Fossil Folklore from India: The Siwalik Hills
and the Maha ˆbha ˆrata
Alexandra van der Geer, Michael Dermitzakis, and John de Vos
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, arestrewn 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 Maha ˆbha ˆrata, 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.
There are detailed accounts in the scholarly literature of mythological
interpretations of fossils in Europe (for overviews, see Oakley 1965; Dermitzakis
and Papadopoulou 1989; Thenius and Va ´vra 1996; Mayor 2000), where their
existence has been explained in a variety of ways. They have been used as proof of
biblical floods (Woodward 1695; Scheuchzer 1726; Buckland 1836; Tollmann and
Tollmann 1993), and have been considered the remains of giants and monsters
(Kircher 1664; Bru ¨ckmann 1728; Abel 1939), of saints (Boekschoten and Sondaar
1972), dragons (Symeonides, Bachmayer, and Zapfe 1974; Ucik 1990), and
unicorns (Valentini 1704; 1714), or as petrified snakes (Ra ¨tsch and Guhr 1992), the
petrified urine of a lynx (Abel 1939; Hegele 1997), or even as thunderstones (Abel
1939; Thenius and Va ´vra 1996). With regard to fossil myths from the Americas,
Adrienne Mayor has provided an extensive overview of this topic in her book
Fossil Legends of the First Americans (2005).
Geomythology from Asia is much less well known. Exceptions to this state of
affairs concern the mistaking of Plio-Pleistocene fossils from China for dragon
Folklore 119 (April 2008): 71–92
ISSN 0015-587X print; 1469-8315 online/08/010071-22; Routledge Journals; Taylor & Francis
q 2008 The Folklore Society
bones (long gu) and dragon teeth (long chih) (Owen 1870; Granger 1938; Kahlke
1961; Prothero and Schoch 2002). Both of these are still used abundantly in
traditional medicine throughout eastern and south-eastern Asia, and similarkinds
of fossil bones called “lightning bones,” renowned for their perceived medicinal
power, are sold in the bazaars of Lhasa in Tibet (Montgomerie 1868). Another
exception is the possible mistaking of fossil bones of Protoceratops for the mythical
griffin (Mayor and Heaney 1993; Mayor 2000, 15–53). Other evidence is sparse.
Some examples from China make mention of, or describe ammonites as horn
stones (jiao-shih); cross-sections through straight nautiloids as pagoda stones
(bao-ta-shih) (after the seven-storey tower); belemnites as sword stones (jien-shih);
certain brachiopods as stone swallows (shih-yen); long-spined trilobites as
butterfly stones (hu-die-shih); and spiny tailed trilobites as bat stones (bien-fu-shih)
(Bassett 1982). Su Song in his pharmacological treatise Ben Cao Tu Jing (1061–70
C.E.) refers to the jiao-shih, or horn stones (ammonites), as follows (in translation):
... the stone-serpent appears in rocks which are found beside the rivers flowing into the
southern seas. Its shape is like a coiled snake with no head or tail-tip. Inside it is empty. Its
colour is reddish-purple. The best ones are those which coil to the left. It also looks like the
spiral shell of a conch. We do not know what animal it was which was thus changed into stone
(Su Song, trans. Casanova 1983).
Apart from the use in Japan of ammonites as chrysanthemum stones (kiku-ishi),
which are a class of water stones (suiseki), there is also a thread of Japanese
mythology woven around the ammonites, based on their spiral form. Buddhists
regard them as a symbol of enlightenment, and, as such, they function as
meditation objects, and are kept in a box made from precious wood and filled with
sand (Thenius and Va ´vra 1996). Another Japanese fossil myth concerns fossil
shark teeth, which are considered to be the extremely long and sharp nails of a
long-nosed or bird-beaked goblin (tengu-no-tsume) (Theniusand Va ´vra 1996). They
are enshrined in temples as a sacred treasure.
In this paper, we investigate the possibility of yet another Asian fossil myth. It
has already been suggested by scholars that there might be a connection between
the abundant fossils found on the surface of the Siwalik Hills of the Himalayas
(see Figure 1) and an epic description of a battlefield with abundant remains of
heroes and war elephants (see Van der Geer, Dermitzakis, and De Vos 2006, 124;
Mayor 2007, 246). We will, however, first of all provide an account of other fossil
myths from the Himalayan region, in order to show the significance of fossils in
India as in the rest of the world, and then give an overview of facts and
background regarding the epic battlefield description just mentioned.
Fossil Folklore in the Himalayas: Salagramas
The only thoroughly studied fossil myth from the Himalayas is that regarding the
salagramas or saligramas—ammonites worshipped as divine symbols—which have
been extensively studied by S. K. R. Rao (1996). The majority of these ammonites
are found near the village of Salagrama in the Gandaki district of Nepal, not far
from Muktinath (Kunz 1915; Figure 1, no. 14). The ammonites are named after the
village, which in turn took its name from the abundant sala trees (Vatica robusta).
The stones are considered holy and are worshipped as symbols of Vishnu—the
Alexandra van der Geer, Michael Dermitzakis, and John de Vos72
four-armed Sustainer of the Universe who holds a disc or wheel (chakra) in one of
his hands (Kunz 1915; Oakley 1965; Hagn 1977; 1988; Messerschmidt and Sharma
1981; Bassett 1982; Thenius and Va ´vra 1996; Monks and Palmer 2002). They were,
therefore, originally, referred to as Ammonites sacer by Blumenbach (1803); today,
however, they are known as Aulacosphinctus and Aulacosphinctoides, and these
fossils are still held in high regard by Hindus throughout India. For Buddhists in
Nepal and Tibet, the ammonites represent the eight-spoked wheel of the law
(dharmachakra), and they worship them as such (Thenius and Va ´vra 1996), using
them not only as meditation objects but also offering them to mountain gods at
chorten-that is, small shrines high up in the Himalayas. For a very small group of
sakti-worshippers (cult of the Goddess), the ammonites are symbols of the female
principle in nature and, as such, represent the goddess Prakrti. A particular type
of salagrama is considered to represent Shiva; these, however, are not fossil
ammonites, but fossil spiralled shells (see further below).
The myth behind the Vishnu’s petrified disc is told in the Shiva Mahapurana
(3rd–12th century C.E.) (2007, chaps. 22–3 of the book Yuddhakhanda), and can
be summarised as follows. Once, there was a quarrel between the god Shiva and
the demon Jalandhara. Whichever one of them whose wife would lose her
chastity, would lose the fight. Thus Jalandhara disguised himself as Shiva and
approached Parvati, Shiva’s wife. Parvati recognised him and called upon
Vishnu. Vishnu, disguised as Jalandhara, went to Vrinda, Jalandhara’s wife. She
did not recognise him and it was too late when she realised her mistake. She put
a curse on Vishnu that he would become stone, grass, tree, and plant. Since then
Vishnu resides in the salagrama stone, the kusha grass, the pipal tree and the tulsi
Figure 1. Map of South Asia (inset) with Siwalik Hill Range from Pakistan to Bhutan. Legenda (numbered from
left to right): 1, Peshawar; 2, Salt Range; 3, Beas Kund; 4, Naggar; 5, Bhimpul; 6, Tapovan; 7, Karnaprayag;
8, Rakhigarhi; 9, Pinjore Valley; 10, Nahan; 11, Thanesar; 12, Hastinapur; 13, Kurukshetra; 14, Muktinath; 15, Byas
Gupha; 16, Janakpur.
Fossil Folklore from India73
Other evidence for the perceived sacredness of the ammonite stone is found in
the allegorical drama Prabodha-candrodaya by Krishnamishra, dating to the latter
half of the eleventh century C.E. (Prabodhacandrodaya...1971). The connection
between Vishnu and a stone called salagrama is referred to in the Maha ˆbha ˆrata
(c. 500 B.C.E.–500 C.E.) (1981, chap. 84, 123–5 of the book Vanaparvan). Both
Oakley (1965) and Bassett (1982) are probably referring to this text when they say
that the salagrama and Vishnu cult can be traced back, on literary evidence, to the
fifth century B.C.E. The first part of the Garuda Mahapurana (c. 200–1200 C.E.)
(1984) relates that Hari (another name for Vishnu) resides in many places in which
he may be worshipped, but of all these places the salagrama is the most important.
ThePadma Purana(c. 200–1200C.E.)(1988–92)statesthat asingleact ofworshipof
a salagrama is as meritorious as worshipping a linga or lingam (an aniconic, phallic
form of Shiva) thousands of times. The Skanda Purana (c. 200–1200 C.E.) (1992)
relates that Shiva will not accept worship and obeisance from someone who does
not also worship the salagrama stone. In this text, the salagrama is a symbol for
Shiva, not for Vishnu.
Not all salagramas are ammonites; the salagram stotra mantra, a form of praise of
the salagrama as chanted by Krishna to Yudhisthira in the Maha ˆbha ˆrata, enumerates
the extant types of salagramas, of which those bearing a chakra (the ammonites) are
only one type. Apart from these, there are salagramas with the sign of a conch, with
white lines, with the marks of a cow’s feet, and they can be turtle-shaped or
umbrella-shaped, and so on. A comparable listing can be found in the Brahma
Purana (c. 200–1200 C.E.) (1987), where Narayana (another name for Vishnu)
informs Brahma about the different names of the stones in which he resides. It
seems logical to assume that some of them are actually fossils. The list of existing
salagrama types includes stones for worship of Shiva. Invariably, they resemble the
linga, a symbol for his ithyphallic manifestation. The goddess is represented by
breast-shaped pebbles (devi salagramas). Partial ammonites are often considered to
represent part of the god Ganesha’s elephant trunk (ganesha salagramas) instead of
a broken Vishnu chakra.
Lastly, fossil corals may take the place of salagramas or accompany them, as
described in the Brahma Purana. They are known as dvaraka shilas, named after the
flooded city of Dvaraka (present-day Dvarka, Gujarat), and bear the chakra mark
as well. Their use is much more limited than that of the salagramas, as they are
worshipped only in Saurashtra, Bengal, Maharashtra, and possibly also by the
Madhva sect in Karnataka (Rao 1996).
Other Fossil Traditions in the Himalayas
Philostratus the Athenian (c. 170–247 C.E.) describes the life and acts of the ascetic
philosopher Apollonius of Tyana (c. 2–c. 97 C.E.). In Book II he informs us that
Apollonius visited India to meet the “naked philosophers” (gymnosophists),
who are known in India as yogis and sadhus. In this context, Philostratus refers
to drakondes, which were supposed to live beneath the Himalayas, and which
had crests and bore sparkling jewels in their skulls. The dragon skulls were
displayed in the city of Paraka (Mayor 2000, 130, quoting Philostratus 1912), This
city remains as yet unidentified, although Mayor suggests that it might be
Peshawar (Figure 1), arising from its ancient name, “Parasha” (Mayor 2000, 130).
Alexandra van der Geer, Michael Dermitzakis, and John de Vos74
Although this suggestion is reasonable from a linguistic point of view, it is
unlikely to be correct since Peshawar is derived from the Hindu name,
“Purushapura” (mentioned by Strabo and Ptolemy), and was changed into its
modern form by the Mughal emperor, Akbar the Great (1542–1602), presumably
on religious grounds. The noun paraka means “distance, far-away place” in
Sanskrit, the lingua franca of that time, and, therefore, might refer to a mere
description rather than a real city name. In any case, it is of interest to note that
“dragon” skulls were known and displayed somewhere in the Siwalik Hills. The
description of the dragon skulls in Philostratus are applicable to the skulls of
extinct giraffes (Sivatherium, Giraffokeryx) and elephants (Elephas hysudricus) found
in the region (for a detailed discussion and a description of these dragon skulls,
see Mayor 2000, 130–5).
Drakon in Apollonius’s time referred to something like a huge, toothed serpent,
which, in rare cases was thought to be winged and drawing flying chariots like
those of the goddess Demeter and the sorceress Medea. A few centuries earlier,
however, the term denoted a kind of seer, or wise creature. The Hebrew seraphim
provides some analogue; these were originally celestial fiery serpents that came
down to test humans and to devour them, if necessary, at the command of
Yahweh. Jesus is said to have instructed his disciples to “be as wise as serpents”
(Matthew 10:16), the latter word being translated into Greek as drakones. It might,
therefore, be that Apollonius was referring to nagas, which, together with their
consorts naginis, were described as being half-snake, half-human, often with
multiple heads (five or seven), living in pools and below the earth, especially
beneath the Himalayas of Nepal and Tibet, and in the netherworld called Patala.
They were not regarded as being monstrous or evil serpents, but rather wise and
benevolent semi-divine beings, who are still worshipped all over India as
bringers of wisdom and protection. Today, the king cobra (Ophiophagus) is
regarded as being the nagaraja, the naga king; and the scientific name for the true
cobras is Naja, a Latinised version of the Sanskrit word. They are believed to be
able to fly, and to possess magical powers and wisdom, just like the Greek
drakones and the Hebrew seraphim. The deep caverns in the Himalayas where
they live are said to contain treasures of sparkling precious stones. Since nagas
are snakes, and the Himalayas are full of ammonites, it may be that some of
Apollonius’s drakones were fossil ammonites since Pyritised ammonites have a
sparkling, golden appearance. Another possible source giving rise to the
sparkling effect may be found in a Pakistani part of the Siwalik Range called the
Salt Range (Figure 1). Situated along the Jhelum River are the oldest and largest
rock-salt mines of the world, which provide the fascinating spectacle of light
filtering through solid walls of salt. While this is a popular tourist attraction
today, it must, in the past, have been appeared to be a magical spectacle. It may
thus be that it was stories about findings of fossil ammonites, combined with
those about the sparkling treasure halls, that gave rise to the magical drakones of
Hugh Falconer (see Murchison 1868, vol. 1, 388) suggested that the giant
tortoise that supports the primordial world, as described in an Indian
cosmogonic myth, might very well be based on the actual fossils of the giant
tortoise Colossochelys, found in the Siwalik Hills (see for an extensive account of
Falconer’s idea, Nair 2005, 381–2). However, in making this suggestion Falconer
Fossil Folklore from India 75
conflated at least three Hindu myths. One of these is a cosmogonic myth, and is
described in the Vishnu Purana (c. 200–1200 C.E.) (1864–87) and Brahma Purana,
but Falconer took the version as narrated in Jayadeva’s Gita Govinda (Nair 2005,
382). According to this, the gods and demons wanted to churn up the ocean in
order to produce amrta, the elixir of immortality. For this purpose, they used the
naga Vasuki as the rope and use mount Meru (or Mandara) as the stick spun by
the tortoise king. The rope was wrapped around the stick, and one of its ends
was held by the gods, while the other end was held by the demons. By pulling
alternately, the stick spun on the support and the friction energy produced
all kinds of marvels, including the desired elixir. The scene took place in the
Himalayas. Another myth he used was that of the earth-supporting elephants,
standing on a huge tortoise (Nair 2005, 381). In this cosmogonic myth, eight
celestial elephants are each appointed to carry one of the eight guardians (asta-
dikpalas) of the eight wind directions. Each guardian (dikpala) stands on his own
celestial tortoise. The guardians were actually the main gods of the previous
Vedic period, such as Indra, who had to give way to the present-day Hindu gods.
The third myth Falconer made use of describes a fight between a giant tortoise
and an elephant (Nair 2005, 381), as narrated in the Maha ˆbha ˆrata (1981, book 1,
section 29). This can be summarised as follows. According to a Hindu myth,
Garuda, the eagle of Vishnu, once went to Chandraloka. On his way, he visited a
lake in the Himalayas in which the tortoise Vibhavasu and the elephant Supritika
were ferociously fighting each other. Because they had been cursed to do so in a
previous life, even Garuda, a demigod, was not able to stop the fighting, but
being clever he devoured them both and thus ended the conflict. Falconer asked
his audience whether the Indian gigantic tortoise really existed, or was a mere
fiction, like the minotaur, the chimera, the griffin, and the dragon. As modern
scholars have already found a basis for the griffin (Mayor 2000, 15–53) and the
dragon (see, for example, Thenius and Va ´vra 1996), Falconer may very well have
been close to the truth. The fossil myths about battle remains in the Siwaliks are
dealt with below.
There are two further vague references to possible fossil myths. The first
involves fossil belemnites, which are collected in the Siwalik area for their
perceived magical powers. Because of their phallic shape they are thought to
have been given by Shiva (Hegele 1997), as the phallus (linga) is the aniconic
representation of Shiva. In Muslim areas, the bellemnites are seen as bullets, as is
evident from the habit children in Pakistan have of sorting them according to
their “calibre,” as is done with real bullets (Mayor 2005, 369, note 7). The second
reference to a fossil myth is even more vague and concerns fossil sea urchins.
They are found in Neolithic graves in Pakistan’s Salt Range, which indicates
that people of the past attached some magical or ritual value to these petrified
remains (Seilacher 1991), as did, apparently, the ancient Germanic tribes (Thenius
and Va ´vra 1996), and Early Bronze Age people in Britain whose burial in
Dunstable Downs, north of London, indicates this. There is another reference to
fossil sea urchins from the Narmada Valley (Madhya Pradesh). They are found in
the Cretaceous Bagh Beds, named after the small town of Bagh. The local people
call them “five grooves” (pancha khadda), obviously inspired by the five radiating
ambulacral rays on the urchin’s ventral surface (Taylor 2000). Whether these
fossils figure in any myth or legend is not known to us at this point.
Alexandra van der Geer, Michael Dermitzakis, and John de Vos76
Fossil Folklore in the Narmada Valley
The Cretaceous Beds of Madhya Pradesh are rich in dinosaur bones and have been
explored in this context since 1818. In recent times, three amateurs found more
than one hundred dinosaur eggs and footprints on the surface in the Lameta Beds
(Hindustan Times, 13 June 2007), indicating that the dinosaur remains may have
been known to the locals for centuries. In this respect, it is worthy of note that,
according to the Vishnu Purana, there once was a conflict in that region when the
underworld was said to have been occupied by the gandharvas—celestial beings of
some kind. These did not follow the rules of the lawful inhabitants, who were the
nagas, and even stole their jewels. The nagas went to king Purukutsa, an
incarnation of Vishnu, for help. They sent the river Narmada to bring Purukutsa to
their underworld, where he killed all the gandharvas. Although the myth does not
explicitly mention bones or snake eggs, it is possible that the dinosaur bones and
eggs were considered to be remains from that conflict, given the explicit reference
in the myth to the river Narmada and the extermination of celestial beings. A hint
that dinosaur bones in the Narmada valley are still thought of as giants’ bones is
found in Nair (2005, 367). A local carpenter found the skeleton of a “giant” with
fingers three feet long, which led to the discovery of the Jabalpur Beds, famous for
their dinosaur bones.
In 2003, a horned or crested theropod dinosaur (Rajasaurus narmadensis) was
discovered by Paul Sereno and Indian colleagues in the Narmada Beds, after
earlier reports of the finding of dinosaur eggs (“large balls”) by workers in a
limestone quarry. An eighteenth-century temple painting in the Pahari/Kangra
style fromHimachalPradesh (nowin the PhiladelphiaMuseumof Art) depictsthe
sharaba as a hybrid creature, with a beaked tiger’s head, a tiger’s body and legs,
and large wings. The creature is an incarnation of Shiva, who came to calm Vishnu
in his form as Man-Lion (Narasimha). A painting from Rajasthan, dating from
around 1720, in the Philadelphia Museum of Art (catalogue no. 1994-148-430)
depicts a similar theme in a more natural way. In this work the sharabha has a
winged tiger’s body with an eagle head. It is tempting to suggest that there may be
a direct connection between these beaked sharabhas and the beaked Rajasaurus
from the Narmada Beds, as is the case with the griffin and the Protoceratops
(Mayor and Heaney 1993; Mayor 2000, 15–53). However, Himachal Pradesh and
Rajasthan yield no Rajasaurus bones. The miniature paintings in question are very
rare, however, and they can also be explained in terms of the post-sixteenth-
century artistic motif of animal-blending, which probably originated in Persia.
It should also be pointed out that the description and depiction of the sharabha
is inconsistent. In the earliest sources (Atharvaveda Samhita [c. 1200–900 C.E.],
1989), it is a fabulous eight-legged deer. Later on, it became a giant bird with two
heads and four legs (Bhagavata Purana [c. 200–1200 C.E.], 1987–9v), but it never
became a reptile. Scenes including the sharabha, on the other hand, are very
popular in South India, probably illustrating the victory of the Shiva cult over the
Vishnu cult. At the sixteenth-century Virabhadra temple in Andhra Pradesh, the
sharabh is depicted as a lion with two eagle heads and as many as twenty arms; at
the Kampaharesvar temple (twelfth–thirteenth century) in Tamil Nadu, it is half
man, half bird; and at the Airavateshvara temple (c. 1146–73 C.E.), also in Tamil
Nadu, it is depicted as part man, part lion, part bird. It would seem that a fantastic
Fossil Folklore from India 77
blendof mythical andexisting lifeformsunderliesthe conceptof modernsharabha,
rather than a real extinct animal. All of these southern temples are distant from the
Narmada valley and its beaked dinosaur fossils. To add to the diversity, it can
be mentioned that the logo of the University of Mysore consists of two sharabhas
flanking the mythical bird Gandabherunda, and that the sharabas in question are
lions, each with an elephant head (http://www.uni-mysore.ac.in/unity/about/
emblem. Accessed 22.01.08)—an obvious confusion with the gajasimhas
(“lion-elephants”) mentioned in Van der Geer (2008).
Maha ˆbha ˆrata, the Great War
The longest epic of India, the Maha ˆbha ˆrata, tells the history of the descendants
of King Bharata. This enormously-long strophic poem consists of more than
100,000 two-line stanzas divided into eighteen books (see the editions of Van
Nooten 1871 and Buck and Van Nooten 2000). With regard to its importance, it
can be compared with Homer’s Iliad and Odyssey. The epic was immortalised in
many temple reliefs, either on a large scale (Figure 2) or in detail. In the course of
time, the Maha ˆbha ˆrata spread further to the east and became part of the common
legendary past of Cambodia, Thailand (Figure 3), Vietnam, and even Indonesia
The epic, however, was not always so extensive. The version as we now have it
is based on oral tradition, and it grew into its present form over a long period of
Figure 2. Bas-relief with scenes from the Great War as described in the Mahabha ˆrata. Ellora, Kailasanatha Temple
(Cave 16), northern wall of the main hall. Dated to between the eighth and tenth centuries C.E. (Photograph:
Archeological Survey of India 1910–11. Courtesy Kern Institute, Leiden, the Netherlands.)
Alexandra van der Geer, Michael Dermitzakis, and John de Vos78
Figure 3. Bas-relief with Maha ˆbha ˆrata scenes at the temple of Angkor Wat, Siem Reap (Cambodia). Large panel
no. 1 of the third enclosure gallery. Dated to the eleventh century C.E. or the first half of the twelfth century. Top:
Bhishma on his arrow bed. (Photograph: Archeological Survey of India, 1900–20. Courtesy Kern Institute,
Leiden, the Netherlands.)
Fossil Folklore from India79
time, from about 400 B.C.E. to 400 C.E. This famous story of an important battle
that once took place in the region was passed down through the generations, and
in the process of transmission it became increasingly elaborate and acquired many
No matter how much the text of the Maha ˆbha ˆrata changed during the two and
a half millennia of its existence, the main core—the battle of Kurukshetra as
described in book 1, especially verses 184–92 (see for example Dange 1997)—
remained stable. According to the story, the battle was fought between two
branches of a North Indian dynasty and included the armies of all known
kingdoms. It all started, as many wars do, with a conflict about rights to the
throne. Apparently, Yudhisthira, the eldest of the five Pa ˆndava brothers and legal
heir to the throne, was challenged to a game of dice—in which he was defeated. In
this way he lost the throne for a period of thirteen years to the other branch, the
hundred Kauravas, led by their eldest brother, Duryodhana. After the agreed
thirteen years of exile, the Pa ˆndavas returned, but Duryodhana bluntly refused to
return the kingdom to the Pa ˆndavas. Negotiation failed and war was thus
inevitable. After the death of thousands of heroes, horses, and war elephants, the
war finally culminated in a duel between the gigantic Bhima and the champion of
the Kauravas, Duryodhana. The end result of the battle was unwonted carnage,
and one of the books (book 11, or Striparvan) describes the lamenting of the women
who had lost their husbands and sons.
The descriptions of the battlefield in the Maha ˆbha ˆrata itself (books 7–9) and in
later sources—Bhasanatakacakram (c. 200–1400 C.E.) (1937), especially the dramas
entitled Urubhanga and Karnabhara (c. 400–600 C.E.; for dating, see Van der Geer
The presence of vultures on the battlefield is mentioned, and it is also carefully
described in Dingal heroic poetry of medieval Rajasthan (Kamphorst 2004).
The descriptions of the battlefield after the carnage are lengthy and interwoven
with all kind of similes, and can be summarised as follows. Interesting to note is
the emphasis on decapitated corpses, isolated heads and broken weaponry.
The earth of Kurukshetra’s plain is strewn with fallen steeds, some deprived
of their tongues, others with their tongues protruding. Steeds are slain in
hundreds and in thousands. Broken cars and mighty weapons broken into
fragments are scattered around; there is a confused mass of torn mail, skins,
umbrellas, chowries, javelins, arrows, spears, and armour mixed with headless
trunks, and a litter of every sort of weapon. Trunkless elephants are lying
prostrate (book 6).
Kurukshetra’s plain is strewn with fallen heads that are crimson with blood;
fallen heads are seen everywhere, lifeless heads with upturned eyes. The
ground is soaked with the blood of horses, men, and elephants, wounded and
slain (book 9).
Duryodhana’s muscular shoulders, hard as the trunk of Indra’s elephant, are
torn open. His adversary pulls out one of his mighty arms, then tears open his
Thousands of men had fallen down deprived of life, innumerable headless
trunks stood up and fell down again. When heads are severed, trunks rush on
by force of habit (book 10 and Urubhanga Act 1).
Alexandra van der Geer, Michael Dermitzakis, and John de Vos80
Drona mangles the backs of some of the fallen men, cuts off the heads of some,
cuts some bodies in half and presses down the heads of some into their trunks
The ground is rugged with heaps of elephant’s carcasses like huge boulders.
On every side are vultures’ nests (book 11 and Urubhanga Act 1).
The earth shows clearly all around in the pitiless rays of the sun slaughtered
warriors and kings, elephants and chargers; it seems to support a host of
fallen stars, covered as it is with darts and lances, arrows, javelins, and swords
(Karnabhara Act 1).
Bhı ˆma, matchless in battles, huge as a mountain, sinks on the earth like the
GoldenPeak( ¼ peakinHima ˆlayas)struckbyathunderbolt(KarnabharaAct 1).
Drona, the king of the Kurus, has crossed the ocean of war and lies amid a
rampart of broken chariots and the carcasses of men, elephants, and horses
(Karnabhara Act 1).
Even gods like Shiva, Rama-with-the-Axe, and Krishna, were eventually
involved, as the imagination of later generations included them all in the original
succession conflict, and raised the battle to cosmological proportions. The epic
poem became a history of the world, including all conceivable subjects, and
absorbed older stories and legends. The central theme was now the decline of
cosmic law and order (dharma), which was to be restored, and not so much the
original conflict. The human urge to interpret and to place everything in a broader
context led to introductory parts, insertions, additions, and to the addition of more
heroes, gods, demi-gods, demons, and whoever else could play a role. Fantasy
also played its part and transformed the actors into giants and muscular heroes,
and their animals into extremely gruesome beasts. As a result, the skeleton of the
story remained scarcely visible with the march of time.
The traditional locations of the final war as described in the Maha ˆbha ˆrata
(3.83.204) are said to be the plains of the mighty rivers, the Ganges and the
Yamuna, and also the Kurukshetra area (Ghaggar Valley) in the state of Haryana
(North India). This latter location is specified not only in the Maha ˆbha ˆrata itself,
but also in other texts—for example, in the Aitareya Brahmana (c. 1000–700 B.C.E.)
(1976–7, 8.202) and the Shatapatha Brahmana (c. 1000–700 B.C.E.) (1983, 22.214.171.124
and 126.96.36.199). Kurukshetra is nowadays nothing more than a small, insignificant
town, about one hundred miles north of New Delhi (Figure 1, no. 13), with its
name referring both to the town and to the vast surrounding plain. According to
tradition, however, the great, eighteen-day battle, between the Pandavas and
Kauravas, was fought on its plains. Tens of thousands of heroes twice the size of
ordinary men, and with arms as thick as elephant trunks, are said to have died on
Local tradition specifies a number of places in and around Kurukshetra where
scenes from the Maha ˆbha ˆrata are supposed to have occurred. These include
Asthipura (literally, “town of bones”), where all war casualties were said to have
been cremated, and Jyotisar, where Krishna revealed the message of the Gita to
Arjuna. Other important places are Chakratirtha (where Krishna killed Bhishma
with his disc [chakra]); Bhishmakunda in Narkatari village (where Bhishma died
on a bed of arrows, and where Arjuna shot an arrow in the earth, and brought
forth a spring of fresh water to quench the thirst of the dying Bhishma);
Fossil Folklore from India81
Abhimanyukhera mound at Amin (where a labyrinth trap [chakravyuha]) was
set, in which Abhimanyu was killed); Raja Karna ka Qila (dying place of
Karna); Prithudaksevara (dying place of Duryodhana); Chandrakupa (where
Most places in Kurukshetra are directly linked to a duel and the subsequent
death of one of the heroes, whose name often forms part of the geographical name.
Nevertheless, only a minor part of the Maha ˆbha ˆrata is set around Kurukshetra—
the rest of the battle-stage extends over other states in the Siwalik Hill Range.
Hastinapura (“Elephant City”; see Figure 1, no. 12), the dynastic capital and the
throne of which was the very reason for the great battle, is situated in nearby Uttar
Pradesh. Beas Kund (see Figure 1, no. 3), the source of the Beas River—called after
the sage Vyasa, the composer of the Maha ˆbha ˆrata who used to meditate along its
banks, is in Himachal Pradesh. In the south-eastern section of the Nepalese
Siwaliks close to the Indian border, the Maha ˆbha ˆrata is referred to in some further
geographical locations. Janakpur (city of king Janak, father of Sita, is called
Mithilinagara in the Maha ˆbha ˆrata; see Figure 1, no 16); Biratnagar (city of king
Virat, who sheltered the Pandava brothers during their exile is named Gograha in
the Maha ˆbha ˆrata); Kichakban or Kichakbadh (a forest where king Kichak was
killed in a duel with Bhima); and Byas Gupha (a rock shelter, which is the
birthplace of the sage Vyasa, the composer of the Maha ˆbha ˆrata; see Figure 1, no. 15)
at Damauli. A few more references can be found in Uttaranchal: Drona Gupha (the
cave where Drona drilled the Pandavas; also known as Tapkeshwara temple),
Tapovan (the forest where Drona did penance; see Figure 1, no. 6) near Dehradun;
Bhimphul (Bhima’s bridge to cross the Sarasvati River; see Figure 1, no. 5);
Ganesha Gupha (Ganesha’s cave, where he wrote down the Maha ˆbha ˆrata); another
Vyas Gupha (Vyasa’s cave), all three of which are near Badrinath (named
Badarikashrama in Maha ˆbha ˆrata); and Karnaprayag, where Karna performed his
worship (see Figure 1, no. 7). The five Pandava brothers are believed to have spent
four of their fourteen years of exile at Katas Raj, along the Jhelum River in
Pakistan’s Salt Range (see Figure 1, no. 2). An annual pilgrimage of Hindus from
Indiatakesplaceto thetemplepool of KatasRajtofill pots (kalash)withholy water.
Hundreds of geographical references to the Maha ˆbha ˆrata—some of them
overlapping—also exist in the Himalayan foothill region situated roughly
between the Terai in Nepal and the Salt Range in Pakistan. It is, however, beyond
the scope of this paper to enumerate them all. The purpose here is to underline the
fact that, traditionally, the legendary hot spots concerning the Maha ˆbha ˆrata are
tightly woven into the landscape of the Siwalik Hill Range. The geographical
names incorporate either names of heroes, or of the composer, Vyasa ( ¼ Byas,
Beas), or refer to a passage in the text. None, except maybe Asthipura, explicitly
refers to remains in the form of bones, skeletons, or tusks. This might be ascribed
to the Hindu view that body parts, fluids and remains, are particularly unclean
(see below). This matter, which is beyond the scope of this paper, deserves further
On his first visit to the Siwalik Hills region in the first half of the nineteenth
century, the famous palaeontologist Hugh Falconer was struck by the quantity of
Alexandra van der Geer, Michael Dermitzakis, and John de Vos82
fossil bones in evidence—he was able to collect more than three hundred large
bones in just one day (Falconer and Cautley 1845–9). He had actually expected to
find enormous bones in the region, having read about bone remains in the Pinjore
valley (see Figure 1, no. 9) in a history of India (Tarikh-I Firisht) written by the
Persian-born Ferishta or Firishta (c. 1560–c. 1620), which had been translated into
English in 1829 (Ferishta 1829; see also Nair 2005, 370–1). In addition, local people
are said to have shown him the remains of the demonic ra ˆkshasas that had been
killed there by an epic hero(Mayor 2000). This could refer to the victory of Krishna
over Bana, who was assisted by Shiva with his host of all kinds of demons (see, for
example, in this context, Harivamsa (c. 500 B.C.E.–500 C.E.) 1834–5, 1.175; Vishnu
Purana 1864–87, 5.33), but also to the Maha ˆbha ˆrata, since Kurukshetra lies nearby
(see Figure 1, no. 13). Locals had collected fossil bones for centuries and
considered them bijli ki har (Hindi for “lightning bones”), which were sold on the
plains for their perceived magical powers (Mayor 2000, 133; Nair 2005, 361).
Near the village of Samrota, in the Pinjore valley, a similar story was told about
giants who were said to have been destroyed by the hero Ramachandra, as
narrated in the epic Ramayana (Nair 2005, 370). The Raja of Nahan (see Figure 1,
no. 10) had evidence for the myth—a fossil elephant tooth and tusk fragment—in
his collection (Cautley 1834 cited in Nair 2005, 370). The fauna that Falconer found
in this area became the type-fauna for a much larger region and was referred to as
the “Siwalik Fauna” (Falconer and Cautley 1845–9). The Siwalik deposits are of
fluvial origin, transported by river systems flowing southwards from the Greater
Figure 4. Excavation of a fossil elephant tusk in the Siwalik Hills. Photograph: J de Vos.
Fossil Folklore from India 83
Himalayas since the middle Miocene period. The deposits were afterwards
uplifted through tectonic activities, and formed the Siwalik Hills, the foothills of
the Himalayas. The Siwalik Range extends over Pakistan, northern India, Nepal,
and Bhutan, and varies in width from six to ninety kilometres (Acharyya 1994)
(see Figure 1). The Range also varies in elevation and lateral extent from Pakistan
to Bhutan. It is not homogeneous, and is divided into early, middle and late parts,
each corresponding to a specific geological time unit, ranging from the middle
Miocene to the late Pleistocene periods (roughly from 30 million years to 100,000
years ago). The fossils, especially those in the younger layers are exposed for
the most part exposed and are thus visible at the surface (Figure 4). Many of the
Siwalik fossils are filled with large calcite crystals, which make them even more
fantastic to look at. The crystals are reminiscent of Philostratus’s claim that the
dragons of the Siwalik Hills had jewels in their skulls.
In specified regions mentioned in the Maha ˆbha ˆrata, such as Kurukshetra, and in
areas in Himachal Pradesh, and Uttaranchal, the vertebrate remains found at the
surface belong to the Upper Siwalik Hills (Parkash, Awasthi, and Gohain 1983).
The age of the fossil fauna found here is Late Pliocene and is dated to about
2.48 million years ago (Rajaguru and Badam 1999). Examples of this fauna include
a stegodont (Stegodon insignis ganesa); elephants (Elephas [Archidiskodon] planifrons,
Elephas hysudricus); horses (Equus hysudricus, Equus sivalensis); rhinoceroses
(Rhinoceros sivalensis, Rhinoceros palaeoindicus); a hippopotamus (Hexaprotodon
namadicus); a camel (Camelus sivalensis); a giant turtle (Geochelone atlas); and many
other species—including a pig, a crocodile, and a deer—which are not yet
precisely identified (Badam 1979). There are also rare remains of a sabre-toothed
cat (Paramachairodus) and short-necked giraffids with impressive horns
(Sivatherium, Giraffokeryx). Life-sized reconstructions of some of these extinct
animals are shown in Saketi Fossil Park in Himachal Pradesh.
In Greek and Latin textual sources, several examples exist of place-names
associated with great battles or slaughters, linked directly to locally found
petrified bones (Mayor 2007, 245). According to local tradition, remains of the
giant Titans, killed in a mythic battle with the gods (the Titanomachy), were to be
seen in the black lignite of Megalopolis in southern Greece (Dermitzakis and
Papadopoulou 1989). The Titans were said to have been killed by Zeus with his
lightning bolts; hence the remains were covered with black ashes. In reality, these
remains are Pleistocene fossil mammals, such as hippopotamuses, deer, and
horses. On the Kassandra peninsula in north-eastern Greece, the alleged remains
of another battle (the Gigantomachy) were found in the Pleistocene fossil beds
at Pallene (Mayor 2000, 129; 2007, 246). Another example comes from the
fossiliferous layers of red soil on Samos, described as Panaima (“bloodbath”) and
considered to be the remains of the war elephants of Dionysus, although they are
in reality mastodon fossils (Mayor 2000, 54–60; 2007, 246; Solounias and Mayor
With regard to India, the only example in the literature of a place-name
connected to a fossil myth is that of Asthipura (Bone Town) (Van der Geer,
Dermitzakis, and De Veer 2006, 124; Mayor 2007, 246). Asthipura, as we now
Alexandra van der Geer, Michael Dermitzakis, and John de Vos84
know, is the place where the war casualties of the Maha ˆbha ˆrata were said to be
cremated. Both this text and later sources speak of a battlefield with remains of
heroes, war horses, and war elephants, scattered in great chaos over a vast terrain.
In addition to the Kurukshetra region, many of the place-names mentioned in the
epic have been identified in the Himalayan states of North India and in Nepal. As
a rule, these geographical names include the name of one of the heroes, or of the
composer Vyasa (Byas, Beas). The connection between the ancient place-names
and the geomyth has been confirmed by the discovery of the rich Plio-Pleistocene
fossil beds in the entire Siwalik Hill Region. In the late nineteenth century, only a
small part of the Hills was known to yield abundant fossils. Nowadays, it is clear
that the entire Siwalik Hill Range constitutes a rich fossil deposit, covering the
period from the middleMiocene to the latestPleistocene. The fossils arefrequently
visible to the naked eye and are constantly being weathered. This is especially so
after every heavy rainfall, which is often accompanied by thunderstorms—thus
probably giving rise to the names like “lightning bones” for the fossils. It is
remarkable, however, that apart from Asthipura no other pace-name containing a
word for bone or skeleton has come to light despite a careful analysis of existing
data. Further investigation of this intriguing matter is needed.
Apart from the bones, the ancient writers also mention arrowheads and other
weapons spread all over the battlefield. This was confirmed in the late twentieth
century by the discovery of many settlements dating back to the Harappan period
and even earlier (c. 2500–c. 600 B.C.E.) in the same area. Large and artefact-rich
settlements include Rakhigarhi (Haryana;see Figure 1, no. 8), Hastinapur (in Uttar
Pradesh, the right to the throne of which was said to be the reason for the
Maha ˆbha ˆrata battle; see Figure 1, no. 12), Raja Karna ka Qila, now Thanesar
(see Figure 1, no. 11), and many more. Tools, weapons, pottery and potsherds
emerge on the surface of the Hills after rainfalls. The combination of petrified
bones of “giants” (see Figure 5), war elephants, war horses, and ancient weaponry,
is precisely what is mentioned in the texts. However, ancient sources linking
observations of the weapons with the epic seem lacking; future studies, especially
of oral traditions, may fill this gap.
It seems no coincidence that the places mentioned in the Maha ˆbha ˆrata itself, and
the places that nowadays refer to Maha ˆbha ˆrata-linked events, are all situated in the
vast area in which fossils and artefacts are found. This is not only true for
Kurukshetra and Asthipura, where the battle itself is said to have taken place, but
also for Katas Raj in Pakistan, where the brothers are said to have spent four years
Most probably, the Maha ˆbha ˆrata is not entirely made-up. A dynastic battle quite
possibly did take place somewhere in the general area, although not necessarily
exactly in Kurukshetra itself. In our view, the abundant remains of bones and
weaponry found in the same region caused the legend to remain popular. They
were considered proof of the truth of the story, which consequently could grow to
cosmological proportions. The local myths about remains of giants and demons
who were destroyed by epic heroes, referred to by Mayor (2000, 133) and Nair
(2005, 370), may, in actual fact, refer to the Maha ˆbha ˆrata. Another link between the
fossils and the epic might be provided by the nagas, the mythical snakes said to
live below the Himalayas in their shining palaces. They figure prominently in
the Maha ˆbha ˆrata, especially in book 1, and are shown to assist heroes, or to be
Fossil Folklore from India 85
Figure 5. Isolated limb bones of large mammals can be easily confused with those of giant humans: a thigh bone
of a fossil elephant next to a human skeleton.
Alexandra van der Geer, Michael Dermitzakis, and John de Vos 86
connected to sacrifice. It might also not be coincidence that the city of Naggar
(see Figure 1, no. 4), named after the nagas, is close to Beas Kund, the source of the
Beas River, along which Vyasa is said to have meditated and composed the
Maha ˆbha ˆrata. A further hint that fossil remains are interpreted as those of mythical
beings comes from a fossil elephant tooth, discovered by a native working for the
British irrigation expert Proby Cautley (1802–71) at Nahan (see Figure 1, no. 10).
The native interpreted the tooth as a deo ka sir, literally a god’s head (Nair 2005,
370). How the head of a god could be found there is not told, but it is tempting to
link it to the decapitated trunks of heroes and demigods as described in the
Maha ˆbha ˆrata.
Traditional worship of the purported battle-remains in local shrines would
certainly be a strong point in favour of this hypothesis, but such a thing is not
likely to be found in India. As is well known, bodily remains, be it the complete
body or parts, such as teeth, hair, nails, skin and bones, are considered unclean by
the Hindus. Worship of these unclean materials is not appropriate in Hindu
worldview. Only certain groups of outcastes are allowed to deal with dead
human and animal materials, but they do so entirely from an economic point
of view, without religious attachment. Present-day examples are the Meghwal of
Rajasthan’s desert, who work with skin, leather and bones, and the Dom of
Varanasi (Benares), who cremate bodies. Bone and tooth worship in a Buddhist
context, on the other hand, is as old as the religion itself. The stupas (mound-
shaped religious monuments) generally enclose relics of the Buddha or of one of
his monks. For example (as described in the Dathavamsa [late 12th century C.E.]
1925), the Thuparama stupa contains a right collar bone, the Dalada Maligawa a
left upper canine, and the Somavati vehera a right upper canine. All three stupas
are in Sri Lanka, and the fact that many fossils are found in that country may not
be mere coincidence.
The dynastic war, as described in the epic Maha ˆbha ˆrata, took place somewhere in
the Kurukshetra district (Haryana) of northern India, at the foot of the Siwalik Hill
Range of the Himalayas. The ancient writers tell that giant heroes and formidable
beasts fought there for eighteen days, and that many lost their lives. Carcasses,
skulls, broken weapons, and chariots were all that were left. The war probably
would have been forgotten if no artefacts had been left in the area. Bones
are constantly visible to the naked eye in the entire Siwalik Hill Range, due
especially to weather conditions, especially heavy rainfall, that causes them to
become exposed. The abundance of bones is likely to have contributed to the
mythologising of the battle and its hundreds of heroes. Gradually, a possibly
historical fact moved into a mythical past. The stage of the epic is likely to have
extended over the Siwalik Range of Uttaranchal, Himachal Pradesh, Pakistan’s
Salt Range, and southeastern Nepal, based on the findings of vertebrate fossils.
It is likely that the many petrified bones, molars, and tusks found on the surface
of the Siwalik Hills in the same area became integrated into an already existing
story of an important battle. Bones of large vertebrates, such as giraffe-like beasts
and mastodons, could be interpreted as the limb bones of mighty heroes and
gods, because, apart from scale, they look similar. Elephant remains are naturally
Fossil Folklore from India87
interpreted as those of the many war elephants mentioned. Horse remains are also
easily recognised. The large incisors of hippopotamuses, unknown to Indian
people, and the caninesof sabre-toothedcats, might easily havebeen seenas darts,
lances, arrows, javelins, and swords of the hundreds of kings, spread all over the
place. Another obvious source of the weaponry is the archaeological finds in the
same area, since bronze and iron tools and weapons, together with pottery, are
often exposed, especially after periods of rain.
It is evident that additional work needs be done in order to uncover—if they
exist—early Hindu, Mughal, British colonial and modern Indian sources, that
relate the observed fossil bones and tusks to the Maha ˆbha ˆrata battle, now that our
preliminary research strongly suggests that the Siwalik fossils may have served to
keep the memory of the battle alive.
The authors wish to thank Johanna de Visser (the Netherlands) for providing
information and photographs of the Siwalik Hill Range, and George Lyras
(University of Athens) for making the plates and the map. They are greatly
indebted to Adrienne Mayor for valuable suggestions for improving this paper.
This project has been partly financed by grant 02-023-466-4664-0366 (Kalbfleisch
Fund) from the American Museum for Natural History, New York, granted to the
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Alexandra van der Geer, who holds a Ph.D. in Indology and M.S. Degree in Veterinary
Science, combines her knowledge of Indian languages and culturewith that of paleontology
and zoology. She worked as a research fellow on the depiction of animals in Indian stone
sculpture and is finishing a handbook entitled Animals in Stone, Indian Fauna
Sculptured through Time (Leiden: Brill, forthcoming). At present, she looks for links
between fossils and mythology in South Asia. For relevant publications, see http://users.
uoa.gr/ , geeraae; INTERNET.
Michael Dermitzakis, who holds a Ph.D. in Geology, is an expert in geology and
palaeontology, and is Head of the Department of Geology of the National University of
Athens (Greece). As an enthusiastic promotor of historical geology, he seeks to discover
links between the geological environment and the legends and myths of the inhabitants.
Fossil Folklore from India 91
Relevant publications include: Dermitzakis, M. D., and E. Papadopoulou. “Giants, Download full-text
Dragons, Saints and Geological Phaenomena”. Bulletin of the Geological Society of
Greece 23, no. 2 (1989): 75–100; and Sondaar, P. Y., Dermitzakis, M. D., Drinia, H. and
J. de Vos. “Paleoecological Factors that Controlled the Survival and Adaptation of the
Pleistocene Man on the Mediterranean Islands.” Annales geologiques des pays
Helleniques 38, A (1998): 25–35. See also http://users.uoa.gr/ , mdermi; INTERNET.
John de Vos, who holds a Ph.D. in Palaeontology, is curator of fossil macrovertebrates at
Naturalis, National Museum of Natural History, Leiden, The Netherlands, and visited the
area underconsideration in this article (the Siwaliks) several times. As part-time curatorof
Teylers Museum (Haarlem, the Netherlands) he was involved in the 2006 exhibition
entitled “Dino’s en Draken” (“Dinosaurs and Dragons”). Relevant publications include:
Tasseer Hussain, S., G. D. van den Bergh, K. J. Steensma, et al. “Biostratigraphy of the
Plio-Pleistocene continental sediments (Upper Siwaliks) of the Mangla-Samwal Anticline,
Azad Kashmir, Pakistan.” Proceedings of the Koninklijke Nederlandse Akademie
van Wetenschappen, 95, no. 1 (1992): 65–80. See also http://www.naturalis.nl under
departments. geology.De Vos; INTERNET.
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