Sunday, 2 March 2014

Which animal was the Unicorn of the Indus seals?



 
The image of the Indus 'unicorn' is naturally well known among those interested in Harappan archaeology. It was interpreted as a unicorn already by Marshall, who wrote the first book on the Indus civilization (see here in a recent article by Kenoyer), but Mackay and others have proposed that the single horn is an artistic convention for two horns in profile (see here in a book of Possehl). Possehl also wrote that "there are a few seals with unicorn-type bulls with two horns". Farmer discusses the topic (see here) with some examples, and he arrives at the conclusion that there are no such cases in the Indus corpus of seals. However, one of the examples is identifiable as a 'unicorn-type bull' with the typical 'pipal leaf' design on the shoulder and it has two horns. But this exceptional case can also show that if the artist wanted to make two horns he could reproduce them clearly, and so we can reverse Possehl's argument. And the final proof that the idea of a unicorn was present in the Harappan civilization is given by the finding of three-dimensional figurines with one horn like this (read also here):



 
But which kind of animal is meant on the seals and in that figurine? The body is clearly bovine, but the neck is too long, and the head too narrow. And what are those strange lines on the shoulder and the neck?  
Before giving an answer, we should search for the unicorn in Indian tradition. Now, Ekaśṛṅga 'having one horn' is a Sanskrit epithet that is found particularly in association with Varāha, the boar as Avatāra of Viṣṇu, as in MBh XII.330.27: ekaśṛṅgaḥ purā bhūtvā varāho divyadarśanaḥ / imām uddhṛtavān bhūmim ekaśṛṅgas tato hy aham. "Having assumed, in the past, the form of a boar with a single horn, of a divine aspect, I raised this (submerged) Earth. Therefore I am the Unicorn."
Well, we can be sure that the Indus unicorn is not a boar, and so we must search elsewhere.
And actually there is another Ekaśṛṅga, in an ancient Buddhist text which is presently my main object of study, the Mahāvastu. There, we find a Ṛṣi called Ekaśṛṅga, whose story is a clear variant of the tale of Ṛśyaśṛṅga, which is found in the Mahābhārata and in the Rāmāyaṇa. Now, the name Ṛśyaśṛṅga means 'horn of the ṛśya' or 'having the horn of the ṛśya'. What is the ṛśya? It is the 'white-footed antelope' as Monier-Williams says, the Boselaphus tragocamelus, best known as nilgai or 'blue bull', because of its similarity with a bull and its iron-blue colour. It is called roz in Punjabi/Haryanvi and roj in Gujarati. The female is called rohit in Sanskrit, because of its reddish colour. So, we have a character that is called Ṛśyaśṛṅga in one context and Ekaśṛṅga in another, but he is clearly the same character, the son of a Ṛṣi born in the wilderness (normally from a female antelope or doe, mṛgī, who has drunk water or urine mixed with the semen of the Ṛṣi). He is described as having one horn of a ṛśya on his head, being the reason of his name, in MBh III.110.17: tasyarśya śṛṅgaṃ śirasi rājann āsīn mahātmanaḥ / tenarśyaśṛṅga ity evaṃ tadā sa prathito 'bhavat. Also in the Chinese translation of the Buddhist Mahāyāna treatise called Mahāprajñāpāramitāśāstra, we find that the same character, here called Unicorn as in the Mahāvastu, has one horn on his head. There are two important features of this figure in different variants of the story: his connection with rain and drought and with the birth of sons. In the Rāmāyaṇa and Mahābhārata he is attracted in order to bring rain to the kingdom of Aṅga, thanks to his ascetic power, and in the Rāmāyaṇa he also performs a sacrifice for bringing sons to Daśaratha. The cult of Shringi Rishi for bringing rain is still alive in Himachal Pradesh, and according to Monier-Williams, śṛṅga is also the name of a Muni "of whom, in some parts of India, on occasions of drought, earthen images are said to be made and worshipped for rain".
We do not know how these earthen images were made at the time of the British scholar, but it is interesting that in the Harappan civilization we have earthen figurines of the unicorn with a hole in the belly, which suggests that they were mounted on a stick to be carried in a ritual (see here). 

So, we can think that the hybrid character of Ṛśyaśṛṅga/Ekaśṛṅga was an anthropomorphization of the original animal nilgai. This animal is regarded as sacred as the cow by Hindu farmers (read here and this article), and it was also the form taken by Prajāpati in the myth of Aitareya Brāhmaṇa III.33, which explains the origin of the constellation Mṛgaśiras, which is part of Orion. In this context, it is maybe significant that α Orionis or Betelgeuse is called ārdrā ‘moist’ in Sanskrit tradition, evidently because it was associated with the rainy season. The deity associated with this star is Rudra, who is the archer himself of that myth and a storm god, and Sirius is also associated with ārdrā, which is often used in the plural or, with the name bāhū, in the dual. In the Zoroastrian Bundahišn (19.1-12) there is a gigantic three-legged ass with one horn living in the world-ocean, helping Tištrya (the star Sirius), the deity of rain, to take the water from the cosmic sea Vourukaša, purifying the water by urinating in it, and making pregnant with his cry all good creatures.
According to Pañcaviṃśa Brāhmaṇa V.4.13-14, during the description of the Mahāvrata (a ritual with clear connections with fertility and water), it is recited the ṛśyasya sāman, or ‘melody of the nilgai bull’. Then a myth is given where all beings praised the different members of Indra, but only the ṛśya praised one member, which the commentator identifies with the ‘secret part’ or sexual organ. Thus, this animal is related not only to the generative faculty, but also to the god Indra.
In Atharvaveda IV.4, a charm to restore virile power, we have the phrase ārśa vṛṣṇya for indicating the virile power, then the invitation to approach the woman like the nilgai bull (here called ṛśa) his female. And the virility of the Indus unicorn is always stressed on the seals, as remarked also here in the already cited Kenoyer's article. In the same article, he cites the opinion that the body of the unicorn of the seals resembles that of an antelope of heavy build.
Now, let's see two images of the nilgai, in order to show that it can correspond to the unicorn of the seals:
 
 
 
As is possible to note, the neck of the first picture has some deep wrinkles that can be identified with the lines often found on the neck of the unicorn of the Indus seals. And over the forelegs we see the skin forming a sort of design which reminds of the 'pipal leaf' motif on the Indus unicorn. The same design is even clearer in the second picture of the running nilgai, which was obviously a common sight in ancient India (we should add that remains of nilgai have been commonly found in Harappan sites).
So, textual and zoological evidence leads us to the same conclusion: the authors of the Indus seals intended to depict a mythical ṛśya with one long horn. And this mythical figure, associated (possibly identified) with Indra and Prajāpati, was transformed in the later tradition into a Ṛṣi bringer of rain and fertility, presented as a son (in the Vaṃśa Brāhmaṇa) or descendant of Kaśyapa, the Ṛṣi creator of living beings.

Giacomo Benedetti
Kyoto, 3-3-2014 
 
Addendum, 28-6-2014: I have discovered that Asko Parpola has reached the same conclusions, following essentially the same connections, in a beautiful and very rich article titled "the Harappan unicorn in Eurasian and South Asian perspectives in  Current studies of the Indus Civilization, vol.IX, 2012. What is different is the linguistic identification of the Harappan civilization, and I find that these conclusions support rather the linguistic and cultural continuity between the Harappan and the historical civilization reflected in the Vedas, the Epics and Buddhist texts of North India rather than the Dravidian theory.    


 

23 comments:

  1. Congratulations this is another significant discovery!

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  2. Enlightening post,as always :).Although i don't think i have much to comment because we already had a FB conversation regarding this.Btw i would add that Persian and Babylonian reliefs have depiction of the same animal even after over a 1000 years of ISC collapse!

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  3. Giacomo, a very interesting post. Myths are important and I think that Nilgal the origin of indian unicorn. There is the problem of the single horn: well, among a wild population of antelopes the record of a single animal with only one horn in the middle of the head can be deeply sited in the memory of a population, remaining there for centuries. So, the best explaination can be a genetic mutation in a single animal.

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  4. The unicorn seal, is the most rapresented animal in all the archeological sites excavated since now in indus valley. This fact indicate that sure this animal was important in the culture of these our ancestors. The most logical, evident and scientific (also) explication can be the fact that in these seals (and also terracotta figurines) is rapresented an extint animal, the Elasmotherium. Pheraphs the Elasmotherium when the indus valley culture was quite extingued, but it may be that in certain isolated habitat, (valley or mountains) some kind of elasmotherium, really where in good healt and alive! ... Ctesia spoke about unicorn, and not only him. I think personally that the myth of the unicon, had his roots in this ancient animal. Pheraphs the umans of the indus valley, had seen this animal along the rivers... or almost when the civilization of Harappa and Mohenjodaro, was at the top, they remember clearly this mithical animal, that was sure rare to find, expecially his corn! Perhaps the hunting for these ragion may have caused definitly the extintion.

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  5. Sorry to differ, but that Indus Seal shows a Black Buck as clear as daylight, though your research on another animal - Neel Gai (different horn structure) was admirable.(Pls refer Google Images of Black Buck's ringed horns with spiral curvature). It was earlier both revered & sacrificed for fertility but lately well protected, and commonly seen in Rajasthan, in fact around the ruins of Indus civilization sites. (I am purposely not delving into unicorn's existence as it is not related to Indus civilization or even Indian cultural landscape)

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    1. Thank you for you comment, Mohit Lohani, I agree that the horn of the nilgai is different from that of the 'unicorn', but also that of the blackbuck, which is 'wavy' but not curved like the Indus unicorn. I think that the horn is imaginary, but the rest of the body is more similar to the nilgai than to the blackbuck, that is smaller and thinner, more like a goat than a cow.

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  6. There must have been animals with single horn during the ancient times...

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  7. There must have been animals with single horn during the ancient times...

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  8. The animal is a CHIRU (Pantholops hodgsonii)- a " Tibetan Antelope" - which roams into Ladakh even now. The combination of the Inverted Heart Pattern on the Shoulder and Neck, the Blackened Muzzle, the Separate Eye Patch and the Lengthy Curved Twisted Horns are all unique to the Chiru.
    The rear part of this Chimaera comprises the Belly, Pizzle and Tail of a Domestic Bull. The originating artist got quite creative and probably decided that one horn would Do The Job.
    Search the Internet for color photos of Chiru Bucks - compare them to the Seals and then stop this Speculation about a Unicorn.
    Satyameva Jayate OK!

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    3. The animal on the Indus seal might be an Aurochs (the ancient ancestor of the modern cattle). The Aurochs separated into two modern species, Indian (Zebu) and European (Taurus). It is quite possible that the two distinct cattle types existed side by side in the Indus Civilization times, there ranges might have overlapped. Also, cattle domestication in the Indian subcontinent began near the same area, precisely during the Mehrgadh Civilization (now in Pakistani Balouchistan), with the Zebu variety being primarily domesticated, the European variants might have existed as isolated, wild herds here and there. This rareness might have made them prized. Notice that, the animal depicted on the seal resembles a bull, but without a dewlap (unlike the Indian Zebu), and the horns are long and shaped much like an Aurochs.Both the Nilgai or the Black buck would have been common animals, the rarity of the wild Aurochs might have made it special.

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    4. The animal depicted on the Indus Valley Unicorn Seal might simply be a species of the Aurochs, the wild ancestor of the modern (Zebu) Indian cattle & (Taurus) European cattle. The animal on the seal definitely has a bull - like shape, but the peculiar shape of the horn is close enough to that of an Aurochs. The Indian subspecies of the Aurochs had much of its home range around the area of the Indus Civilization (also, Indian domestication of the wild Aurochs started in the area of present - day Pakistani Balouchestan - read Mehrgarh civilization). The animal depicted might have been the wilder version, that may have been caught for some ceremonial purposes.

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    5. You are right. The face,tail and body of this animal looks very much like a bull. What appears to be wrinkles on the neck could be it's hair. The face is smaller than rest of the body which appears to be big and muscular with a long tail. I think a nilgai doesn't have this long tail. The inverted heart shaped harness on it's shoulders shows that this animal could have been tied to a cart or used for riding.

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    6. Sorry but the face and head is not of a bull, is too thin, like that of the Nilgai, which also has a fairly long tail, although in most images not clearly visible. Of course we cannot expect a perfect depiction, and apparently there was the tendency to imitate the more familiar bull. As to the inverted heart, I don't think there is a harness with that shape, moreover there is no cart or yoke, it appears to depict wrinkles, maybe with some symbolic meaning since it is regularly repeated.

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    7. About the Chiru or Tibetan antelope, dear Pt. Lalan Kasyap, I admit that the horn has some similarity, but I have not found the inverted heart on that animal. Such wrinkles appear on the skin like that of the nilgai, not on the fur of the chiru.
      Curiously, there were legends in the West and in Asia of Tibetan unicorns and chiru having one horn, see http://chinese-unicorn.com/ch06/

      https://books.google.it/books?id=OAfaCpzMA1QC&pg=PA88&lpg=PA88&dq=tibetan+antelope+unicorn&source=bl&ots=ipkLtQSYqv&sig=So7TZyyXij2BwMgoJbTsO-a0Jfk&hl=it&sa=X&ved=0ahUKEwj36pPn4fTQAhXDSBQKHeycCCUQ6AEIPDAH#v=onepage&q=tibetan%20antelope%20unicorn&f=false.

      Maybe the horn of the chiru was known through trade among Harappans and identified with the mythical unicorn, otherwise imagined (and called) as the well-known rishya=nilgai.

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  9. This animal seems to have a tail and a face of a black bull.

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  10. Kenoyer , in his lectures, constantly remarks that this "unicorn" was a symbol of an elite (possibly opressive) that dissapeared before Late Harappan times in Indus valley. He speculates that this depiction was not so much dear to latter generations and that`s why they did not represent it in next cultural levels. He compares this situation with swastika rejection in Europe after Nazis.

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  11. Thank you for this remark, I did not know this fascinating theory of Kenoyer. However, I think there are no proofs for this interpretation, instead we have the survival of this popular cult in the figure of Ekaśṛṅga/Rishyashringa. I have just uploaded an article about this topic: https://www.academia.edu/30448353/The_story_of_Ekaśṛṅga_in_the_Mahāvastu_with_its_parallels

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  12. The roe deer born in captivity in the Tuscan town of Prato, near Florence
    Can give solve the mistory ofEkaśṛnga

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    1. I know that case (I live near Florence, btw), it shows that sometimes a mutation can give a unicorn deer. Maybe something like that has influenced the legend of the unicorn, in any case there must be a symbolic meaning of the one horn to explain the mythology of the unicorn. In Europe and the Arab world, also the exotic rhino generated the legend, but in India this is not possible, because the rhino was directly known and depicted in some Harappan seals, while the Indus unicorn has nothing similar with it.

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  13. I find it incredulous the suggestion harappans started with the nilgai and ended with a unicorn. It probably the other way around. Like all other cultures,life in pre-Indus had also gone through a long phase of semi pastoral existences and they knew their animals well enough to eat them. Like the nilgai. Its evident they chose to depict something different, suggesting symbolism evolved at a very different plane from the ordinary, an elite creating a motif that would convey a meaning of power and authority. They were not trying to convey it through the motif of a common animal, but with something different, not seen at all.The unicorn. Once the idea was established, it persisted and seeped into later cultures almost in the same form and meaning and that is why we have ekasringa, rsyasringa a in later culture.

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    1. I don't think they started with the nilgai and ended with a unicorn, it is possible that the concept of unicorn was already in the people who reached India and created the Indus civilization, or they received it from elsewhere during their development, but it seems they gave to the unicorn the shape of a nilgai. In Indian tradition, we have the varāha ekaśṛṅga (boar unicorn) and Ṛśyaśṛṅga/Ekaśṛṅga. It is not a purely imaginary mythical creature, the concept of unicorn is associated with the boar and the ṛśya, that is, the nilgai, and the shape of the Indus unicorn is comparable with the nilgai, as I (and Parpola) have shown.

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