Art by Devdutt Pattanaik
By Devdutt

Published on 27th February, 2022, in Mid-day.

The first goddess of India is depicted on Harappan seals dated to 2,500 BCE. She is shown as half tiger, like a sphinx, upper half female with headdress and bangles, and the lower half of the cat. It’s the oldest sphinx image in the world, showing a woman fused with a tiger. We don’t know what it means. The seal showing this image also shows us a woman separating two men who are trying to fight with trees. This woman is wearing bangles on both arms and she’s stretching them out as she keeps the men apart. Tigers, including this tiger goddess, are part of Harappan lore but her story is lost.

Four thousand years later, a miniature of a Kangra painting refers to another tiger-woman. The miniature shows a tiger swimming in a river, but its head is of a woman. A man on the shore sees the woman’s head and assumes it is a woman swimming in the river. Excited at a possible sexual conquest, he takes off his clothes and jumps into the water. The viewer of the image can only speculate that the man is in for a rude surprise as he discovers that below the water the woman is actually a tigress. She may be a Yakshini who keeps her human head above the water to attract potential prey. So, the man who would be a sexual predator ends up as food for the tiger goddess, or demoness.

Could this story have had a Harappan root? We do not know. There are no lions in the Harappan seals. Tigers are not found in Rig Veda. They appear in Atharva Veda. The Goddess Durga is shown riding a lion in temple images, but in miniature paintings she is shown riding a tiger. Shiva is described as draping tiger skin on his body. The Padmashali weavers of South India speak of their founder, Bhavana rishi, who went around giving cloth to all the gods. Shiva, however, wanted animal skin, so his wife took the form of a tigress and asked her husband to offer her hide to him as an indicator of her devotion.

In a Jain story, we are told of how a man left his wife to become a monk. He returned and motivated his son to become a monk too. His wife was so upset that she killed herself and was reborn as a tigress who attacked and killed her own son, but was later pacified by her husband. In Kerala, we learn of how a wicked queen tried to kill her stepson by asking him to fetch her the milk of a tigress. Her stepson returns with a streak of tigresses and gives her the milk. He also kills a female buffalo demon.

These stories remind us of three Harappan seals. One showing a bird-like goddess, holding two territorial tigers apart, another showing a woman with horns fighting a tiger with horns, and a third showing a man on a tree calling out to a tiger that turns back to look at him. The tiger does not seem to be threatening or threatened by the man on the tree indicating some relationship. We can only wonder if there is a connection between tigers in Jain and Malayali folklore and the Harappan seals.