Apart from archaeological finds, there's another rich, and oft-overlooked source of stories - mythology, the legends transmitted through time via oral or written traditions, often murkier and more fantastic. If landscapes can help us piece together stories about past people, can the stories of past people tell of ancient landscapes or geological phenomena?
Geomythology, a term coined in 1968 by geologist Dorothy Vitaliano, is defined as the 'alleged' study of geology via myths and legends. Presumably, the word 'alleged' was added to distinguish the scientific nature of geology from the fictitious world of mythology. In India, where pseudoscience abounds, and tall claims at former glory or technology have cited ancient texts like the Mahabharata and the Ramayana, 'alleged' is a wise choice of words indeed.
Serious scientists might disregard myths as a credible source of geoscientific knowledge. However, as knowledge of our ancient cultures has been transmitted through oral traditions and stories, there might be some grains of truth or science borne through these legends too. However, thorough scientific validation through newer dating technology, and a healthy dose of skepticism, is essential to separate the grain from the chaff, or the science from the fluff.
THE PERSISTENCE OF MYTHS
Ever wondered why some myths from around the world seem similar? The story of a great flood has echoed across time and cultures: the Gilgamesh myth from Mesopotamia, the Gun-Yu flood of China, the Greek version with Deucalion-Pyrrha, and the tale of Noah or Nuh's ark echoing in the Bible and the Qu'ran.
Some believe such similarities arise from a shared geological history.
The last glacial period or the last Ice Age, around 10,000 years ago, was marked by severe flooding across the world - evidence of which lies along coasts of every continent. Some flood stories, especially ones that involve a giant wave, can be explained as tsunamis. Disappearing islands, like Atlantis, Doggerland (a chunk of land purported to lie between England and Norway), Thera (Greece), or Dwarka (west India), have more complicated stories. Atlantis is mythical, Doggerland was submerged under rising sea levels, Thera island experience a violent volcanic eruption, and the Santorini islands today, are its fragmented remains.
In 1963, Shikaripura Rao, a marine archaeologist and his team, discovered extensive ruins of an ancient off the coast of Gujarat - its location broadly conforms to the location of Dvārakā, or Dwarka, as described in the Mahabharata. The Mahabharata also mentioned how the island was submerged under tremendous waves, and Gujarat's geological history indicates that earthquakes and tsunamis are common off the west coast. Yet there isn't a consensus on whether the buried Dwarka is the same fabled city of palaces from the Mahabharata, as more research and evidence is needed.
This underlines the limitations of geomythology - it is one thing to draw inspiration from old stories, quite another to try and reconstruct the past from it. Yet, as stories spark the imagination, geomythology can offer a segue to dive into the geology or history of a place.
Yana Rocks, near Gokarna, Karnataka: the Yana outcrops are karst formations - a landscape formed in rocks like limestone, dolomite or gypsum which are easily soluble in rainwater. This solubility makes karst landscapes distinct, with subterranean drainage (river) systems, caves and sinkholes (for those who have read Alice in Wonderland, some say, her tumbling down a hole was inspired by sinkholes in karst landscapes!). If you've ever been to a limestone cave, with pronounced stalactites and stalagmites, you've been exploring a karst landscape. Yana's rocks are distinct as they are black crystalline karst, whereas most karst appears chalky white. The dark colour, and the chalky (not ashy) texture, might explain part of Bhasmasur's geomyth. Under one of Yana's rocks is a damp cave with a shrine to Lord Bhaireshwar & a stream that eventually joins the Aghanashini river.