Parashurama's landscape / by Aparna Rao

Oral traditions and mythology have embellished India’s natural landscape, making it a narrative rich experience. Oral traditions about nature are eventually regarded as folk lore or mythology. Although layered with hyperbole, these stories contain genuine and perceptive knowledge based on careful observation of physical evidence. The geological event of the recession of the Arabian sea and the formation of the West coast of India is one such.

In his of-cited classic paper, S. Widdowson has neatly illustrated the morphological evolution of the South-West Deccan (present day Kerala and parts of present day Karnataka-Goa coast) in the period of the Mid-Upper Tertiary i.e. 35 million-30 million years ago (mya).The recession of the Western ghats along with the formation of the first permanent ice sheets in the Antarctic saw the emergence of a patch of land between the Western ghats and the Arabian sea. Over a relatively short geological time spanning between 25 mya and 1.5 mya, the subsidence of the sea levels saw the short rivers create deep cuts into the newly emerged land. This in turn leached away silica in the form of sand and oxides aided further by the well drained topography and tropical climate with its wet and dry spells. The leached residue was rich in iron, clayey in nature, soft when wet and hard when dry- Laterite. The resulting landscape was a mosaic of basalt sea
cliffs with laterite caps and rivers meandering as they reach closer to the sea.

In another milieu, The Puranas mention that the western coast of India was a zone ever-threatened by tumultuous waves and tempests, causing the he took. land to be overcome by the sea. Parashurama- the sixth incarnation of Vishnu known for his ceaseless annihilation of Kshatriya kings- was asked to rehabilitate Brahmins to atone for the lives he took.

Not finding a place safe enough for them, Parashurama is said to have crossed the Sahyadri range (Western Ghats) and reached the edge of the sea, where he fought back the advancing waters and released the land. As the mass of land rose up, the sea god Varuna told him that because it was filled with salt, the land would be barren.

Parashurama then did a penance an invoked the King of Snakes- Nagaraja/Vasuki. Parashurama asked him to spread serpents throughout the land so their venom would neutralize the salt-filled earth (apart from aerating the soil- modern day ecology). The snake King agreed, and subsequently, a lush and fertile land came into existence. 

The correlation between Widdowson's superb sketch and Parashurama's story can be best sensed in the regions between Sindhudurg, coastal Goa, Coastal Karnataka and North Kerala. In their own ways, places in these regions are revered as sacred spots, and the regional landscape is collectively known as Parashurama Kshetra or Land of Parashurama.

Author: Sriganesh Rajendran

Images: Widdowson S: Tertiary Paleosurfaces of the South West Deccan, Western india: Implications for passive Margin uplift in Widdowson S (ed): Paleosurfaces: Recognition Reconstruction and Paleoenvironmental Interpretation. Geological Society Special Publication no 120. London.