In Search of: Robin Hoods of the World

Every country has its Robin Hood… — Lawrence G. Green

Ah, but is that really true? My husband called me from work the other day; the question had somehow come up with his colleagues, and he turned to me, as the closest thing to a “folklore expert” he knows. It sounds like a statement, that ought to be true, doesn’t it? So far, I’ve only come up with a few, but this seems like a great question to throw out there into Bloglandia….

Robin Hood shoots with Sir Guy

Source: Wikimedia

By Robin Hood I mean primarily someone who is alleged to have robbed the rich to give to the poor, or at least defended the poor in some extralegal way. A folk hero is preferable: someone who was supposed to be a historical person (or maybe more than one; Wikipedia lists several people who might have been the “real” Robin Hood). For this list, I’ll accept fictional characters, especially if they are based on historical persons. In either case, I’d like someone who has in some way entered his country’s popular “folk” culture, in the way that Superman or Davy Crockett have entered the folk culture of the United States.

So here’s my list, so far, of international Robin Hoods. I’m hoping my readers can contribute more.

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The Story of a Mussalmani

Last year, while looking up folktales related to the Punjabi winter solstice festival Lohri, I came across the legend of the bandit Dulla Bhatti. Dulla Bhatti was a 16th century “Punjabi Robin Hood” who led a rebellion against the Mughal emperor Akbar. He robbed the Mughal officials who collected taxes and tributes for the emperor, and redistributed the money to the poor. One of the tales told of him is that after a Mughal soldier raped a young Hindu woman, Dulla Bhatti — a Muslim — took her in because no one else would. He arranged her marriage to a Hindu man, gave her a dowry, and even officiated the wedding in as close to an approximation to a Hindu wedding ceremony as he could manage. The stories of Dulla Bhatti are linked to Lohri; you can read my take on that relationship here.

Why am I bringing Dulla Bhatti up now, in the middle of June? Because as I mentioned in my last post, I’ve been reading Rabindranath Tagore. Tagore liked to play with folklore and fairy tale. “The Hungry Stones” is one example that comes to mind; there’s also “Once There Was a King,” “A Fanciful Story” (called “A Kingdom of Cards” in this online translation), and “The Wedding Garland” (“Malyadan” in Bengali — I can’t find it in English online), all of which play with folktale tropes and structure, sometimes explicitly, sometimes more subtly. Tagore’s last short story draft, from about a month and half before his death, is perhaps another example, one with some similarity to the Dulla Bhatti story I mentioned above. In the Oxford Press translation Selected Short Stories, it’s called “The Story of a Mussalmani.”

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The Legend of Dulla Bhatti

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I just wrote a post for the Non Stop Bhangra blog, to celebrate the Punjabi winter solstice festival, Lohri. In addition to marking the waning of winter, Lohri is also associated with marriage and new families. It is celebrated with singing, dancing, the sharing of sweets, and a huge bonfire.

Like any festival, there many stories of how the holiday originated. Some say that it’s in honor of the Sun God (since the days are now getting longer), or the Fire God. Some say that it’s in memory of the sisters Holika and Lohri: Holika is the sister of the demon King Hiranyakashipu. She was killed in a bonfire while trying to burn her nephew Prahlada (a devotee of Vishnu) to death. That bonfire, and the triumph of good over evil that it symbolizes, is celebrated in the spring festival of Holi. I’m not sure how Lohri ended up in that bonfire too, but according to the story, she did, and she survived. And so: the festival of Lohri. Some people say that the holiday is named after Loi (or Lohi), the wife of the mystic, poet, and holy man known as Kabir.

The story I like best, though, is the story of Dulla Bhatti.

Dulla Bhatti (Rai Abdullah Khan Bhatti) was a legendary sixteenth century outlaw from the Sandal Bar area of Punjab, between the Ravi and Chenab rivers, in what is now Pakistan. He led a rebellion against the Mughal emperor Akbar, and is a popular folk hero in Punjab because of his Robin Hood-like acts of kindness to the people. Dulla and his bandits regularly looted the tributes and taxes sent to the Emperor and redistributed them among the poor. Some people say that the Lohri custom of giving money or sweets to the children who go singing from door to door is in honor of Dulla Bhatti’s acts of generosity.

In addition to robbing the rich and giving to the poor, Dulla Bhatti also had a reputation for protecting young women from the, shall we say, depredations of the Mughal occupiers. That part of his legend is also celebrated around the Lohri bonfire.

You can read more about it in my post, here.

Honestly, it’s the story that’s least likely to be the origin of Lohri, but it’s a cool story all the same. Enjoy.


The photo above is by Gagan Singh, on Flickr.