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Monday, August 20, 2012

Rewinding the Traditional Clock – Part I

Rewinding the Traditional Clock – Part I
Geography of Jambudwipa Series

Change is constant.
As we know it, the political map of the world has never remained the same even for a year. Any speculation based on the assumption that it had remained unchanging for a span of a few thousand years – during the subcontinent’s prehistoric civilization – will of course be hollow. Here, I want to acknowledge my newly found friend, Harish Gala for providing the necessary trigger when he commented on my earlier post, ‘Finding Mount Méru’. Check link:
Before we begin exploring the various clues that exist in the traditional lore, I will secure myself in some reasonably undisputable pointers. Archaeology provides a sequence, which we shall examine first. Instead of speculating on ‘who’s first’, I am giving a broad timetable of events below.

9000 BP

8000 BP
Appearance of Neolithic Cultures
Mehrgarh, Catal Huyuk, Jericho etc.
6500 BP
Chalcolithic Urban Centers
Indus Valley, Euphrates, Nile basin etc
5100 BP
Bronze Age
Indian Subcontinent, Mesopotamia, Egypt
2500 BP
Classical Age
India, Persia, Greece

The historic period in the neighboring Mesopotamia and Egypt begins with the Bronze Age Civilizations there. Thanks to the libraries of Assurbanipal and the clay tablets of Egypt, these civilizations have an acceptable chronological framework. But, the subcontinent has no such luck. Here, the records available are oral, susceptible to revision by their custodians. Therefore, any attempt at reconstructing the past based on these oral traditions will always be mired in controversy. A predicament we cannot escape, but nevertheless we shall continue to endeavor and try not to be driven by ideological and political agenda, but stick to reasonable reason and be open to similar views from others. Unfortunately, the temper and tenor of our scientists betray otherwise, causing nonpartisan observers to look at even the most objective attempts with suspicion.
Let me be forthright with my stance. I am not a professional historian and this is not an academic paper. My attempt here is purely speculative and has no scientific pretentions. All that I hope is that some true historian may find inspiration from this and postulates a logical hypothesis. Now that I am through with my disclaimer, let me plough along…
The Indian tradition has contents which may be slotted into three broad overlapping compartments:
1.      Contemporary Experiences
2.      Memories of Events from the Past
3.      Myths of Supernatural and Extra-human Nature
The final renditions of the texts that we have today, belong to a period significantly recent compared to the civilization, whose geography we set out to explore. And, to differentiate and segregate, the myth from the past from the contemporary, from the muddled narratives is certain to suffer from human judgmental bias. It’s easy for any ‘scientist’ with known ideological or political leanings to pick only those parts which are convenient to his argument and build his theory. We cannot blame them because the source itself is imperfect and we have very little irrevocable material evidence to fall back on. In a way, I attempt to do the same and therefore refrain from calling this a hypothesis, but just a speculation.
Firstly, I want to identify a few time markers from archaeological and external sources to build the matrices around them.
1.      1500 BCE – Dates of Dwaraka
2.      2000 BCE – Regionalization of IVC
3.      2500 BCE – Mature IVC - Meluhha appears in Akkadian context
4.      3100 BCE – Gilgamesh and Evidence of flood at Suruppak.
5.      4500 BCE – Climatic phase ‘Atlanticum’ - Nascent urban sites in river valleys
6.      6363 BCE – Date given by Arrian for the arrival of Dionysius in India.
Now, let me match the traditional Puranic data with the above dates.
Circa 1500 BCE
The Bengal King List mentions a gap of 1040 years between the First Recitation of Purānas and the Coronation of the first king of Nanda dynasty, Mahāpadma. During the intervening period, 22 Brāhatrātra, 5 Prādyota, 8 Saisunāga kings ruled in succession. There were 9 Nandas who ruled after Mahāpadma. If we give each Nanda king a reign of 20 years which approximates with the length of reigns of various historic dynasties, we may reasonably assume that Nandas ruled for 180 years. Therefore, a total of 46 kings ruled between the reign of Janamejaya and Chandragupta Maurya, who succeeded the last Nanda king, with an average length of 28 years each – a length particularly long compared to historic averages but well within reasonable limits. 

We are fairly sure of the date of Maurya ascension – 321 BCE. Therefore, the traditional date of the first recital falls on (320 BCE + 1040 + 180) 1540 BCE which approximates with mid second millennium BCE.
This date happily corresponds with the radiocarbon dates of Dwaraka, disappearance of Late Harappan culture in Gujarat and Doab and subsequent ruralization and isolation of urban centers in the subcontinent.
The tradition credits Veda Vyāsa and his disciples, the contemporaries of Mahabharata war with the final composition of Purānas and the compilation of ancient knowledge, in the form of four separate Vedas and its annexures. No wonder the philologists’ dates of ṚgVeda also fall thereabouts. However, the memories and myths contained in these compilations might have belonged to earlier contexts.
Assuming that circa 1500 belonged to the Mahabharata period we may attempt deciphering the geography of the period based on the epic. However, the epic, as we inherited, is encyclopediaic in nature. The specific references to the geography suffer from being extrapolations of later times. A more conservative approach based on the principal characters of the story, supported by archaeological knowledge may give us an idea. I would like to leave it for my next post and confine myself here to the task of building the chronological framework for that purpose.
Circa 2000 BCE
Before we venture into the maze of Solar and Lunar king-lists, I would like to establish two basic assumptions. See table.
1.      Brihatbala a solar king and a direct descendent of Rama, the protagonist of the epic, Ramayana, is supposedly a contemporary of the heroes of Mahabharata war. Therefore, I assume that he lived in circa 1500.
2.      Secondly, I assume that – the basic tenets of Yuga chronology – Ramayana and Mahabharata occurred towards the end of Treta and Dwapara segments respectively. And, utilize the lists of solar kings for the period earlier to Mahabharata instead of the  lunar kings.   
From Brihatbala to Rama, there are 30 solar kings on the list. If we give an average reign of 18 years to each of them, taking into account a conservative life expectancy rate, an interregnum of 540 years, places the period of Ramayana at the end of the third millennium BCE.
Here, we must look at two seminal themes in our tradition. One, Ramarajya is remembered as the most glorious phase of our past and the empire reached the maximum extent during Rama’s reign. Second, the entire period is known for continuous conflict with Asuras, whose presence ended with the reign of Rama.
It doesn’t take too long to club Treta-Yuga with the Mature Harappan archaeological phase and presume that Rama’s reign occurred at its end. Tradition also states that the sons of Rama and Bharata established new territories and cities far away from the core areas of the earlier empire, like Takshasila, Puskalavati, Kusalavati, Lavapuri etc.
Therefore, when I finally try to speculate on the extent of Jambudwipa; and the nature and names of regions and towns within the Mature Harappan phase, due cognizance of this fact will be taken.
Circa 3100 BCE
In the beginning, there was this flood. Legend has it that the first man, a king called Manu established order in a land inundated by chaos, whose descendents ruled Jambudwipa. Ikshvaku line of kings claimed descent from him and 60 generations came to pass before Rama was born. A period of 1100 years places Manu in 3100 BCE. See table. 

Interestingly, 3102 BCE is the traditional date for the beginning of this era, given by Aryabhata. Further, it coincides with the archaeological and Akkadian dates of Suruppak flood.
Sagara 24th king in this lineage is known to have conquered the entire land all the way to the sea. His date falls somewhere in the middle of the third millennium, 2532 BCE, and explains the beginning of the Mature Harappan archaeological context. The hydrologists’ estimate based on satellite imagery and the data from groundwater mapping suggests 2400BCE as the beginning of a riparian crisis – drying up of the Saraswati. Bhagirath, great grandson of Sagara is famous for bringing the celestial river to the earth. Is it a dramatized version of a folk memory of the humungous effort to dig a channel to divert the waters of Sutlej to the old bed, reviving the parched settlements?
Further, we may assume that the people of Ayodhya coexisted or in conflict with another equally strong people called Asuras with their own strongholds. If our task is to understand the geography of the region, we may need to explore the territories of both the Ikshwakus and their bête noir, the so called Rakshasas or Asuras.
Finally … Before I attempt that …
I would like to explore the pre Harappan timelines (of 4500 & 6500 BCE) and try and associate them with what our tradition has to offer. Of course, as we go deeper into the past, memories turn into myths and we are constrained to find clues in irrational beliefs and legends. Nevertheless, I shall endeavor in my next post: Rewinding the Traditional Clock – Part II.

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