Mythical creatures of India

My son got me thinking – on asking him for a topic suggestion to write about, he asked me to write on trolls. The option was mine – to decide the type of piece I wanted to write on, the type of troll I wanted to write on – the troll as defined in Norse literature, Tolkien’s “Lord of the Rings” series or the more common internet troll that we hear mention of more than the others.

So, that made me think – how come our kids are more exposed to and aware about the mythical creatures of foreign lands. I am sure if I was to spring a “Yali” or a “Gandharva” on him, there would be one of two reactions – one, he would look at me closely to check if I have hit early senility or two, he would look completely blank. This piece, then is an attempt to see if I can list down some of the mythical creatures described in the ancient texts.

Disclaimer – I am not an expert on mythology or religion or ancient India – I am just listing down from the tales I know or of course, the perennial favorite Amar Chitra Katha. Ok, so maybe, the categories for non-human beings were of two main categories – the pure animals capable of thought, reason and intelligence and the hybrids who were part human, part animal.

Before that, we have strong personifications seen too. The five elements or pancha bhootas – fire, sky or space, wind, earth and water are all associated with Gods bearing their names, Agni, Indra, Vayu, Bhoomadevi & Varuna respectively. They, in turn are associated with the five senses – fire with sight, space with hearing, wind with touch, earth with smell and water with taste. There are also the ephemeral spirits as apsaras, yakshas etc with the evil spirits as well in the form of bhoot, pisaach, daitya, danav – all ghosts with different attributes. In order to suitably keep some minds frightened and subdued, there are references to Ichadhaari nag – the serpent that can take any form it wishes and vetaal – the spirit that resides in a dead body.

Some of the well-known animals in Hindu philosophy are Hanuman – the monkey god, Nandi – Lord Shiva’s bull, Adiseshan – Lord Vishnu’s serpent bed, Garuda – Lord Vishnu’s bird vehicle, Rahu & Ketu – the serpents supposed to cause the eclipses, Jatayu and Sampati – the vulture brothers – Jatayu who died fighting Ravana when he was abducting Sita and Sampati, who helped Hanuman with Sita’s location. The other animals mentioned are Yali – a creature that is a mixture of lion, horse and elephant, Airavatam – a white elephant with at least 4 tusks (maybe similar to a woolly mammoth), Akupara – the giant turtle that is supposed to support the earth on it’s broad back, Gandaberunda – the two headed eagle like bird capable of clutching elephants in its talons and huge serpents in it’s beak, Jambavan – the wise bear, Vali, Sugriva & Angad – the other monkey warriors, Timingila – huge sea creatures that could swallow whales etc. We also have the first few avatars of Lord Vishnu that are worshipped as gods – Matsya – the fish, Kurma – the tortoise and Varaha – the boar.

The part-human, part animal hybrid creatures list is led by Lord Narasimha – part lion, part man, Lord Vishnu’s avatar or form to destroy the evil Hiranyakashyipu and everyone’s favorite God – Ganesha – part human, part elephant. Lesser known hybrids are the Kinnaras – part human, part horse and part bird (similar to the unicorns?), Gandharvas – part human and part bird or horse and the Yakshas – part nature and part human.

And that was only a partial list with my limited knowledge – looks like that there was an entire parallel universe to the human population then. I am sure there would be a similar or longer list for other cultures too. 🙂




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