Bibhu Dev Misra

The Gond tribes of Central India have been in the news lately because of their linguistic connections to the Indus Valley civilization.

According to Gondi scholar Dr.Motiravan Kangale, the letters of the Gondi script, which can be found inscribed in the interiors of the Gotuls (youth dormitories) in the Bastar region of Chhattisgarh, resemble the Indus script in particular, the Late Harappan style of writing. He provided a number of decipherments of the Indus seal inscriptions using the root morphemes of the proto-Dravidian Gondi language.

The matter received its due attention, and was widely covered in national dailies, when a Late Harappan style rock cut inscription containing 19 signs, discovered near Hampi in Southern India, was deciphered by Gondi experts Dr.Motiravan Kangale and Prakash Kalame[i]. The discovery has significant implications: the Gond tribes must have migrated to Central India after the Indus Valley civilization began to collapse at around 1900 BCE, and once again at the end of the Late Harappan phase at around 1000 BCE.

It had been known to historians for quite some time that the Indus artisans cast their bronze statues, such as the famous dancing girl figurine of Mohenjo-Daro, using the lost-wax method  the same technique (called dokra) that is still employed by the tribal metal smiths of the Bastar region of Chhattisgarh, and some of the tribal groups in the states of Jharkhand, West Bengal, Orissa, Tamil Nadu, Karnataka and Kerala.

What really struck me as amazing is that, even stylistically, the dokra figurines of Bastar are strikingly similar to their Mohenjo-Daro counterparts. A particular dokra figurine (shown below) has many of the attributes of the dancing girl figurine of Mohenjo-Daro. Both the girls have slightly upturned faces with their eyes shut. They stand completely nude, with slightly bent legs, wearing necklaces and bangles. One hand rests on the waist, while with the other hand they are holding something.

Fig 1

The linguistic and artistic connections between the Indus people and the Gonds made me wonder if any other secrets of the past are embedded within the art, customs, and mythic lore of this tribal group. As I began to explore the mythology and traditions of the Gonds, I was astonished to realize that some of the Indus seals with complex narrative scenes depict images from Gond legends!

The first seal we shall explore is Mohenjo-Daro seal No.430, popularly called the Sacrifice seal. Before exploring this seal, let us briefly review the mythic accounts of the Gonds pertaining to their primary deity Bada Dev. 

Bada Dev in the Saja Tree

One of the reasons why the Gonds have been a subject of anthropological interest is their relative isolation. Living in the densely forested hills of Central India, they have been cut off from homogenizing influences, as a result of which, they have managed to preserve many aspects of their original myths, traditions, genealogy, and history, extending over thousands of years. Today, they are the largest ethnic tribe of India, numbering over 14 million people, concentrated primarily in the states of Madhya Pradesh, Chhattisgarh and the adjoining states. They speak Gondi, a proto-Dravidian language related to the Southern Dravidian language family.

Fig 2 Gonds distribution

The principal deity of the Gond tribes is Bada Dev (Great God) or Bura Dev (Old God). All-knowing and omnipresent, he created the universe. Everything originates in him, and all beings get absorbed in him after death. Bada Dev is believed to live in a Saja tree (Boswellia serrata). As such, the Saja tree is the most sacred tree of the Gonds. They do not cut this tree, nor its branches, except for ceremonial purposes.

Bada Dev is invoked under a Saja tree by a Gond Pardhan. The Pardhans are the musicians, story-tellers, and genealogists of the Gonds. For ages, they have carried the collective memory of the Gond communities. A Pardhan invokes Bada Dev by sitting under a Saja tree and playing a musical instrument called Bana.On listening to the melodious sound of the Bana, and the song sung by the Pardhan, Bada Dev awakens from his slumber and comes down the Saja tree. He is offered mahua liquor and the sacrifice of a goat. R.V.Russel says that,

sometimes a goat is dedicated to him a year beforehand, and allowed to wander loose in the village in the name of Bura Deo, and given good food, and even called by the name of the god.

The Pardhans are regarded as the offspring of the youngest of seven primal Gond brothers, from whom all the Gonds have descended. In an article titled Jangarh Kalam (which refers to a form of art pioneered by the Gond artist Jangarh Singh Shyam), the author Udayan Vajpeyi has narrated an interesting legend about Bada Dev and the seven Gond brothers, which had been documented by Sheikh Gulab. The story explains the role played by the seven Gond brothers in instituting the worship of Bada Dev under the Saja tree.

The Gonds were seven brothers. They sowed jute in the field. In a few days, the jute began to grow. One day they saw a handsome young man galloping on his horse right through their field. The hooves were trampling the jute saplings. They pounced on the young man with their paitharis. The youngest brother was so scared that his stomach got upset. He went to the nearby ditch to relieve himself. The other six brothers chased the horseman. The field was quite big. At the edge of it was a Saja tree. Seeing the Gond brothers chasing him, the horseman went under the Saja tree and disappeared into it along with his horse. The Gonds saw him vanish into the tree. They instantly understood This is our Bada Dev who came riding through our field on his white horse. How unfortunate we are that we could not recognise him Now he is angry with us. He has disappeared into the Saja tree. How do we placate him. Together they began to reflect on this.

They erected a platform under the Saja tree. They offered rar lentils. Sacrificed a white rooster. Sprinkled liquor made from Mahua. Folded their hands in prayer. Went on pleading But Bada Dev was angry. He did not come out of the Saja tree At this point the youngest brother turned up from the direction of the nullah. He found out what had happened He said, Ill find a way. It might please Bada Dev. He went and felled a bough from a Khirsani tree. He made a one-stringed instrument from the wood and playing on it, began to sing. The notes began to resound in the woods. In the song he began to sing praises of the glory of Bada Dev. Listening to the song Bada Dev was pleased and he made an appearance in the trunk of the Saja tree. He blessed the youngest brother by placing his hand on his head, Whenever you sing my song playing this instrument, Ill make an appearance. This instrument of yours will be called Bana. Bada Dev accepted everybodys offerings and once again vanished into the Saja tree.[iii]

Since that time, the youngest brother came to be known as a Pardhan and he played the Bana to please Bada Dev. He gave up working on the land; the remaining six brothers decided to take care of his daily needs.

Once a year, the Pardhan visits his Gond Yajmans (patrons) in order to narrate mythical stories and genealogies, and invoke Bada Dev under the Saja tree. The Gond patron repays the Pardhan story-singer with grains, jewellery, clothes, utensils etc. This ancient custom has now nearly ceased, for the impoverished Gonds can no longer afford to sustain it. Many Pardhan bards have abandoned their Bana taken to agricultural labour. In a few cases, the mythical stories of the past have begun to take a visual form on the canvases of the Pardhan painters.

In the backdrop of this Gond legend, let us look at the Mohenjo-Daro seal popularly known as the Sacrifice seal. It is, arguably, the most complex of all the Indus seals discovered till now.

The Sacrifice Seal 

The Sacrifice seal (Mohenjo-Daro seal No.430), dated to c.2600 1900 BCE, shows a deity standing in a tree and looking down upon a kneeling worshipper. The worshipper has kept an object on a pedestal and is accompanied by an animal. There are seven figures in the foreground, standing in a line.

Fig 3 Mohenjodaro sacrifice seal

The imagery on the seal is uncannily similar to the Gond legend just described! The deity in the tree, who has often been termed as a tree-spirit, can very easily be thought of as the Gond deity Bada Dev appearing in the trunk of the Saja tree.

The kneeling worshipper appears to be a Gond priest. The pedestal in front of him has an object which resembles the tray used in traditional Hindu pujas in which the holy fire burns. The animal behind the kneeling worshipper has already been identified by scholars as a markhor, a species of wild goat which abounds along the banks of the Indus River. The markhor is probably being offered as a sacrifice to the tree-spirit. This agrees with the Gond custom of offering a goat as a sacrifice to Bada Dev.

Fig 4  BadaDevSajaTree

The bottom half of the seal shows a row of seven figures, which corresponds to the seven primal Gond brothers who had instituted the practice of invoking Bada Dev under the Saja tree, as described in the Gond legend.

Thus, all the elements of seal can be explained by the legend of Bada Dev appearing in the trunk of the Saja tree after being worshipped by the seven Gond brothers. What makes this correlation even more interesting is the fact that the deity in the tree, the kneeling worshipper, and the seven figures in the foreground, are all dressed in a manner very similar to the Gonds of today!

The deity in the tree and the kneeling worshipper are both wearing a horned head-dress with a leafy branch in the center. This kind of horned head-dress, with plumes or a leafy branch, is typically worn by the Bison Horn Maria tribe (a sub-caste of the Gonds) of Bastar. All the figures on the seal are wearing a long head-scarf. This resembles the long, hanging, end of the turban which Gond males wear on their head. The deity in the tree and the seven figures in the foreground have their entire arms covered with bangles. During the festive occasions, both Gond men and women dress up in silver ornaments such as bangles, armlets, lockets and earrings. The plumed head-dress and the knee-length dress sported by the seven figures can also be seen on Gond males during the dances.

Fig 5

Thus, not only do the different elements of the seal conform to the Gond legend of Baba Dev and the seven Gond brothers, but even the minute, stylistic, elements of the seal correspond to the living culture of the Gonds!

The overall theme of the seal can be summarized as follows: It shows the Gond deity Bada Dev appearing in the trunk of the Saja tree and worshipped by a Gond priest through the offering of a holy fire and the sacrifice of a goat (markhor). The seven primal Gond brothers, who had instituted the worship of Bada Dev in the Saja tree, are shown in the foreground. All the figures are decked up in the same manner as the present-day Gond tribals.

Fig 6

Another Harappan seal shows seven human figures, a goat, a rooster, and the faint outline of the deity in the tree. The depiction of a rooster on this seal ties up with the legend of Bada Dev and the seven Gond brothers. As per the story, after Bada Dev had disappeared into the Saja tree, the seven Gond brothers had tried to appease him by sacrificing a white rooster. Even now, the sacrifice of a rooster is a common practice amongst the Gonds.

On a recently discovered Harappan tablet, we can see the kneeling supplicant, the markhor goat and the deity in the tree. On this tablet, the object on the pedestal can be clearly identified to be a puja tray used in Hindu rituals in which the holy fire burns.

Fig 7

It is quite amazing to realize that, even now, in the densely forested regions of Central India, the Gonds continue to offer worship to Bada Dev in much the same manner as depicted on the Indus seals and tablets: a Pardhan bard plays on the Bana, invoking Bara Dev under the Saja tree, while a priest, dressed up in a plumed headdress and long headscarf, kneels before the platform set up under the Saja tree, and makes ritual offerings from a puja tray. This is followed by the customary sacrificial offering of a goat. Interestingly, the sacrificial goat has to give permission for the sacrifice by nodding its head! The people wait till the animal does it.

Fig 8

The implications are obvious and significant. Not only did the ancestors of the Gonds live in the Indus Valley and inscribe their customs and beliefs on the Indus seals and tablets, but, living in the secluded forest communities of Central India and being relatively untouched by external influences, they have managed to preserve many elements of their ancient myths and rituals with very little modifications.

Theres more to this, though. The interpretation will not be complete until we explore another very interesting connection that between Bada Dev and Shiva. 

Bada Dev and Shiva    

The Gonds refer to Bada Dev as Mahadev (Great God) or Shambhu (Source of Happiness), both of which are names of Lord Shiva in Hinduism. The foremost symbol of Bada Dev is the Trisula, which is traditionally placed under the Saja Tree when Bada Dev is invoked. The Gonds say that Bada Dev gave them the Mundshool Saree or the Tri-Fold path of the Trisula which advocates the concept of Jay Seva i.e. the welfare of mankind through service. As is well-known, in Hinduism, the Trisula is a prominent symbol of Shiva.

While Shiva resides on Mount Kailash in the Himalayas, the Gond legends indicate that the abode of Bada Dev is on Mount Dhawalgiri (White Mountain) in the Himalayas, near the source of the River Yamuna. The Gonds consider Parvati to be the consort of Mahadev, and all their gods to have been born from the union of Mahadev-Parvati, which is exactly as per Hindu beliefs.

Just as Shiva, Bada Dev is portrayed riding a bull. Kalavati, a Pardhan artist says, The bull is sacred. In every (Gond) village there is a bull. In fact, every village has its own bull. Bada Dev rides around on the bull. It can enter into any field, nobody stops it. Everyone thinks it is auspicious if it enters their field.[iv]

While Bada Dev lives in the Saja tree, Shivas abode is the Peepal tree (Ashvattha or Bodhi tree). In Hinduism, worship of the Peepal tree is regarded as equivalent to the worship of Shiva. Just as the Gonds do not cut the Saja tree or its branches, the Hindu text Skanda Purana regards the cutting down of the Peepal tree as a sin. In rural communities across India, it is fairly common to find a Shiva-linga installed under a Peepal tree, along with the customary Trisula, reflecting the manner in which Bada Dev is still worshipped by the Gonds.

Fig 9

Shivas form as Dakshinamurthy, in which he is shown seated (sometimes standing as well) under a banyan tree and facing south, perhaps bears the closest resemblance to the Gond symbolism of Bada Dev appearing in the trunk of the Saja Tree. This form of Shiva is particularly popular in Southern India where it is depicted at the southern entrance of a temple.

As Dakshinamurthy, Shiva is the Supreme Guru who illuminates the world. He is surrounded by sages, to whom he imparts knowledge on the nature of the cosmos, yogas, music and shastras. In his four hands he holds the damaru symbolizing cosmic creation, fire signifying purity and destruction, scriptures signifying wisdom, and his lower right hand is in the jnana mudra position. Sometimes he is shown holding the veena, which he plays proficiently. The Bana played by the Gond Pardhan to invoke Bada Dev under the Saja Tree may have been inspired by the veena held by Shiva.

Fig 10

Undoubtedly, Bada Dev is the same deity that the Hindus know as Shiva. Indeed, the Gonds themselves regard them as one and the same. In the hilly terrains of Madhya Pradesh, which constitutes the Gond heartland, there are numerous cave-temples containing naturally formed shiva-lingas, rock formations resembling serpents, etc. where Gond devotees offer worship to Mahadev. The Shiva Temple at Chauragarh in Panchmari (Madhya Pradesh) is an important Gond pilgrimage center where pilgrims climb 1300 steps carrying heavy Trisulas on their backs, and plant those Trisulas on top of the Chauragarh hill as an offering to Mahadev.

This means that the deity on the Sacrifice seal can, not only be interpreted as Bada Dev standing in the trunk of the Saja Tree, but also as Lord Shiva in his form as Dakshinamurthy, standing under the Banyan Tree. On certain Indus seals, the tree-spirit stands under an arch formed by the branch of a tree which resembles Shivas form as Nataraja (Lord of Dance), where he stands in a dance pose under an arch of fire.


Fig 11Fig 12








While Bada Dev is the same as Lord Shiva of Hinduism, the seven Gond brothers of appear to be the counterparts of the Seven Sages or Saptarshis of Hindu lore. The Saptarshis are regarded as the patriarchs of all human beings. Every Hindu traces his ancestral lineage to one of the Seven Sages via his gotra, in the same manner that the Gonds claim to have descended from the seven Gond brothers. In fact, the Gond tribes of Southern India are divided into exactly seven clans. The Gonds do not allow members of the same clan to get married just as Hindu customs prohibit marriages between people of the same gotra.

Thus, the different figures of the Sacrifice seal can also be associated with Hindu mythic icons. This is possible due to the substantial overlaps between Gond and Hindu customs and beliefs. In the past, whenever such associations between Hindu and tribal religions were noted by anthropologists, they have been quick to attribute it to a Hindu influence on the tribal belief systems. However, the presence of Gond mythic elements and stylistic motifs on 4000 year old Indus Valley seals completely invalidates such ideas. It clearly demonstrates the extreme antiquity of the Gond legends.

The overlap between Gond and Hindu symbolisms indicates that Hinduism and the Gond religion have a common ancestry in the Indus Valley. After the various Indus tribes migrated into India following the catastrophic collapse of the Indus Valley civilization starting at around c.1900 BCE, the Gonds lived in seclusion in remote forest communities, as a result of which they have been able to preserve their legends and traditions in a relatively uncontaminated state, free from external influences.

The Indus tribes which settled in the royal capitals of the new kingdoms gave rise to the religion now known as Hinduism. Hindu kings supported a litany of priests, scholars, dramatists, musicians, architects, astrologers and other men of learning who kept the flames of Vedic knowledge alive. Over the past 3000 years Hinduism has evolved, adapted, and diverged through the development of indigenous philosophies and religions like Buddhism, Jainism, etc., the evolution of new forms of artistic and literary expressions, the accretion of diverse foreign influences brought about by multiple external invasions etc. This has given rise to the complex, multi-faceted, religion of today.

Thus, even though Hinduism and the tribal religions have a common ancestry in the Indus Valley, they have followed different evolutionary paths after migrating to India. This is why the myths and customs of the Gonds (and many other tribes of India) are so crucial for interpreting the symbolisms on the Indus seals.

In Part 2 of this article, we will take a look at the famous Pashupati seal and some related seals and tablets



[i] Shyam Prasad S, Prof sees Harappan script in Hampi, Bangalore Mirror 04 Nov. 2014 <>
[ii] R. V. Russell, The Tribes and Castes of the Central Provinces of India (London: Macmillan & Co, 1916) Volume III of IV.
[iii] Sheikh Gulab, The Gonds taken from Udayan Vajpeyi, Jangarh Kalam, Pratilipi  Issue 13 <>
[iv] Udayan Vajpeyi, Jangarh Kalam, Pratilipi  Issue 13 <>

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