Where the hills meet the sea,
Lies glistening in the sun
Like a krait
The expanse of Konkan-bhoomi
Konkan is known as the difficult terrain set between the Sahyadri hill ranges and the Arabian Sea along the coast of Maharashtra. The land is also known for being hostile to people unfamiliar with the topography and the undulating landforms. The lore of snakes and “Naga” kings travels from Kerala at the southernmost tip of Indian peninsula, to the area of Konkan. The Common krait, with its lethal bite, slithers in the wet primary forests of the Sahyadris. And the Konkan coastline, with the golden sand and perilous rocks resembles a krait bathing in the sun on a winter’s day.
The coast of Konkan was visualised, narrativized and often stereotyped as something across various time-periods. The elusive descriptions about Konkan fill a great number of literary works, including the local religious texts. Al-biruni (c. 970 – 1050 CE), an Iranian traveller who visited Western India, writes about a mysterious animal “Scharan” – a four-legged animal with additional four legs on its back (!). We encounter a similar narrative trope from Herodotus’ “Histories” which mentions gold-digging ants in India. With Al-biruni’s account, the esoteric nature of understanding the landscape and the people in late 10th, early 11th century comes to fore.
Ancient texts such as Brahmanda Purana (and others, see the exhaustive list here) mention a kingdom to the western part of the peninsula as “Aparanta”. The label Aparanta was probably used for the towns of Konkan. The Puranic literature with pan-Indic following such as Shiva Purna, Vishnu Purana, etc. do not describe the region of Aparanta in detail. Vatsayana’s “Kamasutra” mentions the people from Aparanta in the descriptions of various communities across the South Asian subcontinent. It is in the regional texts of medieval Maharashtra, that a full narrative of the formation of the coastal land and its nomenclature is outlined.
I return to the three texts we discussed in the previous posts. To add to this list, Parshurama-Vijaya, Udaysundari-katha, and Vishwa-kosh reiterate some narratives about Konkan. The story goes, that sage Jamadagni and Renuka’s son, Parashurama (Rama with an axe as his attribute; Parashu = axe), kills numerous warriors to complete his vow. He claims the land governed by the fallen rulers that he killed and gives the land in donation to his father-figure, sage Kashyapa. How can he continue to live on a donated piece of land? So, he sets out to look for a land outside these dominions.
Numerous references of Parashurama appear in the Mahabharata, as “Rama”. We are told that Parashurama chose the Parashu (axe) as his preferred weapon for defense, early on in his life. Parashurama came from the Bhargava lineage hence called Bhargava-Rama. Sahyadrikhanda assumes the knowledge of this background and switches between Parashurama, Rama, Bhargava-Rama, Parashu-dhari in the narration of the legends.
Parshurama wandered into the far western reaches of the known world, and finally stood atop the Sahyadri Hills. The hero of these texts, Parshurama, requested the sea to recede and make a new land for humans to live. The sea agreed, and requested Parshurama to shoot an arrow to mark the boundary of his new land, where the sea will recede to. In various versions of the story, Parshurama shot one four, or seven arrows into the sea. Sapta-Konkan or seven islands of Konkan emerged.
The new landmass was created so that the hero Parshurama could spend the remainder of his days absolving the sin of killing the warriors. However, Konkan was then without Brahmins to perform the rituals for purification. Parshurama invited Brahmins from other regions of South Asia to make Konkan their home. The sections Patitagramanirnaya and Chittapavanvyutpatti from the text of Sahyadri Khanda supplement the main narrative with the details on migration and the communities in diaspora in relation to the peopling of the Konkan coast. The migrants from faraway lands, fishermen and some Brahmanas resurrected from 14 corpses washed ashore, feature as the first inhabitants of Konkan. The text of Udayasundarikatha attributed to Soddala (1026 – 1050 CE), notes his fleeing to Konkan along with the hordes of migrants from the areas of Sindh and Gujarat in search of “god’s land”. These legends make for an intriguing topic, which deserve a separate dedicated discussion.
And as a part of this process of creation, the naming of the new land is discussed in the texts. Parshurama named the coastline along modern Maharashtra after his mother, Kunkuna(also known as Renuka from the Puranic tradition). The text of Vyadeshwar Mahatmya warns the reader that the land may not be referred to as “Kunkan”, attributing a negative shade to the name.
Basso, in his study of Apache Indian landscape opines that the landscape is full of named locations, to facilitate the fusion of time and space. He further elaborates that the features of the landscape perform symbolic functions which are omnipresent moral forces rather than mere physical entity. The same holds true for Konkan, as the medieval documents label Konkan as “Rama-kshetra” (region or locale of Rama) after Parshurama and the land is equated with morality and righteousness of the mythic hero. The naming of the coastline, the hills, the rivers and the sacred groves; implies the act of naming as a constructive or creative process itself. The southern regions came to be known as “tala-Konkan” or lower-konkan. Here lower does not refer to the status, but its location.
Al-beruni’s text and numerous others later continue to mention the landmass from Thana creek to Redi fort as the area of Konkan. In the pre-Portuguese period in India, the modern state of Goa comprised a part of this narrativized Konkan.
The western coast of India boasts of numerous ports that served as a point of interaction with cultures outside the subcontinent. Thomas Stephen J. composed a Christian text in the style of Puranas in the region of South-Konkan and Goa around 1665 CE. This text, titled “Kristan-Purana” outlines the life of Jesus and provides narrative details from the miracles and exploits in a Puranic narrative style. Much prior to this Hindu-Christian interaction, the Konkan coast was well-connected through maritime trade with Rome, Oman, Kenya, Tanzania, Arabia and the islands of Zanjibar, Sri Lanka, and so on.
The travelers and merchants left copious notes of the trade with Konkani ports since the early Christian era. We know of the ancient associations with the ports of Thana, Cheul, Mahad, Rajapur, Jaigad, Achra, Vengurla, etc. from the Konkan region. The old and new names of these ports also hold interesting backdrop as the legend of the formation of Konkan.
4 of 30 of series “Konkan: May-illuminate”
Basso, K. “Stalking with stories: names, places and moral narratives among the western Apache.” In Text, Play and Story, edited by E. Bruner, Illinois: Waveland Press, 1984.
Karve, I. “The Parasurāma Myth.” Journal of the University of Bombay 1 (1932): 115-139.
Sharma, S. K. Udayasundarikatha of Soddala: Text, translation and annotations. Delhi: Parimal Publications, 2004.