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Into the Wild West


Superintendent, Geological Survey of India between 1858 and 1891 in South India, Robert Bruce Foote, was the first to offer a clue to the mystery of Parsuram’s axe, though indirectly. Foote wrote: “The settlement of man on the heavily forested mountains (Sahyadri) was not possible till he had obtained the use of iron axes, wherewith to fell the huge trees he had to clear away, before he could accomplish the agricultural work on a large scale.” [Foote, 1916: ‘Indian Prehistoric and Proto-historic Antiquities, Notes on Ages and Distribution’, 48].

Let us today test our hypothesis (of Parsuram as a pioneer opening up the west coast for settling) for consistency with associated facts and dates. The key date that matters is the date of Parsuram’s ‘reclamation of land from the sea’. We have said that the sea began receding from around 2,000 BCE. [Hashimi, 1995: ‘Holocene Sea Level Fluctuations On Western Indian Continental Margin’, in Journal Of The Geological Society Of India, 46]. So, Parsuram must have crossed the Sahyadri after 2,000 BCE. It must have taken a few centuries for the exposed land to become cultivable; his settlement of Deccan ksatriya on the reclaimed land could not have happened before about 1,000 BCE.  This is consistent with the date of the supposed exodus of people from the Deccan due to the drought. It is also

consistent with the timeline for the movement of the bramhan; they could have reached the Deccan around 1,000 BCE.

But we do not really need to be constrained by the legend of Parsuram reclaiming the land from the sea. Even if we drop this constraint, and allow for the possibility that Parsuram ventured across the Sahyadri with his Deccan ksatriya before the sea receded, we cannot push back the date much. The ksatriya could have reached the Gangetic plain by about 2,500 BCE to 2,000 BCE; that is when the wheat and barley appear there; before that the Gangetic plain farmers grew largely rice. When the inhabitants of peninsular India took to farming around 3,000 BCE, the crops they grew were largely millets and pulses; the wheat and barley appear in Deccan only around 1,900 BCE. [The Mehrgadh Farmers, May 12, 2019; Fuller et al, 2011: ‘Finding Plant Domestication in the Indian Subcontinent’, in Current Anthropology, Volume 52, Number S4, S348].

What was the landscape on the western slopes of the Sahyadri and the coastal plain below, around 1,500 BCE to 1,000 BCE? We already know of two palaeobotanical studies which throw light on this. Caratini and his team pulled out a vertical core of river sediments, about five metre long, from a depth of 22 metres at the mouth of the Kalinadi River (Karwar). The different layers of the core were dated based on radiocarbon dating; the lowermost sediment of this core was found to have been deposited around 3,000 BCE. [Caratini, 1994: A less humid climate since ca 3500 yr BP from marine cores off Karwar, Western India, in Palaeogeography, Palaeoclimatology, Palaeoecology, number 109, 371-384]. The researchers then looked for fossils of pollen grains carried by the river, and deposited in the sediments. The bottommost 0.4 metre layer, dated about 3,000 to 2,300 BCE, showed a clear domination of markers of evergreen forests among the pollen of inland vegetation. Subsequently, after 2,300 BCE, there was a significant rise in grass pollen, from 15 per cent to 30 per cent, accompanied by decreasing values for indicators

of evergreen forests and mangroves. [The Story That Kalinadi Wrote,

August 5, 2018].

However at 1,500 BCE level the change became very abrupt. The segment of the core corresponding roughly to 1,500 to 200 BCE, shows a continuation of the trend, but at a slower pace. An increase in savanna pollen as a percentage of all the inland pollen from 50 per cent to 60 per cent, and a decline in markers from both in land forests and mangroves is visible. The pattern almost stabilises around 200 BCE, with no major change thereafter; it marks the establishment of the current status of vegetation over the central part of the Western Ghats. 1.5 metre and above, that is after about 50 BCE, the effects of human activity are discernible; the occurrence of coconut pollen increases. What we can conclude from this is that till about 2,300 BCE evergreen forests covered the western slopes of the Sahyadri. These forests decreased thereafter till about 200 BCE; and by 50 BCE human activity is discernible. So any migrations across the Sahyadri would have faced dense evergreen forest till 2,300 BCE and to a lesser extent till 200BCE; but before 50 BCE migrations had definitely begun.

The second study was done at Kamgavai, Dapoli, Ratnagiri, 15 kilometres from the shoreline. Kumaran and his team drew an 8 metre sedimentary column from a 12 metre deep well in the village. The column showed five clear layers, corresponding roughly to the period 44,000 BCE to date. The base layers corresponding roughly to the period 44,000 to 1,500 BCE, were rich in organic carbon content and were of lake origin. They bore abundant fossils and contained well-preserved compressions of plant objects like leaves, pieces of wood and rootlets. These fossils were of wet evergreen forest types, mainly belonging to freshwater myristica swamps. [Kumaran et al, 2013: Vegetation Response To South Asian Monsoon Variations In Konkan …, in Quaternary International, 286].

The digital elevation model of the area suggests the possibility of a basin-like depression at the site which had accumulated the deposits over several thousands of years; the palaeolake was most probably a myristica swamp. [Srivastava et al, 2016: Monsoon variability over Peninsular India … terrestrial archive from the corridors of Western Ghats, in Palaeogeography, Palaeoclimatology, Palaeoecology,  443]. The three top layers corresponding roughly to the period 1,500 BCE to date, were very different from the lower layers. They seemed to have been left behind by a flowing seasonal stream; the topmost layer seemed to have been alluvium deposited by flood during monsoon. Most important of all, the plant fossils indicate that by this time the luxuriant

tropical wet evergreen rain forests had completely disappeared and were replaced by moist deciduous forests, with only some patchy semi-evergreen forests along the streams and rivulets. [The Jurassic Forest, August 19, 2018]. The Kumaran study more or less confirms the vegetational timeline established by

the Kalinadi study.

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