Physical geography (also known as physiography) is one of the two fields of geography which deals with the processes and patterns in the natural environment such as the atmosphere, hydrosphere, biosphere, and geosphere, as opposed to the cultural or built environment, the domain of human geography.
Physical geography can be divided into several branches and one of them is geomorphology.
Geomorphology is the scientific study of the origin and evolution of topographic and bathymetric features created by physical, chemical or biological processes operating at or near the Earth’s surface.
The physiography of the earth is poetically described in the Ṛgveda thus:
“The earth abounds in heights, bears the burden of mountains and supports the trees of the forests in the ground (kṣmā). She quickens, for she scatters rain and the showers of heaven are shed from the lightning of her clouds. She is great (mahī), firm (dṛḍha) and shining (arjunī)”.
A number of topographic features too are mentioned like lakes and waterfalls, deserts, snow-clad mountains, mountain fringes and shelving banks of the Gaṅgā. Further, the “river hymns” of the Ṛgveda furnish poetic cum geographic account of a number of rivers.
Perhaps, the Rgvedic Aryans had the concept of knowing slopes also of a region by the help of rivers. By the time of the Sāmaveda, Yajurveda and Atharvaveda, the Indians had come to acquire sufficient knowledge of physiography and geomorphology. The following geographical terms are a proof: उपह्वर – mountain slopes, इरिण – cleft, शिला – stony place, क्षयण -habitable place, ह्रद – lake, लोप – rugged land, सूर्व – good soil, किंशिल – pebbly places and अनूप – marshes. The Pṛthvī sūkta (XII) of the Atharvaveda furnishes a concise account of physiography like mountains, forest lands, rocky places, plain areas and perennial streams or slopes.
The celebrated epic Rāmāyaṇa reveals very rich and accurate knowledge of geomorphological patterns. Some of the geographical patterns quoted are: “And beautiful forests and woods, watery expanses of mighty volume and mountain with flat places”.
शोभयिष्यन्ति काकुत्स्थमटव्यो रम्यकाननाः।
आपगाश्च महानृपाः सानुमन्तश्च पर्वताः॥
“Rivers and rills and plateaus, caverns and fountains”:
सरित् प्रस्रवण प्रस्थान दरीकन्दा निर्झरान्॥
Vālmīki has also marked “river erosion on non-resistant or soft steep river bank”: रुणद्धि मृदु सोत्सेधं तीरमम्बुरयो यथा॥
Two chapters (Bhūmi Parva -11 and 12) of the Bhīṣma Parva of Mahābhārata contain considerable information on physiography. This epic mentions large tracts of deserts several times. The soil of a forest is described as: “Its soil was uneven and covered with blocks of stones, loosened from the hills”. The Mahābhārata thus evinces that the author has carefully observed and was acquainted with the geomorphological process of soil creep.
In Pāṇinī’s Aṣṭādhyāyi too we come across important geomorphological patterns. A river moving and breaking its banks is termed as भिन्द्य, glacier is named as हिमानी and so on.
There are many references to geomorphology found in the Purāṇas as well. The Vāyu Purāṇa refers to various types of topography namely lakes, barren tracks, rocky troughs between mountains (38.36): पश्चिमायान्दिशि तथा येऽन्तरद्रोणिविस्तराः। and longitudinal troughs lying between two filament like mountains (38.45):
तथैव शैलवरयोः कुमुदाञ्जनयोरपि।
And rocky expanses and dark mountain bowels (38.77): केचित् सन्ति महाघोराः श्यामाः पर्वतकुक्षयः।
Mention is also made of a large number of hot springs in a mountainous region (38.78):
तथाह्यनलतप्तानि सरांसि द्विजसत्तमाः।
शैलकुक्ष्यन्तरस्थानि सहस्राणि शतानि च॥
In the Mārkaṇḍeya Purāṇa (56.21-2) a peculiar type of topography “in the Kimpuruṣavarṣa and seven other countries” where water bubbles up from the ground is mentioned.
The obliteration of relief due to dissolutional erosion is described in the Viṣṇu Purāṇa thus (VI.3.21-2):
अधश्चोर्ध्वं च ते दीप्तास्ततस्सप्त दिवाकरः।
दहन्त्यशेषं त्रैलोक्यं सपातालतलं द्विज॥
दह्यमानं तु तैर्दीप्तैस्त्रैलोक्यं द्विज भास्करैः।
“The three worlds, consumed by these suns, becomes rugged and deformed all over their mountains, rivers and seas and the earth bare of verdure and destitute of moisture alone remains resembling in appearance the back of a tortoise”.
The acquaintance with the great obliteration of relief through tectonic processes, upheavals and vigorous erosions by the ancient geographers can be seen in the Matsya Purāṇa (122.II).
The Garuḍa Purāṇa (115.10) has recognised the exceptional erosive power of water which is said to be “death or senility to mountain”: अध्वाजरा देहवतां पर्वतानां जलं जरा।
With slight variations several Purāṇas classify the soils of the subterranean regions in seven categories as black, white or yellowish, blue or red, yellow, gravelly, hilly or boulder and golden hued. For instance, in the Brahma Purāṇa (221.2-3) the soil classification is as follows:
अतलं वितलञ्चैव नितलं सुतलं तथा।
तलातलं रसातलं पातालञ्चापि सप्तमम्॥
कृष्णा शुक्लारुणा पीता शर्करा शैलकञ्चनी।
Few Purāṇas assert that on the Meru mountain four types of soil or rocks are found. In the Varāha Purāṇa (75.15-7), it is mentioned as white in the east and yellow in the south: पूर्वतः श्वेतवर्णः पीतश्च दक्षिणेनासौ। black on the west and red on the north: भृङ्गपत्रनिभश्चासौ पश्चिमे पार्श्वमुत्तरतस्तस्य रक्तवर्णः विभाव्यते॥
The Padma Purāṇa (Uttarakhaṇḍa, 221.7-10) recognises five types of rocks – quartz (metamorphic rocks), blue rocks (most probably granite and the akin ones), Indra blue rocks (Perhaps a special variety of granite), yellow rocks and white rocks:
अधोर्ध्वस्फटिकश्वेतो मध्ये नीलशिलो गिरिः।
भूतिभिः सर्वतः शुभ्रो नीलकण्ठ इवाऽऽबभौ॥
इन्द्रनील शिलाढ्यस्तु हेमरेखान्तरान्तरः।
स्फुरद्विद्युल्लतः कृष्णजीमूत इव राजते॥
मूर्ध्निनीलशिलः शैलः सौधकाञ्चनमेखलः।
नारायण इवाऽऽभाति परिपीताम्बराञ्चितः॥
The Bṛhatsamhita also mentions a large variety of rocks like permeable and impermeable rocks, black-rocks, white rocks, green and copper rocks etc.
Mānasāra, perhaps the earliest and the most important architectural treatise, too furnishes considerable information on soils, their colour, taste, texture as well as slope of a region. The Samarāṅganasūtradhāra typifies three varieties of terrain as jāṅgala, anūpa and ordinary. According to the medical treatise Suśrutasamhita there are two types of soil examinations as general and special. Even in Buddhist and Jaina literature we have geographical works like Vṛhatkṣetrasamāsa and Aṅguttaranikāya etc.
We thus gather from the above that in ancient India the knowledge of geomorphology was well developed on scientific lines. The techniques of knowing the slope of an area by means of a flowing river were developed. Various types of topographies such as springs, water-falls, mountainous plateaus, eroded lands etc. along with the geographical terms were used. Land classification such as fertile, infertile, cultivable etc. and soil classifications such as black, yellow, red etc. which are in vogue even at present can be regarded as an important achievement of the Ancient Indians.
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- Aṣṭādhyāyi of Pāṇinī, Ram Nath Sharma, Munishiram Manoharlal publishers, Delhi, 1999
- Brahma Purāṇa, with English Tr. By Taranisha jha, Hindi Sahitya Sammelan, Prayag, 1976
- Garuḍa Purāṇa, Vol. I, text with English Tr. And notes by M.N. Dutt, New Bharatiya book Corporation, Delhi, 2007
- Mahābhārata, Gita Press, Gorakhpur
- Matsya Purāṇa, ed. by Jamna das Akhtar, Oriental Publishers, Delhi, 1972
- Mārkaṇḍeya Purāṇa, Eng. Translation with notes by F.Eden Pargiter, Indological Book House, Delhi, 1969
- Padma Purāṇa, Ananda Ashrama Mudralaya, Pune
- Ṛgveda Samhita, Text in Devanagari, with translation and notes by R.L. Kashyap, Pub. by Sri Aurobindo Kapali Sastry Institute of Vedic Culture (SAKSI), 2012
- Śrīmad Vālmīki Rāmāyaṇa, Pub. by N.Ramaratnam, 1933
- Vāyu Purāṇa, ed, by Rajendralal Mishra, Vol. I, Asiatic society of Bengal, Calcutta, 1880
- Varāha Purāṇa, with English Tr. and notes by Sri Ahibhusan Bhattacarya, All India Kashiraj trust, Varanasi, 1981
- Vedic Mythology by A.A. Macdonell, Indological Book house, Varanasi, 1963
- Viṣṇu Purāṇa, with Hindi translation by Sri Munilal Gupta, Gita Press, Gorakhpur, 1990
. Vedic Mythology by A.A. Macdonell, Indological Book house, Varanasi, 1963, p.88
. Ṛv. VIII.7.10: त्रीणि सरांसि पृश्नयो दुदुह्रे वज्रिणे मधु उत्सं कबन्धम् उद्रिणम्
. Ibid.V.83.10: अकः धन्वानि एता एतवा उ
. Ibid. X.121.4: यस्य मे हिमवन्तो महित्वा यस्य समुद्र रसया सहाहुः
. Ibid. VI.45.31: अधि बृबुः पणीनां वर्षिष्ठे मूर्धन्नस्थात् उरुः कक्षो न गाङ्ग्यः
. Ibid. X.75
. Atharvaveda I.6.4: शं न आपो धन्वन्याः शमु सन्तु अनूप्याः
. Vālmīki Rāmāyaṇa II.48.10
. Ibid. II.54.42
. Ibid. II.63.46
. Mahābhārata I.69.18: विषमं पर्वतस्त्रस्तैरश्मभिश्च समावृतम्। निर्जलं निर्मनुष्यं च बहुयोजनमायतम्॥
. 3.1.115: भिद्योद्ध्यौ नदे।
. 4.1.49: इन्द्रवरुणभवशर्वरुद्रमृड हिमारण्ययव यवनमातुलाचार्याणामादृक्।
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