Why large mammals like elephants, tigers still exist in India — A clue from Ramayana

Probably, you’ve read one of my blogs about lions and tigers, their presence and absence in the Vedas, and their subsequent noticeable presence in the Ramayana. Read blog “The Majestic Lions in Ṛg-veda, and Curious Case of Absence of Tigers in Ṛg-veda; What do these suggests…” here. In the continuation to this thought I came across an article “Yale study finds why large mammals like elephants, tigers still exist in India” in the e paper; The Print.

First of its kind study finds that rate of extinction of animals weighing over 50 kg over the past 30,000 years is lowest in India, & points to co-evolution of humans and mammals. A new collaborative study from Yale University, Smithsonian’s National Museum of Natural History, George Mason University, and University of Nebraska, based on data from 51 fossil sites in today’s India, documents the Late Quaternary megafauna extinction in India.

The paper shows that the extinction rate in India and Africa over the past 50,000 years is 2.5 times lower than in South America, and nearly 4 times lower than in North America, Europe, Madagascar, and Australia.

For the above quote only two things offer us best answers for which the beasts survived quite well in India. Even the Four tusked elephants survived in India till Ramayana times (Ram Ravan Yuddha-12209 BCE). Sundar Kanda [4.27. 12] states that Lord Hanuman, on entering Lanka, sees FOUR-TUSKED elephants guarding the palaces of Ravan. These elephants are tall and imposing and have been trained to protect Lanka from invaders.

  1. Either the haven for such creatures is highly suitable,
  2. Or, there had been a culture to protect these beasts.

How to understand what was happening or incorporated in the culture throughout India at large to save these mammals?

I stumbled across a verse that says that five of the five toed creatures must only be eaten. Keep the terminal LGM dates in mind, as well as the late Pleistocene preceding the Younger Dryas.

पञ्च पञ्च नखा भक्ष्या ब्रह्मक्षत्रेण राघव।।

शल्यक श्श्वाविधो गोधा शशः कूर्मश्च पञ्चमः।

राघव Rama, ब्रह्मक्षत्रेण by brahmin and kshatriya, शल्यकः porcupine, श्वाविधः the hedgehog, गोधा the alligator, शशः the rabbit, कूर्मश्च the turtle, पञ्चमः the five, पञ्चनखाः fivenailed creatures, भक्ष्याः are permitted to be eaten

‘O Rama brahmins and kshatriyas are permitted to eat only the five nailed animals the porcupine, the hedgehog, the alligator, the rabbit and the tortoise. — 4.17.38-Ramayana

There are indications from around the world that the bone marrow of elephant was eaten till 40,000 years ago.

Humans that populated the banks of the river Manzanares (Madrid, Spain) during the Middle Palaeolithic (between 127,000 and 40,000 years ago) fed themselves on pachyderm meat and bone marrow. This is what a Spanish study shows and has found percussion and cut marks on elephant remains in the site of Preresa (Madrid). — read here.

Fat and protein have been recognized as essential elements in human diet during the Pleistocene ….Lower Palaeolithic stone handaxes, and the peculiar presence of handaxes made of elephant bone— read here.

The Indian culture of consuming elephant meat or bone marrow may only be understood if archaeological evidence of an elephant bone hand axe is discovered, if one was ever constructed in India. Because elephants had five toes, they were prohibited from being eaten throughout the Ramayana period. After Indra’s conveyance transformed from horse to elephant in the Puranas, we find the Ganesha Culture. Such a culture also forbids the slaughter and disposal of animals that may have played a vital part in maintaining the ecological balance. Tigers, on the other hand, are Durga’s vehicle (lion replaced?).

Elephants are Five toed

Note that cloven hoofed (two toed like deer etc) were medhayan-consecrated, to be eaten.

It appears that Ramayana gives us a very clear picture for why these beasts of more than 50 KGs survived in India. But it also appears that we have seen the transition of eating different types of meats as general stapled food in our texts. Ramayana times appears to have either lessened the five hoofed due to their experience of mega fauna extinction worldwide or they incorporated only five of five hoofed beasts into their staple. After all, Rg vedins and then Ramayana times people hail from the Pleistocene times.

I am amazed on such informations present in our texts. Are you? What is your takeaway?

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Rupa Bhaty

Architect and Adjunct Assistant Professor at School of Indic studies, Institute of Advanced Sciences, MA, USA