HistoriCity | Learn more about Dwarka, whose sea bed the PM recently touched - Hindustan Times

HistoriCity | Learn more about Dwarka, whose sea bed the PM recently touched

ByValay Singh
Feb 28, 2024 07:14 PM IST

Faith needs no evidence to sustain it, but as findings of a 1983 archaeology expedition show, probing Dwarka’s waters will be a fitting tribute to its history

The history of Dwarka on the westernmost tip of Gujarat’s Saurashtra peninsula is lost to the tides of time. Little is known about its people or rulers in the ancient period. Its association with Shri Krishna—one of the most popular gods across India—is what led Prime Minister Narendra Modi down to the sea-bed, clad in a saffron kurta and a white diving helmet adorned with India flags recently. The symbolism is in keeping with other grand shows that have been organised at various pilgrim sites ahead of the next Lok Sabha elections. But unlike Ayodhya, Varanasi or even Mathura (believed to be Krishna’s birthplace), Dwarka’s history is all the more inaccessible and shrouded in obscurity, because it is believed much of this ancient city may be buried under the sea.

PM Modi performs an underwater puja in the Arabian Sea at the site of the ancient submerged city of Lord Krishna's Dwarka.(ANI) PREMIUM
PM Modi performs an underwater puja in the Arabian Sea at the site of the ancient submerged city of Lord Krishna's Dwarka.(ANI)

Apart from the Mahabharat lore that Krishna moved to Dwarka (the name means a city with many gates) and ruled over this general region for 36 years, there are other legends too that became associated with this coastal town. After Shri Krishna’s reign, the first ruler whose legend survived till at least the British period is that of Sukkur Belim, a Syrian adventurer. The Gazetteer of the Bombay Presidency (VIII Kathiawar) says that Sukkur Belim “found his way with his followers to Okhamandal, which he overran and subdued, and then proclaimed himself king. There is a lingering tradition that during his reign the old town of Dwarka was swallowed up by the ocean”.

This lore is not the only anchor for this tradition.

In the Harivamsa, which is considered an epilogue to the epic Mahabharat, Dwaraka is described as being located next to the sea, a place that’s abundant with plants and trees like the coconut, and wildlife like elephants and deer. The colour of the ground there was copper-red and covered with thorny bushes as well as stones. The Harivamsa also mentions that land had to be reclaimed from the sea – this can be gleaned from the verse that says that the sea retreated on Shri Krishna’s request.

The Buddhist Ghata Jataka, too, contains a reference to Dwaraka. According to Dr Bimala Churn Law, “this Jataka gives an interesting history of Vasudeva (Krsna) and his nine brothers, who are said to have conquered a number of states and ultimately settled at Dwaraka, on one side of which was a hill, and on the other the sea.”

The Buddhist Jatakas contain ancient traditions and are widely accepted to be dated to roughly the 3rd century B.C. Another piece of evidence that shows the long association of Dwarka with Krishna is an inscription of A.D. 574, which was discovered more than 150 years ago at Palitana in Saurashtra. According to Dr Hasmukh Dhirajlal Sankalia, who had founded the department of archaeology at Deccan College in Pune in 1939 and under whom the first excavation took place at present-day Dwarka in 1963, the inscription was commissioned by Garulaka Simhäditya. “[I]t tells us that his father Varahadasa (II) was like Sri Krsna of unquenchable valour and had conquered the lord of Dvaraka.”

Thus, it is clear that in the 6th century, there was a strong tradition that Krishna had ruled in Dwaraka, which was situated beside the sea. Since the advent of modern archaeology techniques in the colonial era and the subsequent exposure of elite and educated Indians to it, there have been steady but sporadic efforts to map the past to texts like the Ramayana and Mahabharata. Such efforts to find material evidence of lores, legends and beliefs are certainly not unique to India; Biblical texts have for long guided similar explorations in Western countries (think Arc of the Covenant, the Dead Sea Scrolls or the elusive hunt for the mythical Holy Grail).

The sacred town and temples of Dwarka," from Grindlay's 'Scenery, Costumes and Architecture chiefly on the Western Side of India', London, 1826-30 (Grindlay's/Wikimedia Commons)
The sacred town and temples of Dwarka," from Grindlay's 'Scenery, Costumes and Architecture chiefly on the Western Side of India', London, 1826-30 (Grindlay's/Wikimedia Commons)

However, Dwarka was not high on the excavation agenda till one of its residents, Dr Jayantilal Thakar, a social worker met Dr Sankalia and convinced him to conduct excavation at Dwarka. Thakar’s story is interesting and inspiring, especially in today’s age when we are more prone to regurgitating hearsay and bogus theories rather than making serious efforts to understand the past. Dr Thakar, a local doctor, like any other devotee, wanted to prove that present-day Dwarka is the one founded by Shri Krishna and his clan of Yadavas. Over the years, Dr Thakar collected coins, potsherds, bangles, bones, shells and sand. He kept careful notes on his observations on the topography and foundations of houses.

It was because of this evidence and meticulous record keeping that Dr Sankalia was persuaded and undertook the first-ever excavation in Dwarka in 1963. In the ensuing months, Dr Thakar provided his own notes and acted as a guide to the excavation team comprising Dr Z.D. Ansari, Dr M.S. Mate, PR Kulkarni, NM John, Katy Frenchman and C.N.S. Murthy.

For an excavator, the ideal area is open and uninhabited, but Dwarka was densely populated, as it is today. In the areas considered the oldest – around the Dwarkadhish temple --- not even an inch of clear ground was available. It was thanks to their local benefactor who arranged to buy an old house and get it demolished that the excavation could be conducted. The dig was 38 feet deep and some of its major findings were that the oldest period could be placed before or around the beginning of the Common Era (not earlier than 200 BCE), and that the inhabitants knew the use of wood, iron and fine pottery.

According to Dr Sankalia, this oldest or ‘First Dwaraka’ was buried under 20 feet of sand. The next layer or ‘Second Dwaraka’ was covered by nearly 6 feet of sand. The present Dwarka, particularly the area around the main temple, therefore stands on the two previous layers of habitation, and in the 1960s was recorded to be over 24 feet higher than the immediate surrounding plain. On the basis of these findings, the time period of the beginning of present-day Dwarka is placed to the 5th-7th century CE/AD. This also coincides with the significant rise in the worship of Vishnu and his incarnations, including Krishna, during the Gupta period (319-550 AD/CE).

Given that Dwarka’s location by the sea has been mentioned in multiple religious texts as well as legends, and the abiding desire of the devotee to find proof of Dwarka being the one settled by Shri Krishna, the government finally agreed to undertake offshore marine archaeology expeditions in 1983.

Dr SR Rao, India’s first marine archaeologist, led this unique expedition off the coast and underwater, they launched multiple probes between 1983 and 1990. The findings included stone walls, pier-like structures and single and multiple-holed stone anchors. Rao concluded in his 1991 report that, “the available archaeological evidence from onshore and offshore excavations confirms the existence of a city-state with a couple of satellite towns in 1500 BCE.” Rao added that, according to him, “it would be reasonable to conclude that the structural remains and antiquities found seaward of the area mentioned in the epic are of the city of Dvaraka of the Mahabharat Age”.

Since Rao’s expeditions, over a dozen similar ones have been launched, but have added precious little to our existing knowledge. Therefore, conclusive evidence of the lost city of Dwaraka still eludes us, because there are a handful of marine archaeologists in the country and the resources required for such an expedition could easily outrun the total annual budget of the Archaeological Survey of India. This has meant that the offshore area of Dwaraka has become a sort of playground for TV channels selling myths and epics. All of them invariably end up showing the same pieces of submerged stones and marine life. Although faith needs no evidence to sustain it, probing Dwarka’s waters would be a fitting tribute to ancient history.


Law, Bimala Churn, India as Described in Early Texts of Buddhism and Jainism

Sankalia, HD, Dwarka in Literature and Archaeology, Ansari ZD, Mate MS, Excavations at Dwarka

Rao, SR, Recent advances in marine archaeology

HistoriCity is a column by author Valay Singh that narrates the story of a city that is in the news, by going back to its documented history, mythology and archaeological digs. The views expressed are personal

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