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Updated: June 23, 2010 00:11 IST

The Indus script and the wild ass

Asko Parpola
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Image of a modern impression of the seal M-290 from Mohenjo-daro, where the sequence 'hind leg' + 'wild ass' (to be read from right to left) occurs. Courtesy: Asko Parpola
Image of a modern impression of the seal M-290 from Mohenjo-daro, where the sequence 'hind leg' + 'wild ass' (to be read from right to left) occurs. Courtesy: Asko Parpola

In a paper to be presented at the World Classical Tamil Conference, I am going to discuss recent developments in my study of the Indus script. In the book Deciphering the Indus Script (Cambridge 1994), I interpreted the ‘fish' sign as Proto-Dravidian *miin ‘fish' = *miin ‘star', and its compounds with preceding signs as names of heavenly bodies attested in Old Tamil. One newly deciphered sign depicts “a hoofed animal's hind leg.” It occurs once before the plain ‘fish' sign. Old Tamil taaL ‘leg' has a Toda cognate meaning “thigh of animal's hind leg” and denotes a star in PuRam 395. The ‘hind leg' sign once precedes a sign that depicts the wild ass. Is the reading taaL ‘(hind) leg' meaningful in this context?

Just one Indus seal has the wild ass as its iconographic motif; it was excavated in 2009 at Kanmer in the Kutch, next to the only wild ass sanctuary in South Asia. Bones of wild ass come from Harappan sites in Baluchistan, the Indus Valley and Gujarat; the salt deserts of this very area have always been the habitat of the wild ass. Bones or depictions of the domestic horse and the donkey are not found in South Asia before 1600 BCE.

Tamil kaZutai or “donkey” has cognates in Malayalam, Kota, Toda, Kannada, Kodagu, Tulu, Telugu, Kolami, Naiki, Parji, Gondi and Kuwi. Bhadriraju Krishnamurti reconstructs *kaZ-ut-ay and asserts that Proto-Dravidian speakers knew of the donkey. More probably *kaZutay meant ‘wild ass' in Harappan Dravidian, and the term was transferred to the similar-looking donkey when this newcomer came to South Asia from the west through the Indus Valley. Rigvedic gardabha - ‘donkey' has no cognates in Iranian; it is a Dravidian loan word with the added Indo-Iranian animal name suffix -bha-. I explain *kaZutay as ‘kicker of the salt desert', from *kaZ(i) / *kaLLar ‘saline soil' and *utay ‘to kick'. The wild ass lives in the salt desert and is a vicious kicker.

There is a Hindu myth explicitly associated with the wild ass, the Dhenukavadha of Harivamsa 57. Krishna and Balarama came to a palmyra forest occupied by the fierce ass demon Dhenuka and its herd. Wanting to drink the juice of ripe palm fruits, Balarama shook the trees. Hearing the sound of falling fruits, the enraged ass demon rushed to the spot. Seeing Balarama beneath a wine palm, as if holding the tree as his banner, the wicked ass bit Balarama and started kicking him hard with its hind legs. Balarama seized the ass by those hind legs and flung it to the top of a palm. The ass fell down with its neck and back broken and died. Dhenuka's retinue met with the same fate, and the ground became covered with dead asses and fallen palm fruits. The palm forest, horrible when terrorised by the asses, impossible for humans to live in, difficult to cross, and with a great extent and salty soil (iriNa), now became a lovely place.

The description of the palm forest as a salt desert confirms that wild asses are meant. The palm tree, Sanskrit taala from Proto-Dravidian *taaZ, is prominent in the myth and its earliest sculptural representations. The wine palm is associated with the wild ass, which inhabits the palm forest and finally falls down from the top of the palm like its ripe fruits. The wine palm is connected also with the ass' killer (his successor as the god of its drink), Balarama, whose addiction to toddy is “an essential part of his character.”

The myth also refers to the palm emblem on Balarama's banner (tâla-dhvaja). In the Rigveda, Indra is invited to drink Soma like a thirsty wild ass (gaura) drinks in a pond of salty soil (iriNa). In Kutch today, such ponds are called taalaab. This Persian word comes from Indo-Aryan taala ‘pond', from Proto-Dravidian *taaZ ‘low place, depression.' Like the camel, the wild ass can quickly drink an enormous amount of water, becoming through homophony the prototypal toddy-drinker. Further homophones of taaZ connect the wild ass with the ebb of tide and its mythical cause, the mare-faced demon of the netherworld who drinks the whole ocean.

Conclusion: taaL (from *taaZ, preserved in Old Kannada) ‘(hind) leg, stem of tree' (whence taaZ ‘tree with a prominent stem' > ‘wine palm') is in many ways connected with the wild ass.

(The author, who will be the first recipient of the Kalaignar M. Karunanidhi Classical Tamil Award, is Professor Emeritus of Indology, Institute of World Cultures, University of Helsinki.)

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