THE GEOGRAPHY OF ANCIENT CENTRAL ASIA – DESCRIPTION IN THE RAMAYANA

First the story! Then a discussion on the Ramayanic geography.

It thus happened. In the Ramayana, four ‘vanara‘ brigades are readied to be sent out in four different directions for the search of Sita, (the wife of God-King Sri Rama who ruled Bharata and beyond, from the city of Ayodhya), after she is abducted via the aerial route by Ravana, the king of the mighty Lanka, now known as Srilanka. Since she has been taken away via the aerial route, it is decided that she has to be looked for by the ‘vanaras’ in the entire known world.


It may be noted here that it is a mistake to translate vanara as monkeys or apes. Vanara here simply means nara-s (नर) or ‘beings’ who live in ‘vana-s’ (वन) or forests. Vanaras were probably trained commandoes, all of whom, as is mentioned in Balakanda, take birth at the same time, in what seems to be a laboratory, during a yagya.
The genetic make-up of the vanaras is also described in the Ramayana. It states that the vanaras were produced from the genetic material taken from many ‘celestial species’.

More specifically, the Balakanda, Section 17, Verses 3-6, states that Bramha himself addressed the ‘celestials’ and said that monkey-shaped progeny equaling Vishnu’s valour be procreated from the bodies of celestial species including prominent apsaras and gandharvas, the girls of yakshas and pannagas, and also from the bodies of kinnaraas, (kinnaras are celestial musicians), ‘she-vidyaadharaas’ (विद्याधर) meaning ‘fairies’, and from ‘she-rikshas’ (ऋक्ष) meaning ‘bear’ and ‘she-monkeys’. No where does the Ramayana say that the ‘vanaras’ were ‘monkeys’ – nor does it say that any genetic material was taken from the ‘human’ species.


At a time when it was yet not established where Sita was being held captive by Ravana, one of the search-parties is instructed to head West from India, by the vanara chief Sugreeva, who hands over to the vanara head Susena (who also happens to be his father-in-law), a route-map so to say, with specific instructions to be followed closely. And as they follow the instructions, the vanaras are told, the route-map would lead them to their final destination, referred to in the Ramayana, as the Asta Mountain. Mt. ‘Asta’ (अस्त), Sanskrit for ‘sunset’, was for the vanara commando brigade to be the last location, and the culmination point of their search for Sita in the western direction. The world in the western direction beyond Mt. Asta was not known, and Sugreeva specifies that clearly.

Sage Valmiki traces this route in great detail, mentioning by name, many mountain peaks and cities and man-made structures that the vanaras would find on the way. As one reads the verses, it becomes obvious that the expanse that Valmiki describes begins from the present day land of Saurashta (peninsular Gujarat) for it still bears the same name. The next destination cited is the Bahlikas (or Afghanistan), and from there the vanaras are to head to Chandra-chitra (Ghandhara). Valmiki names these in sequence. (Section 42- Verses 6,7,8). The search in the Western direction is to end at Mt. Asta in the land controlled by Varuna, that is Central Asia. (section 42, Verse 57).

As they move ahead from the three locations mentioned above, we know that the vanaras go beyond the boundaries of present day India, for in the Kishkinda Kanda, Section 42 Verse 16, Valmiki describes one easily identifiable location where the vanaras are to scour for Sita – the point where the river Indus falls into the Arabian sea. Valmiki refers to the river by the name Sindhu and to the sea as Sindhu Sagara in Verse 15. Both names are still in use.

Even if there is any kind of doubt, this geographic description can at the most only refer to two locations. The first and the most likely one, is the Indus delta where the Indus falls into the Arabian Sea. The second location is only being considered since some have argued that ‘sindhu’ (सिंधु) is also a noun (rather than only a proper noun and spelled with a capital ‘S’) which means ‘river’, and therefore, in this case, can refer to any river flowing westward towards India’s western coast before falling into the sea. For example, it is said that Valmiki might have been referring to the Narmada which also falls into the sea from the western coast of India. But since in the preceding verses, it is clearly stated that the vanara sojourn begins at Saurashtra from where they go to Bahlika (Afghanistan), from where they reach the Sindhu, it is obvious that the Sindhu that Valmiki mentions refers to the Indus.

Be that as it may, in either situation there is no major impact on the rest of the route that Valmiki describes for it is evident that the vanaras are headed along the sea coast beyond the western boundaries of present day India. Scholars who have tried to trace this west-bound route mentioned in the Kishkindakand within India making the assumption that the route mentioned is limited to the boundaries of present day India, or that Valmiki may have confused a large river or water body for a sea, fail to make any headway with the geography that Valmiki describes for it does not fit into the inland geography of India. Besides, the present boundary of India has no bearing on what the boundaries of Bharata or Jambhudwipa might have been thousands of years back, nor does any boundary in any way limit the distance that Ravana could have travelled aerially. 

At the junction of Sindhu with the ocean, writes Valmiki, there is a huge mountain named Somagiri, which one may translate as the ‘moon mountain’, or ‘the mountain of Shiva’. The mountain Valmiki says is replete with hundreds of summits and gigantic trees. this mountain is difficult to identify with certainty. 

One may first look at the hills of Indus Delta.  In his book ‘Annals and Antiquities of Rajasthan’, Captain Tod who had surveyed the area in the early 1800s had described the hills of the Lakhi in the Sindh area and the village of Lakhi thus, “……one mile and a half from the river (Indus): canal on the north side of the village ; banks well cultivated. In the hills, two miles west, is a spot sacred to Parbati and Mahadeo, where are several springs. These springs are frequented…..by numerous Hindu pilgrims. Two of them are hot, and named Suryakund and Chandrakund, or fountains of the sun and moon, and imbued with especial virtues ; but before the pilgrim can reap any advantage by purification in their waters, he must undergo the rite of confession to the attendant priests, who, through intercession with Mahadeo, have the power of granting absolution. Should a sinner be so hardened as to plunge in without undergoing this preparatory ordeal, he comes out covered with boils! ! ! This is a curious confirmation that the confessional rite is one of very ancient usage amongst the Hindus, even in the days of Rama of Kosala. ” — See Vol. I. p. 94.


James Todd had recorded that in the mountains of Lakki or Lakhi were sacred spots named Suryakund and Chandrakund, dedicated to the sun and moon. Soma is the name of the Hindu God Shiva, and these may have some relevance to Mt. Somgiri that Valmiki states.

Some scholars have stated that Somagiri may be one of the peaks of the Hindukush and the sea that Valmiki states may not be a sea at all, that he may be referring to the Indus, but to indicate that Valmiki may have confused the Indus with the Sindhu Mahasagar (Arabian Sea) is not an acceptable argument because Valmiki clearly states in Verse 15 that Somagiri is situated at the sangama (confluence) of the river with the sea at the spot where it falls into the Sindhusagar. He could not have been clearer.

If the sea levels were lower in antiquity, then another spot that might have been the location of Somagiri could be the Astola Island in the Arabian Sea, which is located about 25 km from the present day coast in Balochistan but might have been connected to mainland in the Ramayanic times. In antiquity and in Hindu texts this island was known as Satdipa, perhaps from Saptdwipa, literally meaning seven islands, but often interpreted as ‘Seven Hills’ for the seven hill peaks in this uninhabited island. But for a different reason this island, or another island in the vicinity, also carried the name Astola in ancient times.

The earliest known mention of Astola is in Arrian’s account of Admiral Nearchos, in his treatise ‘Indica’. Admiral Nearchos was dispatched by Alexander the Great to explore the coast of the Arabian Sea and the Persian Gulf in 325 BCE. According to A.V. Williams Jackson, “The sailors in Nearchos’s fleet were frightened at the weird tales told about an uninhabited island, which Arrian calls Nosala”, as he states in his book ‘History of India’ Vol. II, page 96.

Astola was also called Carmina and Karmine by Arrian and may have some association with the name of Goddess Kali for according to Information Sheet on Ramsar Wetlands, Ramsar Convention on Wetlands, Pakistan, Astola Island 2001, “Ruins of an ancient Hindu temple of the Hindu Goddess, Kali are located on the island.”

In his article ‘Astola with Shirazi’, on the website www.contactpakistan.com author S.A Shirazi confirms that, “The island was also known to the Hindus as Satadip”. Its importance lies firstly in its name. Astola or Astala, from Sanskrit ‘asta’, sometimes refers to the extreme most western point in Hindu texts, a point from where you can see the sun setting in the horizon. At some point in antiquity, even earlier than the Ramayanic times, it must have been the extreme most point known in the west. By the time of the Ramayana Mt. Asta, which is beyond Astola, was identified as the extreme most sunset-point in the west.

Second, there are several natural caves and coves on the island of Astola which in the view of Sugreeva could make it a perfect hiding place for the abducted Sita. Since Valmiki’s description entails mention of water-logged hills, cliffs and mountains just after the vanaras pass the Indus delta, Satdipa is a likely spot second only to the Lakhi Hills to look for Somagiri.

Travelling along the coast of Iran with the vanaras, one comes across many Indic names that Valmiki does not mention. One such place is Chahu Shomali, the name Shoma is a cognate of Soma, and has the meaning of Moon, Moon-God, water, nectar and so forth. In ancient times this little town, on the island of Qeshm, has borne many names which include the Sanskritic Kish and Kesha. Another town on coastal Iran is Konarak, it is a fair-sized town, but why it got the Indic name Konarak is unknown. One may assume without too much argument that it too was known to the Indian traders of antiquity for its conical end juts out into the sea. Inland from Konarak is the town of Parga also known as Parke-e-hutan.

Says Vakmiki, the vanaras were to rapidly move ahead many yojanas, (a measure of distance that has been equated with different lengths but nevertheless indicates ‘considerable distance’), when they will encounter two waterlogged mountains. One is named ‘Paariyatra’, its peak glittering like gold, which is inhabited, as the Vanaras are told, by the ferocious ‘Gandharvas’. The instruction for the ‘vanaras’ is to quickly search for Sita and not engage with the ‘Gandharvas’, nor pluck any fruit from their date-palm trees. The second, also located in the mountains close to the sea, is Mt. Vajra, which shines like a diamond.

The closest mountain range where these two peaks can be situated is in the Zagros range. The only other mountain range that exists in the Iranian Plateau is the Alburz. We make the assumption that the vanaras have not yet crossed across to the Alburz range near the Caspian sea in north Iran, and search for Mt. Pariyatra and Vajra in the Zagros range.

The Zagros extend from the Bandar Abbas port in the south, very close to Konarak near Chabahar in Iran, to Kermanshah in the northwest, and continue through to Iraq. In antiquity the northwestern stretch of the Zagros range was the seat of the Elamite civilization which seems to have had some Indic connection. It is here in the Silemania range near the Iran-Iraq border to which the Elamite territory extended, that the mountain carving of what we suspect to be of Sri Rama, Vali and Sugreeva, was found. There are many reasons to believe so. See image below.

An ancient carving from Silemania in Iraq may depict Sugreeva at the feet of Sri Rama after the death of Vali who can be seen under the right foot of Sri Rama. There are many reasons for this interpretation which are listed in this blog. Notice the ancient Akkadian inscription on the right.The rock relief is located on the cliff of mountain Darbadi Belula in the Zagros in Sulaimaniya, on the Iran-Iraq border. Relief from circa 2100 BC.

In classical literature Elam was also known as Susiana and is presently known as Khuzestan. The name Susiana distorts to Khuzis thus. According to Encyclopædia Iranica, Columbia University, Vol 1, page 687-689, the name Khuzestan means ‘Land of the Khuzi’, and refers to the original inhabitants of this province, the Susian people. Their capital city was Susa. By the time of Old Persian the name Susa changed to Huza and by the time of Middle Persian, Huza changed to Khuzi, hence the name Khuzestan. 

It is the contention here that Susena, the name of the Ramayanic vanara chief of the Western brigade, is the source of the name of the Susiana civilization. Inshusinak, meaning ‘god of Susa’ was one of the major gods of the Elamites and the protector deity of Susa. The Shusinak part in the name Inshusinak too seems to be a distortion of Susena. The reasons for this hypothesis are listed below.

First, in the Hindu texts we find that Rishi Kashyapa, Varuna and Susena are related. According to the Ramayana, Susena was the son of Varuna. Varuna himself was well known during the Elaminite period. We find that amongst the earliest surviving inscriptions, in the Elamite Persepolis Fortification Tablet 377, the Zoroastrian god Ahura Mazda is invoked along with Mithra and Apam Napat and the Vedic Varuna. Later, Artaxerxes III who ruled from 359 BC-339 BC makes this invocation to the three deities again in his reign. In Vedic texts which predate these inscriptions by thousands of years, the Vedic gods Mithra and Varuna are frequently mentioned together. In the earliest layer of the Rigveda, Varuna is the guardian of moral law, the ruler over Asuras, one who punishes those who sin without remorse, and who forgives those who err with remorse. He is the Guardian deity of the West, meaning regions west of India. According to William W. Malandra both Varuna (in Vedic period) and Ahura Mazda (in old Iranian religion) represented same Indo-Iranian concept of a supreme “wise, all-knowing lord”.


Second, it maybe noted here that Varuna was the son of Rishi or Sage Kashyapa, after whom, according to Hindu texts, Lake Caspian situated in the north of Iran was named. 


Third, we look for Ramayanic names in the vicinity of Caspian Sea to check whether any trace of the era of Ramayana and Ramayanic names still remain. Two important names come up. One of course is Ramsar, a city on the Caspian, and the other is the  Port of Anshan, which probably has the same etymology as another city of the Susanic era- the city of Anshan of Iran, the details about  which is discussed ahead. 

Fourth, Susena, the grandson of Kashyapa, had a daughter by the name of Tara and she was married to Vali, the brother of Sugreeva till Vali is killed by Sugreeva and Tara becomes the wife of Sugreeva. In the Zagros there is a mountain by the name Kuh-e-Vali or Mt. Vali. Together with the Ramayanic engraving at Mt. Sulemania, the existence of Kuh-e-Vali lends credit to the belief that the Ramayanic heroes were well known and revered during the Elaminite rule. Also there is a town by the name of Tara in Mazendaran which indicates that even the lesser characters of Ramayana were perhaps not unknown in this part of the world.

Fifth, the Elamnites practiced polytheism. Knowledge about their religion is scant but at one time they had a pantheon of gods headed by the god Khumban. Other deities included the goddess Kirisha, and the gods Inshushinak and Jabru. The last two names are cognates of the Ramayanic Susena and Jambhvan.

The god Khumban was a sky- god and was known by many other names such as Humban. He was the keeper of the city of Anshan. He was also the keeper of the ‘Powerful God’ in Elamanite faith. He was the guardian of the Cedar forest in the Akkadian Epic of Gilgamesh. Hence, Khumban or Humban appears to be a distortion of the name Hanuman, another Ramayanic hero. The capital city that Khumban or Humban controlled was called Anshan, and it was also known by the name Anzan. This may be a distortion of the name Anjana, the name of Hanuman’s mother. Hanuman was also known as Anjani-Putra. The town where Hanuman was born in India is known as Anjan or Anjan-dham. Its counterpart in Iran, the ancient city of Anzan, still exists todays and is located in the Zagros mountains near the modern city of Shiraz. The Port of Anshan mentioned above and located on the Caspian perhaps has the same etymology.

Lastly, the name  Zagros, the range in which the Elaminite city of Susa was situated,  itself is said to be a distortion of the name Sagara, Zagros, was so named after a seafarer tribe, the Sagartians, who had entered the mountains of Iran from the nearby sea or sagara – namely the Sindhu Mahasagar which encompasses the Arabian Sea. Hence their name.

A different contention about the name Zagros is presented by Stephanus Byzantinus (6th century AD), who was the author of a geographical dictionary entitled ‘Ethnica’. He postulated that there was a peninsula in the Caspian Sea called ‘Sagartia’ and that the Sagartians moved south from Sagartia to what later came to be known as the Zagros mountains.

There is a Ramayanic connection here too. One of the ancestors of Sri Rama was the dynamic King Sagara. Before Lord Shiva and Baghirathi bring the unruly Ganga river into the plains of India from the Himalayas, it is King Sagara and his sixty-thousand sons (meaning many and not necessaraily the number sixty thousand), who initiates the process and takes on the mammoth task of digging the channel through which the water of Ganga flows after it is released to the plains of India by Shiva and Bhagirath.

But back to Mt. Pariyatra in Central Asia. One may say that Valmiki’s description of the Pariyatra and Vajra as sea-mountains stems from the fact that they were located in what were at that time known as the Sagara mountains  due to their proximity to Sindhu Mahasagar or the Arabian Sea. Or if the Sagara tribe had already emerged, the mountains by then had taken on the name of the tribe, though it seems that the tribe probably had given themselves this name from the name of the mountains, especially because the Iranian plateau was once entirely under water and for that reason the Zagros and Alburz ranges were both water-logged.

The two highest peaks in the Zagros are Mt. Dena or Kuh-e-Dinar or Mount Dinar, and Mt. Zard. These two may well be the Pariyatra and Vajra of the Ramayana. There is an existing mountain pass in the Zagros Mountains about 100 km from Kuh-e-Zard. It is called Tang-e-Pariyan. In the ‘Gazetter of Iran’, in a list of names approved by the United States Board of Geographic Names, the coordinates of Tang-e-Pariyan is given at 33.31 degrees North and 47.29 degrees East. Could Pariyan be a truncated form of Priyatra. It is not unlikely. Mt. Dena or Dinar is further west, and once the Vanaras scour it for Sita, there is a possibility that they could have returned to Kuh-e-Zard through the pass at Tang-e-Pariyan.

Valmiki then names Mt. Chakravan, situated, he tells us, at the ‘fourth quarter of the sea’. He also states that a weapon called Sudharshana was once lodged some where in Mt. Chakravan. The fourth quarter off the Sindhu Sagara or the Arabian Sea is the section furthest off from the Persian Gulf entrance. So one may look for a city in the region adjacent to it.

Valmiki also states that the Chakra was built by Vishwakarma, the celestial architect. The name Chakravan suggest the existence of a megalithic circular (‘chakra’ means ‘circular’) wheel like structure atop a mountain. This site has not yet been identified, though circular megalithic structures exist in Arkaim in Russia and Goebekli Tepe in Turkey, but these are way off from this track.

So we look closer inland in the vicinity of the fourth quarter of the sea in the Persian Gulf. Sure enough there is a site that fits the description. A city or structure that has been described as ‘as circular as can be’. It is the city of Gur, also called Shehr-e-Gour, built perhaps on the site of an even more ancient city. Its most recent re-construction was by Ardeshir-e Pabakan, the first king of Sassanid dynasty even though he is generally accepted as the founder of the city. Since reconstructed archaeological sites or sacred cities are often an indicator of their prominence in antiquity, one may look at Shehr-e-Gour a little more closely.

Shehr-e-Gour, Fars, Iran

Could this mound be the Mt. Chakravan of Ramayana

According to information published in Financial Tribune of Iran, Sept. 27, 2014 issue, based on the historian Tabari’s account as well as with support of archeological evidence, one arrives at the conclusion that the city was founded prior the battle in which Ardashir defeated the last Arsacid king, Ardavan or Artabanus IV in 224 A.D. Islamic records say that before the building of the city of Gur the whole area was flooded by Alexander of Mecedon (356-323 BC) and remained a wetland for a long time.

That raises a question. Why would Alexander flood the area unless he wanted to obliterate the memory of something significant, or something who’s existence could overshadow his own glory. Alexander did not destroy the site, neither did he rebuild it. But he did want it to be forgotten. In all possibility there was a structure that existed there that the people considered a reminder of the power of an earlier king. About 500 years later, by order of Ardeshir I, the wetland was drained. And once it was drained the remains of what has been described as the polygonal and spider-web defensive walls emerge from the waters. The base of the structure and its layout can still be seen from a long way off from the city.

Though Valmiki describes Chakravan as a mountain, Gur is located in the Firuzabad plains, however the site is surrounded completely by mountains. Entrance is only possible from two narrow gorges and it therefore is a perfect place for constructing or concealing weapons or for it to be a fortification against an attack. The weapon that was forged here according to the Ramayanic records is a discus, called Sahasrara, which translates as a “weapon with 1000 spokes”. 


If the name Gur has anything to do with either Avestan or Sanskrit language, then there are a couple of possibilities about the nature of the weapon. Firstly it may indicate that the nature of the weapon had something to do with gravity, maybe it was driven by gravity, for ‘gur’ is gravity both in Sanskrit and Avestan.

But the Ramayana does not interpret the weapon in terms of gravity. Verse 42-27 of Kishkinda kand says that in the fight between the Asuras and the Suras, Vishnu assumed the form of PuroSottama or the ‘Supreme Person’ and slew the horse-faced demon named Hayagreeva on that mountain, and snatched away the wheel-weapon from him. Until then, this wheel-weapon existed under the custody of that demon Hayagreeva. A Sanskrit analysis of the name Hayagreeva indicates that the ‘demon’ was ‘horse-necked’, ‘haya’ (हय) horse, and ‘griva’ (ग्रीव) neck. In any case, it seems that the name ‘greeva’ or ‘griva’ survives in the name ‘Gur’ or in ‘Shere-e-Ghoura’. 

For the record one may make a note of the dimensions of a later structure that still existed at Gur. According to the Financial tribune of Iran, “Gur was surrounded by a main wall of stamped clay, a ditch 35 meter wide, and a fore-wall. The plan of the city is a perfect circle of 1,950 meter diameter, divided into 61 sectors by 20 radial walls and 3 concentric circles, with the core circle of 450 meters in diameter, where official buildings such as a fire temple were constructed.” These dimnsions in the future may reveal information about the nature of this weapon.

In his description of this region, Valmiki mentions the existence of a number of plateaus and caves around Chakravn. It was in these mountains he says, Vishnu, in the avatara of Purushottama (supreme being) kills not only the demon Hayagreeva and takes control of his weapon – the Sudershana of Chakravan, but he also kills the demon Panchjanya and obtains his weapon, his backbone which is a conch-shell. No description of the conch is given here by Valmiki though it is known that name of the weapon is Panchjanya Shanka. The name Purushottama is not unknown in this part of the world. There is a city by the name of Purushottama on the ancient map of Turkey.

A city by the name Purushattum in ancient Turkey

In their article, ‘Ancient cattle genomics, origins, and rapid turnover in the Fertile Crescent’ authors Marta Pereira Verdugo, Victoria E. Mullin, Amelie Scheu et al, state, “Acemhoyuk is a large mound site located on the Aksaray plain in central Turkey. The site has been excavated since 1962 by Dr. Nimet Ozkuc and more recently by Prof. Dr. Aliye Oztan of Ankara University. Acemhoyuk’s primary occupation sequence spans the Early and Middle Bronze Age periods (2800-1750 BC) when it represents a major fortified urban settlement with central administrative complexes including palaces. In the Middle Bronze Age, the settlement, which may have been known as the kingdom of Purushattum…..was heavily involved with trade with city states of Northern Mesopotamia.”

Then, moving ahead the ‘vanaras’ are told that they will in succession come across, many mountain peaks which are named as Varaha, which is rich in gold , Meghavanta which is replete with water falls, Meru is the heavenly mountain, and finally Mt. Asta where the sun sets and is the extreme most point in the west. These appear to be the mountain peaks of the Alburz range, extending well into North Iran close to the Caspian Sea.

Further Valmiki also mentions a golden city by the name of Pragjyotisha in the vicinity of Mt. Varaaha which too is laden with gold. If we assume that the sea-level of the Caspian during the Ramayana era was higher than they are today many of the mountains of the Alburz range in Iran would once have been at a closer distance to the coast of the Caspian sea if not completely water-logged. In his book, History of Persia, (1815), the author states, “The most interesting problem connected with the Caspian Sea is the fluctuation of its level in historical times. At present it is 85 feet below that of the Black Sea……at the time of Alexander the surface of this inland sea was about 150 feet higher than at present. Associated with this higher level was a vastly larger area, especially on the east, where the Central Asian line now runs across what was once the sea-bed of the Caspian….it is not certain that the Caspian did not at that period include the Sea of Aral.”

Mt. Varaaha is described in the Ramayana as an entirely golden mountain with many waterfalls. The closest cognate to the name ‘Varaaha’ in Iran is the Kuh-e-Vararu or Mt. Vararu located in the Elburz mountain range in the northern part of Iran close to the city of Tehran. If indeed Valmiki was referring to Kuh-e-Vararu, then the close by ‘golden city of Prag-jyotisha’ that he writes about must be either the predecessor city of Tehran itself or another ancient city in the vicinity of Tehran. The Ramayana says that Pragjyotish was the abode of the demon ‘Naraka’ (नरक) and today there indeed are two towns by the name of ‘Narak’, one is situated south of Tehran and north of Esfahan near Qam, the other is in Bhushehr province of Southern Iran, but this is too far away from the vanara route. The Vishnu Purana too says that Naraka was the king of Pragjyotisha.

The likelihood of the ancient city of Rayy, (which was located in the vicinity of Tehran in antiquity and is today absorbed into the city of Tehran), being Pragjyotisha, or being in the vicinity of Pragjyotisha region is high. For one, Rayy was a sacred site according to the Zoroastrian texts too. Second, as author Rahim Vilayati states in his research paper ‘Pre-Islamic Monuments in Rayy’, “Not only is that in itself important, we find that different names that designate Rayy in primary historical and religious sources also reflect the importance and old age of this ancient city. It was named Raghes in the Bible, Ragha in Avesta and Ram Firouz in the Greek texts of the Seleucids and the Europe as well as in Sassanian period….”.

The first two names are cognates of Raghu, a name of Sri Rama himself. The third, Ram Firouz is of equal importance if not more. Ram, of course, is the name of the protagonist of Ramayana. But why would the name Firouz make an appearance in the Greek texts. The reason is self evident. Firouz is the Old Persian word for ‘shining’ and ‘Jyotisha’ , the second part of the word Praagjyotisha, is the Sanskrit word for ‘shining’. With time the Sanskrit ‘jyotisha’ emerged in Avestan as ‘xsheita’ and later in Persian as ‘firoze’. And after the lore of Sri Rama spread, the name of the city of Pragjyotisha, where Rama may at some point have made an appearance, gradually changed to Ram Firouz.

The legend of Sri Rama was not unknown in the Greater Media either, including the cities of Ninveh and Babylonia. A tile dating 900 BC was excavated from the archaeological site of Nimrud depicting the lore of Sri Rama, Sita and Laxman, though the scholars of the region have ascribed the tile as a representation of an Assyrian king with his attendants. The king’s name is not identified.

A tile dated to 900 BC excavated At the Nimrud aracheological
site in Ninveh, Iraq. The tile depicts the lore of Ramayana
.

Many scholars have argued the city of Praagjyotisha is held to be located in the east, and is often interpreted to be in Assam in India as has been referred by Kalidasa in his works and the inclusion of its name in this verse describing the route of the vanaras travelling west of India is a problem. The reason cited is that the name Praagjyotisha is derived from Sanskrit as praak ‘firstly, easterly…’ and as ‘planet, Sun, and his light’. In other words the name means ‘the place which takes the first light’.

However, one must remember that even though Valmiki states that the vanaras are headed west in to the quarter of the earth that is controlled by Varuna which is todays Central Asia, within the territory of Iran, the region which is today known as Khorasan, was always regarded as the place where the ‘sun arrives first’. The name Khorasn derives from Middle Persian ‘khor’ (sun), and asan, or ayan, (coming), in other words, ‘from where the sun comes’. Khor itself stems from Old Persian or Avestan ‘hvar’ sun, and derives from the Sanskrit surya. In Avestan, most of the Sasanskritic ‘s’ sounds change to ‘h’, such as hoama from soama etc.

Tehran is located just off from the province of Khorasn. Whether Valmiki is referring to the city of Rayy or the Khorasan region in general is difficult to say, however it may be safely inferred that he is either referring to a city inside the Khorasan province or somewhere close by for it is established that he is referring to a city that sees sunrise before anyother city in that region.

It may be noted here that the name Pragjyotisha was probably not unknown either. Distortions of its names exist in placenames close to Konarak. There is Parag, and Parak-e-Hutan to name two. which means the place of Parak. To put it in perspective, Konaraka and Parak-e-Hutan are is not too far off from the hills of Lakki, near where the Indus falls into the sea and represents the eastern most part of the western quarter that the vanaras are scouring.

At this point, the vanaras, according to the Ramayana, head to the peak called Meghavant. In Iran close to Mt. Vararu is the volcanic peak of Damavand. Its most ancient known name dating to the Sassanid era is ‘Donbavand’. In Sanskrit ‘danav’ (दानव) means ‘demon’, ‘bandh’ means enclosure. Danavbandh means a place where a demon is trapped. There is a possibility therefore that the name Damavand has the remnant of the Ramayanic Naraku legend hidden in it. This is especially so because in the Zoroastrian texts and mythology too, the story goes that a three-headed dragon was chained within Mount Damavand, to remain there until the end of the world. In a later version of the same legend, the tyrant Zahhak was also chained in a cave somewhere in Mount Damavand. Persian poet Firdousi depicts this event in his masterpiece, the Shahnamah. In fact, scholar S.J.R. North in his Guide to Biblical Iran, states on page 50, ” In his epic Shanameh, the poet Ferdowsi speaks of the mountains “as though they lay in India”, once again creating a link to the literature and mythology of India.

Whether the Damavand was ever known as the Meghavant will never be known but the legends of the Damavand and Mt. Vararu are the same as those of the Meghavant recorded in the Ramayana. There is likelihood too that the demon Naraku of Ramayana or the three-headed-dragon of Zoroastrianism may in reality was a reference to the hellish volcanic activity of Mt. Damavand.


The name Damavand has no known etymology in the Persian tradition. In Sanskrit, ‘dama’ (दम) means ‘subdue’ or ‘sudued’, Vanta (वान्त) means ’emit’ or’ ‘effuse’. This too explains the volcanic nature or activity of Mt. Damavand which may be equated with the Donbavand of the Sassanid era. In a way the more ancient Ramayanic name ‘Meghavanta’ fits the bill here too, for Meghavanta means ‘that which emits clouds’. This may be a reference to its height as it is the highest mountain in Iran. It is also the highest volcanic mountain in Asia. The reference to clouds may be a reference to the clouds of lava emitted by this volcano.

In the Indic tradition, apart from Varuna who was venerated in the land right up to the Mittani times, Indra too has his presence in the western quarter as we has seen in the Chakravan saga where Indra had killed the demon Hayagreeva and Panchajanya. Meghavanta too has a relationship with Indra, for Maghavan (मघवन्) translates as ‘belonging to or ruled by Indra’. ‘Maghavan’ is also the ‘thunderbolt of Indra’, another of his weapons. It appears that Indra had an inventory of weapons stationed in this western quarter that the Ramayana mentions.

The golden mountain peaks of the Zagros Mountains.
Zagros gets its name from a sea-faring tribe called ‘sagara’. Sagara
is Sanskrit for ‘sea’.

The ‘vanaras’ are told to then move along this ‘range of many radiant peaks’, which in current times we may identify as the peaks of the Alburz range. The Ramayana names the range as Sarvasuvarna, meaning ‘all gold’. It also states that Sarvasuvarna is to be seached till the vanaras reach the magnificent peak of ‘Meru’. Sarvasuvarna has to be the Alburz range. 


In the Sarvasuvarna there is the peak of Megha where Valmiki, in Section 42, Verse 35 says that Mahendra or Indra was installed as the king by the gods. Mt. Megha is different form Meghavant which we have identified as the Damavand.

Mt. Megha (cloud) might be the same as the Kuh-e-Aseman (sky) of Mazendaran. And as many Indic scholars have said, the city of Mazendaran is the city of Mahendra. Mazendaran is translated as Mazen ‘great’, and daran ‘door’ from Avestan. If one looks at it from the Sanskrit lens Mazendaran is decoded as a combination of Maha and Indra, hence Mahendra, or ‘great Indra’. The name of the province in which Mazendaran is located is called Kelardasht.

Now, moving west of Meru, the Ramayana says, is Mt. ‘Asta-Giri’ which translates as the ‘Setting Sun Mountain’. The ‘vanaras’ are told not to go beyond Asta-Giri. As they travel from ‘Meru’ to Mt. ‘Asta’ the ‘vanaras’ are also directed to look for a ‘gigantic ten-leaved date-palm-tree, which is completely golden and shines forth with a marvelous podium’.

Now, where might Mt. Meru be. From the verses of Valmiki it is obvious that he is referring to a mountain in line with Mt. Varaha, Megha and Asta according to the Ramayanic sequence. In today’s geography, Valmiki is most likely stating names of peak in line with Mt. Vararu, Mt. Damavand and Mt. Oshtoran, the first two of which lie in the Alborz range which parallels the southern part of Caspian Sea.

In the Vedic tradition Mt. Meru is a majestic mountain at the centre of the world around which the world revolves. In the Avestan tradition of Iran, that is in Zoroastrianism, the equivalent of Mt. Meru is Hara Berezaiti. The Persian name Alborz is said to derive its name from Hara Barazaiti via Middle Persian where Hara Barazaiti appears as Harborz. 

When Valmiki wrote of Mt. Meru, he could be referring to a peak in the present day mountain range of Alborz, of which Vararu-e-Kuh, Mt. Damavand and Kuh-e-Aseman have already been discussed above. Mt. Meru could be a reference to a fourth peak in the Alborz range or could be a refernce to the range itself. Even though the name Berezaiti, is said to derive from Proto-Iranian Berezaiti meaning ‘Mountain Rampart’, it ultimately stems from Sanskrit ‘Brihat’ (बृहत्) meaning ‘great’.


It is also a possibility that the ‘Bere’ in Berezaiti is just a distortion of the word Meru. The pinnacle of Mt. Meru in Zorostrian texts is known as Hukairya, meaning ‘good work’ in Avestan, which is the same as Sanskrit ‘Sukarya’. Hukairya is unidentified in present day geography.

The last destination on Sugreeva’s map is Mt. Asta! Once again if we go merely by the cognate of the name Asta, we may identify Mt. Asta as the Oshtoran Kooh in the Zagros range, the Sanskrit Asta becoming Oshto in Avestan and Persian, where the Sanskrit sound of ‘a’ often turns into ‘o’. 


Popular literature holds that the Avestan ‘Oshtoran’ which means a ‘line of camels’ which is the same as the Sanskrit ‘ushtra’ (उष्ट्र) or camel explains the name of the peak. However, it is more likely that the name Oshtoran is a distortion of Asta, and that the meaning of camel was given later to fit into the word Oshto, after its Ramayanic meaning was forgotten


From a literary point of view, it is the Sanskrit ‘asta’ (अस्त) ‘sunset’ rather than the Avestan ‘oshto ‘camel’, which is most in concurrence with the Ramayanic meaning of its name because it lends a cultural context to its name, and links its legend that of Mt. Udaya (Mt. Sunrise) situated at the other end of the world but more about that later.


The Ramayana gives a concise description of the sunset at Mt. Asta. It states, “In half a mahurata, the sun swiftly passes over this mountin, measuring as it does, ten thousand yoganas.”- Kishkindakand, Section 42, Verse 43, the meaning therby that when the sun sets behind the Asta mountain, it seems to have travelled a distance of 10000 yoganas, for the sun is no longer visible.

If the Asta mountain is indeed the Oshtoran then we may infer that before their return after the search for Sita, the Vanaras are back in the Zagros as they head back to their station from where they had started their journey. But before we state the one last structure  that the vanaras are to visit and the one last meeting they are to conduct with a sage living in these mountains, we look at the entire map of Iran to see if there are any other Ramayanic or Puranic names on its map.

A  look at the cities and dwellings around the Caspian Sea and their names reveals that there exists a city by the name of Astara which one could consider to be the location that Valmiki was refering to when he writes about Mt. Asta. It is close to the town of Ramsar mentioned above which is in the westernmost county and city in Mazandaran and borders the Caspian Sea to the north. Ramsar is known for its hot water sulphur springs and is the centre of therapeutic spas. A quick look at its name which combines the name of Rama, the protaganist of Ramayana, with sara (सर), Sanskrit for lake, or a pond, or a water body, a reference in this case to the Caspian. It is commonly believed that the word sara stems from the Persian word for ‘head’ but the  Sanskrit interpretation of the suffix sara leads to a more appropriate meaning. Another town called Rudsar is also located on the Caspian.

Other places on the Caspian who’s name ends with the suffix sara include Tuskasar, Chabosar, Paresar and Panesar-eTashkan which is home to the Visadar waterfall. This is sufficient evidence that the original meaning of ‘sara’ is connected to water, and the more common inetrpretation of ‘sar’ as Persian ‘head’, is incorrect. In any case the Persian sara too is a distortion of Sanskrit shirsha (शीर्ष ) or ‘head’ via Avestan. In Hindi too sara means head and is a corruption from Sanskrit ‘shirsh’ but that meaning does not fit here. And as far as the name Visadhar is concerned, it once again is a Sanskrit term meaning ‘poisnous-snake’ or ‘serpentine’, the name Visadhar probably refers to the shape of the waterfall which cascades down in a serpentine manner.

Close to Panesar-e-Tashkan is the ancient city of Talesh. Archaeological studies show and archaeologists say, the people of Talesh are one of the oldest inhabitants of the Caspian Sea. The Sanskrit ‘Talak’ (तलक) and ‘taal’ (ताल) refer to a ‘pond’ – ‘esh’ refers to ‘god’ or ‘lord’. The suffix Tashkan in the name Panesar-e-Tashkan may be derived from ‘Talesh’.

Then there is a town by the name Sarvan by the Caspian in Azerbaijan. It is a name that cannot be overlooked. But more about that later. A few more names which should not be dismissed include Ramana near the famed city of Baku on the Caspian. Ramana is another name of Sri Rama. Then there is Makhachakla. The city of Makhachakla is identified with the legendary ancient city of Semender or Samandar. There is an inconclusive debate on the etymology. Though the general consensus is that the etymology is unknown, for anyone with any knowledge of Sanskrit it is obvious that the city, owing to its proximity to the Caspian sea, has the name Samandar for it is a slightly distorted form of Samudra (समुद्र), Sanskrit for sea.

Other intriguing place names around the Caspian Sea include Siyavar and Lankaran. Siyavar (सियावर) was a name of Sri Rama and of course the name Lankaran is a reminder of Lanka (लंका) of Ramayana.

It is not only around the Caspian Sea, in the rest of Iran too there are many more Sanskrit and Ramayanic names. In the Zagros, there is the Kuh-e-Lunkah, a reminder of Ravana’s Lanka, in Mazendaran there is Anand which is a name so purely Sanskrit that no debate is needed here. There are Vari (वरि) and Sari (सारी), both meaning ‘water’ and are towns located close to water bodies.

In the concluding part, in Verse 4-42-48 of Ramayana, Valmiki says that somewhere close to Mt. Asta lives the sage Savarni who the vanaras should meet, and plead with, to find from him any information he might have of Sita. Savaran means ‘concealed’ or ‘covered’. Sage Savaran was known to have considerable influence and access to information which is why he was given the name Savaran of Meru. Hence the importance of a visit to him.

Interestingly, even today there are many towns with the name of Savaran in Iran, in slightly distorted forms. The closest place by this name to Mt. Oshtoran is Saravan Darreh-ye-Sophla. Little further away is another town by the name Saravan in Esfahan. The Saravan name must have been of considerable importance since there is another town by the name Saravan in Loresran but that is a bit off the track from the Zagros and is away from the path of the vanaras.


If we were to look for Sage Savarni in the Caspian region we will then equate Astara with Mt. Asta and either the town of Bileh Savar or the town of Sarvan would be the Savaran mentioned in the Ramayana. But since sages often resided in the mountains, rather than the plains, it is the region of Mt. Oshtoran that was probably the sage’s place of residence.

One may look for Mt. Meru of Ramayana beyond Iran and Iraq in Egypt, especially because one of the ancient most names of Egypt was Ta-Meru, and may therefore have some links to the name Meru mentioned in the Ramayana. However, the rest of the description by Valmiki best fits the peaks of the Zagaros and the Alburz in Iran, with support from both Vedic and Zoroastrian texts. 

This gigantic 10-leaf date palm tree that Valmike says is located between Mt. Meru and Mt. Asta has never been traced pysically. More research needs to be done on Zoroastrian texts for clues. Palms seem to have a sacred significance in the ancient civilizations of the region and Assyrian artifacts lend support this view.

In this artifact Assyrian Gods are seen

with a stylized palm tree.

Assyrian Goddesses with a stylized palm tree

A mural depicting a sacred palm tree

Assyrian artifact depicting a sacred palm tree

The location of this ancient ‘ten leaved date palm tree’ has not been traced. But what is interesting is that in the Ramayana, the search party travelling east in search of Sita are told to keep going forth across many oceans, till they see ‘a three-leafed palm tree etched on a mountain near Mt. Udaya’ or  Mt. Sunrise visible from the ocean’. This has been identified as the site of the ancient ‘Paracas Trident of Peru’ etched on a mountain in the Andes chain. This also indicates that the expanse of land that the vanaras scour extends to Iran on one end and to Peru on the other. See picture below:

The ancient Paracas Trident of Peru is
described as a three-leafed-palm-tree in the Valmiki Ramayana.

There then is a possibility that the ‘ten leafed palm tree’ mentioned in the Ramayana may yet be found etched in the mountains of Iran or Iraq and may finally prove that Iran was a location which was part of the story of Ramayana.

___________________________________________________
Suggested Sites:

1. Encyclopedia of Ancient Indian Geography – Subodh Kapoor
2. Ancient Indian History and Civilization – S.N. Sen
3. The suffixes ‘mant’ and ‘vant’ in Sanskrit
4. Iran’s Ancient Gur City – Financial Tribune, Iran , Sept 27, 2014

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