MAHISHA, THE BUFFALO DEMON

Rambha, demon son of rishi Kasyapa and Danu, mother of the Danavas, married a Mahishi (female buffalo). They had a son, Mahisha. Rambha and his wife were killed by a giant buffalo, but the son grew up to become the king of the Mahishas.

Mahisha lived in the Vindhya Mountains and, by the practice of severe austerities, gained the strength to drive the gods out of the heavens. So Brahma, Vishnu and Siva issued energy (Sakti) from their mouths. The energy united and from it emanated Durga as a beautiful woman with ten arms, riding a lion (sometimes she is depicted riding a tiger). She held each god’s special weapons in each of her ten hands: discus, conch, club, trident, spear, flame, bow, arrow and quiver, snake and the thunderbolt. She had a terrible laugh and roar that shook the earth. Several of Mahisha’s warriors came forward to fight Devi: Chiksura with his army; Udagra, Mahahanu, Siloma, Vaskala and Viralasha with chariots; Parivarita with elephants; and Mahishasura with elephants and horses. She killed each one of them with a different weapon. As Durga approached the Vindhyas, the demon tried to capture her. Unable to do so, he attacked her under several forms, each of which was destroyed by Durga. Finally, he took the form of a buffalo, which she caught with a noose and tied up before transfixing him with a trident, after which she killed him with her sword. (Devi Mahatmyam, Markandeya Purana). Some versions have her tiger mount attacking and killing the demon.

There is also sexual tension between Durga and Mahisha, who was a suitor and wanted to marry her. Mahisha is killed by Karttikeya in the Mahabharata. But this is not the popular perception.

Who was Mahisha and is this story merely a legend?

Central India, where the Vindhya hills are situated and the legendary scene of the battle, still has buffalo-totem worshippers like the Marias and Gonds. The Todas of the Nilgiri Hills in the southwest is also a buffalo-worshipping tribe.

Mahisha is closely associated with the town of Mysore (formerly Mahisha­ur), named after him. In fact, it is locally believed that this was where the goddess killed the demon. Many of his generals take on the goddess, but are killed with a variety of weapons, from stones and trees to bows and arrows, spears and swords, establishing the cultural situation of the war. In fact, it is locally believed that he was a local ruler killed by the goddess, and a huge statue of a mustachioed male figure of Mahisha holding a sword and a snake stands at the foot of the Chamundesvari Hill, at the top of which stands the temple of Durga as Chamundi, killer of Mahisha.

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(Courtesy: https://commons.wikimedia.org/wiki/File:MAHISHA.jpg)

Whom did the goddess defeat?

Less than 100 kilometres from Mysore are the Nilgiri Hills where the Toda tribe lives, a tribe that worships the buffalo as a god and whose origins are shrouded in mystery. The Todas venerate the buffalo, whose horns adorn their temples. The Todas are buffalo herders and, till recently, supplied buffalo milk to the other tribes through a tribal barter system. So sacred are the buffaloes that no other tribe was allowed to own any. The Toda buffaloes are enormous, handsome animals who are fierce fighters if approached by strangers. The Todas also have a tradition of being the palanquin bearers of Ravana, from whose atrocities they fled. It is likely that the Todas were buffalo worshippers who were defeated by the followers of the goddess, and who disappeared into the hills consequent to their defeat.

The cairns of the Nilgiris, believed to have been deserted by the Todas, are called moriaru mane or house of the Morias. The word could also be synonymous for the buffalo-horn Marias of Central India1. Besides the Nilgiri hills in South India, Central India is also famous for buffalo totem tribes like the Marias and Gonds, who even wear the buffalo horns on festive occasions. The Marias also worship Dantesvari Devi, besides the buffalo. Here, both the Goddess and the Buffalo deity are revered.

Mahisha is also associated with the town of Mahishamati, situated south of the river Godavari, on a tributary of the river Krshna. It was founded by king Mahishmat, whose name implies that he was rich in buffaloes. The region was ruled by king Nila of Dakshinapatha, and his subjects were called Mahishakas2. This is also the region of the Gond tribes. It is likely that this kingdom extended as far south as Mysore, for Nilgiri and Mysore are coterminus.

In Maharashtra, the demon Mahsoba (Mahisha + ba or father), who was killed by Parvati, is held in high esteem and venerated by the lower castes, particularly cultivators. Fowl and goat are sacrificed to Mahsoba3.

Both Mahishamati and Mahsoba are situated in or near the Vindhya region.

Besides the buffalo-worshipping Todas, there is also a sub-caste called Mahishi in Karnataka, whose followers still worship the buffalo and the Goddess Chamundi.

Mahisha was obviously a leader of a buffalo-totem tribe destroyed by the followers of the goddess. It seems likely that the Marias and Todas, both followers of the buffalo, were driven out of their homes by the worshippers of Durga. The Marias of Central India adopted the goddess into their cult, but the Todas did not.

Before the killing, Devi drank wine and her eyes became bloodshot. Such un-Aryan behaviour means she was clearly of non-Aryan origin, indicated by her appetite for wine and blood.

The destruction of the demon by the goddess shows that the demonization of the defeated ruler was a universal trait not restricted to the Aryans. Durga was a non-Vedic goddess. Apart from the lack of similar goddesses in the Vedic tradition, early references to Durga associate her with the Vindhyas, giving her the epithet Vindhyavasini; tribes such as the Sabaras (contemporary Saoras) were her worshippers, and they had non-Vedic habits such as drinking blood and eating meat or offering flesh. She creates helpers such as Kali and the bloodthirsty Matrikas, who are wild, bloodthirsty and particularly fierce. She is not submissive, does no household duties and excels in battle, being a fierce independent warrior. The word durg means fortress, and the goddess is as formidable as a fortress.

The sacrifice of the buffalo to Durga is practiced all over India, particularly during the festival of Navaratri which celebrates the war between the goddess and the demon. Mysore is famous for the celebration of Navaratri, when the image of Goddess Chamunda, whose temple is on the Chamundi hill, is taken out in ceremonial procession on an elephant.

Mahisha is an example of the demonization of a god or ruler by his enemies who defeated and killed him. The destruction of the demon by the goddess shows that the demonization of the defeated ruler was a universal trait not restricted to the Aryans. Durga was a non-Vedic goddess, and Mahisha was obviously a god of a buffalo-totem tribe. His destruction signifies the defeat of one tribe by another.

References

  1. Oppert, G., The Original Inhabitants of India, pp. 183-187 (Delhi, 1972).
  2. Kinsley, D., Hindu Goddesses, pp. 96-97 (Delhi, 1998).
  3. Oppert, G., cit.

Dr. Nanditha Krishna
Honorary Director
The C.P. Ramaswami Aiyar Foundation, Chennai

Source: Journal of Indian History and Culture, September 2005.

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