Indians from the hoary past knew about the concept of Geography and had
realised the importance of geographic knowledge. They had actually endeavoured to put on record this knowledge, in their own fashion by creating a separate section, which is found in the Purāṇas which are the written documents of literature, culture and civilisation.
In all the Purāṇas, there occurs a particular topic titled Bhuvanakośa varṇana, wherein the general and regional geography of the world and India are both discussed. These chapters deal with geographical matters like cosmogony, cosmology and cosmography. It also includes, among other related matters, the origin of the universe and the earth, the oceans and the continents, mountain systems of the world, regions and their people and astronomical geography.
Before we venture into knowing the information about the Parvatas of the world enumerated by the Purāṇas, it is necessary for us to familiarise with the sapta dvīpas. It is also important to note that the Purāṇas have recorded clearly that the whole configuration of the world changes every manvantara and nothing is constant. The dvīpas and the parvatas referred to by the Purāṇas and presented here, pertain to those that were formed during the end of the earlier manvantara known as the Cākṣuṣa manvantara or the beginning of the present manvantara, the Vaivasvata manvantara.
SAPTA DVĪPAS (THE SEVEN CONTINENTS):
The geography of the world and its regions figure in most of the Purāṇas, the main features of the dvīpas (continents) and oceans and their sub-divisions remaining essentially the same. The Purāṇas record the process of how the Earth was formed, how it solidified and how the various landmass were formed.
The Mārkaṇḍeya Purāṇa, while describing the evolution of earth implies that originally all landmass was a unified structure and at some later period it was divided or rifted unto several segments called dvīpas (XLVII. 13ab):
भूविभागं ततः कृत्वा सप्तद्वीपोपशोभितम् ।
The above concept of the Purāṇas about the unified landmass, confirms with the Concept of Pangea and the theory of Continental drift propounded by the German Geologist Alfred Wegener in 1912.
The Purāṇas discuss about the various dvīpas (continents) and their constituent varṣas (sub-continents). The dvīpa literally means “land between two arms of water”. It may signify an ‘island’, a ‘peninsula’ or a ‘doab’ (between two rivers). In ancient Sanskrit literature it has often been used to mean only a portion of land and no more.
As a rule the Purāṇas have conceived the earth to be comprised of seven continents viz., Jambū, Plakṣa, Śālmali, Kuśa, Krauñca, Śāka and Puṣkara. The Viṣṇu Purāṇa (II. 2. 5) records this as:
जम्बू-प्लक्षाह्वयौ द्वीपौ शाल्मलिश्चापरो द्विज।
कुशः क्रौञ्चस्तथा शाकः पुष्करश्चैव सप्तमः॥
The Padma Purāṇa (Ch. IV) and the Matsya Purāṇa (Chs. 122-23) mention the name of the continents in the following order – Jambū, Śāka, Kuśa, Krauñca, Śālmali, Gomeda (in the place of Plakṣa) and Puṣkara. These seven dvīpas are so arranged that the central one (called the Jambūdvīpa) is surrounded by an ocean of saltwater. Thus the other dvīpas are arranged alternately surrounded with different oceans.
The areas of each continent and the ocean are such that they increase in simple geometrical progression according to their distance from the central dvīpa, as could be seen in Fig. 1.
Modern scholars usually treat these continents as merely mythological, in as much as from their description in the Purāṇas, it is generally thought to be well nigh impossible to identify them accurately within the systems of modern geography.
Dr. H. C. Raychaudhuri observes, “Thus the account of the ‘seven dvīpas’ may
have had originally a substratum of reality. But the extant texts bearing on the subject are so hopelessly corrupt that the kernel of truth is in most cases buried beyond reach underneath a vast mass of Utopian myths. It is only in the account
of Jambūdvīpa that the poet has not altogether thrust out the geographer.”
Various Purāṇas have discussed the geography of the other dvīpas like Kuśa, Śāka, Krauñca and the like in some detail. Though they have enumerated the varṣas or regions of each and named their important mountains, chief rivers and furnished other geographic facts, there is considerable confusion regarding the number, location and contents of various dvīpas.
Prof. S. M. Ali records: “Various ‘theories’ have been propounded regarding the identity of the Sapta dvīpas (Fig. 2) of the Purāṇas in modern parlance. They say that the seven continents correspond to:
(a) Asia, Europe, Africa, Australia, North and South Americas and Antarctica.
(b) The ‘Seven Climates’ of the ancients.
(c) The different opinions on the dvīpas of the Purāṇas:
- Jambū (India); Plakṣa (Arakan and Burma); Kuśa (Sunda Archipelago); Śālmali (Malaya Peninsula); Krauñca (South India), Śāka (Kamboja) and Puṣkara (N. China and Mongolia) – Col. Gerini’s conclusion.
- Jambū (India); Plakṣa (Asia Minor); Kuśa (Iran); Śālmali (Central Europe); Krauñca (Western Europe), Śāka (British Isles) and Puṣkara (Iceland) – Wilford’s view.
iii. Jambū (India); Plakṣa (Greece); Kuśa (Iran, Arabia and Ethiopia); Śālmali (Sarmatia?); Krauñca (Asia Minor), Śāka (Seythia) and Puṣkara (Turkistan) and Gomeda (Komedie, Tartary) – according to V. V. Iyer.”
Considering all the ‘theories’, Prof. S. M. Ali concludes that the location of the dvīpas can be determined by keeping the climate and vegetational data as the foremost feature of the dvīpas. On the basis of this he goes on to prove the following:
(i) Jambū – is the large part of Asia, mainly having Russia and India and adjacent areas;
(ii) Plakṣa – Greece and adjoining lands;
(iii) Kuśa – Iran, Iraq and south-western corner of landmass around Meru;
(iv) Śālmali – Tropical part of Africa bordering the Indian Ocean on the west including Madagascar;
(v) Krauñca – North-east of Jambūdvīpa with a number of mountains and voluminous rivers. Also, the basin of Black Sea;
(vi) Śāka – Monsoon Asia limited to Malaya, Siam, Indo-China and Southern China and
(vii) Puṣkara – Whole of Japan, Manchuria and South-eastern Siberia.
Here only the Jambūdvīpa and the parvatas related to it are discussed as follows:
The Jambūdvīpa also called as Sudarśana dvīpa is said to have been named after a tree growing in that land (Matsya P., 114. 75-6ab):
सुदर्शनो नाम महाजम्बूवृक्षः सनातनः।
. . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . .
तस्य नाम्ना समाख्यातो जम्बूद्वीपो वनस्पतेः।
This continent is described to be shaped like a four-petal lotus having Meru as its karṇikā (pericarp) and the four petals being the Varṣas – Bhadrāśva, Bhārata, Ketumāla and Uttarakuru (Brahmāṇḍa P., XXXV. 50) :
महाद्वीपास्तु विख्याताश्चत्वारः यत्र संस्थिताः।
पद्मकर्णिक संस्थानो मेरु नामा महावलाः॥
But the total number of Varṣas in the Jambūdvīpa (Fig. 3) is given to be nine
according to the Mārkaṇḍeya Purāṇa (LIII. 33cd-5) – Nābhi (Bhārata), Kimpuruṣa, Harivarṣa, Ilāvṛta, Ramyaka, Hiraṇmaya, Kuru, Bhadrāśva and Ketumāla:
ज्येष्ठो नाभिरिति ख्यातस्तस्य किंपुरुषोऽनुजः॥
रम्यश्च पञ्चमः पुत्रो हिरण्यः षष्ठ उच्यते॥
कुरुस्तु सप्तमस्तेषां भद्राश्वश्चाष्टमः स्मृतः।
नवमः केतुमालश्च तन्नाम्ना वर्षसंस्थितिः॥
Among these Varṣas, the Ilāvṛta is situated in the centre and is also called
the Meruvarṣa (Mārkaṇḍeya P. LX. 7ab):
The Ramyaka, Hiraṇmaya and Uttarakuru lie to the north of Meru; Bhārata, Kimpuruṣa and Harivarṣa are situated to the south and in the east and west lie the other two viz., Bhadrāśva and Ketumāla.
ORIGIN OF MOUNTAINS:
It is said in the Mārkaṇḍeya P. that Lord Brahmā first created the mountains after the earth was levelled; formerly when it was burnt up by the then world destroying fire, those mountains were totally consumed by the fire. The rocks then were engulfed by the ocean and the water was driven together by the wind; wherever the rocks ‘adhered’ and ‘remained’, there the mountains grew into being.
From the above statements from the Mārkaṇḍeya P. it can be deciphered that at some initial stage mountains were created by Lord Brahmā, later they were formed out of growth of some rocky mass or structure. This implies clearly the activity of “Orogenic forces”. The words ‘adhered’ and ‘remained’ point to the assertion of the “Concept of Zwischengebirge (Intermediate Mountains)”.
CATEGORIES OF PARVATAS:
The Purāṇas place the whole mountain system of the world at the centre around the Meru, which is in turn said to be situated in the middle of Ilāvṛta varṣa. Further the Purāṇas have recognised in general, five categories of parvatas. They are as follows:
(i) Central mountain or Meru;
(ii) Viṣkambha parvatas (subjacent mountains);
(iii) Varṣa parvatas (sub-continental ranges);
(iv) Kula parvatas (principal chains) and
(v) Maryāda parvatas (Boundary Mountains).
The Brahma, Śiva and Viṣṇu Purāṇas have recognised a sixth category designated as Kesara parvatas (Filament mountains).
(i) MERU PARVATA:
Meru or the abode of Brahmā is the pivot and the key to the Puranic geography of the world. It is the point of reference round which are symmetrically arranged the parvatas of the Puranic world.
Regarding the size and shape of the Meru, the Viṣṇu P. says, “Jambūdvīpa is in the centre of all these (continents) and to its centre is the golden mountain Meru. The height of the Meru is 84,000 yojanas and its depth below the surface of the earth is 16,000 yojanas. Its diameter at the summit is 32,000 yojanas and at its base 16,000:
so that this mountain is like the pericarp (seed cup) of the ‘lotus of the earth’”
(II. 2. 7cd-8):
तस्यापि मेरुर्मैत्रेय मध्ये कनकपर्वतः।
चतुरशीतिसाहस्रो योजनैरस्य चोच्छ्रयः॥
प्रविष्टः षोडशाधस्ताद्द्वात्रिंशन्मूर्ध्नि विस्तृतः।
मूले षोडशसाहस्रो विस्तारस्तस्य सर्वशः॥
भूपद्मस्यास्य शैलोऽसौ कर्णिकाकारसंस्थितः॥
The shape of the Meru, according to the above description is that of an inverted cone; but there seems to be some uncertainty regarding this subject amongst the Purāṇas: The Padma compares its form to the bell-shaped flower of Dhatura. The Vāyu and Matsya represent it as having four sides of different colours (i.e.), white on the east, yellow on the south, black on the west and red on the north. But the Liṅga makes its eastern face the colour of ruby, its southern, that of lotus; its western, golden and its northern coral.
Prof. S. M. Ali records that, “there are other opinions as well regarding the outline of the Meru parvata – according to Atri it has hundred angles; to Bhṛgu, a thousand; Sāvarṇi calls it octangular; Bhaguri, quadrangular and Vārṣāyaṇi says it has thousand angles; Galava makes it saucer-shaped; Garga, twisted like braided hair and others maintain that it is circular.”
(ii) VIṢKAMBHA PARVATAS:
These are the subjacent mountains and are four in number – Mandhara in the east, Gandhamādana in the south, Vipula in the west and Śupārśva in the north (Viṣṇu P., II. 2. 17-8):
विष्कम्भा रचिता मेरोर्योजनायुतमुच्छ्रिताः॥
पूर्वेण मन्दरो नाम दक्षिणे गन्धमादनः।
विपुलः पश्चिमे पार्श्वे सुपार्श्वश्चोत्तरे स्मृतः॥
(iii) VARṢA PARVATAS:
These sub-continental ranges are seven in number. Between the Kuru and Hiraṇmaya varṣas stretches Śṛṅgī; between Hiraṇmaya and Ramyaka varṣas the Śveta parvata; between Ramyaka, Ketumāla and Bhadrāśva varṣas, the Nīlagiri parvata; between Hari, Bhadrāśva and Ketumāla varṣas, the Niṣadha; between Hari and Kinnara varṣas, the Hemakūṭa; and between Bhārata and Kinnara varṣas, lies the Himavat (the Himalayas) (Viṣṇu P., II. 2. 11):
हिमवान्हेमकूटश्च निषधश्चास्य दक्षिणे।
नीलः श्वेतश्च शृङ्गी च उत्तरे वर्षपर्वताः॥
Thus the Śṛṅgī, Śveta, Nīla, Niṣadha (Ṛṣbha), Hemakūṭa and Himavat are said to be the mountains of Uttarakuru, Hiraṇmaya, Ramayaka, Hari, Kinnara and Bhārata varṣas respectively; since the Meru is the Varṣa parvata of Ilāvṛta – there may be said to be seven Varṣa parvatas in all (Mārkaṇḍeya P., LIV. 9):
हिमवान् हेमकूटश्च ऋषभो मेरुरेव च।
नीलः श्वेतस्तथा शृङ्गी सप्तास्मिन् वर्षपर्वताः॥
(iv) KULA PARVATAS:
According to the Purāṇas, every varṣa is said to be endowed with seven principal ranges (Group Mountains or clan mountains) (Agni P., 108. 32):
The Kula parvatas of the Bhārata varṣa are Mahendra, Malaya, Sahya, Śuktimān, Ṛkṣa, Vindhya and Pāriyātra (Viṣṇu P., II. 3. 3):
महेन्द्रो मलयः सह्यः शुक्तिमानृक्षपर्वतः ।
विन्ध्यश्च पारियात्रश्च सप्तात्र कुलपर्वताः॥
In addition to these Kula parvatas, the Purāṇas have also enumerated a large number of smaller mountains or Kṣudraparvatas, extending in the vicinity of the principal ranges.
(v) MARYĀDĀ PARVATAS:
The four petal like sub-continents Uttarakuru, Bhārata, Bhadrāśva and Ketumāla are far removed from each other. These are separated from the Ilāvṛta varṣa and the other inner varṣas by the ranges called the Maryādā parvatas or the Boundary Mountains, which have been said to eight in number. They are (Mārkaṇḍeya P., LIV. 22-6ab):-
जठरो देवकूटश्च पूर्वस्यां दिशि पर्वतौ ।. . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . ॥
निषधः पारियात्रश्च मेरोः पार्श्वे तु पश्चिमे ।यथा पूर्वौ तथाचैतावानीलनिषधायतौ ॥
कैलासो हिमवांश्चैव दक्षिणेन महाचलौ ।पूर्वपश्चायतावेतावर्णवान्तर्व्यवस्थितौ ॥
शृङ्गवान् जारुधिश्चैव तथैवोत्तरपर्वतौ ।यथैव दक्षिणे तद्वदन्तवर्णवान्तर्व्यवस्थितौ॥
मर्यादपर्वता ह्येते कथ्यन्तेऽष्टौ द्विजोत्तम ।
The Jaṭhara and Devakūṭa are situated on the eastern side of the Meru demarcating Ilāvṛta from Bhadrāśva; Niṣadha and Pāriyātra on the west separates Ilāvṛta from Ketumāla; Kailāsa and Himavat lies between Ilāvṛta and Bhārata in the south and Śṛṅgavat (Triśṛṅga) and Jārudhi (Rudhira) lies on the north separating Uttarakuru from the rest of the Jambūdvīpa.
A little confusion may arise in differentiating between the Maryādā and Varṣaparvatas. In this regard Dr. Raychaudhuri observes: “It is, however, to be noted that the name Maryādā parvata is given to the mountains on all the sides of Meru which separate the central varṣa or varṣas from the four outermost sub-continents. Varṣa parvatas, on the other hand, include Meru itself and the ranges separating the northern and southern (but not the eastern and western) varṣas from one another. All of them, with the exception of Meru, are represented as running from east to west and extending to the sea. That there is overlapping in regard to the northernmost and southernmost ranges is what may naturally be expected.” Also, these parvatas are referred to by Alberuni as the Quadrangular Mountains.
(vi) KESARA PARVATAS:
These Filamental mountains are also situated around the Meru and in between the other major ranges mentioned above including the Meru. According to the Viṣṇu P. (II. 2. 27-30), they are: Śītāmbha, Kumuda, Kurarī, Mālyavān and Vaikaṅka on the east; Trikūṭa, Śiśira, Pataṅga, Rucaka and Niṣadha on the south; on the west are Śikhivāsā, Savaiḍūrya, Kapila, Gandhamādana and Jārudhi; and on the north are Śaṅkhakūṭa, Ṛṣabha, Hamsa, Nāga and Kālañjā :
शीताम्भश्च कुमुदश्च कुररी माल्यवांस्तथा ।वैकङ्कप्रमुखा मेरोः पूर्वतः केसराचलाः ॥
त्रिकूटः शिशिरश्चैव पतङ्गो रुचकस्तथा ।निषदाद्या दक्षिणतस्तस्य केसरपर्वताः ॥
शिखिवासाः सवैडूर्यः कपिलो गन्धमादनः।जारुधिप्रमुखास्तद्वत्पश्चिमे केसराचलाः ॥
मेरोरनन्तराङ्गेषु जठरादिष्ववस्थिताः ।
शङ्खकूटोऽथ ऋषभो हंसो नागस्तथापरः।कालञ्जाद्याश्च तथा उत्तरे केसराचलाः ॥
IDENTIFICATION OF THE PARVATAS OF THE PURĀṆAS:
There are very many views pertaining to locating the above mentioned parvatas by modern day geographers. Amongst them the view of Prof. Ali seems more feasible when he concludes, after thoroughly analysing the views regarding the location of some of the puranic mountains, that (Fig. 4 & 5):
(i) Meru can be identified with the Great Pamir Knot of Asia
(ii) Western Niṣadha is the Hindukush range
(iii) Hemakūṭa is the modern Kailāsa Trans-Himalayan range
(iv) Himavat is also part of the Himalayan mountain chain
(v) Gandamādana is said to be the northern ridge of the great Hindukush arch with its northern extension, the Khwaja Mohammad range.
There are also much controversy regarding the identification of the Kula parvatas of the Bhāratavarṣa. According to Dr. Raychaudhuri and Cunninghum:
(i) Mahendra – it is identified with “the entire chain of hills extending from Ganjam to Tennevely”. In the other words, it is the Pūrvighats.
(ii) Malaya – this is said to be the portion of the Western Ghats extending from the Nīlagiri to the proximity of Cape Comorin, south of river Kāverī.
(iii) Sahya – it has been accurately identified with the northern portion of the Western Ghats from the Tapti down to the Nīlagiris.
(iv) Śuktimat – Extremely divergent opinions are held by scholars in identifying this mountain. Dr. Raychaudhuri boldly suggests, “The name Śuktimat was probably applied to the chain of hills that extends from Śukti in Raigarh (M.P.) to the Dalma hills in the Manbhum drained by Kumarī and perhaps even to the hills in the Santhal Parganas washed by the affluents of Babla.”
(v) Ṛkṣa– This parvata is sometimes confused with the Vindhyas, in the Purāṇas. Perhaps it implies the chain of the Central Vindhyas near the central Narmadā region.
(vi) Vindhyas– Though frequently interchangeable with the denotation of the Ṛkṣa, embraced the chains from Gujarat to Gaya district or when used in restricted sense indicates the mountain range south of the Narmadā.
From the above facts it appears that the Purāṇas have had, to some extent, exact knowledge of the topography and physiography of the world. Moreover, the Purāṇas only just mention the various parvatas but not their characteristic features, like the vegetation, flora, fauna, etc. But, those descriptions is seen in some detail in our Epics and other Sanskrit literatures. It needs more intrinsic research to discern the hidden geographic knowledge from their descriptions of the legends and puranic stories.
Fig. 1 – Concentric Projection of the Puranic dvīpas and the oceans:
Fig. 2 – The Puranic Dvīpas according to Prof. S. M. Ali
Fig. 3 – Oblique Azimuthal Equidistant Projection of the Jambūdvīpa with its varṣas and parvatas
Fig. 4 – The Parvatas of Jambūdvīpa:
Fig. 5 – The Meru and Niṣadha Parvatas:
- Agni Purāṇa, Text with Eng. tr. by M. N. Dutt, Parimal Publications, Delhi, 2001.
- Brahmāṇḍa Purāṇa, Chowkhamba Krishnadas Academy, Anandasrama Publications, Varanasi, 2012.
- Bhāgavata Purāṇa, Text with Eng. tr. by C.L. Goswami, Gita Press, Gorakhpur, 1971.
- Garuḍa Purāṇa, Text with Eng. tr. by M.N. Dutt, New Bharatiya Book Corporation, Delhi, 2007.
- Liṅga Purāṇa, Text with Eng. tr. by Nagar Shanti Lal, Parimal Sanskrit Series N0.114, Parimal Publications, Delhi, 2011.
- Mārkaṇḍeya Purāṇa, with Com. by B. Vrindavanadasa, Shyamkasi Press, Mathura, 1941.
- Matsya Purāṇa, Text with Eng. tr. by a Board of scholars, Parimal Publication, Delhi, 2007.
- Padma Purāṇa, ed. by Rao Sahib Mandate and Visvanath Narayana, Anandasrama Press, 1894.
- Śiva Purāṇa, Text with Eng. tr. by Sharma Sudarshan Kumar, Parimal Publications, Delhi, 2008.
- Śrī Viṣṇu Purāṇa, Text with Hin. tr., Gita Press, Gorakhpur, 1990.
- Vāyu Purāṇa, Text with Eng. tr. by Sharma Sudarshan Kumar, Parimal Publications, Delhi, 2008.
- Asiatic Researches or Transactions of the Society instituted in Bengal, “An Essay on the Sacred Isles in the West, with other Essays, connected with that Work”, by Capt. F. Wilford, Vol. VIII, London, 1808, pp. 245-376.
- Al-Biruni, Alberuni’s India (2 Vols.), ed. in Eng. with notes by Dr. E.C. Sachau, London, 1910.
- Ali, S. M. The Geography of the Purāṇas, People’s Publishing house, New Delhi, 1966.
- Cunningham, A. The Ancient Geography of India, Trubner, London, 1871.
- Parigiter, F. E. Ancient Indian Historical Tradition, Oxford University Press, London, 1922.
- Raychaudhuri, H. C. Studies in Indian Antiquities, University of Calcutta, Calcutta, 1932.
- Wooldridge, S. W. and Morgan, R. S. The Physical Basis of Geography – An outline of Geomorphology, Longmans Green and Co., London, 1937.
 Cf. Agni Purāṇa, 108. 1.
 Studies in Indian Antiquities, p. 70.
 Garuda (Ch. 56); Viṣṇu (II. 4); Matsya (Ch. 122); Agni (Ch. 118); Brahmāṇḍa (Ch. 19); Vāyu (Chs. 33 & 49) and other Purāṇas.
 The Geography of the Purāṇas, p. 38-9.
 Cf. Bhāgavata P., V. 2. 19.
 Viṣṇu P., II. 2. 14.
 ibid., II. 2. 13
 ibid.,II. 2. 24.
 XLVII. 11-13ab.
 Orogeny is an event that leads to both structural deformation and compositional differentiation of the Earth’s lithosphere at convergent plate margins. Orogeny is the primary mechanism by which mountains are built on continents and this takes place due to the convergence of tectonic plates.
 The Physical Basis of Geography, Ch. VI, Wooldridge and Morgan, 1937.
 Brahmā P. (18. 33); Śiva P. (Uttarārdha, V. 17. 23-5) and Viṣṇu P. (II. 2. 27-30).
 Cf. Geography in the Purāṇas, p. 48.
 For more details see, Studies in Indian Antiquities, pp. 130-36.
 Viṣṇu P., II. 2. 41-5ab.
 Studies in Indian Antiquities, p. 98.
 Alberuni’s India, ed. in Eng. with notes by Dr. E.C. Sachau, (2 Vols.), London, 1910.
 Vide., Studies in Indian Antiquities and Geography of Ancient India.
 Studies in Indian Antiquities, p. 120.
 ibid., p. 129-30.
 Ancient Indian Historical Tradition, London, 1922.
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