Mundas: A product of Parashurama’s fury – IV
by Jayasree Saranathan on 13 Apr 2014 3 Comments

The head-alone cult of Renuka worship is not confined to India alone. The head-alone image is seen in the myths and art of ancient Greece also, in the Gorgon head which resembles Goddess Kali with protruding tongue and dreadful looks. What is surprising is that many of these art works on Gorgon heads show them with a tilak on the forehead, a symbol that is unique to Hindus and Hindu Goddesses. The Gorgon head in Vix-krater's handles, unearthed from the grave of the Celtic Lady of Vix, dated at 510 BC, shows the face of Kali with a tilak on the forehead. {1}


Yet another popular find from Greek art was a cup with a painting of the Gorgoneion in the image of Kali with a round bindi on her forehead, dated at 6th century BCE. {2}


In the Greek myths, there are three Gorgons who are females with terrible faces and winged bodies. One of them, Medusa found in a clay plaque dated at 570-550 BC and housed at Syracuse, resembles the posture of Garuda or Eagle as carrier (found in most temples in Tamil Nadu and used in temple precessions to carry the deity), but having the face of Kali with a tilak on the forehead. {3}


The idea of Garuda as a carrier of Vishnu comes from India and must have pre-dated Parashurama. There are Garudas, Kinnaras, Gandharvas, Nagas etc mentioned at many places in the Puranas. Superficial reading may give an impression that these are all mythical characters. But a branched-out study of Hindu texts would reveal that Garuda symbolises good eyesight. An eagle can see from a great height a small chick on the ground and swiftly swoop down and fly back with it as fast as it came. The link between eyesight and Eagle is made out from texts like Prasna Marga that prescribe donation of the image of Garuda as a remedy for eyesight problems. {4}


From this it is presumed that reference to certain people as Garudas or eagles was because they were endowed with good eyesight and swiftness in movement. It is for this reason Lord Vishnu is supposed to travel on the Eagle whenever he had to rush to the rescue of a devotee caught in the hands of a tormentor. Thus the concept and its application are found in Hindu thought. The image of Garuda / Eagle of the Gorgon of Syracuse must have travelled from India only. 


The strong reason to say this is because the most popular idea of Vishnu having mounted on the eagle to rush to the rescue of his devotee was that of Gajendra Moksha in which an elephant called Gajendra was caught by a crocodile. According to Puranas, this episode happened during the period of Tamasa Manu, who was worshiped by the people in and around the Vindhya region, the same region in which the head-alone cult of Renuka was shaped.


The earliest reference to Gorgon comes in Homer’s works dated at 12th century BCE. The focus of reference was the eyes of the Gorgon. They were huge, flashing and depicted variously as spirals, swastikas, fire wheels and concentric circles and so on – something in line with the Garuda concept of sharp eyesight. The Eagle-as- carrier concept was fused with the idea of eyesight, such that it was believed that the gaze from the eyes of the Gorgon, when it fell on someone, would destroy him / her or turn them into stones (incapacitated). The Syracuse Gorgon Medusa image was symbolic of travelling like an Eagle to instantly reach the tormentor and destroy him. Gorgon Medusa has a parallel to Renuka’s head-alone image. Renuka was beheaded by Parashurama. Medusa was beheaded by Perseus.


Persia and Parashurama


In the Greek myth, Perseus beheaded Medusa and carried her head to kill his enemies, by putting it out in front of anyone whom he wanted to kill. The origin of Perseus is still a matter of speculation. There is an opinion that Perseus means “Persian” or that he was from Persia as there are portrayals of him in Persian style pyjamas, boots, cap etc. The word Persia has its origins in Old Persian word “Parsuwash”. No etymology exists for this word, Parsuwash. 


However in the records of Shalmaneser III (reign 858-824 BCE), two names are mentioned in the area of Lake Urmia - one is Parsuwash and the other is Matai. It is not known whether Parsuwash refers to a people or a place. But “Parsuwash” is considered to be same as the Old Persian word parsa. {5}. Did this refer to Parashu or Parash-wasi? Was Persia the region where the people who followed Parashurama lived? Were they called as Parashu > Parashu-wasi > Parsuwash? Was the name Perseus rooted in Parashu? Is it merely a coincidence that Perseus, whose name is phonetically similar to Parshu-vas, did a similar act of beheading a woman as Parashurama did? 


Parashu in Sanskrit means axe. The very name Parashurama came up due to the axe or parashu he was carrying, the weapon with which he killed the kshatriyas. Did the people of Parsuwash carry the axe and the Renuka cult to other regions of Europe? This looks plausible, as we find the axe as the Royal symbol of power in pre-Greek society. The Etruscans who occupied Greece ever since 12th century BCE until the Roman conquest in 3rd century BCE, had axe as their Royal symbol of power to punish and execute wayward subjects.


During Royal processions this axe was carried by an official in front of the procession. This was made with a bundle of sticks having an axe tied to it {6}. It must be noted here that the head-alone Medusa also finds a place only in this period of pre-Greek culture.


Parashurama was known for having beheaded Renuka and been terrible in destroying his enemies. Was that used by a native of Parsuwash – i.e., Perseus, in conquering others and establishing his supremacy? Did Perseus get inspiration from Parashurama and kill his enemies while holding the severed head of a woman? It must be remembered that Parashurama’s killing spree started upon the death of his mother and father. 


There is scope to connect Persia with the followers of Parashurama. Parashurama’s anger had gone upto Kashmir as we find the Mahabharata mentioning Kashmiras as having fled from his anger. {7}. The son of Sibi, the Sauviras located in present day Pakistan, went into hiding to escape from Parashurama. Therefore those regions and the adjoining ones must have been populated by people who helped him in his fight against the kshatriyas (Parashurama could not have killed the kshatriyas all by himself. He must have taken local help in every region that he went to flush out the kshatriyas). In course of time that pocket having Parashurama’s followers could have become known as Parashwa or Parshuwas or Parashu-vaasi. The phonetic similarity is not the only indicator. How the idea of Medusa with severed head having the features of the Hindu Goddess got into their myth must be satisfactorily explained. Any explanation would bring us to Hindu traditions only.

Perhaps the much earlier version of head-alone can be traced to Sesklo culture – located in the same place, i.e., Greece and dated at 6000 BCE. It was a ceramic mask having a terrible look and is close to the Kirtimukha image of Hindu temple architecture {8}, also a head-alone figure!




The Shiva Purana traces the story of Kirtimukha, thereby showing its origin in Hindu culture {9}. Kirtimukha is shown to be eating the tail of a snake! In a surprising connection, Renuka was known to have always picked up a snake, coiled it up like a rope and placed it on her head to support the pot that she freshly made and filled with water. It is possible to visualise how she would have struggled waiting to be beheaded and at the moment of getting beheaded. Picking out the snakes that she used to use as support for the pot, she could have bitten her teeth holding them in her mouth. The shock and pain at the moment of getting beheaded was perhaps depicted in the image of Kirtimukha. Those who suffered intensely were deified in Hindu culture. Her image could have got developed into Kirtimukha image and later re-defined by Puranic sages with mythical symbolisms.


Interestingly the Gorgon images of Greek myths also come with snakes as hair. Of them Medusa was beheaded by Perseus. According to Greek myths, those on whom the gaze of the head of Medusa fell were turned into stones. Perhaps this was the reaction of people who happened to see the gruesome moment of beheading, becoming numb like stone. Perhaps that reaction was witnessed in Renuka’s episode and remembered for long. Perhaps that was carried into the myth of Medusa by Perseus. 


One of the drawbacks in establishing the Hindu roots of stories such as these on Parashurama is the lack of evidence from archaeology. However Parashurama’s story comes with verifiable clues from marine archaeology, in that he was supposed to have reclaimed the lands on the west coast of India from the Arabian Sea. How did he do that? Did the sea level recede at that time? Or did he reclaim lands and build barriers to stop sea water from entering the lands? The latter seems to have happened.


An expedition by Deccan College of Pune and the Department of Science and Technology of the Central Government found a 24 km long wall of 2.7m height and a width of around 2.5m off the Konkan coast in the sea waters. It shows that the land had once extended upto there, and the wall had prevented erosion and entry of sea waters.

[The details with photographs can be read at]


Experts from National Institute of Oceanography have dated this wall at 6000 BCE. This puts the time period of reclamation attributed to Parashurama at 8000 years BP. The amazing correlation comes from the Sesklo culture of Greece in that the face mask found there is also dated at around 6000 BCE! Is this only a coincidence? Or did people really carry the Renuka cult of head-alone to the places they went? 


Parashurama’s times and Renuka cult with head-alone image go together, something substantiated by the origin of Tantra practices of Devi attributed to Parashurama kalpa sutra. Either the escapees or the devotees of Renuka cult had taken the ideas to Europe. If they were escapees, they could have safeguarded themselves from any attack by Parashurama or his army of followers by showing the face mask or gorgon as a proof of their allegiance to Renuka cult. In the case of devotees or followers of Parashurama, the tantra practices learnt from Parashurama could have helped them in vanquishing their opponents. The latter seems to have been infused into Greek myths as Gorgon amulets and myths of Medusa and Perseus. The basic feature is a female face or Renuka with the head. 


Thus it can be said with conviction that the head-alone cult has sprung up from Parashurama’s story. It is also true that a head-less identity had sprung from his actions! A headless body is known as “Mundam” in Tamil. Fearing his axe, some people fled while others stood by him and helped him to hunt down the kshatriyas. We will know about the latter category in the next article before proceeding further into analysing who Mundas were.


To be continued...



{1} )


{3} )

{4} Prasna Marga, Chapter 23, Verse 11.



{7} Mahabharata 7-68



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