Verrier Elwin autobiography | Life and Work

Verrier Holwin Elwin, an anthropologist, ethnologist and tribal activist was born in 1902, Dover, England. His father was Edmund Henry Elwin, Bishop of Sierra Leone. He received his education from Dean Close School, Cheltenham and later at Merton College, Oxford where he obtained his degree of B.A, First class in English Language and Literature, M. A. and D. Sc. He was born in a devout Christian family and trained to become an Anglican Pniest and a missionary. While at Oxford, he became interested in India, which perhaps helped him to take the decision to come to the country of his liking later on.

Verrier Elwin autobiography

In 1926, he was appointed Vice-Principal of Wycliffe Hall, Oxford and in the following year, 1927, he became a lecturer at Merton College, Oxford. Verrier Elwin met a missionary by the name of J. W. Winslow whose influence changed his life forever. His love for India was always there and in 1927, he came to India as a missionary under Winslow It was his intention to spread the gospel and on his arrival, he joined the Christian Society Service in Pune. His first Rumination connection with the tribes of India occurred when he visited central India with an Indian from Pune, Shamrao Hivale. Central India then consisted of the present states of Madhya Pradesh, Chhattisgarh and parts of Eastern Maharashtra. Their findings about the tribes of this region are the earliest anthropological studies of the country, Elwin became deeply interested in the Gonad tribe of Madhya Pradesh and with his associate began to take an interest not only in their lifestyle but also in the necessity to reform them.

In India, he came across books of Hindu philosophy, which left its mark on him. The philosophies of Mahatma Gandhi and the books of Rabindranath Tagore equally influenced him. At that time, the Indian Freedom Movement was sweeping across the country under the leadership of Gandhi. He got the opportunity to travel with great nationalists like Patel and Jamnalal Bajaj and learnt about the sufferings of the people of the country. He was drawn towards Indian culture and gradually he drifted away from his faith and ultimately left the Church. He met Gandhi at Sabarmati Ashram and soon after, he began to work for Gandhi and the Indian National Congress. In 1935 while at Gandhi's Ashram he converted to Hinduism but two years later distanced himself from the Indian National Congress and from all forms of formal religion.

Long before that, Verrier Elwin had started to live like a native with the tribals of Madhya Pradesh. He wanted to reform them by banishing superstition and ignorance among them. This agenda brought him up against the church and the British government. In 1931, he resigned from the church; but the British government harassed him in many ways creating obstacles in his efforts at reformation. In 1932 he started an ashram at Karanjiya Village, he began to instruct the villagers about agriculture and opened a pharmacy. Villagers from far and near and the tribals inhabiting the forests came to his pharmacy. He had won the trust of the natives. Later, he established another ashram at Chitrakoot, for the tribals of Bastar. In 1940, he married Kosi, a Gond tribal and had two children Jwahar and Vijoy. After nine years in 1949, in the tribal tradition he married Lila, the daughter of a village head of Pathangad in NEFA now renamed Arunachal Pradesh where his work had taken him. His close association with the tribals allowed him to gather information about them, their culture, lifestyle, beliefs and faith. He soon became an authority on the subject, particularly on the Gondi people.

In 1945, the Anthropological Survey of India was established and he was appointed as the first Deputy Director. When India became independent, he took up Indian citizenship and the Prime Minister Jawaharlal Nehru appointed him as an advisor of tribal reforms for northeastern India and later became Anthropological Adviser to the government of NEFA. He was a fellow of the National Science Academy. Through his efforts different native tribes in central and northeast India were documented, several studies exposed tribal culture and lifestyle. The Adivasis of Central India who lived in the deep forests became Indian citizens because of Elwin's work. He believed that the tribes of India were in no way different from the so-called 'civilized' societies as they had perfect understanding of the ideals of liberty and equality; they implemented them naturally in society.

Verrier Elwin's work brought him to the north-east of India just north of Assam where he travelled extensively, mixed with the people and learnt about them. Late on he settled in Shillong and wrote about the different tribes of the north-east. His love for the land and its people is apparent in his work. In the preface to The Tribal World of Verrier Elwin published posthumously in 1964 he wrote, "My journey from a deeply evangelical home to modernist and Catholic Oxford and them through Gandhi's settlement at Sabarmati to the tribal hills of India involved many changes in my outlook and way of life.' In India he had found 'sorrow and joy, disappointment and fulfillment but above all reality.' Elwin who possessed a true missionary spirit passed away in Shillong, Meghalaya in 1963. He was an influential anthropologist of the twentieth century.

He has left behind a treasure in the form of books on the tribals of India. In 1965, he was honoured with the Sahitya Akademy Award, India's National Academy of Letters for his autobiography The Tribal World of Verrier Elwin' in the English language.


  • 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.

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