Published on 2nd December, 2022, in The Hindu.
The domesticated pig descended from the wild boar. The wild boar is a forager, the domesticated pig is a scavenger. Symbolically, they are a reminder of wild nature and cultivated culture.
The pig was amongst the earliest animals to be domesticated across the world, and was a great source of protein and fat. Warriors and hunters preferred decorating their masks and crowns with the tusks of wild boar. However, as they settled down as farmers and herders, pigs got associated with scavenging, and uncleanliness. As a result, many communities prohibited the eating of pigs. This pork taboo is strictly observed in Jewish and Islamic communities.
An act of valour
In the Chinese world, however, the pig continues to be the symbol of abundance and joy, present in every feast. When the Portuguese came to India they mainstreamed the consumption of pork, and popularised in Goa a sanitation system where pigs consume human excrement in toilets. An efficient, effective, organic system of sewage management that evokes disgust in other parts of India, where domesticated pigs are connected with communities associated with cleaning and scavenger work. Hunting the wild pig however remains an act of valour in warrior communities. And in Tantrik traditions, the sow-goddess, Varahi, continues to be a feared symbol of great fertility and power.
Conversations about pigs and boars have resurfaced in recent times. This is due to the discovery, in Bandhavgarh Tiger Reserve, Madhya Pradesh, of a massive Varaha statue dating back to the 5th century. Vishnu as the wild boar is depicted carrying the earth goddess, Bhoodevi, on his snout. This was carved probably on orders of local Kalachuri kings. A similar artwork has been found nearby in the Udaygiri caves of Madhya Pradesh, carved on orders of Gupta kings. These images express royal power. The wild boar was the king who saved the earth from foreign rulers such as Sakas, Pahlavas, and Kushans. This is when, for the first time, the Dharma-shastra literature was rewritten with a theistic Puranic overtone, and presented through the mouth of Vishnu-Varaha.
North to south
Dharma-shastra were codes of worldly duties first composed some 2,300 years ago to counter the rising popularity of monastic Buddhism. These texts were Vedic, with no references of Puranic gods such as Shiva and Vishnu. Earliest texts describe Aryavarta as extending between the Himalayas and Vindhyas; but the later ones describe Aryavarta as extending to the oceans, indicating a spread of Vedic ideas to South India.
In Manusmriti, dated to 200 CE, we are told Brahma encourages the transmission of dharma knowledge through his rishi-like sons. But, in the Vishnu Dharma-shastra, dated to 800 CE, the code is presented by Vishnu, as Varaha, to the earth-goddess, who is seated on his snout, and worried about chaos and anarchy in the world, resulting from the rise of monastic orders and the arrival of foreign kings. The prominence given to the image of a wild boar indicates the shift of old fire-based Hinduism to the new image-based Hinduism that absorbed local deities to make Vedic ideas more appealing to their new royal patrons.
The boar who rescues the earth however made his first appearance in a late Vedic work, the Shatapatha Brahamana, dated to 700 BCE, Here the boar is one of the forms of Prajapati. A 1,000 years later, with migration of Vedic lore from North to South India, the boar becomes an avatar of Vishnu.
The more subaltern link to the boar god has come to the limelight, thanks to the success of the Kannada film Kantara. The film revolves around the Bhuta Kola (play of the spirits) traditions of Tulu Nadu, in south Karnataka. During these rituals the energy of the boar deity, a guardian god and probably an ancestral spirit, manifests through the body of the performer. The film very clearly reminds us that these performers are deemed ‘low’ caste, whose entry into ‘high’ caste homes is seen as polluting, needing cleansing with cow-urine. The deity is called Panjurli. Panji means boar. Metal masks of the boar-god are venerated. The deity speaks only at night when the painted and bejewelled performer, purified by fasting and excited by intense music, goes into a trance. The antiquity of this ritual can only be guessed.
Panjurli chooses to be the feared wild boar, not its despised domestic form, drawing attention to the tension between forest and field, nature and culture. In the forest, no rules apply. In human settlements, laws exist that need to be followed but are often abused. The film’s much publicised song tries hard to connect this local deity, manifesting through non-Brahmin priests, with Vishnu’s Varaha avatar, venerated by kings and priests. In folklore, Panjurli is considered to be one of Shiva’s wild ganas, forced to live on earth and guard wild spaces as atonement for wreaking havoc in the sacred grove of the goddess.
The strong for the weak
Both Varaha and Panjurli convey the simplest meaning of the word dharma, clearly articulated for the first time in Shatapatha Brahamana. In the sea, the big fish eat the small fish. When this happens in cultivated spaces, it is adharma. In civilised society, the strong can and should take care of the weak. Repeated invocations of Varaha and Panjurli, as forests are encroached by conquerors, remind us of how the elite only pay lip service to that civilisational code. It is easier to carve images of Varaha, and be awestruck by the presence of Panjurli on the silver screen, than it is to be dharmic i.e., help the helpless.