Monday, November 6, 2017

Annual migration of Siberian cranes to Sarasvatī River?

 Siberian cranes were known to have frequented India during winter months. The Bharatput bird sanctuary in Rajasthan was a favourite spot of these birds until recently. The last time they were sited was in the year 2002. Since then none of them could be seen coming to this place due to reasons hypothesised here.

Siberian crane (Wikipedia)

One can say that a migration that was happening for thousands of years had come to a halt very recently. The proof of this migration from time immemorial is found attested in Mahabharata!
In Chapter 3-82 (3-80 in Sanskrit version in ) of Mahabharata, sage Pulastya describes the route of Tirthayatra (pilgrimage to sacred waters) as was popular during his times and before. Most places are on the banks of river Sarasvatī. One such place was Shashayāna (शशयान) where cranes “disappearing in the form of sasas (शशरूप), re-appear every year in the month of Karttika, and bathe the Sarsawati.” (3-80.120-122).

The verses are reproduced here:

120. śaśayānaṃ ca rājendra tīrtham āsādya durlabham
    śaśarūpapratichannāḥ puṣkarā yatra bhārata
121.  sarasvatyāṃ mahārāja anu saṃvatsaraṃ hi te
    snāyante bharataśreṣṭha vṛttāṃ vai kārtikīṃ sadā
122. tatra snātvā naravyāghra dyotate śaśivat sadā
    gosahasrapalaṃ caiva prāpnuyād bharatarṣabha


One should proceed, next, to the inaccessible tirtha of Shasayana, where the cranes, O Bharata, disappearing in the form of sasas, re-appear every year in the month of Karttika, and bathe, O blessed chief of the Bharata race, in the SarsawatiBathing there, O tiger among men, one blazeth forth like the Moon, and obtaineth, O bull of the Bharata race, the merit of the gift of a thousand kine.)

The specific mention of annual return of the cranes to this place in the beginning of winter could only refer to birds from higher latitudes of cold regions. Siberian cranes have been observed to have made their annual return to this part of India. In Mahabharata verse, the name of the place, Shashayāna refers to a resting place. Cranes are associated with lakes, such that the Sanskrit word for crane ‘sarasa’ is derived from Saras, meaning, lake or pond. The migratory cranes were the special feature of this place that our ancient people had aptly named it as Shashayāna.

Migratory routes of Siberian crane. Pic courtesy: Wikipedia

Somehow that name has been lost now. But the present name is not suppressing the ancient connections, as Bharata was a common name for all Kuru kings. In the quoted verses above, Bhishma was addressed as Bharata only, to whom Pulastya was explaining the sacred waters. This place is very close to Mathura of Krishna clan (Yadavas) and must have been a favourite resting and sporting spot for long since or before Mahabharata times.

A view of Keoladeo National Park, Bharatpur.

Surprising features

A surprise element in the Mahabharata-narration is that there is no deity associated with this place that was regarded as a sacred tirtha. One has to just go there and take a bath in the waters. That is enough to derive benefits equivalent to that of gifting thousand kine. One cannot call this as nature worship for there is no reference to that. All that is described is the serene and pure environs that are agreeable for birds present there and coming from afar to spend time leisurely here.

One will find similar description in Varahamihira’s Brihad Samhita (Ch 56) for the choice of place for building temples. The places where there are waters and gardens and which are liked by birds and water animals and filled with blossoming trees and plants are ideal for building temples. Devas are fixated in such places naturally. Shashayaana seems to be one such place that must have been kept as a nature reserve without disturbing the flora and fauna. That makes it a sacred place where people can take a dip in the waters while enjoying the natural environment.

The other surprise element is that this sacred water was part of River Sarasvatī.

Today these two features (absence of a temple and the location on River Sarasvatī) with Bharatpur, are absent.

A Shiva temple is found here, and the name of the National Park is named after this temple (Keoladeo). It is possible to assume that the temple had come up after Mahabharata times. Anyway this place was next only a series of temples dedicated to Shiva in the narration of Mahabharata. But they were all located on the banks of Sarasvatī or at places where Sarasvatī had become ponds and lakes. One can reach (according to Mahabharata) here after Shivobheda and Nagobheda. From here the next stop is at Kumārakoti and then Rudrakoti. After that the next and last stop is at the confluence of Sarasvatī with the sea.

This description puts Shashayāna somewhat nearer to present-day Gujarat, but the location of Bharatpur is way up in the map.

In the above map, the route of Tirtha yatra narrated by sage Pulastya is roughly given. Only a few places are given here to show the region covered in this pilgrim-route.

The pilgrimage starts at Pushkar (marked as No 1 in the map).

From there the next major stop is at River Narmada (No 2).

From there one goes to Dvārakā (No 3)

and then Varuna Tirtha, at the confluence of River Sindhu with the sea (No 4).

From there one goes northward covering many Tirthas and reaches River Vitasta, presently known as Jhelum (No 5) in the country of Kasmiras.

From there one goes to a place called Devika, praised well by sage Pulastya.

The places of sacred waters after this are associated with River Sarasvatī.

In the map, the route from No 5 to No 7 is on the banks of Sarasvatī or where she has shrunk as a lake.  

The description in Mahabharata that is plotted in this way shows the location and probable origins of Sarasvatī within NW India and not stretched to NE India where it is believed to have originated according to some researchers.

Reserving those issues for a future article, let me point out here the issues in accepting Bharatpur as Shashayaana.

(1) In the narration of sage Pulastya, one crosses Vināsana where Sarasvatī had entered the ground in ‘Maru’ (desert) and therefore becomes invisible. However one is advised to take bath in the sacred waters there, thus indicating that there did exist residual waters of Sarasvatī in that place as a small pond.

After Vināsana, Sarasvatī reappears in Chamasabheda, Shivobheda and Nagobheda. After crossing these places only, one comes to Shashayāna. If we assume Bharatpur to be Shashayāna, then Vināsana occurs north or northwest to that. But in a description found in another part of Mahabharata, one comes across Vināsana upstream after crossing Dvārakā, Chamasabheda etc., which can be located in Gujarat – Punjab border. Bharatpur looks much higher in latitude.

A possible explanation to solve this discrepancy is to assume that where Sarasvatī was invisible there the name Vināsana was given. Presently scholars locate Vināsana in lower latitudes. But looking at the map there is scope to think that a Vināsana existed north of Bharatpur for a short stretch.
(2) The next issue is the route of Sarasvatī passing through Bharatpur. It is here research is needed to locate palaeo-channels of Sarasvatī in Bharatpur. From Wikipedia sources, it is known that Bharatpur was a natural depression, aiding in the formation of a lake. Two rivers Gambhir and Banganga are meeting very nearby. Very close to this place, Mathura is situated and this means River Yamana is close by.

In the route along River Sarasvatī to find its source, Balarama reaches Yamuna (MB 9-47). There is scientific proof that Yamuna was draining into Sarasvatī for many thousands of years before it changed course to join River Ganges. From the description in Mahabharata (9-47) it is known that Yamuna was joining Sarasvatī at that time and any travel in Sarasvatī had taken one to Yamuna and to its source at Yamunotri.

This link between the two rivers was there during Mahabharata times. This linkage also reveals why the legend of the confluence of Yamuna and Sarasvatī with Ganges in Allahabad (Triveni sangamam) is true. At the confluence one actually sees Yamuna joining Ganges. The legend is that Sarasvatī is flowing underneath that region. Till that point, the waters of Sarasvatī from the confluence of Sarasvatī and Yamuna, is supposed to travel along with Yamuna’s waters. At Sangaman all waters get mixed up. Sarasvatī is never seen (differentiated) after the place where Yamuna joins her.

Bharatpur lying close to Yamuna, raises scope to believe that Bharatpur was indeed Shashayāna, once watered by Sarasvatī! That place having acquired a name Shashayāna, is indicative of migration of Siberian cranes for many millennia before that, as Sarasvatī was a massive river since the beginning of Holocene. By having left that place as a nature-reserve for the birds while at the same time treating that as a sacred waters, our ancestors have proved themselves as exemplary beings that we can be proud of and from whom we need to learn a lot. I am left without words at the ingenuity exhibited by them and the care they had for all beings around – both living and non-living. Thinking of this I realise the meaning of the Swasti vachan better than ever.

"swasthir maanushEbhyah :
Oordhwam jigaathu bheshajam/
Sham no asthu dwi-padhE:
Sham Chathush padhE
OM Shanthi Shanthi Shanthi:"


Let there be goodness to human beings.
Let the plants which are like medicine to us grow up well.
Let the bipeds and quadrupeds be well.
Let there be our goodwill to them.
Let there be peace at all three levels of
Bhu (physical),
Bhuvah (vital)
and swah(mental levels of) all these beings

A last word:
Bharatpur must be included in the map of geologists working on tracing lost Sarasvatī!

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