, Pallabh Sengupta, Arpita Basu, and Sarmistha De Basu state thus ‘Rev. Bodding’s scholarship and erudition were well-known to all.

He had very closely interacted with the Santals for a pretty long time and consequently became an authority on their life, lore, and language. He readily introduced Bompas to the social and cultural orbit of the Santali people.

As a consequence of this association, Bompas translated 185 Santali folktales into English from the collection of Rev. Paul Olaf Bodding. These translations formed the main corpus of his well-known book ‘Folklore of the Santal Parganas’.

W.G. Archer

W.G. Archer worked in the Indian Civil Services and 16 years in Bihar has authored a couple of books on the Santals.

In the preface of his ‘Hill of Flutes – Love, Life, and Poetry in Tribal India: A Portrait of the Santals’ he pays high tribute to ‘… the great Bodding …’ praising him highly.

He further adds ‘… his huge Santal-English dictionary staggered me by its encyclopedic learning and gave me indispensable help.’

LSS O’Malley of Indian Civil Service and writer of ‘Bengal District Gazetteers

Santal Parganas’ acknowledges the contribution of Paul Olaf Bodding to his book. He writes that the entire chapterIV (total 62 pages) of the book was written with the help of Rev. Paul Olaf Bodding.

He states that ‘This chapter has compiled with the help of Rev. Paul Olaf Bodding of Mohulpahari, whose kindness in revising the draft and contributing large additions I cannot too largely acknowledge’.

Paul Olaf Bodding and Santal Dictionary

For his literary work, he usually had a group of co-workers (from two to six) whom he referred to as his ‘living dictionary’.
Sido of Ambajora village was the leader of the group assisting Paul Olaf Bodding with his work on the massive ‘Santal Dictionary’, which was his main aim at that time.

These workers who were literate were of great help in collecting and writing the stories and folklore. One of them – Sagram Murmu from Mohulpahari was considered to be an expert writer and it is he who has documented most of the stories collected by Paul Olaf Bodding.

Major literary contributions of Paul Olaf Bodding


  1. Kuk’li Puthi (Book of Riddles), 1 st edition, Benagaria Mission Press, 1899
  2. Kuk’li Puthi (Book of Riddles), 2nd edition, 1935
  3. Hor Kahniko (Santal Folktales) , Benagaria Mission Press, 1924

Santali with English Translation

4. A Chapter of Santal Folklore, Kristiana, 1924

5. Santal Folktales, I, II, III, Oslo, 1925 – 29


6. Materials for Santali Grammar I, Mostly Phonetical, Benagaria Mission press, 1922

7. Materials for Santali Grammar II, Mostly Morphological, Benagaria Mission Press, 1929

8. A Santal Grammar for Beginners, Benagaria Mission press, 1929

9. Studies in Santal Medicine and Connected Folklore, part I, Calcutta -1925, part II – 1927, part III – 1940

10. A Santal Dictionary, I, II, III, IV, V, Oslo 1929 – 36

11. Traditions and Institutions of the Santals, Oslo, 1942 (Translation of Skrefsrud’s Mare Hapramko).

Articles in English`

  1. The Meaning of the words ‘Burus’ and ‘Bongas’ in Santali (Journal of Bihar and Orissa Research Society, Patna – 12 (I) March 1926)
  2. Further Notes on ‘Burus’ and ‘Bongas’ (Journal of Bihar and Orissa Research Society, Patna – 12 (2) June 1926)
  3. Witchcraft among the Santals (Oslo Ethnographical Museum, 1940)
  4. A Note on the ‘Wild People’ of the Santals (Journal of the Asiatic Society of Bengal, Calcutta, New Series, 27 1931)
  5. Santal Riddles (Oslo Ethnographical Museum, 1940)
  6. Notes on Santals (Census of India)
  7. The Different Kinds of Salutations Used by the Santals (Journal of Asiatic Society of Bengal, Calcutta, 67 (3) 1898)
  8. The Taboos and Customs connected therewith among the Santals (Journal of Asiatic Society of Bengal, Calcutta, 67 (1) 1898)
  9. Advertisement
  10. Ancient Stone Implements in Santal Parganas (Journal of Asiatic Society of Bengal, Calcutta, 70 (2) Pt.3 1901)
  11. Shoulder-Headed and Other Forms of Stone Implements in the Santal Parganas (Journal of Asiatic Society of Bengal, Calcutta, 73 (2) Pt.3 1904)
  12. Some Remarks on the Position of Women among the Santals ((Journal of Bihar and Orissa Research Society, Patna – 2, September 1916).

Santal Folk Tales by Paul Olaf Bodding

These stories collected and wrote down by a group of Santal co-workers; who helped Paul Olaf Bodding in collecting a large number of folktales.

Santal Folk Tales by Paul Olaf Bodding

Sido of Ambajora village was their leader; and mainly involved in the Santal Dictionary. Sagram Murmu of Mohulpahari was most probably the ‘expert writer’; to whom Paul Olaf Bodding sent all the storytellers.

Majority of the stories in the three volumes have documented by Sagram Murmu; who often assumed the role of the authority adding moral commentaries to the narratives he collected.

Elizabeth Dordal

Elizabeth Dordal in her documentary essay ‘Paul Olaf Bodding’ writes; ‘Sido of Ambajora village was the co-worker and great help of Paul Olaf Bodding for many years.

Gausdal said that he was the leader of the group assisting Paul Olaf Bodding in his work. These co-workers were of great help in collecting and writing the folklore and stories.

One of them wrote so well that whenever Paul Olaf Bodding heard anyone tell a story. He would send the man to this expert writer. Thus Paul Olaf Bodding gathered a unique collection; directly transferred from the word of mouth into the written language’.

Sten Konow

Sten Konow in his introduction to ‘Santal Folk Tales’ says. ‘That they are genuine folk tales cannot be doubted.

They have noted down by a Santal whose horizon limited to the Santal country and Santal traditions. Much has written about the aboriginal tribes of India; but nevertheless, they still only imperfectly known.

It is not easy for a European to become quite familiar with their way of thinking; and of looking on the world, and even if he more or less succeeds in doing.

So, he will experience some difficulty in explaining things to other people. There cannot be a better or more reliable guide to the mentality of a strange people than a comprehensive collection of such tales; and traditions which live on the lips and in the hearts.’

A total of ninety-three folk tales from his collection of over 800 stories were translated by Rev. Paul Olaf Bodding himself and published in three volumes titled ‘Santal Folk Tales’. These folk tales are grouped according to their subject matter as follows:

Vol – I

Firstly, Stories about Jackals SL (1 – 15) Total – 15

Secondly, Stories about Women SL (16 – 24) Total – 09

Vol – II

Firstly, Humorous Tales SL (25 – 61) Total – 37

Secondly, Stories Referring to Ogres SL (62 – 67) Total – 06

Vol – III

Firstly, Stories Concerning Jugis SL (68 – 72) Total – 05

Secondly, Stories Concerning Souls in Human Bodies SL (73 – 78) Total – 06

Thridly, Stories About Animals Born by Women SL (79 – 80) Total – 02

Fourth, Miscellaneous Stories SL (81 – 930 Total – 13

All Total – 93

Other Stories’ of Paul Olaf Bodding

Many of the stories have the elements of a fairy tale, animal tale or a fable. In many stories the animals, human beings; and giants (ogres/rakas) all live together in the same social polity – this being an element of a fairy tale.

Some stories have animals and inanimate objects as characters of the story. They often point to a lesson at the end. These are elements of a fable. Some stories have juxtaposed with the elements of the fable and the fairy tale and sometimes animal tale as well.

Folkloric narratives

The universal element of folkloric narratives is present in the Santal folk tales too; teaching the Santal about the tricks of survival. Many of the stories grouped under ‘Humorous Stories’ stress upon the use of wit as a means of survival.

They advocate the use of common sense; and presence of mind in order to trick a stronger foe or to overcome a difficult situation. The trickster element in these stories is worth taking note of.

Humor Stories

Humor is an essential tool that has used to drive home the moral. Nearly all the stories designed to evoke laughter.
Retorts, exclamations, and witty repartee are often in rustic Bengali and they serve the purpose of adding comic relief to the stories.

Bengali and Hindi

Rustic Bengali and a kind of corrupt Hindi have often employed in the stories for religious chants, invocations, mantras, lamentations, and ritualistic bakhans. There are enough references to Bengali months in the stories for us to conclude that in general, the Santal followed the Bengali calendar.

There are many indications that lead us to infer that the Santals of Santal Parganas lived with Bengali speaking communities; long before they encountered any other languages.

Santals and the other communities

The folk tales depict the social-polity of the Santals; and the communities that they interacted with – the Raj (zamindar), Dom (drummers), Kamar (ironmonger); Kahar (palanquin bearer), Nau (barber), Kuiri, Teli, Garhwan, Jolha, etc.

Interestingly only the rich affluent man has referred to as the ‘deko’. Some of the stories are about a member from one of these communities with no Santal character in them.

Though the Santals interact with other communities they never show real evidence of influence by their economically advanced neighbors.

The Santali version of the folk tale

In the Santali version of the folk tale; the narrator (storyteller) placed inside the setting of the story. He belongs to the scene and events described in the stories.

In the English translation, the narrator (Bodding) placed outside the setting of the story. The Santali oral version has multiple inputs – verbal, audio, and visual making it dynamic; and multidimensional whereas the English, literate version meant only for reading making it one-dimensional.

Some scholars may argue that compressing oral narratives into a uni-dimensional framework results in loss of its vitality.

Paul Olaf Bodding in his meticulous translation of the stories has been quite faithful to the original; and has succeeded in preserving their flavor and feel to a very great extent.

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It is clear that Paul Olaf Bodding’s intention for writing the Santal Follk Tale’s book was academic for the purpose of research.

He added detailed endnotes with cross-references; which indicate that these collections has written with the research scholar in mind; and that the book meant for more than mere reading pleasure.