Sunday, September 30, 2018

The Legend of Lingo-Krishna depicted on Indus Valley Seals

In the previous article titled “Krishna and the Gond Prophet Lingo: The Mythological Connections” I had discussed the correlations between the exploits of the Gond Prophet Lingo and the Hindu deity Krishna, when he was living in Vrindavan with the cowherd boys and girls of Nanda’s farm. 

Both Lingo and Krishna were gods of music and dance, irresistible to women. In their childhood they liked to play on the swing, had their hair tied up in a top-knot, and were associated with a yellow colored flower. They had accomplished many heroic tasks - killing an enormous serpent, befriending and riding a giant bird, rescuing imprisoned friends from a mountain cave where they had been locked up – which are similar in their details.

These, and other mythological and cultural clues suggest that Krishna and Lingo may be the same personality, and the Legend of Lingo could be another retelling of Krishna’s extraordinary childhood.

As per the Harivamsa, Nanda and his clan belonged to the Abhira (Ahir) tribe of cattle-husbanding nomads who occupied the region between Mathura and Dwaraka in Northwestern India. The historical records affirm that the Ahirs had migrated to Central India, where they established kingdoms and became assimilated into the Gond tribes.

The Ahirs also migrated to Southern India, where they were known as the Ayar cowherd community, Ay-Velirs, or simply Velirs, who ruled in different parts of the ancient Tamil country, and regarded Krishna as their family deity. The Tamil Sangam tradition, as well as multiple copper-plate charters and inscriptions of the Tamil kings, testify that the Ay-Velirs were descendants of the Yadava dynasty of Krishna and had migrated southwards from Dwaraka. 

Thus, the nomadic Abhira cowherd community, known variously as the Ahirs and the Ayars, played an important role in taking Krishna lore to different corners of India, including the hilly and forested tribal belts.

In this article, I have proposed that the association between Lingo and Krishna helps us to interpret the meaning of 3 narrative scenes depicted on a few Indus seals and tablets.

Lingo-Krishna on the Niruda Tree 

The Harappa terracotta tablet H2001-5075 depicts a man seated on the branch of a tree, holding onto a branch with one hand. A tiger is looking back over its shoulder towards the man. A buffalo and a gharial can be seen near the tiger. The setting is clearly indicative of a forest environment.

A Dholavira seal depicts the same image: a tiger is looking over its shoulder at a person seated on the branch of a tree with outstretched hands.
Figure 1: Harappa terracotta tablet H2001-5075, showing a person on a tree with a tiger looking back. Source: 
Figure 2: Dholavira seal showing a tiger looking back at a person seated on the branch of a tree. National Museum, New Delhi, India. Source: flickr/mukul banerjee
In both the images, the person is seated on the branch in a yogic posture called Virasana or hero pose, which implies that the person was regarded as a hero. On the Dholavira seal, it can be seen that the person is wearing his hair in a divided bun at the back of his head, which is one of the forms in which Krishna tied his hair, as can be seen in some sculptures.
Figure 3: Dancing Baby Krishna, with his braided hair tied up in a divided bun.. Jalakandeswarar Temple, Vellor, c.1550 CE. Source: / Vinayak Hegde

Hence, the seal image depicts a hero seated on the branch of a tree in the midst of a forest. Who could this be?

As I have already discussed, it is likely that Lord Krishna is the same personality as Lingo, the hero and prophet of the Gonds. There is a section in the Legend of Lingo from the poem The Lay of Saint Lingo composed by Captain James Forsyth, which provides an adequate explanation for this image.

As per the story, after Lingo was resurrected from the dead, he had gone off in search of the sixteen score Gonds who had been imprisoned in a cave on Mount Dhawalgiri by Mahadev. In course of his travels, he wandered through a dense forest infested with wild animal. After nightfall he took shelter on the branch of a Niruda tree:

“And our Lingo redivivus

Wandered across the mountains,

Wandered sadly through the forest

Till the darkening of the evening,

Wandered on until the night fell.

Screamed the panther in the forest,

Growled the bear upon the mountain,

And our Lingo then bethought him

Of their cannibal propensities.

Saw at hand the tree Niruda,

Clambered up into its branches.

Darkness fell upon the forest,

Bears their heads wagged, yelled the jackal

Kolyal, the King of Jackals.

Sounded loud their dreadful voices

In the forest-shade primeval.”[i]

All the symbolisms of the image – the warrior-hero on the tree, the tiger/panther looking at it, and the other wild animals of the forest - are accounted for in this passage. Hence, the image on Harappan tablet H2001-5075 and the Dholavira seal can be summarized as follows: 

It shows the warrior-hero Lingo-Krishna, taking shelter on the branch of a Niruda tree, in the midst of a forest infested with panthers, jackals and other wild animals, when he was searching for the sixteen score Gonds who had been imprisoned in a cave on Mount Dhawalgiri by Mahadev.

The reverse side of this Harappan tablet (H2001-5075) shows a person standing on (or near) an elephant, and grappling with two tigers. This image has become very faded and the outlines are not clearly visible. Fortunately, an exact same image can be seen on Harappan tablet H95-2486, which we shall explore now.

Lingo-Krishna Wrestling Tigers 

The Harappan tablet H95-2486 shows a hero or deity standing on (or near) an elephant and grappling with two tigers. A single Indus sign, resembling a six-spoked wheel, is depicted on top.
Figure 4: Harappa molded tablet H95-2486, showing a person standing on an elepant and grappling with two tigers. Source:
The solitary six-spoked wheel symbol on this tablet suggests that the hero or deity may be Krishna, for the six-spoked (or eight-spoked) wheel or chakra has always been a pre-eminent symbol of Krishna.

However, there is no episode from the childhood exploits of Krishna recounted in the Hindu texts which matches the scene depicted on this tablet. Krishna had killed a mad elephant with his bare hands when he had gone to Mathura to slay Kamsa. Sometimes, he is shown seated on an elephant formed by the gopis of Vrindavan. But, the tiger wrestling scene is not to be found anywhere, in mythology or in art.
Figure 5: Krishna seated on a gopi elephant. Thirukurungudi Temple, Tirunelveli, Tamil Nadu. Source:

In the Legend of Lingo, however, there is an interesting incident which explains the image on this Harappan tablet.

In the book Gonds of the Central Indian Highlands, Behram Mehta writes that, after Lingo was resurrected from the dead and began his search for the imprisoned Gonds, he wrestled with a tiger in the presence of an elephant:

“In the jungle Lingo met a tiger who was ploughing the land with two elephants attached to his plough. The tiger was aware that the greatest living god was Lingo. When Lingo introduced himself the tiger demanded a proof and wrestled with him. The tiger was defeated and became Lingo’s slave.”[ii]

Thus, all the symbolic elements of the tablet image – the tiger, the elephant, and the wrestling scene – are included in this story.

The only difference is that the Harappan tablet has two tigers and one elephant, while the story recounted by Mehta has two elephants and a tiger. This interchange of numbers is a minor discrepancy, which can be expected in oral traditions that have been handed down for thousands of years.  

An unusual aspect of this image is that, the person grappling with the tigers appears to have a breast on one side. This has led to speculations that this could be a female deity. However, the tiger-wrestling scene appears on multiple Indus seals, and, in all the other cases, the person wrestling with the tigers is clearly male.
Figure 6: Mohenjo-Daro seal depicting a man grappling with two tigers.  Source:
Figure 7: Mohenjo-Daro seal depicting a man between two tigers. Source: Wikimedia Commons / Public Domain
If we look carefully at this tablet, we will notice that a portion of the image on the left side has broken off creating the rough outline of a breast. By zooming into the image we can clearly see the broken edges on the left side, which contrast sharply with the smooth, bright edges of the figure in general. In the following images, I pointed out the broken edges and have attempted to trace out what could have been the original outline of the figure.
Figure 8: The broken edges on the left side of the tiger-grappling hero on Harappan tablet H95-2486.
Figure 9: The proposed outline of the figure on Harappan tablet H95-2486.

The image on Harappan tablet H95-2486 can, therefore, be summarized as follows: 

The six-spoked wheel on top is the six-spoked Sudarshana Chakra of Krishna. The figure below is the heroic Lingo-Krishna grappling with two tigers in the presence of an elephant, while he was passing through a forest in search of the sixteen score Gonds who had been imprisoned in a cave on Mount Dhawalgiri by Mahadev.

Thus, we have two different incidents associated with the exploits of Lingo-Krishna depicted on either side of the Harappan tablet H2001-5075 – one in which he is perched on the Niruda tree inside the jungle, and the other in which he is grappling with two tigers in the presence of an elephant. Both of these incidents took place around the same time in the storyline, and they are depicted on either side of the same Harappan tablet. This suggests that this tablet was most likely used as a storytelling device.

The Bindo Bird 

The final seal we will look at is an impression of an Indus-style cylinder seal found in the Near-East. The seal depicts three important figures from the Legend of Lingo-Krishna. 

Figure 10: Impression of an Indus-style cylinder seal found in the Near-East. The figures on the seal depict figures and events from the Legend of Lingo. Source: Musee du Louvre.
 Top half of the seal: 
  • A person is grappling with two tigers. We have already identified this person as the cultural hero Lingo-Krishna.
  • A deity wearing a horned headdress with a tree branch is standing near a throne. This figure, as I had discussed in a previous article titled “Shiva as Bada Dev: Gond Symbolisms on Indus Seals[iii], is the deity that the Gonds know as Bada Dev, Mahadev or Shambhu, and whom the Hindus worship as Lord Shiva. Mahadev plays an important role in the Legend of Lingo for he is the one who had locked up the Gonds in a cave on Mount Dhawalgiri.
Bottom half of the seal: 
  • A very large bird is preying on buffaloes and markhors (wild goats). This bird can be identified as the monstrous Bindo bird in the legend of Lingo. The bird appears in the childhood exploits of Krishna as the Garuda bird. As per the Legend of Lingo, the Bindo bird could crack open the skulls of large animals like elephants and camels, take out their brains, and feed it to their young.
Here is the relevant section from the Lay of Saint Lingo composed by Captain James Forsyth, which describes the Bindo bird attacking wild animals:

Then our Lingo rose and wandered,

Wandered onwards through the forest,

Till he reached the sounding sea-shore,

Reached the brink of the Black Water.

Found the Bindo birds were absent

From their nest upon the sea-shore

Absent hunting in the forest,

Hunting elephants prodigious,

Which they killed and took their brains out,

Cracked their skulls, and brought their brains to

Feed their callow little Bindos,

Wailing sadly by the sea-shore…

Soon returned the parent Bindos

From their hunting in the forest;

Bringing brains and eyes of camels,

And of elephants prodigious,

For their little callow Bindos

Wailing sadly by the sea-shore.[iv]

Thus, we have three important figures from the Legend of Lingo depicted on a single seal impression: Lingo-Krishna wrestling with tigers, Mahadev standing near his throne, and the Bindo bird attacking large, wild animals. Incidentally, the Bindo birds play an important role in the story, for Lingo had befriended the parent Bindo bird and rode on its back all the way to Mount Dhawalgiri where Mahadev had locked up the Gonds inside a mountain cave.


This analysis indicates that the Indus people were familiar with the legend of Lingo-Krishna and they depicted scenes from the life of this heroic warrior-prophet on their seals and tablets. While the seals were used for authenticating traded goods, the tablets were presumably used as storytelling devices.

Since the seals and tablets bearing these images date from c.2600 BCE – 1900 BCE, it implies that these legends were already well-established at this remote period. Therefore, the events of the Mahabharata, in which Krishna plays a prominent part, must have taken place prior to c.2600 BCE. 

As I have argued in a previous article, there is sufficient evidence that the Gonds may have migrated to their present location in Central India from the Indus Valley. The Gond script resembles the Late Harrapan style of writing. The horned head-dress with leafy plumes that they wear on their ceremonial occasions can be seen on multiple Indus seals. They practice the lost-wax method of bronze casting that was used in the IVC, and their tradition of worshiping their primary deity Bada Dev (also called Shembhu or Mahadev) under the Saja tree appears to be depicted on the Indus Sacrifice Seal (Mohenjo-Daro seal No.430).

The legend of Lingo-Krishna, however, was probably incorporated into the Gond legends by the pastoral Abhiras (Ahirs), who migrated to Central India from Northwestern India sometime at the beginning of the Christian era, and were assimilated into the Gond society.

The recent DNA study of the skeletal remains found at Rakhigarhi shows strong connections with the Irula, a tribal community of the Nilgiri Highlands. This indicates that some Harappans adopted a simple tribal life after migrating into India, following the collapse of the IVC at around 2000 BCE.

Since most tribal groups live in dense and inaccessible forested areas, they have been able to preserve their ancient customs and practices without a great deal of changes, unlike the urban Hindu society which has been subjected to the pressures of multiple external invasions and new waves of religious and artistic developments. 

In addition, many tribal legends were put down in a written form only in the past couple of centuries, which has minimized the scope for errors and late interpolations. The Legend of Lingo, for instance, was documented for the first time by the pioneer missionary Rev. Stephen Hislop in 1859, from the oral accounts of a Pardhan priest. 

We must also remember that the Indus seals and tablets were manufactured by the traders and artisans, who were more likely to have been acquainted with the folklore versions of the ancient legends and not the official, sanitized, versions maintained by the priestly class. Even today, we find that the village and folklore tales differ greatly from the “formalized” legends of the Puranas and other texts. There are also variations across geographies; the stories related in Northern India vary from the ones in Southern India or South-east Asia. Therefore, we cannot pick up a version of a myth and claim that to be the original or sacrosanct one.

The close symbolic connections between the Legend of Lingo and the imagery on some Indus seals and tablets demonstrates the crucial importance of folklore and tribal traditions for interpreting Indus seals. More studies in this direction will surely shed more light on the beliefs, culture, and practices of the Indus people.


[i] James Forsyth, The Highlands of Central India (Chapman & Hall, 1871) 194. 
[ii] Behram H. Mehta, Gonds of the Central Indian Highlands: A Study of the Dynamics of Gond Society (Concept, 1984) 229 
[iii] Bibhu Dev Misra, "Shiva as Bada Dev: Gond Symbolisms on Indus Seals", 03 Jan. 2016, 
[iv] James Forsyth, The Highlands of Central India (Chapman & Hall, 1871) 195-196.