Not many would have heard of the archaeological site of Chandraketugarh in India, located roughly 35 km from Kolkata in Eastern India. Chandraketugarh used to be a prosperous, coastal city engaging in international trade, with continuous habitation from c.400 BCE - 1250 CE. All that remains at the site today are the remnants of a brick-built Buddhist temple from the 10th century CE. 

The reason why Chandraketugarh is particularly interesting because of the large number of terracotta artifacts of astonishing workmanship that have been found at the site, most of which date from the Shunga Period i.e. 200 BCE – 100 BCE. Unfortunately, nearly all of them were smuggled abroad to private collectors, and only a few broken shards and pieces remain in the museums of India. 

Although the site was discovered in 1906, the Archaeological Survey of India (ASI), which was then functioning under British Rule, did not conduct any official excavation and simply stood by as these priceless pieces of work were routed through the illegal market for ancient relics. A few of the artifacts are now housed in international museums such as the Met museum, Norton Simon Foundation, LACMA etc. The first official excavations at Chandraketugarh were done much later in 1957-68 by the Ashutosh Museum of Indian Art in Kolkata.

The Mermaids of Chandraketugarh 

A couple of terracotta plaques from Chandraketugarh depict a mermaid, which is a bit odd since mermaids are not common in Indian folklore and art. 

The first plaque shows a mermaid swimming in a lake, holding what could be a mirror or a flower. A throng of people have gathered on the shore. They are looking at her as if she was an unusual spectacle. A nobleman or chieftain has arrived at the scene on his horse-drawn chariot. One of his assistants is pointing out the mermaid to him. We can see three men standing on the shore with (what appears to be) a big fishing net hanging over their shoulders.

Terracotta plaque depicting mermaid from Chandraketugarh, India, 2nd century BC.
Figure 1: Terracotta plaque from Chandraketugarh, India. c.200 - 100 BCE, Shunga Period. Source: www.sylph-ocular.com. Link

The second plaque shows a mermaid trapped in a fishing net. It could be the same mermaid from the previous plaque, but this time she doesn't have the mirror or flower. Some fishermen are holding the net and have formed a barricade around her. A few people on the shore are waving to the mermaid, and she seems to be waving back at them. Apparently, she is not scared or agitated in spite of being trapped. Once again, a chieftain has arrived on a horse drawn carriage, along with his assistants. This time it’s a different carriage drawn by a single horse. 

Terracotta plaque depicting mermaid from Chandraketugarh, India, 2nd century BC.
Figure 2: Terracotta plaque from Chandraketugarh, India. c.200 - 100 BCE, Shunga Period. Source: www.sylph-ocular.com. Link

When I looked at these terracotta reliefs, I wondered if they depict scenes from an ancient legend, or an actual event that the people of Chandraketugarh had witnessed some 2200 years ago.

The manner in which the people have gathered on the shores of the lake and are staring at the mermaid, makes it seem as if these reliefs are depicting a real-life encounter with a mermaid. I have seen a number of terracotta plaques and vases of Chandraketugarh, and many of them depict scenes from the daily life of the people. So these two terracotta plaques would fall in that genre. This would mean that mermaid sightings occurred in India at around 200 BCE! 

That is an intriguing thought. It implies that mermaids may not be imaginary creatures as is popularly believed, but real aquatic beings. Could it be that mermaid sightings were more common in the past, but as men became more violent and started shooting animals or locking them up in cages, human interactions with mermaids became progressively less frequent?

The other reason why I thought that these terracotta reliefs could be depicting a real-life event is because there are no stories about mermaids in the entire repertoire of Hindu legends and Buddhist Jataka tales. And that’s a lot of stories we are talking about here. The only known instance where we find a mermaid in an Indian legend is in the Thai version of the Ramayana called Ramakien, where the monkey-god Hanuman encounters mermaids while building the sea-bridge to Lanka. That particular story in the Ramakien has no relation to the scenes on these terracotta plaques. However, let me recount it here, since the story is quite interesting and not very widely-known.

Suvannamaccha and Hanuman

The Ramakien (literally, “Glory of Rama”) is the Thai version of the Ramayana which was taken to Southeast Asia by Indian traders in the first centuries of the Common Era. The current version of the Ramakien was prepared in 1797 by King Rama I, the founder of the Chakri Dynasty that still commands the throne of Thailand.

There is a story in the Ramakien about a mermaid called Suvannamaccha (from Sanskrit Suvarna matsya, meaning “golden fish”) who tried to hamper Hanuman’s effort to build a sea-bridge to the island of Lanka.  When Hanuman and his monkey army were throwing large boulders into the sea in order to build a bridge to Lanka, where Sita – the wife of Rama - had been abducted by Ravana and kept as a captive, he found that the boulders kept vanishing from under the waters every day.

When Hanuman and his helpers dived into the ocean to see what was going on, they found that a group of mermaids were carrying away the rocks as soon as they were thrown in. Hanuman tried capture the leader of the mermaids but she kept evading him. Slowly, Hanuman started falling in love with her and tried to seduce her. Then she began to respond to his overtures. 

Hanuman and Suvannamachha, the mermaid princess. Ramakien mural on the walls of the Wat Phra Kaew, the Temple of the Emerald Buddha in Bangkok.
Figure 3: Hanuman and Suvannamachha, the mermaid princess. Ramakien mural on the walls of the Wat Phra Kaew, the Temple of the Emerald Buddha in Bangkok. Source: Wikimedia Commons / Photo Dharma CC BY 2.0

When Hanuman asked her why she was disrupting their work, Suvannamaccha told him that she was a daughter of Ravana, and she had been instructed by Ravana to foil their efforts to build a bridge. Hanuman then explained to her how Ravana had forcibly abducted Rama’s wife, and why it was necessary to build the bridge and help Rama in his fight against Ravana. Suvannamacha understood the importance of Hanuman’s mission and her mermaid friends did not cause any further disruption. Rather, they returned all the stones that they had removed from the bridge. Today, Suvannamacha is a popular figure in Thai culture. She is regarded as a good-luck charm, and her images are hung outside shops and houses across Thailand.

So, that is the story of Suvannamacha and Hanuman - an interesting addition to the Thai adaptation of the Ramayana. Apart from this story, there is no other Hindu or Buddhist legend involving mermaids that I am aware of, which makes me think that the mermaid reliefs of Chandraketugarh may not be a mythic imagery but an actual mermaid sighting.

The Mesopotamian Fish-Men

One of the reasons why I got interested in the topic of mermaids is because of my earlier research on the Seven Sages [1], who were a group of sages of extraordinary wisdom and supernatural powers who came to the earth in the antediluvian times and imparted all the laws of living and skills of civilization to the people. 

In Mesopotamia, the Seven Sages were collectively known as the Apkallu, and some of them were depicted in the form of fish-men hybrids. The first of the Apkallu, called Oannes or Uanna, had emerged from the waters of the Erythraean Sea (i.e. the Arabian Sea). He used to converse with the people during the daytime, when he gave them the knowledge of the sciences, arts and letters. At night, however, he dived under the sea and lived in the deep, for he was an amphibious being. According to the Chaldean astrologer Berossus, the teachings of Oannes was so complete that nothing new was added by way of improvement till the time of Berossus (c.300 BCE).

A Sumerian Apkallu, depicted as a human-fish hybrid. 14th century BC, Temple of Adda, Aleppo, Syria.
Figure 4: An Apkallu, depicted as a human-fish hybrid. 14th century BC, Temple of Adda, Aleppo, Syria. Source: Archaeology.org / Kay Kohlmeyer

In the Mesopotamian texts, the Apkallu were referred to as the “puradu-fishes of the sea”, those “who have originated in the rivers”. Their habitat was in the apsu i.e. the subterranean freshwater aquifers, and they were sent to the Babylonians by Enki, who was the Lord of the apsu. Presumably, there are passages and tunnels that lead from the apsu to the rivers and the seas, which allowed them to move freely between various water bodies. 

I had pointed out that the subterranean aquifers of our planet extend nearly 30,000 feet below the surface of the earth, and they are divided into many vertical levels by layers of porous rock, which corresponds to the “multiple tiers of the watery underworld” mentioned in the traditions of many ancient cultures. We know practically nothing about the ecosystem of these aquifers. The waters in the lowest levels of these aquifers have remained undisturbed for millions of years. Even the deep oceans and rivers have only been partially explored. Given this incomplete state of our knowledge it is premature for us to dismiss the ancient accounts as fantasies. 

Some ancient accounts indicate that the human-fish hybrids may be of extraterrestrial origin. In Dogon legends, fish-men called the Nommo came from the Sirius star system as their “Teachers”, and after having taught the Dogon they lived in the watering holes. In Vedic accounts the Seven Sages or Saptarshis came from the Great Bear constellation (Ursa Major), and transmitted the entire corpus of Vedic wisdom to the ancient Indians.

Fish-man in the sea. Bas-relief in the palace of the Assyrian king Sargon II, ca. 721-705 BCE at Dur-Sharken, modern Khorsabad.
Figure 5: Fish-man in the sea. Bas-relief in the palace of the Assyrian king Sargon II, ca. 721-705 BCE at Dur-Sharken, modern Khorsabad. Source: Gods, Demons and Symbols of Ancient Mesopotamia, An Illustrated Dictionary, p 131, fig 107. Taken from www.bibleorigins.net

he underground aquifers have many vertical levels, separated by confining beds of rock.
Figure 6: The underground aquifers have many vertical levels, separated by confining beds of rock. The lowest levels of the aquifers have remained undisturbed for millennia. Source: USGS, Public Domain

Mermaids in Western Folklore

Mermaids, and to a lesser extent mermen, have been chronicled in Western maritime cultures for a very long time. Generally, mermaids were described as beautiful sea maidens, with long flowing hair, and a melodic voice. They were said to possess miraculous and prophetic powers. They warned sailors of impending storms and shipwrecks. Their songs could put sailors to sleep allowing the ship to drift away. In some legends, they changed their form and married humans, who later found out that they were shape-shifting mermaids. Sometimes they taught people the cures for some diseases, or rewarded them with treasures.

In Slavic legends, mermaids are the spirits of young women who died an untimely death. They inhabit lakes and rivers. They can be seen after dark, dancing together under the moon and calling out to young men by name, luring them to the water and drowning them. Mermaids and mermen were collectively called merfolk, and commonly represented in Romanesque sculpture throughout Europe.

Romanesque capital with mermen, Kaysersberg, Northeastern France
Figure 7: Romanesque capital with mermen, Kaysersberg, Northeastern France. Source: Wikimedia Commons / Pépé Ciseaux CC BY 2.0

A15th-century carving of a mermaid with comb and mirror at the Clonfert Cathedral, Clonfert, County Galway, Ireland.
Figure 8: A15th-century carving of a mermaid with comb and mirror at the Clonfert Cathedral, Clonfert, County Galway, Ireland. Source: Wikimedia Commons / Andreas F. Borchert CC BY-SA 3.0

A Mermaid is lulling sailors to sleep with her song. One sailor is blocking his ears with his fingers to avoid hearing her. Photo from a bestiary c.1230 – 1240 CE
Figure 9: A Mermaid is lulling sailors to sleep with her song. One sailor is blocking his ears with his fingers to avoid hearing her. Photo from a bestiary c.1230 – 1240 CE. British Museum. Source: Wikimedia Commons / Public Domain.

There have been innumerable reported sightings of mermaids over the ages by sailors and explorers. In comparatively recent times, Christopher Columbus reported seeing three mermaids near the Caribbean Islands in 1493. He mentioned that the mermaids were not very attractive, and had masculine features – which could mean that he saw mermen. One might say that we can’t trust a guy who was so disoriented that he landed in America and thought that he was in India. I cant argue with that, but how about this: even Henry Hudson’s crew reported seeing a mermaid in the Arctic Ocean in 1608.

I was surprised to find out, however, there have been a number of sightings of mermaids in the past decade itself! Which means mermaids are not just a story from the distant past, but a mystery that endures till the present day. 

Mermaid Sightings in the 21st century

In 2009, news reports claimed that a mermaid had been sighted off the coast of Israel, in the town of Kiryat Yam. The report in Live Science [2] stated,

Locals and tourists in the Israeli town of Kiryat Yam have been flocking to the coast in hopes of glimpsing a creature that most people believe only exist in fairy tales. An alleged mermaid, said to resemble a cross between a fish and a young girl, only appears at sunset. It performs a few tricks for onlookers before disappearing for the night. One of the first people to see the mermaid, Shlomo Cohen, said, “I was with friends when suddenly we saw a woman laying on the sand in a weird way. At first I thought she was just another sunbather, but when we approached she jumped into the water and disappeared. We were all in shock because we saw she had a tail.” The sightings apparently began several months ago. The town's tourism board is of course delighted with their newfound fame and local mystery fauna. Taking a cue from the town of Inverness, Scotland (on the shore of Loch Ness), the Kiryat Yam government has offered a $1 million reward for the first person to photograph the creature. Town spokesman Natti Zilberman thinks the reward money is well-spent. “I believe if there really is a mermaid then so many people will come to Kiryat Yam, a lot more money will be made than $1 million.”

This is a rather interesting report because the mermaid had been seen by a large number of people over a few months. There is a tendency in the media, particularly amongst the self-appointed guardians of our reality bubble, to brush off these kind of sightings as a hoax. But I have no idea why any woman would attach a fish’s tail to her body and perform tricks in the water, only for the purpose of entertaining some onlookers for months on end, without getting either money or recognition for her efforts. It does seem pretty odd, if at all this can be pulled off. 

Nor does it make sense to suggest that the people of Kiryat Yam were suffering from some kind of mass nearsightedness or mass hallucination such that they were unable to distinguish between a mermaid and some water animal - the current favorite in this category being manatees (or sea cows). Really? How fat do you need to be to look like a manatee? Whatever happened to all the stories of beautiful sirens with melodious voices? I think many mermaids would be very upset if they knew they were being compared to manatees.

While the mermaid sighting in Israel was quite mystifying, the next one is even more bizarre – the trickster mermaids of Zimbabwe. If tracking mermaids is your passion then pack your bags and head straight for Zimbabwe - the veritable mermaid capital of the world. Their rivers, specifically the areas near their dams, are teeming with mermaids who love to play ticks on humans. In 2012, the Zimbabwe Water Resources Minister Sam Sipepa Nkomo told a senate committee that mermaids were hounding government workers off a couple of dam sites in Mutare, Manicaland, and Gokwe, Midlands! Here’s an extract from the news report in Voice of America [3],

Nkomo said all the workers he sent to work on the dam sites to install water pumps had dumped the project vowing not to return to the areas because of the mythical water creatures. Local Government, Rural and Urban Development Minister Ignatius Chombo, who also appeared before the senate committee, backed the call for traditional rites to be performed at the dams to allay workers’ fears.Nkomo said the government is prepared to give the population the water it needs, but is unable to do so until the rituals are performed and necessary repairs can be carried out. He said he tried to hire white personnel to do the work at Osborne dam, supposedly because they had not been exposed to the mermaids reports, but they too refused to undertake the project alleging they had seen suspicious creatures. According to the minister, workers report that people have disappeared mysteriously while some have been chased away by the legendary creatures.Traditional leader chief Edison Chihota of Mashonaland East said there is no dispute about the existence of mermaids. “As a custodian of the traditional I have no doubt," chief Chihota said. "For anyone to dispute this is also disputing him or herself.” Cultural activist Prince Peter Zwide Khumalo, a descendant of King Lobengula, said mermaids play a central role in spiritual beliefs and they are thought to mainly inhabit the largest dams, such as Lake Kariba. “They are said to exist in water particularly in big dams like Kariba. I haven’t heard of mermaids in small dams.

Isn’t this amazing? Mermaids are discussed at the senate level in Zimbabwe! As I was reading this report, I was reminded of the story from the Ramakien where the mermaid princess Suvannamaccha tried to prevent Hanuman from building the bridge to Lanka. I must admit that I rather admire the confidence of the traditional chief Chihota, who said that the existence of mermaids is beyond doubt. He seems to be a person who swims around with mermaids on weekends. In contrast, the cultural activist Khumalo is scratching his head over why the mermaids are migrating from the bigger dams to the smaller dams. These are the issues that people should grapple with! Instead of endless rounds of bickering and venom-spewing on social media. People should just go to Zimbabwe and have a mind-altering mermaid experience. 

In case you are wondering what happened to the work at the dam, the Bulawayo 24 News reported that, “The work later resumed after traditional healers brewed beer and carried out some rites to appease the water spirits.”

There are many stories of mermaid encounters in Zimbabwe. Let me discuss a couple of more interesting cases that I came across. In 2106, The Sun [4] reported that, Rose Muguza, 45, a teacher at Chikanga Primary, saw a pair of mermaids when a whirlwind pushed her into a small river, while she was returning home from work. According to her, “The female one is very beautiful and its hair is quite long. It stretches to its bottom half, while the male one has relatively shorter hair that ends on its shoulders. The eyes of the female one are always roving.” She added that, “After that encounter, I managed to proceed home, but I was feeling dizzy with blood oozing out of my mouth.” Other reports from the same area state that these two mermaids often appear as real mermaids, fish or a huge snake. 

Again in 2017, mermaids were held responsible for the death of two schoolboys due to drowning, at a dam near Gokwe, Zimbabwe. The Village Seven, where the incident occurred, falls under the jurisdiction of Chief Nemangwe, who spoke to the media about the incident. As per the report in Bulawayo 24 News [5], he said, 

It is reported that on the fateful day the two boys who were in Form One and Two at Ganye Secondary School were herding cattle when they saw the mermaid at the dam. According to a friend of the deceased boys, his companions jumped into the dam and tried to grab the mermaid because they believed it was just a big fish. But the mermaid pulled them down into the water.” The friend then ran home to alert the elders, who arrived at the dam to find the boys lying on a rock, alive. “When their parents got to the dam they panicked believing their children had died and started crying. A whirlwind suddenly engulfed the place before the mermaid swiftly appeared from the water and grabbed the boys for the second time but this time their lifeless bodies resurfaced later,” said Chief Nemangwe. According to the chief the latest victims were not the first to meet their demise at the dam under mysterious circumstances. “Two other people that I am aware of were also killed at the same dam in similar circumstances.  As a community we have since performed some rituals to calm down the water spirits.

By now, it should be obvious that mermaids are deeply embedded in the cultural and religious life of the people of Zimbabwe. They are called njuzu and they live in the rivers, particularly in the areas near the dams. Fishermen hear their voices, and sometimes they get chased away by mermaids if they overfish. Mermaids are spotted on the river banks, and their singing can be heard at night. Mermaid sightings may be associated with whirlwinds. Mermaids in Zimbabwe are also known to abduct humans. When a person is taken by a mermaid, his family members should not cry, for that can upset the mermaid and lead to the death of the person. However, local elders can offer beer to the mermaids as a propitiatory offering. Those who return alive are transformed into traditional healers (n’anga), having knowledge of herbs, medicinal plants, and cures. 

So, the dictum of the mermaids of Zimbabwe is very clear: “Keep calm and don’t panic, while we rewire your child.” Unfortunately, not many are able adhere to their rules when their near and dear ones go missing.

A Parallel World

So, what do we make of this? Should we just take the easy way out i.e. roll our eyes, and brush it off with a wave of our hands? Call it the meaningless superstition of natives and get back to our lives of glorified slavery and endless consumerism? After all, that is exactly what the “thought police” would want. “There’s nothing to see here folks. Just some manatees and dugongs. Go home and stare at your smartphone screens. We have this under control.” Unfortunately, most will obey their orders and do exactly as they are told.

But some of us are more curious. We ask questions. What if there was something to it? Why can’t there be unknown life forms in the depths of the rivers and oceans, and the vast, unexplored subterranean aquifers? Why would so many people from many different cultures report seeing the same, strange, aquatic life forms over thousands of years?

Those of us who live in the big cities of the world are cut off from a large chunk of reality. Life is more primal in the villages, and even more so in the vast wildernesses of Africa and other continents, where the survivors are those who are in tune with the rhythms of nature. For them, nature includes not only the visible world but also the invisible world of spirits. Both are equally real to them. If the belief in mermaids is still so pervasive in Zimbabwe, perhaps it is possible that the legends about mermaids were not the fantasies and hallucinations of ancient sailors.

As I have mentioned earlier, my mindset about the possible existence of human-fish hybrids changed when I was researching on the tradition of the Seven Sages. The Seven Sages are an integral part of Indian tradition. They are the source of all Vedic wisdom in every discipline. Every Indian traces his lineage to one of the Seven Sages. But in Mesopotamia, some of the Seven Sages were depicted as fish-men, and some others had the head and wings of an eagle. The Dogons of Africa depicted the Nommo with the lower torso of a fish. In the Vedic tradition, one the Seven Sages called Kashyapa gave birth to the Nagas – the human-serpent hybrids – who live in the subterranean aquifers. This overlap in symbolism led me to think that, perhaps, the Seven Sages possessed a combination of human, aquatic and avian features that enabled them to travel anywhere. If they were alien beings from the stars, as the tradition claims, there is no reason why we should imagine them in a purely human form. In addition, recent scientific discoveries indicate the presence of vast underground oceans in many of the other planets and moons of the Solar System – such as Mars, Europa, Titan and Pluto – which could act as incubators of life. It is possible that aquatic life forms are the dominant forms of life in the universe. If life forms from the distant stars or planets came to the earth – perhaps by hitching a ride on interstellar comets – they would most likely inhabit the oceans and rivers, and the immense reservoirs of groundwater below the earth’s surface.

Which means there could be a parallel world right below our feet – a world inhabited by mystical beings of possibly extraterrestrial origin – who may have inordinately long lives. As humans, we are temporary visitors here. The underworld denizens may have been here for eons, regulating the earth’s atmosphere, biosphere and hydrosphere in unknown ways. In some specific epochs, they may even interact with humans and pass on the wisdom and skills of civilization. After all, that is what the ancient traditions tell us: that the Nagas sometime adopt human forms and function as the benefactors and protectors of humanity.

This could be why there are so many sacred lakes all over the world, which are believed to be inhabited by “water spirits”. People are not allowed to disturb the waters of such lakes by swimming, boating, or other activities which could offend the water spirits. Temples and shrines, stupas and monasteries sprang up on the banks of such lakes – such as the Pushkar in India and Manasarovar in Tibet - and over time they became important centers of pilgrimage. At such spiritually powerful places, the veil between the worlds is thin, and it is easier for people to contact the otherworld. 

In my opinion, therefore, the topic of mermaids is far from settled, and there is a pretty good chance that human-fish and human-serpent hybrids may exist in the oceans, rivers and, more specifically, in underground aquifers of the earth. It is true, of course, that all reported sightings of mermaids may not be genuine. Preconceived ideas and low light conditions can make people mistake one thing for the other. But even if just one sighting, out of the hundreds that have been reported till date, is correct then it implies that something very strange is going on in the deep waters and aquifers of our planet. We can only hope that, with the widespread usage of smartphones, definitive photographic or video evidence will emerge in future.

End Notes

[1] Bibhu Dev Misra, “The Mystery of the Seven Sages: Were they Visitors from the Stars?”, Ancient Inquiries, 02 August 2020, https://www.bibhudevmisra.com/2020/07/mystery-of-seven-sages.html
[2] Benjamin Radford, "Mermaid Sightings Claimed in Israel", Livescience.com, August 13, 2009, https://www.livescience.com/5642-mermaid-sightings-claimed-israel.html
[3] Mermaid' Sightings in Zimbabwe Spark Debate Over Traditional Beliefs, Voice of America, February 03, 2012, https://www.voazimbabwe.com/a/zimbabwe-mermaids-problem-for-water-minister-138664059/1467126.html
[4] "Panic spreads in Zimbabwe as residents claim they’ve been brutally assaulted… by mermaids", The Sun, 25th January 2016, https://www.thesun.co.uk/archives/news/223250/panic-spreads-in-zimbabwe-as-residents-claim-theyve-been-brutally-assaulted-by-mermaids/
[5] "Mermaid kidnaps two boys and brings them back alive in Gokwe", Bulawayo 24 News, 03 Mar 2017, https://bulawayo24.com/index-id-news-sc-national-byo-105595.html


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Bibhu Dev Misra

Independent researcher and writer on ancient mysteries, cultural connections, cosmic wisdom, religion and science. Graduate of IIT and IIM with two decades of work experience in different fields

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