Indus Creation Mythology in the Iron Age Tamil Nadu
Dr Naga Ganesan
Some aspects of Indian religion in the Post-Harappan period provide a great continuity with the Indus Civilization seen in its Bronze Age seals. Even in the Pre-Harappan stage, astronomical couple of the Pole Star symbolized as a divine crocodile and Aldebaran star (Rohiṇī) as a blackbuck are used as amulets in the Indus civilization. Anthropomorphic Axe bronzes found in the Indo-Gangetic doab plains of the Second Millennium BC as a ritual symbol of a Makara (crocodile) god can be connected to similar sculptures found in Megalithic burial sites in Mottur and Udayarnatham in Tamil Nadu. When this Crocodile cult disappears and gets forgotten in North India, it appears as large monolithic sculptures in the megalithic South. The Aśvamedha sacrifice on the banks of a Water Tank was performed for a crocodile as evidenced in Pāndyan Peruvaḻuti and Chera coins. Graffiti symbols from Keeladi near Madurai, Sāṇūr and Sūlūr occur as linguistic Makara sign for the crocodile deity.
In the Archaeology of the Megalithic era Tamil country, Vēḷir migration from the North commences settled Agriculture growing paddy, sesame and turmeric and also brings the Indus creation mythology to Tamil (Paripāṭal 5). Horses and iron implements such as ploughshare and weapons get introduced. Few centuries later, Brahmi script from the North also enters Tamil Nadu. The crocodile couple in Adichanallur burial urn (600 BCE) illustrates the battle-axe bearing great god in Sangam poetry and his spouse with her blackbuck. This divine couple, showing the antiquity of Tantra in India, was worshipped from the days of Binjor amulet (2700 BCE) to the applique sculpture of Adichanallur (600 BCE). All this astronomy-based mythology should inspire the future generations of Indians to imagine, invent and protect Nature in its myriad aspects.
2.0 Crocodile as Viṭaṅkar yogi in the Indus Valley Civilization
In Mohenjo-daro seals (M-304, M-1181), a deity wearing buffalo horns and sitting in a yogic posture is depicted. It has been called as Proto-Paśupati because of the surrounding animals: a tiger, an elephant, a water buffalo, and a rhinoceros. Among the inscribed Indus signs, the appearance of fish has been taken to indicate as star/god due to Dravidian homophonic principle. Fr. Henry Heras, SJ of Spain started this interpretation. Along with the fish, Gharial (gavialis gangeticus), the long-snouted crocodile living in the Indus waters have been considered divine by the Indus agricultural society. Tamil name for the Gangetic river crocodile is viṭaṅkar/iṭaṅkar, and this Viṭaṅkar is used as equivalent for Proto-Paśupati (Figure 1).
Crocodiles are explicitly shown in the Indus sign (Figure 2). It is connected with Proto-Varuṇa: “In Taittirīya Āraṇyaka 2,19, the heavenly crocodile is called “the lord of all beings (bhūtānām adhipatir)”, an appellation which further supports identification of this *kaṇ-kāṇi ‘overseer’ with the Harappan predecessor of Varuṇa.” Compare the Indus crocodile sign with the pictogrammatic Chinese reptile radical sign, 豸 and in Japanese, the “reptile radical” ashinakimushi hen.
Figure 2. Indus sign number 87 (Crocodile — identification by Parpola, Roots of Hinduism, OUP, 2015)
3.0 Creation Mythology in the Indus Civilization
Indus people chose the crocodile and fish living in the waters as symbols for the sky-gods in their logographic Indus script. “The first asterism of the Vedic star calendar is the Pleiades, whose heliacal rise at the vernal equinox took place c. 2240 BC. The myths of Rohiṇī as the favored mate of the moon probably refer to a still earlier time, when Rohiṇī was not the second but the first nakṣatra, i.e., when Aldebaran rose with the sun at the vernal equinox, c. 3054 BC. This would take us to Early Harappan times (§ II.3). The Mahabharata (3, 219, 10) in fact speaks of the time before the Pleiades rose to the heavens, when Rohiṇī was the first’.” (A. Parpola, Deciphering the Indus Script. pg. 263) In a sense, the Pole Star is the pivot of the Sky. So, Harappans showed it as the Heavenly Crocodile, mentioned even in the late texts such as Srimad Bhagavatam, a foremost Bhakti text written in Tamil Nadu. Crocodile is the largest animal in the rivers, and is chosen as symbol of the sky, the source of all water.
Crocodile and blackbuck, likely representations of the Pole star and the Great goddess respectively, are in a ceramic amulet excavated in the Pre-Harappan 4MSR site from Rajasthan (Frontline, July 22, 2016). The goddess shown by a blackbuck, next to the crocodile, in the Binjor amulet represents the Earth. The earth goddess name, Gaurī itself comes from wild buffalo whose horns are worn by her. In Indus seals, she is shown straddling between two tigers, a majestic animal of the Indian shrubby forests. This tradition is well attested in Tamil Nadu as shown in the burial urn in Adichanallur.
Sir John Marshall thought the saṃyoga seal as earth goddess giving birth to a plant. This is shown to be incorrect as we analyze the Tantric religion in Indus civilization and subsequent presence even in the Sangam Age texts and archaeology. Figure 4a is the classic depiction of the creation mythology of ancient India. The goddess leaves her position between the two standing tigers and goes to mate with the crocodile. To confirm that it is the crocodile, an amulet seal with the gharial is shown for comparison (Figure 4b).
4.0 Post Harappan Anthropomorphic Axe as Representation of Indus Crocodile
The Ochre Colored Pottery culture (OCP) in the Gangetic plains is a 2nd millennium BC Bronze Age culture of the Indo-Gangetic Plains (Ganges-Yamuna doab). OCP succeeds the Harappan Civilization. Bronze metal weapons and an Anthropomorphic Axe (AA) have been discovered in scores of sites from Haryana to Bihar (Figure 5).
A chance find from Haryana Post-Harappan mound and the developments in the Early Iron Age succeeding OCP and the Tamil Sangam texts throw new light on the crucial AA identity (Figure 6). An important anthropomorphic figure and a copper sword have been acquired by Archaeological Survey of India from Sabdar Ali, Sonepat district, Haryana. The village contains a large mound from Late Harappan and Post-Harappan period. It is a unique AA figure from Copper Hoard Culture period with a crocodile head on a human male torso and is kept in the ASI Office, CAC section, Purana Qila, New Delhi. Looking at the side view of the mouth of the mugger crocodiles, it is suggested that the Copper Hoard anthropomorphic axe is actually a Makara, and not a boar. The continuity of religion of the Indus Civilization and its crocodile god is most likely shown in the OCP Anthropomorphic Axe cult bronzes. The proto-Brahmi script in Figure 6, of around 600 BCE, contains the Dravidian word for crocodile. It is the source for nakar, gharial’s name in Ganges plains and occurs as nakkan in Devadasi names in medieval Tamil inscriptions.
The warrior-like appearance of the AA figures with strong shoulders is noticeable. Metallurgical analysis of the AA with the face of a crocodile by two teams of ASI have shown the properties to match with those of Copper Hoard culture. The Gangetic AA figures found over a wide area number now more than 130, and the identification with crocodile deity shows the predominance of the Indian indigenous religious cult. No such AA figures are found anywhere outside India including Bactria–Margiana. Slowly over time, the production of Post-Harappan AA figures in bronze ceases in North India. Perhaps this is due to the dominance of R̥gvedic Aryans over the earlier wave of Atharvavedic Aryans, and their god, Indra replaces the Anthropomorphic Axe (Makara Viṭaṅkar) of the Harappan heritage in the North India.
5.0 Anthropomorphic Axes in Monumental Sculptures of South India
When the knowledge on the Harappan crocodile deity morphing into Anthropomorphic Axe in the Copper Hoard and OCP cultures in North India gets forgotten, the tradition is kept alive in South India from the Early Iron Age. In the last three decades, huge monolithic sculptures, made with iron tool technology, have been discovered in Tamil Nadu, Karnataka and Andhra Pradesh. They may date to 800–500 BCE. Figure 7 shows two AA examples from Tamil Nadu megaliths. These monolithic AA sculptures face South direction. Maturaikkāñci, a Sangam text, calls the all-powerful deity as “Maḻuvāḷ Neṭiyōṉ” (the Great one in Axe Weapon form) who created all the five elements in the world.
In the funerary rituals of Early Iron Age, the crocodile deity and his spouse, Koṟṟavai were worshiped. This is seen in the broken pots deposited in the burial urn from Adichanallur where the divine couple are shown as Crocodile and Koṟṟavai (Figure 8) with her blackbuck (cf. Binjor 4MSR amulet, 2700 BCE).
Śiśnadeva occurring twice in the R̥gveda in the plural, means “those who have the phallus for a deity”. Gharial is the banner of Kāmadeva, and its long mouth has phallic symbolism. In the rock paintings of Bhimbetka and Satkunda, the gharial is seen morphing into a phallic man. The earliest Linga in Gudimallam seems to represent Varuṇa of Tolkāppiyam from its iconography of having pandanus flowers of the Neytal landscape, and standing on a makara yakṣa.
In the Early Historic period of Tamil Nadu, Pandya kings issued coins celebrating the Vedic sacrifices they sponsored, and some coins depict the Makara crocodile deity (Figure 9). In the recent excavations in Keeladi, graffiti signs on pottery sherds show crocodile signs (Figure 10), resembling the Makara sign from Indus civilization (Figure 2). Thus, the astronomical Makara symbolism of the Indus civilization shows the great continuity of Indian religion for 25 centuries radiating from Northwest India to the South.
About the Author:
Dr. N. Ganesan was born in a farming family in Pollachi. He is a Space Scientist specializing on the Dynamics of Aerospace structures. He has worked on several of NASA Space Shuttle missions. He has contributed to the Unicode encoding of Brahmi based scripts including Tamil, and published articles on the Dravidian component of the Indus civilization.