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Geo-mythology of India
Department of Earth Sciences, Indian Institute of Technology Bombay, Mumbai, India 400076
Abstract: In all the Indian legends, whether it is the Ramayana or Mahabharata, one can ﬁnd
embedded elements of geological processes. Perhaps due to the lack of a sound scientiﬁc basis
for recognizing geological processes in ancient Indian civilization, such processes were believed
to be the acts of ‘Gods’ (Suras) and ‘Demons’ (Asuras) and hence they formed an integral part of
these legends. Even in the present age where science is able to explain several geological pro-
cesses, the Hindu faith is such that these myths and legends continue to be passed on to succeeding
generations. The fact that these geological processes are contained in these epics helps to sustain
truth (dharma) and maintain harmony. Ancient Indian civilization adopted this doctrine and its
continuance will remain a fresh and vital part of future generations in India.
Hindu mythology centres around gods, demigods,
their supremacies and related stories. Basically the
philosophy in all these legends is to teach humans
the values of Dharma (justice) and how God pre-
vails in sustaining ‘dharma’ in the world (Sinha
1954; Rajendranath Seal 1958). Initially, all these
were Smrirtis (sacred teachings) and subsequently
were documented in the form of books (Vedas) by
great saints (Rishis). All these ancient books were
originally written on palm leaves and preserved
for centuries, some of which are still preserved,
During the creation of these legends several
geological phenomena and events became embedded
within them either knowingly or unknowingly.
Whether it is Ramayana, Mahabharata or Puranas,
these doctrines are presented in the form of folklore,
or myth ological stories. Hinduism always preaches
dharma in order to maintain world peace and to
curb evil by any living being (Rajendranath Seal
1958). This paper discusses how geological events
and processes became entangled in these epics. All
these stories refer to events that happened on Earth
(or occasionally in the heavens) and hence geological
processes became an integral part of them. Though
examples of several such close relationships
between geology and mythology exist in Hindu
texts, only a few are elaborated in this paper. A
similar relationship between myths and thermal
springs over the world was compiled by the Geother-
mal Resources Council in their volume Stories from a
Heated Earth (Cataldi et al. 1999).
Hindu eras in relationship to stratigraphy
and the origin of Earth
According to Hindu Vedic cosmology, the age of
the entire universe is divided into four yugas
(eras): Satyuga, Trethayuga, Dwaparayuga and
Kaliyuga. The time span of each yuga varies in a
manner similar to geological eras. According to
the Hindu mythology the Satyuga lasted for 1.728
Ma; Trethayuga lasted for 1.296 Ma; Dwaparayuga
lasted for 0.864 Ma; and the Kaliyuga, the present
era has so far completed 0.432 Ma (Somayaji
1971). The Trethayuga and the Dwaparayuga are
the most important eras since they encompass the
most important epics of India, the Ramayana and
the Mahabharata, respectively.
This four fold stratigraphic division of time-scale
is similar to that used in geology (cf. Precambrian,
Palaeozoic, Mesozoic and Cenozoic). Some authors
consider each yuga as ‘Maha Yuga’, meaning that
each should be multiplied by 1000 years. In which
case the sum of all these yugas amounts to the age
of the Earth (c. 4.3 billion years) which constitutes
a day for Lord Brahma (Brahma day), the creator of
the universe (Somayaji 1971; Bhaktivedanta Swami
Prabhupada 1986). The destruction of the universe
is called ‘pralaya’ or catastrophe—synonym to
the present day ﬂoods, earthquakes and tsunamis.
In each era, Lord Vishnu, the saviour, emerges into
this world in the form of ‘avatar’ (incarnation).
According to the Hindu mythology, these ‘avatars’
are in the form of animals or semi-animal demigods
(part is human and part is animal: Fig. 1). In each
avatar, he destroys the evil and restores ‘satya’
(justice) in the world. The ten avatars are Matsya
(ﬁsh), Koorma (tortoise), Varaaha (boar), Narasimha
(the man lion), Vaamana (the dwarf), Parasurama
(the angry man), Rama (the perfect human; avatar
in Trethayuga), and Krishna (the divine statesman;
avatar in Dwaparayuga). The tenth avatar which is
yet to appear is Kalki (Pandey 1979).
Lord Vishnu is always seen with his conch and
Chakra (Vishnu Chakra; the wheel) in his hands.
From:PICCARDI,L.&MASSE, W. B. (eds) Myth and Geology.
Geological Society, London, Special Publications, 273, 29–37.
0305-8719/07/$15.00 # The Geological Society of London 2007.
He is reborn (as a new avatar) after a major cat-
astrophe (pralaya) when the entire species on
Earth becomes extinct. After every Brahma day,
Lord Brahma creates new life on Earth. In
Hindu mythology it is said that after one such cat-
astrophe, Brahma was busy creating new life on
Earth and did not pay attention to the Demon
Hiranyaksha who had pushed the mother Earth
into (Patal lok) the Ocean (i.e. trying to destroy
the Earth). Brahma, realizing that his new creation
of life has to live on Earth, pleaded with Vishnu
to save the Earth. Vishnu took the form of
Varaha (Fig. 1: Subramnya Sastri 1989; Pandey
1979) and lifted the Earth with his tusks from
the ocean bottom and reinstated it in its proper
orbit. One may interpret this geologically as the
birth of the planet Earth or an analogy of sea-
ﬂoor spreading at mid-ocean ridges where new
material is created.
Rahu, Ketu and the eclipses
Lunar and solar eclipses are natural phenomena of
the solar system and for that matter an eclipse is
common to all the planetary bodies. However, in
Indian mythology it is a chase between Rahu and
the Moon and Ketu and the Sun (Dave 1991a).
Indra, one of the celestial gods or ‘Suras’, was
cursed by Durvasa for insulting him by throwing
away the ﬂowers offered by him. By nature,
Durvasa is short-tempered and cursed Indra and
all the gods that they would lose their vigour and
strength. So the gods started losing power while
the ‘Asuras’ (demons) started gaining power. The
gods pleaded with Vishnu to help them to regain
their power so that the demons would not overtake
Vishnu advised the gods to churn the milky sea
using serpent ‘Vasuki’ mount Mandara as a stirrer
to obtain celestial nectar (elixir) that would
restore their power (Fig. 2). Thus both the gods
and the demons churned the ocean and the nectar
emerged from the ocean. Vishnu deceived the
demons by taking the form of a beautiful lady
(Mohini) and diverted their attention while the
gods consumed the elixir. However, two ‘Asuras’
(Rahu and Ketu), aware of Mohini’s trickery, took
the guise of gods and also consumed some of the
celestial nectar and became immortal. The Moon
and the Sun reported this incident to Vishnu who
became furious and chopped off their heads with
his Chakra (see Fig. 3). Since Rahu and Ketu con-
sumed the nectar, they remained in the universe
and started chasing the Moon and the Sun as an
act of revenge. Thus in Hindu mythology Rahu
and Ketu are regarded as celestial bodies that
swallow the Moon and the Sun thus causing lunar
and solar eclipses respectively. Indian astronomers
as early as
AD 300 discounted this myth and pre-
sented the orbital paths of the planets and their
moons thus accounting for lunar and solar eclipses
(Somayaji 1971; Dave 1991a).
Mahakal crustal extension zone and
While Rahu and Ketu were consuming the celestial
nectar, a few drops fell on Earth. Wherever drops of
the celestial nectar or the elixir spilled, those places
became divine or holy shrines for Hindus. Ujjain is
one such place. Ujjain is located within the northern
ﬂank of the mid-continental Narmada rift. The
Mahakal rift zone extends from the NE part of
Madhya Pradesh to SW part extending up to
Ujjain. (Venkata Rao & Nayak 1995; Fig. 4). The
famous Tattapani thermal springs in Chattisgarh
district (east of Jabalpur, not shown in Fig. 4)
Fig. 1. Varaha (boar) avatar of Lord Vishnu.
emerge through this rift system (Chandrasekharam
& Antu 1995; Subramnya Sastri 1989). Hindu
mythology mentions such a rift zone through
which Lord Shiva (known as Mahakaleswar)
emerged to save his devotees in Ujjain by killing
the demon Dushana who was living in Ratnamala
hills (Dave 1991a). Though there are no hill
ranges around Ujjain, the Ratnamala hills may be
the Vindhyans that form part of the Narmada rift
system. Geographically, Ujjain attained importance
for nurturing great Hindu astronomers and because
the Tropic of Cancer passes through it. Ujjain was
considered the ‘Greenwich’ of Hindu astronomers
Vishnu, Shiva and marine fossils
Fossils are considered divine and are thought to rep-
resent Hindu gods. For Indians, ammonites and
echinoderm fossils are sacred and are known as
‘saligrams’or‘saligramas’ (the actual name or
term in Sanskrit is ‘Salagraman’ and is one of the
names of Vishnu; Swami Nityananda 1998). In
Hindu mythology, ammonites are considered as
Vishnu Chakra and the echinoderms and cephalo-
pods (belemnites) as Shiva (in his phallic form,
Linga). The ammonite fossil with circular shape
and radiating ribs look very similar to Vishnu
Chakra (Fig. 3) with radiating spikes. All types of
ammonite fossils (e.g. Meekoceras varaha; Promi-
croceras planicosta; Almatheus margaritatus;
Fig. 2. Churning the sea (Samudramanthan) by Suras and Asuras. Vasuki (name of the serpent) is the churning rope
and Mandara (name of the mountain) is the churning rod.
Fig. 3. Vishnu, the Hindu deity, holding the Vishnu
chakra (also known as Sudarshan chakra) and the
Serpent, Vasuki, sheltering Vishnu.
GEO-MYTHOLOGY OF INDIA 31
Eoderoceras bispinigerum; Cardioceras; Discosca-
phites nebrascensis; Acanthoscaphites nodosus:
Krishnan 1968) are given different names indicat-
ing different manifestations of Vishnu (Swami
Nityananda 1998). The ammonite fossil Meeko-
ceras varaha found in the Triassic formation of
the Central Himalayas (Krishnan 1968) resembles
the Vishnu Chakra. Varaha is one of Vishnu’s
avatars. It is not clear whether this name is given
to the fossil because of its resemblance to Vishnu
Chakra or it attained this name accidentally.
Indian geology textbooks mention of the ‘saligram’
(Krishnan 1968; Wadia 1978); some of the echino-
derm and cephalopod fossils look like a phallus,
symbolizing Shiva. In India, these Jurassic and
Cretaceous fossils are extensively found in Spiti
Shale Formations of upper Himalayas and brought
to Nepal by Gandak River (Krishnan 1968), which
joins the Ganges in the Gangetic plain in India.
Vishnu became incarnate in the form of Saligram
to save the demons and semi-gods alike. These
fossils are kept in temples and households as
natural symbols of Vishnu (Fig. 5).
Stalagmites and Amarnath cave
Shiva is part of life for many Indians and he is wor-
shipped in the form of Linga (phallus) by a large
number of Hindus. Some Hindus carry the Shiva
Linga (phallus) on their body (especially the echi-
noderm fossils). A large number of pilgrims travel
to Amarnath cave annually to see the Lord. Accord-
ing to Shiva Purana (Subramnya Sastri 1989), Shiva
recounted the secret of creation and eternal life to
his consort, Parvati, in this cave.
The Amarnath cave is about 145 km NE of
Srinagar, at a height of about 4000 m above mean
sea level, in the Himalayas (Fig. 6). It is believed
that the Shiva Linga in the cave forms every lunar
month: during the ﬁrst half the Linga starts
forming and attains full size on the full-moon day
(lunar day 15), and during the second half of the
month the Linga starts decreasing and disappears
on new-moon (Dave 1991b). This cave attracts
large crowds from all over India and more than
25 000 pilgrims visit this shrine between May and
July. In reality this cave is located in limestone-
gypsum formation (Krishnan 1968) and the melt-
water percolating into the cave from the roof
through joints freezes on the ground and grows as
a stalagmite (Fig. 7). Due to the heat generated by
the pilgrim population visiting the cave, the stalag-
mite melts by June, thus reducing the size of the
Shiva Linga (the stalagmite). White gypsum
powder from the cave is distributed to the pilgrims
as ‘Vibhuti’ (sacred powder).
The Kashmir government reportedly is planning
to extend the life of the stalagmite artiﬁcially.
Sea level change and Dwaraka
In Mahabharata, Lord Krishna was the chief advisor
to the Pandavas (worriers and sons of King Pandu).
Mathura was the abode of Krishna. Due to constant
hostility between ‘Suras’ and ‘Asuras’, Kamsa, the
demon, waged a war against Krishna. Kamsa had a
curse on his head that he would be killed by
Krishna. In the ensuing battle, Kamsa was indeed
killed. Krishna, who actually belongs to the
Yadavas (a Hindu sect and disciples of Krishna),
found it impossible to continue his stay in
Mathura and shifted his abode to Dwaraka along
the Saurashtra coast in Gujarat (Kamala 1977;
Dave 1991b). According to the legend, Krishna’s
disciples perished from inﬁghting. Since the main
task of killing Kamsa had been accomplished,
Krishna decided to leave Dwaraka and in one of
the texts it was told that Krishna knew about the
fate of Dwaraka and hence left for his heavenly
Fig. 4. Mahakaleswar and Mahakal crustal extensions zone (modiﬁed after Venkata Rao & Nayak 1995).
abode. The town of Dwaraka was inundated by the
Arabian Sea and subsequently submerged.
Recent marine archaeological investigation dis-
covered the mythological Dwaraka town intact,
under the sea along Saurashtra coast (Gaur et al.
2000) (Fig. 8a,b). The sinking of Dwaraka was
due to tectonic activity accompanied by sea level
rise; sea level was about 150 m below the present
level. Signatures of Late Quaternary coastal tec-
tonics and sea-level changes are well recorded
along the cliffy coastline of Saurashtra. A succes-
sion of raised terraces and wave-cut notches have
resulted from changes in sea level whereas tectono-
genic features are represented by steep vertical cliff
faces, distorted morphology of wave-cut notches
and staircase platforms (Pant & Juyal 1993a,b).
This discovery gives an idea about the lay out of
Dwaraka and the forts believed to have been inhab-
ited by the Yadavas of the mythological Mahabhar-
ata (Rao 1999; Gaur et al. 2000; Vora et al. 2002).
Further the entire Saurashtra coast has been
subject to major tectonic events since Jurassic
times (Mishra et al. 2001).
Coral reefs and Ramayana
Rama, the great hero of the Hindu epic Ramayana,
was the seventh avatar of Vishnu. The epic
Ramayana was written by Valmiki several centuries
after Rama’s reign, which according to the
Fig. 5. Ammonites, echinoderms worshipped as Saligrams by Hindus.
Fig. 6. Map showing the location of Amarnath Cave.
GEO-MYTHOLOGY OF INDIA 33
astronomical data was around 2012 BC (Srinivasa
1955). Rama, Sita (his consort), and Laxmana
(his brother) were in exile for fourteen years due to
the wicked plan of his stepmother Keikeyi. While
he was in the Dandakaranya forest, Surpanaka,
sister of Ravana, the king of Sri Lanka, expressed
her desire to marry Rama. Laxmana cut her nose
and ears as a punishment for this desire (Srinivasa
1955; Rajagopalachari 1958; Lakshmi Narasimha
1984; Ganapati Sastry 1986; Dave 1991c). Ravana
Fig. 7. Amarnath Cave and the Shiva Linga. The Stalagmite (on the right) attains the shape of a phallus after full
growth and represents Shiva Linga.
Fig. 8. (a) Pictorial view of Dwaraka off Saurashtra coast. (b) Harbour of ancient Dwaraka (pictures courtesy
Gaur 2004 pers. comm.).
took revenge by kidnapping Sita to his kingdom.
Rama decided to wage a war against Ravana.
The main hurdle was to cross the sea between
Rameswaram and Sri Lanka (Fig. 9). Rama’s disci-
ples helped him to construct a bridge between
Rameswaram and Sri Lanka. This is the legendary
Rama’s bridge across Palk Strait.
In reality this bridge is a coral reef extending
between these two land masses. A recent Indian
remote sensing satellite picture clearly shows the
presence of coral reefs, sand bars and clay deposits
between these two countries (Fig. 9) which are sep-
arated at this point by a distance of 32 km
(Bahuguna et al. 2003). These coral reefs must
have been exposed due to a change in sea level,
near Sri Lanka, during that period described in the
myth. Sea-level changes are not uncommon glob-
ally, and about 18 000 years
BP the sea level was
100–150 m below the current level (IPCC 2001;
Purnachandra Rao et al. 2003). These coral reefs
must have been exposed to the surface—like those
of Lakshadweep islands in the recent historical
past—enabling Rama’s army to cross over to Sri
Lanka. With sea levels rising at the rate of 2.5 cm
per year (it has risen by about 10–20 cm in the
20th century; IPCC 2001), this bridge may never
again be exposed.
Myths about thermal sprin gs
Ancient Indian civilization considered all geologi-
cal phenomena as evidence of divine power and
gifts from the gods (Rajendranath Seal 1958).
This is evident when one visits all the geothermal
provinces in India where thermal waters with
temperatures from 47–98 8C issue through
various geological formations associated with
major tectonic structures. A detailed account of
the relationship between the thermal springs and
Hindu mythology was given by Chandrasekharam
(1999). These sites are associated with epics such
as Ramayana and Mahabharata, and centres
around Lord Shiva, the presiding deity at many
thermal spring sites. Legends associated with
some of the thermal spring sites are outlined below.
Manikaran is situated along Parvati River near
Kullu, 80 km north of Shimla. According to the
legend, Parvati, lost her earrings in the River
Parvati and asked Shiva for help to recover them.
Lord Shiva pierced the Earth with his third eye
only to get gushing hot water along with the ear-
rings. Manikaran is a famous pilgrim centre for
Fig. 9. Park strait and the IRS picture showing the coral reefs between India and Sri Lanka (IRS picture from
Bahuguna et al. 2003).
Fig. 10. Rice (pots) being cooked inside the thermal
pool at Manikaran.
GEO-MYTHOLOGY OF INDIA 35
Hindus as well as for Sikhs. A Shiva temple and a
Gurudwara (Sikhs religious shrine) are located
near the emergence of the thermal springs. Devo-
tees offer rice to Lord Shiva cooked in the thermal
waters. Rice is cooked in small cloth pouches
dipped in the thermal pool. Gurudwara cooks rice
on a large scale in copper vessels for devotees.
The food is served free to all the devotees (Fig. 10).
Similarly, the Tuwa thermal springs of Gujarat
were believed to have been born due to Bhima’s
(one of the Panchapandavas of Mahabharata) mys-
tical power. Draupadi, the common wife of Pancha-
pandavas, asked Bhima to fetch water to quench her
thirst near Tuwa. Bhima, not ﬁnding any source of
water in this drought prone area, brought hot
water to the surface (Chandrasekharam 1999).
In the case of the Agnigundala thermal springs
near Bhadrachalam, Andhra Pradesh, hot water
ﬂows below the surface on the western bank of
the River Godavari (Chandrasekharam et al.
1996). According to the legend, Rama and Sita
rested in Bhadrachalam during their exile and Sita
requested Rama to fetch warm water to beat the
cold. Rama pierced the Earth with his arrow and
brought hot water to the surface. Bhadrachalam is
famous for Rama temple, and during Rama
Navami day (the birthday of Rama) thousands of
pilgrims congregate at this temple and have a holy
bath in the thermal waters.
In general, in all the thermal spring locations,
Shiva is the presiding deity. This is because these
springs are considered as Ganga (water) which
was brought from heaven to Earth by Bhagiratha
(Macﬁe 1992). It was Brahma who gave the boon
to Bhagiratha to enable Ganga to ﬂow on Earth.
To contain her fall, Shiva allowed Ganga to fall
on his head and locked her in his matted hair thus
controlling the ﬂow. Ganga became part of Shiva
and adorns Shiva’s head.
Geological processes or events are an important
component of Indian mythology. Whether a major
tectonic event, the growth of a stalagmite, for-
mation of coral reefs or coastal submergence,
these processes have been considered as manifes-
tations of the gods. The central theme of all the
epics is ‘God’ and His activities on Earth and
hence all the Earth’s activities/processes form an
integral part of these myths and legends. What
emerges is that all these geological processes were
known to ancient Indian civilization. Since scienti-
ﬁc explanation was not available at that time, such
processes were embedded in the legends as God’s
manifestations. In the Hindu faith these myths and
legends are passed on to the next generation. This
may be the case not only in India but in the entire
world (Cataldi et al. 1999). What has been
described in the present paper is a fraction of
what exists in the Indian mythology. A detailed
account of the relationship between geology and
myths would run to many more pages.
A. Minissale and L. Piccardi were instrumental in inviting
me to write this paper. Several people helped me in
lending their books on the Indian legends and puranas
and translating certain books from their original language
to English. My sincere thanks to all of them. I thank
O. Vaselli and J. Garnish for their critical comments and
suggestions and B. Masse for editing the text.
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