Astronomy has benefited from amateur efforts, including myths that seek to explain astronomical phenomena. That is true for tribal lore too, researchers have found.
A study of tribal people settled around central India has revealed a rich mythology. Researchers led by Mayank Vahia, Professor, Department of Astronomy and Astrophysics at the Tata Institute of Fundamental Research (TIFR), Mumbai, carried out the largest study of its kind (ongoing, since 2014) to collect and document tribal myths, with the participation of over a thousand people from the Gond, Kolam, Korku, Banjara and Cholainaikkan tribes. Participants identified images of the night sky and narrated stories that were documented.
“Modern education is forcing us to learn only one narrative. However, there are parallel traditions, perceptions and narratives of our relationship with nature,” says Mr. Vahia.
The stories have a lasting appeal beyond the rational. A popular example is the Hindu myth of Rahu and Ketu, asuras or demons who devour the sun and the moon, causing eclipses, which continues to fascinate many though eclipses are well-understood. The researchers found that the tribal view of constellations and myths of the origin of the universe is quite different from what Babylonian or Hindu stargazers perceived. For instance, the Gond look at the Southern Cross (Crux) and see a mahua tree.
The Korkus have an interesting myth on the Centaurus constellation. Some prominent stars in Centaurus are the Menkent, the fourth brightest star in the constellation, and the Hadar, which is actually a three-star system and the second brightest object in it. In the Korku myth, one of them, Pechla (the tribal name for Menkent) did not pay his bride’s family any dowry. So his wife Charkhaya (the star Hadar) ate betel leaves, which stained her mouth red, and she then spat it on Pechla, some juice staining her cheeks as well. The myth underlines the importance of not defaulting on the bridal gift. The Korku also identify the stars with earthly counterparts. For instance, they identify Pechla with the red-vented bulbul and Charkhaya with the red-whiskered bulbul.
Korku creation myth
The Korku believe that Badadeo (a Korku god, thought to be the equivalent of Shiva) sent out a crow to bring back some soil. While it was returning, some soil fell from the crow’s beak and became the earth. Out of this, Badadeo created men and women. To guard them, Gangudevi, his wife and a great goddess herself, created dogs.
But having given them life, there was a dilemma — the men and women, being all siblings, could not intermarry. So Badadeo called up a huge storm and everyone hid behind objects like rock, river, tree, crops and waited for it to pass. There were twelve-and-a-half such objects, the half-object corresponding to transgenders. When the storm subsided, their identities changed and Badadeo gave each person a name based on where they had taken shelter from the storm; the people who had hidden behind different objects could intermarry.
Tribal communities have been very closely knit, to the point of marrying only within their own tribes but also exchanging ideas, even myths, strictly within their own clan. So much so that if there were settlements of different tribes across a road, each would have a different mythology, Dr. Vahia and co-workers found.
The Saptarshi Mandal or the Big Dipper — this mainly has seven stars, four at the corners of an imaginary polygon and three bright spots trailing a distance away along a curve — is an asterism, or subset, of the larger constellation Ursa Major or Big Bear.
The Saptarshi Mandal is close to the Pole Star and rises in the north. It is visible today for most of the year in the night sky when viewed from, say, Nagpur, the vantage point of the people the researchers spoke with, and this asterism would set and rise regularly. But about 3,000 years ago, these stars would not set below the horizon. In other words, the Saptarshi used to be circumpolar. There is an interesting myth about the setting of Saptarshi, which can be interpreted as an ancient memory of the Gond.
Thieves and a cot
The Gond call the four stars forming the polygon, Katul, or cot, and they see the trailing spots as thieves trying to steal the cot. They envisage an old lady on the cot who must not go to sleep, as thieves would then steal the cot.
Dr. Vahia has an interesting interpretation of this story. He thinks that that the implication of the belief that the “lady must not go to sleep” is that the constellation should not set. He, therefore, feels that the story suggests a reference to observations over 3,000 years ago.
Mayank Vahia, Tata Institute of Fundamental Research
The Korku tribe, on the other hand, talk explicitly of the setting of the Saptarshi. In their story too, the polygon represents a bed. But instead of the old woman, the workers sleeping on the bed must wake up early and start work.
According to the Korku, the cot is not a proper rectangle because the thieves are tugging at it.
The researchers have published a part of their findings in the Journal of Astronomical History and Heritage. Their further work has been accepted for publication by Current Science.