Dvaraka – History re-incarnated
Lost City of Dvaraka, S.R. Rao
One-line review: Mythology excavated, history re-incarnated.
Dwarka’a modern claims to fame are the Reliance Group’s massive oil refinery in nearby Jamnagar, and Tata Chemical’s petrochemical plant and the Essar Group’s refinery complex in Okha. And yes, there is also an operational command center of the Indian Navy and Coast Guard also there, but that is to be expected, given the town’s proximity to Pakistan – less than 350kms as the crow flies from the strategic Pakistan port of Karachi.
Dwarka’s other claim to fame, and of the more everlasting variety, is that it is one of the four holy pilgrimage sites (chaar dhaama) as established by Adi Shankara. Dwarka is otherwise a sleepy little coastal hamlet at the tip of the country’s western maritime border, frequented only by the devout to see Lord Krishna’s temples there.
Of the temples dedicated to Lord Krishna at Dwarka, there are two of note here. The first is the massive and majestic Dwarkadhish Temple, (see my post) also known as Jagatmandir, whose “sanctum, also called Nijmandira, with a shikhara of its own, is assignable to the 12th-13th century AD, while the rest of the grand edifice including the five-storeyed mahamadapa standing on 72 carved pillars belongs to the 15th century AD.“
The second is on the “island of Bet Dwarka … and is said to have been the pleasure resort of Krishna. His consorts Satyabhama and Jambavati are believed to have lived there.” This island is also known as Sankhodhara or Sankoddhara, because of the copious quantities of conch shells found there. There is also a story in the Padma Purana where Sankodhara tried to steal or destroy the Vedas, and Vishnu assumed the form of a fish to kill him. The “Gargya Samhita has a different version about Sankhodhara.“
According to mythology, Dvaraka had before that been known as Kushasthali, and had been abandoned by King Revata after repeated attacks on the town. When Revata returned, he found Kushasthali settled by the Yadavas, in what had become Dvaraka. King Revata then married his daughter to Balarama.
As a completely beside-the-point aside, during their attack on the Fort of Bet Dwarka in V.S (Vikram Samvat) 1916 (this would correspond to 1860 CE), the British destroyed “six temples of Dwarkanathji and Jambavati”, apart from looting an estimated 14 crore rupees (Rs 140,000,000). [pg 137]
Returning to archaeology and history, the present temple dedicated to Lord Krishna at Dwarka could be dated to only about half a millennium back. Using archaeology, how far back could the history of Dwarka be pushed?
The first answer came fifty years ago, in 1963, when Z.D. Ansari and M.S. Kale of the Deccan College, Poona, undertook onshore excavations under the guidance of H.D. Sankalia of the area to “the south side and immediately outside the walls encircling the Dwarkadhish Temple Complex“, and in a report published in 1966, were able to establish that the “site of present Dwarka is at least 2000 years old.” In fact, based on their excavations, they were able to even go as far as stating:
“From our observations of the various places in and around Dwarka as also from the evidence of excavation one can definitely say that this is the Dvaraka mentioned in the Mausala Parva of the Mahabharata, the Dvaraka Mahatmya of the Skanda Purana, other Puranas and the Ghata Jataka.” [pg 32]
So, these first excavations – onshore, near the main Dwarkadhish Temple itself – had been able to push back the history of the temple town to two thousand years before present. Some twenty years later, more excavations would take place, this time offshore – a first for India, and with results that would be nothing short of stunning for history and mythology.
Again, in 1979, the author “pulled down the modern structure of the Panchayat Office abutting the north wall of Dwarkadhish Temple as per the recommendation of the Hathi Committee“, and upon excavation, unearthed a stone platform, which they decided to remove to “facilitate further scientific excavation“. This “brought to light a well preserved temple of Vishnu assignable to the 9th century AD.” [pg 34]
The stage was set for the archaeologists to go underwater, but before going any further – literally and metaphorically, it is useful to describe what the Hindu epics have to say about Dwaraka and why it becomes relevant in the context of the offshore marine excavations that followed in the 1980s.
History and mythology are so deeply intertwined in Hindu epics like the Mahabharata, the Ramayana, and the Puranas that it becomes a difficult job, even for the best of minds, to separate fact from fiction from embellishment. The Mahabharata is called itihaasa, or history. While most scholars agree that the events described in the Mahabharata, or for that matter the Ramayana also, are based on a factual, historical core, there is substantial debate and disagreement over the extent of the embellishment and additions to the core that have taken place over the following thousands of years.
For example, the Mahabharata talks about a billion people dying in the war at Kurukshetra – a number which is most certainly an exaggeration. The exaggeration is perhaps meant to remind the reader of the scale of the huge loss of life over the eighteen days of battle on the fields of Kurukshetra. On the other hand, scholars are mostly unanimous that modern day towns and places like Kurukshetra, Indraprastha, Mathura, etc… are the same as those mentioned in the Mahabharata.
What then is one to make of the characters in the epic, especially Krishna? Was Krishna a historical figure? Did he live and die during the Mahabharata period? And what about his divinity? Was he an incarnation of Narayana, the eighth avatar of Vishnu?
Did the Yadavas really migrate from Mathura, “founding a new city known as Dvaraka at the former site of Kushasthali in Saurashtra“? Did the city of Dwaraka really get submerged by an angry sea?
How far back does the history of modern day Dwarka go? Is the ancient Dwarka, if it exists, the same Dvarka as described in the Mahabharata? If it is, then reasonably speaking, it would establish Krishna’s historicity.
While the question of Krishna’s divinity is unlikely to be settled in any conclusive manner any time soon, and will likely remain a matter of faith, the question of Krishna’s historicity is the more fascinating one here, and the more tantalizing one. No single place is associated more closely with any character in the Mahabharata than Dwaraka is with Krishna.
Dvaraka – the city kingdom that he founded, and whose destruction he foresaw, and which remained submerged for thousands of years. Krishna – the person, the incarnation – has influenced the course and evolution of Hinduism more than any other single figure in the last two thousand years, perhaps even more so than Rama. It is therefore natural to expect historians, sociologists, archaeologists, and religious scholars alike to have a deep interest in the town and its history.
There are several references to Dvaraka in the Mahabharata, which include detailed descriptions of the flora, fauna, geography, landscape, and fortifications there. Without any tangible physical evidence of these, the historicity of the mythical city of Dwarka and of its founder, Krishna, remained rooted in mythology.
It may be argued that even Mathura is as closely associated with Krishna as Dwarka, and therefore why should the search for Krishna not take place there first? Reasonable question, but what makes any such search well-nigh impossible is that Mathura has been continuously inhabited for millennia, and any traces of the ancient kingdom of Mathura have been long destroyed and buried beneath modern constructions and successive settlements.
Dwarka, on the other hand, has remained submerged at sea – assuming that the mythology had any kernel of truth in it – undisturbed by human hand or habitation for thousands of years. It is therefore more likely to provide us with a truer and undisturbed glimpse into the past.
Since the discovery of the Indus Valley Harappan Civilization in 1920 and the subsequent excavation of more than three thousand sites along the Indus and the Sarasvati River basins in the following decades, it has been established that this Bronze Age civilization started to form around 3500 BCE, and reached its peak – also known as the Mature Phase, between 2600 – 1900 BCE.
Thereafter, for various reasons – a major cause being the drying up of the Sarasvati River, which after 2000 BCE got steadily reduced to a rainfed, seasonal river – the civilization began to dissipate and wane. Floods in the Indus also contributed to the decline of the civilization.
The period between 1900 BCE and the 6th century BCE is also known as a “Vedic Night” of sorts, till the rise of the Mauryan Empire and the emergence of Gautam Buddha marked the resurgence of the Indian civilization, and has formed a period about which little has been known with any degree of certainty.
As the Harappan Civilization dissipated, the migrants “who came to occupy small villages in Saurashtra and Sarasvati-Yamuna basins, … small republics – janapada – appear to have mushroomed in the second quarter of the second millennium BC.”“Gradually the enlarged political sphere of influence of the kingdoms in Janapada form gave rise to Mahajanapadas some of which, especially the Matsyas and Magadha.” [pg 5]
These Mahajanapadas tried to expand their sphere of influence, and in general were marked by a decline in moral values. Kamsa of Mathura perpetrated infanticide. Narakasura (in Pragjyotisha, possibly in Assam) had captured several thousand women. Jarasandha of Magadha had imprisoned close to a hundred kings, and planned to murder them. Kalayavana and Jarasandha had mounted at repeated attacks on Mathura. Salva had launched a devastating aerial attack on Dvaraka. “Sudikshina, son of the king of Kashi” had attacked Dvaraka, enveloping it in fire. And the Kuru empire had cheated the sons of Pandu of their kingdom, and even attempted to have them burned alive.
The author cites the Puranas as being “emphatic on the cultural degradation that set in after the War. The attack of Abhiras on the forces of Arjuna while he was leading the citizens of Dvaraka to Hastinapura, the Naga invasion of Hastinapura and the subsequent death of Parikshit are cited as signs of the general decay of the times.” [pg 12]
So, in a manner of speaking, the decline of the Harappan Civilization also saw the gradual “decline in moral and social values. In short, dharma suffered heavily.” [pg 5]
At such a turbulent period of history, a figure arose that defeated such adharmic forces and established a reign of peace. Even if that reign lasted for a short time, as Kaliyuga was upon mankind.
That the Mahabharata is based on a factual core is mostly accepted. What makes it special is its extensive coverage of geography also. S.M. Ali in 1966 wrote that the Mahabharata is “perhaps the only great work which deals with geographic details and not incidentally as other works.”
However, when it came to its historicity, some like D.C. Sircar and others challenged that claim. These arguments and objections were “thoroughly discussed by historians, archaeologists and indologists at a Seminar held in Vidura Asrama in 1975.” [pg 9] The “consensus of the participants” was that the “weight of the evidence is in favour of the war having been fought sometime in the fifteenth century BC” [pg 12]. This was on the weight of foreign historical accounts, while an earlier date could be formulated if one looked at conclusions from “different … eras and teacher-pupil pedigree basis.“
Dating the Era
Based on stories themselves from the Mahabharata, you arrive at a date of approximately 1500 BCE for the Mahabharata era.
“According to the Aihole inscription of Ravi Kirti put up in 634 AD in the reign of Pulakesin II, the date of the Bharata War would be 3101 BC.” [pg 19]
“According to S.B. Roy (1976, 135) the inscription of Vakataka Devasena can suggest only two dates, either 1280 BC or 1414 BC. Roy prefers 1414 BC as the epoch of the Yudhishthira era.” [pg 19]
“The consensus of the participants in the Symposium held by Vidura Seva Asram in 1974”, on the basis of what is known about the Buddha, Mahavira, and Sankara, on the basis of archaeological evidence, and from the accounts of foreign travellers, that the War was fought sometime in the “fifteenth century BC.“
Based on on the stories in the Mahabharata, S.B. Roy reconstructed the following chronology of events in his book, “Date of Mahabharata Battle” (Publisher: South Asia Books, ISBN-13: 978-0883869574):
“1466 BC: Birth of Krishna Devakiputra
1424 BC: Bharata battle at Kurukshetra
1410 BC: Philosophical conference of King Janaka
1390 BC: Sarpa-Satra
1316 BC: Naimisharanya Conference
1300 BC: Hastinapura abandoned by Kurus” [pg 11]
While these dates should not be taken very precisely, they still provide a reasonable indication of where one strand of research leads us. And while even within the Mahabharata there are contradictory passages, they should not be cause to reject en-masse the text itself as a source of history. Just as “different Puranic traditions give the number of Andhra-Satavahana kings as 17 or 18 or 19 or 30 and the total period as 275 or 450 years. But nobody doubted the historicity of the Satavahanas due to this.” [pg 9]
Then you have B.B. Lal – the renowned archaeologist, BP Sinha and others who argued for a date of 1000 BC – 950 BC. When dating the Mahabharata War to the beginning of the first millennium BCE, archaeologists have argued on the basis of “the use of iron weapons in the Epic“. “The early occurrence of iron in India at Hastinapura and elsewhere is around 1000 BC in Painted Gray Ware (PGW) level. But iron tools have also been found at Gufkrol in Kashmir in 1528 BC … and steel at Komaranahalli in Karnataka in 1500 1300 BC.” [pg 20]
“Based on this evidence the date of the Bharata War should be pushed back to 1500 BC if not earlier.” [pg 20]
Furthermore, when considering the date proposed by B.B. Lal, S.R. Rao argues that on the basis of the “presence of LHW (Late Harappan Ware) in Bet Dwarka identified with Kushasthali where the town Dvaraka came to be built, it is reasonable to date the beginning of the Mahabharata Age to 18– – 1700 BC if not earlier as suggested by the excavations at Kunal near Kurukshetra.” [pg 20]
So there is considerable uncertainty – that spans an estimate of over a thousand years – about the dating of the Mahabharata era.
If the city of Dvaraka, as described in the Mahabharata, had indeed existed, then surely some evidence of it would have been available on the seabed near the shores of the present town of Dwarka. This then was the mission of the famed archaeologist, S.R. Rao, when he began preparations for the first marine underwater offshore excavations in India in 1983.
Successive onshore excavations had “yielded incontrovertible evidence of a protohistoric settlement of the 16th century BC destroyed by the sea, but the settlement itself had to be traced.” This could be done only through offshore excavations. However, in 1980, “[S]earching for archaeological remains in the sea was entirely unknown in India”.
However, a visit by Prof B.R. Rao, Vice-Chairman of the University Grants Commission and Treasurer of the Indian National Science Academy, resulted in the grant of a “sum of Rs 80,000 was granted for a 2-year Project of Marine Archaeological Studies in India.” And thus began the initial, tentative efforts at offshore excavations, the Samudranarayana Temple being the starting point.
The challenges were many and severe. The photographs taken the first two years were unsatisfactory. Photographers from the NIO (National Institute of Oceanography) had to be trained in underwater photography. Since Mini Rangers (an offshore positioning system) were not available, the team had to rely on the “sextant and theodolite” in the early years. Only in 1989 would they acquire a “Motorola Mini Ranger III“. Even “large-scale and accurate shoreline maps of the last 100 years or more” were not available.
Then there is nature. The sea around the Dwarka is unpredictable and can become “suddenly windy and choppy“, and the best season for underwater excavations are from December to February and between 10 AM and 2 PM – when the sea “comparatively calm and the visibility good.“
It was during these excavations between 1985 and 1989 that “a large number of remains forming part of a fortified port town with warehouse and other structures were recorded in Dwarka waters.” These were dated to the 16th century BCE. The pottery found in Bet Dwarka – Late Harappan and post-Harappan pottery – was “similar to the one found in the excavations at Prabhas (Saurashtra) and Ahar (Rajasthan) where it is dated 15th century BC by 14C method.” [pg 52]
The archaeology excavations uncovered pottery and shell objects “200 m seaward of the sites“. A study of the fortified settlement, now under water, suggested that it “is therefore reasonable to infer that during the last 3500 years there is a net rise of 4.6 to 5 m in the sea level here. The submergence of an ancient township is thus confirmed.” Exactly as has been described in the Mahabharata (Harivamsha, to be precise).
Harbour of ancient Dwarka
The discovery of two rock-cut ramps-like slipways meant for launching boats, along with the fact that the “protohistoric settlement in the island of Bet Dwarka was at least one km long and a major part of it fortified” proved that “it was an urban center with certain specialized industries such as boat-building, shell-working, pearl-diving and perhaps metal-working also.” [pg 58]
“A seal of conch shell, slightly damaged and engraved with a three-headed animal motif, was recovered“, which corroborated the “statement in the Mahabharata that seals were used by the citizens of Dvaraka.“
This seal is 18×20 mm, and “is made of conch shell and has a square button with a hole on the back for inserting a ring.“
“The seal from Bet Dwarka corroborates the reference made in the Harivamsha to the fact that every citizen of Dvaraka should carry a mudra (seal) as a mark of identification when the city was attacked by Salva.” [pg 115]
Mythology had morphed into history, even as history itself had been made.
Between 1985 and 1989, the search for “other relics of ancient Dwarka” intensified and during the “third, fourth and fifth expeditions … a large number of structural remains … were recorded.“
Since there was not enough space in the then town of Kushasthali, Krishna had requested the sea god to recede so as to provide more space, who had obliged. Thus goes the narration in the Harivamsha. Basically it can be inferred that the residents of Dwarka reclaimed land from the sea.
During the course of the explorations in 1988, “[I]t was found that the buildings were raised on boulder foundation as is done by modern engineers for buildings in reclaimed areas of Bombay. This ancient technique confirms that the references in the Epic and Puranas to reclamation of land from the sea for building Dwarka city is not a myth but a fact.” [pg 73]
“Massive blocks with L-shaped joints … to withstand battering by waves and currents, proves that the engineers had the necessary skills to build port installations in the sea or in the intertidal zone.“
Even more stunning was the discovery of a “ridge about 2m high running almost parallel to the shore for a length of 500m or more. Its outer face has been dresses and there are several man-made holes two of which are clearly seen. Large ships could be secured to the mooring device with ropes. … The Dwarka harbor provides the earliest clear evidence of modifying the natural rock to serve the needs of a harbor. Later, the Phoenicians too were modifying reefs in the 9th-8th century BC for the same purpose.” [pg 107]
Criticism and Conclusion
If there is one fault with this book, it is that Shri SR Rao didn’t structure his book as one would have liked. The best-written part of the book is the initial section where he takes the reader on a brief introduction to the mythology and chronology of Krishna, as described in various texts like the Mahabharata, Harivamsha, and the Puranasas.
Once the author gets into the core of the book – the excavations – the narration frequently jumps between a technical, and at times dry description of the excavations and the findings on the one hand and the interjection of passages from the Mahabharata and Harivamsha on the other. These two strands do not coalesce well, and at times can frustrate the reader.
I found myself going back and forth several times to piece together these somewhat disjointed nuggets of information. The book is short – less than 150 pages of text. Therefore this is a minor criticism of the book in my opinion.
To conclude, the excavations at Dwarka were the first underwater excavations in India. These helped push back the history of the town to about 3500 years before present.
The underwater excavations brought to light a city that was submerged by the ocean around 1500 BCE. The engineers at Dwarka knew the science of land reclamation from sea and also of construction on such reclaimed land – a first in the world.
The engineers at Dwarka, three and a half thousand years ago, also knew enough to make use of natural reefs to serve the needs of a harbor – another first.
An examination of the underwater structures and findings proved that the submerged city of Dwarka was the same as the one described in the Mahabharata.
It is as clinching evidence as one is going to get of the historicity of Krishna, reasonably speaking. The divinity of Krishna had and will continue to remain a question of faith. History and archaeology have little role to play there.
“In fact, dredging (in the Gomati ghat and the piling up of sand by the Gujarat Irrigation Department) has done greater damage to submerged structures in one year than what nature could do during the last 3000 years.” [pg 77]
Hardcover: 181 pages
Publisher: Aditya Prakashan (May 1999)
ISBN-10: 8186471480. ISBN-13: 978-8186471487
Author: Shikaripura Ranganatha Rao (S.R. Rao)
Mahabharata: Myth and Reality. Differing Views. Sp Gupta (Ed), K.S. Ramachandran (Ed.), 1976
The views expressed are the author’s personal opinion.