Well that was unexpected: bone washing rituals among the outcastes of southern India

In the ethics section of DN 1 (etc.) there is a strange sequence of terms that are included among the kinds of shows that a mendicant should not attend.

caṇḍālaṁ vaṁsaṁ dhovanaṁ
outcaste, lineage (or bamboo), washing

It’s not at all clear how these are kinds of shows.

All the editions as well as the commentary treat these as three separate items. However, as pointed out by TW Rhy Davids, they occur together in the commentary to Ja 498, where they appear together as a single compound. There, two young candalas (outcastes) of Ujjeni (in Avanti, considered the south from the perspective of the early texts) decide to make use of the “craft” (sippa) of caṇḍālavaṁsadhovana, so they do it at the eastern and northern gates. Two women, experts in signs, see them and are so dismayed at the sight that they wash their own eyes out with perfumed water; which seems a little excessive at the mere sight of candalas.

Now, it seems from this that we should treat the three items as a compound and assume corruption in the DN text. Perhaps the commentary originally explained the items separately and the text was adjusted to suit.

The Jataka story does not tell us what the nature of the show was, but clearly it was something meant as an entertainment, which was taught as a tradition among the candalas.

The DN passage has been translated by Rhys Davids as “acrobatic feats by candalas". Bodhi has “acrobatic performances”, Walshe (followed by Thanissaro) has “acrobatic and conjuring tricks”. These are very loosely inspired by the commentary, which says:

Candala means a game with an iron ball, or they say it is the outcaste’s game of hemp-washing. Vamsa means, they lift up a bamboo and play.

I think we can ignore these. The interesting one is the explanation of dhovana (“washing”).

Dhovana means “bone-washing”. It seems that in certain countries when a relative dies, they do not cremate them, but bury them. Then, when they know the body has decayed, they exhume the bones. They set it in a certain place with liquor, etc., and weeping and wailing they drink the liquor. For it is said (AN 10.107): ““Mendicants, in the southern lands there is a practice named ‘[bone]-washing’. There they have food, drink, snacks, meals, refreshments, and beverages, as well as dancing, singing, and music. There is such a washing, I don’t deny it.” But some say the washing is bone-washing with Indra’s net.

Note that the word “bone” in “bone-washing” is only found in the commentarial quote of the discourse, not in the manuscripts. Nonetheless, it is an old attestation. The opinion of “some” regarding Indra’s net is interesting—explained as a magic trick by the subcommentary—but I think we can ignore it for our purposes.

Ven Bodhi appears to have misunderstood this (and I followed him), thinking that “washing” is the name of a country. Rather, it is the name of the practice in some southern countries. Note that AN 10.107 specifies “southern countries”, supported by Ja 498 set in Ujjeni; DN 1 commentary just says “certain countries”.

Clearly this is an interesting practice, and appears to be a genuine memory of an ancient, pre-Vedic funeral ritual. It is practiced among the candalas, who were native inhabitants of India before the “civilized” Aryans, and it is located in the less-Aryanized south.

It urns out that similar rituals are quite common. We find it among the Maya:

In certain regions of Okinamwa and Sulawesi:

And perhaps as far back as Neolithic times in Italy:

And it seems, among the Toda people of South India (though not much detail is given of their “second funeral”):

This is just from a quick search, I’m sure there will be many more.

Clearly similar ideas impressed themselves on the minds of far-flung peoples over a long period. It seems the “bone-washing” ritual serves as a reminder and confirmation of the true death of an individual, fully decayed, with all personal identification gone. The community gathers to remind each other, mourn one last time, then celebrate and honor the ancestors with beautiful flowers and fragrances. We can probably see a vestige of such rituals in the modern practice of cleaning the grave and placing flowers on it.

For all the textual confusion and disparate contexts, it does seem as if our three Pali sources are all speaking of the same thing. Both the Jataka and DN 1 present it as a kind of public show. The commentary equates DN 1 and AN 10.107. And if it really is a tribal funerary display of bones, that would explain why it was considered so inauspicious it required the ritual washing out of the eyes.

One problem though: how do we get from a tribal funeral ritual to a public performance?

In the Jataka, our candala heroes are so disappointed in the rejection of their performance, they decide to travel north to Taxila and get a brahmanical education. This situates the story explicitly in the growing brahmanization of their region. Their old ways are despised, their culture looked down on. Today, we see a similar process, where ancient tribal ways of deep meaning become performances in the public square.

I was walking down Circular Quay recently, and saw some Indigenous folks putting on a performance. I stopped to say g’day to their elder, Mike. His sons, and grandkids and friends from Queensland and elsewhere dress up in tradition makeup and clothes, play the didgeridoo, and dance the songs of the kangaroo and other stories of their ancestors. I had mixed feelings about it all. On the one hand, they’re keeping the customs alive and teaching them to the kids. One the other hand, it’s all so watered down and bereft of meaning, of context and place. And we can be sure that, like our candalas, they’ll be getting a “modern” education as well as learning their old ways.

So this is what I think caṇḍālavaṁsadhovana is: a tribal ritual of bone-washing, put on as a display for “civilized” folk.


Interesting. I’ve always been tickled by the story of the skull tapper who became a monk after Buddha played an amusing game with him.

But, hey … maybe they made the bones dance (for sure that would cause me to wash out my eyes) and there’s a little more to tantra’s Citipati than we know.

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Venerable Nyanatiloka mentions exactly this in his note on dhovana in AN 10.107. When I first read it it sounded so strange to me that I didn’t take it seriously. Meanwhile, after reading some of the discussions on this forum about brahmanical myths etc., it’d probably make me prick up my ears … :ear:

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This is the thing, so many things sound so strange when taken out of context. To me it is always so interesting to learn about what different people were doing, but also, how they were seen by others.

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After reading those articles about bone washing in Mexico and Okinawa, I can totally understand why the Buddha said to avoid those shows.


If it is a tribal display, then I suspect it may have something to do with the fact that tribal women in tropical countries are typically not overly dressed?