Saturday, April 21, 2018

Tsunami at Setu and formation of Sāmbhar salt lake find mention in Valmiki Ramayana. (Spoken language of ancient India – Part 8)

Disclaimer: I hereby declare that there is no chauvinistic intention of promoting Tamil, which happens to be my mother tongue, in this series. The intention is to bring to the notice of readers, the presence of Tamil alongside Sanskrit in the Indian Subcontinent for many thousands of years. A deeper analysis might give us leads on why a fused Tamil and Sanskrit presence can be seen from India to Ireland to Ice land and from Polynesia to the Incas. 

Previous articles:-

The loss of Southern Madurai (தென் மதுரை) and re-location to Kavātam had happened between the 11th and 13th year of Rama’s exile. This coincided with the start of a tsunami season of 11 tsunamis spread over 5000 years that left imprints in the sea caves of Banda Aceh. (Read Part 7).  In those early years Rama was very much present in south India and even crossed the sea. Did he face the impact of any tsunami or sea-level rises? A reading of Valmiki Ramayana shows that he did experience a tsunami-impact at Setu just before he built the bridge. A tectonic deformation was simultaneously felt in the desert of Rajasthan. The details of these calamities and the probable cause of them are discussed in this article to add credence to the legend of submergence of Southern Madurai around that time.

Tsunami-like event at Setu in Valmiki Ramayana.

The ocean looked in its normal course when Rama and the Vanaras reached the shores (VR 6:4). The evening scenario appeared as though the ocean and the sky had merged together in colour and splendour. The ocean was filled with two rows of waves and the sky with a row of falling cloud. Rama waited for three days to find an opening in the ocean. This wait itself looks odd, unless similar openings had happened in the past.

To put it in a different way, suppose the land connection between India and Lanka was visible above the sea water here and there, the continuous stretch of land could have been exposed during low tides. This is possible when the land bridge was not completely submerged. But when Rama waited, nothing of that sort happened.

This made Rama to shoot an arrow at the sea, penetrating the waters of the sea. From that moment onwards, the description resembles a calamity in the sea. He again prepared to shoot, but this time the Brahmastra. He was stopped by Lakshmana and then by the Ocean God who advised him to divert the arrow at another location. What follows is another wonder – something caused in nature. And at the end of that Valmiki makes a significant remark about Rama as one having “Sarva Sastragyan” (राघवम् सर्वशास्त्रज्ञमिदम्) (VR 6:22:43). This makes us presume that whatever was witnessed or supposed to have been caused by Rama falls within scientific purview! Keeping this in mind let us re-visit the verses right from the time Rama shot an arrow at the sea.

Rama releases the arrow the first time.

At that moment, huge, rolling waves started coming and smoke also came out of the sea. The creatures of the deep sea were picked up by the waves, meaning to say that a complete overhaul of the water from bottom to top had happened. The waves were described as having reached the height of the Vindhya and Mandara mountains. All this was accompanied with a huge noise

Rama then took out the Brahmastra and just stretched the string – he had not yet shot the arrow.
At that moment (VR 6:22: verses 6 to 16)

·       The earth and the sky seemed to have split apart with a huge noise.
·       There was darkness and all directions looked obscure.
·       There was darkness in the sky as hundreds of meteors blazed across the sky with huge sound.
·       Heavy winds were blowing, tearing up the trees.
·       High velocity winds were noticed and they emitted flashes of lightning and thunder like noises.
·       The waves and waters of the Ocean attained a terrible velocity, swelled and crossed the other shore to an extent of a yojana! (1 Yojana = 8 miles). The term used here is “anyatra” (वेलामन्यत्र) meaning other shore!

      This is a crucial piece of information. Ocean had crossed the shore at some other place which was witnessed by Rama. In his place also the water level has increased, but not as alarmingly it was at the other shore. The rise in water level at Rama’s place is known from the description that Rama did not retreat (नातिचक्राम राघवः) when the water crossed the limits.

·       At this moment Sāgara (ocean God) appeared and promised to hold back the water so that the Vanaras could build the bridge. The sea creatures also would not be present at that time, promised Sāgara.

All these are features witnessed when a tsunami strikes. The tall waves – compared with the height of Vindhya and Mandara Mountain striking another shore but not where Rama was standing makes a good comparison with the shadow regions like Tiruchendur when 2004 tsunami struck. The stretch from Tiruchendur to Rameswaram was studded with a series of promontories even today.

There is also a chain of islands right in front of the region of Setu Karai (Shore of Setu) where Rama did his penance for Ocean God according to traditional belief. This region was full of Kusha grass and Ramayana specifically says that Rama did the penance at the region of Kush grass. This region is known as Tiruppullani in Tamil – referring to the grass.

In the picture above a part of the sea off Setu Karai is circled. Presently the bathymetric depth of the circled region (between Setu Karai and the chain of islands in front of it) is less than 4 meters only. (It is more in the regions outside the encircled region, thereby making this region look like a promontory when the sea level was lower by 5 metres than at present). The maximum depth at Ram Setu is also 4 metres today. In other words, the region of Ram Setu (where the bridge was built) and the region in front of Rama in Setu Karai were at same depth.

The islands in the front, particularly the three islands must have been there as they are now or a couple of metres above water at the time of Rama. The ‘anyatra’ shore where the tall waves crossed right in front of the eyes of Rama, could have been the eastern or southern shorelines of these islands. The waves of reduced velocity had reached the feet of Rama after crossing these islands. It was at that moment, Sāgara (Ocean God) appeared as per the narration of Valmiki. (1)

Interestingly, two of the three islands lined in front of where Rama stood, bear the name ‘Deepu Sagar’ even today. This could have been the corrupt form of ‘Dweepa Sagar’ (Sagar Dweepa). They are also called in local Tamil names, but the names Sagar and Dweepa could not have come up without being associated with Ramayan events at this place.

After the tsunami-hit, the waters had retreated to some distance by the pull of returning waves, exposing parts of the land conenction between India and Lanka. The sea creatures were washed away in that region, something mentioned in Valmiki Ramayana. The bridge was then built by the vanaras within five days. But the evidence of a natural calamity cintinues to persist in the surroundings. This is known from Rama’s words on what he termed as portents, as he began to walk on the newly constructed bridge towards Lanka. They are listed below. (2)

·       “Winds are blowing with dust and earth is trembling. Mountain- tops are quivering and trees are falling down”.
·       “Ferocious clouds resembling wild beasts were dirty colored and emit a terrific roaring and let loose dreadful showers mingled with drops of blood”.
·       “Evening twilight resembling red sandal wood is very much dreadful. From the blazing sun, balls of fire fall”.
·       “Wild animals and birds from all sides are roaring pitiably with melancholic sound, facing towards the sun in great fear”.
·       “The splendorous moon as though rising at the time of universal dissolution, invested with a black and red halo is tormenting the mind this night”.
·       “A dark stain appears on the cloudless solar disc, which is diminished, dreary, inauspicious and coppery”.
·       “Stars enveloped in enormous dust, appear to announce dissolution of the world”.

The dominat feature in the above description is red colour.

The rainfall was mixed with red spots, making it appear like drops of blood.

The twilight was red.

Moon was surrounded with red-coloured halo.

The sun looked dimished in brightness but looked coppery, again a refernce to red colour.
 The stars looked dim covered with dust.

All these happen in a calamity caused by meteor hit or volcanic explosion or sub-terrnean explosion of magma! The red colour of the rain and moon’s halo are mostly due to red particles in the atmosphere which could have been spewed up into the atmosphere due to an explosion. The explosion could be that of volcanic fire under water or near water or of sub-terranean magma bursting out from the ocean floor. In such cases a tsunami is possible. There are two possible candidates for these in the India Ocean. It is explained using the following diagram.

The topography of the Indian Ocean floor

(1) On the right there is a long line of subduction zone to the west of Indonesian islands. This has been the most common cause of sudden seismic activity on the ocean floor.

(2) The second region of instability is right in the middle of the Indian Ocean to the south of India. Here two tectonic plates are moving towards each other causing a line of compression (3). 

Whenever the compression force exceeds a particular limit tremors are felt. The subterranean magma is also being pushed out and spread out on the ocean floor.

In the first scenario seismicity in the subduction zone of Sunda-Java Trench accompanied with an explosive volcano could throw up massive amounts of dust in the atmosphere while simultaneously triggering a tsunami. The impact of that could roughly be as indicated in the below diagram.

Two places are of interest to us – Setu Karai / Ram Setu and Kavātam! Kavātam had already come into existence when Rama reached the shores. Its location deduced from Ramayana is somewhere in the now submerged region off the Southern tip of India. It did not suffer any damage until 3500 years ago. Therefore its location must be deemed to be in a safer place away from the line of tsunami originating in the east of Indian Ocean. South India had an extended shore line in the southern tip at that time.

In the above diagram, both Setu Karai (where Rama was standing) and Kavātam are in safe locations if a tsunami strikes from east, from the direction of Indonesian archipelago.

But Valmiki does not stop with this event alone. He continues to narrate what was done with the Brahmastra that Rama was about to shoot. That narration tells an extended story of what more happened due to the seismicity felt at Setu. They were related to the happenings at Thar desert!

Events at Rajasthan desert.

On seeing Rama readying to shoot the Brahmastra, Sagara, the Ocean God told him that there was a place called ‘Drumakulya’ where the Abhiras were drinking his waters – a reference to sea water / salt water. Sāgara wanted Rama to stop them from drinking that water. So Rama directed his arrow at that part which landed as a thunderbolt. A cavity was formed called as ‘Marukāntāram’ (मरुकान्तारम्) – the cavity of the desert.

The narration shows that there was a hollow called ‘vrana’ (a crack) in that part of the desert. From that water was coming out resembling sea water. The arrow of Rama dried up that water. However Rama gave a boon to get fresh water in that cavity. From then onwards that place had become congenial for living giving scope for vegetation and cattle rearing.

Such an act was done by Rama, the knower of all sciences!

Reference to Sambhar Lake

A study of this description and the etymology of the terms used in this context give a fairly good picture of the events that had happened. The place-name ‘Drumakulya’ could refer to a creek on the side of a tree or trees. Druma means tree in Sanskrit. Kulya refers to a canal or a ditch or a formation where water runs. Abhiras were the people living in that region. Abhiras are cowherds, etymologically. But the reference to Drumakulya in Rama’s times could imply that they were not effectively engaged in cattle rearing. Their only source of water was salty water resembling sea water available in Drumakulya. Lack of means for their sustenance made them engaged in robbery. 

There is yet another reference to this creek like structure. It is the word Marukāntāram. Rama's Brahmastra descended at Marukāntāram (VR 6-22-35). This implies that the creek of Drumakulya looked like a cavity in a desert. That desert was a famous one (विश्रुतम्), thereby indicating that it was the Thar desert

Rama’s arrow landed at that cavity like thunderbolt causing the salt water to disappear. But soon good water had filled that cavity which is known from the description that it became congenial for cattle breeding and for growing roots, fruits and herbs. The place became auspicious for living.

This description fits well with the formation of Sambhar Salt lake in Rajasthan. There are quiet a few salt lakes in Rajasthan of which Sambhar lake is the biggest one. The etymology of the name Sambhar is traced to Shakambhari Devi which means ‘she who bears vegetables’!! One can see transference from Druma (tree) to śāka (meaning vegetable). A place of trees that didn’t give any sustenance to the dwellers had got transformed into a place of ‘vegetables’. How did that happen?

Many studies were done in this and other salt lakes of the Thar Desert. It was found out that there is salt water, very much resembling sea water, formed by the rocks of the Precambrian period at deeper levels. There were at least four phases of tectonic deformation in the past causing the salt rocks to rise up or get exposed in cavities formed by the tectonic deformation. (4) The last two tectonic deformations must have formed the depressions holding present day’s salt lakes of Rajasthan, including Sāmbhar Lake. (5)

Sāmbhar Lake is located on a tectonic block, sandwiched between two separate blocks placed north and south of it. There is a possibility of these blocks tilting and rotating due to tectonic activities. “The independent movement of these two blocks might have led to the formation of some weak linear zone which eventually developed into Sāmbhar lake basin(6)

The tectonic movements have caused the salt water to disappear in the cavity, but in course of time rain water got collected in to this and other salt lake cavities helping in support of habitation around the lakes. Salt making industry at Sāmbhar Lake is a recent activity, started 1500 years ago. Until then its sole utility was to sustain the population around it with the rain water collected in its cavity.

The scientific description of the above explains the myths around Shakambhari. (Shakambhari also means ‘fossil salt’). She was supposed to have numerous eyes on her body which were shedding waters on seeing the dreadful condition of the land. This is like drops of rain water that rarely occur in the desert getting collected in the cavity.

The salt water-filled cavity was drained by Rama’s arrow. Later it came to be filled with rain water which continues till today. The myth of Shakambhari came to be associated with this while the early event of disappearance of salt water from the lake was associated with Rama’s Brahmastra.

So what has happened when Rama, the knower of all sciences (Sarva Sastragyan) shot the arrow?

 The tectonic deformation disturbing the cavity to lose salt water to the subterranean levels can only happen when there is a seismic disturbance.

Such a disturbance had happened when Rama was waiting to cross the sea at Setu.

At first a tsunami hit the shores with a lesser impact at Setu Karai and Ram Setu, followed by a complete blurring of the surroundings with red coloured particles. Water had receded at Ram Setu region while at the same time a salt water cavity at the Thar Desert got disturbed causing its water to disappear at greater depths. These combinations are possible if a powerful tectonic movement in the compression zone of the mid Indian Ocean region had happened. A northward thrust can cause a chain reaction of compression or tectonic deformation on the direction of force where lies India. This compression zone is known to throw out magma that spreads on the ocean floor. If the thrust is powerful enough a magma plume can be thrown up into the atmosphere and this could have caused reddish hues all around.  

A south to north tectonic movement in Indo-Australian tectonic compression zone in the Indian Ocean can push the Indian plate towards north, thereby causing subsequent deformation in the local fault regions of the Indian sub continent. Sāmbhar Lake lying on one such fault line compressed on two sides by two tectonic blocks to its south and the north could receive a jolt in such a scenario. Salt rocks are easily prone to such deformation according to experts.

In the above diagram, the arrow marks show the direction of stress release when the mid Indian Ocean compression zone receives a jolt from the southern tectonic plate. The immediate result would be a tsunami which can cause tremendous damage to southern tip of India. Part of it enters the Gulf of Mannar where damages are restricted by promontory like formations. Setu Karai and Rameswaram would have escaped damage, but experienced a denuding of silt in the region of the underwater land connection between India and Lanka. Rama made use of this opportunity and quickly raised the region with solid stuff.

Kavātam also lies on the way of the tsunami. In the absence of any record of damage to Kavātam of that time it is inferred that it is located on a safe region away from direct hit of a tsunami from south.
The damage did not seem to stop with south India. The tectonic crush from south to north seemed to have disturbed the three volatile tectonic blocks in the Thar desert, one of which bears the Sāmbhar lake. The compression force had impacted them causing the salt water of Sambhar lake drain deep into the cavity. Later when rains arrived, the cavity served as a lake and helped people to flourish.

All this is attributed to Rama and his astra, for Rama as Time and Kalapurusha is the Primary cause of all events.

What looks like myths actually contain secrets which can be unravelled anytime in future. But the events woven around the myth helps in keeping alive the myth for very long so that someday it can be understood in its truer sense.

That seems to be the intention of Valmiki who thoughtfully had inserted the term “Sastragyan” of Rama to de-code the natural occurrences hidden in the narration.

A tsunami-hit closer to Ram Setu helping in raising the under-water connection and a tectonic deformation at Sāmbhar lake causing it to be what it is now – these are the secrets embedded in Valmiki Ramayana at a time Kavātam had come into existence.

These scientifically viable events do lend credibility to the legends of floods in olden Tamil lands. Sāmbhar Lake is as old as the Ram Setu Bridge. And Ram Setu is as old as Kavātam! The scientific dating of the tectonic deformation of the Sāmbhar Lake can authenticate the date of Rama and also the date of Kavātam emerging as the capital of the 2nd Tamil Sangam age.

At a time Rama was waiting to cross the sea at Setu, Agastya was preparing himself to head the revival of Tamil Sangam by engaging in a 12 year long penance at the receptacle of Kaveri.

Why did Agastya choose to take up the task of re-establishing the literature tradition of Tamil Sangam?  Why no other Rig Vedic sage seemed to be interested in this task? Were they not conversant in Tamil – the language called Madhuram that Rama and Seetha seemed to be familiar with?

To be discussed in the next article..


 (1) Valmiki Ramayana: 6:22: verses 16 & 17

(2) Valmiki Ramayana: 6:23: verses 4 -10

(3) Wiens et al., 1986, ‘Plate tectonic models for Indian Ocean “intraplate” deformation’, Tectonophysis, 132 (1986) 37-48

(4) Ramesh et al., 1993, ‘Stable isotopic evidence for the origin of salt lakes in the Thar Desert’, Journal of arid environments, Volume 25, Issue 1, July 1993, Pages 117-123,

(5) Paliwal.B.S., Dept of Geology, Govt Bangur College, Didwana, “The source of salt in Rajasthan – an investigation of the salt lake of Didwana”, 1975.

(6) “Physico-chemical evolution of the Sambhar lake system, Rajasthan”, Thesis submitted by Saro J Kumar Panda, 1996,


Arun said...

Brilliant work. Three words appear to have been used to differentiate between normal sea waves and tsunami.चचाल or चल = An normal motion, daily, annual and precession motion of earth, waves of sea or of land।
चेलुः = Small earthquake, after shocks
चकम्पिरे or चकम्प = Tsunami।
प्रकम्प = Shaking, vibrating.
Examples include Tsunami at Ramayan time also-दुर्गा सप्तशती, अध्याय २-
चुक्षुभुः सकला लोकाः समुद्राश्च चकम्पिरे॥३३॥
चचाल वसुधा चेलुः सकलाश्च महीधराः।
वाल्मीकि रामायण, युद्धकाण्ड, अध्याय २२-When Rama used Brahmastra before building ocean bridge-
तस्मिन् विकृष्टे सहसा राघवेण शरासने।
रोदसी सम्पफालेव पर्वताश्च चकम्पिरे।।६॥
महाभारत, विराट पर्व गो-हरण पर्व, अध्याय ५४-Repulsing Kaurava attack on Virat by Arjuna. Here महावनानि = महासागर, ocean। वननिधि = समुद्र। प्लबङ्ग = Moving with प्लव (ship), or on trees.
नरर्षभास्तेन नरर्षभेण, वीरा रणे वीरतरेण भग्नाः।
चकम्पिरे वातवशेन काले, प्रकम्पितानीव महावनानि॥१४॥
भीष्म पर्व, अध्याय ९९-
चकम्पिरे शङ्खमृदङ्गनिःस्वनैः,
प्रकम्पितानीव वनेन वायुना॥२९॥
=Sound of Conch, Mrdanga etc was like Tsunami in ocean (War of Abhimanyu before fall of Bhishma).

jayasree said...

Namaskaram Arun ji.

Thank you for the references from Durga Saptashati and Mahabharata.

mythra81 said...

is it true that the setu bridge was 100 yojanas long [800 miles] according to what i came across from some translations of valmiki ramayana....that would mean ravana's city was somewhere else rather than sri lanka [sri lanka was known as serendib by the portuguese which was probably 'cheran-theevu' and lanka might be the name given by the sinhalese who migrated there from their original homeland of lanka which i suspect is either the maldives or somewhere close to indonesia]

jayasree said...


Valmiki Ramayana does say that Setu bridge was 100 yojanas long. This refers to the bridge that is currently seen joining Dhanushkoti and Thalai mannar. What constitutes a yojana gives rise to the confusion you have raised.

Before explaining this, I want to highlight some basics.
There are different schools of thought on the measurement of a yojana. While Maya says that one yojana is equal to 32,000 hastas (1 hasta /muzham = 24 amgulas), Vishvakarma says
that one yojana is equal to 16,000 hastas. This is a huge disparity. One way to explain this is that each of them meant the yojana for a separate purpose.

Why I say this is because there is a measurement scale which defines Yojana in terms of sound! In this 4 krosha (क्रोश) is equal to one yojana. The same exists in Tamil as 4 Kooppidu (கூப்பிடு = call) is equal to one yojana or Kaadam. There are quite a few references related to these two (Kooppidu and Kaadam / yojana) in old Tamil texts. Some of them say that 4 Kooppidu = 1 yojana and some other texts say 2 kooppidu = 1 yojana. The underlying fact is that the sound-travelling distance is taken as the unit of measurement.

The ancients had apparently judged the distance based on the sound caused by some thing. It is not known what it is - whether the sound of a drum or an animal or a person. Depending on the sound making object, the distance of Yojana had differed. That is why we have conflicting formulas of 2 Kooppidu = 1 yojana or 4 kooppidu = 1 yojana. But by the name of it, one kooppidu (call / shout of a man) refers to the distance at which his shout can be heard.

In modern science the distance traveled by sound is well documented. It is approximately 300 mts. 100 times (for 100 yojanas of Setu) this distance is 30,000 mt = 30 km. 30 km is the length of Ram Setu bridge! So the formula for yojana can be written as 1 yojana = speed of sound per second. Ramayana has referred to this speed as the unit of yojana. It is the distance at which a call can be heard. This unit is relevant here as noise of the vanara army was heard by those in Lanka and the Vanaras also heard the noise of drums from Lanka as they were approaching Lanka. So it would be realistic in that context to refer to the distance by means of the sound they could hear from the enemy territory.

Reproducing here one of the formulas for Yojana based on Kooppidu

24 amgula = 1 muzham (hasta)

4 muzham = dhanus

2 dhanus = 1 danda

50 danda = 1 koopidu

4 kooppidu = 1 yojana.