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Legends as Models of Science
by D.P. Agrawal

Bulletin of the Deccan College Post-Graduate & Research Institute
Volume 49 1990
Professor H.D. Sankala Memorial Volume

Is geology only a modern science? Did early man make observations about his surroundings? When did man really begin observing things? One way of finding out is to study the legends and myths in older societies. Some very striking examples are provided by old Indian legends. Here we will quote only three examples of: 1) an ancient lake which drained out, 2) sea level changes in the remote past, and 3) the braiding of a river.

1. The geology of Kashmir, India has been studied for more than 120 years now. As a result of these studies and more recently, by physical dating of various deposits (Agrawal, 1988), it is now known that the rise of the Pir Panjal range approximately 4 million years ago caused the formation of a vast lake.  As a result of the opening of a fault near Baramula, the lake subsequently drained out by the emergence of the river Jhelum nearly 85,000 years ago.  This is the accepted geological history of this valley.

It is interesting to note that in Kashmir there is a very old tradition which describes a vast lake in the valley in ancient times.  Kalhana, a poet chronicler, wrote a book in 1150 AD known as Rajatarangini, or The River of Kings.  In his book, Kalhana mentions an ancient lake Satisara which was referred to in an even earlier text called Nilamata Purana

Unlike other early Indian writers, Kalhana is remarkably accurate both in his historical, geological, and topographical descriptions.  Much can be gleaned about the scientific observations of early man in this area from his accounts.  Aurel Stein, who has translated the Rajatarangini, describes the legend of Satisara in these words, "This legend is mentioned by Kalhana in the Introduction of his Chronicle and is related at great length in Nilamata. According to the earliest traditional account the lake called Satisara, the lake of Sati (Durga), occupied the place of Kashmir from the beginning of Kalpa.  In the period of the seventh Manu the demon Jalodbhava (waterborn) who resided in this lake, caused great distress to all the neighboring countries by his devastations. The Muni Kasyapa, the father of all Nagas, while engaged in a pilgrimage to the Tirthas in North India, heard of the cause of the distress from his son Nila, the king of Kashmir Nagas. The sage thereupon promised to punish the evil-doer, and proceeded to the seat of Brahman to implore his and other gods' help for the purpose. His prayer was granted. The whole hosts of gods by Brahman's command started for the Satisaras and took up their position on the lofty peaks of the Naubandhana Tirtha, above the lake Kramasaras (present-day site of Kausarnaga). The demon who was invincible in his own element refused to come out of the lake. Vishnu thereupon called upon his brother Balabhadra to drain the lake. This, the latter effected by piercing the mountains with his weapon, the ploughshare. When the lake had become dry, Jalodbhava was attacked by Vishnu, and after a fierce combat was slain with the god's war-disc" (Stein, 1961).

This legend, shorn of the proverbial fights between gods and demons, does depict an account of the draining out of the original Karewa Lake. Most of the earlier geologists, including [SDS1] Godwin-Austen and [SDS2] Drew, took this legend seriously to infer that early man did observe the geological changes in his area and transmitted the knowledge in the form of legends.  Perhaps, this method was an accepted form of scientific communication where the facts were correct, but the explanations were far-fetched. 

2. The sea level on the west coast of India during in the glacial times was about 100 meters lower than it is today.  The level started rising only after 16,000 BP.  This is the accepted eustatic curve (Van Campo et al., 1982).

The legend says that Parasurama donated all of his land to the Brahmins.  The Brahmins then asked him as to how he could live on land that he had already given away. Parsurama then proceeded to the cliff on the sea shore and threw his parasu (hatchet) into the sea.  The sea receded allowing a landmass to emerge which Parsurama made into his residence.  Thus, the legend provides a clear reference to the regressions of the sea and the newly emerged land.

3. The river Satluj, a tributary of the Indus today, was a feeder stream of the ancient Sarasvati River which flowed through modern day Rajasthan, India. The Sarasvati dried up over the course of time.  This occurrence took place due to the fact that its two main feeders were pirated by other rivers, as is evident from the study of landsat imageries (Agrawal and Sood, 1986). In finding its new course, the Sarasvati River braided into several channels. This is accepted geology.

The legend says that the holy sage Vashista wanted to commit suicide by jumping into the Sarasvati.  But the river would not allow such a sacrilege and broke up into a hundred shallow channels, hence leading to its ancient name Satadru (Pandya, 1968).  Unless the early man observed the braiding process of the Satluj, he could not have invented such a legend.  Again, a geological observation explained through the model of a legend.


1. Agrawal. D.P. (l988). Paleoclimatic data from Kashmir: a sysnthesis and some correlations. Proceeds. Natl. Sci. Acad. No.54, A, No.3, Pp. 333-342.

2. Agrawal,D.P. and Sood, R. K. (1982). Ecological factors and the Harappan Civilization. In, G.L.Possehl(Ed.), Harappan Civilization, Oxford and IBP publisher, Delhi, pp. 223-31.

3. Pandya. ,A. ( 1968).Lost Sarasvati. Sardar Patel University, Anand.

4. Stein. A. M. (1961). Kalhana's Rajatarangini; a Chronicle of the Kings of Kashmir, Vol. II, Motilal Banarasi Das, Delhi.

5. Van Campo, E., Duplessy,J. C. and Rossignol Strick, M. (1982). Climatic conditions deduced from a 150 Kyr oxygen-iosptope-pollen record from the Arabian Sea. Nature, Vol. 296: 56-59.

 [SDS1]Should include a first name

 [SDS2]Should include a first name