Thursday, 13 October 2011

bull-baiting rituals in Indus valley...

Tiru. Iravatham Mahadevan, expert on Indian scripts and epigraphs, has mentioned about bull-baiting rituals in Indus valley, c. 2000 BCE. Looking at the seal M-312 published in The Hindu newspaper, I wrote a letter to the Editor. Here, it is.


The animal in the Indus seal (M-312 in A. Parpola, Corpus of Indus seals and inscriptions) given in the article by T. S. Subramanian ("Bull-baiting of yore", The Hindu, January 13, 2008) is most likely a water buffalo, not a taurus bull.

The body structure, legs, and the graceful inward-curving horns show it as a water buffalo. While four persons are not in direct physical contact with the buffalo and are shown vaulting all around the animal, there is a person stuck in the left horn of the animal. This human being is possibly a female and her chest is stuck in the buffalo's left horn. The person could be female because her long head-pendent made of cloth or braid is particularly visible above the buffalo's body. Note also the skirt worn by the female and the skirt of the central female figure in M-312 is mentioned by Indus archaeologist, W. A. Fairservis (Sci. Am., 238:3, 1983).

Alf Hiltebeitel ("The Indus Valley 'Proto-Siva', Reexamined through Reflections on the Goddess, the Buffalo, and the Symbolism of Vaahanas." Anthropos 73:5-6 (1978):767-97 ) thinks the animal involved is a wild buffalo.

pg. 772, "Finally it is likely that the horns are not only those of the buffalo but of the wild buffalo. Other Indus Valley seals show the animal in "truculent" poses, one buffalo in particular (Mackay, no. 510) having "thrown" five human figures about him. The upward curve of the horns which characterises the buffalo on all these seals portrays the animal at his most aggressive potential."

In Indus seals, women are shown many times wearing long head-pendent made of cloth in different seals. This "turban" like cloth tied around the head has a long tail-piece of cloth floating in the air. Next, we will see five Indus examples.

(1) K-65 seal from Kalibangan where a woman with a long hair-pendent stands in between two males holding spears. And this long "turban" is especially visible on the two women whose body is attached to tigers. The head ornamental cloth with a long tail-piece is called urumaalai, talaippaaLai, talaippaakai or talaikkaTTu in Tamil. Interestingly, the cloth-turban word stands for "generation" in Tamil, E.g., "10 generations" will be rendered as '10 talaikkaTTu' in Tamil due to the ritual of placing a turban for the succeeding generational person.

(2) M-305 seal (pg. 185, Parpola, 1994) where a woman with the long head cloth pendent and also wearing buffalo horns. She sits in the same yogic pose as the famous so called proto-siva (M-304) seal. Both M-304 and M-305 seem to have buffalo hooves. In Indus art, we see often horns on several animals (e.g. on tigers) and also composites. In Tamils' every day speech, horns are part and parcel of stock phrases. For clay ovens with multiple bumps to hold vessels, Sangam literature uses horn imagery - 'pal kOTTu aTuppu' literally 'multi-horned oven' (akanAn2URu), 'kOTu uyar aTuppu' (puRanAn2URu). "avanaik kompu 'horn' ciivaatE' (don't make him big or angry), "avanukku kompu muLaiccirukkaa?" (has he grown so big? lit. has he started growing horns), "avan periya kompanaa?" & so on. KampaNa, the founder of Vijayanagara kingdom, KampaNa < KompaNa "horned-leader" (kompu 'horn' > kampu). Also, Kampan, the Tamil poet who is like Shakespeare in English, supposed to be from vELaar potters caste traditional priests of Durga and KaaLi temples. In the early Buddhist art of India, Buddha is represented aniconically using a buffalo or gaur face. Even though art historians have called the Buddhist symbol variously as trident, nandipada, nandyavarta, triratna and so on, originally this seems to be a heritage from Indus civilization and Buddha is represented by a buffalo/gaur face, which I call as mahishamukha. Refer John Marshall's treatise on Mohenjodaro (3 volumes, ASI) where he identifies the Indus sign for the bovine face. Also, the Penguin India book by I. Mahadevan (in press, 2009) has a chapter on how the tamil nILakaNTan "great buffalo" turns into sanskrit nIlakaNTha "blue necked" for 'Siva.

(3) There is a pendent-wearing being (shaman priest. male?) standing under a pipal-leaf arch (R. Meadow, H95-2485, 1995 find. Thanks, Rich for the nice picture!). The "shaman" nature of the male priest is indicated by a "ladder" sign shown above his head. Even today, shamanistic ladders are found among the Kalash people in Pakistan. In Tamil, ladders are kaTavai, iRaivai (Cf. kaTavuL 'god', iRaivi 'goddess'). The human may be a male, but wearing the female "turban" we see so often in other seals, and also wearing bangles usually worn by females in Indus art. What is "he"? May be a shaman priest of the goddess we see in the pipal trees as shown in M-1186. He imitates his goddess by wearing her "turban" with a long tail-piece and her bangles, but note that he does not wear any skirt unlike females in M-1186 and M-312 and also the horns on the head are absent. Hence, my take that he is a priest, but not the goddess.

For comparison of the "turban" on the male priest in the pipal arch, take a look at the same "turban" worn by a male priest in M-1186 (5) (offering a human warrior head? Th "double-bun" hair style of the warrior head is visible). Here in H95-2485, bangles and long cloth pendent (both typical for females) as well as the pipal-leaf arch are symbols for the goddess whom the male priest serves. Such cross-dressing is seen even today on important festival days in some large south Indian temples. This "turban" is not the same as the braid which is shown on the seven women in M1186 (Pleiades?, called in south Indian village festivals as 7 virgins "7 kannimAr". may be the idea behind Murukan-skanda's mothers).

Tamil name of the ficus religiosa tree is 'araicu' - so named because of the noise of bodhi tree leaves in the forest winds and this phenomenon of murmuring leaves of the peepul trees are mentioned widely in Indian literature. The other famous fig tree is ficus indica (Indian fig tree). In Tamil, it is called aal and vaTam tree, so named because of the prominent aerial roots occupying large area. vaTam, which means 'rope' in Tamil, has entered Sanskrit and other Indian languages as a loan word denoting the banyan tree. The common English name for ficus indica tree, banyan comes from merchants striking deals in the shade of the village vaTam trees and vaNi/vaNiyan "merchant" (Cf. vaNij in Rgveda) has to do with "paNam" (token for barter, cash) in Tamil. p-/v- alteration: paNam/vaNi. The northerly direction in Tamil is vaTakku and this originates from the ficus indica name vaTam because of the astronomical associations of the Indian fig tree with the pole star.

(4) H-176 from Harappa is a very important seal on the Indus goddess religion. H-176a depicts a water buffalo, and the female with the long turban standing in front of a hut. On the H-176b side, the turbaned female is seated in the typical Indus deity fashion as in so-called proto-Siva seal (M-304) in the center. On her right is a sacrificial animal (markhor goat?) and on her left is the shaman on a tree (acacia?) with a tiger with its head turned back looking at him. Acacia (khadira) tree is particularly important for KoRRavai of the forest, as the famous Vanadurga temple is in the village, khadirA-mangalam in Thanjavur district. Rajaraja Cholan I who led naval expeditions against Ceylon, Maldives and Srivijaya kings in Southeast Asia was an ardent bhakta of Katiraa-maGkalam vanadurga and his sword is placed on the idol during worship there. KatiragAmam, a Murukan (s/o KoRRavai in sangam texts) temple in the dense forests of Sri Lanka is also named after the acacia tree. In Shaakta (tantra) worship of the goddess, tAmbulam (betel leaves) is chewed with acacia nuts (an astringent) and lime paste mix in old Indian literature.

(5) The famous M-1186 seal, where a female deity in a pipal (bodhi) tree frame stands and is shown at,
Walter A. Fairservis, Jr. who did archaeological work in the Indus valley sites wrote a book on Indus script taking it as belonging to Dravidian family of languages. Dr. Fairservis remarked about the female being attacked by a water buffalo in M-312, and mentioned the skirt worn by this woman in M-312 (Script of the Indus valley civilization, Scientific American, 238:3, pp. 58-66, March 1983) : "A fourth seal, even more elaborate than the "Lord of the Beasts," introduces a "worshipper element". It repeats the depiction of a pipal tree, this time at its upper right corner. Between the branches of the tree stands a horned anthropomorphic figure. Facing the horned figure is a kneeling one, skirted and thus presumably female; to the left of the kneeling figure is a large goat. Seven skirted figures occupy the bottom half of the seal, their hair dressed in some kind of long "ponytail." A rather gruesome depiction on a fifth seal [M-312 in the Parpola, Corpus of Indus inscriptions ~NG] shows several similarly coiffed figures, one of them wearing a skirt, being attacked by a water buffalo."

Please note that this is also possibly a mythological scene where a female deity fights with a buffalo demon. This seal of buffalo fight could have arisen from jallikattu-like village festivals with bulls and buffalo male animals in the bronze era Indus valley. It need to be researched whether this deity has relations with the goddess, kOTTaavii (early centuries CE in North India) and koRRavai of old Tamil literature. Several Indus era sites have place names ending as -kOT (cf. Tamil kOTTai). While there are scores of town names ending in kOTTai in south India, there are some that start with kOT- like kOTTaiyUr, kOTTaippAkkam as well (Cf. the pre-Harappan site, Kot Diji near Mohenjo Daro). Even now, there is an ancient Dravidian language called Brahui in the Indus region. The oldest Indian descriptions of bull-baiting are found in Tamil sangam literature, written at a time midway between the mature Indus valley civilization and now. In sum, M-312 is a Proto-Durga (KoRRavai/kOTTavi in Tamil, ...) mythological battle scene, and her aspects are seen in many Harappan civilization seals such as H-176, K-65 and M-1186.

Kind regards,
N. Ganesan


BTW, bull-baiting is described in sangam literature. And, later on the motif is found in Sanskrit bhakti texts like Bhagavatam written in Tamil Nadu. In sum, M-312 is a Proto-Durga (KoRRavai/kOTTavi in Tamil, ...) mythological scene. Observe that the horns of the buffalo do not seem attached to the animal head in his battle scene with proto-Durga (M-312). In historic Indian art, the most famous battle scene of Durga vs. buffalo is at Mamallapuram (7th century, Pallava) near Chennai. The buffalo horns little away from their head (M-312) can be compared with the hands dangling which are displayed at a little distance from the thighs in Indus seals showing gods in "yogic" posture. An example from Dean Anderson,
It will be useful the measure the actual distance between the horns and their buffalo head, it may be ~ 0.3 mm.

Parpola, Asko, (2000), Vāc as a Goddess of Victory in the Veda and her relation to Durgā, Zinbun, Kyoto University, 34, 2, pp. 101-143. The pdf file can be downloaded at

The Indus script papers by A. Parpola

Zvelebil, Kamil, Bull-baiting Festival in Tamil India, Annals of the Naprstek Museum 1, Prague 1962, pp. 191-199.

Erik Af Edholm and C. Suneson, The seven bulls and Krsna's marriage to Nila/Nappinnai in Sanskrit and Tamil literature, Temenos, v.8, p. 29-53, 1972.

Rabe, Michael, "Victorious Durga, The Buffalo Slayer", Muse: Annual of the Museum of Art and Archaeology, No. 20,University of Missouri - Columbia (1986), pp. 50-65 with added color plates

Vanamala Parthasarathy, Bull baiting in Tamil and Sanskrit, Jl. Inst. Asian studies, 1998

The ID of Indus bovines:

There is a long article on bull-baiting in Tamil and Sanskrit traditions by Ulrike Niklas at Cologne. It appeared in the Kolam journal. F. Gros translated VaaTivaacal novel into French. In Italian, there is a book with photos, Fabio Scialpi, La festa di Pongal a Madurai, 1991.

Thanks: nganesan.blogspot

jallikattu unbelieveable tamil

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