The Sarabha story from Siva Purana we read last time is not just about the Saiva- Vaisnava conflicts at the beginning of the last millennium; it also speaks about the Deccan a thousand years prior to it. The purana are layered texts, memories after memories laid upon one another, intricately woven together into one narrative; peel them off like skins of an onion and they reveal history. In the excerpt we read, underneath the story of the fight between Siva and Visnu, there is the story of Hiranyakasipu, and beneath it the Sarabha story; the former would pertain to Deccan around the beginning of CE, and the latter around a millennium before that.
Hiranyakasipu is called the king of the demons or daitya in Srimad-Bhagavatam (2.7.14).This makes it clear that he was a vadukar king to the south of the Vindhya. We do not know what his real name was; the Samskrta texts name him Hiranyakasipu, ‘a user of gold and soft garments’. So apparently he was fairly rich. According to the legend, Hiranyakasipu’s brother Hiranyaksa, was killed by Varaha (Visnu). (Note how the arya named the vadukar they encounterd: Hiranyakasipu = user of gold and soft garments; Hiranyaksa=golden-eyed) Hiranyakasipu sought revenge, and began preparing for a battle, possibly with the help of other kings, including a powerful deva (arya) king Brahma; the latter was known for his sympathies to the daitya, and he had protected many raksasa from the deva. While Hiranyakasipu was thus busy preparing for the battle, Indra and some other deva attacked his home. The divine sage Narada intervened to protect Hiranyakasipu’s wife Kayadhu, and took her into his care. There was born a son to her, who was named Prahlada. The boy grew under the guidance and instruction of the sage. Hiranyakasipu was furious with rage realizing that he had now suffered a greater loss: his son was now an enemy within. And therefore he exterminated Prahlada. Now it was the turn of the deva to seek revenge. That is indeed a blow-by-blow narration of the arya – vadukar encounter that could have happened around the turn of the first millennium CE, or a little thereafter.
This is where the Sarabha joins the story. However the story gets muddled here with the later Saiva-Vaisnava conflicts. Nevertheless, it gets interesting. Here we enter another layer of folk memory, a deeper or older layer – much older than the Saivav/s Vaisnava layer, even older than the deva v/s daitya layer. Sarabha is not an entirely mythical animal, a pure imagination of the authors of the Siva Purana and other texts. If we are to go by historical accounts, the animal in the puranic texts was modeled on a real animal that once roamed the forests of Deccan. But we do not know for certain what that animal was. The puranic texts and sculptures depict it as a ‘part-lion and part-bird’or as an ‘eight-legged deer’; in some Kannada depictions it is a ‘lion-elephant’. Definitely it was not any of this. But it must have been an unusually large and ferocious animal native to the rain forest that once covered a good part of Deccan.
Abu Rihan Al Beruni, a Persian traveller, toured India in the 11th century CE recording its religion, philosophy, literature, geography, astrology, customs and laws. As he roamed the foothills of the Sahyadri, he came across an animal that he calls śarava; or was told about this animal. According to him it looked like a buffalo and was larger than a rhinoceros. It had four legs, but also on the back it had something like four legs directed upwards. It had two big horns. He was told that sometimes it rammed some animal with its horns and raised it towards its back, so that it came to lie between its upper legs. There it became a putrid mass of worms, which worked their way into the back of the animal. That led to the death of the animal. He was also told by the people that sometimes, when it hears the thunder, it takes it to be the roar of some animal and proceeds to attack it. In pursuit of it the sarava climbs up to the top of the mountain-peaks, and thence leaps towards its adversary, plunging itself to death. Al Beruni found this animal in what he calls “plains of Danak, in the province of Kunkan, with its capital Ṭhana, on the sea coast, 25 farsakh from Mahratta-Desh”. [Sachau, 1910: Alberuni’s India, 203). Rashid al-Din Hamadani, another Persian traveller who toured India around the 13th century CE, also writes about such an animal. [Jahn, 1965: Rashid al-Din’s History of India, 59]
Al Beruni’s ‘province of Kunkan, 25 farsakh(about 150 kilometres) from Mahratta-Desh’ does not seem to be much different from Hwen Thsang’s Konkan (7th century CE). [Konkan Once Upon A Time, December 25, 2016] Somewhere in the south-western quadrant of that Konkan, just about 50 kilometres from Hwen Thsang’s Kong-Kin-Na-Pu-Lo (Konkanapura) is the Saravathi river basin, covered with dense evergreen forest; today named the Sharavati Valley Wildlife Sanctuary. Could this have been the natural habitat of the sarava, giving the name to the river: sarava + vathi? The Saravathi valley extends from the top of Sahyadri to the sea near Honavar. Could Al Beruni’s ‘plains of Danak, on the sea coast’ refer to this? Presently there is no animal in the valley which can fit Al Beruni’s description; all that comes close to it is a bison. Or could it be some sort of an elephant? But a thousand or two thousand years ago, the entire Deccan presented a different landscape. According to Hwen Thsang, between Kong-Kin-Na-Pu-Lo (Konkanapura) and Mo-Hola-Cha (Maharashtra), lay “a great forest wild, where savage beasts and bands of robbers inflict injury on travellers.” [Beal, 1884: Buddhist Records Of The Western World, Vol II, 255] In that forest there could have been an animal that instilled terror in the minds of the inhabitants, resulting in a description as given by Al Beruni.
Sarava is memorialised in a sculpture in Kothaligada Fort near Karjat, Maharashtra; and today it has a prominent place in the logo of Mysore Sandal Soaps & Detergent Ltd. Interestingly the depiction of the animal at Munneswaram Temple in Sri Lanka shows two legs on the back directed upwards.