Finding Mount Meru
(Geography of Jambudwipa Series)
The Purana literature gives a northern location for Mt. Meru and places it at the center of the known world – the Axis Mundi. Before I start digging into various mythological references, and otherwise, to its location, I would like to anchor myself with one historic source – Anabasis – which places it west of India. If we go back in time to the earliest civilization and consider its general core region as Jambudwipa, the northern region then consisted of inaccessible mountains and wild plains. If one had to look at the civilized outside world – it is logical– that one had looked westwards. Assuming that, let us look up some of those references that may guide us in finding the probable original location…
It is the capital city of Kubéra, the lord of the cardinal north. It was situated on Mt. Meru. It was also called Vasudhāra, Vasu-sthali or Prabhā. Kubéra is known for his immense wealth. He was also a trader and money lender. He was the lord of a people called ‘Gandharvas’.
Let us demystify these names and statements before we try and find some clues…
One that comes immediately to everyone’s mind is Alak-nanda, a tributary of Ganges, known in the Puranas as the first terrestrial manifestation of the divine river. Present identification of Alak-nanda is that of a stream that springs from Mansarovar at the feet of Mt. Kailas in Greater Himalayas. The glaciers that feed the river rise from the Eastern Karakorums, which forced many scholars to identify Meru as one of the peaks in that general region.
However, the descriptions of Alakapuri challenge that conclusion. Alaka was a prosperous city, inhabited by people called Gandharvas. Of course Gandharvas were not the original inhabitants of the place. They were planted there by Vishnu through the agency of the king, Purukutsa. Therefore if we want to identify the general region, we must look for the original people that inhabited the region, not the colonizers.
The city was also called Vasu-sthali or ‘the Place of Vasus. Let us see… who these Vasus are. Vasu comes from the root word ‘Vasā’, the cow. They probably were herdsmen who lived in the region. Their settlement was called Vasu-sthala or Vasu-dhara. (Dhara = Earth/Land) Later, Vasundhara became a general descriptive term for Earth. (And, that one of the eight Vasus was also named ‘Dhara’ may be incidental.) Similarly, Vāstu came to be identified with house/dwelling; and also the science of urban architecture.
Does it point to Vasus being Neolithic peoples and the original builders of urban settlements? If that’s so, surely, we cannot look for them in the ice capped mountains and uninhabitable glaciers of the north.
The original Sanskrit name of Swat is ‘Su-Vāstu’. Archaeology certainly supports the presence of early urban settlements in Swat Valley. Further, the valley is an important trade route connecting the subcontinent with western world. Therefore Swat Valley qualifies as a strong candidate for the location of Meru.
Before we come to any conclusion let us look for some other clues.
Gilgamesh & Lugulbanda:
In the Akkadian poem, Lugulbanda, king of Uruk travels to the kingdom of Aratta (probably Herat) and beyond, where he was abandoned by his men at a mountain pass called Hurrum or Ummeru.
Description of Hurrum to the east of Mesopotamia, across the mountains, as a frontier toll post on the route that they had taken to the river ‘Kur’ or the underworld may not help us in identifying any specific location but it helps us speculate on the name – Kur – Kurram – Vedic Krumu to the east of Herat on a trade route between two significantly large and unlike civilizations.
Let me quote Arrian here:
“And the mountain near the city, on whose foothills Nysa is built, is called Merus because of the incident at Dionysus' birth … Among the Assacenians is Massaca, a great city, where resides the chief authority of the Assacian land; and another city Peucela, this also a great city, not far from the Indus. These places then are inhabited on this side of the Indus towards the west, as far as the river Cophen.”
- Arrian: Anabasis Alexandri: Book VIII (Indica) Translated by E. Iliff Robson (1933)
River Cophen here is Kabul and the Peucela is Pushkalavati/Peshawar. Therefore, location of Meru on the grand trunk road connecting Kabul with Lahore is also plausible. Yet, there is a little problem of chronology. Anabasis also pushes the date of arrival of Nyseans to 6363 BCE. Even though Jalalabad route throws up some very early traces of urban settlements, a date of 7th millennium BCE may be difficult to prove.
Hsi yu ki:
Xuanzang relates a story with a river called ‘Su-p‘o-fa-su-tu’, which drained into Indus from the west. I have dwelt on the quandary between Subhavāstu and Suvāstu in my earlier post and tried to equate Subha-vāstu with Zhob Valley instead of Swat Valley. Ref: http://saipapineni.blogspot.in/2011/04/mound-of-dead.html
Mehrgarh in Zhob Valley is the cradle of a very early urbanization. A date of 6363BCE is not farfetched if we were to locate Meru in Zhob Valley, at least until archaeology can identify traces of a reasonably old urban settlement in Swat Valley or on the banks of Kabul or Kurram. But we cannot make any conclusive inference, now.
Puranas – and various views of their authors – differ greatly when they describe the shape and size of Meru, which probably is due to different points and regions from which it was observed and remembered. However, Garga gives a clue … Meru is like braided hair long and twisted. He was describing not a single mountain, but a chain of mountains.
All the above points of reference do not conclusively identify any specific location for Meru. But they all tend to point to the mountain passes of Hindukush range where the original man (Manu) founded the first civilization, a mountain, with a saucer shaped basin on top, that received the divine inspiration. An immense Axis Mundi – the ancient shamans envisioned when they looked westward at the hazy mountain tops of Hindukush.
With this general assumption on a possible location of Meru in the west, I propose to identify the various sub-regions of original Jambudwipa (IVC) in my next post. Until then … any constructive suggestions and insights from friends are welcome.