The land of Krisna Mrig

Which creature best symbolises a land depends a lot on who you ask. The answer tells as much about the person or persons who make the pick as it does about the animal, plant, tree, bird or flower they select as emblem.
Composers of the Sanskrit pharmacopoeia were very clear about the links of the land they lived in and what embodied them. It was the Krisna Mrig, the black buck, an antelope of the open country.
The male is a magnificent creature, with swivelling horns. It is elegant and sprightly, and has a leap few can equal. More crucially, it is indubitably and unmistakably Indian. It lives nowhere else on earth.
But their numbers have now shrunk. It once had a range far south to Tirunelveli in the Tamil country and eastward to Bihar. But even half-a-century ago large herds were commonplace in west and central India.
When the Delhi Darbar was held in 1911, Shahu Maharaj, the prince of Kolhapur, who was a social reformer, brought in his hunting cheetahs to course antelope near the banks of the Yamuna. Fresh venison at the table needed some exertion.
But to the brahmanas, whose caste-based order aroused Shahu’s ire, the antelope was more than an animal. Its open country was the seat of their culture, of a hierarchy of place as much as of person.
In the Sanskrit epics, which were composed and sung long before they were written and read, the animal was a symbol of a culture. Its home was called jangala. In his engaging book, The Jungle and the Aroma of Meats, Indologist Frances Zimmerman shows that jangala was not what we call jungle today. The latter connotes a place of tangled bushes, thorns and trees.
But the Sanskrit idea of the jungle, jangala, was distinct from the forest, or the aranya. It was the land of the black antelope. It was dry as opposed to wet, could grow cereals and was the place of the grama, the village.
Its polar opposite was what they called the anupa, the marshland with geese and standing water. Here, the black buck did not venture. These were lands and places of the other, of mystical beasts and magical, even dangerous, men.
Anupa was peopled in the epics by creatures which, whether divine or malign, lay outside the pale of the world, of sacrifice. To subdue them was a challenge.
The range of the black antelope coincided, so to speak, with the land of the fire sacrifice, of the Brahmanic culture. No wonder that in the Valmiki Ramayana, Rama asks his brother Lakshmana to sacrifice a fine black buck to consecrate their forest hermitage.
The land of the black antelope was the heart of the fire sacrifice. It was cereal-bearing dry land. But the forest lay beyond this land, not just jungle but, called by a culturally-charged name, the Aryavarta.
It is clear the black buck, or Antilope cervicapra to call it by its Latin name, was symbolic of a culture. It was a culture that excluded and made marginal other peoples and cultures.
Of course, this is a textual reading of the past, and does not do justice to its twists and turns. But it is still notable that till early in the last century, the deer skin used for meditation of the brahmanas was usually an antelope’s skin.
The chital or the spotted deer became staple fare only as the herds of the antelope dwindled. The coming of the modern Express Rifles, of the railway and the four-wheel drive sealed the fate of the antelope.
And of course, its best habitat, once watered well, could be turned to crop land. Once this happened its living space shrank. By the winter of 1976, when a small herd of black antelope crossed into the Union Territory of Delhi near the Alipur Block, they made headlines.
But all this raises a question: Why was the black buck so central a symbol for early Sanskritic cultures? Part of the explanation could lie in the geography.
Those who composed the verses identified with the land they lived in, and looked with anxiety to the forested lands to the south, to the hill country and to lands where their culture’s supremacy would come under greater challenge.
It is true there are black antelope in the Deccan, in Point Calimere in Tamil Nadu and even in the Guindy Park in Chennai. But historically the really large horns came from males in north-west India — there were huge congregations in the Indus and Ganga valleys. The further west you went, the more antelope there were.
Maybe the practitioners of the fire sacrifice in early Sanskritic cultures were, by making the black buck so central a symbol, seeking to immortalise themselves. The old order has gone, but the antelope lives on.

Mahesh Rangarajan is an environmental historian and most recently was chairman of the Elephant Task Force.

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