Alternate History : Dating The Epics

Two of the methods adopted for dating the period of Indian epics, Ramayana and Mahabharata :

  • References within them to dated historical landmarks;

  • References within them to astronomical configurations that can be dated. 

The River Saraswati that originated at the Har-Ki-Dun glacier, or rather its drying up, is fairly accurately dated now. Due to extreme tectonic events, its major tributaries Yamuna and Satluj changed course towards Ganga and Indus respectively. This reduced the flow of the river and it finally disappeared from the surface of the earth. 

Geologists and archelogists reckon that the event happened in 1900 BC. But they also point out that the drying up process took place over a couple of millenia : the River Saraswati flowed in it’s full grandeur till 3000 BC, when geological events reduced its flow, but the river survived untill the century in which it finally dried up. 

Summarising, the three distinct phases in the River’s life…

I 40000 yrs ago till 3000 BC, when it was a mighty river;

II 3000 BC to 1900 BC, when it was much reduced; and

III After 1900 BC, when the river completely dried up. 


In both Ramayana and Mahabharata, we find references to River Sarasvati … 

The Ramayana narrative places Bharat at his maternal uncle’s palace in Kekaya, in Punjab, when his father Dashrath passed away. The epic mentions that, while coming back, Bharat had to cross the River Saraswati. 

Ramayana, Uttara Kanda (Chap 100), has references to the Gandharva country. In context, Rama is sending out his younger brother, Bharat and the latter is being briefed about the Indus Valley cities by their Advisor, Gargya : 

There is a country of Gandharvas on the banks of Sindhu river that is extremely fertile, rich in fruits and roots. The people are brave, versed in arms; they are skilful warriors and are ever ready to defend their country. After winning over them in battle and destroying their magnificent citadels, take possession of their cities, which are well constructed. The country is extremely beautiful.”

The descriptions uncannily reminds us of pre-Harappa and early river valley cultural spread in Greater Punjab region, about the upper reaches of Indus River, much of which is actually found in the excavated ruins of those remarkably well-designed cities. The country is beautiful even today. 

In Mahabharata we find references, during Balaram’s pilgrimage that began just before the start of The Great War, to the River Saraswati as having reduced flow. The Mahabharata War is dated around 3100 BC from Puranic and astronomical sources, and that corresponds well with the second phase of the River we have specified above.  

Following are more references from the epic… 

Mbh.3.85 : “In the Satya-Yug (Krita-Yug) all tirthas – places of pilgrimage – were sacred; in Treta, Pushkara alone was frequented; in Dwapara, it was Kurukshetra; and in Kali-yug, the Ganga alone is sacred.” 

The statement is perhaps a direct reference to how availability of water declined over the millenia, starting with the era when it was plentiful all over their settlements along the southern course of Sarasvati. At the end of Treta Yug (5000 BC), the region had gone dry and people seem to have moved more north-east, to the area around the Pushkar Lake. Dwapara (5000 BC to 3000 BC) saw people migrate to Kurukshetra in Haryana, where Sarasvati and one of its tributary Dhrisadwati still flowed. Thereafter, in Kali Yug, even this northern remnant of Saraswati and its eastern tributary dried up. The later Vedic people settled along the River Ganga and came to depend solely on its life-giving waters. 


There is a passage in Ramayana too that mentions Rama being engaged in “forming” the wet region named Pushkara, presumably by creating a fresh water source there, in the midst of a desert (Maru-kantara) that lay to the north of Lavana-sagara, the saltwater-sea.


The verses below describes a terrible drought, as informed by Sage Vishwamitra. 

Mbh.12.206 : “Towards the end of Treta and beginning of Dwapara, a frightful drought occurred, extending over twelve years. There was no rain. The planet Vrihaspati (Jupiter) was retrograde and the Moon was at its southernmost point. Not a dew-drop could be seen, what to speak of clouds gathering ? The rivers shrank to being mere narrow streamlets. Everywhere the lakes, wells and springs had gone dry.

With life having become impossible, the charitable outlets became desolate and dysfunctional. The Brahmanas abstained from sacrifices and stopped reciting the Vedas. They no longer uttered Vashats nor performed other propitiatory rites. Agriculture and cattle-keeping were given up. Markets and shops were abandoned. Stakes for tethering sacrificial animals disappeared… All festivals and recreational occasions came to be unheard of. All over, heaps of bones were visible; and every place resounded with the shrill cries and yells of fierce creatures. The cities and towns of earth became ghost towns.

Anarchy prevailed; villages and hamlets were burnt down. Some were set upon by robbers, some were taken over by the weapon-bearing, and some were plundered by cruel kings. But, in the end, they all flew away in fear of one another. Temples and places of worship became desolate. The aged were forcibly turned out of their houses. Kine, goats, sheep and buffaloes fought for food and perished in large numbers… Herbs and plants died. The earth was shorn of all her beauty and looked painfully awful, like the trees in a crematorium. In that period of terror, when righteousness was nowhere, men in hunger lost their senses and began to eat one another.”

It is likely that such drought and famine visited the land a number of times … until it turned arid and into a desert.


Mbh.9.49 too mentions a twelve year drought, when Vedic traditions were disrupted. Sage Saraswata is said to have revived the Vedic practice by teaching the Vedas to Brahmanas, who had lost the knowledge through their constant migrations.


For more on River Sarasvati And Its People and Alternate History Of India

Considering how they validate other historical sources, and vice versa, the Indian epics most certainly do not seem to be a work of mere fiction; they are a valid source of Indian and world history.

English: Sarasvati, Rajasthan, Indian National...
Sarasvati, Rajasthan, Indian National Museum, New Delhi (Photo credit: Wikipedia)

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