Tuesday, 6 September 2016

The Legend of the Buffalo-Slayer: A mythical story set in India


Our story is set more than two millennia ago in the early Classical period of India's history when the great Mauryan Empire was in terminal decline. While the invasive Indo-Aryan culture had evolved and spread across much of the country, there still remained many isolated pockets which were free of the new influence and beliefs. One such area was in the mystical Vindhya Range of mountains and hills in west-central India, which is said to have acted as a natural barrier to the spread of Āryāvarta1 to the south. 


These low mountains, hills and ridges were inhabited by several indigenous tribes – people who were the original residents of the country. They included the Pulindas, the Sabaras (Soras), Bhils, Mutibas, Kirātas and others. Most of these people were skilled hunter-gatherers who also practised agriculture, much of which was of the shifting slash-and-burn cultivation type. Blood sacrifices were common amongst the tribes to propitiate their gods.
[ 1Āryāvarta - Historic name for the present-day northern Indian subcontinent. This is territory north of the Vindhyas ]

The Beginning

 Tintino had turned for home early today. The three green pigeons that he had skilfully brought down would be a welcome addition to the dinner pot. The sun was spreading its last orange glow as it slipped behind the western hills when he reached the village. Tintino seated himself near the campfire site and brought out his carving knife to add some finishing touches to “the arrow”, ~ the one that he had hand-crafted for days till its balance was perfect. The feathers which helped to control the arrow's flight were very special. He regretted that the the mighty eagle had to lose its life to provide this necessary adornment. Tintino respected that great hunter-in-the-skies, and admired its skill and strength. Moreover, he had no interest in the tough meat and had left it for the dogs to fight over. But he did not mull over the kill. It was not his nature to worry about the good and evil of the hunt. It was their way of life, and the only way he knew.

The knife slipped, and the arrow clattered to the ground. Tintino grimaced in pain, sucked the finger to control the bleeding, and casually picked up the arrow wiping it clean as he did so.

He was unmindful, and there was a good reason for it.

Tonight his village headman would once again recount the tales from their past at the campfire. The history and customs of their tribe were kept alive for generations through the oral tradition of story-telling, helping the birinda 2 to bond together and forge their unique identity. Tales of ancestors, bravery, victories, heroes, heroines, villains, gods, demons and spirits filled such nights ~ flickering in the amber glow of the warm fire. And there was no better story-teller anywhere than Matanga. This was always a momentous night for Tintino because amongst the many stories was a special tale. One that always made his heart skip a beat and haunt him in his dreams at night.
[ 2Birinda - Extended family unit descended from a common male ancestor]

Meanwhile, the crowd was slowly picking up at the campfire and the usual chattering at such gatherings almost drowned the eerie call of the resident owl from his high perch on the ancient Pipul tree. The azure blue night sky had started to cloak the shapes of the distant hills, and the sparkling stars added just the perfect touch to the surroundings. Suddenly a hush fell. Even the owl was spooked, and flew away on his giant wings. The whisper of the feathers only reaching those who could hear the night.

Matanga The Great 

 Matanga strode easily to his place at the head of the campfire, his hunting-dog keeping step with him. Born to authority, Matanga had reaffirmed his claim to it all his life. There were few who were brave enough to speak in his presence, such was his aura. Strong, wise, compassionate, controlled, fearless and bold. These adjectives went well with the sobriquet ~ 'Matanga the Great'. The stories of his deeds were like folklore in their parts. Tintino was especially in awe of one of his feats ~ the time their leader stood his ground against the charging leopard and had calmly sank his spear through the gaping mouth of the fearsome beast. But it was his sagacity and cunning that really made him a visionary leader, enabling him to grow his birinda while maintaining order and peace.

As always Matanga's address got under way by remembering the ancestors and paying tribute to them. The long migration of the tribe through dense forests and dangerous terrain to reach their present settlement was narrated in detail. The wars with man and beast catching the breath of the audience.

But it seemed that everyone tonight was waiting for that one special story. The story of triumph. The story of the buffalo-slayer!

The Legend

 This special story invariably started with a small prayer, with Matanga asking everyone to join in with him. He then began to talk in his deep resonating voice:

“This is a tale from our tribe told from a time many moons ago. My ancestors had arrived here through their travels to find a place that had well-watered and surrounded by densely wooded hills full of fruits and wildlife. They decided to settle here to till the land and garner from the forest. But there were many obstacles that had to be surmounted first, none more difficult than keeping at bay the wild beasts ~ the original residents of the area.

Many lives were lost to tigers and other savage animals, and the crops were constantly raided by deer, pigs, buffalo and elephants. But they stuck on, slowly clearing the surrounding forest and building an effective protection system of tall towers to oversee the crops at night. Life was settling down, and the birinda was growing in size and strength.

That was when all hell broke loose.

Wild Water Buffaloes, as we know, are powerful animals with unpredictable temperament - and even the mighty tiger fears and respects them. They are usually wary of humans, and we have managed to save our crops from them through constant vigil and intent. But some amongst them are particularly ill-willed and fearless of man. These are the ones that we have to fight against and destroy if we want to save our crops and cattle.

In the time I am talking about, there was one such animal in this area. An enormous rouge with a hide so thick that arrows bounced off it like they were hitting a stone. It destroyed our cattle, crops and people with impunity and made it impossible for our ancestors to live in peace. Many hunters tried to bring down this fearsome beast, but lost their lives at the tip of those wicked horns. People started thinking that this was not a real animal but actually the Demon in the shape of an animal ~ sent to wage war against humans. Many sacrifices were made to appease this malevolent spirit, but to no avail. Life here became unbearable and the elders started thinking of moving on to less hostile environs.

The Headman of the village was not one to give in so easily. He was of advancing age and was further weakened by disease. But he remained a formidable and fearless hunter. He had many sons. Some were lost in their formative years, and war and the buffalo-demon took away a few more. There was none left who were strong and brave enough to take on such a dangerous foe, so he had to go it alone.

It was a dark and foreboding day with heavy clouds hiding the sun when my forefather stepped out to do battle with the buffalo. His eldest daughter took out her spear and prepared to join him. She was no ordinary young woman. Her skills as a huntress were acknowledged by all, and many thought that she possessed special powers. Plus, our people in her time were much bigger and stronger than us. She would have towered over me and could easily do battle with large animals. It is the curse of the times and the malevolence of the unappeased evil spirits that has made us midgets now.

“You will not join me on this hunt, he said to her. This is for me to fight alone”. His word was law, but despite that she pleaded with him to take her along. “I will just watch your back and stay safe” she replied but did not get his assent. His mind was made up. The omens were not favourable, and the foe was crafty and indomitable. Plus he loved this daughter with all his heart ~ she was everything that his sons never were and her safety could not be compromised. “I will be back before mealtime with the head of the enemy, you tend to the safety and comfort of the others” were his parting words as he crossed the thorn fence, never turning to give a backward glance.

They waited under the Pipul tree till sunset for his return. Early next morning she led a scouting party to look for her father. The found his mangled remains near a dense bed of tall grass. The terror had ambushed him in the slush, and he never had a chance to defend himself or run to safety.

She quietly picked up the Headman's spear while the others prepared to carry his remains. Not a tear marked her cheeks, and not a sound escaped her lips. Only her eyes started to glow a fiery red and no one could look at them, such was the intensity and other-worldliness of that glare.

The next day preparations were in full swing to cremate the departed leader. A council of the elders was also taking place to decide how and when to shift the tribe to a place far far away from the buffalo demon and his illusions. Plus a new leader had to take charge of the tribe. No one noticed her absence as her opinion did not count.

She quietly slipped out of the village at the crack of dawn the following day. Her blood-bordered lotus eyes only intent on following the tracks of her father's slayer. Her golden skin glowed in the first light, and her abundant tresses flowed over her arched back like waves of black pearls as she single-mindedly pursued her evil quarry. No one would fail to notice the femininity of those broad hips and thin waist, but they would also not have missed her man-like shoulders and the enormous strength that flowed through the youthful body. She was indeed the supreme woman, and she was out to destroy the Devil and liberate her people.

Her only companion this morning was her father's spear. Her mortal weapon against an apparently immortal enemy.

She finally came across fresh tracks that went past an escarpment. There were older returning tracks too. She would not face him on his preferred ground of slippery mud. She climbed over the stones and lay in wait on firm ground for the buffalo's return. It would be a long wait.

An earth-shattering shriek broke the solemn quiet of the grieving village. It had come from very far away but had echoed across the hills. The cry had barely lost its intensity when sounds of heavy commotion and agitated wild animal calls reached them. Some thought that it was the end of the world, while others were filled with dread. The more intrepid amongst them started to run towards the source of the sound. When they finally reached, they found the ground in turmoil ~ as if a hundred mad elephants had run roughshod over it.

Beyond the mayhem was a sight that seemed like a vision. There she stood triumphant astride the vanquished Demon, her sweat-glistening body adorned with a thousand pearls of light. The blade sunk deep in the neck of the enemy had drained the last life blood out of the beast. The Achilles' heel of the buffalo had been found, and fully exploited. She had succeeded where many famed hunters had failed over numerous attempts. It was not the act of a mere mortal, it had to be a miracle. A miracle the likes of which had never been seen before and never will be seen again. She had conquered the terror and freed her people. The ultimate triumph of good over evil.”

Matanga's own emotions always took over at this point and he stifled it with a silent prayer. He gathered himself and moved on to conclude the story. He said, “While she is long gone from this earth, she continues to deliver us against all difficulties and eliminate our sufferings. We must seek her blessings every time we go out for the hunt because she will look after us.”

The listeners had fallen silent, each lost in his own thought. The stillness was broken when a soft voice picked up from the fire-side. “Grandfather, please tell us what the first person who arrived at the scene saw”. It was Tintino's voice.

The old man suppressed a wry smile. He had been asked this question before by his curious grandchild, but it bore repetition. The original story, which had been moulded over time, did indeed carry a description of the hunt from the first man who reached the spot. The buffalo had still not given up its ghost and was game for the fight, as only severely wounded wild animals can. But it had lost a lot of blood and strength. What he witnessed was supreme power at work, as she held up the buffalo's neck with one hand and choked it to death. Her right leg pressing down on the haunch, and not allowing the massive animal to rise to its feet.


 Tintino was an unusual youth. He wasn't like the other young men of his age and shied away from wild merriment and physical games. He was an archer and an artist trapped in the body of an achiever. He would outrun anyone, out-shoot the best, but lose a wrestling match without putting up the semblance of a fight. In his spare time he worked on elaborate wall paintings and carved on stone and wood.

Tintino had always wanted to do something special. Something that would mark him out from the others in the birinda. In a society where stripes were only earned by what you achieved with your weapons or strength, his small successes with the bow and arrow had not drawn more than an appreciative nod. He needed to do something more, something that would benefit his clan and make them recognize his potential.

A suitable opportunity to demonstrate his skills had presented itself a while ago. A huge wild boar had been raiding their crops at night and everyone who had tried to bring it down had failed. The Gubu 3 had tusks the size of daggers, and despite its enormous bulk was fast as lightening, and nimble as the gazelle. His depredations were not restricted to crops only. Over the last few months he had gored a hunter to death and severely mauled a few more. A clever animal, he was hard to find during the day and used the cover of the night to spread havoc.
[ 3Gubu - Wild boar ]

This was a trophy animal then, one that would bring fame and recognition to anyone who brought him down. The perfect target for our Tintino.

Having set his goal, Tintino started tracking Gubu. He was certain that the animal could not be defeated in the dark. He had to find its daytime lair. One fruitful day his wanderings brought him to a wallow deep in the forest. The tracks around the wallow indicated that the boar used this place for his daily mud bath.

The next day he came armed and approached the wallow with caution. Deep satisfying grunts warned him that the bath was occupied. As he came closer the boar became aware of his presence and charged with great speed while uttering terrifying squeals. Tintino was adventurous but not yet very brave. He lost his composure, dropped his bow and arrows and barely managed to climb up the nearest tree.

The process repeated itself over the next few days, and the time he had inched closer he nearly lost his heels to the snapping teeth of the angry pig.

Clearly, this strategy was not working, but Tintino was not keen to disclose the wallow's location to others who would have been more capable of facing the enemy. This was his trophy, and his alone. And he was not ready to seek help or share his find with others.

What he needed was divine help. Help that would give him courage, and protect him from his adversary. He knew where to get it ~ from the buffalo-slayer!

Seeking Divine Intervention

 It was not that Tintino had not been seeking her help. He had promised himself that every night before he went to sleep he would think of her and seek her blessings. But he was always too tired and his mind would not focus on her, and he would eventually drift off to sleep. He needed something more permanent as a reminder of her to prevent his mind from straying.

For the next few days Tintino spent the daylight hours away from the village. He stopped hunting, and his family had to survive on gruel and what was shared by others in the birinda. His widowed mother started staying out in the forest longer than usual hunting for ant eggs and grubs to supplement their meals. Tintino would not give a straight answer to those who asked him about why he was behaving strangely. Things came to such a head that engaging the services of the village shaman seemed imperative to rid Tintino from the clutches of the malicious spirits.
[ 4Shaman - A person regarded as having access to, and influence in, the world of benevolent and malevolent spirits ]

Ever since that night under the Pipul tree where Tintino again heard the legend of the buffalo-slayer, he had only one thing in mind. To recreate a likeness of the supreme woman in stone while her memory was still fresh in her mind. Creating a human icon was alien to the nature or culture of his tribe. So he needed to do his work far away from preying eyes. He found the perfect spot at the top of the hill and the boulder to work on. His artistic skills came into play and in the days that followed he shaped out her likeness from the heart of the stone, unmindful of everything else. For him the lasting image of her was what the first witness saw – the power or 'shakti' which could squeeze the life-breath away from such an adversary. And finally, after days, he saw her in front of him just as he had imagined her.

The Hunt

 The next day Tintino woke up early and went down to the water to take a bath. A single lotus had started to open its petals as the first rays of light touched them. The lotus-eyed one only deserved this offering. He plucked the flower out, and with a new found spring in his step quickly reached the little temple on top of the hill.

He prayed the whole morning with a single mindedness that he had never seemed capable of before. As he prayed, his courage and conviction grew. She was with him and would help him succeed. When the clouds parted and a shaft of light came and lit up the tip of “the arrow” he knew that his prayers had been answered. Today would be his day.

Once again Tintino reached the brute's wallow at midday. From afar he knew that the mud-bath was occupied. He stepped closer, gingerly, but without fear this time and found that he had managed to make more ground than before. The boar was almost within range of his bow. A couple of steps and then Gubu charged. Was there a smell of fear in the charge, a hint of uncertainty? You couldn't tell for sure, but what you could was there was no uncertainty with Tintino. Instead of turning and running for dear life, he held his ground and let fly his arrow – straight and true till the point it entered and pierced through the very heart of the pig.

Gubu's last charge ended at the feet of the hunter. The victory against the scrounge of the area was decisively complete and Tintino had finally become a man. He stopped to pull out the arrow and took out his knife to cut off pig's tail not forgetting to add a silent prayer of thanks to his protector above. The tail would serve as a proof of his success when he reached his village.


 In time Tintino went on to become the Headman of the tribe. He knew that someone else had made that happen and never failed to climb up the slopes to thank her for her protection and love.

Others soon started to follow his footsteps, and people from far and beyond started to come and seek the blessings of the Mother to relieve them of their miseries and allow them to enjoy their life. Her fame quickly spread across the country, and her cult inevitably became established in all parts of the land, her iconography changing with the fresh influences and over time.

Tintino's tribe called her Durgasum – we just happen to know this Vindhyavasini5 as “Mahishamardini Durga”.
[ 5Vindhyavasini - She who resides in the Vindhyas. Also a name of a benevolent aspect of Durga ]


Author's note (please read):

  1. This story is not based on facts. It is my own interpretation of common myths, much of which is sourced from unverified material freely available on the internet. It does not claim to have any religious or quasi-religious connotations. Any spiritual reference is incidental and germane to the story.
  2. Goddess Durga's historical origin appears to be among indigenous cultures of India. Her earliest references are from Central India which was populated by adivasi tribes such as the Sabaras (Soras), Pulindas and Mutibas during 1BE and CE1 – the time when the oldest icons of Mahishamardini Durga can be traced.
  3. The bulk of evidence suggests that the Sabaras may have been the most closely linked tribe to Mahishamardini. I have based my background around this tribe.
  4. The earliest sculptures of Durga depict the goddess with two or four hands, in hand-to-hand combat with a water buffalo.
  5. Her iconography evolved in the Gupta period and we can find examples of the goddess with 10 to 16 hands. By this time she was fully established as an independent deity in Hinduism having been assimilated in the Vedic pantheon.
  6. Durga's lion started to appear from the 6th Century CE.
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