Flora of the Indian epic period can be a tool to study the antiquity of Indian epics as these do not record time scales of the incident mentioned in these. The flora of an area or of time period, refers to all plant life occurring in an area or time period, especially the naturally occurring or indigenous plant life.
Sanskrit epics, the Ramayana and Mahabharata, also termed Itihāsa (History) or Mahākāvya (“Great Compositions”), refer to forest and plant life at various places. The language of these texts is the “Epic Sanskrit”. The importance of forests in Indian epics can be understood from the fact that each epic devotes one book to the forests. In Mahabharata it is the Aranyaka Parva (also Vana Parva, Aranya Parva) (The Book of the Forest) which mentions the period of twelve years spent by Pandavas in exile in the forest (aranya). The divisions of Ramayana into Kandas (Books) also includes one Kanda known as Aranya Kanda – Book of the Forest. In Ramayana Kishkindha Kanda – Book of Kishkindha also discusses the geography and forestry of the region.
The evolution of life on earth in geological ages indicates that man evolved only a million years ago when he lived in dense forests along with other denizens. Palaeo-botanists have examined the fossils of plants found in rocks of various ages and deduced what kind of vegetation grew in those particular geological periods. Thus Dr. Birbal Sahni concluded from the fossils found in inter-trappean rocks that at that time estuarine conditions prevailed in India, and the flora belonged to the genera of plants found in London clay. These plants must have migrated to India by way of the Tethys Sea which stretched along the northern edge of the Gondwana land before the uplift of the Himalayas. It has also been proved that Kashmir and Rajasthan once had a tropical forest, which later receded as a result of glaciation and the upthrust of the Himalayas. Prior to this upheaval, the Ganges drained northwards into the Sindhu.
By this time man had already been evolved.
The ancient and prehistoric man has lived in symbiosis with the environment.
In the neolithic age, primitive man lived in dense forests, on trees or in natural caves, and subsisted on leaves, fruits, and roots of plants. He used fire for keeping off the dangerous animals of the forest.
In Geological Ages: palaeo-botanical evidence testifies to the fact that there were dense forests in India in the Permian period, 250 million years ago. A fossilized trunk of a tree found in the Raniganj coal-field is nearly 30 m long and 75 cm in diameter at the butt-end and 35 cm at the top-end. It has been named by Dr. Birbal Sahni as Dadoxylon, an extinct genus of plants. Fossil wood is found in several places in Madhya Pradesh and in the Siwalik hills along the Himalayas.
Man was evolved in the beginning of Pleistocene Age, only about a million years ago. At this time India had thick forests except in Rajasthan and parts of Punjab which lay buried under a swamp, the remnant of the receding Tethys Sea.
In Historical Times: Man progressed rapidly in historical times, and began to live in organized societies, constructed shelters using wood bark, etc. and soon took to farming and domestication of animals. Archaeological evidence shows that the Rajasthan swamps existed till as late as 4000 BC, when Mohenjodaro culture flourished in the outskirts of Lothal in Gujarat. In these marshes grew stout reeds which were used by Chalcolithic people to cover dead bodies. The adjoining forest contained rhinoceroses and crocodiles of which we find replicas on the seals. At this time trees must have been felled by axes of flint and bronze, as iron had not yet been used. After the disappearance of this civilization-the reasons for which are still unknown-the Aryans started coming into India, from 2000 BC. They introduced the use of iron for making axes, javelins, ploughs, etc.
There is evidence that at this period a Dravidian civilization of a high order flourished in the country, with its roots in the far south, which apparently lived in consonance with the thick extensive forest and its wildlife. The Aryans were primarily pastoral people. To construct shelters for themselves and for their domesticated animals they cleared the forests wherever they went. But even so, being worshippers of Nature, they preferred for their abodes, and even for their educational centres, sylvan surroundings and inspiring landscape. It is in such setting that the Vedas, the Upanishads and the Aranyakas were composed which sing the glory of the Creator and lay down recepts of conduct for man to live righteously.
Human population at this period was very small, and forests were still plentiful. When the great epic Ramayana was written there were still dense forests in Naimisharanya, Chitrakoot, Dandakaranya, and Panchavati which abounded in wildlife. But by the time the Mahabharata was compiled, onslaughts had been made on forests and we read of the burning of the Khandava Vana. To arrest such vandalism, which was adversely affecting the life of the people, some wise ancestor of ours must have declared cutting of trees a sin and planting and protecting them an act of piety. Several useful species of plants were thus saved from extinction, such as the Banyan, the Pipal, the Bel, etc. Even then some disappeared in course of time from particular areas, such as the Kadam, the Ashok, and the Bamboos from Vrindavan.
The chronicles of Chinese pilgrims mention dense Indian forests in birthplace of Lord Krishna. Records relating to the invasion of Alexander the great in 326 BC mention the existence of almost impenetrable forests along the Indus. Later, in Kautilya’s times protection of forests, planting Of new species of trees, and preservation of wildlife were considered desirable, and a special officer was appointed for the purpose. By the time of Emperor Ashoka, heavy inroads had already been made into the forests and their absence begun to be feft. Therefore, as his rock edicts record, this far-sighted monarch ordered that useful trees be planted along the roads and on camping grounds. He also encouraged the cultivation of exotic medicinal plants.
Shershah Suri planted trees along the Delhi-Patna Highway. The Mughals were not forest-minded as such, but they created exquisite gardens. Emperor Jahangir introduced the famous Chinar tree in the valley of Kashmir which has now become synonymous with Kashmir. The Mughals also maintained large Shikargahs for hunting. The Ain-e-Akbari records that elephants roamed in the forests as far west as Mhow near Indore. But a century later Aurangzeb found only scrub forests near Burhanpur. The Marathas and the Gonds planted mangoes and other useful trees along their marching routes and halting places, some of which are still surviving.
The remains of extinct creatures discovered in the upper layers of the Sivaliks range and in other parts of India give us a glimpse of the wonderful wealth of animal life that flourished here in the tertiary period. Mastodons and great herds of elephants of many species trumpeted and tramped through the swamps and reedy forests of this region. With them lived hippopotamuses, rhinoceroses of various species, and a colossal four-horned ruminants, the Sivatherium. The one-horned rhinoceros, as born out by the seals of the Harappan culture, was once found as far west as Rajasthan.
The rich heritage of wildlife came down to us through the ages mainly because of the deep-rooted Indian tradition of compassion for all life in general. Moreover, animals have been closely associated with our folklore and legends. Kautilya’s Arthashastra, written in the 3rd century BC refers to definite administrative arrangements for preservation of wildlife. Special areas, called Abhayaranyas, were set aside for their protection. Emperor Ashoka introduced game laws, ordained the preservation of forests, and prohibited killing of animals.
Carbon dating method can be used to determine the age of living trees in the past. This technique will give age of a tree when it became dead wood. It has become thus possible from specimens of wood, charcoal, etc., found in excavations by archaeologists to fix period when a particular prehistoric culture flourished. The Indian cultures have been dated as under:
India was one of the foremost developed countries in ancient times. Learned persons of vedic culture were quite aware regarding unimaginable obligation of plants for the very sustenance of animal life. Though not scientifically proven at that time, they knew that the air we breath remains pleasant by surrounding plants. There are a number of verses in ancient literature depicting this generosity of vegetable kingdom. They have also realised that there is no conduct of life where the plant kingdom does not make its contribution like food, fuel, shelter, fiber, fodder and medicine. No wonder that many such plants species have been revered as God.
The ancient scholars in Sanskrit language studied the plants mainly for medicinal purposes. From time immemorial many medicinal plants are well known in this country. Use of herbal medicine can be traced to the remote past. One of the oldest treaties in the world is Rigveda (4500 BC-1000 BC) where healing properties of some herbs are mentioned in the form of sonnets, which were often recited in religious rituals. Later on a special faculty was developed known as Ayurveda, mostly dealing with human philosophy of health including utilization of medicinal plants for restoring normal physical fitness.
Interestingly enough there used to be regular rapport between sages of various communities interested in miraculous effects of herbal medicine. There are records in ancient scripts regarding periodic conferences, seminars and also workshops in selected areas where exchange of knowledge was often manifested. Even it was mentioned that women scholars like Maitrai, Gargi contributed some knowledge about medicinal plants and their maintenance. During the glorious days of Buddha philosophy (600 BC- 400 AD) there was friendly mingling of therapeutic values of plants, through religious norms were different. Scholars practicing medicine were quite familiar with wild medicinal plants growing in jungles.
The further advancement of this process was materialization of Susruta Samhita and Charaka Samhita (1000 BC) which incorporates comprehensive chapters on the therapeutic use of various plant species. These treaties deal with about 700 drugs, some of these are not indigenous to Indian subcontinent. The invaluable knowledge of medicine was composed in lyrical sutras (Sonnets) which often reveal valuable information in few words.
Later on number of new plant species were added to the then known pharmacopoeia of indigenous medicinal plants. Attempts were also made to identify the required medicinal plant species by observing their exomorphic characters. For example, plant species like Bala (Sida acuta Burm.); Atibala (Sida rhombifolia Linn.); Nagabala (Sida spinosa Linn.) and Bhubala (Sida veronicaefolia Lam.) were named and grouped together under one class. In modern classification all these belong to Hibiscus (Malvaceae) family. Indeed, Indian scholars do have realised the importance of correct identity of plants and that the knowledge of diagnostic external morphological characters are essential requirements for that purpose. But they could not imagine the use of Binomial system of nomenclature of the plants and thereby fixing absolute identity of the concerned plant material. Instead of that they have started giving various names to the same plant species by considering broad features like shape, color of flowers, smell, taste, along with local names based on plant profile and mythological folklores in various regional languages. For example, Krisna Tulsi (Ocimum sanctum L.) have 52 different names in various Indian dialects meat tenderizer india. Such trend of thinking became prelude to more confusion while undertaking any research project on indigenous Indian plants.
Puranic cosmography divides our earth into seven concentric islands. They are separated by the seven encircling seas. Seven intermediate oceans consist of salt-water, sugarcane juice, wine, ghee, curd, milk and water respectively., All these dvipas are named after trees/plants in Sanskrit. The seven dvipas are:
1.Jambu (जम्बुद्वीप) – Continent Jambudvipa named after Jambū (जंबू) trees, Syzygium cumini (Indian Blackberry), is also known as Sudarshanadvipa, forms the innermost concentric island in the above scheme. The fruits of the Jambu tree are said to be as large as elephants and when they become rotten and fall upon the crest of the mountains, a river of juice is formed from their expressed juice. The river so formed is called Jambunadi (Jambu river) and flows through Jambudvipa, whose inhabitants drink its waters. Insular continent Jambudvipa is said to comprise nine varsas (zones) and eight significant mountains. The insular continent Jambudvipa forms the innermost concentric island in the scheme of continents. Jambudvipa includes nine countries (varṣa) and nine mountains. The land of Illa-vrta lies at the center of Jambudivipa at whose center is located Mount Meru.
2.Plaksha (प्लक्षद्वीप) – Plaksa is a possible Sanskrit term for the sacred fig of which botanical name is Ficus religiosa. According to Macdonell and Keith (1912), it rather denotes the wavy-leaved Fig tree (Ficus infectoria). The continent Plaksha is said to be along the western border of Jambudvipa. Vishnu Purana says that the Plaksha continent encircles Jambudvipa. In Hindu texts, the Plaksa tree is associated with the source of the Sarasvati River. The Skanda Purana states that the Sarasvati originates from the water pot of Brahma and flows from Plaksa on the Himalayas. According to Vamana Purana 32.1-4, the Sarasvati was rising from the Plaksa tree (Pipal tree). Plaksa Pra-sravana denotes the place where the Sarasvati appears. In the Rigveda Sutras, Plaksa Pra-sravana refers to the source of the Sarasvati.
3.Salmalidvipa (शाल्मलीद्वीप) – The continent derives its name from Śalmalī (शाल्मली) tree in sanskrit with Botanical name Bombax ceiba, commonly known as cotton tree or tree cotton. This tropical tree has a straight tall trunk and its leaves are deciduous in winter. Red flowers with 5 petals appear in the spring before the new foliage. Salmalidvipa is mentioned in Puranas as parvata touching the Ikshurasoda samudra.
4.Kushadvipa (कुशद्वीप) – The continent derives its name from Kusha (कुश) grass, which has Botanical name Desmostachya bipinnata. The author of Vayu Purana uses the name Kumuda-dvipa for Kusha-dvipa (Vayu I.48.34-36). ‘Kumuda’ is also a Puranic name of a mountain forming the northern buttress of the Mount Meru (i.e. Pamirs). In anterior Epic Age, Kumuda was the name given to high table-land of the Tartary located to north of the Himalaya range from which the Aryan race may have originally pushed their way southwards into Indian peninsula and preserved the name in their traditions as a relic of old mountain worship. Thus, the Kumuda-dvipa lay close north to the Pamirs. Lying in the Transoxiana (in Saka-dvipa), this Komuda or Kumuda-dvipa of the Puranic texts is often identified as the ancient Kamboja land which corresponds to the Parama Kamboja referred to in the Sabha Parava of Mahabharata.
5.Kraunchadvipa (क्रौंचद्वीप) – The continent derives its name from Sanskrit word Krauncha (क्रौंच) used for Curlew-heron. Krauncha-Vyuha (क्रौंच व्युह) has been mentioned in Mahabharata war as a military formation on a pattern supposed to resemble a heron. In the Krauncha island, there is a mountain called Maha-krauncha that is a mine of all kinds of gems. Mahabharata mentions Kinnaras and Vidyadharas living in Krauncha mountain (in Himachal Pradesh ) in the Himalayas (9,16).
6.Shakadvipa (शाकद्वीप) – The continent derives its name from Shāka (शाक) tree, Botanical name Tectona grandis, a tall deciduous tree with rounded crown. Surrounded by the sea of whey is Shakdvipa with an extent of thirty-two lakh Yojans. It has a huge tree of Shaka, hence its name. With a sweet fragrance of this tree, the whole island emits a pleasant scent. The ruler of this island, Medhatithi was also a son of Priyvrata. He too had seven sons- Purojav, Manojav, Pawamana, Dhumranik, Chitraref, Bahurup and Vishwdhar. They were made the rulers of the seven divisions of the island. People of the island use Pranayama to weaken their Rajoguna and Tamoguna, and worship Hari (Vishnu) in Vayu (form) through meditation. Visnu Purana: “Shakdvipa located inside Chira sea and Shakdwipis are friends” Mahabharata 6.604 = Bhagavad Gita 5.20.3-42: “In Shakdvipa, caste system is same as Jambudvipa. There was four caste in Shakdvipa 1. Maga 2. Mushus 3. Manus 4 Mandaka”
7.Pushkaradvipa (पुष्करद्वीप) – The continent derives its name from plant named Pushkara (पुष्कर), Botanical name Nelumbo nucifera, a handsome aquatic herb, Native to Greater India and commonly cultivated in water gardens, the lotus is the national flower of India and Vietnam. It is Native of China, Japan also. Grown throughout warmer parts of India. Pushkaradvipa may probably refer to Pushkar, a town in the state of Rajasthan in India. Hindus believe that the gods released a swan with a lotus in its beak and let it fall on earth where Brahma would perform a grand yagna. The place where the lotus fell was called Pushkar.
According to Hukum Singh Pawar (Pauria) Some writers think that Saka (Scythian) is a Sanskrit word which means Sagwan or Teak (Tectona grandis), generally grown in monsoon region, the shape of which and that of its river deltas was like that of teak leaf., and the people popularly known as Sakas used to be the inhabitants of this land. S. M. Ali identifies Shakadvipa with land mass in the south-east of Meru which falls climatically in the monsoon region and teak is its distinctive tree in its natural and artificial vegetation. The Sapta Sindhu, original home of Aryans, in the south of Meru, we find that the country fulfills all the requisites of Shakadvipa, viz, teak leaf shape of the country or the area abundant in teak vegetation, as well as that of the deltas of Sarasvati and Indus river. The Mahabharata’s reading, alluded to above, that there was Sakala-dvipa, the name of which is attributed to the Sakas, in the Sapta Sindhu, evidently carries much weight. There is every possibility that the people of Sapta Sindhu, as a whole, might have besides their eponymous and ethnoyms, been known as Sakas also.
The Indian epic Ramayana discusses the Flora and fauna of the places visited by Rama. Ramayana in Bala Kanda Sarga 24 mentions the crossing over of the River Ganges, sage Vishvamitra sails Rama and Laxmana through its confluence with River Sarayu, which flows at their capital Ayodhya. The sage leads them to a deadly forest on the other bank of River Ganges and narrates about the provinces Malada and Karusha. Here shlokas 12-18 mention about the forest trees and plants of the region.
Aranya Kanda Sarga 11 mentions the Stories of Sages Mandakarani and Agastya. It depicts the propitious nature of Agastya’s hermitage. Here shlokas 46, 49, 74-76 mention many trees and plants where to buy a water bottle. Aranya Kanda Sarga 15 mentions about Panchavati situated on Godavari River in Nasik district in Maharashtra. Here shlokas 12-18 mention the biodiversity of the area around Pampa Lake. Aranya Kanda Sarga 73 writes how Kabandha extols Pampa Lake and details Rama about the course to be adopted to proceed to Mt. Rishyamuka to befriend Sugreeva. He details about Matanga hermitage where shlokas 2-5 describe a large number of trees.
Ramayan-Kishkindha Kanda Sarga 1 gives a description of Pampa Lake and writes about many forest trees in shlokas 73-83. In Kishkindha Kanda Sarga 40, Sugreeva orders vanara-s to search east under the leadership of Vinata, a mighty vanara. Here Sugreeva commissioning Vinata explains the topography and geography of Eastern side of the Jambudvipa, where trees have been mentioned in shlokas 39, 53 and 56. In Kishkindha Kanda Sarga 42, Sugreeva sends troops to west side to search for Sita. Describing the various provinces like Surashtra, Balhika and Chandrachitra (Mathura), Western Ocean, River Sindhu and magnificent mountains that are situated at the northwest of India, cities like Murachi, Jatapura, Avanti and Angalepa and also the ocean down south to it, namely the present Arabian Sea and almost up to Persian provinces, he orders vanara troops to return within one month’s time. Here shlokas 7, 8, 11, 12, 13,46 mention forest trees. In Kishkindha Kanda Sarga 43, Sugreeva sends troops to north in search of Sita. He gives an account of the snowy regions and provinces of northern side and asks them to search in the places of Yavana, Kuru, and Daradas etc., civilisations. Sugreeva specially informs them about a divine province called Uttara Kuru and a heavenly mountain called Mt. Soma on which Brahma, Vishnu and Shiva make sojourn for its sacredness. Here shlokas 13, 17 and 37 describe the forest trees.
The identification of these species may prove to be great tool in identifying those places and writing of history. We produce here the names of plants and trees in Sanskrit language, their botanical names, local Hindi or English names and Sargas (Chapters) in which forests and tree species have been mentioned.
There is a little-known legend associated with Vijayadashami festival, one associated with the Mahabharata. For reasons impossible to delineate here, the Pandavas underwent a period of exile, being 12 years of dwelling in the forest followed by a year of exile incognito. Disguise being indispensable during the latter period, the Pandavas found it necessary to lay aside, for the length of that year, the many divine and distinctive weapons that they possessed such as Arjuna’s Gandiva. These they secreted in a ‘Shami’ tree (Prosopis cineraria) in the vicinity of their chosen place of incognito residence. It is said that the Shami tree chosen by the Pandavas stood inside a cremation ground. It was chosen to render detection that much less likely. The Pandavas wrapped their weapons in a white cloth and concealed this on that shami tree, making the weapons look like a dead body. Mahabharata Book IV Virata Parva Chapter 5 mentions that on the southerns bank of River Yamuna in Viratanagara hides his bow Gandiva in Shami tree. That Shami tree was in the midst of an out-of-the way forest abounding in beasts and snakes, and was in the vicinity of a dreary cemetery. At the end of a year, they returned to the spot, found their weaponry intact, and worshipped in thanksgiving both the Shami tree and the Goddess Durga, presiding deity of strength and victory. Meanwhile, the Kauravas had invaded that area, suspecting the residence of the Pandavas there. Upon finishing their devotions, the Pandavas made straight to battle, and won the contest comprehensively. The day that all these events occurred on has since been known as “Vijayadashami”, where “Vijaya” is the Sanskrit word for “Victory”. The fact of the comprehensive success of the Pandavas in their endeavour has been extrapolated to the everyday ventures of the common man today. Even to this day, people exchange Shami leaves and wish each other victory in their own ventures and efforts.
The historian K R Qanungo mentions incidence from Mahabharata that there is a town named Sakala and river named Apaga where section of the Bahikas, known as the Jartikas, dwell. He mentions about a Bahika who had to sojourn for a time in Kuru-jungal country sang the following song about the women of his country. He also mentions here three important tree species also: