The Antiquity of the Tradition of Antler Worship

Continued from Antler Worship in Bali and South Travancore

It should open our eyes that in our own midst, in our own city, there live a handful of noble men who cherish their inheritance holding them close to their hearts. They are the propagators and inheritors of a glorious heritage of an agrarian past that could help a curious historian to trace its unbroken lineage to the beginnings of history. 

On the bank of the river Thamraparni, in Kuzhithurai, there existed a palace of the Travancore Maharaja, which served as a halt for the King and his army on the way from Thiruvananthapuram to Padmanabhapuram Palace. The palace built in traditional Kerala architecture style; though it has lost its former glory, continues to be the best example of traditional Kerala architecture. The nadapandhal of this palace has been destroyed and blocked now. It leads to Goddess Devi Chamundeswari temple constructed in ancient Kerala 'naalu kettu' model of architecture. The antler installed in this temple and an ancient sword are worshipped as Palliyara Devi

Madathu Veedu in Karikkakam, seven kilometers west of the heart of Thiruvananthapuram city, had owned a family shrine with an antler installed on a peetam in the moolasthanam. Earlier, it had a silver mask. In a Devaprasna held there it was decided to install an idol so as to visualize the form of the goddess. This paved the way for the rebuilding the old sreekovil (sanctum sanctorum) in the same measurements according to vastusastra, and the installation of a panchaloha idol of the goddess Karikkakathamma. The goddess at the Devi Nada resides in the main sanctum sanctorum of the temple, and is now famous as Karikkakom Sree Chamundi kshetram.

Vellayani Devi Temple, near the picturesque Vellayani lake in Thiruvananthapuram, is yet another temple where antler is worshipped. The circulating notion about this is that the antler serves as a medium to invoke the spirit of the divinity at a new-built temple. One of the antlers kept in the sanctum sanctorum oriented towards the east is from the thekkathu belonging to the Kayikkara tarawad, where it was worshipped.   


While spotted deer is called 'uzhai', the antelope is called 'iralai' in Sangam literature. “Iralai means a certain species of deer. Man and pinai, however, are presumably designations for the ‘stag’ and ‘doe’ or something like that.”[69]  “The quite common iralai seems, because it nearly always occurs in combination with other animal designations like man, to denote a certain species. In the TP Marapu-iyal (Sutra 548), however, it is listed among the expressions of male animals.” [70]  

Tamil iralai is 'stag, a kind of deer.' It is < *ilar- through metathesis. The Kannada erale, erale is 'antelope, deer'; It is erale in Tulu. In Telugu (inscr.) iri is 'stag', irri (<*ilri) is 'antelope', leti, ledi (< *ilati) is 'antelope.' Malto ilaru refers to 'the mouse deer.'[71]  The Mongolian ili and the Khalkha il mean 'a young deer, fawn.'[72]

The varieties of deer include pulvay, kalai, man(ai). Kalai is a male deer, a stag. Iralai and kalai are terms used to denote the male of pulvay.[73]  We find reference about iralai in stanza 4 of Agananuru. Male deer usually has large branching horns. [74]

The three elements, obvious when investigating poetic practices, are mutarporul, karupporul and uripporul. Mutarporul is the primal or first elements, those of space and time. Karupporul is germinal elements. The features that germinate and grow inside space and time as circumscribed by the mutaporul are regional features.  The uripporul or behaviour elements are those of mood, emotion and so on. 

The term karupporul means the native things of the soil.  The authors of Tolkappiyam go on to assign[75]  the several types of plants, birds, and so on to each region. “The regional deity, the sons of the soil, their occupation, the staple food-grains, the birds of the air, the beasts of the field, the peculiar trees, herbs and plants, musical instruments like the drum and the lute, the scales of music and the like are included.”[76]  While mullai, vilvam, and konrai are the karupporul plants of the mullai tract, iralai or the deer is the animal of this tract.[77]  Mullainilakkaran is a shepherd. This discussion brings out the antiquity of the nomenclature iralai.   

Angamaala: The word ilankam deciphered

Lord Siva’s insignia includes the deer, radiant axe, khatvanga,  rosary of rudraksa, the kundalam (ear-ring), the crescent that adorns the head,  the lengthy garland of bones, the trident, the damaruka (a small drum).[78]   Khatvanga, a club or staff with a skull on the top, is Siva’s weapon or yoga-dandam. Consequently, Siva came to be called Khatvingin, Khatvangadhara and Khatvangabrt. Siva mounts a bull and wears a string of skulls that make noise. Apart from that, he wears a garland, a necklace of white bones/ of skulls called angamaala. It is anga, having a large body or large limbs (Siva).[79]  The shoulder blade/ scapula of an elephant is called ankappalaka.  The Hindus worshipped a village goddess as angamma/ angaalamman, the name of a form of Kali. Siva and Parvathi are Ankanan/ Ankani respectively. In old Malayalam, angam means thigh, bone, head and limb. Uthamaangam is siras. The garland of bones that Siva wears is elumpumaala or ankamaala. When angam is added with the pronoun iralai, it becomes iralaiangam. It means the bone, the siras (head) of an antelope, that is, an antler. We have seen that through metathesis iralai became ilar. As such, iralai angam becomes ilar angam. Finally, ilar angam became ilankam to mean the antler of the iralai/ mrgasiras. In Bali, names/ words such as manjangan are with angam as suffix. The retrieval of the meaning of the word ilankam has enlivened our discussion about the antiquity of antler worship. 

Time technology 

The Amondawa people in Brazil, an isolated community of about 150 speakers, still continue their traditional way of life, hunting, fishing and growing crops. A recent study, in the journal Language and Cognition, shows that this Amazonian tribe lacks the linguistic structures that relate time and space. Their language recognizes events occurring in time. But it does not exist as a separate concept. They are not a 'people without time' or 'outside time,' “but they live in a world of events, rather than seeing events as being embedded in time.” In language there were no words for such concepts, but only divisions of day and night, and rainy and dry seasons. Their language provides evidence which “encodes Time in a startlingly different way from a language such as English.” [80]

Amondawa people, like any other people, talk about events and sequences of events. But they lack a notion of time as being independent of the events which are occurring. They don’t have words for time periods such as week, month or year. The team hypothesises that the lack of the time concept arises from the lack of "time technology" - a calendar system or clocks - and that this in turn may be related to the fact that, like many tribes, their number system is limited in detail. 

Amondawa does not have a concept of time as something that can be measured, counted or talked about in the abstract. It is for the first time that the scientists had been able to prove that time was not a deeply entrenched universal human concept as previously thought. Their language is feared to disappear by the time they have been brought up knowing about calendar systems. 


Nennol / nangol refers to a plough shaft, nanchil in Tamil. Baiga, a tribe found in Madhya Pradesh, Uttar Pradesh, Chhattisgarh and Jharkhand states of India, called a group of five stars, as the nangar (plough).[81]  The tenth constellation Regulus or magha (nangol) is in the shape of a plough and as such is called makam/nennol. Also called muzhakkol, this constellation, rising in Dhanu (sign of Sagittarius), an hour after sunset, indicates the time for treading the wheel previous to sowing.[82]  To clear a rice field of water, preparatory to sowing, is chakram chavittuka. It is two muzham, one yard. In Malayalam muzham is a cubit, two spans. It is a measure with fore arms. Two muzham (a yard) constitute a muzhakkol. It is a carpenter’s rod of 24 fingers (viral). The word kalappaichakram, in Tamil, denotes a diagram in astrology in the form of a plough to determine the best day for beginning the ploughing of the season.[83]  

Man began to use the technology of time by fixing the time for farming operations by sighting the heliacal rise of the plough star (Orion). Even after several millennia, we find his brethren in the far-off Amazonian forest, who lead a life which lacked time consciousness. Like the Orion’s belt, which guides one to locate other constellations, our investigation of antler worship in Bali pointed out that it was from Dravidian language that they picked up the knowledge of technology of time. Nangol is a Dravidian word for plough. The Bali word for plough tengala is loaned from the Sanskrit langala, which in turn was loaned from Dravidian nangol. The Balinese consider Orion as the plough star. As such, the sighting of nangol/ muzhakol can be considered as Orion. Doesn’t all these show that the antler worshipped in the ilankam is nothing but Orion/ the Prajapati? In the tradition that identifies Mpu Kuturan with Bhatara Maspahit, the latter is sometimes regarded as the deity of the manjangan saluwang. The Balinese word Mpu Kuturan rhymes with the Malayalam words like emperuman, empran, (potti), enpuran, enperuman, empotti, the words with which the members of the  family addressed the deity installed in the ilankam.   


A catasterism normally occurs at the conclusion of the myth or legend. It lends the closure to a narrative by freezing a character into a new state and by serving as aetiology for a familiar astral phenomenon.[84]  The gods- or their priests- watched the drama of Rudra (Sirius), Prajapati (Orion), and Rohini (Aldebaran), his daughter, as it was enacted in the sky by the sun and the stars. In the catasterism that occurred at the conclusion of the myth, we see star-transformation of the hunter of the antelope (Rudra), the antelope (Prajapati) and Rohini as Mrgavyadha, Mrga(siras) and Rohini respectively. “The vedic sacrificial year began in the spring, at the vernal equinox. On that day, the rising of the sun was announced by a star that appeared at dawn, just before sunrise, and immediately became invisible in the rays of the rising sun. This was the auspicious star for the sacrifice to begin, for the year to begin, a new year in the appointed order of its seasons and their rites.”[85]    Orion, the auspicious star of the vernal equinox heralding or supporting the rising sun was awaited with the unaided eye, over millennia. Later it was observed that another star, Aldebaran, one of the 20 brightest stars (Rohini), was rising at the vernal equinox and “supported” the sun at the beginning of the year. The sun was no longer rising in Orion. Based on long observation,  it was observed that the beginning of the year had moved from Orion to Aldebaran. 


The Malayalam word for time/ day suitable for beginning cultivation, for transplanting (paddy) seedling is called njattu tala/ nila/ vela. Njayar means Sun. Nila means position. Njattuvela means position of sun. Nila is the standing position of planets. The time that the sun takes to cover the distance from one star to the other is jnattutala. The meaning of the Malayalam words tala/ vela is a point of time, under the influence of a star, the rule of an asterism (13 4/9 days). Sun transits are the 27 constellations which tenant the Ecliptic. It is the constellation tenanted by the Sun. In a day, the Sun traverses less than one degree (less 59.13 seconds). Sol takes 13,14 days to traverse 13 degrees 20 minutes and so the duration of a njattuvela is 13, 14 days. Beginning with Aswathy Njattuvela on Medam 1 / Vishu day (April 14 or 15), there are 27 Njattuvelas from Aswathy Njattuvela to Revathy Njattuvela in a year, divided into groups of fourteen days, each one bearing the name of a star.

The rains which were sporadic during Karthika and Rohini have strengthened Njattuvelas from Makayiram Njattuvela, which starts from May-June. Njattuvelas are important from the perspective of agriculture as they bring good rains. Karthika, Rohini, Makaryiram, Thiruvathira, Punartham, Pooyam and Ayilyam are the seven major Njattuvelas. Chothi and Chitra Njattuvelas give plenty of rain and farmers use this time productively. 

Njattuvela is the time auspicious for planting. “If planted in njattuvela (break monsoon), even dry sticks will grow.” The break monsoon gives rain and strong sunshine alternately several times a day, and this is a good time to plant small plants and trees. [87]

Thiruvaathira, the sixth asterism, is called Betelguese. The Milky Way, in great rush towards Betelgeuse and Procyon, the Little Dog-star, appears to flow in between the two, creating an illusion of staying on the head of 'Siva' (Betelgeuse of Orion) and then flowing down. This served as the basis for the Hindu story of the descent of the Ganga (Gangavatarana). [88]  It was to redeem the souls of Bhageeratha’s ancestor that Bhageeratha strained to bring the Ganges to the earth.  “On this it is considered that the Lord of the day on which the Sun enters Betelgeuse is the Lord of the clouds for that year. The Hindu astrology connects Betelgeuse with the rain making clouds.”[89]  It is during idavapaathi (first half of June) that Kerala receives the maximum rain fall. Hence this period called thiruvaathira jnattuvela is considered as the best for sowing and planting paddy. “Will it rain, other than in Kerala, on the thiruvaathira jnattuvela?” is a popular rhyme.[90]  During Thiruvathira Njattuvela, rain pours down without a break. This uniqueness makes Kerala, monsoon’s own country. The Thrikketta njattuvela or the solar transit of Alpha Scorpi is the retreating Monsoon or the Thula Varsha. This Njattuvela starts from December 2nd onwards signals the end of the Monsoon season.

In hunting, shooting an arrow is called ampeyyal/ tala. The head of animal body is tala. It is uthamaangam, masthakam, murdhavu, siras, sirsham. In Sanskrit, sirsham is the head. Siram / siaras are uthamaangam. A limb, member of the body is angam. It includes moordh(avu), the tip of the head.
The fact that the irala+ angam, which became ilankam, refers to mrgasiras or Orion shows that the processed knowledge that the word ilankam contained preceded the creation myth. 

Food, verily, is Prajapati

Paranar, the poet laureate, had great power in the realm of literature in the heyday of the third Sangam. Describing the battle-field, he compared it to a corn-field. He compared the elephants to dark sable clouds; “the swift- footed horses to winds; the chariots to the ploughing machines; the showers of arrows to drops of rain, the river of blood and flesh in the field of battle to the muddy water of the paddy field; the chopped-off heads of the soldiers to the weeds that are ploughed off” etc.[91]  An address to a person or thing not literally listening is apostrophe. In an apostrophe to the rain, “the hero addresses it to shower in torrents, since he is now in the happy company of his sweetheart after the journey that he undertook to acquire enough to lead a comfortable life.” [92]  True to this, Avvaiyar, a poetess of the Sangham age, began to praise a king by praying for the rains. A good monsoon, she said, would yield the fields plentifully which will in turn bring prosperity to the people as well as the state. Such is the importance of the rains. Thiruvalluvar too did not spare to sing glories of rain. “Rains lend the basic support to material life. Without it is no vegetation, no life, and no prosperity.”[93]  “Food is the basis of life. Rain brings food, and itself, as water, forms food, the world is sustained by it; so is it verily ambrosia.”[94]   “Rain produces the food that we eat; rain is the food of that food.”

The gods thus tell Agni: “This Prajapati is food: with thee for our mouth we will eat that food, and he (Prajapati) shall be food for us.” “Prajapati,” the Prasna Upanisad (I.14) echoes, “is food. From it comes semen; from semen are produced these creatures.”[95]  An oblation duly thrown into the fire reaches the Sun; from the sun comes rain, and from rain food, and therefrom the living creatures (derive their subsistence).'[96]  “Food, verily, is Prajapati.” [97]

Tamil poets of yore sang in praise of the rain. The Vedas chanted its mantras to appease rain gods. They called Prajapati rain, nay, food itself. Invariably, during monsoon rain, the ilankams are surrounded by rain-fed islands of paddy fields. Are these ilankams the shrines of Prajapati himself?  Like jnattutala, maanthala is Orion's head and is called makayiram asterism in Malayalam.


I am thankful to Ms. Indah Widiastuti, MT, Lecturer, Department of Architecture, Institute of Technology, Bandung, who is now holding a fellowship from the ICCR (Indian Council for Cultural Relation, for doing research on “Vernacular Settlement-Architecture of Society Practicing Matrilineal Kinship in Minangkabau, West Sumatera Indonesia and Kerala, South India” at the Anna University, in Madras, for confirming a chat, the practice of antler worship in Bali. This discussion served as a catalyst agent to write this paper.      


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  80. Vyvyan Evans, How words mean: lexical concepts, cognitive models, and meaning construction, Oxford University Press, 2009, p.310.
  81. Verrier Elwin, The Baïga, J. Murray, 1939, p.335.
  82. Herman Gundert, Gundert Nighantu.
  83. M. Winslow, Winslow's A Comprehensive Tamil and English Dictionary, edn.11, Asian Educational Services, 2004, p.255.
  84. William F. Hansen, Handbook of classical mythology, ABC-CLIO, 2004, p.131.
  85. Stella Kramrisch, The Presence of Siva, Mythos: the Princeton/Bollingen Series in World Mythology Series Mythos (Paperback), Princeton University Press, 1994, pp.41-42.
  86. Stella Kramrisch,  The Presence of Siva, Mythos: the Princeton/Bollingen Series in World Mythology Series, Princeton University Press, 1994, p.42.
  87. K. S. Nair, ‘Role of water in the development of civilization in India – a review of ancient literature, traditional practices and beliefs,’ The Basic of Civilization –Water, Proceedings of the UNESCO, IAHS, IWHA symposium, Rome December 2003, IAHS Publication 256, pp.160-164.
  88. See, Parvathi Menon, ‘Ganga: The Sign of Great Endeavour,’ Kerala Calling, May 2009.
  89. International Association of Tamil Research, International Institute of Tamil Studies, Journal of Tamil studies, Issues 7-8, International Institute of Tamil Studies,1975, p. 11.
  90. Bhasha poshini, vii, 294.
  91. G.A. Natesan, The Indian review, Vol.62, G.A. Natesan & Co., 1961, p.184.
  92. University of Madras, Annals of oriental research, Vol. 20, 1975 , p. 266.
  93. Economic ideas of Thiruvalluvar, The Sornammal endowment lectures, s.n., 1962 , p.9.
  94. Ibid.
  95. Patrick Olivelle, Collected essays, Vol. 3 of Biblioteca scientifica universale, Firenze University Press, 2008, p.73.
  96. Manu III, 76.
  97. Prasna Upanishad  


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