The Danavas were a group of “not quite human” beings (with very human characteristics) that featured prominently in Indian folklore, myths, and early Sanskrit literature. I argue here that there is a case for believing that the Danavas could have been real. I show that literary and archaeological sources indicate a fascinating story of migration and cultural transmission between India and Ireland, with the Danavas disappearing from India with the decay of the Indus valley civilization, only to show up at the other end of the known world, in Ireland.
Yuval Noah Harari, the author of Sapiens, had much to say about evolution. We tend to think that modern humans – homo sapiens – evolved in a linear chain of descent from a sequence of more primitive hominid ancestors. What most of us don’t realize is that five or six different species of humans – including homo sapiens – actually coexisted during an extended period of time, between 60,000 and 10,000 years ago. There is also evidence that people from these different human species met and interbred every now and then, successfully producing children who would pass on their mixed genetic heritage.
Recent scientific evidence backs Harari’s claims. Archaeologists’ ability to isolate ancient DNA from very old skeletal remains and fossils has made it possible for them to compare the DNA of human species other than homo sapiens – like that of the Neanderthals or the Denisovans (whose bones and teeth were found in a cave in Siberia) – with the DNA of people who are alive today. The National Geographic and Nature both cite studies that show that modern Europeans have about 2% of Neanderthal DNA in their genes, implying that their ancestors had at a point in the distant past interbred with Neanderthals. According to archaeologists, such episodes of interbreeding could have occurred between a group of homo sapiens leaving Africa for Eurasia, and a group of Neanderthals who lived in the near east (Kuhlwilm et al 2016). (While homo sapiens originated in Africa, Neanderthals were living in Europe and the near and middle east. The two species crossed paths when sapiens left Africa). There is also evidence that homo sapiens interbred with another hominid species, the Denisovans. Melanesians, particularly from Papua New Guinea, Tibetans, and East Asians all have Denisovan DNA in their genetic makeup. A paper published in Nature in 2018 was about a skeleton, estimated to be that of a teenager who lived 90,000 years ago, who was shown to have had a Neanderthal mother and a Denisovan father (Slon et al 2018). Scientists keep uncovering new “interbreeding episodes”, some suggesting the existence of as yet undiscovered ancient human species, who left distinct genetic markers behind in the DNA of their presumed descendants.
While reading about this abundance of scientific evidence, I began to think about strange things I had gleaned from myths and folklore. The myths of different countries speak of many species of creatures, not quite human, but not so different from human beings as to exclude possibilities of sex or reproduction. For example, polytheistic religions had pantheons of gods. These included the Hindu pantheon, the ancient Greek and Roman gods, and the Norse gods. Some also had demons, giants, or semi-divine beings like the Indian apsaras or gandharvas. In all the associated myths, humans, demons, and gods, for instance, recognize their differences from one another, yet occasional episodes of mating and procreation occur between them. As one example, the heroes of the Indian epic Mahabharata – a band of five brothers, the Pandavas – all had human mothers but their fathers were different devas (divine beings). As another, the Nordic god Freyr married and had children with a giantess, Gerd. Greek myths mention demigods, fathered by Zeus on various mortal women. Indra, the chief Vedic god, married Saci, the daughter of the demon Puloma, and the two had a son. I began to think about whether these myths could have a common origin, based in a period when humans did recognize other species of hominids, and occasionally interbred with them. Could the demons and gods of myth have been real after all?
One species of these beings were the danavas. The Danavas were the enemies of the “devas” – or gods – in the Indian Vedic pantheon. Their name derived from that of their mother, Danu: the word “Danavas” meant “children of Danu”. Although the Danavas opposed the gods, Sanskrit literature recognized them for their special abilities. They were acknowledged masters of illusion, and experts at architecture and mechanical inventions. The Indian epics – the Mahabharata and the Ramayana – are both full of the engineering feats of one danava in particular, named Maya. Maya designed a palace for the Pandavas – the protagonists of the Mahabharata – which was full of optical illusions and whose splendor left visiting dignitaries speechless. He is also credited with maintaining the flying chariot used by Ravana, the demon king of Lanka (the antagonist in the Ramayana). In fact, the Ramayana also mentions that the Danavas in general were adept at operating mechanical devices of various kinds, many of which were used in warfare. For instance, they had installed machines at their gates which could fire bolts and arrows at invading armies. They also operated giant catapults.
By the time that Sanskrit literature records the existence of the Danavas, human species other than homo sapiens had died out. However, some humans, who had interbred with other hominid species, would have high amounts of the other species’ genetic material in their DNA, and would be easy to distinguish from other humans, whose ancestors hadn’t experienced interbreeding. Fu et al (2015) finds that homo sapiens from relatively ancient times, whose ancestors had interbred with other hominid species only some generations back, had a much higher proportion of DNA from these other species than do present-day homo sapiens. Plausibly, the Danavas of literature were distinguishable from other humans because of a high percentage of DNA from related hominid species.
At the time of the Indus Valley Civilization (IVC), which flourished in the third millennium BC, two Danava dynasties were living peacefully in Bahlika (Baluchistan), surrounded by non-Danava humans belonging to the IVC. The IVC is associated with what narrative historian John Keay describes as “the world’s first planned cities and townships”. It featured a number of large, well-planned cities dating from the third millennium BC (including Harappa, Mohenjo-Daro, Dholavira, Lothal and Rakhigarhi).
Could the people of the Indus Valley have hired the Danavas to build the world’s first planned cities? Unlike other ancient cities, the cities of the IVC had an exceptionally high standard of hygiene, convenience and safety. Archaeologist Rita Wright writes that the building of the cities involved large-scale planning and the “construction of engineering works of a kind unprecedented for their time” and an approach which focused on rearranging and transforming the natural landscape, particularly flows of water. Houses were built with bricks of standardized dimensions (sun-baked and kiln-fired bricks of such high quality that the first archaeologist to see Mohenjo Daro mistakenly thought the bricks must be of a “modern type” indicating a city at most 200 years old, rather than 5,000!). Roads were wide – to accommodate what may well have been the world’s oldest wheeled transport, ox-drawn carts – and laid out in a grid from north to south or east to west: major arteries, main streets and side alleys had widths in the ratio 4:2:1. (A latter-day example of this grid system is the rectangular grid on which Manhattan lies). The towns had thick brick walls and sophisticated drainage systems. A main sewer connected with many north-south and east-west sewers: all kept watertight by expert masonry. Each house had its own drains that emptied into the sewer system. This was a system which remained unrivalled, in its technical excellence, until the nineteenth or twentieth centuries.
The uniformity in the way the cities were laid out suggests that the same group of builders might have been used over a large geographical area. Given their engineering skills, were the Danavas the group employed to build the cities? Unfortunately, our inability to decipher the Indus valley script till date has severely hampered our knowledge of these builders’ identity by making it impossible for us to refer to written records.
Between 2000 and 1900 BC, the prosperous Indus valley civilization disintegrated. The Danavas could no longer find employment there, and appear to have mysteriously disappeared from the region. We know that a few of them went to the northeast of India, while some others went to the south. What about the rest?
For a long time, I had thought that the Danavas only featured in Indian references. Picture my shock when one day, while reading a mystery series set in ancient Ireland (the “Sister Fidelma” series by historian Peter Tremayne) I came across a mention of the “children of Danu” – apparently, beings who had come to Ireland in ancient times and stayed on. This unexpected mention of the Danavas – who were, also, the children of Danu – prompted me to do some research. Did the Danavas leave India only to resurface in a country which was at the westernmost limit of the known world at that time – Ireland?
The Danavas in Ireland
According to Irish historical sources – the Book of Invasions (or Lebor Gabala Erenn) and Annals of the Four Masters – a band of foreigners, a race of beings with supernatural powers, came to Ireland around 1900 BC. This band called themselves the “Children of Danu” – just like the “Danavas” in India did. Some Irish legends say that they arrived in flying ships – like those that Indian legends credit Maya Danava with discovering (indeed, the Irish maintain that one of the Children of Danu was Manannan, a master of illusion and invention – an Irish parallel to Maya Danava). Others say that they came in ships which they burned so as not to be able to retrace their steps.
The local residents were in awe of these foreigners because of their superior knowledge of a multitude of subjects. Unlike the locals (but like the residents of the Indus valley civilization) the foreigners could write, and they were wonderful inventors and builders. Their knowledge of medicine was so good that the locals attributed their skills to magic. The Book of Invasions mentions that when Nuada, a leader of the Children of Danu, lost an arm in battle, his arm was replaced by a silver prosthesis. Interestingly enough, the Indian Rig Veda also mentions accounts of artificial limbs (a woman warrior, Vishpala, who lost a leg in battle was given an artificial metal leg). The artificial leg worked so well that Vishpala was able to resume fighting. In Nuada’s case, his artificial limb enabled him to get reinstated as the king of the tribe: when he had first lost his arm, he had been replaced by another ruler, who later turned out to be a tyrant. Irish locals also admired the metallurgical skills of the Children of Danu, who, over a period of 200 years, ruled Ireland while coexisting peacefully with other tribes and teaching them some skills, notably, writing (giving rise to the primitive Ogham script, which, unlike the Indus valley script, was deciphered).
The Book of Invasions recounts how, after two centuries, another band of invaders, the Milesians, reached Irish shores and defeated the Children of Danu. Initially, the children of Danu had been able to keep them at bay by creating illusions that prevented the invaders from finding the island. Eventually, however, the invaders landed, and defeated them in battle. Instead of dying out, the Children of Danu simply literally moved underground, dwelling in subterranean vaults and caves. This brings to mind Indian legends about the Danavas of India having been at home underground. Celts and Druids claim the Children of Danu as their ancestors.
Besides these literary sources, archaeological evidence also points to a link between India’s Danavas – who disappeared with the decline of the IVC – and the Children of Danu who appeared at the same time in Ireland. Among the objects that the Children of Danu brought with them from their native land is the “Lia Fail” – a giant stone which still stands on the Hill of Tara in County Meath, Ireland. This stone looks strikingly like a Shiva-linga, a symbol associated with the Indian deity Shiva, and all Indian sources attest that Shiva was worshipped by the Danavas.
Even more interesting is the work done by academics on the Gundestrup Cauldron. Timothy Taylor, a popular British archaeologist and art historian, pointed out in a 1992 Scientific American article that the cauldron connects the Irish Celtic and Indus valley cultures: it showed not only Celtic gods but also images resembling those inscribed on the “Pashupati” seals of Mohenjo Daro. Both show a deity seated in a yogic pose, wearing horned headgear and surrounded by Indian animals like lions and elephants.
Literary and archaeological sources paint a picture of physical and cultural migration, pointing to an ancient connection between Ireland and India. The Danavas may have disappeared from India along with the Indus valley civilization, only to reappear at the western limit of the known world. Is it a coincidence that their disappearance from India marked the end of high quality urban planning until very recent times? And do the Danavas live on in today’s Celts? At present, we only have pieces of the puzzle, but enough to open doors to very intriguing possibilities.
- Fu et. al (2015): An early modern human from Romania with a recent Neanderthal ancestor, Nature 524, 216-219.
- Harari, Yuval Noah (2014): Sapiens: A Brief History of Humankind. Random House.
- Keay, John (2000): India: a History from the Earliest Civilisations to the Boom of the Twenty-First Century. Harper Collins.
- Kuhlwilm et al(2016): Ancient gene flow from early modern humans into Eastern Neanderthals, Nature 530, 429-433.
- Slon et al (2018): The genome of the offspring of a Neanderthal mother and a Denisovan father, Nature 561, 113-116.
- Taylor, T. (1992) : The Gundestrup Cauldron, Scientific American, 266, 84-89.
- Tremayne, Peter (2010): The Leper’s Bell. Hachette UK.
- Wei-Hass, Maya “Ancient Girl’s Parents were two different human species”, National Geographic, https://www.nationalgeographic.com/science/2018/08/news-denisovan-neanderthal-hominin-hybrid-ancient-human/
- Wright, Rita (2010): The Ancient Indus: Urbanism, Economy and Society. Cambridge University Press, Cambridge.
Brishti Guha has a PhD from Princeton and is an associate professor at the Jawaharlal Nehru University, New Delhi. She is an economist in love with literature. Besides publishing in international academic journals, she publishes nonfiction in the popular press. She enjoys translating from Sanskrit. Her translations and retellings have appeared in the Sci-Phi Journal, Eye to the Telescope, Empty Mirror, and the Doctor T.J. Eckleburg Review, and are forthcoming in Ezra and The Mercurian.