‘After Sarabha (Siva) grabbed hold of Narasimha (Visnu), the latter in his fury created a two-headed bird called Gandabherunda which defeated Sarabha.’ That is how more or less the story of the fight between Siva and Visnu ends in Satarudra Samhita of the Siva Purana. [Shastri, 2002: The Siva Purana, 1111]
The story of Gandabherunda is interesting. The bird is immortalised in innumerable sculptures and paintings, and is today the prominent symbol of Kannada identity. A sculpture depicting the bird is found on the roof of the Ramesvara temple, in Shimoga District. The ceiling painting of the Nandi Mandapam of Thanjavur Brihadisvara temple also features it. Gandabherunda has been on the official seals and coats of arms of many Kannada kingdoms, from the Kadamba, Calukya of Vatapi, Hoysala of Halebidu, Nayaka of Keladi, Kakatiya of Warangal, Kota of Guntur, Vijayanagara to the Wodeyar of Mysore. It now finds place in the state emblem of Karnataka, and on the proposed state flag.
Was Gandabherunda too a bird native of the Kannada domain or Deccan? In the Kannada folk traditions or travellers’ accounts we do not find any references to a real bird – some large eagle or so – on which the mythical bird could have been modeled. It is difficult to say why Gandabherunda came to occupy such an important place in Kannada psyche.
But there is a strong reason to believe that Gandabherunda was not of Kannada origin; or, for that matter of Deccan origin. The oldest double-headed eagle representation in India was found at Sirkap, Taxila, on a supposedly Buddhist stupa dating back to around 30 BCE to 80 CE, now named ‘The Shrine of the Double-Headed Eagle’. The discovery was made by Sir John Marshall. [Marshall, 1921: A Guide To Taxila, 76] A similar motif is also found in Buddhist caves at Junnar, Maharashtra, dated between the 1st and 3rd century CE.
But the oldest known representation of the double-headed eagle is on a clay cylinder found in the Sumerian city of Lagash (Iraq), dating back to late 3rd millennium BCE. Around 1,600 BCE we find it being used by Hittites who ruled over Anatolia in Turkey; the best of them all is the sculpture on the main gate of the city of Alaca Hoyuk, Turkey (1,450-1,180 BCE). Archaeological excavations have shown Alaca (Hoyuk means a mound) to have been a town of considerable importance right from chalcolithic times, possibly a trading outpost and a royal capital. The double eagle motif is also found on the early ivory of the ‘Geometric’ period (circa 900 BCE – 700 BCE) in Sparta, Greece; after that it seems to have been especially associated with the Scythians (8th century BCE). This led Marshall to conclude that it was Scythians who introduced the double-headed eagle at Taxila, and that from there it found its way to Deccan. [Marshall, 1921: 76]
Junnar has been an important trading and political center for the last two millennia. The town is on the trade route that links the Konkan ports like Kalyana (Kalyan) and Caula (Chaul) with Deccan via the Nanaghat pass. [Deo, 1984: The Genesis of Maharashtra History and Culture, in Bulletin of The Deccan College Research Institute, Vol 43, 28] One can see abundant traces of Greco-Roman influence in the trading towns of the Deccan. At Pitalakhora caves (3rd century BCE) depiction of a Greek couple with distinctive dress can be seen. Similarly at Nasik some of the rock-cut arc dentils have Greek human figures as decorations. [Deo, 1984: 28] A bronze figure of Poseidon has been found at Kolhapur. Shards of rouletted dishes of Roman origin or imitation have been found at Brahmagiri in the Chitradurg district of Karnataka; Maski in Karnataka and Kondapur in Telangana, have also produced similar shards; and at Amaravati in Andhra Pradesh more rouletted pottery has been gathered. Again at Chandravalli in Chitradurg district, denarii of Augustus and Tiberius have been found. [Wheeler, 1993: Rome beyond The Imperial Frontiers, 151]
Greco-Roman presence has been found at many Konkan ports as well. Roman amphorae and coins have been found at Gharapuri and Caula. [Tripati, 1997: Onshore and Near-shore Explorations along the Maharashtra Coast: With a View to Locating Ancient Ports and Submerged Sites, in Man and Environment, Vol XXII (2), 73]; also at Gopakapattan, Goa. [Tripati, 2013: Why were historical period ports of Goa located away from the coast – The decline of Gopakapatana, in Indian Journal of Geo-Marine Sciences, Vol 43 (7), 1357] It needs to be remembered that the Konkan ports served the entire peninsula up to the east coast. [Margabandhu, 1965: Trade Contacts Between Western India And Greco-Roman World, in Journal of the Economic And Social History of the Orient, Vol 8 (3), 318] The vessels coming from the Greco-Roman ports preferred not to circumnavigate through the Palk Strait.
The Greco-Roman influence on the art and architecture could have been extensive because of the factor we have considered before: the very rich Greek and Roman merchants – the sresthi – at the ports and trading hubs at this time, must have spent a good deal on construction of public utilities and places of worship. [The Silahar Story – A Sequel, June 10, 2018] This is testified by the inscriptions at Nanaghat, Junnar, Nasik, Pitalakhora, Kanheri, etc. It is natural, therefore, that the architectural objects built at the munificence of the rich Greek and Roman traders, should carry a strong stamp of their culture.
It is obvious from the above discussion, and the Neelis map [Neelis, 2011: Early Buddhist Transmission and Trade Networks, 2018], that the trade route from the Mediterranean to the Deccan was most likely through the Konkan ports rather than through the north-western trading hubs like Taxila. Therefore Marshall’s hypothesis of the double-headed eagle’s flight from Greece to Deccan via Taxila is rather weak. Back in nineteen twenties, when Marshall wrote, Deccan and the Konkan ports were hardly studied, and it is natural that Marshall should not have thought of an alternative possibility.
So the double-headed eagle seemed to have landed in Deccan via the Konkan ports. But why it came to occupy such an important position in Kannada psyche still remains a mystery. After all, could the Gandabherunda have flown from the tropical forest of Deccan to Abu Tbeirah in the Sumerian desert, which in the 3rd millennium BCE, was a flourishing port on the banks of river Euphrates? [D’Agostino, 2014: Abu Tbeirah, Nasiriyah (Southern Iraq) – Preliminary Report On The 2013 Excavation Campaign] The Sumerian city of Lagash, where the clay cylinder with the motif of the double-headed eagle has been found, is at a short distance from Abu Tbeirah.