History of ancient geography

From Hindupedia, the Hindu Encyclopedia

By Himanshu Bhatt

Hindus have always been curious to know about and write about the world and its functions, whether social or scientific. Hindus were in that sense explorers, to pursue the unknown. For example, writing of ancient battles between supernatural beings were many times allegorical to warfare between political opponents, and describing tribes, such as the Kishkindha as monkeys or Sabaras as lions, were metaphors because those animals were official totemic symbols of the clans.

In terms of Geography, Hindu scriptures had divided the eastern world island consisting of 4 continents of Asia, Europe, Oceania, and Africa, into 4 continents; namely Jambudwipa in the south, Uttara-Kuru in the north, Purva-Videha in the east, and Apara-Godaniya in the west. Jambudwipa is more or less synonymous with Bhārata (Indian Subcontinent) but the names and boundaries of the others are altered from time to time, to reflect the change of the political and cultural situations. Continent bordering with each other is based on Mount Meru being at the centre.

Most popular in scriptures were the lands in and adjacent to India.

History of ancient geography
After Agnidhara, Jambudwipa was divided into nine regions (varṣas) and ruled over by one of these sons. Nabhi ruled over Hema-varṣa, Kimpurusha over Hemakunta-varṣa, Hari over Naishadha-varṣa, Ilāvṛta over Meru-varṣa, Ramya over Nilachala-varṣa, Hiranamana over Sveta-varṣa, Kuru over Shringa-varṣa, Bhadrasva over Malyavan-varṣa and Ketumala over Gandhamadana-varṣa.
History of ancient geography


The sages not only traveled frequently to lands outside of India but had also setup their hermitages in them, particularly on their mountains. They often traveled to them by way of rivers.

History of ancient geography
And beyond that region is a river named Sailoda (Syr Darya), on both of whose banks grow the bamboo canes known as kicaka.

These carry the siddhas to and from the opposite shore, where lies the country of Uttarakuru, the refuge of those who have performed meritorious deeds.

History of ancient geography

—Ramayana Kiskindhakāṇḍa 37-38

In many cases, the Indian sages also became royal advisors to the kings and their courts in these countries.


This continent, which is also known as Sudarsana-dwipa, is located south of Mt. Meru. It refers to the Indian Subcontinent. The Mahabhārata while naming 4 world continents, calls "Jamvudwipa otherwise called Bhārata." The Vishnu Purana[1] recognizes Bhārata as the most sacred because it is the "karmabhumi" of spiritual practitioners, and it is also referred to as a "srestha-bhumi". Rajasekhara also divides his Kumaridwipa (India) into five divisions; Udichyadesa (north), Madhyadesa (central), Purvadesa (east), Pachimdesa (west), and Daksinapatha (south.) Chinese pilgrims also divide the Subcontinent into "Five Indias."

This area most sacred to the Hindu scriptures of all sects, including Buddhist, Jain, and Bonpa, because here is where Hinduism prospered.

Besides, Meru, the other venerated mountains in this continent are Kailash, which is also the name in the Mahabhārata of "huge mountains of Hemakuta."[2]

In Tibetan, it is known as dZambu-linga.

The Subcontinent would go on to be recognized by Indians and the rest of the world by various names.

Jambudwipa Bhārata Aryavarta Hindustan Hind India
"This (Brahmaputra) is the eastern boundary of Jambudwipa, its western boundary being the mouths of the Indus and its southern boundary being the Indian Ocean or Rama Sethu." "The country lying north of the ocean and south of the Himadri is Bhārata." "In the west the boundary-river (Indus), in the east the region where the sun rises (Himalayas),—as far as the black antelopes wander (between these two limits.)" "The empire of Hindustan is extensive, populous, and rich. On the East, the South, and the West it is bounded by the Great Ocean." "the ard al-Hind is a vast country which extends itself on the sea, the continent and the mountains;..." "The boundary of the land of India towards the north is Mount Taurus (Caucasus.) The western part of India is bounded by the river Indus right down to the ocean. Towards the south this ocean bounds the land of India, and eastwards the sea itself is the boundary."
Artha Shastra Vishnu Purana[3] Vasiśṭha Sutra[4] Babernama Historical Encyclopedia Indoi

In addition to these names, India is also known as Kumaridwipa (or Kumarika), Hindistan, Indostan, and Ajanabhakhanda. In the Maha Govinda Sutta of Buddhist Digha Nikaya the shape of Mahapathavi (another name of India.) In one of the Buddhist Avadanas Asoka is stated to be the ruler of Jambudvipa, wherein the demonym is used for India.

Political provisions

In Yaksha's era, the Subcontinent was thought of as divided into 3; Udichya (North), East (Prachya), and Dakshina (South.)[5] In the Dharma Shastra of Baudhayana there were also 3 recognized divisions of India. Eventually there were 9 divisions of India.

Seven zones

The Vishnu Purana[6] divides India into 7 zones; Indra-dwipa, Kaserumat, Tamravarna, Ghabhastimat, Naga-dwipa, Saumya, Gandharva, and Varuna. The 9th is surrounded completely by the sea, and hence, is modern Sri Lanka.

Mountainous chains

History of ancient geography
Similarly, south of Ilāvṛta-varṣa and extending from east to west are three great mountains named (from north to south) Niṣadha, Hemakūṭa and Himālaya. Each of them is 10,000 yojanas [80,000 miles] high. They mark the boundaries of the three varṣas named Hari-varṣa, Kimpuruṣa-varṣa and Bharata-varṣa.
History of ancient geography

—Srimad Bhagavatam 5.16.9


This land, also known as Meru-varṣa, Mahakasa-varṣa, Videha-varṣa, or Maha-Videha, is the Shaksgam Valley in which Meru (K2 Mountain) resides.

Meru means mountain, its other Sanskrit name Sudarsana means good worship", then its Hindi name Lamba Pahar means tall mountain, while its Balti name Chogori means big mountain.

On Meru is the city of Indra, Vastvekasara. North of Meru is Manasa. In the south, on Manasa's backside is Yama's city of Samyamana, to the west is Varuna's city Susa on Manasa's peak. Siddhas and Brahmarishis are said to reside on it.[7]

It is said in the Matsya Purana[8] that there are two Merus; 1 on the north, which is in western Ilāvṛta-varṣa, and 1 on the south, which is west of the Nishada Mountains. The bigger Meru is known today as the K2, while the smaller is known as Gasherbrum. In Sanskrit the taller mountain is called Sumeru or good Meru.

It's location is critical towards understanding Vedic geography as it was the ancient centre of spirituality and the crossroads of nationalities. To the west of it is Gandhamadana (Tirich Mir), to its south Kumunda (Nanga Parbat), to its east Malyavat or Mandara (Muztag), and to its north Suparṣva (Kongur Shan.) Another look at nearby mountains is given as Gandhamadana in the northwest, Malyavana in the northeast, Vidyutprabha (Nanga Parbat) in the southwest, and Saumanasa (Kailash) in the southeast.


This is the part of India covered by the Nishada (Karakoram) Mountains.

This is also known as Deva-Kuru, which is placed in between two mountains Nishada and Nila. Its biggest mountain is Viktapati (Nanga Parbat), and its chief rivers are the Harita (Jhelum) and Nari (Chenab.)

Today, the major ethnicities that live here are Kashmiri (Kashuri), Dogra, Gujri, Shen, Gilgit, Hunza, Balti, and Hindi.

Nanga Parbat is also known as Vipula.


This refers to western Tibet, and is the land in between the Himalayan and the Ladakh-Gangdise mountain belts, which are known as the Mahahimavata or the Herokataka.

This land is also known as Haimavata-varṣa and Kinnara-varṣa.

The main ethnicities of this region have been mentioned as Kinnaras and Guhyakas.


This is not the same as Bhārata but is the mainland of India, which is the Indo-Gangetic Plan of North India, along with the North-East and South India. It is also known as Hima-varṣa because it is bound by the Himalayas.

The continent is divided into 7 mountain ranges known as kulaparvatas (mountain families.) They are Mahendra, Malaya (Southern Ghatas), Paripatra, Riksha, Sahya, Sukimat, and Vindhya.

India is the homeland of Indo-Europeans

Yama's kingdom, Zarathustra was born in Kashmir

Before the Indo-European family of languages included European languages, the family was only Indo-Iranian, and before then, just Indo-Aryan. The homeland of the Indo-Europeans has been debated for a long time wherein most western scholarship has argued that the Aryans originated in the European Steppes or maybe in Central Asia. However, as per the genetic, linguistic, and scriptural records India is the homeland.

India is the homeland of two of the world's oldest languages, Tamil and Sanskrit. Sanskritic scriptures treat their homeland as places in India, and in the Puranic times they discuss Indians having migrated outside of the Indian Subcontinent. These migrants mentioned were mainly sages and royalty. Both the Vedic, Puranic, and Ithihasa scriptures mention invading kingdoms outside of India coming in, but these are coming into an already-existing Sanskritic and Hindu culture of India, and they embrace Hinduism in its various forms (i.e., Kanishka and Menander became a Buddhists, and Heliodorus a Vaishnava.)

The Nilamata Purana states that since Prajapati is called Ka, and Kashyapa rishi is also Prajapati, the country built by him is called 'Kashmira'.

Pitṛloka, Land of the Ancestors, is headed by Agniṣvāttā, a Pitṛ (ancestor.)[9] He is said specifically to live in Somapada. It is grouped in the Mahabharata together with lands in mountainous India and eastern Uttar Pradesh.[10] The region has connections with the Himalayas in scriptures. For example, Guhyakas, who reside in and around the Himalayas, are said to visit the Somapada often. Of the Pitṛ who live in Somapada, the DevaPitṛs or Agniṣvāttā children of Marichi Rishi, one of their daughters married a person named "Himavan." Warrior Vidura of the Mahabharata is said to have been transferred to Pitṛloka where he is called Yama, Yamarāja or Pitṛ-Patīn (Lord of the Pitṛs.)

Exodus of Indians

Comparison of India with other region begins in the era of King Priyavrata, son of the first Manu (Swayambhu), who had ruled all of Jambudwipa, and his son Agnidhra had distributed it among his sons. King Vivasvata, the son of Aditi and 1 of 12 Adityas, has many children that included 2 'Manus', Yama, Revanta, as well as others such as Kushaparva. Yama ruled in Kashmir, while Satyavrata (or Vaivasvata, Sraddhadeva) Manu resided in Ramyaka-varṣa (Central Asia in between the Amu and Syr rivers) after the flood in which Matsya helped him escape. We know that Ramyaka-varṣa was where he (along with other sages) migrated to (not where he was an aboriginal of) after the flood because the Matsya Purana mentions that he was the king of Dravida (India south of the Vindhyas) and that he had retired to the Malaya Mountains just before the flood happened. It was during the flood that Matysa helped him escape to the Himalayan highlands for refuge. Of all the flood myths in the world, there also aren't any in Central Asia, so the flood could not have happened there. Manu had the sons Vena, Drishnu, Norishyana, Navaga, Ikshvaku, Kurusha, and Sarjati who were Brahmans, Prishadhru a Kshatriya, and Nabhagarishata a Vaishya. Ikshvaku of course had his stronghold in Kosala (Uttar Pradesh.)

The Kurukhshetra in central India is a sacred land because that is where Surya established his kingdom. It is noteworthy that Sugreeva the Vanara of Kishkindha, Karna of the Kauravas, and the Ashvins were Suryaputras (Offspring of Surya.)

Division into 7 continents

According to the Avesta, the world island is divided into 7 continents or “Keshvar”. Their names are: (1) Arezahi (Southwest Asia) to the west, (2) Savahi (East Asia) to the east, (3) Fradadafshu (Africa) to the southwest, (4) Vidadafshu (Indochina, Indonesia, and Australasia) to the southeast, (5) Vouru-Bareshti (Europe) to the northwest), (6) Vouru-Jareshti (to the northeast), (7) Khvaniratha (Indian Subcontinent) in the centre of the mentioned six regions).


See also: The spread of Hinduism in the Iranian Plateau

This continent is located west of Mt. Meru. It refers to West Asia beginning from the Indus River.

Its varṣas are Jalada, Kumara, Sukumara, Manivaka, Kusumoda, Maudaki, and Mahadruma.

Those varṣas' corresponding mountain chains are Udayagiri, Jaladhara, Raivataka, Syama, Ambikeya, Ramya, and Kesarin.[11]

Its 7 sacred rivers are the Sukumari, Kumari, Nalini, Dhenuka, Ikshu, Venuka, and Gabhasti.

Ketumala-varṣa (Afghanistan)
History of ancient geography
Ketumala-varṣa indeed extends from Romakapura to [the] Gandhamadana [mountain].
History of ancient geography

—Srimad Bhagavatam

The prominent mountain associated with this continent is Gandhamadana Mountain. It is the modern-day Tirich Mir because the Mahabhārata identifies Meru as being between the Malyavat and Gandhamadana.[12] Ketumala is also called Amaragandika or To the west of the Gandika (Gandhamadana.)

The golden Asvattha tree is said to be on the summit of Mt. Gandhamadana. Outside of Meru, this was the favorite mountain for siddhas to take recluse.

Outside of the Subcontinent, this place was so popular that it had been written as the "Dhvajavati-kanya of Rishi Harimedhas."[13]

Ramyaka-varṣa (Northeastern Afghanistan, Tajikistan, southern Uzbekistan and southern Turkmenistan)
History of ancient geography
Sanjaya said, "On the south of Sveta and the north of Nishadha, is the varṣa, called Romanaka."
History of ancient geography

Mahabharata, Section VIII

The land between the Sveta or Rukmi (Pamirs) and the north of Nishadha (Karakoram) is known as Ramyaka or Romanaka.

This is also known as Hiraijyaka-varṣa because not only does this border the Sveta and Nishada mountains, but the Nila Mountains as well. It is also mentioned as Camakara-varṣa in the Vamana Purana.

Uttara-Kuru (Kazakhstan, Northern Kyrgyzstan, and northern Uyghurstan)

The Matsya Purana[14] places the source of the Sailoda (Syr Darya) in the Aruna (Tien Shan) Mountains. But according to the Vayu Purana[15] this river had its source in a big lake lying at the foot of Munjavata Mountain (Victoria Peak.) This river flowed between the rivers Chakshu (Amu Darya) and Sita (Tarim River) which emptied in the Lavanodadhi or Salt Sea (Aral Sea.)

Uttara-Kuru is also known as Hiranmaya, Hairanyavata-varṣa , Shringa-varṣa, and Uttarardha Vijaya, Apara-Godaniya (Apara Goyana), and Apara-Videha. The Aruna Mountains are also known as the Sikhari or Shringa mountains. These mountains are also known as Tri-Shringa because they have 3 great peaks; Communism Peak, Lenin Peak, and Khan Tengri. The biggest peak is Khan Tengri.

Sometimes Ramyaka-varṣa is included as an extension of Uttara-Kuru, as in most Jain and Buddhist scriptures wherein Ramyaka-varṣa isn't even mentioned, but Uttara-Kuru along with Bhārata, Ketumala, and Bhadrasva are.

It is evident that the peoples of the this region in the ancient times had also referred to themselves as Kurus because of local demonymns such as the Kuramin Mountains in southern Uzbekistan and northwestern Tajikistan, and the Kurutag Range in northern Uyghurstan.

Here is where Jain Tirthankara Nami took diksha in the Caitra-vana garden on the night of Asadha.[16] Rishabha used to feed on fruits of the kaipadruma brought to him by the gods. The 7th avatar of Rishabha is said to be as twins in Uttara-Kuru.[17]


See also: The spread of Hinduism in East Asia

This continent is located east of Mt. Meru. It refers to East Asia.

Bhadrasva-varṣa (Tarim Basin)
History of ancient geography
It is said that Bhadrasva-varṣa extends from the city of Yamakoti up to the Malyavat Mountain.
History of ancient geography

—Srimad Bhagavatam

The prominent mountain associated with this continent is Malyavat Mountain. It is the modern-day Muztag (7,282m) along the Yurungkax He stream by the Anila (Kunlun) Mountains because the Mahabhārata identifies Meru as being between the Malyavat and Gandhamadana.[18]

Bhadrasva is also known as Malyavat-varṣa, Vijaya, and Purva Videha.

The Bhagavata Purana[19] says that it possess 7 mountain ranges; The Sukla, Vardhamana, Bhojana, Upabarhana, Nanda, Nandana, Sarvatobhadra. Its 7 major rivers are Abhaya, Amritaugha, Aryaka, Tirthavati, Rupavati, Pavitravati, and Sukla.

According to the Yoga-Vasiśṭha of Valmiki, Kraunchadwipa is bounded by the sweet Saccbariue Sea, and beset by a range of mountains.

The mountain Mandara (Tuanjie Feng) is known for having the popular Deva-Asura tug-of-war, and the 12th Jain Tirthankara Vasupujya attained Nirvana here[20], and the Garuda Anadrta lives here in a siddhayatana.[21] It is mentioned by the Thanangasutra and Samvayangasutra as having Malyavana to its northeast[22], it being south of Gandhamadana, and has Badarikashrama to its south. The closest river to it is the Rajatamulika.







Concept of the Chakravarti

See also: Chakravarti

The Chakravarti (Wheel-turner) was a ruler whose domain included vast regions. There are different kids of Chakravartis mainly the Chakravartis or emperors of India, and the Ardha-Chakravartis or Half-Chakravartis that ruled only half of India.

See also


  1. P. 71 Bharātīya Vidyā, Volumes 22-24 By Bharatiya Vidya Bhavan
  2. Mahabharata Shanti-parva Section VI: "The huge mountains of Hemakuta are otherwise called Kailasa."
  3. Vishnu Purana 2.3.1
  4. Vasiśṭha Sutra 1.15
  5. P. 103 Prāci-jyotī: Digest of Indological Studies, Volume 8 By Kurukshetra University
  6. Vishnu Purana Book 2, Chapter 3
  7. Matsya Purana 114.83-84
  8. Matsya Purana 113.20
  9. Srimad Bhagavatam 5.26.5
  10. Mahabharata Vanaparva SECTION LXXXIV "One should next go to Somapada, with subdued soul and leading a Brahmacharya mode of life."
  11. Mahabharata Bhumi Parva SECTION XI
  12. Mahabhārata Shantiparva Section VI: "Beyond Malyavat northwards is the mountain called Gandhamadana. 4 Between these two (viz., Malyavat and Gandhamadana) is a globular mountain called Meru made of gold."
  13. Mahabharata Udyogaparva 108.13
  14. Matsya Purana 120, 19-23
  15. Vayu Purana 47, 20-21
  16. P. 170 Jainism in South India P. M. Joseph
  17. P. 63 The Jain Saga - Part 1: Brief history of Jainism : story of 63 illustrious persons of the Jain world By Kalikaal Sarvagya Hemchandrasuriswarji
  18. Mahabharata Shantiparva Section VI: "Beyond Malyavat northwards is the mountain called Gandhamadana. 4 Between these two (viz., Malyavat and Gandhamadana) is a globular mountain called Meru made of gold."
  19. Bhagavata Purana V.XX.20-22
  20. P. 148 Jaina-rūpa-maṇḍana: (Jaina iconography). 1 By Umakant Premanand Shah
  21. P. 38 Elements of Jaina Geography: The Jambūdvīpasaṃgrahaṇī of Haribhadra Sūri : Critically Edited and Translated with the Commentary of Prabhānanda Sūri By Haribhadrasūri, Frank Van Den Bossche
  22. P. 114 Geography of the Mahabharata By Bhagwan Singh Suryavanshi