The Enigma called ‘Jambudwīpa’
जंबूद्वीपॆ ... भरतवर्षॆ ... भरतखंडॆ ...
Whenever we go to a Hindu priest and ask him to do a pooja, he begins with a ‘samkalpa’ a declaration of intent to propitiate a particular god. Once you declare your name and lineage, you must give your address. An address understood only by the cosmic post-office. Let me write this down in a language we comprehend, on a postcard:
In the island where the wild black berries* abound,
In the ecosphere known to Bharata people,
On a piece of land where the Bharatas lived,
* Jambul (Syzygium cumini)
I put this question to a priest from a neighbourhood temple – being an intermediary between us mortals and the divine. Surely, he was clear in his mind. He clarified to my confused mind, – confident in his knowledge –
“Jambudwīpa consists of the entire continent of Asia, Bharatavarsha is the subcontinent, and of course, the Republic of India with its present boundaries is Bharatakhanda.”
Isn’t it logical?
Our ancestors, writers of Puranas and epics, with their extraordinary minds, were able to see the future so clearly; they knew about the partition of India and Pakistan even before Mountbatten knew.
Amazing! Or do we just say … Incredible?
With due respect to the priest’s opinion, let us explore the various scholarly interpretations of Puranic geography by historians, theologists and the so called Indologists.
The Purāṇas were not written down on a single day. They evolved … over a long period – from the 3rd Century AD to as late as the 18th Century. But the interpretations are based on our current knowledge of the world beyond, as a result of modern education.
Puranas mention seven dwipas of which our Jambu-island is central. Many a scholar tried to identify and theorize on their existence and their position on the map as we know it today. Largely, the opinions are as follows:
They are nothing but fanciful fables.
Here, my view is that we cannot reject the Purāṇas entirely. Let us have an open mind and assume that a kernel of truth – knowledge of a limited yet familiar geographical area – probably existed hidden behind this fanciful super structure created over millennia of creative endeavor.
They describe cosmic / stellar phenomena.
The traditional references are clearly those of geographical entities. We must try and extract simple physical truths in them instead of succumbing to whimsical speculations.
The seven dwīpas represent successive changes in earth’s crust through successive geological periods.
It is based on Plates Tectonics theory. I don’t consider this view worth pursuing.
The seven dwīpas actually are the seven continents – Asia, Europe, Africa, Australia, North & South Americas and Antarctica.
It is convenient, yet ludicrous.
The seven dwīpas are various lands of the old world.
This is the most popular view. Let me give a table which – you will agree – looks more like a reflection of the 20th Century commentator’s knowledge of geography than what the renderers of Purāṇas actually meant:
Different answers to the same simple questions are seminal to all this theorizing. What are these questions?
Question 1: Where is Mount Méru?
The most accepted view is that it is in the north of Himalayas, in Pamirs, near the source of Ganges, Sutlej and Brahmaputra. Let’s see if there are any historical or mythological references which suggest its location. Unfortunately, there are none. The assumption is purely based on our knowledge of geographical surveys conducted in 19th Century by a surveyor general of British Raj, after whose name – incidentally – the tallest peak was named, Everest. Since Méru is in the middle of Jambudwīpa in various Purāṇic descriptions this identity pushes Jambudwīpa beyond the subcontinent into Central Asia and Eastern Europe.
Don’t we need to dig a little deeper to find more credible alternatives?
Question 2: How old are the Purāṇas?
Based on the references of events and peoples in them, the Purāṇas are variously dated – as between 3rd Century to 18th Century AD. We do not know how reliable they are, and as a result the speculations based on them.
Even if there is some older, original knowledge, which had survived through this tinkering of tradition that had lasted ages, our challenge is to extract that kernel out of so much accumulated chaff.
The earliest references to Méru do not indicate its presence in some remote inaccessible region. Logically, the center of the known world cannot be an unseen unknown place. It must have been the hub of civilization like Babylon, Olympus, Henan of the Middle Kingdom or, for that matter, London of the English-speaking world.
The earliest Indian civilization belonged to northwestern subcontinent. Archaeology tells us that Zhob valley in Baluchistan is where it all began. Méhrgarh – the earliest urban settlement going all the way back to 9000 BP. Let’s not jump to conclusion based on the similarity of the names, Méhr and Méru. Méhr in fact is derived from the Zoroastrian name ‘Mithra’.
Secondly, the Akkadian records called a land to the east of Sumeria, across the great waters and beyond the mountains ‘Meluḥḥa’.
L = R.
ḤḤ = K.
Was the name in actuality, Méruka? If a half of Jambudwīpa lies on one side of Méru, in which Bharatavarsha is a part; then the other half probably included SuMéru?
Let’s not conclude before we answer the other question.
We know that Purāṇas belonged to a period much later than Harappan civilization. But, as the name suggests, do they carry some memories of that milieu? Let us consider some learned opinion. In his path-breaking book, ‘The Geography of the Purāṇas (1966)’, Prof. S. M. Ali says that the Purāṇic references to climatic elements are meager when compared to the Vedic literature. To quote his words, “It may be argued that perhaps the Purāṇas did not attach so much importance to climate as the Vedic Aryans did, or they considered it irrelevant to their subject matter, and were content with the knowledge of its elements as conveyed by the ancients.” The Purāṇas are very explicit and consistent when describing the climate of these regions. If we assume that they correspond to some very ancient memories, we may use these descriptions to identify some of the lands, as they were seen by the ancients. But the question is, ‘how deep into the past must we go?
Now, lets us look at the climate of the six dwīpas as described in some of the earliest Purāṇas and try to identify these regions within the close vicinity of the Harappan region....
Śaka Dwīpa (Konkan Coast)
· Profusion of Teak trees (Śaka).
· It is east of Méru.
· Besides seven major rivers, there are hundreds of minor streams fed by heavy monsoon.
· People worship Vishnu.
· One needs to cross the sea of milk to reach this region.
Kuśa Dwīpa (Gujarat, Kutch & Malwa)
· Grass land.
· Poa grass (Kuśa) abounds.
· Seven rivers with many branches fed by waters ‘only’ when Indra pours down (monsoon).
· The region surrounds the milky ocean.
Pushkara Dwīpa (Thar Desert and Surrounding region)
· No rain.
· Pushkara lake exists here.
· The outer region is called Mahāvitam and the inner core Dhātaki.
· A circle of mountains surround this region.
· The sea of milk is close to the region.
Śālmala Dwīpa (Western Ghats and North Malabar)
· Śālmala is equated with silk-cotton.
· However, the word can be split into two. ‘Sāla+Mala’, Hills of Sal-wood.
· Mountainous. High in clouds.
· Plenty of food to gather.
· There is no summer or winter. Therefore, it cannot be Himalayas.
Krauncha Dwīpa (Quetta Valley & Northwest Frontier of Pakistan)
· No major difference in climate when compared to Jambudwīpa.
· Rivers with high volumes of water.
· Northwest of Jambudwīpa.
· Grithōda, the Sea of Ghee exists in this region (Animal Husbandry is mainstay).
· Well populated.
Plākşa Dwīpa (Western Vindhyas & Chambal?)
· Not much info on climate.
· Plākşa is identified as the fig tree.
· Probably, Plākşa can be read as Prāchya (East)
Therefore, we can reasonably attribute the name Jambudwīpa to the core area of the Indus Valley Civilization. (We are probably giving the gods a wrong address every-time we take the ‘samkalpa'
Are the various regions within Jambudwīpa mentioned in Purāṇas,
the provinces of the Indus Valley Empire?
We shall explore them later.