Dragons of Ancient India

Adrienne Meyer of Wonders and Marvels is blogging today about the dragons of ancient India:

“Dragons of enormous size and variety infest northern India,” concluded Apollonius of Tyana who traveled through the southern foothills of the Himalayas in the first century AD. “The countryside is full of them and no mountain ridge was without one.” Locals regaled visitors with fantastic tales of dragon hunting, using magic to lure them out of the earth in order to pry out the gems embedded in the dragons’ skulls.

Trophies of these quests were displayed in Paraka at the foot of a great mountain, “where a great many skulls of dragons were enshrined.” Ancient Paraka has never been identified, but linguistic clues suggest it was the ancient name for Peshawar. In later times a famous Buddhist holy place near Peshawar was known as “the shrine of the thousand heads.”

Not surprisingly (to me), the bones of prehistoric creatures are likely the explanation for these legends:

Apollonius traveled through the pass at Peshawar and southeast on a route that skirted the Siwalik Hills below the Himalayas. The barren foothills of the Siwalik range boast vast and rich fossil beds with rich remains of long-extinct bizarre creatures. On these eroding slopes and marshes from Kashmir to the banks of the Ganges, people in antiquity would have observed hosts of strange skeletons emerging from the earth: enormous crocodiles (20 feet long); tortoises the size of a Mini Cooper; shovel‑tusked gomphotheres, stegodons, and Elephas hysudricus with its bulging brow; chalicotheres and anthracotheres; the large giraffe Giraffokeryx; and the truly colossal Sivatherium (named after the Hindu god Siva), a moose‑like giraffe as big as an elephant and carrying massive antlers. It seems safe to guess that the “dragon” heads exhibited at Paraka included the skulls of some of these strange creatures from the Siwalik Hills.

The whole thing is a fascinating read.

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