‘Avatar’ Tulkun, Explained: Who Were The Tulkuns? What Did The Hunting Of Tulkuns Symbolize?


When the second installment of James Cameron’s masterpiece, “Avatar: The Way of Water,” was released, we were sure that it would address important issues and make us reflect on the bitter truth of our society. The metaphors and analogies in the film once again remind us that it is not too late to clean up our act. It made us think beyond our selfish impulses. Though it was a fictionalized narrative, it dealt with real and contemporary issues that are happening around the globe. Be it the tendency of the first-world nations to exploit other countries or our mindless activities that adversely impact the environment, “Avatar” doesn’t spare anybody.

As a citizen of a developing nation, I look around and witness how unabashedly we exploit nature in the name of progress and advancement. There is always a blame game going on, where we say that if a developed nation like the United States of America cannot make a shift to sustainable practices, then how can we? People say that we need those swanky townships, those metro lines, and those good roads in order to progress as a nation. But “Avatar” reminds us that all technological and infrastructural advancements will be of no use if we don’t have clean air to breathe. It reiterates the fact that we cannot take today for granted. The film also talks about the philosophy of “an eye for an eye” and critiques the notion in a fascinating manner, as it is not humans who are undergoing that dilemma but gigantic ocean creatures, referred to as Tulkun. So, let’s take a look at what the extraordinary creatures symbolize and what role they play in the universe of the film.

Who Were The Tulkuns? What Had Happened With Payakan?

The Metkayina Tribe believed that nobody should ever disturb the Great Balance because it had long-term adverse impacts. Nature was sacred to them, and they shared a similar bond with water as the Omaticayan clan did with the trees. The indigenous tribe considered themselves to be an integral part of marine biodiversity. They depended on the water for their survival, but not even once did they try to exploit the resources. Tonowari, Ronal, and their clan were sensible people who knew that it was essential to conserve and protect nature. Maybe, unlike the Sky People, they were not aware of scientific methods and technologies, but still, they had a better understanding of what the implications could be of disturbing the delicate balance of an ecosystem. Aonung, son of Tonowari and Ronal, took Lo’ak into the deep waters beyond the reefs and left him to fend for himself. Aonung wanted to teach Lo’ak a lesson, and he knew that the Omaticayan boy would have great difficulty coming back to the shores. Lo’ak was attacked by a monstrous ocean creature, and at that moment, he felt that he would not survive the onslaught. Just when hope was dwindling, in came a gigantic outcast named Payakan, who saved his life. Lo’ak was scared at first as he thought that Payakan would kill him, but soon he realized that the creature didn’t intend to do any such thing.

Payakan belonged to a whale-like species called Tulkuns. The Metkayina tribe considered the Tulkuns to be their soul siblings, and each member of the clan shared a special bond with a specific Tulkun. It was said that in the days of the First Songs, the Tulkuns were a violent species, and they constantly fought each other. But things changed with time, and they realized that violence, in any case, wasn’t justified. They made a pact among themselves where it was decided that no matter what happened, they wouldn’t cause any further bloodshed. Payakan had broken that vow and indulged in violence. The Metkayinas believed that Payakan was a killer, but little did they know that he was a victim of the attack that was carried out by the Sky People. Payakan was just trying to save and take revenge for his family, but the tribes believed that he had betrayed his own kind. He was made to live the life of an outcast. Lo’ak understood what he had gone through, and he could sort of relate to the creature. Lo’ak always felt that his father misunderstood him, and no matter what he did, it was never sufficient for him. He felt a need to prove his worth and constantly sought validation. Payakan’s melancholic eyes said a thousand words, and they craved affection. 

See More: ‘Avatar: The Way Of Water’ Ending, Explained: How Did Kiri And Lo’ak Emerge As The MVPs Of Avatar 2?

Why Were Humans Hunting Tulkun In Pandora?

If emotions like empathy, affection, loyalty and gratitude make us human, then the Tulkun were more humane than us. They knew how it felt to lose somebody they loved. They had incredible communication skills and had their own unique culture which they passed from one generation to another. We get to witness what Payakan must have gone through when we saw Captain Mick Scoresby and Miles Quaritch hunting the Tulkuns in the oceans of Pandora. They targeted a female Tulkun named Roa, who was a spiritual sibling of Ronal, the Tsahik of the Metkayina clan. Roa was moving slowly as she was protecting her newly born calf. Roa had wanted to give birth for a very long time, and she had expressed to Ronal how happy she was to see her newborn. For Mick Scoresby, it was merely a thrilling adventure. One could see the adrenaline rush he felt in making the Tulkun helpless. Seeing the gigantic creature writhing in pain gave him sadistic pleasure. It made us uncomfortable when we watched the scene unfold on the big screen. Cameron gives us an ample amount of time to feel the agonizing pain that Roa is going through. When you see the magnificent creature twisting and turning, unable to comprehend what is happening to her, you can’t help but loathe the very existence of human beings. The whole act once again reminds us why whaling was banned in 1986 and why it is legal to shoot poachers in places like Botswana. 

“Avatar: The Way of Water” reminds us that we, as species, need to reflect on our actions. We are not living on planet Earth alone, and more significantly, we cannot even if we want to. The whole flora and fauna of the oceans benefit from marine mammals like whales, and even after they die, their carcasses become a rich ecosystem in which many species can thrive. Whales are killed for the oil that we get from their blubber, among other things, and in the film, we saw that they were killed for an anti-aging viscous liquid named “Amrita.” We feel the absurdity of the actions of our species when Spider asks if that is all they killed the magnificent creature for. Mick Scoresby said that the oil was worth millions of dollars, and he found his actions justified because what else could be more important than material gain? We saw the evil Dr. Scoresby and immediately perceived him as a villain, but wasn’t he merely a reflection of our society? It is an undeniable fact that our hypocrisy and our desire for more have been quite detrimental to other species, and just because they are at our mercy, we find ways to validate and justify our actions. The Tulkun felt pain just like humans did, but for Dr. Scoresby, they were merely animals, who deserved to be killed and treated with such inequality. Dr. Scoresby was a true-blue personification of a slave owner. Back in the day we saw in the southern parts of United States America how the marginalized groups were treated with so much disdain. Social inequality, racial discrimination and oppression by the so-called supremacist, were some notions that were considered to be quite normal. The plantation owners knew that people of a particular race, caste, creed or sex were also living and breathing souls at the end of the day but still their own greed overpowered everything. 

What Did The Hunting Of Tulkuns Symbolize?

Hidden beneath that layer of greed is also a deep-rooted notion of imperialism. The sky people wanting to colonize Pandora is sadly quite similar to what’s happening in places like Palestine and Crimea. The conflict that was there between Payakan and other Tulkun took me back to the Indian Independence Movement (or the Swaraj Movement) when there was a clash of ideologies between two stalwarts, and the nation was divided into two halves. There were people who were ardent followers of Mahatma Gandhi and believed in his philosophy of “Ahimsa” (non-violence). But then emerged another group of young people who formed a group that was called the Hindustan Socialist Republican Association. They believed that armed rebellion was necessary to give a befitting reply to the oppressors, as there was no nobility in staying quiet and suffering. They had immense respect for Mahatma Gandhi, but they didn’t believe that independence could be achieved through his ways and means. Bhagat Singh became the face of the organization, and he believed that an act of self-defense could not be classified as violence. He said that he didn’t repent his actions because he wasn’t killing any innocent men. The Tulkun clan had their own set of philosophies which they lived their lives according to. They called it the Tulkun way. The gigantic mammals believed that violence breeds violence and killing always led to more killing. That is why they were strongly against what Payakan had done. Payakan was banished from the community, and he still stood by his argument and believed that whatever he did was right. 

Towards the end of “Avatar: The Way of Water,” we saw that Payakan was able to prove his point, and he showed that he only broke the vow because he wanted to retaliate and avenge the deaths of his family. The Metkayina Tribe also realized that sometimes in order to make the deaf hear, one has to make a loud sound. They realized that had Payakan not attacked the Sky People, then they would have killed the entire tribe without an ounce of guilt. It was necessary to speak up against the injustice. Payakan was not a killer and unlike the Sky People he was not killing because of his greed. He was killing to protect himself and his clan. It was not an act of violence, but an act of self-defense. Payakan had realized that there was no nobility in getting oppressed and dying by the hand of soulless people who were ruthless in their approach and were devoid of any empathy. 

See More: ‘Avatar 3’ Expectations & Theories: Who Was The Seed Bearer? Will We See Frankenstein Uses Of ‘Amrita’?

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Sushrut Gopesh
Sushrut Gopesh
I came to Mumbai to bring characters to life. I like to dwell in the cinematic world and ponder over philosophical thoughts. I believe in the kind of cinema that not necessarily makes you laugh or cry but moves something inside you.

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