Monday, October 18, 2010


The crow had a key role in the sea trade between Mesopotamia and the Indus Valley, says Dr Manzur Ejaz


Dr. Manzur Ejaz

From time immemorial, legend has it that lovesick girls would wait for the crow to bring the good news of a lover’s arrival. The crow’s chatter on the roof was a sure sign that the lover was on his way. In folk songs like “Ma-ey ni kaag banairay uttay bolia” (O mother, the crow has spoken), and in many other such songs, idioms and parables, the crow plays a central role as the keeper of secrets.
Folk songs, idioms and collective symbols are handed down to us through a history of thousands of years. Many symbols keep traveling through time in different forms with transformed appearances and rearrangement of vocabulary and even with altering accents. For example in the expression, “Kaawañ day aakhay dhor nahiñ marday” (Crows can’t wish that animals die), the word ‘dhor’ for animal has disappeared from our Punjabi vocabulary. But this is the precise reason why this expression is extremely important, because it still remains the only key to certain unsolved historical puzzles. Such expressions are of extreme importance in articulating the people’s history of the Punjab as written history mostly revolves around kings and their priestly class.
The renowned Indian historian D. D. Kosambi has successfully employed old rituals, superstitions, idioms and abandoned vocabulary to reconstruct the mysteries of history. Writing about the Indus Civilization he has also given an explanation of the crow’s assumed character recurring in our folk songs.
Taking Harrapa and Mohenjodaro, as the two highly developed cities of the Indus Civilization, Kosambi states that they were actively engaged in trading with Mesopotamia – another highly developed civilization dating from 5000 BC. The evidence of exchange between these two civilizations comes by the presence of similar seals found in the archaeological remains of both places. The crow played a key role in this sea trade carried on via the island presently known as Bahrain.
Due to the vulnerability of boats and weak defense against other sea dangers, sailors kept very close to the coastline. However, sometimes powerful waves or sea storms would push boats out into the deep sea, creating confusion for the sailors to determine which way the coastline was located. At such crucial moments the sailors would release a crow to fly into the air. The crow, having an acute sense of the land mass would provide guidance to sailors.
According to the Bible, after the great storm, Noah sent a raven to find the nearest land mass. Similarly, he sent a pigeon to find out if the soil of the land was fertile or not. Many other Indian historical accounts show that the crow was an essential guide in sea faring in antiquity. As a matter of fact, lack of reciprocating trade is inferred from the absence of the crow in Mesopotamian seals.
From these historical accounts it is clear that if a lovesick girl is waiting for her sailor or trader lover, known as wañjaras or vendors in folk songs, the appearance of the crow would be taken as a strong indicator of his homecoming. Maybe lovers would paint certain colours onto the crow’s body to send a message to the beloved as well. Furthermore, the crow’s size, structure and shade of blackness changes with varying areas, and its appearance can identify the origin of the incoming traveler. Nonetheless, it is clear that the crow’s romantic or other symbolism had its roots in the economic activity of a certain period.

As sea travel became more stable, the crow’s use as a guide diminished. However, the crow as an economic tool was transformed into a romantic symbol. Or, travelers passing through thick jungles and deserts would still use the crow as a guide to get to the nearest human habitation. As populations in the ancient food gathering societies were extremely thin – sometimes a few persons per many square miles – so were crows. The appearance of a crow may have been an indicator of an incoming guest.

Many other expressions, if not all, related to crows were born out of the economic conditions of a particular historical period. For example, the expression “kawañ day aakhey dhor nahiñ marday” as mentioned earlier indicates that it belongs to an animal breeding society where there was a period of extreme scarcity when birds and animals were competing for survival from the same source of food: the animals’ death. If we can determine the time frame in which the word ‘dhor’ for domestic animals went out of the vocabulary, we can highlight the specific range of that period and fill the gaps in our knowledge of our past.
In our language ‘wise crow’ is used both positively, as well as negatively. A whole series of forecasting was stipulated from the direction of one’s position vis a vis where the crow appeared in the morning. One commonly used indicator was the group crowing as a warning of unseen danger. We have seen that during the disastrous Tsunami, animals migrated to safe places much before human beings got wind of the storm. No wonder then that the crow, which has been part of human living since antiquity in India, is an important part of its history.

The negative portrayal of the crow indicates the change and development of society into agrarian or industrial. First of all, for the Northern invaders, with fair complexions, the black crow must have been an ugly creature, while the people of the Indus Valley, mostly dark skinned, had an opposite perception of the wise bird. Moreover, after losing its value as a trade guide and forecaster of unseen dangers, the crow started appearing as a symbol of class, inequality and unnecessary infighting or degeneration.

The expression “Kawañ toli ikko boli” (crows value everything in a single denominator) indicates a period where a dominating class or ethnic group is usurping everything, not differentiating between precious and cheap commodities or taking away everything valuable and giving meager compensation in return. Or the expression “Kawañ tu chhutti illañ day aggay” (spared of crows but snatched by vultures) describes a period where the common person is victimized by various levels of the ruling elites.

By the 18th century the crow assumed the character of an uncivilized low class vagabond. The crow appears as a distraction in Bulleh Shah: “Kaa
ñ harami chharhan na daiñda ” (The crow does not allow me to husk), and as an undeserved lower class grabber in Waris Shah when he says that society has been turned upside down, where the crows are having a good time in the gardens and the peacocks are forced to look for food among garbage heaps.

To sum up, the crow has been a companion of the people of the subcontinent throughout its long history, and its story cannot be told without examining expressions, idioms and tales associated with the crow among other birds.
Dr Manzur Ejaz taught at the Punjab University, Lahore, for many years and now lives in Virginia.

Related Posts:

1. Indus Valley Civilisation: The Genesis of Pakistan

2. Mehrgarh: The Lost Civilisation (Part-IV)

3. Mehrgarh: The Lost Civilisation (Part-III)

5. The Indus Civilisation: Boring No More.

Title Image: DeviantART
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