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Animals in Various Roles

The Great Goddess as Ishwari, with Bhadragaura
The Great Goddess as Ishwari, with Bhadragaura, c. 1700-1725
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Each Hindu god and goddess has an animal vahana (vehicle) that underscores some important aspect of the deity: the martial goddess Durga rides a powerful lion; the ardent-ascetic Shiva a virile bull; and Indra, king of the heavens, a storm-cloud elephant. At times the gods themselves take on animal form, as when Vishnu becomes a tortoise to help create the earth.

Animal characters are central to the grand religious epics of India. Some, like the monkey-general Hanuman, are heroes in their own right, while others, like the wish-granting cow Kamadhenu, are magical creatures. Animals also play a variety of roles in folktales—especially the Panchatantra, an ancient series of animal fables. Some animals, such as birds and deer, appear as poetic metaphors for love or longing; and animal imagery pervades manuals for interpreting dreams.

Animals also play a host of functions in everyday life. Cattle have long been vital to India’s agrarian economy. Horses, elephants, and camels were major forms of transportation and crucial in battle. Hunting with hawks and dogs constituted a primary pastime for kings and courtiers, and elephant combats were also popular in the palace.