Birds for finding Direction: Sumerian to Tamil Nadu via Indus Valley

Birds for finding Direction: Sumerian to Tamil Nadu via Indus Valley

Birds were used by ancient mariners to find the land while they were in the mid seas. After the use of compasses, this was not practised. Very Interesting references are found in Sumerian culture, Indus valley, Biblical story, Viking expeditions and Tamil literature. Ramakrishna Paramahamsa and several other saints also used this bird as a simile in their religious discourses. We have an Indus Valley tablet containing a boat with two birds on either side. Tamil Vaishnavite saints used this simile in their poems. Let us look at Sumerian culture first.


Utnapishtim was the survivor of a great deluge sent by the gods to destroy the human race. Akkadian epic of Gilgamesh says that God Enlil was angry with humanity and decided to destroy them in a flood. Utnapishtim told Gilgamesh to build a boat. When the waters receded he sent a dove, a swallow and a raven to find land.


We have a similar story in the Bible. In the Flood story Noah sent a raven and then two doves to find the land.

Genesis 8:7-9 (Old Testament)

7:And he sent forth a raven, which went forth to and fro, until the waters were dried up from off the earth.

8:Also he sent forth a dove from him, to see if the waters were abated from off the face of the ground;


Indus Valley Tablet

A three sided tablet was found in 1931 in the Indus valley excavations. This shows a flat bottomed boat with a central hut and two birds on the deck. The birds were used as aids in the navigation. When they were released, they would not come back if they find land.

Vikings were powerful mariners. They also kept birds to find new lands. Since birds have powerful eye sight they can see lands from a distance of hundred miles. If they see any land they will fly in that direction and the sailors would sail their ships towards the land. Vikings were even credited with discovering America, probably with the help of ravens.


Tamil Literature

Hindus look at this direction finding birds from a different angle. Kulasekara Alvar of ninth century sang a poem on Vishnu. He says that he also comes back to the lotus feet of the lord like a bird that couldn’t find the land. A strange coincidence is that he and other Tamil saints mention only crow as the bird for finding the direction. It is similar to the raven of Sumerian and Biblical stories.

Swami Sri Vedanta Desikan who lived around 1300 AD also sang a poem on Vishnu in Kanchipuram. He also used the same simile like Kulasekara. He compared himself to a crow of flying aimlessly in different directions and returning to the same place without finding a place to rest.

Ramkrishna Parmahamsa compared the disciples who move away from their Gurus and come back at last to the same Guru:

“A bird perching upon the masthead of a ship in mid ocean, gets tired of its position and flies away to discover a new place of rest; but failing to find any other place, it returns at last to the old roost, weary and exhausted. In the same manner an ordinary aspirant is disgusted with the monotony of of the task and discipline imposed upon him by his well wishing and thoroughly experienced Guru. He loses all his hopes as well as confidence in the Guru and so goes out in to the world with the belief that he can attain God with his self effort alone; but after much fruitless exertion he is sure to return to his old master for his blessing and grace at last”.

The bird on the masthead of the ship has been in the minds of Indians for thousands of years. This continuity made me believe that it was an Indian custom which was borrowed by the Sumerians and the Biblical Noah.


References for Tamil Readers:

‘’வெங்கண்திண் களிறு அடர்த்தாய்! வித்துவகோட்டம்மானே

எங்குப் போய் உய்கேன்? உன் இணையடியே அடையல் அல்லால்

எங்கும் போய்க் கரை காணாது எறிகடல்வாய் மீண்டு ஏயும்

வங்கத்தின் கூம்பு ஏறும் மாப் பறவை போன்றேனே’’

(பெருமாள் திருமொழி, குலசேகர ஆழ்வார்)


‘’பத்தி முதலாமவற்றில் பதியெனக்குக் கூடாமல்

எத்திசையும் உழன்றோடி இளைத்துவிழும் காகம் போல்

முத்திதரு நகரேழில் முக்கியமாம் கச்சிதன்னில்

அத்திகிரி அருளார்க்கு அடைக்கலம் நான் புகுந்தேனே’’

(அடைக்கலப் பத்து, சுவாமி ஸ்ரீ தேசிகன்)


இதேபோல பல தமிழ்ப் பழமொழிகளிலும் இக் கருத்து உளது.