Lettre n° 6


 François Pannier

 Translated by Christophe Roustan Delatour


In her book entitled Le dieu-masque, une figure du Dionysos d'Athènes (1991), Françoise Frontisi-Ducroux gives a very interesting analysis of the antique vases depicted in August Frickenhaus’s Lenäenvasen, published in Berlin in 1912 as part of the Wincklemann-Programm.[i]

Examining the first of these vases, as early as 1828, E. Gerhard and Th. Panofka had described an “Indian Bacchus trophy” tied to a post.[ii] Although Frontisi-Ducroux expresses some misgivings about this designation, we hope to show, in fact, just how relevant it might be.

The distinctive feature of these vases is, indeed, a very peculiar representation of the Greek god of wine, Dionysus: a bearded mask, crowned with ivy and fastened to a pillar. Around this pillar, maenads and satyrs perform a ritual. Surrounding them are vases of various shapes, all meant to hold wine.

 We shall not repeat Frontisi-Ducroux’s exhaustive study of the different motifs displayed on the vases. However, several points are particularly noteworthy. For instance, certain black figure lekythoi (containers for scented oil) depict Argus, the watchman, whose body is covered with eyes. Beneath the spout of an oinochoe (wine pitcher), a mask is shown resting on the ground. Finally, a lekythos from Palermo (figure 5) is described thus:

The mask is placed, as on the other lekythoi of this series, in the centre of the decorated surface, on the side opposite the handle. Taking up a full third of the painting, it is shown frontally, standing, as it were, on its beard and the tips of its curly locks. Its eyes stare widely at the spectator and, remarkably, its mouth is open, revealing its teeth, as if about to cry out.

An entire chapter of Le dieu-masque is devoted to cups and vases with eyes. Between these huge eyes is sometimes inserted the head of Dionysus or a Gorgon mask. In her foreword, Frontisi-Ducroux writes:

But in between the masks worn during the festival of the god – ritual accessories worn by tragic actors or participants in a procession – and the cultic mask – a face, devoid of body, through which the god reveals himself to his worshippers – there is a significant difference. While parallels abound in most cultures when it comes to the first two categories – that of the dramatic mask and that of the ritual mask – such is not the case for the cultic mask: the use of a mask as divine effigy, immobilized instead of being worn and animated, remains exceptional and appears specific to the Greek world and to Dionysus.

We have deliberately highlighted this last phrase because there still exists at least one ceremony where this kind of mask is used: the festival of Indra Jatra, in the Kathmandu valley in Nepal. And between the Greek Dionysia[iii] and Indra Jatra, there are, as we shall see, many similarities.

An entire chapter of Le dieu-masque is devoted to cups and vases with eyes. Between these huge eyes is sometimes inserted the head of Dionysus or a Gorgon mask. In her foreword, Frontisi-Ducroux writes:

But in between the masks worn during the festival of the god – ritual accessories worn by tragic actors or participants in a procession – and the cultic mask – a face, devoid of body, through which the god reveals himself to his worshippers – there is a significant difference. While parallels abound in most cultures when it comes to the first two categories – that of the dramatic mask and that of the ritual mask – such is not the case for the cultic mask: the use of a mask as divine effigy, immobilized instead of being worn and animated, remains exceptional and appears specific to the Greek world and to Dionysus.

Indra Jatra lasts for one week, ending on the full moon of September. It is an agrarian-based ceremony associated with rain, which commemorates the passage of Indra, King of the Gods (figure 1), through the Kathmandu valley. Having come to pick flowers for his mother, Indra was mistaken for a vulgar thief. Bound hand and foot, he was awaiting his fate when his mother Aditi, worried by his absence, descended from the heavens and revealed her son’s divine nature. In exchange for his freedom, she pledged to bestow dew upon the valley every morning, and also to welcome the valley’s departed souls in heaven.

In describing the festival’s proceedings, we shall omit those of a purely local order, such as the worship of the Kumari, the living goddess found in several towns throughout the Kathmandu valley.

At the start of the festivities, a mast is raised in front of the palace. A pine tree is selected for this purpose, in front of which a male goat is sacrificed. The raising of this mast is the privilege of Newars belonging to the guild of mustard-oil millers. Statues of Indra, arms spread apart, are placed in cages at various spots – such as at the foot of the mast near the palace – symbolizing the god’s imprisonment. Other effigies of the god are tied up with string. Finally, posts supporting wooden or metallic masks of Bhairava 

are placed in ritual areas. These posts (at times arranged to form a St Andrew’s cross) are covered in foliage, rendering the masks almost invisible. The Bhairava masks, some of gigantic size, like the one next to the old palace, dispense beer to the crowd by means of a pipe coming out of their mouth. This form of Bhairava is widely regarded as a formidable aspect of Shiva; however this is a point for later discussion.

Masked men take part in dancing, and children perform plays. Then, on the eve of the full moon, a procession is led through the town, symbolically collecting the souls of the year’s dead, in accordance with the promise made by Indra’s mother to receive them in her heaven.

Finally, on the last night of Indra Jatra, the mast is felled and the crowd rushes to tear off pieces of the consecrated wood. Afterwards, it is dragged down to the river to be immersed.

The foreign aspect of certain components of Indra Jatra – as opposed to those deriving from a purely Newari tradition – has already been pointed out by previous authors.[iv] However, when we compare elements of the Dionysia in Greece as described in Le dieu-masque with those of the Indra Jatra we find several striking parallels.

Take, for instance, Euripides’ Bacchae (The Bacchantes), composed for the Spring Dionysia of 405 BCE and performed in Athens’ theatre. Though not a canonical text, the wealth of information it contains makes it a pertinent reference. Euripides gave this familiar story a decidedly dramatic rendition, yet, in all likelihood, he chose to preserve its spirit rather than alter it, because it was to be played to a crowd of the god's devotees and during a festival dedicated to him. Tampering with such sacred matters, even in Athens, would have been unacceptable.

In Bacchae, we find Dionysus returning incognito to Thebes, the land of his forebears, founded by his grandfather Cadmus. His mother Semele’s love affair with Zeus has been denied by part of his family, and so the very basis of his divinity is refuted. He returns, therefore, to have it recognized, especially by Pentheus, king of Thebes, in favour of whom Cadmus has relinquished the throne.

Persistent in his refusal to acknowledge Dionysus’s divinity, Pentheus nonetheless follows him into the mountain, disguised as a woman. The king hides in a pine tree in order to observe the bacchantes…only to be discovered and torn apart by them, among whom is his own mother, Agave, sister of Semele.

It is worth noting that in Bacchae as well as in the Indra Jatra, recognition of the god’s divine nature is brought about by his mother. In both cases, also, the etymology of the mother’s name relates to Earth. In the Hindu pantheon, lineages are extremely complex and contradictory. “We find, nevertheless,” states A. Daniélou, “that Aditi, Indra’s mother, is sometimes identified with the Earth in the Puranas. She is also identified with the Primordial Expanse. According to the Vishnu Purana, the Adityas or Sovereign Principles are twelve in number [one of them being Indra] and their father is the sage Kashyapa or Vision. Their mother, [Aditi], was unable to bear within her womb the burning seed of Kashyapa. The sage therefore divided the foetus into twelve parts."[v]

In Greece, Semele was likewise equated with Earth. She was struck down by celestial fire when Zeus appeared to her in all his splendour. The unborn Dionysus, retrieved by Zeus, was hidden within the god’s thigh until his maturity.

In both instances, too, the thunderbolt is a family heirloom – 

property of Indra and property of Zeus, father of Dionysus – and both their mothers were subjected to the ravages of fire during pregnancy, thus brutally interrupted. Moreover, it is precisely these two gods, Zeus (in the form of the Roman Jupiter) and Indra, whom we shall meet, side by side, in Georges Dumézil’s comparative studies on Indo-European mythology.[vi] And let us observe that while dew is bestowed upon the valley of Kathmandu by Indra's mother, so too is Dionysus the dispenser of dew. Such traits clearly point towards a fertility ritual connected with the Mother Goddess.

In fact, the analogies which can be found between the Dionysia and Indra Jatra – and, in some cases, between rituals which are specific to either god – are numerous, if not innumerable.

The preferred animal of sacrifice to Dionysus, for example, was a male goat. The bacchantes, during their orgies, were clad in the skins of slaughtered goat kids, and certain actors masqueraded as goat-men. During the preparation for Indra Jatra also – once the ceremonial tree is selected – a male goat is sacrificed.

Since we mention the pine tree, we should recall that before being slain, Pentheus had hidden in just such a tree, on the advice of Dionysus himself. Furthermore, bacchants and bacchantes were known to don pine cones and pine branches as their insignia during the ceremonies. The Newari crowd throwing itself upon the hallowed post – cut down at the end of Indra Jatra – and hacking off strips of wood as relics, greatly resembles the maenads attacking the tree in which Pentheus is hiding; uprooting and throwing it to the ground before tearing the king to pieces and carrying off parts of his body.

About the Attic region, Louis Gernet wrote : “Dionysus is a very important deity there. He is connected, notably, with the Anthesteria, which at one time were simply called Dionysia, and 

which Thucydides even mentions as ‘the most ancient Dionysia’: the Anthesteria are both a festival of the dead and a festival of wine.”[vii] [PLACE  (figure 2) HERE?] Elsewhere, he adds: “It is from the dead which come to us foods, crops and sprouts.” Now we may recall that in order to obtain her son’s freedom, one of the promises Indra’s mother made was to send dew each morning. Here again, fertility plays a predominant role.

Henri Jeanmaire[viii] draws attention to several other astonishing details:

The essential episode of one of the most characteristic legends of [the Dionysian] cycle, the chastisement of Pentheus, hurled from the pine tree in which he had taken shelter from the maenads' fury, is easily interpreted as a myth of the ritual uprooting of the Tree –  the representation of a ritual of this kind having allegedly been found in Minoan glyptic art. The scale on which the scene is recounted by Euripides in his Bacchae has even led to the belief that its dramatic construction may have been modelled after some ceremonial scenario. The wood from which the archaic idols of Corinth were made was regarded  as belonging to the pine tree felled by the maenads; which the Pythian priestess had given orders to find and worship as a god.

The worship of the pine, and its identification with the god, immediately bring to mind the northeastern regions of Asia Minor, where other clues have also invited a search for Dionysus’s eventual birthplace. There, cults have flourished and evolved out of what may originally have been the cult of Dionysus. The religion of Attis and his mother, with its barbaric mythology and savage rites so contrary to Greek religious sentiment, perpetuated the memory of this close association between the god and his surrogate tree, in the grand procession of the pine, hewn and solemnly transferred to the Palatine on the 22nd of March. […] The transportation of Attis’ 

pine tree was conceived as a funeral procession lamenting the god’s death, an effigy of whom was fastened to the trunk along with his attributes and crowns of violets.

Marcel Detienne[ix], referring to Pausanias, informs us further about the aforesaid archaic idols of Corinth in southern Greece: these statues were effigies of the masked Dionysus, all perfectly identical, covered with gold except for their faces, painted vermilion.

We have already mentioned, in their broad lines, some of the stages of Indra Jatra. Gérard Toffin, discussing the structure of brotherhoods in the Nepalese village of Theco, has this to add[x] :

Until now, only the brotherhoods in the lower part of Theco have been considered. In the village’s upper part, the configuration of the social units totally changes. Indeed, there the gu do not play any role whatsoever during the funerals. Two small groups, therefore, fulfill the brotherhoods’ functions: numbering ten members each, they are respectively called the “red face”, hyamu khwa, and the “yellow face”, mhasu khwa. All of their members belong to the farming caste. They have rights to the distinctive title – already noticed in Pyangaon – of gom. Each family of the upper part of Theco is related, in a hereditary way, to one of these two groups.

Each “face”, khwa, has a specific deity, symbolized by a mask made of copper. The mask of hyamu khwa is red in colour, that of mhasu khwa is yellow (or more exactly gold) – hence the name of these two brotherhoods. Both masks represent the god Indra. They are first worshipped during the full moon of Chaitra (March–April), when all of the wood intended for cremation has been stored, then a second time, at the end of the month of Bhadon (August–September), during the festival of Indra Jatra. On this last occasion, the masks are fixed to the top of two great masts, 24

cubits in height, which are left standing for four days in front of the temple of Bal Kumari. During the year, both masks are kept, in turn, in the house of the gom.

Regarding the same festival in Pyangaon, Toffin[xi] reports that at the beginning of the ceremony, two dancers go about the town, one wearing a red mask, the other a golden one.

As each town, village, and even neighbourhood of the Kathmandu valley boasts its own variations and interpretations of the rituals, it would be venturesome to claim an outright connection between the two types of effigies and their colours. As much as they appear to be an additional argument in favour of a link between the two ceremonies, we shall have to restrict ourselves to a mere statement of these facts.

On some of the vases inventoried in Le dieu-masque, several large circles can be seen, surrounding the depictions of the god. These circles are often interpreted as “cake-offerings”. Now, after having studied descriptions in the Mahabharata and the Puranas of the festivities dedicated to Indra’s tree – which, incidentally, he relates to the Newari Indra Jatra – J. Gonda wrote[xii]:

In Spring, a tree was planted in honour of Indra, to which were attached foliage, flowers, crowns, perfumes, ribbons, cakes, and other such lucky charms, after it had been brought, with great pomp, from the forest. The many people who have accompanied it on this occasion, dance around it; tribute is paid to it and a statue of Indra is placed at its foot.

The practice of suspending cakes – if it ever existed there – seems to have been abandoned in Nepal. Emphasis, however, must be put on the word “seems”, for as these pageants can adopt strikingly different aspects from one town or village to the next, the 

possibility that a tradition of this kind might still exist cannot be altogether ruled out. It might, perhaps, have explained the existence of circles on the Greek vases.

Previously, our attention was drawn to the fact that certain Greek vases – either black figure lekythoi or wine containers – portray Argus, the hundred-eyed giant, destroyer of the ophidian monster Echidna. Although the latter part of Argus’ tale bears little relevance to what we have found in the Kathmandu valley, it is worth mentioning that certain analogies occur. Apart from the fact that, like Indra, he too slays a serpentine monster, we also find him covered with eyes.[xiii] For Indra had once deceived Ahalya by taking on the appearance of her husband, the sage Gautama. As a result, the sage cursed the god, causing vaginas, or yonis, to appear all over his body. After 360 years of mortification the yonis turned into eyes.[xiv] No direct link between Argus and Dionysus cannot be established (beyond the fact that the mythological context is Greek), yet the vases have, as we have seen, a strong connection to the wine god. Incorporated ?

Another attribute shared by Indra and Dionysus is their lubricity and love of drink. In her description of a lekythos from Palermo, Frontisi-Ducroux mentioned a huge mask with a wide mouth revealing the teeth, as if about to scream. This explanation may well prove correct; but in view of the comparisons we are presently attempting, another interpretation may be put forward. During Indra Jatra, masks of Bhairava are displayed. Be it the gigantic Sweto Bhairava, made of gilded repoussé metal, placed in front of the royal palace, or the more simple forms in wood, metal, or terracotta, these masks all have open mouths, enabling a tube to pass through, from which flows the local beer, chang. Over-indulgence in this beverage (of which the god’s mask is not the sole purveyor) invariably leads to drinking binges and brings about a certain licentiousness. Gérard Toffin[xv] gives a fascinating and highly detailed account of these events.

As a fair amount of the iconography studied in Le dieu-masque has to do with rituals in which the distribution of wine played a substantial part, establishing a link between these two types of masks might prove worthwhile. The huge mask pictured underneath the spout of a black figure oinochoe from the Berlin Museum, studied by Frontisi-Ducroux, is particularly appropriate for such a comparison; as is the painting on a chous (wine jug) from Athens, displaying a large mask, and that of the aforementioned lekythos. Moreover, on this last vase, a maenad is shown brandishing a snake above the mask. Coincidentally, the masks of Bhairava are adorned with snakes in their hair.

In a study dealing with the mythology of trees, Jacques Brosse[xvi] reports that during certain festivities related to the Dionysian cult, fountains of wine flowed in the island of Teos and in Andros. What if the mask described by Frontisi-Ducroux only had its mouth open in order to make way for a slender tube, designed for the distribution of consecrated wine to the god’s followers?

More striking still, perhaps, is the comparison of the eyes. Those of Bhairava’s masks are extremely protruding, lending a powerful, almost prying – or perhaps apotropaic – presence to the god. In this respect, they are similar to the so-called “prophylactic” eyes found on the bellies of the Greek vases or cups reviewed in Le dieu-masque (figure 3).

But who is Bhairava, the fierce? This deity, or rather epithet, covers an infinite number of personae. Sylvain Lévi had this to say on the subject, early in the last century[xvii] :

Bhairavas – Beyond the main protagonists lurk an untold number of lesser deities, spawned at will by rival religions. First among them are the Bhairavas: “the Fierce”. Designated under this disquieting name are spirits emanating from either Maha-Deva, that is to say 

Shiva, or Devi; the male and female energies whereby the almighty, divine power manifests itself. The territory of Nepal, though limited, serves as asylum to 5,600,000 Bhairavas and Bhairavis. Bhairavas are usually portrayed with an open mouth, prominent teeth, dishevelled hair, an extra eye on the forehead. Trampling their demonic foes, their representations recall the St George and St Michael of Christianity. Like most Nepalese deities, Bhairavas often go by fours, no doubt in order to face the four quarters; a strategic disposition such as this, for instance, is adopted by the bhikshu Chantikara, after having consecrated the ground at Svayambhu. The colossal number of Bhairavas allows for an infinite variety of combinations. From amongst the Bhairavas, not even the Buddha and holy seer Vasishtha are excluded.

Now, the name Bhairava is widely accepted as applicable to Shiva, especially during the Indra Jatra festival. However, in the catalogue of the Cernuschi Museum’s exhibition Idoles du Népal et du Tibet (1996), featuring the Zimmerman collection, Pratapaditya Pal remarked, after having identified a monumental mask made of gilded repoussé copper as Bhairava, a ferocious form of Shiva (figure 6): “It is not known, however, why Bhairava found himself involved in a festival honoring the Vedic god Indra.”

But, after all, is Bhairava really Shiva? Custom has it so. Yet, as observed above, Bhairava is also an epithet meaning “fierce”. Did Indra ever prove himself unworthy of such a title? Quite the contrary: it is likely that while confronting the demon Vritra – whose skull he ultimately crushed with his vajra, thus realising the captive waters – Indra exhibited just such a terrible form, even though he did, in later times, demonstrate a certain cowardice. Though the texts are silent in the matter, it would be quite extraordinary if Indra did not rank among the 5,600,000 Nepalese Bhairavas. Does not the reference in the Rig Veda to the “fierce” 

Indra attest to this? The case is made throughout the numerous hymns which mention Indra, such as these two stanzas, taken from H.H. Wilson’s translation[xviii]:

Fifth Ashtaka – Third Adhyaya

      Sukta VIII (XXV)

1.Fierce Indra, when animated by like fierce armies, encounter them: let the bright (weapon) wielded by the arms of thee who art mighty and the friend of man descend for our protection ; let not thy all-pervading mind wander (away from us).


2. Disgracing (Pashadyumna), they brought from afar the fierce Indra, when drinking the ladle of Soma at his sacrifice, to (receive) the libation (of Sudas): Indra hastened from the effused Soma of Pashadyumna, the son of Vayata, to the Vasishthas.

This is only a small selection of what Vedic literature has said about the fierce Indra. But is it still possible, within this context (at least the Nepalese one, as we are dealing with Indra Jatra), to deny him the epithet “fierce”? If not, we should perhaps assume that a certain degree of transformation of this god into Shiva has taken place. Actually, we know that in later mythology Indra becomes an aspect of Shiva. So this mask of Bhairava, dispenser of beer, could well represent a step, a milestone along the path of transformation. Furthermore, various Nepalese traditions connect this kind of mask to a ruler of the Kirata dynasty known as Hathu Dya, who was inadvertently beheaded by Arjuna, son of Indra, during one of the battles of the Mahabharata. This would seem to confirm the idea of a belated association with Shiva; achieved through the proselytism

of that god’s devotees. We are somewhat more in favour of the first hypothesis, although it goes against the current trend.

To complicate matters further, the texts indicate that Shiva and Vishnu sometimes assumed the appearance of Indra.

Coming back to the ritual, a difference remains, nonetheless, between Nepal and Greece. In the first case, the divine mask delivers beer; in the second, wine. One must, of course, take into account the contrast in climates of these countries, the common denominator being that both beverages are alcoholic. Now, not only was Dionysus said to have invented wine – which is well known – but he was also regarded as having introduced beer into regions where grapevine cultivation had failed.       

During the celebrations of Indra Jatra, as in the Dionysia, theatrical performances are staged. The Greek plays became great classics and we are well acquainted with them. As regards Indra Jatra, we turn once more (essential when it comes to Newari culture) to Gérard Toffin’s account of the scenes he witnessed.[xix]

Enacted solely by young boys, including the female roles, the performances often plagiarize the comedies of Indian cinema, while mythical and religious themes are droned out in plays of a sacred character. This seems a far cry from ancient Greek theatre, as we conceive it. But is our conception accurate? Granted, the context studied by Toffin was that of a small town. In the Athenian golden age, of course, culture, theatrical tradition, and the playwrights it produced would surely have given an entirely different dimension to their performances. This being said, some 2,500 years later, contemporary Greek culture might have shown a parallel evolution; with Hollywood films instead of Indian ones.

In the Kathmandu valley, as we have pointed out, the festivities are accompanied by masked dances. The masks used are commonly known as lakhe. Actually, the lakhe is a demon belonging to the dangerous realm of rakshasas and pishachas. Commenting on this, Gerard Toffin calls the red mask worn in Pyangaon “kwapa”. The iconography of this type of mask, as has sometimes been noticed, is very close to that of the Greek Gorgon (figure 4). If we compare these masks of lakhe with, for example, certain Greek vases, the western pediment of the temple of Artemis in Corcyra (circa 580 BCE) or the terracotta plaque found in the Athenaion in Syracuse (circa 570 BCE) – all showing Gorgon faces – we cannot avoid noticing some obvious similarities. Yet, curiously, whereas Greek art of that period, or Newari art down to contemporary times, were both extremely refined, this type of effigy reveals a savage, barbaric character, quite incongruous in these contexts. At this point, we are tempted to view this anachronism as the trademark of an exterior influence. But can we locate the origin of this iconography?

In his History, Herodotus expounds on the xenophobia of the Scythians, who were extremely loath to adopt foreign customs, especially Hellenic ones. Under such circumstances, it is all the more difficult to understand the presence in a Scythian tomb, near the village of Martonocha, of a bronze volute krater[xx] handle bearing a Gorgon figure and snakes, made in Greece circa 540 BCE; or of a bronze breastplate dating from the same period, also decorated with a Gorgon’s head, found in the kurgan (burial mound) of Elizavetinski. Both of these sites are located north of the Black Sea.

The Greeks, renowned merchants, must have exported these products to Scythia knowing that nothing would prohibit their sale; the iconography probably conforming to Scythian traditions.

Concerning the krater handle, Boris Piotrovsky, former director of the Hermitage Museum, points out[xxi]: “It is strange to note that Aeschylus (Prometheus Bound – circa 792 BCE) situated the haunt of the ‘three winged sisters, the snake-haired Gorgons, terror of the mortals, whom no human being could behold without dying on the spot’, precisely beyond the Black Sea, towards the Caucasus.”

This gives us a particularly vast area of distribution, especially since it is not restricted to the three zones considered here. What remains, then, is to try to locate the cradle of this tradition.

If we consider the Kathmandu valley as its birthplace, we would need to rekindle the 19th-century theories which claimed that the Himalayas were the starting point of the Indo-European invasions. Owing to the present state of our knowledge, this seems out of the question. An outside contribution, therefore, would appear to be at the root of the Newari masks.

It must be remembered that for the ancient Greeks, Dionysus was a foreign, oriental deity. He had travelled to India – but where, by the way, did the Greeks imagine India to be, and what entity did it encompass? Actually, when attempting to determine the god’s birthplace, Hellenists have a tendency to situate it in West Asia, under Mediterranean influence. Henri Jeanmaire even writes, in his Dionysos[xxii]:

We have seen that Euripides already admitted […] a kind of universality of the religion of Dionysus, which the god himself, escorted by his maenads, had diffused throughout the Orient before returning to implant it on his native soil. By quite a remarkable coincidence, the wanderings ascribed to Bacchus in the prologue of Bacchae roughly match Alexander’s itinerary; however, nothing alludes to India, as yet unknown to the Hellenic public.

This coincidence may not be as remarkable as Jeanmaire suggests. Though it is indeed possible that part of the Hellenic public was unaware of India’s existence, Herodotus mentions it in his History as early as 440 BCE. Confined to the Indus Valley, India was then a Persian satrapy; the conquest of which had been completed either by Cyrus (circa 530 BCE) or Darius (circa 519 BCE). Constant feuding between Persians and Greeks could not have prevented the latter from knowing about these regions. Their commercial network – which, incidentally, followed the ancient Mesopotamian trade routes – extended relatively far and brought them into contact with the Persians. By that time, important Greek colonies had already sprung up in West Asia. Furthermore, a fair number of Greek slaves were held captive in Persia; as Alexander’s conquest of that country also demonstrated. Likewise, Greek mercenaries joined the ranks of the Persian armies. Needless to say, information did circulate. And although Herodotus’s other indications about Indians are scarce, his mention of “black-skinned men” clearly refers to the Dravidians.

The Phoenician trade routes, moreover, passed alongside some of the Asian coastlines. In the 10th century BCE, one such route furnished peacocks, monkeys, ivory, and metals. Although monkeys and ivory might suggest Africa, peacocks are typically Indian. And amongst the metals, gold was mentioned. In Sophocles’ tragedy Antigone (495–406 BCE), Creon speaks of “the gold of India”. Herodotus also tells of this gold, even though its supposed method of procurement is too fanciful to deserve attention.

Although the Greeks were the Phoenicians’ rivals when it came to trade, they could not have been unaware of the origin of the merchandise. Euripides (circa 410 BCE) undoubtedly knew about India and Alexander led his armies along a well-travelled trade route; as Dionysus had probably done before him, especially since his grandfather Cadmus was himself Phoenician.

During his conquest, Alexander halted at Nysa, near present-day Peshawar, in the Indus Valley. According to Arrian’s History of Alexander, his arrival was met by a delegation of local people who pleaded with him to guarantee their freedom and independence in respect of Dionysus, founder of their city. On his way back to Greece, the god had apparently settled some of his soldiers in Nysa, former bacchants no longer fit to fight. Alexander and his troops, it is said, climbed the commemorative mountain, whereupon, the king sacrificed to the god. Several high-ranking Macedonians were possessed by the deity and seized with Bacchic ecstasy.

Though questions were raised, even in Antiquity, about the authenticity of this anecdote, an explanation can probably be found in Alexander's habit of identifying himself with the gods. In this respect, it seems the conqueror had mastered the use of psychological warfare, even to the point of annoying certain members of his own entourage.

But the main interest of this event, as far as our study is concerned, is to reveal the existence in the Indus Valley of a sanctuary which, though it is not the historical fountainhead of our rituals (but does such a place exist?), would be fit, geographically speaking, to answer several of our questions. Highly alluring, the Nysa theory is not sufficiently grounded to draw conclusions from. Nysa would be ideal, however, as both the point of junction and point of separation of the Dionysus-Indra cult.

Moreover, the denomination problem with which we are faced does not simplify our task. Arrian speaks of Dionysus; Daniélou of a cult of Shiva… each interpreting and christening it in terms of his own culture. Dionysus? Shiva? Indra? Were Alexander’s troops  so finicky when it came to designations? Undoubtedly, they were far more attentive to a certain type of ritual than to a precise deity.

Once again, we are left in the same state of confusion as with our Nepalese example, in which a mask of Bhairava is used during a festival dedicated to Indra. In fact, Nysa merely constitutes a stepping-stone within a much broader movement and plenty of other possibilities could be advanced. We can only hope that future archaeological findings will allow us, one day, to determine a more precise origin. However, the nature of the materials involved may make that difficult. Newari lakhe masks are usually made of papier-mache. For other festivals, they can even be made of paper. Though such a technique is itself a remnant of tradition, it is highly unlikely to be revealed by excavation, especially in a region subjected to the monsoon. Unfortunately, the local funerary rites do not allow the same opportunities for discovery as in other cultures.

The main purpose of this article was, first and foremost, to shed some light on the various influences found in the rituals dedicated to Indra and Dionysus, during the festivals of Indra Jatra and the Dionysia. It would be far-fetched to claim that Indra is Dionysus or Dionysus Indra. (And for that matter, which Indra? The Mahabharata tells us that because of a conflict about propriety, Shiva imprisoned Indra in a cave, together with the four Indras of the preceding world ages.)

The idea seems to have made its way, nonetheless, of a single, common, protohistoric root giving rise to the separate existences of Dionysus and Indra; these, in turn, maturing within two geographically distinct belief systems and thus assuming a great variety of functions and personas, sometimes within a relatively limited area. Their respective tales – gathered over time and in various places – are enough to fill a multitude of lives, be they divine or otherwise. The simultaneous existence of five Indras in the epic is one example, serving to justify all which cannot be explained. Furthermore, the material which has reached us must be insignificant in comparison to the wealth of stories told, 25 centuries ago, in the Attic, the Indus Valley, or Nepal.

However, the extraordinary point is that images similar to those on 2,500-year-old Greek vases live on in a present-day festival that takes place in the valley of Kathmandu.


This is a translated and edited version of  "Sur le Dieu-Masque: dans le Dionysies et Indra Jatra" by Francois Pannier, published in Lettre du Toit du Monde, December 1998.

[i] Frontisi-Ducroux, F., Le dieu masque, une figure du Dionysos d'Athènes, Ed. de la Découverte et  Ecole Française de Rome, "Images à l'appui" n° 4, Paris – Rome, 1991. See also : Frickenhaus, A., Lenäenvasen : 72, Programm zum Winckelmannsfest, Berlin, 1912
[ii] Gerhard, E. and Panofka, Th., Neapels Antike Bildwerke, Stuttgart, 1828, pp. 363–4 (in reference to vase n° 1848 in the Museum of Naples).
[iii] The Dionysia were festivals dedicated to Dionysus in ancient Greece. They comprised the Rural Dionysia, in December, and the Great (or City) Dionysia, held in Athens at the end of March, for which plays were created and performed at the Theatre of Dionysus, on the southern slope of the Acropolis.
[iv] Quoted from : Chazot, E., "Du primitif au classique", in Masques de l'Himalaya, Ed. Raymond Chabaud, Paray-Vieille-Poste, 1989, p. 57
[v] Daniélou, A., Le polythéisme hindou, Ed. du Rocher, Paris, 1992, p. 179.
[vi] Dumézil, G., Mythes et dieux des Indo-européens, Flammarion, Paris, 1992, pp. 69-80
[vii] Gernet, L., Le génie grec dans la religion, La renaissance du livre, Paris, 1932, p. 116
[viii] Jeanmaire, H., Dionysos – Histoire du culte de Bacchus, Payot, Paris, 1951, p. 21
[ix] Detienne, M., Dionysos à ciel ouvert, Hachette, Paris, 1986, p. 42
[x] Toffin, G., Société et Religion chez les Néwar du Nepal, Centre régional de publication du CNRS, Meudon-Bellevue, 1984, p. 196
[xi] Toffin, G., Indra Jatra, Essai sur une fête newar de la vallée de Kathmandou, L'ethnographie, n° 76, Paris, 1978 / 1, pp. 109-37.
[xii] Gonda, J., Les religions de l’Inde, Payot, Paris, 1966, p. 405
[xiii] Moreover, after having been put to death by Hermes, Argus’s hundred eyes were placed by the goddess Hera on the tail of her sacred beast, the peacock, an Indian animal.
[xiv] Though several versions of this myth are told, only this particular point is of interest here. One of the places where these events are said to have taken place is Panauti, in Nepal, where stands the temple of Indreshwar Mahadev (quoted from Béguin, G., "Le temple d'Indreçvar mahâdev de Panauti", in L'art néwâr de la vallée de Kâthmându, Paris, 1990, pp. 42-6).
[xv] Toffin, G., Indra Jatra etc., op. cit.
[xvi] Brosse, J., La mythologie des arbres, Payot, Paris, 1993, p. 137
[xvii] Lévi, S., Le Népal, Étude historique d’un royaume hindou, t. 1, Ed. Leroux, Paris, 1905, p. 382
[xviii] Wilson, H.H., Rig-Veda Sanhita, 1888, pp. 73 and 87
[xix] Toffin, G., Indra Jatra etc., op. cit.
[xx] A large bowl with two handles, used for mixing wine and water. The term volute refers to the shape of the handles (spirals).
[xxi] Piotrovsky, B., catalogue of the exhibition L'or des Scythes, Grand Palais, Paris, 1975, p. 144
[xxii] Jeanmaire, H., Dionysos etc., op. cit. p. 357


  1. Mask of Indra, Nepal. Newar, 17th century.
  2. Representation of Dionysus Acrolythe from a Attic red figure cup (kylix), circa 480 BCE (Antikenmuseen, Berlin, catalogue n° F 2290). Drawing: C. Roustan Delatour.
  3. Detail of Attic black figure cup, c. 510 BCE.
  4. Gorgon mask between two eyes on an Attic black figure cup, 6th century BCE.
  5. Copy of the drawing on a lekythos from Palermo, attributed to the painter of Gela. Drawing: C. Roustan Delatour.
  6. Repousse copper mask of Bhairava, Nepal. Newar, 16th century.