The Gundestrup Cauldron and its Indian Connection

Yogic figure, Gundestrup cauldron

The Gundestrup cauldron, perhaps the world’s most famous silver bowl, was found just over a hundred years ago in a peat bog in Jutland in Denmark. It has been dated to around the middle of the 2nd century BC. The sides are decorated with various scenes of war and sacrifice: deities wrestling beasts, a goddess flanked by elephants (like Gajalakṣmī), a meditating figure wearing stag’s antlers. That the iconography must be Indic is suggested by the elephants (totally out of context in Europe) and the yogic figure in cross-legged Indian pose who appears to be Paśupati (Śiva).

The notion of Śiva as Paśupati (lord of paśu, animals) comes from the fact that in ordinary lives humans are like paśu that are bound by pāśa bonds to their animal nature and it is Śiva who cuts off these bonds and sets them free.

Gundestrup cauldron

Some historians have suggested that it was made by craftsmen of Indian origin in Thrace. The National Museum of Denmark asks the question: “The Gundestrup Cauldron’s motifs draw the observer into an alien universe far from that of the people who deposited it in the bog in north Jutland. Elephants, lions and several unknown gods, represented in a foreign style, indicate that the cauldron originally came from a distant area to the south or southeast. Exactly where it was made is still open to question. Perhaps it was a gift to a great chieftain or could it have been war booty?”

Gundestrup cauldron: Goddess worshiped by elephants

According to the art historian Timothy Taylor writing in the Scientific American: “A shared pictorial and technical tradition stretched from India to Thrace, where the cauldron was made, and thence to Denmark. Yogic rituals, for example, can be inferred from the poses of an antler-bearing man on the cauldron and of an ox-headed figure on a seal impress from the Indian city of Mohenjo-Daro…Three other Indian links: ritual baths of goddesses with elephants (the Indian goddess is Lakṣmī); wheel gods (the Indian is Viṣṇu); the goddesses with braided hair and paired birds (the Indian is Hariti).”

I would revise one of Taylor’s identifications. I propose that the goddess with braided hair carrying a bird in right hand with paired birds at her shoulders is Skanda’s consort Shashthi (Sanskrit: षष्ठी, Ṣaṣṭhī) rather than Hariti, as the bird in her hand is shown similar to how Skanda holds a cock in sculpture from that period both in India and Central Asia. Taylor speculates that members of an Indian itinerant artisan class were the creators of the cauldron.

God wih the chakra

Several features on this bowl have similarity with an ornamental plate from the Thracian grave at Stara Zagora in Bulgaria, hence the theory of its Thracian origin. The clothing of the figures appears Indian, given the woven herringbone tight costumes and the cummerbund that both males and females wear.

Goddess with birds

Let’s investigate the Thracian connection further. By the 6th century BCE, the Getae (Jat जट) had arrived in the lower Danube region. Most classical authors considered the Dacians and Getae as Thracians. There are no extant records of Thracian language, but linguists agree that it was a satem language (Indo-Aryan family of languages also belongs to the satem category).

In the first part of this essay, it was mentioned that the Thracians worshiped Dionysus. Here’s some evidence on his Indian origin. Arrian of Nicomedia says in Anabasis 5.1.1: “In the country on Alexander’s route between the river Cophen and the Indus lay the city of Nysa, supposed to have been founded by Dionysus, at the time of his conquest of the Indians.” In 5.1.6, Alexander’s informants tell him that Dionysus was from Meru, which is the north pole of Puranic geography and the same as Mount Kailāsa. This is one of the many reasons behind the identity of Dionysus and Śiva and why the goddess Bendis, who was worshiped in Thrace, may be seen as Durgā.

Since it was part of their religious system, it is natural for the Thracian silver-smiths to have fashioned a Paśupati-like figure on the cauldron. Was it taken to Jutland in Denmark because there was a Getae (Jat colony) there, as speculated by Arnold Toynbee and quoted in the first part of the essay?

But why did they pick a figure so close stylistically to the Paśupati seal of the Harappan era that was presumably lost for millennia? A plausible answer is that the Jats were one of the ethnic groups of northwest India during the Harappan times, and Śiva, a deity they worshiped, was part of their collective memory. This appears to be corroborated by the fact that the Harappan region is precisely where the Jats are found in the greatest numbers now.

Concluding, there were two ancient highways from India to the West. The first of these was through Iran to regions beyond, where we have Mitanni kings with Sanskrit names who ruled in Syria for centuries in the second millennium BCE. The second was the northern route through the Eurasian Steppe where we find the Jats and other Śaka in large numbers as carriers of Buddhist texts to China and Vedic knowledge westwards to Europe.

First part of this essay:




सुभाष काक. Author, scientist.

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Subhash Kak

Subhash Kak

सुभाष काक. Author, scientist.

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