Bows in ancient India

Sudalaimuthu Palaniappan Palaniappa at AOL.COM
Sun Jul 27 01:29:12 UTC 2008

Dear  George, 
We  have four words vIGku, viLimpu, urIi, and cilai that need to be 
clarified.  Consider the word vIGku. The meanings given by Cologne Online Tamil Lexicon 
for  vIGku-tal are: 
1.  to increase in size; to become enlarged; 2. to swell; 3. to become 
morbidly  inflamed and swollen; 4. to grow; 5. to be copious or excessive; to 
increase; 6.  to be close, crowded; 7. to become tight and pressing; 8. to be taut 
and not  slack; 9. to go up; 10. to become emaciated; 11. to have morbid 
desires; 12.  to sleep 
Of these, the right meaning is ‘to be taut and not slack’. It is the  
affective counterpart of effective vIkku-tal.  
1.  to tie up, bind; 2. to control, restrain; 3. to hinder; 4. to  strike 
1.  tying; 2. tightness; 3. beating 
Both  vIGku and vIkku are listed in DEDR 5448a.  
Consider  ciRupAN 222 which uses vIGku in connection with the loosening and 
tightening of  the lute strings (am kOTTu ceRinta avizntu vIGku tivavin2) 
The  bow string is tied at both ends of the wooden part of the bow resulting 
in the  string being taut. Consider puRam 369.8-9 where vIGku-tal is 
explicitly  associated with the bowstring. 
vicaippuRu  val vil vIGku nAN ukaitta 
kaNai  tuLi pozinta kaN akal kiTakkai 
But  akam 89.10 associates vIGku-tal with cilai ( viLar  Un2 tin2Ra vIGku 
cilai maRavar) which  is usually interpreted as generally referring to 'bow'. But 
we also  have  
naRRiNai  285.3 van2 kai kAn2avan2 ve cilai vaNakki 
Here  cilai is bent which seems to suggest that the wooden portion is meant 
by cilai.  .Thus both cilai (the wooden portion) and nAN (the bow string) of 
the bow are  qualified using vIGku. Since both the wooden portion and the string 
portion can  be considered as edges, we have to resolve which one we are 
talking about as  viLimpu. For that we have to resolve the meaning of urIi in 
viLimpu  urIi 
urIi-tal  in akam 175 corresponds to uruvu-tal in modern Tamil with the 
following  meanings. (See akam 331.2-4 where a tree branch is stripped off its 
flowers by  bears) 
1.  to unsheath, as a word; 2. to strip, as beads from a string, as leaves 
from a  twig; 3. to massage, draw the hand down over a sprained part of the 
body; 4. to  loosen or tighten a noose; 5. to pierce through, penetrate, as an 
arrow, a  needle 
The  action referred to here is partly or fully enclosing with the fingers 
and moving  the hand along either the wooden portion or string portion of the  
The  wooden portion of the bow is often compared to a shrimp in Tamil 
Literature with  transverse wrappings on the bow compared to the transverse patterns 
on the  curved shrimp.  An example is akam  96.1-2. 
naRavu  uN maNTai nuTakkalin2 iRavu kalittu 
pUTTu  aRu villin2 kUTTu mutal teRikkum 
This  same information is presented in a different way in akam  281.5-7 
vAn2  pOz val vil cuRRi nOn2 cilai 
a  vAr viLimpiRku amainta novvu iyal 
kan2ai  kural icaikkum virai celal kaTu kaNai 
Here  vAr viLimpu can be interpreted either as a ’straight edge’ or ’edge 
wrapped with  leather straps’. Depending on the interpretation, it can mean 
either the bow  string or the wooden portion of the bow.  
Now,  let us look at the etymology of cilai. DEDR 1574 has Ta. cilai ‘to 
sound,  resound, roar, twang’ rage with the implied root *kil- with cognates in 
SDRI and  SDR II. DEDR 2571 has Ta. cilai ‘bow and Ma. cila ‘bow’ with an 
implied *cil-.  DEDR has no cognates in any other language. Even though DEDR has 
thus separated  the words meaning ‘bow’ from the words meaning ‘to sound’, one 
can argue that  they really belong together, the connection being provided by 
the meaning ‘to  twang’. If that is accepted, then it is possible that cilai 
originally referred  to the bow string (which twangs) and later came to refer 
to the bow as a whole.  This is also supported by akam 69.14-16 where the bow 
is described as having an  excellent sound. 
maTa  mayil ozitta pIli vArntu tam 
cilai  mAN val vil cuRRi pala mAN 
ampu  uTai kaiyar araN pala nURi 
Thus,  it is possible in akam 89.10, vIGku cilai really refers to the taut 
bowstring  while in naRRiNai 285.3, cilai vaNakki refers to the bending of the 
wooden  portion of the bow. 
The  collocation of vIGku with a rope in maturaikkAJci 376 (vIGku piNi nOn2 
kayiRu)  further supports this interpretation. 
Thus  in my opinion, in akam 175.1, we have the cruel hunters sliding their 
fingers  along the taut bowstring prior to shooting the arrows. (This means in 
akam  281.6, vAr  should be interpreted as ‘long’.) 
Interestingly,  the phrase ‘viLimpu urIi’ occurs in the post-Classical Jain 
text, peruGkatai  2.5.165 (kOti pUntukil koytu viLimpu urIi), where the action 
of women dressing  up the heroine with a saree is referred to. Here viLimpu 
really refers to the  edge of the saree along which the woman slides her 
It  is unlikely ‘viLimpu’ refers to the wrist. 
S. Palaniappan
In a message dated 7/11/2008 8:05:10 P.M. Central Daylight Time, 
glhart at BERKELEY.EDU writes:
Dear  Prof. Tieken,

This is indeed an excellent suggestion, and I thank  you.  As with any  
of the possible meanings I have uncovered, it  has some problems.  In  
viLimpu kaTTutal, the word viLimpu refers  not to the wrist, as you  
know, but to the edge of the wound (edge, of  course, is one of the  
meanings of viLimpu).  The word uriiiya  (wear away, rub) would,  
however, go very well with the notion of wrist  -- I myself remember  
wearing a wrist guard when practicing archery as  a child.  The other  
possibility I have come up with is that  viLimpu might refer to the  
area on the bow which the arrow rubs as it  goes by (right above the  
grip).  Here, viLimpu might make more  sense, as it is in some way the  
edge of the bow (while it's a stretch  to make "edge" mean "wrist").   
In Akam 281 we have vaan pooz val  vil cuRRi noon  cilai av vaar  
viLimpiRku amainta ....kaNai.  The first part of  this is quite unclear  
-- apparently "having wrapped a large leather  strap around the strong  
bow (vil)" -- for shooting?  Or perhaps  for carrying?  The second  
part: "the arrow that is fitted to (or  lies against, as you suggest)  
the fine, long (or straight) viLimpu of  the powerful bow (cilai)."  
This raises a couple of questions: is a vil  the same as a cilai, or  
are they possibly two different kinds of  bow?  Second, it seems to say  
quite clearly that the viLimpu  belongs to the bow (cilai), as there is  
no other apparent way to  construe "cilai."  This would seem to  
preclude your otherwise  excellent suggestion of "wrist,"  though of  
course I remain open  to any clarification.  I'm posting this on the  
Indology list to  express my thanks for your suggestion and to see  
whether our  discussion might occasion more responses.  George Hart

On Jul  11, 2008,  at 12:49  PM,  Tieken, H.J.H. wrote:

> Dear Professor Hart,
> Maybe you should  look into a completely different direction. Note in  
> this  connection that in two of the three instances in Akananuru the  
>  word vilimpu is followed by the participle uriiya "which rubs  
>  (against)". In the third instance vilimpu is followed by amainta  
>  "which is lying against". Note also the expression vilimpu-kattutal   
> "to form proud flesh around a wound" (TL, p. 3729). The bow  string,  
> when released, often hits the inside of the bowman's left  wrist (if  
> he is right-handed), forming callosity there. Such  "wounds" add to  
> the picture of the fierce bowman. I do remember  having read about  
> wrist protections and things like that.  Probably it was somewhere in  
> the Mahabharata. Unfortunately, at  the moment I can't help you any  
> further with this.
> Kind  regards
> Herman Tieken
>  ________________________________
> From: Indology on behalf of  George Hart
> Sent: Thu 7/10/2008 8:22 PM
> To:  INDOLOGY at
> Subject: Bows in ancient  India
> In translating Akananuru 175 (this is one  of the Tamil anthologies), I
> have the following excerpt:
>  My lover crossed the hot wilderness where cruel men
> never miss  as they draw their strong, swift bows
> with their heavy strings,  and, every time they shoot,
> their sharp-tipped, whistling arrows  fly, taking the lives
> of strangers walking on the paths there  and vultures
> summoning their flocks feast on their  flesh.
> I am wondering about "heavy strings," which in Tamil is  viinku
> viLimpu.  The first word means "enlarged," "swollen," and  the second
> means "edge," "border," "eyelid" (which leads the  commentators to
> interpret it as "edge of the upper arm").  Other  occurrences, however,
> make it clear that viLimpu refers to the string or  a part of the
> string.  I am wondering whether anyone on this list  has dealt with
> bows in Sanskrit sources and whether the strings of bows  are mentioned
> as having some special feature.  I think viLimpu  might possibly refer
> to the part of the string that comes in contact  with the arrow and
> that might have been thicker than the rest of the  string.  I recall
> that when I would shoot a bow as a child, that  part was often thicker,
> as it could get worn down more easily than the  rest of the string.
> George Hart 

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