Valakhilyas: Were they descendants of ‘Hobbits’ of Indonesia? - I
by Jayasree Saranathan on 14 Jan 2019 3 Comments

The name Valakhilya evokes excitement and interest besides puzzlement for two main reasons. One is that it refers to a group of eleven hymns generally counted as an appendage to the 8th Mandala of Rig Veda. Opinions vary on why they are there and whether they are later additions. Another reason is that sages by a generic name Valakhilya have existed in a remote past amply referenced in the Mahabharata, with a couple of references appearing in the Valmiki Ramayana also. Mahabharata often refers to their height of unbelievable proportions - as ‘thumb’ size. Yet another often mentioned feature describes them as doing penance by hanging upside-down from the branches of trees. A penance of this kind done by Valakhilya rishis finds mention in Bhr?gisa samhita and is practiced as a yogic posture, Valakhilyasana, even today.


With enough source materials to decode the myths around Valakhilyas, what is left improbable is their thumb sized height.  Even that can be interpreted as a symbolic reference to their short stature compared to normal human beings. Interestingly, support comes from archaeological findings of very small beings, of hardly three feet height, who walked the earth along with normal human beings (Homo erectus) as recently as 13,000 years ago if we go by fossil records and until the 16th century CE as per many first person accounts. They were the “Hobbits” who had lived in Indonesia. The information we gather from the three texts (Rig Veda, Ramayana and Mahabharata) gives us ample leads to connect Valakhilyas with Hobbits.


Such information includes the origins of Valakhilyas, their olden location, their later location, their characteristics and their contribution. Of these let us first proceed from the information on their olden location to establish their origins in Indonesia.


Oldest story of Valakhilyas


Both Mahabharata and Valmiki Ramayana repeat a similar incident involving Valakhilyas in which the Garuda came to be identified as the king of birds for the first time. Interestingly, the name Garuda came into being for the first time only after that incident, coined by the none other than Valakhilyas. This means that the concept of Garuda as the carrier of Vishnu and later as the insignia of Vi??u / K???a must have come after this incident. This places Valakhilyas much before the origin of the concept of Garuda and its status as the carrier bird for Vi??u.


This incident is recalled by Ravana (VR: 3-35) on his way to meet Marica to seek his help to abduct Sita. While passing through the sea coast, he saw a huge banyan tree that reminded him of an incident of old in which the mighty Garuda plunged from the sky to perch on a huge banyan tree with an elephant and a mammoth tortoise clutched in his paws. By the weight of his plunge, the branch where he landed started breaking off. It was then he noticed that sages such as Valakhilyas were doing penance by hanging upside down on that branch. Anxious that they should not fall down, Garuda immediately picked up the broken branch with his beak and soared high with the sages still hanging on the tree-branch.


It was awe-inspiring to see the huge bird flying with an elephant and a huge tortoise in the firm grip of its two claws and a huge branch of a tree in its beak with many Valakhilyas hanging down from it. Ravana recounts that the bird safely landed the Valakhilyas on a site after which it released the branch on a habitat of Nishadas (fishermen or boatmen implying coastal or riverside people), destroying them. The sight of the huge banyan tree brought the memory of this old tale of Garuda and Valakhilyas to Ravana. This incident appearing in Valmiki Ramayana goes without saying that Valakhilyas existed even before Rama’s times.


Coming to the chronologically later history of Mahabharata, the same incident is narrated by Ugrasrava Sauti in the story of Garuda (MB: 1-29 & 30); he gives some more information. Garuda, son of Vinata, was keen on increasing his strength to fetch amrita (nectar) in order to free his mother from the bondage of Kadru, the mother of snakes. He did this by eating the Nishadas and creatures of the forest. Once he spotted an elephant and a huge tortoise fighting with each other in a lake. He swooped on them and caught them in his claws. He soared high with the two huge animals in claws looking for a place to perch and saw a group of banyan trees near ‘Alamba tirtha’ (MB: 1-25-27). There the Valakhilya rishis were engaged in penance while clinging on to the tree-branches with their head downwards.


Unaware of their presence, Garuda landed on a branch, but the branch started breaking. Only then Garuda noticed the presence of Valakhilyas in that branch and wishing to save them from getting crushed, he picked up the branch with his beak and started flying again. The rishis, still hanging from the branch, were amazed to see the huge bird carrying two huge animals in its claws and a huge branch in its beak as surpassing the might of the Gods and hence called the bird, ‘Garuda,’ meaning ‘the bearer of heavy weight’. The very formation of the name “Garuda” has thus been attributed to Valakhilyas.


After they were left to safety, the Valakhilyas were guided by sage Kasyapa to leave for Himavat to continue with their penance without any disturbance. Sauti continues the narration on how Garuda managed to get amrita and met Vi??u on his way, who, on seeing him not drinking amrita, granted him two boons by which Garuda became immortal, became the carrier of Vi??u, and found a place in his flag. This narrative from Mahabharata places the identification of Garuda as the carrier of Vi??u at a time when Valakhilyas were already advanced beings, proficient in ascetic practices.


This incident involving Garuda and Valakhilyas cannot be brushed aside as a figment of the imagination for the reason that it is repeated in both the Itihasas. The incident is filled with ample clues to the location where this had happened. It also tells about a time when raptors (Garuda) were ruling the skies and almost threatened all forms of terrestrial life, including human beings. The Nishadas living on sea shores and riversides were forced to move out for fear of life from the bird. The Valakhilyas also were forced to take refuge in the Himavat. Piecing the clues together, it is possible to identify the place where this incident had taken place.


Location of Garuda, Giant tortoise, Banyan and Valakhilyas


The incident has three creatures, a mighty Garuda (let’s call it eagle), an elephant and a giant tortoise. The location was teeming with water bodies or it could have been near the coast if we go by Ramayana narration - where elephants and giant tortoises were co-habiting. This location must also have plenty of banyan trees.


Banyan trees


The mention of Alamba tirtha’ where the Valakhilyas were engaged in penance by hanging upside down from tree branches unfolds the mystery, as one of the meanings of Alamba is ‘hanging down’ and another is ‘support’. Banyan trees have their branches (roots) hanging down which form their own support. ‘Alam’ in Alamba has a curious connection with the Tamil word ‘Alam’ which is banyan tree in Tamil. True to its meaning, the Valakhilyas also practiced the upside down posture from the tree-branch during meditation.


Banyan trees are endemic to South Asia and South East Asia. Giant banyan trees are found in the Angkor Wat temple complex. The banyan tree has a place in the Coat of Arms of Indonesia, inscribed within the giant image of ‘Garuda’.


Coat of Arms of Indonesia


Though this was recently adopted by Indonesia, the design reflects native elements specific to the country and its traditions. Banyan found a place in this design not just for the symbolism, but also because it is native to Indonesia. The spread of banyans can be seen as far as the Pacific island of Vanuatu where the tree has the same utility as in India – i.e., a meeting place or for public congregations.


Certain species of banyan do appear in Central and South America. But those places do not qualify to be the venue of the above mentioned incident of Garuda and Valakhilyas. The fact that Valakhilyas had moved from Alamba to Himavat points to the region of South or South East Asia. The movement to Himavat could not have happened from Europe or Siberia for the very reason that banyans are not native to those regions. So our search gets narrowed down to South East Asia as a probable region. India is excluded from this reckoning for other reasons, one being the absence of giant tortoises. 


Giant Tortoise


Giant tortoise found in coastal regions or inland lakes is an important test feature for this incident. The following map published by a Checklist and Review of extinct species of turtles and tortoises shows that South East Asia had harboured many such species until 12,000 years ago. Sri Lanka is the only region in South Asia to have been home for these species until 12,000 years ago. But some species have lived until 450 years ago in the east of Australia and in the regions where Vanuatu is located. Indonesia (Java) was home for some extinct species.


When we look for the probable species of giant tortoises in South East Asia, we do come across Asian Giant Tortoises (Manouria emys) as the most primitive but still living in wet lands and waterways in South East Asia and South Asia. This species is found from Assam in India and eastern Bangladesh in the west, through Myanmar and western Thailand, and south through peninsular Malaysia to Sumatra and Borneo in the east. To narrow down the search further, we must look for giant eagle population in these regions.


Giant eagles


The narration tells about the size of Garuda and not his colour. He was a man-eater initially and had devoured huge animals, including elephants. He was not snake-eater, as Garuda had not troubled the snakes born to Kadru. Not all eagles eat snakes. After he got the boon of immortality from Vi??u, Garuda came to be known as ‘Supar?a’, a bird with ‘beautiful wing’. With these clues we have to locate the eagle in a region which was a habitat for giant tortoises and elephants too. The most widespread eagle family in the northern hemisphere is the Golden Eagle (Aquila chrysaetos). But they are found in regions to the north of India and in Europe, and not in South East Asia. Since our search is narrowing down to South and South East Asia, we have to look for the species found here. The most common one is white-bellied sea eagle (H. leucogaster) seen from India to Indonesia to Australia.


(To be continued…)

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