Settlement in Early Historic Ganga Plain

by Chirantani Das | 143,447 words

This page relates “Rivers and other water sources of Varanasi” as it appears in the case study regarding the settlements in the Early Historic Ganga Plain made by Chirantani Das. The study examines this process in relation to Rajagriha and Varanasi (important nodal centres of the respective Mahajanapadas named Magadha and Kashi).

Part 3 - Rivers and other water sources of Vārāṇasī

The whole region represents a river centric culture. While it was impossible for any culture to grow the Garuda Purāṇa categorically suggests that where there is no river or any other source of water the region is unfit for habitation. This region practically demonstrates water as a crucial factor for the growth of settlement. Other than the major rivers Gaṅgā and Varuṇā, the whole region is abounded with numerous rivulets, streams often seasonal, ox bow lakes, jhils and many other sources of water. But the Gaṅgā was still the main source of water. The river enters Vārāṇasī near Ramnagar. Its right bank is laden with kankar formation and hence not habitable. Vārāṇasī is located on a high ridge between the confluence of the Varuṇā and Asi on the left bank of the Gaṅgā. Varuṇā meets the Gaṅgā near Sarai Mohana. In its long course it was joined by several rivulets and in their turn they were linked to many talas or natural ponds of the region. The banks of the Varuṇā were quite high and the bed is composed of sandy clay. The whole region was fertile mainly because of the Gaṅgā deposit.

The Rajapur nala flows near Sārnāth has dried up nowadays. But it used to be a prominent stream in the ancient times. While the Rajapur nala was connected to the Gaṅgā, Aktha nala, another smaller stream connected to the Varuṇā flowed nearby and met the river at Paharia.The whole region is dotted with numerous small to medium sized settlements. On their location they may be divided into two types. Those grown on the banks of the major rivers (Gaṅgā and Varuṇā) were known as Kāśī -Vārāṇasī type and those found near smaller water sources formed the Vārāṇasī -Sārnāth type. While the first type of settlements grew mainly on the left bank of the Gaṅgā and Varuṇā confluence and makes an east-west axis, the second type of settlements can be noticed in a north-south orientation between Vārāṇasī, Sārnāth and their suburbs. While the first type because of their closeness to the mighty rivers were formed a navigational trade zone, the second type was comprised of religious or craft based rural settlements. For example both Sārnāth and Ᾱktha were religious sites and the latter was the first colonised site of Vārāṇasī. Small sites like Kotwa, Tilmanpur, Hiramanpur were craftsmen’s workshop and colony.[1] On the whole, both types of settlements created a composite cultural zone and a solid hinterland for the growth of Vārāṇasī as an urban site.

A survey of the palaeo channel of the river Varuṇā typifies growth of second type of settlements. The river is a mighty river of the region and according to popular belief Vārāṇasī derived its name from the river. This pious river was mentioned in almost all types of ancient texts. The Vedas, Upaniṣads, Epics, Buddhist and Jain texts mention the river. It originates from the Phulpur tehsil of the district of Allahabad and moving via Sant Rabidas Nagar and Jaunpur finally merges with the Gaṅgā near Banaras. The river is of 128 km long and its banks were the favourite spot for growth of settlements. Due to modern occupation it was difficult to explore the whole region. However some sites have been excavated. Located mostly at the districts of Jaunpur or Sant Rabidas Nagar sprang up at the confluence of two rivers or where the river takes a meandering turn. For example Kauchari of Jaunpur grew on the confluence of the Varuṇā and Basuhi and is a renowned pilgrimage. Fifiauna is another rural site is located to the north of the Varuṇā where the river takes a meandering turn towards north, the westwards and finally eastward. Other sites of sant Rabidas Nagar along the Varuṇā were Sahay Kamsaray, Ananda Dih, Ananda nagar, Nidur and Nizampur. Sthulgarh and Sahabuddin were located in the district of Vārāṇasī along the Varuṇā. Overall survey of these sites yields potteries of BRW, BSW, RW, NBPW, GW and BW types. On the basis of ceramic industry the beginning of the human settlement of this area was fixed around 800 BCE. Maximum number of potteries belonged to the Kuṣāṇa period. Kuṣāṇa cultural legacy is really strong here. It seems during this period the area came under maximum habitation. Kauchari even shows potential to be historically important for its 35 metre long trench containing bricks of Kuṣāṇa period. Probably there stood a mansion. Probably these sites were located in a potential trade zone. This possibility is strengthened by their location near the river.[2]

Another survey conducted exclusively around Vārāṇasī along the ancient palaeo channel of river Varuṇā. It is dry now. The old course of the river ran parallel to the present one, though broken at places. Pindarai on the Varanasi–Jaunpur road, is located only at 2.5 km from the old course. A 20 feet long trench has been found in the site. At about 6-7 km from here the site of Basani is located. Kuṣāṇa coins and Kuṣāṇa -Gupta sculptures were found at this site. Some other sites, namely Ahrak, Murdaha, Piyari, Konchi, Kotwa, Lohrapur, Korwat, Karoman yielded antiquities of either Kuṣāṇa or Kuṣāṇa-gupta period, mostly in the form of potteries. These potteries mainly comprise BRW, RW, BSW and NBPW. Concentration of small sites in the region under survey may be found in the fact that the whole area had several nallas or dry channels. These were probably detached from the main stream due to change in the course of the river. Nevertheless, these streams eventually joined either the Varuṇā or the Gaṅgā. Numerous tals, nallas or seasonal streams kept this region hydrated and suitable for growth of settlements. The Varuṇā remained the life line of the region. Though an earlier antiquity can be claimed NBPW to the Śuṅga-Kuṣāṇa period was the most active in settlement history of this area.[3] Water, one of the most important pre-condition for human settlement was fulfilled by Varuṇā and the Gaṅgā.

A land surrounded by water is called Kāśī. It is possible that the mahājanapada derived its name from various rivers and streams flowing in and around this region. Other than the Gaṅgā and Varuṇā, the Purāṇas mentioned names of two underground streams, Kirana and Dhupapapa, three monsoonal streams Brāhmanal, Pitamaha Strotika, Mandakini and Matsyodari. Some minor streams Basuhi, Morwa, Nand and Gomati flow nearby. Some of the rivers mentioned in the Purāṇas are even extinct nowadays. Aruṇā is one such river mentioned in the Brahma Purāṇa. There is no trace of the river in the vicinity. An attempt has been made to find out the old course of the river. A minute survey of the villages of the area brought to light existence of a large number of archaeological sites parallel to the Varuṇā. To the north of the Varuṇā,at a distance of 12 to 15 km there are a number of dry lakes, ponds and rivulets. It is suggested that it was the old river bed of some river flowing in the region in some remote past. The palaeo channel is invisible at places though the archaeological sites kept appearing up to the place where the old palaeo channel meets with the Gaṅgā. Some nalas, named after nearby sites like Aktha nala, Narokhar nala or Rajapur nala are also located in this region. They are active only during the monsoons. The length of the palaeo channel was measured 50- 60 km the starting point of the rivulet is Anai and Vārāṇasī formed the western boundary of the river. Due to saturation and less scope of percolation the soil is very alkaline in this area known as rih and took a marshy character. Due to present human occupation it is difficult to explore the exact route of the extinct river but finding of numerous sites suggests this was once a thickly populated area. In fact an unbroken cultural sequence from pre-NBPW to the early medieval times may be found here. This is in conformity with the cultural sequence of the Varuṇā region.

Concentration of settlement is the highest in the Kuṣāṇa times and after that there is a sudden disappearance of these sites. On the other hand number of settlements started increasing in the Varuṇā region. Attempt has been made to find out the reason for this glaring contrast. Apparently some hydrological factors, like change in the course or drying up of water seem to be responsible for this sudden disappearance of settlements. It is notable that a number of rivers and streams flowed in this region making it prone to flood during the monsoon. Flooded rivers generally change their route. The same might have happened to the Aruṇā. The remote sensing map shows old scars on the region indicating gradual shift in the course of the river. And finally it meets the Varuṇā. Probably in the final stage Aruṇā was totally captured by the Varuṇā. As a result the former dried up and Varuṇā received more water and strength. That easily explains why the banks of the Aruṇā were left for the sake of Varuṇā. Probably all these happened in the Kuṣāṇa times. However when the area was under occupation there existed rural settlements mainly. They served as halting places for travellers or caravan traders. Such villages were frequently mentioned in the Buddhist Jātakas. These were probably craftsmen’s village.

Dense forests lying between two rivers were also mentioned in the Buddhist and Jaina literature (Ambatak van, Khemiyakta van, Mrigachir van, Mrigadav van). These forests supplied enough timbers. Basing on that grew carpenters’ villages in the vicinity of Vārāṇasī with a population of 500 to 1000. Kāśī earned fame for its woodcraft or carpentry as known from the Buddhist texts.[4] The Jātakas speak of a carpenters’ village located close to Vārāṇasī where 500 carpenters stayed.[5] Similarly big villages of blacksmiths can also be found near Kāśī. They were expert makers of different tools and apparatus, employed in different operations. Among the finds around the Kāśī region iron scythe, axe, shovel, drill, arrow, nail, grip, knife, spoon figure prominently.[6] So centring around these rivers these settlements grew. Moreover the rivers played an important role in transportation of goods and people. This region which was a multi river basin was agriculturally fertile, rich in natural resources and human resources formed a potential hinterland of Vārāṇasī. The literary and archaeological sources leave very little room for doubting the existence of the river Aruṇā, vanished nowadays. It flowed parallel to the Varuṇā and was an independent river which fell victim of river piracy of the Varuṇā. But it enriched the region and promoted the growth of Vārāṇasī in the early period.

Footnotes and references:


Ibid, pp.4-6


Vibha Tripathi and Surendra kumar Yadav, Varuna Nadi Ksetra ka Puratatvik Sarvekshan in Rakesh Tiwari ed., Prāgdhārā, no.14, Journal of the U.P. State Archaeology Department, 2003- 04, Lucknow, pp.211-19


Vibha Tripathi, Arvind K. Singh and Santosh Kumar, Exploration along the Palaeo-Channel of river Varuna in Rakesh Tiwari ed., Prāgdhārā, no.11,Journal of the U.P. State Archaeology Department, 2000- 01, Lucknow, pp.127-130.


Surendra kumar Yadav, Rediscovering an old river Ᾱruṇā in Kashī;Ecological and Archaeological Perspective in Vibha Tripathi and Prabhakar Upadhyay ed., Archaeology of the Ganga basin: Paradigm shift, vol. II, New Delhi, Sharada Publishing House, 2010,pp.562-571


E.B. Cowell ed.&translated from Pali by W.H.D. Rouse, The Jātaka or the Stories of the Buddha’s Former Births, vol. II, Delhi, Motilal Banarasidass Pvt. Ltd., 1990, no.156, Alīnacitta Jātaka, pp.1317


Birendra Pratap Singh, Life in Ancient Varanasi: An Account Based on archaeological Evidence, New Delhi, Sundeep Prakashan, 1985, pp.225-6.

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