The mystery of Parsuram’s axe



His name itself says it: The Ram with the axe. But why axe? Perhaps Parsuram’s story is one of the few instances in the ancient texts where an axe features as a weapon of war. An axe is extremely unwieldy, and not the best weapon to use in a war. According to Brahmanda Purana, Parsuram was being sent by Siv on a mission to help the dev against the asur; ‘the dev had been defeated in the war, their assets and magnificent glory had been seized by their enemies’ [Tagare, 1958: ‘The Brahmand Puran’, Part 2, chapter 24, verse 48, 608]. This is not an unfamiliar theme; we have several references to the conflict between the dev and the asur. We know it is about the encounter between the bramhan and the aborigines, as the former tried to spread out, first into the Indo-Gangetic plain and then into the Deccan. We also know that the ksatriya were the shield and the sword of the bramhan in this endeavor. Parsuram has been called the ‘the other kind of bramhan’, who lies in the twilight zone between the ksatriya and the bramhan, as follows from the story of his ksatriya grandmother Satyavati exchanging charu with her mother [Satyavati’s Historical Mix Up, September 29, 2019].

This is the better known interpretation of historical Parsuram. But it tells us nothing about Parsuram’s strange axe. For that we have to perhaps place Parsuram outside the ksatriya – bramhan conflict; and look at him as the creator of Komkan, Tuluva and Malabar, where the legend of Parsuram casting his axe into the sea to reclaim land is prevalent. What exactly does Parsuram’s creation of new land mean? Could we draw a parallel between the historical characters of Agastya and Parsuram?

Agastya is often identified with Siv or he is believed to have travelled to the tamil country at the behest of Siv. But the personality of Agastya himself is shrouded in myth. Rgved does not mention about Agastya’s southern migration, but describes him as the sage cherished by both the varn, that is by the arya and the das (non-arya). Mahabharat and the Ramayan portray him essentially as the vanquisher of the raksas in the south and the maker of the land safe for the bramhan and for the performance of their rites; Agastya’s ‘humbling of the Vindhyachal’ symbolises the removal of obstacles in the way of the bramhana advance into the Deccan [Mahadevan, 1986: ‘Agastya Legend And The Indus Civilisation’, in Journal Of Tamil Studies, Number 30, 25]. So the basic picture of Agastya that emerges from the northern tradition is of an arya pioneer who leads the bramhan movement into the tamila land. Though he is described as a ‘sage’, he is portrayed as a warrior (vanquisher of the raksas) – that is, not as a bramhan but as a ksatriya. In fact the tradition categorically holds that he was not born of bramhan parents; his birth (along with that of his twin brother Vasistha) is ascribed to a miracle when Mitra and Varuna deposit their semen in a pitcher (kumbha) on seeing the celestial nymph Urvasi (Rgveda, Mandala 7, Hymn 33).

In the tamil tradition the earliest reference to Agastya legend is found in verse 201 of ‘Purnanur’, a poetic compilation believed to have been composed in the early centuries of the Common Era, but containing much older traditions. In it, the poet Kabilar addresses Irunkovel, a tamil velir chieftain/king, and describes him as descended through forty nine generations from the velir who arose ‘from the pitcher of a Northern sage’ and ruled over Tuvarai (Dvaravati or Dvarka). The ‘northern sage’ is not named in the poem, but can be easily identified with Agastya from the reference to the pitcher. He is supposed to have led a migration of velir from Dvarka to the south. According to Naccinarkkiniyar, he is supposed to have taken along from Dvarka the descendants of Netu-Muti-Annal (Krsna?) – eighteen kings and eighteen families – and led them to the south [Allen, 2017: Coromandel: A Personal History of South India, 201].

Around the beginning of the Common Era, the velir were landowners and local chieftains in some hilly tracts of northern Tamilakam; they were sometimes vassals, sometimes rivals of the Chera, Chola and Pandya kings. One region that finds mention as belonging to the territory governed by Vel Pari is Erumainadu [Seneviratne, 1994: ‘The Twilight of Perumakan’, in Bakel (ed) Pivot Politics, 169]. According to Kanakasabhai, Erumainadu was ‘immediately to the north of Tamilakam, above the ghats’ and corresponds to modern Mysuru [Kanakasabhai, 1904: ‘The Tamils Eighteen Hundred Years Ago’, 10]. Sangam texts very specifically identify the velir as an ancient community. They are described as Mudu Kudi,Ton Mudir Velir, Vel Mudu Maccal, Mudil, etc, meaning ‘velir of the ancient warrior clans, families, lineages and house’. Chieftain Irunkovel proudly mentions the forty nine preceding generations of his lineage and their ancestral home at Tuvarai (Dvarka) (Puram, 201.10). Some historians like Seneviratne accept the possibility that the velir were ‘associated with the yadav of Dvarka’ [Seneviratne, 1994: 165]. The image of Agastya that emerges from both the traditions, the northern and the southern, though very different, is of a pioneer, who led and settled his people in a new land.

Could Parsuram too be such a pioneer? That’s a conjecture that K V Ramesh makes in his book ‘A History Of South Kanara’: “If we take into account the long years of industry and suffering in which the iron-age men would have been involved before finally clearing the forests and settling down to an agricultural life on the coastal tract, the association of Parasurama, who, as his very name suggests, had the axe for his weapon, with the creation of Tuluva and, for that matter, the whole of the western coastal tract, significantly called Parasurama kshetra, comes to bear a new significance. Perhaps, the faint recollections of what had happened in the remote past induced later generations to coin this legend, the antiquity and popularity of which are illustrated by its mention in the Mahabharat and Kalidasa’s Raghuvamsa.” If that is true, it would solve the mystery of Parsuram’s axe [Ramesh, 1970: ‘A History Of South Kanara’, xxiii].