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The Indian Rhinoceros (Rhinoceros unicornis)

India Suhail Offline
( This post was last modified: 10-21-2018, 09:14 AM by Suhail )

Records of the existence rhinos and other large mammals from south of peninsular india in the sahyadri range of western ghats and adjoining regions of karnataka,goa and maharshtra

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Whilst digging for material on signs of pre-historic human habitation in the Dudhsagar valley, I stumbled upon a stray reference to ‘gigantic rhinos that were probably found in Goa during middle and late pleistocene’ (that would be roughly from 7,80,000 to about 10,000 years ago). [Nambirajan, 1994: Archaeology of Goa – Early Period, 22] Following the trail of references, I landed at an old report by R B Foote of Geological Survey of India dated 1874. Here he documents his find of ‘some fragments of fossil bones and teeth, and amongst them part of an upper molar of a Rhinoceros’ on the bed of a nullah, a tributary of Ghatprabha river, at Chikdauli, 3½ miles east-north-east of Gokak , in Belgaum district. [Foote, 1874: Rhinoceros Deccanensis, in Palaeontologia Indica, Series X, Vol I, 1]Foote describes the fossils in great technical detail, arriving at the conclusion that this was a distinct species, which he names Rhinoceros Deccanensis.

According to Foote, at the time the rhinos were found there, the Ghatprabha basin was covered by dense forests interspersed with several lakes and swamps, providing a suitable habitat for the rhinoceros; Foote’s description conjures up images of ‘myristica swamps’ we saw a little earlier. [Wading Through The Myristica Swamps, Aug 26, 2018]Fossil bones of several other mammal species related to bulls, buffaloes and elephants have been found in the valleys of the numerous rivers originating in the eastern foothills of the Sahyadri. [Chauhan, 2008: Large mammal fossil occurrences and associated archaeological evidence … , in Quaternary International, 192, 20] Foote’s description of the landscape in which the Rhinoceros Deccanensis lived, matches very well the description of Konkan by Hwen Thsang (7th century CE). Describing his journey from Kong-kien-na-pu-lo (Konkanapura = Banavasi) to the ‘kingdom of Moholacha (Maharashtra)’, he wrote, “we pass through a great forest which is infested with savage animals and desert”. [Beal, 1911:The Life of Hiuen-Tsiang by the Shaman Hwui Li, 146] Quoting Neumayer, Mohana reports of a painting of a rhinoceros (rhinoceros unicornis) in a rock shelter at Hire Gudda, in Malaprabha basin, 13 km to the north-east of Badami. He dates it around Upper Palaeolithic that is not later than about 10,000 years ago. [Mohana, 2015: Reading Rock Art – Interpreting Temporal and Geographic Variability in the Lower Malaprabha Basin…, 178]

Ghatprabha-Malprabha basin lies just around 100 km from the Dudhsagar – Mhaday basin, in a continuous forest corridor going across from the western slope to the eastern slope of the Sahyadri; the western and eastern slopes of Sahyadri form a vegetational continuum; Mhaday Wildlife Sanctuary and Bhimgad Wildlife Sanctuary are actually a single forest divided into two by the state boundary. Or, as Nairne describes Konkan Ghat Matha : “the country immediately above and immediately below the Ghats is of exactly the same character, although so different in elevation.” [Nairne, 1894: History of the Konkan, ix]It is not unreasonable, therefore, to suppose that rhinos roamed the forests of Goa too. That we have still not found any fossils yet, does not prove otherwise; it is probably a matter of time.  It is rather surprising that we have not found even human fossil bones at the sites of pre-historic artefacts. One reason could be that the beds of the rivers on the western face of the Sahyadri have a relatively steep gradient, causing an increase in water velocity and turbulence; in such conditions the fossils are difficult to survive.

In the concluding paras of his report Foote contends that “There is no record of the existence of rhinocerotes so far south in the Peninsula of India, nor, as far as I could ascertain, does any tradition of their existence remain among the people.” Nevertheless, as we saw in The Sarabha Story [08 Jul 18], such a tradition does exist. Abu Rihan Al Beruni, a Persian traveler who toured India in the 11th century CE writes of an animal that “has the shape of a buffalo, but is larger than a ganda (rhinoceros)”; it had four legs, but also on the back it had something like four legs directed upwards and two horns; it was called sarava. Unfortunately it is not possible to reconstruct the torso of the animal from Foote’s fossil finds. Al Beruni found this animal in what he calls “plains of Danak, inthe province of Kunkan, with its capital Thana, on the sea coast, 25 farsakh from Mahratta-Desh”. [Sachau, 1910: Alberuni’s India, 203). In all probability, Al Beruni himself had not seen the animal; for it might not have existed then. But it definitely existed in the collective memory of the people; and existed so vividly that he took it as a fact.  Rashid al-Din Hamadani, another Persian traveller who toured India around the 13th century CE, also writes about such an animal. [Jahn, 1965: Rashid al-Din’s History of India, 59] The description of sarava, however, might have got distorted over time; as the memory passed from generation to generation over thousands of years, the animal must have been transformed from a realistic mammal to a mythological monster.

The myth could probably give us a clue to the habitat of the animal, if we are to trace the etymology of the river name Saravathi to sarava + vathi. The Saravathi valley extends from the top of Sahyadri to the sea near Honavar. Could this point to the natural habitat of the sarava? A continuous forest still prevails from the Ghatprabha-Malprabha basin to the Saravathi basin via Bhimgad Wildlife Sanctuary and Anshi National Park; when the rhinos roamed that land, it must have been even more dense and unbroken.

A transformation from a realistic mammal to a mythological monster seems to be what has actually happened to sarava. We find it in the brahmanic pantheon as Sarabha, the avatar that Siva assumed to fight Narasimha, the fierce man-lion avatar of Visnu. Obviously the brahman must have assimilated the vadukar myth after their advent into Deccan. Three elements of the Sarabha story – Sarabha, Virabhadra and Gandabherunda – seem to have their origin in Deccan. The first, as we saw above, seems to have been inspired by the animal sarava; the second is Birappa, the folk god from Deccan assimilated into the brahmanic pantheon; and the third has a strong connection to the Kannadda identity, though we do not know yet how.

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