Munda people: A product of Parashurama’s fury – IX
by Jayasree Saranathan on 11 May 2014 0 Comment

The Sanskrit meaning of Munda is ‘shaven head’. But the Munda people are not seen with shaven heads. From the records of the British period, it is known that they used to grow pigtails and even tie up their long hair into a knot {1} though they have a hair removal ceremony for the new-born baby. This Narota ceremony is held on the 9th day of birth, when the baby is named. A barber is called in and the razor is blessed by the elders by touching it. The use of razor shows that it was not just hair cutting ceremony but hair removal ceremony. 


This is perhaps done as continuing tradition from the time of the first ancestors who lost their men while fleeing from the enemy. The children who were born after the death of their fleeing fathers could have been administered the death-related ceremony of hair removal once the birth pollution period was over. This practice – without remembrance of the cause for it –continues till today. Other than this, shaven head is not associated with the Mundas. 


An exception is found in a particular clan or sept of Mundas called “Mudia” or “Mudrundia” which is said to mean “shaven head”! {2}. The surprising element in this name is that “Mudi” in Mudia is the Tamil word for hair! The only people of the Mundari speaking tribes having shaven head are the women of Bonda tribes. They are also known as Remo!


Remo from Ramayana times


The Remo or Bonda women used to shave their heads regularly, a habit attributed to an incident in Ramayana times! Some women of these tribes happened to see Sita taking bath in a pond and were cursed by her for having seen her bathing. The curse was that they must have their heads shaven and be naked. Later she rescinded the curse by allowing them wear a waist cloth. It is easy to dismiss this as a cooked up story, but why should a people who were supposed to have been living in seclusion in remote places for ages have their women tonsure their heads regularly and attribute the reason to Ramayana times? 


Hair-dressing is an integral feature of womanhood in any community. There have been instances of forced tonsuring as a method of punishment or purification. Voluntary tonsuring as a method of propitiation or prayer to God continues among women in many communities in India even today. But to condemn all women-folk of a particular community for all ages to not grow hair on the head looks odd. If the Bonda women have had some episode in the past, they could have retained the memory of it in some corrupted form. But to connect that episode with Sita of Ramayana could be a real incident and not a product of an external influence from ‘Hindu neighbours’. As Rama’s period overlapped with Parashurama’s period, the people who accidentally got exposed to Sita or anyone from outside would have changed their looks to avoid detection. The name as Remo for these tribes, resembling Rama, adds substance to this story.


Munda in Tamil


Looking for other meanings for Munda, it could even be a corrupt form of the Tamil word “mandai”, meaning head. This word fits with their frightened beginnings of danger to head, as beheading was common mode of killing in wars. Thurston’s recording of the castes of South India contains a name “MandapOtho” who were found in Ganjam district and were roaming in the streets of Puri – the place where a Savara king made secret visits! (Puri is connected with Dakshina Kali too). Thurston records that MandapOthO man used to bury his head in sand as a way of attracting people to give him alms. Manda in MandapOtho means ‘head’ (Tamil), Potho means “bury”. The Manda or Munda referring to head seems to be the name associated with a people of this region in Puri and Ganjam.


Munda also means “headless body” in Tamil. The MandapOtho people had exhibited headless body by burying the head in sand. All this goes to show that people with a name connected to Manda (head) or Munda (shaven or headless) were in existence in this part of the country.


Munda in Puranas


The name Munda appears in Vishnu Purana in the list of kings who ruled Magadha. While giving the names of kings and dynasties who ruled for 1390 years after the Mauryas, there comes the mention of thirteen Mundas and eleven Maunas among them. {3} It is possible to assume these Mundas to be different from the tribal Mundas as they were mentioned along with Maunas. The names Munda and Mauna give an ascetic tinge to it. Mundaka Upanishad speaks of Shiro-Vratha in which the ascetic carries the agni on his shaven head. This makes it plausible that ascetics were known as Mundas. In the Buddhist lore too, a king by name Munda had existed.


But a similar list of kings found in Vayu Purana skips Mundas but retains Maunas. However immediately afterwards, it mentions 13 Marundas as those who ruled Magadha. The number of kings is same in both Vishnu Purana and Vayu Purana, but the name Marunda appears in Vayu Purana instead of Mundas. This makes it plausible that Marundas and Mundas refer to the same clan.


The crucial name in the list of Vishnu Purana is “Brihadratha” and his dynasty the early kings of Magadha. Brihadratha finds mention in Rig Veda also. Jarasandha of Krishna’s times was a descendant of Brihadratha. Mundas or Marundas came long after Mauryas in the list of kings. The surprising connection with Brihadratha is that a king by name Brihadratha fled for fear of Parashurama! This king Brihadratha, who was the son of Deviratha and grandson of Dadhivahana went into hiding in Gridhrakuta. {4} It is possible that he belonged to the Brihadratha dynasty or it was from him the Brihadratha dynasty was started. Their area of control was Bihar where the Munda tribes are living. Mahabharata lists out other kings too who had escaped from Parashurama and were living in secrecy. At that time, they were engaged in tending cattle or working as artisans and goldsmiths or doing odd jobs. After the period of Parashurama, these people returned to their original places and started a new life, mostly as kshatriyas. They were


{1} Haihayas

{2} Viduratha’s son of Puru’s race (protected by “bear” like people)

{3} Sarvakarman, son of Saudasa

{4} Gopathy, from Sibi’s dynasty

{5} Vatsa, son of Pratadana

{6} Brihadratha, son of Diviratha

{7} Maruttas


The last name mentioned in the list was Maruttas, the descendants of a powerful king, Marutta. They went to live on the sea shore to keep away from Parashurama. All of them returned to their original regions after Parashurama’s times.


The Brihadrathas had obviously restored their sovereignty in Magadha. There is no news on Maruttas after that, but the name Marundas appearing in Vayu Purana in the place of Mundas in Magadha raises a question whether they were descendants of Marutta. The cross reference for this comes from Ptolemy’s reference to a tribe by name Moroundai in the western border of ‘Gangaridai’. This covers the region of Bihar. Further cross reference is taken from Pliny’s narration on “Moredes” tribes along with Surari or Savaras. {5} But today there is no clan by this name or resembling this name living along with Savaras in the tribal regions of Bihar or Jharkhand. The only closest name is Mundas or Marundas (of Vayu Purana)! The phonetic resemblance of Marundas with Maruttas who were also at the receiving end of Parashurama’s fury makes Mundas the possible descendants of Maruttas.


Marutta and Asurs


Even the mythical stories on Asur tribes of smelting iron have a parallel with King Marutta. Fire is the main component needed for iron smelting. The invention of smelting iron must have been considered a break-through idea as it opened up possibilities of making various weapons and agricultural implements. In the narrations about King Marutta, it is said that he discovered the wealth found buried inside the earth. {6} This seems to be the extraction of iron from iron ores buried under the earth.


Though not told openly in the story of Marutta, there are indications to this effect in the story. {7} Desiring to get wealth, Marutta approached Brihaspati, the preceptor of Devas to do a sacrifice to get wealth. Brihaspati refused to officiate the sacrifice, citing as reason that he was the priest of Indra of Devas. Therefore Marutta approached sage Samvarta, brother of Brihaspati and son of the sage Angiras [who was connected with the Atharva Veda and also Agni]. Samvarta is known as Brihat Jyoti and said to be wandering naked; this symbolises agni that can be ignited in Nature. The name Samvarta also means some kind of destruction or a dense mass. He agreed to officiate the sacrifice. Being opposed to Brihaspati, their sacrifice seems to indicate something not done by Devas. As if to indicate that this sacrifice had some fierce nature of agni or fire that is not Daivik but asuric, the story goes on to narrate an interesting episode.


Upon knowing that the sacrifice by Marutta was going to be a grand one to bring out the wealth buried under the earth, Brihaspati wished that he could have agreed to officiate. Indra decided to fulfill this wish of Brihaspati and summoned Agni Deva to go and stop the sacrifice by Marutta under the supervision of Samvarta.


Agni went and blew up all along the way, burning the forests and everything on the way. This shows that some severe fire raged at that time. But Marutta planned to pacify Agni by offering a seat and offerings. Agni wanted Samvarta to stop officiating the sacrifice and make Brihaspati take his seat instead. This infuriated Samvarta who said that he would burn Agni with his fierce evil eyes. Agni got scared that he would be destroyed by the fire of Samvarta! This is a strange idea, but if we assume that the sacrifice to get wealth buried under the earth was in fact cutting out iron ores and smelting them in furnaces, this predicament of Agni would not sound strange. Agni as used in sacrifices is Daivik as it does not hurt or scorch others. But the heat of the furnaces does hurt others, besides scorching the surrounding area and this makes it Asuric. That is how the basic difference exists in Agni as a Deva and Agni as an Asura. No wonder those who live by this agni (of Samvarta) as though they are doing it as a sacrifice came to be called as Asur.


In this connection the narration in Brihadaranyaka Upanishad throwing light on what makes a Deva, or a Manushya (human) or an Asura is worth relating. All three (Deva, Manushya and Asura) received advice from Prajapati as ‘da’. The word “da” has several meanings, but each of them understood the meaning of ‘da’ in a way applicable to their nature and attitude. Each one was aware of their area of deficiency and as such understood the meaning of “da” as the thing needed by them to overcome their respective deficiencies. In this way, Asura understood the meaning of “da” as ‘being merciful’ because the innate tendency of Asura that makes him Asuric is the tendency to harm others ruthlessly. {8} Applying this rationale in the above episode, the Asura-agni can harm others indiscriminately while the Deva-agni does not; it only burns for the sake of carrying oblations to respective destinations / Gods. (In the Rig Vedas, wherever a Deva entity is signified with an Asuric connotation, it can be deduced that it refers to the furious or destructive side of the entity).


There exists a connection between Agni and Marutta too. Marut or Marutta means wind or gale. When Maruts and Agni come together the fire is stoked well. There is a hymn in Rig Veda that calls Agni to come with Maruts, the wind {9}. In the story of Marutta and Samvarta, Samvarta threatens Agni that he would burn it! One of the meanings of Samvarta is destruction. Perhaps this warning by Samvarta is allegorical to the destruction potential of the sacrifice of Marutta (wind) when Agni is allowed to be present near the furnace.


In Marutta’s story, Agni got frightened by the prospect of getting burned by Samvarta and went back to Indra. The infuriated Indra decided to stop Samvarta by bringing thunder bolts and rains to douse the sacrificial fire of Samvarta. This is also allegorical to a situation where smelting furnaces had to be closed due to rains. But then again Marutta decided to give a seat and honour Indra and other Devas in the sacrifice. Once given a seat, Indra became calm and accepted the offerings. He was joined by other Devas too. Two bulls, one of red colour for agni and another of blue colour for Viswadevas were sacrificed and the yajna was successfully done. It resulted in Marutta getting huge wealth buried under the earth. No one else could come to possess the kind of wealth that Marutta possessed. {10}


The place of Marutta


There is a cross-reference to this episode from Uttara khanda of Ramayana. {11} While Ravana was roaming in his Pushpaka vimana, he happened to come to a place called “Usheerabeeja” where he found Marutta doing a sacrifice with Samvarta as the priest. Ravana called Marutta for a fight but Samvarta stopped Marutta from taking up arms for the reason that he must not deviate from the sacrifice that he had begun. Samvarta said that if Marutta left the sacrifice midway, Maheswara would burn up his dynasty. This is allusive of giving up kshatriya-hood which the Maruttas did when they fled for life from Parashurama’s fury. Perhaps they didn’t become warriors after the self-exile but diverted their attention to producing iron.

Ravana’s period comes closely after Parashurama’ period and Maruttas are mentioned in Mahabharata as people who had fled from the fury of Parashurama. This Marutta doing the sacrifice with Samvarta must have started a new life after Parashurama’s time. The meeting with Ravana justifies this time period after Parashurama.


The amazing clue found in this narration is the meaning of the place “Usheera Beeja”. Usheera is the fragrant root of the plant Vettiver (Andropogon muricatus ) that grows on river banks and marshy soil. Bihar or the Mundari tribal regions are not known for growing this plant. But a place bearing another name of the same plant was there on the west coast of India - “Sindhukalaka”. In the map of the world called Kurma (tortoise) Chakra, Varahamihira gives the names of places that were located in the southwest part of India which is actually the region of west coast starting from the estuary of the Indus river to peninsular west coast.


He lists out Hemagiri, Sindhukalaka, Raivataka, Surashtra, Baadara, Dravida and Maharnva in this stretch {12}. Sindhukalaka coming before Raivataka and Surashtra places it at the estuary of Sindhu where the Kalaka plants (vettiver / Usheera) grow well. Both Kalaka and Usheera refer to the same plant that grows well in marshy coasts and estuaries.


The Maruttas lived incognito near the seashore to escape from Parashurama {13) Therefore Usheera in UsheeraBija could refer to the coastal region in the west. Once having come back to his previous place, Marutta had retained Usheera as Usheera Bijas. It must be researched whether any place resembling Usheerabija exists in the Bihar – Jharkhand region.


Marutta in Assyria


It is also probable that a section of Maruttas went from Sindhukalaka to Mesopotamia and Central Asia where they founded Assyria. Some of the names of Old Assyrian kings have a striking resemblance with characters in the Marutta story and in Tamil. Among the early list of Assyrian kings “who lived in tents”, the name of the first king was “Tudiya”. Tudiya is a Tamil word that refers to a clan that was one of the 4 olden clans as per a verse in a Tamil Sangam text. Tudiya was a drummer by profession. Kadamba is another one of this group of four. Kadamba was a dancer who was seen wearing Kadamba flowers. {14} The 5th king after Tudiya in the list of Assyrian kings was “Mandaru”, the Sanskrit name for rust of iron! Another king in the link was “Ushpia” who founded the temple of Ashur. Is Ushpia related to Usheera or Sindhukalaka, in the west coast of India?


Another name is Nazi Marutta of Babylon. The Kudurru stones of Nazi Maruttash depict the image of Scorpio that is referred to as Bica in Assamese to mean Iron-stone ore. {15}

Maruttas’ movement through Mesopotamia reaching Assyria must be probed. Persia as Parsuwash (in old Persian language) lends support to the theory of Vedic kings having moved to these parts of Middle East in the wake of threat from Parashurama.


Asur and Munda


Research has shown that iron technology has been indigenous to India and iron was an important source of income in Mauryan times. {16} Asurs must have been the unrecognised and invisible contributors for the growth of this industry in ancient India. The Asur practices at the start of lighting the furnace bear some resemblances to Marutta’s story. They perform Sansikutasi worship which is in the nature of some magic (as though how Samvarta managed to stop Agni and Indra from obstructing the sacrifice).Two fowls of red colour (for agni) are sacrificed (in the sacrifice by Samvarta, 2 bulls were sacrificed of which one was red, meant for Agni).


There is dance and merry making on this occasion. A peculiar feature is that musical instruments which are very much essential for dance or any festive occasion is not played only during this furnace-lighting ceremony of these tribes {17}. No one can give a proper reason for this. But if we relate this to Marutta’s sacrifice, the danger or obstruction to that sacrifice came from Indra, the wielder of the thunder bolt. The sound of thunder means the arrival of rains that could douse the fire of the furnace. Perhaps in memory of this, a practice came to stay not to beat any drums that could mimic thunderbolt or arrival of rains.


Iron smelting by Asurs or the descendants or subjects of Marutta must have continued from Marutta’s times. The Agaria community of Asurs derive their name from agni. The name Maruttas must have changed into Marundas in course of time. The Maruttas being warriors, a section of them could have worked for regaining rulership which is indicated by Vishnu and Vayu Purana. There had been others cut off from the mainstream. There is scope to believe that Marundas were originally engaged in iron smelting. One of the words in Sanskrit to denote iron is “Munda”. The Munda people say that the word “Munda” has its origins in the word “Murha” which they say means “root of the tree”. But “Muru” is the name of a variety of iron! The rust of iron is known as “Mandura” in Sanskrit. These words of Sanskrit sounding like Munda and related to iron cannot be dismissed lightly.


In course of time, Marundas moved away from iron smelting. Those who were doing it came to be called as Asurs – perhaps due to the connection with Asura Agni.  An Asur story of the Munda version says how those Asurs greedy of making gold (alchemy?) suffered destruction. That story also narrates how the land was scorched by the furnaces accompanied with rain of fire. Perhaps seeing the environmental hazards of iron smelting, the Marundas aka Mundas started turning their attention to agriculture, but Asurs continued with iron smelting. The concept of sacred groves must have come up after experiencing the side effects of iron smelting on the environment and the loss of forests that were cut to supply fire-wood for the furnace. 


The hazards of fire as expressed in Munda’s myths perhaps made them shun fire in any form. They even shunned the sacrificial fire in their marriage ceremonies. In Vedic marriages, the couple goes round the fire to take marriage oath. But in the marriage custom of Mundas, the bride goes round the bride groom for seven times with a pot of water. Water being given an important place in all the ceremonies and customs of Mundas seem to indicate a conscious decision to move away from fire related works and adopt water related customs, obviously with an intention to preserve water and have a cool environment in the neighbourhood of iron smelting Asurs.


Axe as an indicator of Iron Age in Parashurama’s times


Parashurama was known by that name for wielding an axe. The Savara tribes of the Mundari speaking group are known for always carrying an axe – the weapon cum implement of Parashurama. Savaras were contemporaries of Parashurama and they took shelter in the mountains and forests of Bihar to escape from him. {18} The main purpose of the axe was to cut trees of the forests to clear the land.{19} A Savara myth says that Mahadeva gave them the axe to clear the forests and the plough to cultivate the land. In the times of Parashurama, axe was in wider use for they needed to clear forests to build settlements. The story of Jamadagni itself is replete with references to how he shifted his residence to new places by clearing forest lands. Axe being the commonly available implement, had also come in handy in beheading Renuka and killing kshatriyas!


Axe or Parashu has a presence in the tribal names too. One group of Agarias of Asur clan is known as “Parsa” and is engaged in producing high grade iron even today. There are caste names in Chhattisgarh as “Parsoli” – from Parsa meaning axe. It is derived from the Sanskrit word Parashu, the axe. Among the Oriya (Uriya) tribes too, there is a section by name “Pharsi” with the meaning axe. {20}Without a fused presence of Sanskrit in the country or community and without iron technology being present for thousands of years in the past, these tribal names or use of axe as an integral identity of people (as in the case of Savaras) could not have come to stay.


To be concluded…



{1} “The Tribes and Castes of the Central of India” - Volume IV of IV, by R.V. Russell  

{2} “The Tribes and Castes of the Central of India” - Volume III of IV, by R.V. Russell

 {3}Vishnu Purana 4-24

{4} Mahabharata 12-49

{5}”Tribes in ancient India” by Bimala Churn Law.

{6} Mahabharata 14-63

{7} Mahabharata 14-Chapters 6 to 10

{8} Brihadaranyaka Upanishad 5-2- 1 to 3

{9} Rig Veda 1-19

{10}Mahabharata 14-89

{11} Ramayana 7-18

{12} Brihad Samhita 14-19

{13} Mahabharata 12-49

{14} Pura nanuru - verse 335. There were 4 clans in existence from olden days in the Tamil society. They were PaaNan / PANa / BANa (bard), Parayan (who plays the drum called Parai), Tudiyan (who plays the drum called Tudi) and Kadamban (a dancer who wears Kadamba flowers)




{18} Mahabharata 14-29

{19} Rig Veda 9-96-6 

{20} “The Tribes and Castes of the Central Provinces of India” --Volume I (of IV), by R.V. Russell

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