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Fossils and myths in North India: Is there a connection between the Siwalik Hills and the Mahâbhârata? 1) Museum of Palaeontology and Geology, National.

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Presentation on theme: "Fossils and myths in North India: Is there a connection between the Siwalik Hills and the Mahâbhârata? 1) Museum of Palaeontology and Geology, National."— Presentation transcript:

1 Fossils and myths in North India: Is there a connection between the Siwalik Hills and the Mahâbhârata? 1) Museum of Palaeontology and Geology, National and Kapodistrian University of Athens, Greece by Alexandra van der Geer (1), Michael Dermitzakis (1) and John de Vos (2) 2) National Museum of Natural History Naturalis, Leiden, the Netherlands

2 The Siwalik Hill range of Pakistan and northern India: famous for its mammal fossils Kurukshetra (Haryana), plain at the foot of the Siwalik Hills, stage for the Mahabharata

3 What is a fossil? I) Remains of the animal or plant, or the imprint it left. Such as: bones, teeth, skin impressions, hair, shells, impressions of animals or plants in the sediment II) Remains of something that was made by the animal while it was living (“trace fossils”). Such as: footprints, burrows, coprolites, eggs Fossils are the petrified traces of life forms from before the end of the last ice age (Holocene)

4 Fossils are proof for historical value of narratives: fossils are bones and teeth of giants, dragons, monsters, saints, heroes Fossils are also seen as sacred objects and amulets Fossils are even used as medicines All based upon similarity in morphology, shape, colour

5 Geological phenomena in the landscape as evidence Krishna’s butter ball near Mahabalipuram (Tamil Nadu) Holy stone along the Sutlej river bank(Tibet)

6 Everywhere, fossils are seen as evidence for a myth or legend Siwalik Hills, foothills of the Himalayas: rich fossil bone beds at the surface. The abundant fossils found here also confirmed a legend The legend of Kurukshetra, plain at the foot of Siwalik Hills, stage for the Mahabharata- war The fossil evidence raised the story to mythological scale, and kept the memory alive © A.C. Bhaktivedanta Swami Prabhupada

7 The Mahâbhârata, the third largest epic in the world. It tells the history of the descendants of Bharata, divided into 18 books The Bhagavadgita is just one of its chapters, but became the most important The Mahâbhârata was spread further to the east: Cambodja, Thailand, Vietnam, Indonesia Angkor Vat, © ASI

8 The epic is based upon oral tradition, and grew into its present form between c. 400 BCE to 400 CE Composed by the seer Vyasa, who is also one of the major dynastic characters within the epic itself Ganesa wrote the story down, while Vyasa recited it. Once, the pen failed, and Ganesa broke off one of his tusks as a replacement

9 The main core of the Mahâbhârata is the battle of Kurukshetra. Originally described in a much shorter work: Jaya (Skt.: victory) War between two branches of North Indian Bharata dynasty: Pandavas and Kauravas The war is difficult to date. Based upon astronomical events described in the epic, two options. First, the war took place around 3,106 BCE (= during Indus valley civilization period) Second option: 1,478 BCE. Seen the use of horse and chariot and war elephants, this option is the most likely © Bhaktivedanta Book Trust. Arjuna stops Krsna from attacking Bhishma

10 "Kurukshetra's plain is strewn with the corpes of kings" "The ground is rugged with heaps of elephant's corpses like huge boulders. On every side are vultures' nests" "The ground is soaked with the blood of horses, men, and elephants, wounded and slain. There is a confused mass of torn mail, skins, umbrellas, chowries, javelins, arrows, spears, and armour mixed with headless trunks, and a litter of every sort of weapon" "Rivers of blood are crossed by bridges of elephant's corpses" "The earth shows clearly all around in the pitiless rays of the sun slaughtered warriors and kings, elephants and chargers; it seems to support a host of fallen stars, covered as it is with darts and lances, arrows, javelins, and swords" "Duryodhana's muscular shoulders, hard as the trunk of Indra's elephant, are torn open" "Bhîma, matchless in battles, huge as a mountain, sinks on the earth like the Golden Peak (= peak in Himâlayas) struck by a thunderbolt"

11 The stage for the Mahabharata is set on the plains of what is now the state of Haryana (North India), in the Kurukshetra district The region is bordered by the foothills of the Himalayas; the Siwalik Hill Range

12 Kurukshetra, a pilgrimage landscape About 360 sacred sites (tirthas) in and around Kurukshetra, yearly visited by thousands of pilgrims Brahma Sarovar, or Kurukshetra tank

13 Some sites are linked to Mahabharata’s battle: Bhishmakunda (Skt. Bhishma’s cremation place), and Asthipura (Skt. bone-town). Most important is Kurukshetra’s link with the Bhaga- vadgita, part of the Mahabharata Gita-dvar, with statue of Arjuna’s battle-chariot

14 Kurukshetra and the Sarasvati river Once, the Sarasvati river was an important river. It got glacial waters from the Yamuna and Sutlej rivers. Tectonic changes in the Siwalik ranges caused major migrations in the rivers, and the Sarasvati river became a seasonal, rain-fed stream. For a large part, it flows below the surface. Satellite images reveal its former location. Along the former channel, large settlements are excavated. At some archaeological sites around Kurukshetra, Painted Grey Ware (PGW) pottery is found. These sites are Raja Karan Ka Tila, Asthipura, Bhor Saidan, Bhagpura and Daulatpur. This PGW is related to the Vedic culture, and is dated c BCE The Sarasvati, a small river today

15 Falconer (19 th century CE) collected over 300 large fossil bones in a single day in the Siwalik Hills These very rich fossiliferous deposits are nowadays exemplary for a much larger area, found from Pakistan up to Indonesia. They are very clear and thick in the Punjab, run eastwards and disappear at the Godavari river, but they re- emerge in Sri Lanka. © P.D. Gingerich, Michigan

16 In Haryana (Markanda valley, Kurukshetra, and surrounding areas), the fossil fauna belongs to the Late Siwaliks, dated to about 2.48 million years ago (Late Pliocene) Some elements of this fauna are not too different from present-day animals, except for their larger size, strange tusks, strange dentition. Such as a stegodont (Stegodon ganesa), mammoths (Mammuthus planifrons), elephants (Elephas namadicus), horses (Hipparion, Equus hysudricus, E. sivalensis), rhinoceroses (Rhinoceros sivalensis, R. palaeoindicus), a camel (Camelus sivalensis), a sabre-toothed tiger (Paramachairodus), pigs, crocidiles, deer Stegodon ganesa at the Siwalik Gallery of the Geological Survey of India, Indian Museum

17 From fossil to myth Bones, skulls and tusks of stegodons, mammoths, elephants are not too different from the now living Indian elephant, except for their size; the same applies to the horse bones. These are remains of war horses and huge war elephants Indian elephant (E. maximus)Elephas antiquus, Museum am Löwenthor, Stuttgart

18 , the short-necked giraffids with impressive horns (Sivatherium, Samotherium, Giraffokeryx), Sivatherium, Frick collection (AMNH, New York) Giraffokeryx, Frick Collection (AMNH, New York)

19 , and the giant tortoises (Geochelone atlas). Others are nowadays found only elsewhere, such as hippopotamuses (Hexaprotodon namadicus) © Central Fossil Repository Unit, Geological Survey of India, Kolkota Reconstruction of the giant tortoises. © Saketi Fossil Park, H.P.

20 Other Siwalik fossils look very different from present-day animals, like the ancestors of the sea-mammals (Cetacea) of today (dolphins, whales etc.), Pakicetus attocki, Howard University, Geological Survey of Pakistan Ambulocetus natans, Ohio University, USA

21 Bones and skulls of horned giraffs, sabre-toothed cats, giant tortoises, and hippos are unknown. These are remains of giants and heroes. Their isolated hippo incisors, giraf horns, tortoise carapaces and feline canines can be seen as darts, javelins, shields Complete skeletons are not found. Scattered, isolated and fragmentary remains of various large vertebrates, isolated tusks and carapaces instead. It is just a small step to make these abundant fossils remains of war elephants, horses, heroes, shields and javelins

22 Archaeological remains from Vedic times (Painted Grey Ware culture) have been found in the same region. Rakhigarhi, e.g. was a large city, larger than Harappa (Pakistan) In the Siwalik deposits stone tools of prehistoric people have been found too, known as Soanian artefacts. They belong to a paleolithic culture From myth to reality The Sarasvati river and its rich, fertile plains were mythical, but simply dried up and disappeared, together with the towns along it Rakhigarhi (Haryana)

23 Remains of titans and giants, killed by the gods in battle, can be found on the Peloponnesos, Greece © Pergamon Museum, Berlin

24 Siwalik Hills: remains are found of the demonic râkshasas who were killed by epic heroes This could refer to the victory of Krishna over Banasura (king Bana of Sonitapua), or over Naraka. But there are many more heroic killings of râkshasas known, not in the least place the war between the Devas and Asuras © A.C. Bhaktivedanta Swami Prabhupada

25 Once, the Sarasvati river was an important river. In the towns along the river, Harappan ware and later Painted Grey Ware was made. Conclusion At some time, a war took place between two branches of the Bharata family. The war was remembered in the epic Mahabharata, and rose to mythological proportions. The river shrunk, deprived of glacial waters. The towns along it lost their importance. Nothing reminded of the once glorious days of the PGW culture and the war. Except for petrified remains of the battlefield, found nearby. This was reason enough to keep the story alive, till it was finally written down (c. 400 BCE).


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