Geography of Jambudwipa series:
Are the Sanskrit sources relevant in understanding the Indus Geography?
Here I would like to quote Prof. Asko Parpola in a recent interview.
“I think these two language families have been in contact with each other ever since the Indo-Aryan speakers entered South Asia. It is impossible to leave Indo-Aryan sources out of account. They have preserved very important information of Harappan heritage.”
Coming from an authority like Prof. Parpola, whose contribution to the understanding of Harappan script and culture is respected by the scholars cutting across the parochial and ideological boundaries, the statement supports the rationale of drawing clues from the Sanskrit tradition in understanding the geography of the civilization milieu.
Similarly, the Dravidian literature also must have retained some of the clues, if we agree to the possibility that multilingual populations had shared the same civilization.
Where else do we look for more clues?
The literary tradition aside, the subcontinent has a culture complex with a multitude of isolated populations which retained some common memories and legends that had not transcended the folk domain to be a part of the written tradition.
Finally, the geographical map as viewed by the civilization was not a constant. Coming to Jambudwipa, if that was what we assume they called their land, it must have changed with the times and therefore requires a look in from different chronological view points.
7th Millennium BCE
Was the concept of Jambudwipa present in the 7th millennium BCE?
Archaeology tells us that most of the early farming sites are concentrated in the upper river valleys of Hindukush range. If we look at the map, Quetta Valley has the largest concentration of sites. We know that the valley is situated on a natural highway between the subcontinent and the Levant. It is plausible that the early farming communities of the Levantine Crescent and the sites in the subcontinent are somehow connected. Prof. Colin Renfrew thinks that it was during this period that a Proto-IE language had spread with the establishment of these communities. If that was the case, the original IE people belonged to the earliest of these farming communities. Mehrgarh certainly is a candidate along with some of the Palestinian and Anatolian sites.
Now the question is, ‘Were they the Rig Vedic people?’
True, there were many common names and legends Rig Veda shares with those of the classical Mediterranean cultures. But those came about much later and any commonality is probably due to later dissemination. Further, the Assyrian and the Rig Vedic traditions are entirely distinct. There are a few shared events and legends like the much touted flood legend of circa 3100 BCE belonging to Post-Ubaid, Jemdet Nasr period.
Therefore, Rig Veda may not be helpful in understanding the early farming communities of 7th millennium BCE. Secondly, we are not sure if these early farmers belonged to the same people or entirely independent of each other, even though those village sites looked functionally similar.
I am not trying to speculate on whether these cultures evolved indigenously or were planted by the migrants from the west. Archeologically, they were present in the Quetta Valley in the 7th millennium. I am looking only at the fact that when these technologically advanced communities existed, there were many indigenous communities that coexisted who were at an earlier cultural phase. Topographically, most of these farming sites are found in river valleys at substantial elevation – at an average of thousand meters above mean sea level, Mehrgarh being the lowest at around 700 above msl.
The hunter gatherers that lived in the plains must have looked at these technologically advanced people with awe. Their technology – their ability to control the animals and plants – was probably considered some kind of superhuman magic. These people of the ‘High place’ were probably the catalyst for the origin of the Meru myth. Naturally, when in the latter days, a geographically cogent world view developed, this mythical High place became its center.
Etymologically, it can be argued that Meru is derived from the Dravidian root, ‘Mél’. Not surprisingly Mél in Tamil is associated with height and the cardinal west.
Zhob in all probability was the focus of this nascent civilization of the super human people and is the same river ‘su-po-fa-su-tu’ (or Subha-vastu) as mentioned by Hsuen Tsang. This argument is consistent with my earlier post – Finding Mount Meru …
This entire argument above presumes that the concept of Jambudwipa belonged to a later phase in the prehistory of the subcontinent. Therefore, let us look at the next phase in my time-list to understand the Jambudwipa as a concept.
4500 BCE – Atlanticum
Om Bhūr Bhuvar Swar …. Thus goes the Gāyatri mantra. The spiritual interpretation of this is not what I would touch upon. But the context in which the mantra is first uttered is when the person enters the community as an accredited member. Manu samhita says that Vyāhritis – the three mystical words to have been milked by the first man from the three Vedas – resulted in the three lokas: Bhūr, Bhuvar and Swar. In essence, Gayatri is a pledge of loyalty taken by the newly inducted citizen to the way of life as dictated by the God of Bhrigus, the original source of illumination. It was the energy of the Sun that had brought these three spheres into one body. Every member of this emergent Aryan community was bound by this pledge.
It is a rather simplistic and materialistic interpretation, but the people of the early urban milieu were also simple people – still evolving into a syncretic community combining three streams of subsistence. Please see my earlier post … Rewinding the Traditional Clock – Part II
Let us look closely at the words – Bhū-r, Bhuva-r and Swa-r.
The suffix ‘ar’ always denoted people. It was probably derived from the Dravidian tradition. But many North Indian Jāti names also end with this suffix – Kumh-ar, Cham-ar etc.
Bhūr-loka became synonymous with the land, a plain on which the normal humans lived; while Bhuvar and Swar came to be known as some kind of celestial plains where the mythical superhuman beings like the gods existed. The rivers – Sindhu, Saraswati and Sarayu were the focus of this human habitat …
Let us start with the identification of this Bhūr-loka in the prehistoric archaeological milieu.
We know where Sindhu is.
Saraswati is no more a speculation.
But, Sarayu is an enigma. I would like to point at a Rigvedic legend much touted in later epics…
“It was on the banks of Harayūpiya, Indra killed hundred priests called Vrichivats”, says Rigveda. Rāmāyana mentions the legend of Viswāmitra killing a hundred of Vasishṭa’s sons at Hariyūpa. They were called Vālashikhas. Sudas killed a hundred Vaikarnéyas on the banks of the river Parushni. Vālashikhas, Varashikhas and Vaikarnéyas belong to Vāsishṭa gōtra. All these above legends allude to one single incident in the remembered past.
We know Parushni is the ancient name of Rāvi on whose bank we find Harappa. Therefore, it is possible that the original Sarayu/Harayu is none other than the river Rāvi.
The three principal rivers – Sindhu, Sarayu & Saraswati – were Indus, Rāvi and Saraswati (whose upper tributary was Sutlej). The riparian map of Punjab probably looked like this…
It was here the first native agrarian communities had established themselves and called their habitat drained by the three rivers as Bhūr-loka.
It was the land of the ancestors. Those, who were looked up to. There are two names that crop up – Vasus and Pitris. Pitris is just a synonym for the ancestors. I have – in my earlier post – speculated upon the possible association of the original builders of Neolithic communities in the upper Zhob region with the Vasus.
These inhabitants of Bhuvar-loka had reciprocal relationship with the dwellers of Bhūr-loka – as benefactors and receivers of annual tribute.
It’s called the abode of the gods. Rigveda calls it by the name ‘Divi’. Three sets of superhuman beings occupied this sphere in successive periods. They were Gandharvas, Asuras and Dévas. Clues to the identification of this region lay in the various legends about its original occupants – Gandharvas.
Who are they?
Rigveda calls them Divya Gandharvas, meaning Gandharvas of Divi. They are the beings of the night. They came in their winged craft with the background of setting sun, their amphorae filled with intoxicating Sura and rejuvenating ambrosia. Their women Apsaras accompanied them, the nymphs of water with floral garlands bouncing on their naked breast to their gyrations to the tunes of divine music of their lute playing singers. They are free spirits unrestricted by the norms that governed the common folk.
I want to draw a parallel … the experiences of those early explorers of 19th century who described the islands of the South Pacific – the Polynesian society. We know from the anthropological sources that the early migration route taken by the native populations of the Pacific islands had passed through the subcontinent. Remnants of these cultures still exist among the hill tribes of the region – speakers of Munda language group.
Legends have it that the Gandharvas were evicted from their original homes by the Asuras and they fled to the hills. The most populous Munda tribes are still known by names such as Khonds, Gonds etc. Ramayana recollects that the Lanka was ruled by Kubéra, the overlord of Gandharvas who had to relinquish his control to Rāvan and relocate himself at Alaka near Méru. Gandharvas and their women, Apsaras were the children of Nārāyana, the original ancestor who had his floating abode in the waters of Nāra. The dancing girl bronze of Mohenjodaro has strong Austric features. The early levels of Kot Diji, Dholavira, Amri and Chanhudaro show distinct polychrome designs, indicating a lively lifestyle, as compared to the staid unadorned pottery of the later phases. Divi is synonymous with ‘island’ in most Munda and Dravidian languages. Lanka is an island. ‘Ganda’ means ‘Man’ in many Dravidian languages.
All these point to a vibrant native culture that had existed in the lower Indus region – where the rivers split into a myriad of distributaries creating many islands and oxbow lakes – drawing subsistence from the bounty of the river. No wonder, the eastern stream of Indus delta is even today known by the name ‘Nāra’.
We may conclude that primarily these three streams of people – the three lokas – with distinct cultural backgrounds constituted the builders of the first urban civilization.
For now it should suffice to say that the idea of Jambudwipa came into being only after the integration of early Neolithic peoples into a singular urban culture and the resultant need for an identity as opposed to the Upper Paleolithic people that surrounded it. The Gāyatri mantra was instituted as an instrument of recruitment into this emerging culture.
The integration had taken place sometime later. The spark that had ignited this process and the resultant worldview that had developed will be discussed in my next post.