Recently I came across an ancient Indian figure. I am usually curious about Indian legends and stories, so was quite fascinated by this creature. It is apparently better known in Oriya-land. It is called a Navagunjara,
Pic source: http://metmuseum.org/collection/the-collection-online/search/73296
Interesting isn’t it!
How many different animals and birds can you count?
Head – Cock – I thought it was a parrot earlier but it is a cock
Neck – Peacock
Hump – Bull
Body – Lion
Legs – Elephant, Tiger, Human Hand and Deer
Tail – Snake
Really fascinated I started digging up more information about this creature.
Surprisingly not much is available online about it. I guess this is one more obscure aspect of Indian lore almost lost in the fast-technifying world.
The little I found online talks about a Mahabharata incident where Arjuna while riding his horse, all of a sudden comes across this Navagunjara. His first instinct is to draw his bow and shoot the bird. But he spotted that in its human hand the creature carried a lotus flower. He remembered that Krishna had told him, the human mind is finite while the universe is much vaster and infinite. He realizes that the Navagunjara is just another unique creature in the infinite universe and then bows down to it.
There are also other references which suggest this creature is Vishnu’s form, but I haven’t found any story about it. I overall find this interpretation incomplete. Usually when such creatures have been depicted in India culture there are very specific reasons for it. The idea that ‘Universe is infinite’ could be depicted in many other ways, so this unusual creature should have some more story to it.
I value understanding the etymology of words because often that gives us a lot of insight into the words meaning.
Nava = 9 , Gun = Quality , Jara = Old / Praise
So probably the creature depicts 9 qualities – and it could be used as a praise, you are awesome as the Navagunjara 🙂
I saw two such hybrid animal/bird creatures in the Channakesava temple in Belur, Karnataka. This Channakesava temple is popularly known for its exquisite & intricate sculptures. There is a woman dancer’s sculpture in the main sanctum and she has a bird on her hand. This bird is a hybrid of a parrot and peacock. The face part is parrot while the latter part is peacock. It depicts that women should have the Pride of a peacock but with the sweet speech of the Parrot. A very symbolic way of expression.
Again outside this temple, we come across another unusual creature.
Body a boar (strong, resilient), feet of a lion (formidable claws), eyes of a monkey (see afar) and some other features as well. A whole mix of these animals to depict perfect war qualities. I believe the guide told us it is the most fierce animal in war. I don’t remember exactly the details of this creature, but it is cultural to depict hybrid animals in order to show what qualities someone should have, in war one must be really formidable while a dancer should speak sweetly and carry herself with pride.
Similarly, Navagunjara should depicts certain 9 qualities, if we understand the context of it then these qualities may apply to a divine person? Since the Navagunjara is often considered to be a form of Vishnu.
Cock – awaken others around? Could mean leadership quality too
Peacock – pride/beauty
Hump of a Bull – purity/devotion
Body of a Lion-majesty?
Legs: elephant-stable, tiger-speed, deer-gentle/grace
Human hand with lotus – spiritual quest
Snake as tail. Tail shows balance and snake is also a symbol for the kundalini/energies. Could mean balanced energies
Since the Navagunjara is a tale common in Orissa, it is possible that some of the meanings of the symbols may differ. But I feel that each of the animals/birds signify certain qualities. There should be a few more tales about this creature in Indian lore.
The reason I take much interest in the ancient Indian lore and cultural is because a lot of the ancient wisdom are embedded into our culture and stories. That is why I find that despite the urban folks rejecting religion, they still have some very Indian roots because of the sheer cultural depth. It would be really sad if we didn’t grasp that depth despite the culture being all around us. Hence, I always look deeper into Indian lore… what all insights it may reveal.