Babru vāhana (or Babhru vāhana) was a son of Arjuna born of Manipur princess Chitrangada in the great epic of Mahabhārata. The heroic character of Babru vāhana has been made ever unforgettable by the superior histrionics of the well known veteran actor Dr Rajkumar in a Kannada movie. In Mahabharata, the valiant son Babru vahana fights against his father Arjuna on the trail of Ashwamedha.
Inspite of popularity of this particular mythological character, the essential meaning of the unusual word “babru” has remained elusive and mysterious. The suffix vāhana in the word Babruvahana represents a vehicle, essentially an animal motif well entrenched in the Indian tradition.
Thus mooshika vāhana means the one riding on a “mooshika” (=rat); mayura vāhana represents the one who travels on a mayura (=peacock), and similarly we have Nandi vāhana (nandi=bull), Simha vāhini (simha= lion) and so on. Thus the term Babru vāhana suggests that the prefix babru is an animal. Then what exactly is the animal babru?
Totem Babru, the mongoose
The Pali-English dictionary throws light on the meaning of the word babru. The entry on “babbu” (in page number 536) explains that babhruka in Sanskrit represent an ichneumon. The ichneomon includes animals such as mangoose, otter or beaver which was considered an enemy of dragons and crocodiles in mythology.
In Rig Veda the word “babhru” apparently represented the brown (color). The word “babhru” was also found in Akkadian language but it was without any clear meaning. Liny Srinivasan (2011) has reported that Prof Gordon applied the purported Vedic meaning (brown) to Akkadian word”.
Obviously, this leads us to a natural confusion whether we should take babru as an animal or a color. However the name of the character Babru vāhana clearly connotes that it is a live vehicle (animal) like other mythical vahanas described in the epics. Therefore, the babhru should have been an animal most probably the common mongoose.
The serpent (Nāga) is being venerated since antiquity by numerous tribes and the traditional practice continues to date. The Nāga was the totem for many of the ancient tribes. It is possible that mongoose was also a traditional tribal totem though there is paucity of historical documented data on this aspect.
Mongoose (Babru) is a daring animal that fights against the serpent valiantly and this feature should have appealed to some of the ancient tribes to adopt it as totem.
Therefore, it would be apt to restrict the original meaning of the word Babhru to an animal like mongoose or a mythical dragon as implied in the Pali dictionary. The implication of a dragon appears logical as Manipur the homeland of Babhru Vahana of Mahabharata has had certain geographic affinity to China.
Extention of idea with time
It is reported that in Rigveda, the word “babhru” refers to color of deep brown or reddish brown. The deep brown incidentally is also the color of the skin of mongoose and allied creatures. It not clear whether the connotation of brown color was adapted from the skin color of the animal babhru.
However, with passage of time the term “babhru” has been applied in different ways such that the original Pali/Prakrit meaning of the word has almost been lost. Hosabettu Vishwanath has gathered a number of additional meanings implied to the word "babhru". Summarizing his data, the term “babhru” found to have been applied apparently in post-Mahabharata Sanskrit literature as follows:
1. A lover of red flowers, like lotus. ( Alludes to 'the Sun'.)
2. A reddish yellow, to red rays of dawn. ( The epithet for Sun who rides on Aruna)
3. A thunderbolt. (Thus the one who rides over a thunderbolt' is Indra the God of sky.)
4. A tolerant, merciful sustainer of Universe (Vishnu).
5. A reddish brown cow (Alludes to Shiva on a bull)
6. Babhravi - is a form of Goddess Durga.
7. Babhruka - is a constellation of stars.
These extention of the ideas to the term Babhru/Babhru-vahana, variously attribute the implied meanings to Sun, Vishnu or Shiva or even Durga. However we do not get such extended ideas in Mahabharata, wherein Arjuna confronts his son Babhru Vahana. In other words Mahabharata does not projects the Arjunas' son Babhru-Vahana as an incarnation or form of Sun, Vishnu or Shiva or else.
The entry of the word “babba” as an accepted synonym for “babru’ (or babhru) in Pali- English Dictionary cited above is quite interesting. Incidentally the term “Babba” is a common pet name for boys in many regions including the Tulu nadu. Such pet names appear to have been inherited from days of our tribal cultures.
It is interesting to note that one of the habitations (hamlet) within Ankola town near Karwar in Uttara Kannada district, Karnataka, is known as “Babruwada”. Within the colony there is a small shrine devoted to the deity known as Babru!
(I could not verify the exact present form and nature of the deity Babru - especially whether it has been transformed to any of our current Vedic forms). However, it is clear that the worship of Babru is vestige of an ancient practice inherited from the history.
Cult of Akkadian Origin?
It is possible that the Babru worship cult arrived in the West Coast (such as Ankola) along with ancient tribal immigrants during the ancient history. The existence of the word “Babru” in Akkadian (as cited above) leads me to such a suggestion.
There is another parallel example of ancient worship of exotic deity Kapri near Kadwada near Karwar, Uttara Kannada. The original cult of Kapri can also be traced to the ancient African insect deity Kapri. Traces of the forgotten cult of ancient Kapri worship can also be tracked in the city of Mangaluru, where we find a locality named as Kapri gudda, near Attavara.
Babba, Babra Villages
Coming back to the ancient forgotten totem cult of Babru/Babba we find villages not less than 18 named as Babra or after Babba (Babrala, Babrana, Babrani, Babrapur, Babbanpur Babbidi, Babbalpur, Babbur Babruliang etc) in various parts of India, such as Bihar, Gujarat, Haryana, Maharshtra, Rajastan, Uttar Pradesh and Arunachal Pradesh.
Based on the analysis of the available data, it appears that the ancient tribal name Babru ( ~ Babba) possibly represented mongoose which was an animal totem for some of the ancient tribes of India. The remnants of tribal cult of Babru worship (similar to the remnant cult of Kapri) existing sporadically in the West Coast of Karnataka appears to have prevailed among the ancient immigrant tribes from the African countries.
Liny Srinivasan, Dr. (2011) Desi words speak of the Past. Indo Aryans in the ancient Near East. 572 p. (also in Google books.)
Rhys Davids, T.H and William Stede [Editors]: (1921-25). The Pali -English Dictionary. The Pali Text Society. 813p.