Event — IIAS Lunch Lecture

The Carnival of Indra and Rudra: preliminaries to a comparative study of European and South Asian folk festivals

What do Halloween, Romulus and Remus, and the Scandinavian berserkir have in common with the Śaiva cult of Khaṇḍobā in the Deccan? During this lunch lecture, Umberto Selva will take us on a journey across Europe and South-Asia to discover the cultural heritage connected with the education of the Indo-European male youth.

In the course of a century-long debate inspired by early ethnological studies on age grades and initiatic brotherhoods across the world, comparative philologists have attempted to reconstruct the ways in which Indo-European male youth received their education and were initiated into adulthood.

According to this cultural reconstruction, during their teenage years, young boys would spend a period of time away from the village, accompanying the cattle on transhumance paths. Clad in hides, they would identify with wild animals and learn fighting skills by hunting and raiding. By living in the wilderness, beyond the borders of the ordered cosmos of the living, they aspired to make contact with dead ancestors and learn the traditional lore from them. At special annual festivals, they would enact the return of the dead among the living by parading with black-painted faces and demand gifts from the community. This tradition survives in the many masquerades—from Halloween to the numerous “carnivals”—found across Europe in winter, but possibly also in some South Asian festivals, such as Dussehra, as it is celebrated in the Deccan, where tiger-men (vāghyās/vaggayyas), clad in black hides, worship the god Khaṇḍobā/Mallāri.

By raiding cattle and demanding gifts, the youth, especially second-borns—who did not inherit the family wealth—hoped to collect enough means of subsistence to be able to marry and access the society of the adults. In times of scarcity, these warrior brotherhoods could wander off in search of new land and eventually establish new communities. Recent genetic evidence for the Indo-European migrations into Europe and India has revealed a striking sex bias, indicating that these migrations were primarily male-driven. This fact can be explained if the Indo-European migrations consisted mainly in the migrations of male warrior brotherhoods.

Because of the historical importance of this social phenomenon, the traditions, myths and rites connected with youth brotherhoods have survived in a great variety of forms throughout both European and South Asian history—from the legends of heroes raised by wolves, like Romulus and Remus, to elements of Vedic Śrauta ritualism and later Śaivism. In this lecture, Umberto Selva will discuss how the study of contemporary European annual folk festivals vis-à-vis South-Asian ones can further our understanding of this ancient cultural heritage.


Umberto Selva is currently a post-doctoral Gonda Fellow at the IIAS, Leiden. He is a specialist in Vedic and Indo-European studies. He studied Classical Philology, Indology and Linguistics at the University of Turin, Italy, and at Leiden University, where he obtained his PhD in 2019 with a dissertation consisting of a critical edition of parts of the Atharvaveda Paippalāda. He is interested in anthropology, cultural studies and religious history.