Reclaiming Our Climate Stories – 2

By Rowan Sylva

In my last post I discussed the aboriginal dreamtime story of Tiddalic the frog, and the narrative’s relevance to past and present climate change. Continuing my focus on ancient climate change stories, in this post I look at one from the Vedic, Indian tradition – the story of Vitra the dragon. The story runs something like this:

Back in the ancient times when the world was very young and gods still walked the earth like men. Vitra the dragon came into being. Vitra was greedy for the waters of the world, taking them and storing them in ninety nine mighty fortresses that he constructed on the sides of the mountains. In the absence of water the world became parched, and drought without parallel covered the land so that life itself seemed threatened. Plants wilted and died and so did men and beasts. All seemed lost. But a god was born, Indra, the chief of the gods, the king of heaven, the god of thunder, rain, war and Liquor. Indra became drunk off soma and went to face Vitra so that he could release the waters of the world. He fought Vitra with a thunderbolt made by Tvastar, the creator of the universe, and a vajra, a ribbed club. Indra broke Vitra’s jaw, and threw him down upon his fortresses, smashing them, so that the water of the world flooded forth and the earth became lush and fertile.

The story of Vitra comes from the Rig-Veda, which is the earliest Indo-European text and one of the earliest surviving texts of all time; it was composed sometime between 3,500 and 4,000 years ago. Given the ancient composition of the Rig-Veda it is tempting to think that the story of Vitra, like Tiddalic the frog, refers to the climatic change brought about by the end of the last glaciation period (about 12,000 years ago, when the dry hostile conditions of the glacial period gave way to the fertile climate of the modern era). The stories show an interesting parallel, though the Indo-Arian Rig-Veda certainly has more of an emphasis on slaying, rather than the gentler aboriginal story of tickling. The absence of a flood narrative in the Vitra story could reflect its Central Asian origin, where changes in sea level may not have had a great impact. Such, hypothesising, however, is purely speculative, and beside the point. What is more certain is that Vitra is the personification of drought, and drought was perceived by the ancient Indo-Arians as the most terrible and destructive of the gods’ adversaries.

Droughts have historically been catastrophic events in South Asia, most famously The Great Famine of 1876-1878, which principally because of British colonial mismanagement resulted in the death of nearly six million Indians. But today as Vitra again rears his terrible head, the Indian subcontinent faces catastrophic droughts in a 2 degree hotter world. Extremely severe droughts have already occurred in the late 80’s and early 00’s. These events are expected to become more frequent and more severe. A change to unpredictable monsoon patterns is expected to create longer droughts followed by savage flooding such as that which swept through Pakistan in 2010. The situation is exacerbated by lack of political action among India’s government and business elite and falling groundwater levels due to corporate mismanagement. True: India may be a raising economic power but greed has awakened Vitra and he threatens once again to bring the subcontinent to its knees. By giving an old name to a new evil, we can use the climate stories of the past to empower our fight in the present. If you wish to read more about the likely effect of climate change on India check out the World Bank’s predictions. Photos are by Daniela Gast.