As mentioned earlier, the zodiac sign Makar or Makara, is inspired by the mugger crocodile (Crocodylus palustris). Also known as the marsh crocodile, it was, till recently, a common denizen of South Asian waterways. However, rapid growth of the human population, and the attendant pressure on wildlife saw mugger numbers plummet. Only recently did the species manage to recover from the onslaught.
Muggers range from Iran in the west to Myanmar in the east. In India, they share the rivers with two other species of crocodilians, the gharial (Gavialis gangeticus, a fish-eater with a slender snout) and the salt water crocodile (Crocodylus porosus, a much larger and more ferocious animal). Gharials and saltwater crocodiles have restricted ranges compared to the smaller, more versatile mugger.
It doesn’t take an expert to notice the resemblance between the Sanskrit term ‘Makara’ (for the zodiac sign) and the Hindi name ‘Magar’ (for the reptile). In fact, ‘Magar’ is the word used for the marsh crocodile in Sindhi, Gujarati, Marathi, Kashmiri, and Punjabi. In Nepali and Bengali, it is ‘Makar’. All the languages I have listed above are Indo-Aryan. Sindhi also uses ‘Mangar’, which has been borrowed by Baluchi (an Iranian language), a relative from a separate branch of the Indo-European family.
But that is not the end of the story. Linguists have traced the ultimate origin of the word to the Dravidian language family of South Asia. Sanskrit ‘Makara’ cannot be reconstructed back to an Indo-Aryan, Indo-Iranian or Indo-European root (according to the Finnish linguist Asko Parpola). It is derived from the Proto-Dravidian ‘Mokaray’, a verbal noun from the verb ‘Mok’ that is defined as ‘eating in large mouthfuls’, ‘devouring’, ‘gobbling’, and ‘swallowing’. That is how all crocodiles consume their prey.
‘Mokaray’ gave rise to ‘Mokara’, ‘Makara’ and ‘Mangar’. Within Dravidian, the root evolved into ‘Mokara’ and ‘Monkara’. From these into the Tamil ‘Makaram’ and Telugu ‘Makaramu’. Another transformation of the verb ‘Mok’ gave rise to ‘Mosale’ and thence, the Kannada-Telugu ‘Musali’ and Tamil-Malayalam ‘Mutalai’. Even the Munda languages (of the Austro-Asiatic family) have borrowed the word from Dravidian (though they seem to have their own words as well, unlike Indo-Aryan).
What intrigues me most is the inference Asko Parpola draws from the etymological evidence. Combining it with archaeological data from Indus Valley seals, he sees the presence of crocodiles in Harappan iconography as proof of a Dravidian component. The speakers of Indo-Aryan and Iranian languages arrived from the steppes of Central Asia, a land devoid of crocodilians. Parpola believes that they must have encountered both Dravidians and ‘makaras’ in the Indus Valley. He also raises some interesting points about the religious significance of muggers and gharials in Dravidian and Harappan religion. I will examine this later.
Image Attribution: This image has been sourced from Wikimedia Commons and is credited to Arjun Bharioke.
Reference: ‘A Dravidian Etymology for Makara – Crocodile’ by Dr. N. Ganesan (Houston, Texas, USA)