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Posts Tagged ‘Mahabharata’

Many were thrown as the city buzzed with entertainment, games and gambling before turning into a mound of dead.  Dice were discovered almost on every level of Moen jo Daro. This was noted by Sir John Marshall, the Director General of the Archeological Survey of India, under whose supervision the site was excavated. Moen jo Daro (translated: Mound of Dead) was the capital of the Indus Civilization (2600-1900 BCE).  Known for its non-violence, its citizens tested their strengths only on board games.  The stakes can be surmised from mythology and folklore wherein kingdoms were lost on a throw of dice. What was the nature of that game played in Moen jo Daro?

Much before the discovery of Indus Civilization it was speculated that chess had its origins in India.  Sir William Jones was more specific and suggested West India as the place and chaturanga as the predecessor of chess. Chaturanga, meaning four limbs, denoting the four divisions of the Indian army do not befit well with the ancient Indus way of life.  Nonetheless, a few game pieces showcased in the Moen jo Daro Museum are labeled “Chessmen” and placed on a modern chess board suggesting the possibility of the existence of chess in Moen jo Daro. Things change, concepts evolve, and sometimes they are even capable of representing just the opposite of the original concept. The four limbs of chaturanga may have denoted non-martial ideas in its earlier versions. The existence of dice in Moen jo Daro brings to mind other board games and chaturanga may have evolved from these.

This week I saw ‘’A Throw of Dice,” a vintage Bombay film belonging to the silent era and was made in 1929. However, it has been digitally restored and is available on Netflix.  You can watch a trailer here. The film, inspired by the Mahabharata, included a scene where King Ranjit gambled away his wife and his kingdom.  The superb restored picture quality allows a clear view of the four armed board game, the game pieces, and the dice which is not cube shaped but a set of three rectangular sticks etched with simple designs. Moen jo Daro site museum has few specimens of the stick dice. Archaeologists may be interested in knowing that these are still used by the Sindhi snake charmers, for fortune telling. As for the four-armed board in the movie, perhaps it was pachisi and who knows Arjun too may have lost his wife over such a board.

Pachisi, meaning twenty five, has survived in India and it has an older version known as chaupan. It is played by four players and until recent times, was a favorite ladies’ game in rural Sindh. Chaupan set consists of 16 game pieces, seven cowrie shells and a board, which is actually not a board but just a four-armed cloth piece marked with squares, the same as the one shown in the movie. Logically, chaupan should be the closest to the version played in Moen jo Daro. The use of cowrie shells instead of a cube dice is interesting. Perhaps this throws some light on the urban and rural divide of the Indus Civilization. Whereas the urban centers used dice since the days of Moen jo Daro, the use of cowrie shells, which is much ancient, continues in the remote villages of Sindh. So dice too has taken various forms.

What Marshall discovered in abundance are the cube shaped dice which have survived to present times and are widespread, found in almost all the countries and cultures of today’s world. In Moen jo Daro these were made of terra-cotta, one of these was inscribed with numbers on opposite sides adding up to seven another had made its way to Ur in Mesopotamia confirming the trade links between the two civilizations. The connection between dice and chess is however not yet established.

In a game of chance coincidences abound. The co-producer of ‘A Throw of Dice’, Himanshu Roy, played the role of the villain and won King Ranjit’s wife. In real life however, he had lost his wife, not on a throw of dice, but to the charms of one of the actors he had hired. This is a story better told by Sadaat Hasan Manto, captured here is an English translation.

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In olden days people said storms were nature’s way of reminding man of his fragile existence. We heard similar expressions even in modern days. When Sandy hit a large part of the United States, many people felt it was there to change the tide of presidential elections and hence the fate of the country and the world.  However, there are only few who can sense the subtle warnings of an approaching storm. In Indian mythology a fish had sensed these. According to the Hindu belief it was actually Lord Vishnu in the guise of a fish who saved Manu (father of the human race) from a devastating deluge.

The fish appears as a savior in many ancient legends spread around the World.  The belief in its powers may have existed in the Indus Civilization (2600 to 1900 BCE) as indicated by the discovery of a large number of fish images from Moen jo Daro, Harappa and a few other ancient Indus towns. Total number of symbols/signs engraved on Indus seals is close to 400 and out of these 10% is of fish and its variants. Fish images are also generously painted on the Indus pottery.

The first Indus seal discovered from the site of Harappa was engraved with six signs – one of these was a fish. Its image was published in 1875 by Alexander Cunningham in his report in the Archaeological Survey of India. About half a century later when Sir John Marshall, the director general of the Archaeological Survey, published the first account of a number of seals discovered from Harappa and Moen jo Daro, fish was immediately spotted by Ernest Mackay. He was the Director of the Field Museum-Oxford University and was excavating Mesopotamian sites. Mackay drew Marshall’s attention to a fish sign engraved on a seal discovered from Kish, located in Persian Gulf. Fish symbol has been discovered in other civilizations East and West of Indus; from Japan to Mesoamerica. Fish Talisman’s, mostly depicting carp, continue to remain popular in today’s China and Japan.  Yuri Knorozov, the Russian scholar, who is more known for deciphering the Maya script, had suggested that the fish depicted on Indus seals is carp. Knorozov’s view that Indus script represented a proto-Dravidian language eventually lead the fish to a celestial status.

In 1950s Father Henry Heras, a Jesuit priest and a supporter of Knorozov’s idea suggested that fish actually represented star as in Dravidian language the word Minh is a homonym for fish and star. He used the signs engraved next to the fish for further proof. For instance the inverted letter V sign over the head of the fish was interpreted roof and represented the black star or Saturn. The fish sign appearing with six vertical strokes depicted six stars and represented constellation Pleiades.

Heras’ theory is further developed by Asko Parpola and Iravatham Mahadevan. However, there is an opposing view presented by S.R.Rao suggesting that Indus script represents an Indo-European language. As the two schools of thought Dravidian versus Sanskrit argue against each other, there are scholars who question whether Indus script is a script at all and whether the fish sign is a fish. Walter Fairservice argued that the eye of the fish is missing. Also, fish is not represented in an upright position in later Indus folk art, could it be just a loop or a letter? One of the recent researchers feel that fish may have been used for weights in the Indus cities. Furthermore, what appears as a roof to Heras appears as a crown and a mountain to others.

Speculations can multiply and the argument can go on for another century. It is about time to seek clues in diverse and scattered sources such as the mythology, etymology, ancient texts and indigenous folklore. Below are just few thoughts.

There may be a reminder to the old myth of fish power in a Sindhi saying ‘Jeko chawundo Jhule Lal Tehnija Theenda Bera Paar’ meaning whoever says Jhule Lal (swing Lal) his/her ship will reach the shores (safely). The story behind the saying is that River saint Udero Lal as a child, rested in a jhula (swinging crib) that kept on swinging on its own. In iconography, however, he is depicted riding a fish that swings with the waves of Indus waters. Fish in fact is a vehicle that takes Lal through the storms of life, hence the slogan Jhule Lal.

Some of the fish images engraved on Indus seals are depicted with horns. If these could be interpreted as numerals, vowels, diacritical marks or rays. They can also be interpreted as a symbol of superiority and authority. A deity engraved on Indus seals and labeled as proto-Shiva too is wearing horns. The tradition continued in historic times and even Alexander the Great is depicted with horns on a few images. The last name Singh adopted by martial communities of Rajputs and Sikhs, literally means horns. Above all the exalted fish in Manu’s story is said to have horns around which Manu fastened the rope that dragged his ship to the shores.

The missing eye of the fish so far can be found in Mahabharata where Arjun, the ace-archer shoots the eye of a fish statuette and wins the competition. The story is used for moral lesson; while going through the vicissitudes of life remain focused on the target; Arjun won Draupadi as during the competition he did not bother to see what others were seeing-the sky, the clouds and the trees.

As for the upright position perhaps ancients discovered one fish in Indus that swam against the current. The palla fish of Sindh, perhaps the upright position is to illustrate the resolve of a struggling fish. Knorozov had already compared images of Indus fish with carp, another fish that is known to swim against the current and which is still considered a symbol of courage and resilience in Japanese and Chinese cultures.

And on this day of Christmas let’s not forget the Biblical references to fish. Merry Christmas.

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