Fossil Folklore from India: The Siwalik Hills and the Mahâbhârata

Folklore 04/2008; 119(1):71-92. DOI: 10.1080/00155870701806225


All over the world, from antiquity to the present, people have often explained fossil discoveries as proof of the historical truth of legends and myths, or used them as a basis for a new legend. Most often, large vertebrate fossils have been explained as bones and teeth of giant humans, dragons and monsters, saints and heroes. Smaller invertebrate fossils were often interpreted as sacred or curious relics based upon their resemblance to familiar or sacred objects. India is no exception to this practice. Fossil ammonites (salagramas), for example, are worshipped as the disc (chakra) of the Hindu god Vishnu. The Siwalik Hills, below the Himalayas, are strewn with impressive Plio-Pleistocene vertebrate fossils. This paper suggests that the region was seen as the historical stage for the legendary battle as described in the Indian epic Mahâbhârata, during which hundreds of mighty, and sometimes gigantic, heroes, horses, and war elephants are said to have died. Their remains are seen in the fossil bones, skulls, jaws, and tusks of hippopotamuses (Hexaprotodon), proboscideans (Stegodon, Archidiskodon), four-horned giraffes (Sivatherium, Giraffokeryx), giant tortoises (Geochelone), sabre-toothed cats (Paramachairodus), camels (Camelus), and other species found on the surface of the Siwalik Hills. Moreover, thousands of ancient bronze javelins and spears are also found there after rains. These archaeological artefacts, along with the paleontological remains, appear to have influenced the setting and context of the great battle in the Indian epic.

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