Forest dwellers and beasts – a hunting scene in the Mahabharata (Sakuntala narrative)

Romila Thapar. Sakuntala: Texts, Readings, Histories. Kali for Women, New Delhi 1999

And in this wood, which teemed with herds or deer and beasts of prey that stalk the forest, Duhsanta, tiger among men, with retainers, escort, and mounts wrought havoc, killing game of many kinds. Many families of tigers he laid low as they came within range of his arrows; he shot them with his shafts. Those that were in the distance the bull among men shot down with his arrows; others that came up close he cut down with his sword; and antelopes he brought down with his spear, the powerful spearman, who also knew all the points of the circular club swing and whose courage was boundless. He stalked about killing wild game and fowl with javelin, sword, mace, bludgeon, halberd. And when the wondrously valiant king and his warlike warriors raided the great forest, the big game fled it. The herds of deer, their flocks dispersed, their leaders killed, cried out for help everywhere. The river they sought out was dry; and thin with despair for water, their hearts exhausted with exertion, they dropped down, unconscious. Overcome by hunger and thirst, they fell prostrate on the ground, exhausted. There were some that were eaten raw by starving tiger men; other woodsmen built a fire, lit it, cut their meat in proper pieces, and ate it. There were mighty elephants that were wounded by swords and ran mad; turning up their trunks, they panicked and stampeded frantically. Dropping dung and urine and streaming with blood, the wild tuskers trampled many men. The forest, darkened by a monsoon of might and a downpour of arrows, its big game weeded by the king, now seemed overrun by buffalo. […]

Having killed thousands of deer, the king with his plentiful mounts entered into another wood in search of deer. Supremely strong, though hungry and thirsty, he penetrated by himself into the depths of the forest till he came to a vast wilderness that was dotted with holy hermitages, a joy to the heart and a feast for the eye. He crossed beyond it and made for still another wood where a cool breeze was blowing, a wood sprinkled with blossoming trees and most prosperous grasslands. It was a wide woodland that echoed with the sweet warblings of birds.

Source: Romila Thapar, Chapter 2 “The Narrative from the Mahabharata” in Sakuntala: Texts, Readings, Histories. Kali for Women, New Delhi 1999, p. 18.

“The forest was never far away from habitation. For instance, excavations of the settlements at Atranjikhera and Hastinapur, which are not too far from Delhi, have yielded evidence of a large variety of forest trees. The Buddhist Canon states that aside from the village and its outskirts, the rest of the land is jungle. Travelling from one town to another meant going through a forest. Therefore, when in exile, the forest was not a physically distant place, although distant in concept. – Romila Thapar (Emeritus Professor of History, Jawaharlal Nehru University) in “Forest dwellers in early India – myths and ecology in historical perspective” | Learn more >>

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