I was seeking, frantically seeking for the roots of the Konkani people. I had to begin somewhere; and I began with the familiar; the legend that I had heard a thousand times – the legend of Parshurama.
I knew it was more than a legend; once I happened to go down the slope that branches off from the GMC-Dona Paula road and leads right up to the Siridao beach. Just after the Bambolim Beach Resort, the hill on the left was being cut to widen the road – apparently in preparation for some mega-project. On my right was the sea, almost three metres below; on my left was the freshly cut hill wall. In that wall, some two metres below the hill top, was a clear line, about 6 inches broad, of course sea sand and almost intact window-pane oyster shells. I had almost stumbled upon Parshuram’s arrow! My joy knew no bounds; those oyster shells are now my oldest heirloom.
It is then that I knew there was indeed fire beneath the pall of smoke; the pall had to be cleared. There was not much literature on the evolution of the western coastal plain, except for a few papers published mainly by scientists at NIO, Goa, like Hashimi, Gaur, Nayak and Rao. I thought I had to catch hold of something more fundamental in the form a text on geology of India; that is when I was referred to Valdiya by my geologist colleague. Both of Valdiya’s works, The Making Of India – Geodynamic Evolution and Geography, Peoples and Geodynamics Of India in Purānas and Epics, proved to be of immense help, though I could understand very little of the technical jargon; the broad idea of regression and transgression of the sea could now provide me a basis for the Parshuram’s legend.
The patchy idea of India’s geology that I had gathered by now, could also make my way easier in tracing out the story of Saraswats. But, as I soon realised, there was much more to that story than plate tectonics. It landed me deep into a whirlwind of arguments and counter arguments – basically anthropological, but driven by political and religious sentiments. This was definitely not what I had called for. But it made no difference to what I was interested in; I could comfortably begin from a point that was beyond controversy, and that far in time was good enough for me; anyway I was not interested in tracing the roots of the Konkanis to the first apes! I have no claim to the absolute truth; and I have no axe to grind, no agenda to pursue.
With that in mind, before going any further, let me put a few things straight. I shall be talking about all peoples in exactly the same sense as the prefix jana in the word janapada was used in ancient texts. Jana simply meant a community or a group of people that was concentrated in a given geographic area and which could be differentiated from another group on the basis of its dominant cultural traits. It neither alluded to a race, nor to a caste nor a class. I define ārya, for instance, as the people whom we find settled in the Sarasvatī river basin around 3000 BCE – 2000 BCE. This does not rule out the possibility of the ārya being more than one community or ‘people’. Yes it is a dated definition; if we shift the date, the geographical area defining the ārya will be different. The other defining characteristic of the ārya is the Vēda. This too is a dated definition; for if we move to a later date, many more literary texts enter the definition. Thus defined, it would in fact be more appropriate to call them sāraswat or vaidik. But both of these have acquired a different connotation over time. Moreover, we find the word ārya embedded in extensively used terms as Āryavarta, and is therefore more convenient to use.
Along the same line it is important to note that the concept of tribe as understood now was nonexistent then; all communities were janas, irrespective of their situation on the generally accepted of civilizational scale; it is in this sense that I shall use the word tribe. Similarly the word caste in this book would mean a community, without any implication of a hierarchy. These norms shall apply to all the ‘people’ we deal with hereafter.
Our search for roots, and therefore this series, will run on three parallel tracks – the people, their land and their language. We begin very far from this thin sliver of coast that we call Konkan today; for Konkan has ebbed and flooded. And the Konkanis have flowed over the mega continent. We seek their roots in the icy torrents of Saraswati as it hurtled down the mountains through its seven tributaries, withering the Himalayan rocks to fertilise its plains; and we seek their roots in the land made holy by the feet of Mahavira and Buddha, on the banks of Ganga and Brahmaputra, as they crafted their red and black pottery and wrought iron tools; and we seek their roots in the dense forests of Dandakaranya.
We follow them in their times of distress as the droughts drove them across mountains and through forests, sailing overseas and fording rivers in spate, continually seeking new lands for livelihood. We shall be witness to their wars, and mourn over their dead. We shall listen to their songs of joy and their lamentations of despair; and these shall become our records of history.
There is one unitary message that rings loud and clear through the ancestry of contemporary Konkanis: that we are all children of what in current parlance would be called ‘refugees’, fleeing from difficult times; ‘hard pressed by debts and taxes, forsaking their land and renouncing their king, and fleeing with household utensils and cattle’, as Ignacio Arcamone put it in his 1664 letter to his superiors in Rome. (Fernandes, 1981: Uma Descrição e Relação de ‘De Sasatana Peninsula in Indiae Statu’ Textus Inediti, 93)