of unicorns and other myths

How do archeologists pick up one piece of pottery, sculpture, bone or metal and build such a complicated backstory? I concede there is added input from genetics and linguistics now. Nevertheless, I’m skeptical of some of their conclusions. I’m reading Early Indians by Tony Joseph right now. Though it is an interesting and informative book, there are instances where I simply can’t accept his explanations.

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Why is this a unicorn and not the left profile of a bull or auroch with his horns perfectly aligned? The thing in front of him has to be a sort of feedbag or trough with food in it. Why on earth would anyone place a scorching hot brazier near his delicate dewlap! And if this is supposed to be a unicorn as he says, it makes even less sense. Unicorns in mythology were shy and bolted from humans; they were never domesticated or kept in mangers; they had a single long, ramrod-straight, horn that was twisted like liquorice candy. Maybe a species of Oryx – whose horns were aligned and appeared like a single horn – was mistaken for a rare animal and given a new name.

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(Photo by Sandeep Vatsa)

Below is a seal from Mohenjo-daro. They say it depicts a horned deity under a peepul tree, a worshipper kneeling before her, a ram behind the worshipper, a fish behind the ram, and seven figures standing in a line below all of them. Maybe this frieze is not about a deity at all, maybe this is just art made by the Michelangelo of that place and time.

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What if the images represent constellations? There’s Taurus (the Bull, figure with horns), Aries (the Ram) and Pisces (the Fish) lined up exactly in the order in which they appear in the night sky. The seven figures below are the seven big stars of Orion. I thought they might be Pleiades, the Seven Sisters, but the position is wrong. Besides, the seven demure damsels wouldn’t be chiseled out to look like tough men standing stiffly in a straight line.

The ‘worshipper’ could be Aldebaran, which literally means ‘the follower’ and is in the constellation of Taurus, but that would be carrying my yarn too far.

If I had to name the tapir-like squiggle below the Fish, I might say it’s Cetus, the sea-monster slain by Perseus in Greek mythology, judging by its position.

Seals with this design could be replicas of a record made by an amateur astronomer from his observation of the night sky. In which case, it is Science, not Art or Religion.

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Anyway, why are we so certain that the Indus Valley people were steeped in Religion? Weren’t they busy farming, cooking, cleaning, weaving and stitching together garments out of grass or cotton or whatever, raising kids and commuting to work and back from their fields, just as we are? What we think is their religion might’ve been their literature (their script not having been deciphered yet) or their social life, the temple serving primarily as a community centre, with pooja a small part of it, the way saying grace – which is an extant but unobserved ritual in most religions now – is only one small part of a family’s meal.

The Indus Valley people sent up prayers, for example, to the rain god to bless their crops. How is that different from the various petitions people of all faiths today send up to god on a daily basis? When we say, “God bless you” when someone sneezes it isn’t a religious thing. It’s just an utterance, to be understood in terms of social pragmatics.

Why do we patronise our ancestors like they were intellectual cretins?

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Here’s a picture of columns found at the Harappan site at Dholavira in Gujarat, India. The archeologist’s conclusion is given below the picture.

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This is a picture I took on Residency road, just outside the gates of Bangalore Club, yesterday.

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From this picture we could conclude that the BBMP, which maintains Bangalore’s infrastructure, is a Shiva-worshipping organisation that has put up these phallic symbols across the sidewalk, and while we are at it, wonder why Bangalore Club is the repository of so many animal skulls and a stuffed leopard, and what’s the connection between the phallic structures on the pavement and the skulls in the club’s foyer. Come on! These short columns – that look to me like dock pilings for tying boats to – have apparently been put there to prevent people from driving on sidewalks. So there’s a civic explanation for the columns and the ‘symbols’ have nothing to do with religion!

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7 thoughts on “of unicorns and other myths

  1. It’s so ‘in- fun- formative’ reading your posts! Your knowledge and imagination and the concern at the core of it all blows my mind!

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  2. Its wonderful to read this! The core of it being that the very social fabric of this subcontinent, and system of social organization has been distorted for centuries now.
    The Priest was indeed the Head of society in the Mohenjo-Daro days. He was learned, knowledgeable, and had all authority to listen to people and pass a verdict of sorts.
    And what do I say about the Phallus Barricades in the city now!! The two-wheelers sure know how to steer through them too!! Ive seen them manage somehow in many places.
    Thanks for the fun writing Dr Shyamala. I’m sure you enjoyed writing this for a change too. Nevertheless I love what you write with so much content of facts and figures always!

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  3. It was a very interesting read. It makes perfect sense. It is high time people stop ascribing religious symbols to all very common necessities of life. Keep it up Shyamala.

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  4. That’s a wonderful expose on how we are conditioned to believe anything that’s “authoritatively” said. An inquiry at best would give more gleanings. But we don’t. Lovely write up. Jogs the mind!

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