Baul Culture of Bengal

Baul Culture of Bengal: The Wandering Minstrels

Life in South Asian countries can be hierarchical. People living here have a set of priorities and work with them throughout their entire lives. City life here is busy and congested, people chasing their own ambitions and priorities all the time. The Bengal region of South Asia is nothing different. However, as much as people here are all strictly tied to a social and traditional lifestyle, for years there have been groups of people who have rejected such social ties. Bauls are one of such groups of people, who are the roots of the Baul culture of Bengal.

Who are Bauls?

Who are Bauls
Who are Bauls ? (Credit:

The word Baul is derived from the Sanskrit term “Batul”. The term traditionally means mad and is used for someone who is possessed or crazy for God.

There have been many opinions over who or what Bauls truly are. Many researchers and scholars have given a different description of the Baul culture. Some believe that, “The Bauls are a religious and cultural group of India, best known for their songs and poems to the god who dwells within.” Others describe them as “a mendicant folk sect”. Some scholars have also claimed them as “nonconformists”, who reject the traditional social norms to form a distinct sect that upholds music as their religion. What most of them agree with is the fact that the Bauls are a group of wandering minstrels who reside mostly in West Bengal and Bangladesh.

The Bauls can be seen wearing distinctive clothing, making them easily recognizable. Generally, they wear saffron robes, with uncut and often coiled hair and a neckpiece of beads made of basil stems. Women generally wear sarees.

Origin of the Bauls and the Culture

Baul culture
Baul Culture (Credit:

Not a lot is known about when the sect originated or of the origin of Baul. A recent theory, however, suggests that the Bauls are descendants of a branch of Sufism called “Ba’al”. Devotees of this sect of Sufism were locals in Iran, dating back to the 8th-9th centuries. By the 15th century, the Baul sect had made its appearance, as is evident from the use of the term in Shah Muhammad Sagir’s yusuf-zulekha, giving a slight idea of the possible origin of the Baul Culture of Bengal. Other than that, Baul can be found in Maladhar Basu’s srikrishnavijay, Bahram Khan’s laily-majnu, and Krishnadas Kaviraj’s Srichaitanyacharitamrita.

Baul Culture of Bengal

Baul Culture of Bengal
Baul Culture of Bengal (Credit:

Primarily, the Baul culture has mixed elements of Sufism and Vaishnavism. Bauls are a very heterogeneous group, with many sects, but their membership mainly consists of Vaishnava Hindus and Sufi Muslims.

There are three major communities or lineages of Baul. The first lineage, associated with the Birbhum District, is considered to be the source of the Baul tradition in West Bengal and shows many influences, including Tantric Buddhism and Shaktism. The second community, called the Navadvipa sampradaya, is found primarily in the Nadia and Murshidabad districts and shows strong Bengali Vaishnava influence. The third group is called the Fakir sampradaya, who are Muslim Bauls and are found primarily in Bangladesh.

Baul may belong to an unorthodox devotional tradition, influenced by Hinduism, Buddhism, Vasinavism and Sufi Islam; it is still distinctly different from them.

Baul Beliefs

Baul Beliefs
Baul Beliefs (Credit:

Bauls do not identify themselves with any organized religion, or with the caste system, special deities, temples or sacred places. They share only one belief, that God is hidden within the heart of man and neither priest or prophet, nor the ritual of any organized religion can help one to find God. According to Baul beliefs, humans are all a gift of divine power and the body is a temple, music being the path to connect to divinity.

Over the years, Baul beliefs have been derived from many sources. From the 5th century AD, Tantric Buddhism was strong in Bengal, until the Muslim conquest in the early thirteenth century. Sufism or Islamic mysticism then arose in the area. It became intermingled with the rising tide of devotional Vaishnavism and its tantric offshoot, Sahajiya Vaishnavism. Shakta religion, the worship of power as a goddess, grew from an esoteric meditative tradition to widespread devotional love. It also created a strong influence on the Baul tradition. As a result, Shaktism was incorporated into the Baul songs, both as worship of the physical woman and as imagery from Kundalini yoga.

The Baul beliefs started reflecting in their songs, devoting songs towards deities and calling them Bhagavan, Radha/Krishna, Shiva/Shakti, Allah, as well as the man of the heart, the unknown bird, the great bliss or infinite light. Today, some Baul songs include Christian elements as well, because of the popularity of Christianity among Westernized Indians.

Baul Rituals and Practices

Baul Rituals and Practices
Baul Rituals and Practices (Credit:

The Bauls have a system of religious theology and practice. It is characterized by the belief that God exists physically within the world, especially within the human body. According to Bauls, the body is pure because God is present there.

The Baul practice shows tantric influence on both, the importance of having a female partner and its acceptance of sexuality as a path to religious experience. There are sexual rituals, which are not only associated with God, but it is believed that God can be perceived by the performers of the ritual.

There are two classes of Bauls.

Ascetic Bauls renounces family life and society, surviving on alms. They do not have any settled homes, as they continue to move from one place to another. Women committed to the service of ascetics are known as “Sevadasis”. A male Baul can have one or more sevadasis, who are associated with him in the act of devotion. An ascetic Baul alone can initiate a person into the group. In that scenario, the relationship between the initiator and the initiate is similar to that between a pir and his disciple. Once inducted into the group, even non-ascetic Bauls are forbidden to have children, though some may do so with their guru’s permission.

The other classification of Bauls lives with their families. They have their own families and children. Unlike ascetic Bauls, they have fewer strict rituals. In order to become Bauls, they recite some mystic verses and observe certain rituals. In recent years, the number of Bauls opting for domestic life has been on the rise.

The Bauls have “ghars” or lineage, or in other words, guru-traditions. These ghars or gurudharas cause slight differences in devotional rites and music. These ghars are named after the principal Baul gurus, the names being Lalon Shahi, Panju Shahi, Delbar Shahi and Panchu Shahi. There is also a special section of the Bauls, known as Kartabhaja, who follow Vaisnava traditions and are known as sati mayer ghar. In the Lalon Shahi tradition, there is a predominance of Sufistic and tantric beliefs with sahajiya rituals. However, in the Panju Shahi tradition, tantric beliefs and sahajiya practices are absent.

The Musical Aspect of Baul

The Musical Aspect of Baul
The Musical Aspect of Baul (Credit:

The Baul religious beliefs and practice are expressed through songs, as there is no revealed text and no single founder. Over the years, there have been many songs which emphasis a different aspect of the Baul beliefs. Some songs emphasize ‘sahaja’ or spontaneity, and states of religious ecstasy and creativity that come within, without any effort. Others describe the role of ‘sadhana’ or disciplined religious practices, which seek to induce the state of ecstasy.

Generally, Bauls croon from their hearts and pour out their feelings and emotions in their songs. However, they never bother to write their songs down, as it is essentially an oral tradition.

The lyrical themes of the songs are mostly philosophical. They often take the form of allegories about the state of disconnect between the earthly soul and the spiritual world. Most of the lyrics philosophize on love and the many-splendored bonds of the heart, subtly revealing the mystery of life, the laws of nature, the decree of destiny and the ultimate union with the divine.

These songs are very elegiac in tone. They reflect the pain of deprivation or longing. Every Baul song can be interpreted in two ways; in terms of human love and in terms of divine love. They refer to these two modes as the lower stream and the upper stream.

Continued Musial Aspects

Generally, there are two kinds of Baul songs; raga dainya and raga prabarta. These ragas, however, are not of Classical Music, but of Bhajans, as Baul songs are heavily inspired by Vaishnavism.

Even though the Baul music of West Bengal is heavily influenced by Sahajiya Vaisnavism, some influence of Kirtan can also be observed. In Bangladesh, the influence of Sufi ghazals is stronger on the country’s Baul music. At times, Baul songs reflect the influence of bhatiyali tunes as well. Boatmen of the Bengal region also sing these songs while plying their boats in the rivers.

There are essentially five gharanas of Baul songs, devolving from the well-known exponents of this genre. The gharanas are Lalon Shahi, Panju Shahi, Delbar Shahi, Ujal Shahi and Panchu Shahi.

Although Baul songs come mainly from the region of Kushtia, singers of other regions bring in different influences, particularly in tunes and styles. In the past, there were no fixed tunes for Baul songs, as they were not written down.

Baul Instruments

Baul Instruments
Baul Instruments (Credit:

The Baul singers use a variety of indigenous musical instruments. The most commonly used instrument is the “ektara”, which is a one-stringed drone instrument and is carved from the epicarp of a gourd and made of bamboo and goatskin. Other than that, there is “dotara”, or a multi-stringed instrument made of the wood of a jackfruit or neem tree. Besides that, there is also “khamak”, a one-headed drum with a string attached to it which is plucked. Other instruments include “dugi”, which is a small hand-held earthen drum, “dhol” and other leather instruments like “khol” and “goba”. There are also “ghungur” and “nupur”, which are chime tools, small cymbals called “kartal” and “mandira”, bamboo flute, harmonium etc.

Notable Baul Singers over the Years

Notable Baul Singers over the Years
Notable Baul Singers over the Years (Credit:

Lalon Fakir

Also known as Lalon Fakir Shah, he was a prominent Bengali philosopher, Baul saint, mystic, songwriter, social reformer and thinker. He was regarded as an icon of Bengali culture, and was one of the first pioneers of Baul music and the culture itself. Through his songs, Lalon Fakir spread his idea of a society where all religions and beliefs would stay in harmony. His thinking inspired and influenced many poets, social and religious thinkers, including Rabindranath Tagore, Kazi Nazrul Islam, and Allen Ginsberg.

Shah Abdul Karim

Dubbed as “Baul Samrat”, Shah Abdul Karim was a popular Bangladeshi Baul musician. Some of his notable songs include “Keno Piriti Baraila Re Bondhu”, “Murshid Dhono He Kemone Chinibo Tomare”, “Nao Banailo Banailo Re Kon Mestori”, “Ashi Bole Gelo Bondhu” and “Mon Mojale Ore Bawla Gaan”.

Purna Das Baul

Popularly known as “Purna Das Baul Samrat”, he is currently one of the most famous Baul musicians all around the globe.

Other significant names are Bhaba Pagla, Parvathy Baul, Kartik Das Baul etc.

The Influence of Baul

The Influence of Baul
The Influence of Baul (Credit:

There are many influences of Baul music that can be found in different cultures. Rabindra Sangeet, the creation of Bengal’s greatest poet, the Nobel laureate Rabindranath Tagore, has a heavy influence of Baul music on it. The Baul pattern also inspired many other successful poets, playwrights, and songwriters of the 19th and 20th centuries.

Baul Fusion

Baul Fusion
Baul Fusion (Credit:

Purna Das Baul and his sons Krishnendu, Subhendu, and Dibyendu have their own fusion band, ‘Khyapa’. The band performs on national, as well as international platforms, introducing to the world a new version of Baul music.

In 1970, Purna das Baul and his family performed on stage in London for the Rolling Stone concerts. Later, the Rolling Stones also produced an album called ‘Jai Bangla’.

Kartik Das Baul has taken baul to different heights by associating himself with a folk fusion named Baul rock. This type of baul was brought into the world of music by ‘Bolepur Bluez‘, which was the world’s first folk fusion band.

The Western Bauls, who play under the spiritual direction of Lee Lozowick, a student of Yogi Ramsuratkumar, are also there in America and Europe. Even though the music sounds different, the essence of the spiritual practices of the East is well maintained.

In 2019, American Grammy-nominated bluegrass Fiddler Casey Driessen collaborated with Rina Das Baul on an album. Rina das Baul, along with her troupe named Rangamatir Baul, performed on several international platforms as well.

In Conclusion

Baul Culture
Baul Culture (Credit:

Even the turbulence of the 20th and 21st centuries could not cause any effect on the Baul culture of Bengal. The Baul tradition is so integral to Bengal that it is hard to think of Bengali culture without the Bauls. The spirit of the Bauls is the spirit of Bengal; ever-flowing in society and culture, literature and art, religion and spirituality.


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