Friday, April 1, 2016

The depictions of Draupadi on Indus Valley Seals

In the Mahabharata, Draupadi has been portrayed as a dutiful, benign, wife to the Pandava brothers. Although she plays an extremely important role in the epic – after all, it was her humiliating disrobing that had set the ball rolling for an eventual conflict in the battlefields of Kurukshetra – she was dependant on the Pandavas for protection, and looked upon Krishna as her confidant and guide.

Fig 1: The disrobing of Draupadi in the Kaurava court. Krishna miraculously provides an endless suppy of cloth to protect her modesty. Source:
In folk versions of the Mahabharata, however, Draupadi is represented quite differently. Here she is portrayed as a mother goddess - as Shakti incarnate - akin to the goddess Kali. She is the one who protects the Pandava brothers during their forest exile. In folk songs, she is sometimes eulogized as Krishna’s sister, who took birth for assisting Krishna in destroying all the arrogant kings of India.

This idea is emphasized in a Rajasthani and Assamese folk tale about Barbareek, the son of Ghatotkacha (though, in some folk accounts, Barbareek was the son of Bhima and a Nag-kanya called Ahilawati), whose decapitated head had witnessed the entire war. After the war, when Bhima and Arjuna went to Barbareek and asked him who the greatest warrior in the battle was, the talking head says: 

“I saw no warrior killing warrior. I saw the discus of Vishnu, who is Krishna, severing the necks of unrighteous kings on both sides and Draupadi who is Kali, stretching her tongue to drink the spilt blood.”

In many villages of Southern India, Draupadi Amman is worshipped as a village goddess (grama devadhai) or family deity (kula deivam). She is associated with epithets such as Vira Shakti or Vira Panchali, and her chastity, purity, and even virginity, are repeatedly stressed. There are over 400 temples dedicated to Draupadi in the states of Tamil Nadu, Andhra Pradesh and Karnataka. Her worship involves unique rituals such as the fire walking ceremony (timiti). Her devotees believe that Draupadi makes the red hot coals cool and fresh like flowers, and only those who are devoted to her come out unscathed.[i]
Fig 2: A sculpture of Draupadi at the Draupadi Amman Temple, Trichy. Source:
There is an interesting story in the Telegu and Tamil folk versions of the Mahabharata, in which Draupadi transforms herself into a wild woman at night, killing and feeding on the forest animals. Her wild nature subsides only when she becomes a mother: 

“During their exile in the forest...Krishna revealed to Bhima that Draupadi was the primal mother-goddess Adya-Maya-Shakti. One night the Pandavas discovered that Draupadi was not in her bed. They searched the forest and discovered her running wild and naked in the forest, eating goats, buffaloes and other wild animals. When she saw her husbands’ spying on her, she ran towards them, intending to catch and eat them too. The Pandavas ran for cover and sought refuge in their hut. They shut the door and refused to let Draupadi in until she promised not to harm them. She agreed and Bhima opened the door. Draupadi gripped his hand so hard that her five fingernails pierced his skin and five drops of blood fell on the floor. These turned into children and hearing them cry, Draupadi’s fury abated; she became maternal and loving again.” [ii]

Keeping this myth in mind, let us explore a couple of Indus seals which depict a strange zoomorphic figure. The zoomorph has the body of a human female, the horns and ears of a bull, hoofed legs and hands of a goat, and a long tail.

On Mohenjo-Daro seal No. 357, this zoomorphic female with horns, hooves, and tail is shown attacking a tiger. The depiction of a tree in the background suggests that the event is taking place in a wooded area.
Fig 3: Mohenjo-Daro seal showing a zoomorphic horned female with horns, hooves and a tail, attacking a tiger. National Museum, New Delhi, India. Source: flickr/mukul banerjee
The seal image appears to be a fairly accurate portrayal of Draupadi, “running wild and naked in the forest, eating goats, buffaloes and other wild animals”. We should note that, shapeshifting between humans and animals is a common element found in the mythology of ancient cultures, and the attribution of this ability to Draupadi in the folk versions of the Mahabharata should not be seen as strange or unique.

The zoomorphic female can also be seen on a molded terracotta tablet found at Dholavira. Here too, she is shown in a somewhat vicious mood, gripping the hand of a man. A couple of gharials (crocodiles) are depicted in the background which indicates that the setting for the event is a forest.
Fig 4: Dholavira molded terracotta tablet showing the zoomorphic horned female with hooves and a tail, holding the hand of a man. Source:
In order to interpret this tablet image, let us recollect the Draupadi myth once more. After Draupadi returned to the hut, and assured the Pandava brothers that she will not harm them, Bhima opened the door of the hut. Draupadi then gripped Bhima’s hand so hard that “her five fingernails pierced his skin and five drops of blood fell on the floor”.

Isn’t this tablet image an excellent pictorial depiction of this mythical event? The zoomorphic female seems to be gripping the hand of the man rather violently, and the man has his other hand raised in the air, as if he is in great pain.

There are only two Indus seals / tablets which depict the zoomorphic female with horns, hooves, and tail, and both the images conform to the same myth associated with Draupadi in the Tamil and Telegu folk versions of the Mahabharata. This is quite uncanny, and simply cannot be ascribed to mere chance and coincidence.

We must conclude that the folk renditions of the Mahabharata, as well as the myths associated with Draupadi, were known to the Indus people, and they had inscribed scenes from these mythological tales on their seals and tablets.

Evidently, the folk versions of the epic were more popular amongst the Indus inhabitants. This is not surprising; after all, the seals were used by the trading classes for authenticating trading transactions, while the tablets were presumably used by ordinary citizens as storytelling devices. It is only appropriate that the traders and ordinary citizens were more familiar with the folk versions of the epics and not the sanitized, official versions which were orally transmitted by the priestly class. 

It is also important to realize that the depiction of events from the Mahabharata on the Indus seals gives us a lower limit for the date of the Bharata war. Since the seals and tablets bearing these images generally date from c.2600 BCE – 1900 BCE, it means that these legends were already well-established at this remote period. Hence, on the basis of this interpretation, it is possible to claim that the events of the Mahabharata, including the famous Bharata war, must have taken place at some point prior to c.2600 BCE.

[i] Sakshi  Soni, "Draupadi  in  Folk  Performances  and  Sculptural  Representations", The  Delhi  University Journal of the Humanities & the Social Sciences 2, pp.25-40 
[ii] Sakshi Soni, "Mapping the Dark One: Krishna in the Mahabharat Stories", Interdisciplinary Alter-natives in Comparative Literature,  ed.E V Ramakrishnan, Harish Trivedi, Chandra Mohan (SAGE Publications, 2013) 213.


  1. Hello!

    Thanks for the information. I am expecting such article from Ramayana regarding the mystery of Sita, the wife of Rama.

    1. Thanks for the feedback. I dont have any specific article in mind about Sita, but I have plans to write about Rama in future.