Antler Worship in Bali and South Travancore

Deciphering its Historical Implications

In 1620, one hundred Puritans boarded the ‘Mayflower,’ the ship in which the Pilgrim Fathers sailed from Plymouth to Massachusetts. These people saw little chance of England becoming a country in which they wished to live. Viewing it as un-godly, they moved from a bad to worse state. They believed that a new start in the New World was their only chance. “The colonization of South and Southeast Asia may not start with the Spanish, Portuguese, Dutch, French, and Americans. Two great human civilizations spilled beyond the Indus Valley and the Yangtze Valley. The ancient Hindu empire of Madjapahit dominated both peninsular and insular Southeast Asia, reaching up to Central Philippines. So did the later Shri Vijaya Empire.” [1]

Like the Americans, who traced their ancestry to the Pilgrim Fathers, the Balinese trace their ancestry to the once all-powerful empire of Ma(d)japahit, whose sacred emblem was the totemic deer head.[2]  “Deer heads are a symbol commonly used in the origin temples of descent groups who claim a common ancestry. The deer offering may thus be a hint that the relationship to Batur is in part based on common descent. Even though this origin narrative does not comment on matters of ancestry, such a link is widely believed to exist. My comparative data on village organization support the idea that the two villages may have a common historical origin.” [3] 

Batara Mas Pahit is thought to be the one who brought the shrine for the god of Majapahit (manjangan saluwang) to Bali, occasionally also as the culture hero Mpu Kuturan.[4]  The Maospait shrine was dedicated to the totemic gods of the settlers from the Madjapahit

Barat National Park, located on the north western side of Bali, is by far the most popular part of Indonesia. Bali Barat, Pulau Menjangan, is a group of 420 tiny islands just 8 kms off Bali's north coast. This uninhabited island, fringed with very beautiful mangroves, is conspicuous as the home to the rare Java deer and Bali white mynah.[5]  Menjangan is an old Javanese literary word for ‘deer.’  The Dutch called the island Hertenbeest, which means the same thing. [6]

Cemeteries in the rice fields and even in the beaches of Bali, called ‘the morning of the world,’ one can find thousands of places of worship. The small shrines are meant for daily worship, besides each family maintaining its own small temple. There is always a shrine including one dedicated to Mt. Agung, and the Mt. Batur. The tallest of Bali’s volcanic mountains, Agung is the most sacred mountain, venerated as the throne of the sun deity.[7]  Gunung Agung and Gunung Batur/ Batukau are dedicated to the spirit of the mountains. The deity of the Gunung Batur or Lake Batur is Dewi Danu, thought to be Gunung Agung's 'wife.'[8]

Numerous deer inhabit the West Bali National Park, which also hosts Pura Agung Pulaki, an important shrine initiated by Nuranth, a prominent priest.[9]  Manjangan seluang, the seat of Batara Mas Pahit, is the shrine in which one always finds the head of a deer (with or without antlers), carved out of wood.[10]  The manjangan saluang, situated at the western end of the kaja row of shrines, is the one shrine with the carving and antlers of a deer, dedicated to Mpu Kuturan, the great legendary priest, the high-priest from Java. Six different species of deer like the kidang, Cervus mantjac, and the manjangan, Cervus rufa, Rusa, sambar and atau menjangan exist. The shrine for the deer-god Mendjangan Seluang, the Javanese masters of Bali, received special attention from noble people.[11]  Medjangan (med/angan) seluang means “the original deer.” “This can be recognized by a small sculpture of a deer’s head or by the stylization of antlers carved in wood.” [12]

All masks of animals such as tiger, wild boar, dog, cow, elephant and others in Bali can be called barong. It is externalized in the shape of a mask with four legs. The deer, like barong, a protective spirit, is an important symbol in Bali. Each Balinese family temple includes a shrine featuring a wooden deer's head with actual antlers called Manjangan Sluang, dedicated to Empu Kuturan. Tradition identifies Mpu Kuturan with Bhatara Maspahit, -the latter is sometimes regarded as the deity of the manjangan saluwang.[13] It was he who created the forms for all Bali Hindu religious rituals.   

Thousands of temples with shrines named Madjapahit, carry the sculpture of a deer’s head or antlers.[14]  The monstrous face over the central door in front of the enclosing walls of the shrine made of brick is highly carved. It is in the form of a karang tjewiri bearing the deer's antlers of Madjapahit. On each side of the door, there is a carved stone-pierced panel let into the wall in the form of a window. [15] 

Of the shrines, located within the house compound, the first one, a roofed shrine with one compartment, is called Sanggah Pengijeng Karang or the shrine of house compound guardian. The word ‘sanggah’ means ‘shrine’ and ‘pengijeng,’ the one who stays at home. It is derived from the word ‘ijeng’ which means ‘to guard’ or ‘to stay at home.’ The word ‘karang’ means ‘house compound.’  Positioned more or less in the middle of the house compound, not in the family temple, it serves as the home of the spirit, which acts as a guardian or caretaker of the property.  

The Paneduh ritual held at Pura Batu Madeg, the sanctuary of Vishnu, Lord of the waters, required offerings of a sorohan bebangkit on this occasion, the head of a deer (kidang) which was carried around the temple in a kind of dance.[16]  Menjangan ranggah refers to a hand position resembling a deer with antlers.’ It refers to the dancers positioning the arms and body, imitating the shape of the antlers of a deer. It characterizes the kembangan of that name. “The hand is held near the shoulder; the fingers are stretched and point upward, while the thumb stands out at a sharp angle, its tip touching the outside of the shoulder. The wrist and the elbow are flexed, the upper arm being near the side of the body. The position may be performed by just one or by both hands.” [17]

Heliacal rising of Orion's belt and agricultural schedules

Legends are galore, connected with Orion, since earliest days. In Indian mythology, Orion is Mrigasiras or the deer-headed. It is the head of Brahma in the form of a stag, which was struck off by Siva. The story goes like this. Sandhya, the twilight, is personified as the daughter of Brahma and wife of Siva. When Brahma attempted violence on Sandhya, she changed herself into a deer to escape from the evil intention of her father. Assuming the form of a stag, Brahma pursued her through the sky. When Siva saw this, he shot an arrow, which cut off the head of the stag. Reassuming his own form, Brahma paid homage to Siva. The arrow remains in the sky in the sixth lunar mansion, called Ardra, and the stag’s head remains as the fifth mansion, Mriga-siras.  

There are traces in the Vedic texts of an older calendar in which the vernal equinox fell in Orion (Mrigasiras). Agriculture in Java was once scheduled according to the heliacal rising of Orion's belt. The only constellations that the people of Bali observe for the purpose of correcting their lunar calendar by intercalculation are Orion.

We have seen that the Balinese farming activities are scheduled according to the heliacal rising of Orion’s belt which they call kidang. The Greeks, from the earliest times, named certain prominent stars and groups of stars. Homer speaks of the Pleiades, the Hyades, Orion, Boötes, the Bear (also called the Wain), and the ‘Dog of Orion’ (Sirius). Hesiod mentions all of these. He uses their heliacal risings and settings to mark the seasons and times for agricultural operations. The rising of the Pleiades and their setting were marked for harvesting and ploughing respectively. The later ‘astronomical calendars’ of Meton, Euctemon and their successors elaborated and codified this traditional ‘agricultural calendar.’ The above are the only stars and star-groups known to have been named in archaic times, and the division of the whole visible sky into constellations seems not to precede Eudoxus. However, the twelve signs of the zodiac were introduced from Mesopotamia long before then. 

The four seasons in the Javanese Calendar: archeo-astronomy

In Javanese, constellations are called lintangan (lintang = bintang, which means star[18]  and we(a)luku means the plough). The waluku constellation of the Javanese in Indonesia is bintang waluku - Star of Plough. Known in the west as the Orion, this constellation has an important role in the astronomical aspects of the arrangement of seasons. 

The Central Java Calendar (Pranoto Mongso) is the traditional Javanese craft of time-keeping. Many generations of rice farmers in rural Java, Indonesia, considered Orion and not the stars of Ursa Major as the one that formed the plough. Here, close to the equator, the constellation appears on its side and Orion’s belt along with three of the outer stars (excluding Betelgeuse - thiruvathira in Malayalam) were seen to resemble a weluku, traditional Javanese plough. They constituted the constellation bintang weluku. The modern Javanese agricultural year is called mangsa calendar. Based on the observations of the moving of one star, the Orion, it determined the phases of rice cultivation.[19]  Its rising at dawn is a cue signal for farmers to start ploughing the field and planting. 

The constellation of three very bright stars, called the belt of Orion, is called bentang kidang. Literally, the word means roe-buck, a small variety of deer. Cervus muntjak is called minchek in Sunda. It is assumed that the Sunda people have very likely borrowed the designation of the constellation from the Malays. The position of this constellation in the sky regulates the time for cutting forest for yearly paddy cultivation.[20]  The first sighting of bentang kidang and bentang kartika on the eastern horizon signifies the beginning of the annual farming year in an absolute way: though the stars may be invisible, the astronomical cycles are unvarying. Usually the bentang kartika appears two weeks earlier than bentang kidang, when the sun is in the northern hemisphere. According to the Baduy, at that time, the soil is ‘cold’ (tiis). Conversely, when bentang kidang disappears over the western horizon and for approximately two months cannot be seen, it is inappropriate to plant rice, because the soil is too ‘hot’ (panas), and insects (kungkang) inhabit the ‘present world’, buana tengah. “The position in the heavens of this kidang constellation regulates the time for cutting forest for yearly paddy clearings.”[21]   Next to kidang, the Pleiades (bentang kerti, kartika or gumarang) are the most important astronomical indicators. The appearance of the kidang (Orion’s belt) and the kereti (Pleiades), the position of the bentag kidang, in particular are significant for deciding when to begin the series of farming activities, which commences with clearing, felling, burning and planting rice. The actual planting begins when the constellation kidang (Orion) appears in the late evening sky.[22]  

“These various positions of bentang kidang are reflected in the following verses:  

When kidang first appears, a chopping knife should be used;
When kidang appears in a position similar to that of the sun at 8.00-10.00 a.m, vegetation should be burned;
When kidang appears overhead or sideways to the west, rice should be planted;
When kidang disappears, insect pests will appear, and rice planting should stop.”

It was the main task of the pamakayan (agricultural ritual specialist) to observe the stellar constellation. He reports the matters to the chief elder who announces to the whole community the start of the farming season. [24]

The Javanese called the kereti, the constellation of the Pleiades, variously as guru desa (village teacher/ monitor), as the paddy cultivation is regulated by its rising. The Pleiades are named after Krittika, the nurses of Karthikeya,[25]  the six faced God of war.  The annual cycles of Orion and the Pleiades,[26]  its changing appearance over the year, provided traditional rice farmers of Java various rules of thumb to regulate the different seasonal activities associated with inundated rice cultivation. “They say that when the first of the three stars in the girdle of Orion shows brightest, the padi must be sown in the commencement of the time of the year recognized as seedtime. If the central one is the most brilliant, it should be sown in the middle of this period, if the most easterly, at the end.”[27]  The traditional rice cultivators of Java regulated the beginning of an agricultural year by the heliacal risings and culminations of the Pleiades (binlang kereti) and Orion. 

The brief appearance of a star in dawn sky just ahead of the sun is called heliacal rising.  The morning appearance and evening disappearance are parts of the phenomenon called 'heliacal rising and setting.’ The yearly course of the sun through the ecliptic repeats itself every year at the same date. The same happens with the moment at which a star rises in the evening twilight (the end of the observable risings) or sets just before dawn. In general, the term acronichal/ acronychian refers to any stellar apparition which occurs at first gleam.  

Tenggala is called bintang waluku by some people, which is just High Balinese for ‘plow.’[28]  The Orion is called waluku. Tenggala / tangala in Malay, for plough, is a loan word from Sanskrit name langala.[29]  The rise in the sky of the Plough, in the constellation of Orion, at sunset in the sixth month of the lunar year (sasih kenem), is taken as an announcement for the beginning of the rainy season and, in the past when the slow maturing padi taun was grown, the beginning of work in the fields as well.[30]  The rise of this bintang, its standing straight up, in the southern skies of the Northern Hemisphere, makes it a bit difficult to make out any sort of plow in Orion. “But, in Bali, Orion rises lying on his side and it is easy to see the star group as plow. The ‘blade’ of the plow is Orion’s belt. His sword is the horizontal handle of the plow, which attaches to the cow at the southwesterly star, Saiph. The farmer holds on to and leans on the topmost ‘belt’ star.” Visualisation of a curve between the bottom of the ‘sword’ and Saiph makes the image complete. 

The old Javanese on the Java Island determined the ten months (mangsas) observing the position of Orion's belt and the Pleiades, because the appearance of these constellations marked the seasons for the various labours of the husbandman.[31]  With dusk and dawn of the Pleiades and Orion, when it is invisible, work in the fields ceases, and its morning rise indicates the beginning of the agricultural year. “The Javanese did observe such heliacal risings at dawn of both the  Pleiades and the Plough. In addition, they observed the heliacal apparitions of these two groups of stars at other positions in the sky at various times during the year.”  [32]
Orion’s three center stars  of the second magnitude are situated close to each other in a right line at an equal distance of somewhat over one degree. This Orion's Belt serves to point out the Sirius in the Great Dog, the brightest star in the sky, to the south-east, and Pleiades, or Seven Stars, to the north-west, in the neck of the bull. To the south of the three stars in Orion’s Belt is a row of stars called his Sword, and the nebulous stars of Orion.[34]  Sirius rises about seven o'clock during the first half of January.

The celestial plough appears twice a year upright on its handle, similar to the earthly ploughs when in use. Its first occurrence is around June solstice and the next one when the plough eventually rose at sunset (acronical rise). The heliacal rise at pre-dawn sky marks the beginning of the new agricultural year. The womenfolk marked the time, when the plough eventually rose at sunset, for sowing the rice in the nursery and the men start plowing the fields. Three months in between, “with bintang weluku rising progressively earlier each night, came the onset of the rainy season and the time to prepare the tools and check the water channels.”   Men began the process of harrowing the fields and women, transplanting the seedlings into the fields, around the time of the December solstice. The phase of the moon also regulated planting. Appearance of bintang weluku at its highest point in the sky after sunset marked the end of this period by its culmination at dusk. 

At the end of four months, the celestial plough appears progressively lower in the western sky after sunset. At this time, the celestial plough was perceived as upside down, like a farmer’s plough when the work is done. Soon afterwards, it disappeared completely (heliacal set).[35]  During this season the rain stops, the rice ripens, making the way for the harvest. Bintang weluku remained in use until around the late nineteenth century and is still prominent in folk memory, despite the co-existence of two other methods of dividing the year. [36]   

Rice-growing was closely connected with certain notions about the sky. The sign to begin cultivating is served around mid-December with the appearance of the Pleiades on the eastern sky after sunset, followed in January by the belt of Orion which the Javanese call the Plough. The Plough, around mid-May, disappears on the western horizon and the work of the cultivators too comes to an end.[37]
It can be concluded that the traditional Javanese rice farming saw the annual cycles of Orion  and the Pleiades as a part of a complete system of cycles, both natural and numerological, operating in Javanese cosmology. They conducted farming with a rather acute awareness of the height of Orion and the Pleiades above the horizon. This height is taken either at night-fall, half an hour after sun-set, or in the morning, half an hour before sunrise.  

Origin of rice cultivation in Java - a folktale

Long ago, the people of Java had only cassava for their daily food and rice was unknown to them. That was a time when humans and the gods could mutually visit heaven and earth. One day when a youth went to heaven he was surprised to see the gods eating rice. Dewi Sri, goddess of rice, taught him how to cultivate rice. Several years of hard toil in heaven made him a seasoned farmer. Then he intensively desired visiting his kith and kin living on the earth. With permission from Dewi Sri, he descended to earth. He carried with him several ripe rice stalks, which he planted on reaching home. Eventually, rice cultivation transformed Java Island with golden yellow colour and the Javanese began to thrive. One day, the gods visited the earth and, to their surprise, saw it lavishing with rice. On hearing the report, Dewi Sri descended to the earth, and met the youth who had helped cultivate rice in heaven. He begged pardon for stealing the food meant for the gods. Dewi Sri’s anger subsided when she learnt that he had stolen rice for the sake of his fellowmen. Dewi Sri pardoned him, but decided not to allow anyone from the earth to enter to heaven again. The youth was allowed to cultivate rice but on condition that he would take care of cultivating rice as she taught him. Before ascending to the heavens, Dewi Sri spoke: “In order to make rice plants grow best, follow nature’s rules. Plant the rice at the right time. I will give a sign from heaven by dropping jasmine flowers from my hair bun. These flowers will become waluku stars (Orion). This is the sign that the season for planting has come." Ever since then, Dewi Sri's ruling is followed. The farmers started to plant rice, when they sighted the waluku stars in the night sky. [38]

In Kerala, the grain of rice kept for seed is dried for 10 days while nellu, the rice for consumption, is dried for two days. In Malayalam, waluka means to sow seeds, cultivate.  In Javanese, waluku means a plough and muluku is to plough, to turn up with the plough.[39]  In Palghat, thoduppu mulayuka is to finish ploughing. Thoduppu means harnessing and a plough. Thoduppiduka is to plough. Thoduppu vilanju/ mulanju means the field is ploughed. Investigation of Java words like waluku and muluku lead one to the corresponding Malayalam words. This finding makes one think that the heaven where the Javanese youth spent time, learning the technique of cultivation of rice, is none other than the ancient Kerala itself. No wonder, even in these days, Kerala is known as God’s own country. 

Creation myth

In the Hindu creation myth, a single golden egg, found floating in the primeval waters, produced Prajapti, who was neither male nor female, but an all-powerful combination of both. The first two words he spoke became the earth and the sky respectively, which he divided into seasons. Prajapati, who was lonely, desired a mate in this vast emptiness. As such, he divided himself into two beings- a husband and a wife. Together they created the first gods, the elements and mankind. By these acts of creation, time was created; Prajapati became the embodiment of time itself. Other gods including the evil Asuras and beautiful Dawn [usas] were born. Prajapati, to separate good from evil, hid his evil offspring deep into the earth. However, disguised as a stag, too fast and powerful, he came to his lovely daughter Dawn, who was on the earth in the form of a doe. She tried to flee, but later gave birth to all the cattle of the world.

Finding the relationship incestuous, the other gods created the monstrous Rudra, shot him with an arrow and flung him into the dark sky. Prajapati thus became the ‘Deer’s Head’ (Capricorn) [40] constellation in the night sky. Dawn returned to the sky but never got too close to the night.

In the Aitareya Brahmana, it seems to be connected to the constellations visible at the dawn of the year. In accordance with this myth, the three stars in the head of the Mighty Hunter formed one of the Hindu lunar stations known as "the antelope's head.”[41]  Sirius, selected by the indignant gods to shoot him,[42]  is the brightest star in the sky and, now thought of as one of Orion's hunting dogs, was the deer piercer who shot the arrow. The creation myth found told in the Rg Veda is the oldest known document in any Indo-European language. The fact that it was passed down orally for several centuries before it was written shows the antiquity of the myth.

The emerging antelope

The brightest star in Taurus, Aldeberan (Rohini), represents the female deer, which fled across the sky with Mriga in hot pursuit. Lubdhaka, the Hunter, however, saw what was happening and shot an arrow at Prajapati transfixing him forever to the sky where he now stands helplessly between Rohini and Lubdhaka.  In honour of this exploit, Lubdhaka has since been known as Mrigavyadha, or Deer Slayer (the star Sirius, in Canis Major).[43] 

The constellation Orion represents Prajapati. The deer family found in the firmament as a constellation shaped like the head of a deer is named Mrigasira. The little group of stars in Orion's head is called Mrgasiras. The five stars in Orion’s head, named invaka (ilvala/ ilvaka),[44]  are like the tip of the antler.  Mrgasirsa or Mrgasiras, also called invaka (invaga), seems to be the faint stars, Orionis. They are also styled in the Santikalpa of Atharvaveda as andhaka, “the blind,” apparently from dimness.[45]  Aryika, is “honourable, worthy” and invaka is of doubtful meaning: this latter epithet is also found in some manuscripts of the Amarakosa, as various reading for ilvala, which is there expressly declared to designate the stars in the head of the antelope.[46]  Exactly at the back of this star, the form bearing a bow and arrows, emitting its bright light, is named Lubdhaka.  

The row of three stars, considered Orion’s belt in western tradition, is the arrow that pierced Prajapati. The three arrow (belt) stars, Agni (the fire god), Soma (both the god's ambrosia and the moon), and Visnu (solar or supreme god) represent the shaft, head, and point of the arrow. 

mrigashirsham mrigashira
taraka nivasanti yah 

The three stars in the Orion’s belt close to one another are amongst the brightest in the sky. Arranged in an almost straight line, they are the most recognizable of all constellations. Around the belt, we see four conspicuous stars form an irregular four-sided box. Rigel, a hot, blue star, is to the south. Betelgeuse (Thiruvathira, Ardra, Aathira in Malayalam), a cool, red star lies to the north. Bellatrix, bright for a second magnitude star, but overshadowed by its first magnitude neighbours is a few degrees west of Betelgeuse. [48] 

To view an antelope, one has to consider the ardra, the sixth asterism, and a star in Gemini, as the front leg of the deer. The hind leg is the southern short side. The deer’s small head is made by Bellatrix and other small stars. From that Bellatrix, the largest star, the antler, is held northward. The tip of the tines indicates the five stars called ilvala. The three dots in the belly of the deer are the three stars of the yard-stick. The 5th constellation, the head of Orion, is makayiram in Malayalam and maarkazhi in Tamil. Madhaviyam says that Bellatrix is makayiram, mrigothamaangam, mrigasiram (deer’s head), etc.
Stars that form a constellation are named for the direction to facilitate the recognition of guidelines. Ursa Major or the big bear constellation helps to guide the direction of North. A line projected from the Pole-star, through the middle star in the triangle of Ursa Major, leads to Spica. A line drawn through the side of the square of Ursa Major, opposite to the Pointers, and continued southwards, leads to Regulus. 

By tracing a line diagonally from Betelgeuse, and passing beneath the hunter's three-star belt, Rigel (pronounced RYE-jel) can be reached. Actually, a triple star (three stars close together, giving the illusion of being just one), Rigel appears to be rather dim in comparison with Betelgeuse. Astronomers say that Rigel is actually the brightest star in the constellation, and that it would take more than 50,000 to 60,000 suns to equal the brightness of Rigel. [49]

The ancient Sanskrit name for the sixth asterism, ardra was Bahu, which means the arm. According to R.H. Allen, what was probably really meant was the foreleg of an antelope being hunted by Sirius.[50]  In fact, the word baahu in Malayalam also means the front leg of animals. Taking this name in connection with that of the preceding group, it seems probable that the Hindus figured to themselves the conspicuous constellation Orion as a running antleope, of which some stars mark the feet, left fore-foot, or arm. Perhaps the name Mrgavyadha, “antelope- hunter,” given to the neighbouring Sirius, is connected with the same fancy.[51]  

The three stars of Orion’s belt point just in the direction of Sirius. The special arrow Rudra used to hit Prajapati with, was called isu trikanda (the belt of Orion), i.e., the arrow of the three knots/ three-jointed arrow.

The antelope's or deer's head (mrgasiras) has been generally understood to be the little group of inconspicuous stars in the head of Orion, constituting one of the series of asterisms, while the brilliant star in his right shoulder constitutes another, called ardra (wet). The whole constellation of Orion has been viewed as the antelope (mrga); and correspondingly, the neighboring Sirius is named mrgavyadha ‘deer hunter.’  Vyadhan means piercing, a hunter. Vyadhabheetham is an antelope.


Roughly speaking, the Orion period (from 4000 BC to 2500 BC) is the most important period in the history of the Aryan civilization. A good many suktas (hymns) in the Rgveda (i.e., vrsakapi, contains a record or the beginning of the year where the legend was first conceived) were sung at the time."[52]  Bala Gangadhara Tilak is also aware that agrahayanam is not used in the Vedic works to expressly denote the constellation of Mrgasiras. ln spite of these difficulties, he takes agrahayanam to be Mrgasiras and further assumes that Mrgasiras is the mouth of the naksatras. [53]

Margasirsa, the month of Agrahayanam, is regarded as the best of all months.[54]   Hayanam means a year. Agra means first. Agra(ha)yanam means the commencement  of the year, the new year day. To put in another way the word agrahayan means the month of ayan (travel of the sun, equinox). 

In solar religious calendars, Agrahayana/ Maarkazhi begins with the Sun's entry into Sagittarius, and is usually the ninth month of the year. Agrahayana/ Maarkazhi begins about the middle of November. Agrahayana is the ninth month of the year in the Indian national civil calendar (22 November and ending on 21 December). Dhanu, is the fifth month of the Malayalam era. As the name agrahayana or margasirsa signifies, the year may have begun in mid-November, in the remote past.[55]   The constellation called margasiras is agrahayanam, makayiram in Malayalam. The names of all the months are the names of twelve constellations. But the name, agra(ha)yana, is an exception. It directly tells us the commencement of the calendar year.  Tilak points out that the hymns of the Rgveda refer to the word agra(ha)yana, and this suggests that the Rgveda must have been composed at a time when the year began with the Sun in the constellation of Orion or mrigasirsha ie, before 4000 BC.[57]  B.G. Tilak traces in his book the Greek tradition of Orion and also the name of that constellation to Sanskrit agra(ha)yana; and the word means ' beginning of the year,' and is recognized as a name for the month of miirgasirsha. The word agrahayana / margasirsho means the month of equinox. Literally, Agra(ha)yana means the first month of the year, the beginning of the year. The asterism of Margasirsa/ Mrigasiras is also called Agrahayana. Any calendar that counts its year beginning with this month is not known, as all of India's calendars have different starting points. Probably, the beginning of the year was once counted from the vernal equinox, in some parts of the country.[58]  The cultivators considered the period from the middle of Karthika to early Agrahayanam (November) as the ideal time for sowing. [59]

According to the Malayalam era, Medam/ Chithra is the ninth month. Meda vishu is the festival of vernal equinox observed on first of Medam. The first month of the Tamil year, corresponding to Medam (April-May), is Chitthira. Ancestor worship is prevalent amongst Bengalee Buddhists, on the day of Chaitra Sankranti (equinox). [60]     

Yet another ceremony called Mustigrahana is held in the month of Agrahayana (Nov-Dec). After worshipping the plants on an auspicious day with sandal paste, flowers, offerings (naivedya) and incense, the farmer reaped two and a half handfuls of crops in the north-eastern corner of the field, and silently carried them home on his head.[61]  The Krsiparasara requires the performance of this ceremony before the actual commencement of reaping, and non-observance is said to create difficulties for the cultivator at every step and to lead to the loss of the crops.[62]  In the month of Agra(ha)yana, navanna (new rice), a ceremony of first fruits, is performed after the harvest has been gathered.[63]  On the new-moon day of the month of Agrahayana, every woman worshipper is to take seven grains of paddy and the same number of three-pronged blades of grass on a new-born leaf of the plantain tree along with vermilion, red sandal paste, China-rose flowers (all symbolizing the rising sun), and offer these articles on a flat copper plate, to worship the Sun.[64]  


A group of three stars in Orion's belt, positioned in a straight line, is called muzhakkameen. The word meen refers to star in the Indus valley civilization. Muzhakkameen is the name in relation with a yardstick, as the three stars formed an imaginary line, uniting them three degrees in length, like an old-fashioned yard-stick. Measurement based on a measuring stick used in sculpting stones is called muzhakkol. Measuring rod is the muzhakkol.[65]  In Tamil and Malayalam, muzham refers to half of an arm's length and kol means stick.  

Orion's belt thus forms a graduated standard for measuring the distances of the stars from each other. A little careful practice with this celestial measuring –rod will enable the observer to give, at a glance, a nearly accurate judgment of the relative distances of the stars. [66]

A line of just three degrees in length is a yard, a measure of three feet, or thirty-six inches. “The central star divides this line into two equal parts like a yardstick; hence, taking the 3 degrees in suggestion of 3 feet, the term ‘yard’ has been applied to these stars as a graduated standard for cosmic measurement. These stars are variously called the "Three Kings," "Jacob's rod," and “the Rake,” and in Job are entitled the “Bands of Orion.” They also receive the appellation, “Our Lady’s Wand.” [67]

Antler Worship in Travancore 

There are several agrestic families in south Travancore, who still prefer to live in their traditional houses oriented towards a large stretch of paddy field. In the family shrine called ilankam, attached to these ancestral homes, we find ancestral spirits or tutelary deities ceremoniously installed, for worshipping. The tradition of worshipping antler installed on a stool (peetam) is yet another practice they inherited from their ancestors. Also called the thekkathu, these shrines are dedicated to Devi (goddess) or Easwarakaala Bhoothathan, a lieutenant of Lord Siva.  

Now we shall proceed to examine few ilankams where the antler worship is still in practice.
The area between Jawahar Nagar and Sasthamangalam, in the heart of Thiruvananthapuram city, till a few decades ago, was a large gathering of paddy fields. But the sprawling real-estate boom soon began to grab them one by one. Pulling down several old buildings enabled the concrete forest to meet the requirements of the ever-increasing demand for living space. In the rage for more space for living, many a traditional house was demolished. 

The ancestral home of Madachandath family amidst the hustle and bustle of city life is an exception. If one passes nearby this house, during the evening twilight, he will have an insight of such a twilight moment in the era that has gone by. The thekkathu, in the serene atmosphere, has an antler installed in it and regular puja is being conducted. The karanavar of this house sees the antlers as representative of Devi, while some other old timers assert that it is Lord Shiva. The ilankam of Kollapazhanji family at Neduncaud had the tradition of worshipping antlers in the past. But the antler they inherited from their ancestors, worshipped for years, was ceremonialy offered to the flame, giving way to the installation of a Devi idol. Prof. (Dr) Ravindranathan Nair, former Director of the Government Pharmacy College, Thiruvananthapuram is the trustee of the Kollapazhanji temple. In Vellaikadavu, the ancestral home called Kattarathala had worshipped an antler in their thekkathu. The doaty state of the thekkathu caused it to fall, along with the antler and the peetam on which it was seated. In the renovated Panchami Devi temple, they installed a stone idol of the goddess. In the process, the antler that used to be worshipped there was lost. But the family is keen to reinstall the antler if that would be possible. At Koottamvila there is an age-old family called Chhittattinkara. The antler worshipped in this thekkathu too collapsed. But the members of the family restored the antler and installed the same in a new temporary shrine and the worship is going on uninterruptedly. The late Kizhakkemadam Govindan Nair, who kept the history of Travancore at the tip of his fingers, was spellbound when he was asked to comment on the antler worship. He recalled his memories of childhood days in his family shrine in Arumana in Kanyakumari district. Later, the shrine got relocated to the Arumana Amma Veedu compound in Thiruvananthapuram city along with the antler worship. The ancestral home of Sridharan Nair, an awardee for Thottam Pattu, is Narasimhathu veedu in Malayinkeezh. They too worship antler in their thekkathu. But they do not have an immediate explanation for the worship held for generations. 

All these ancestral homes of Travancore are located in large stretches of erstwhile paddy fields. This suggests that these manors of landlord families engaged in the cultivation of rice worshipped the antlers, neither questioning the practice nor knowing the actual meaning of the practice. It can be likened to the observation that perhaps 90 per cent of the Balinese, who give offerings at their temples, do not know what the name Madjapahit stands for in historical fact.[68]  But where did the paddy fields go? Along with the paddy field, all the rice-based rituals too have become a part of the nostalgic memories of the elders. 

Continued to The antiquity of the tradition of antler worship


More by :  Dr. V. Sankaran Nair

Top | History

Views: 3465      Comments: 0

Name *

Email ID

Comment *
Verification Code*

Can't read? Reload

Please fill the above code for verification.