ISSN (Print) - 0012-9976 | ISSN (Online) - 2349-8846

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In Pursuit of the Golden Deer

Narratives, Symbols and Society in Early India

The trope of the golden deer is used as an entry point into exploring the ways in which alternative understandings of gender, varna–jati, the relationship between the forest and the settled world, and kingship were visualised in ancient India.

I would like to thank the organisers and audience of two conferences/workshops held in Kolkata in 2018, where I had the opportunity to present earlier versions of this article. The first was organised by the Department of Ancient Indian History and Culture, University of Calcutta, and the second by the Seagull Foundation for the Arts, History for Peace initiative. I am especially grateful to Chandrabhan Pratap Yadav for alerting me to the identity and significance of the nishada in the Rohantamiga Jataka, discussed in this article.

The trope of the golden deer appears and disappears in early Indian narratives in a number of contexts. Here, I would like to discuss two of these, to raise issues with which those interested in social history often grapple. These include gender relations, notions of kingship and power, relations between the forest and the settled worlds, and between the householder and the renouncer. I see these narratives as possibly coexisting and circulating simultaneously. What does this then tell us about the understanding of the social world in ancient India? I will return to this question at the end, even as I may not have the answers.

I will begin by recalling one of the many illuminating essays by A K Ramanujan, which acquired bestseller status when it was dropped from the syllabus of Delhi University several years ago: “Three Hundred Ramayanas: Five Examples and Three Thoughts on Translation.”1

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Updated On : 18th Jun, 2019
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