The Geography that was India

By: Sulagna Chattopadhyay

Bharat, better known worldwide as India, the land of the Ganga, revered by some erstwhile heroes as the Bharat Mata, embraces as you already know, a major part of the South Asian realm. We are perhaps the only nation with a double identity! How do you think the name Bharat emerged? If you still believe in Amar Chitra Katha comics, you would most definitely come up with the correct answers! However let me regale the tales of the great king Bharat, responsible for the `naamkaran’ of our vast nation, to those unfortunate souls who are still in the dark. Bharat, the sovereign king, visualised the fundamental unity of the country. The Rigveda first mentions him as a leader of a powerful Aryan tribe; while the Aitareya-Brahmana refers to his coronation ceremony, subsequent conquest and Aswamedha sacrifice. The Bhagvata Purana calls him Adhirat and Samrat, who accelerated the pace and process of Aryanisation of the people.

Well, now that the name Bharat is taken care of, let us move on to what Bharat was at that point of time, geographically of course! How-aware were our ancient geographers about distances and countries beyond ours! How was the world conceptualized and more.

Being a part of India we are aware that all Indian ideas on the origin and evolution of the universe are rather a matter of religion than of science. Indian cosmological doctrines had certain fundamental presuppositions, which were strikingly at variance with Semitic ideas.

These suppositions were:

  • The geo-centric universe is very old
  • It is very large
  • Its evolution and decline are cyclic
  • There are other universes beyond our own

Who do you think coined the term `Bhogola’ a term that you so often use to describe geography? Well, it was none other than Suryasidhanta who used it for the first time in Indian geographical literature. The Puranas, however, outlined a difference between Bhogala (geography) and Khogala (science of space). It also mentions Jyotishakara (astrology). But a clear classification was lacking and ancient geography appeared to accommodate astronomy in its sphere. In fact 34 heavenly bodies or grahs were identified in the Rig Veda, and surprisingly the colours that we associate some planets with today, were known to them so many hundreds of years before. Venus, white and Mars was the red planet. Amazing!

Chronologically, the Vaidikas, Ramayana, Mahabharata, works of Buddhists and Jains, the Puranas and travellers’ accounts are the main sources of ancient Indian geographical concepts. The works of Varahamira, Brahmagupta, Aryabhatta, Bhaskaracharya, Bhattila, Utpala, Vijaynandi are other sources of information which have substantially contributed to the development of mathematical geography, cartography and astronomy.


The Vedic and Puranic Universe:

If you would want to consult Vedas and Puranas for a first hand feel of what we have outlined here, we would hardly be surprised if you find yourself bemused by their differences. The cosmogeny of the Vedas has a strong bearing on the Puranic views and certain similarities can be found. To assist your understanding we have summarised the following:

Artistic origin of universe: The Rig Veda mentions the number of gods who performed various functions during the process of creation. The universe was compared to a house, and Rig Veda alludes to the various stages in the construction of this universal house.

Mechanical origin of universe: This doctrine of the birth of the universe developed in the last phase of Rig Veda. It suggests sacrifice of primeval body known as Adi Purusa, who is conceived as soul and nucleus of universe and embodiment of supreme spirit.

Philosophical origin of universe: This theory of cosmogeny has its origin in the song of creation, which says that in the beginning there is neither being (Sat) nor not-being (Asat). There was no atmosphere, no sky, no days, no nights. Space was empty.

Instrumental origin of universe: This is indeed interesting! The origin of the universe is based on the occurrence of the parent body from which the universe was created. Relate that to modern day cosmogeny and you will surely find a striking resemblance. Agni (god of fire), Indra (god of rain), Soma (god of nectar), Surya (sun god), Rudra (earliest form of Shiva) and several other gods are instrumental in the creation of the earth and heaven- twin parents of the universe. Remember Hinduism is animistic and all elements are described as gods. It is the union of earth and heaven that resulted in the birth of the Sun – who is the soul of all that moves. The Sun was later identified as the Rajapati, Vishwakarma and so on.

How did the ancient Earth originate?

Incredible but true, ancient geographers believed earth solidified from gaseous matter. Its crust consequently hardened and comprised of hard rocks or sila, clayey soil or bhumih and sandy soil or asma. References to earthquakes or bhukampas and also volcanoes or jwalamukhis, are found in the Puranas. In fact it was assumed that deities like Vayu, god of air, Indra, god of rain and Varuna, god of water, caused these earthquakes.

Note the striking similarity between ancient earthquake beliefs of Aristotelian era and India. Earthquake was supposed to be profoundly affected by the elements of nature.

Locating Bharat in the seven dwipas

Indian Geographers originally postulated the earth to be flat but by the early Christian era it was recognised to be incorrect. Various estimates of the size were made, the most popular being that of Brahmagupta, in the 7th century, who gave the circumference as 5000 yojanas which is as accurate as any given by ancient astronomers.

The theologians, however, continued to disagree and described the earth as flat disc with its center at Mount Meru. This was the designated abode of Brahma, pivot of puranic geography. The height of Meru was measured to be 84,000 yojanas while its depth below the surface was 16,000 yojanas. It was around this mount that the sun, moon and stars revolved. Doesn’t this remind you of the ancient Greeks, who also believed that the earth was flat?

Meru towered above the four dwipas that surrounded it. Each dwipa was separated by an ocean. What is a dwipa? Dwipa in its present day context suggests an island. It wasn’t any different in ancient times where it signified a land bounded by water on all sides. Consequently with development of geographical thought, dwipa came to be applied to both island and a doab (land between two rivers) and later the Puranas further extended the meaning of the term to encompass land inaccessible or detached by virtue of being surrounded by water, sand, swamp, thick forest or high mountains.

The known world during the Puranic period was divided into seven dwipas.
Let us begin our expedition from the southern dwipa. The ancients believed that this was the abode of humans. It was named Jambu dwipa after the distinctive Jambu tree which was prolific in this region. What is the Jambu tree? Well, its botanical name is Eugenia-Jambolana and is commonly known as the rose apple tree.

This Jambu dwipa was postulated to be surrounded by the Salt Sea. Looking at the diagrammatic representation of Jambu dwipa (below) you will find it lies in the heart of the concentric sequence of the dwipas. In the opinion of some of the ancient scholars it embraces the whole of Northern hemi-sphere lying to the north of Salt Sea.

The Meru lying in the center of the Jambu was heaven. What is this Meru that we keep referring to? Modem day theorists surmise that it is possibly the modern day Pamir knot. Puranas also mention a river Sita on the eastern side of Meru. This region seems to conform more or less to the modem day basins of Tarim and Hwang Ho rivers.

But where was our dear Bharat? It was the southernmost zone, separated from the rest by the mighty Himalayas, Bharatavarsa or Uttara Kuru was thus identified with the Indian subcontinent, with a shape and bulk variously described as a half moon, a triangle, a rhomboid, an unequal quadrilateral or a bow.

The shape of the Indian peninsula was also compared with an east facing tortoise floating on water.

So much for Jambu! What other dwipas were mentioned by the ancient geographers?

Well, there was Kusa dwipa, whose name was derived from kusa or grass (poa-grass). This dwipa was postulated to stretch over Iran, Iraq and also include the fringe lands of the hot deserts. The land here was characterised by droughts while its presiding deity was agni, the god of fire.

Then there was the Plaska dwipa, which derived its name from the Plaska tree that has been identified as fig. And where do you think fig is abundant? Yes, the Mediterranean lands!


The Mountains of Jambu Dwipa

The Puskara dwipa was the land of horror, devoid of purity, cruel and soul destroying. The name of this dwipa was derived from its supposed surrounding of huge circular chain of puskaras or lakes of lotuses. The people living in this Puskara dwipa were nomads, hunters and in general primitive and savage. This amazing dwipa was a two-in-one world. How? Well, it had a pristine paradise as well as a horrific wasteland, and it all depended on which side you entered this dwipa from.

And as for the Kraunca dwipa, the epic Mahabharata locates it at the west of Meru in one account, while in another it is supposed to be in the north of Meru. Well, by logic we can only conclude that it touched Jambu in the north-west. The dwipa was envisaged to be watered by ‘thousands of streams’ in addition to the seven major rivers whose enormity of flow was legendary. We can therefore surmise that the dwipa is located in a humid region which receives copious rainfall. If you were to look for such a region in the map of today, it would perhaps conform to the area around Black Sea and could perhaps be stretched till north-western Europe. Our ancient geographers have documented accounts of the African continent too. Known as the Salmali dwipa, deriving its name from the silk-cotton tree, the vegetation here was deemed to be so thick that the people only needed to gather it for food! Isn’t it wonderful that our ancestors were so accurately aware of their surroundings!

Last but not the least is the Saka dwipa which has been identified as the stretch of land to the south-east of the Jambu covering present Burma, Thailand, Vietnam, Malaysia, Indonesia and the islands of the monsoon Asia. Did you know that the name saka meant teak? Where else can you find an abundance of these lovely trees other than the hot and moist evergreen forests of south-east Asia!

The mountains known to ancient India

The Vedas, Epics and Puranas have described so many series of mountains. Some of them are Bharatvarsa, Himavat, Uttra Kuru, Uttra Madra, Trikakud, Vindhya, Paripatra, Durdura and Mahendra. They have documented even minor mountain systems and were familiar with the eastern and western ghats too. Look at the diagram and you will marvel at the amount of information that was collected.

The cascading rivers of our ancient lands

Puranas document a radial drainage pattern arranged symmetrically around the central pivot of Meru. It was firmly believed that the rivers originated in lakes, visible or invisible! Rivers were assumed to have the capacity to erode lofty mountains and penetrate the earth to form subterranean channels. In fact the waters of a lake could filter through the mountains to form a stream on the opposite slope.

Our ancient geographers did not believe different river systems existed. Implementing a watershed plan in those times would indeed be tough! The puranas state that all rivers were part of one main river and no separate names were designated to describe the tributaries of the main river.

The mother of all rivers, the original river was the Swarganga or Mandakini, rising from the foot of Lord Vishnu, It gushed upon the summit of Meru, where it divided its flow into four cardinal points. In fact puranas visualise these four channels passing through four rock carved animal heads.

The Ganga running towards the south passed through a cow’s head, Gomukh, designating/this to be the ‘land of the cows’. In the west was horse’s head from which emerged the Chaksu. The inhabitants around this river were the Asvas or Turangamas, horses or horsemen. Towards the east, was the head of elephant from which surfaced the river Sita. To the north Bhadra Soma began its flow from the lion head. The land it watered was inhabited by a powerful Tartarian tribe, called ‘The Tribe of the Lion’.

The ancient Indian sense of direction

Well, our dear ancestors had conceived the idea of four cardinal directions and named them Purva or East, Paschima or West, Uttar or North, Dakshina or South. By adding Zenith (Meru) and Nadir (Badavanala) it was raised to six. The Puranas even mention eight to ten directions, Ruling deities presided over each direction and offerings were made to each to usher in good fortune. Vaastu, experiencing a modem day revival of ancient traditions, interprets the importance of right and wrong directions in building homes and work places.

If you find yourself struggling with time-sums you should seek inspiration from our ancient astronomers who could easily calculate the local time of a place, depending solely upon the position of the Sun and the Moon in the sky. The classical Indian astronomers were conscious of the importance of Akshansa (latitudes) and Deshantras (longitudes) in the determination of a point or place on the earth surface. On the basis of the latitudes they too divided the earth into various regions. Lanka was placed on the equator, while the North Pole was situated at Meru, with its antipode or Nadir, the South Pole, was named Badavanala. They were aware that time differs in different places situated along other meridians. Significant phenomena in the sky were observed simultaneously from different places and recorded in terms of local time of the place with incredible accuracy!

The Rig Veda mentions five beautiful seasons. Familiarize yourself with the erstwhile terminology of Indian seasons so that emerging out of a back-to-future time capsule, you may easily identify them.



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