Rediscovering the Past: Sone, the Golden-armed River

After a trek in the Chhattisgarh section of the Achanakmar-Amarkantak biosphere reserve, I found myself at the origin of the Narmada and Sone rivers that lie across the border in Amarkantak, Madhya Pradesh. The springs lie only a few metres apart and temples have been created around them. While Sone is a tributary of the Ganga, Narmada retains its identity until it reaches the Arabian Sea. Its impact on the region’s culture can be seen in the form of ‘Narmadehar’ – the customary greeting in Amarkantak.

But it was Sone’s tributary status that figured in an interesting exchange I had at its origin.

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The spring that creates the Sone is marked by a tiled hexagonal pond that spills out of a marble cow-head to form a narrow channel. You can walk beside the channel to accompany the river as it takes its baby steps. The channel leads down to a scenic vista, where the Sone falls into central India’s forests to begin its ancient journey. When I walked up to the hexagonal spring, I saw a pujari sitting at the source offering tirth and aarti to worshippers.

This was the first openly trans pujari I had ever seen, dressed floridly in western clothing, wearing heavy makeup that only partially hid the lines of age. I wondered how Madhya Pradesh, a state so conservative it had refused to serve eggs to children in mid-day meals for the last 15 years, had a trans priest in one of its temples. I was aching to know more, but was unsure of what to say.

I accepted the tirth and tried to strike a conversation by asking the obvious, “Is this the source?” I said, pointing to the hexagonal pond. The pujari replied in the affirmative and then said, “Yeh Patna ke paas Ganga se milti hai (she meets the Ganges near Patna)”.

I nodded in response but something about the words rang a bell. I had known this for some reason. I started walking along the channel thinking about the words. The fact that the Sone met the Ganges near Patna, had once been of great importance in the rediscovery of ancient India’s forgotten past.

There was a time, not long ago, when Indians had forgotten Maurya, Gupta and even the Buddha. Only pale shadows of that time blurred by myth remained. Ashoka was unknown, Bodh Gaya’s significance was lost and the fact that Bihar got its name because it was once the land of ‘Viharas’, was forgotten. So lost was India’s Buddhist past, in particular, that initial British theory suggested that Buddha was from Egypt or Ethiopia.

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In his book The Buddha and the Sahibs, Charles Allen delved into the story of the rediscovery of India’s Buddhist past by British Sahibs. The British had to learn the history of the country they had begun governing in parts and the first lot of ‘Orientals’ led by Sir William Jones had little to go on when it came to local sources. Unlike the Chinese, Indians were not good at keeping written records. Of those that had once existed, much had been lost and a lot of what remained was unreliable.

The most important contribution of William Jones to the study of India was his identification of ‘Sandrakottos’ mentioned in Megasthenes’ Indica as Chandragupta Maurya. This identification was a part of a puzzle that established Patliputra as the most powerful city of ancient India – the capital of its great dynasties – helped the British date many events in ancient India relative to Greek dates and it acted as a placeholder for great importance. But how did Jones do it?

British scholars in India decided to use an approach known today as ‘synchronology’ to recover India’s ancient past. The method involved comparing names and great events with those ‘interspersed with memories of other nations’, given India’s lack of reliable sources. Jones attempted this with the one name that stood out in the chronicles of Greek sources – Sandrakottos. According to Megasthenes, this was the name of the man who had established himself as a ruler at his capital city of Palimbothra and that Megasthenes had been sent here in around 302 BCE. So if the identity of Sandrakottos could be found, it would be an important starting point for early Indian chronology. Jones found no such name in Pandit Radhakanta’s list of ancient Indian Kings. The location of Palimbothra was proving to be a mystery too. According to Megasthenes, Palimbothra lay at the confluence of the ‘Erranoboas’ and the Ganges. But which river was Erranoboas? Erranoboas, Palimbothra and Sandrakottos were all proving elusive.

Also read: Book Review: When a River Flows Through Landscapes and Memories

In his History of Hindustan, Alexander Dow had identified Palimbothra as Kannauj but while the city lay on the banks of the Ganga, at no time in its recorded history was the city situated at the confluence of two rivers. The French geographer d’Anville dismissed it as a possibility for this reason and suggested that Palimbothra was modern-day Prayag since it was at the confluence of the Ganga and the Yamuna. Erranobaos was described as a large river so d’Anville’s choice won considerable support for a time.

But soon a third contender for Palimbothra emerged. The East India Company’s chief geographer and Surveyor-General Major James Rennell noticed that the Greek geographer Pliny had provided two possible sites for Palimbothra on his maps and one of the locations lay close to modern-day Patna. But the issue here was the same as with Kannauj. Patna was not at the confluence of two rivers nor was it known to have ancient ruins. But Rennell made inquiries and learned from locals of an earlier city named ‘Patelpoot-her’ that was believed to have been washed away in the distant past. During a geographical survey, Rennell discovered evidence of a dry riverbed that had once joined the Ganga just above modern Patna. In his Memoir and Map of Hindoostan, he wrote, ‘The river Soane (Sone today) whose confluence with the Ganges is now at Moneal – 22 miles above Patna – once joined it under the walls of Patelpoot-her.’

But Patna could only be Palimbothra if modern Sone was Megasthenes’ Erranoboas. An elated Jones found proof of this when he was translating one of his Sanskrit texts: it referred to the river Sone with the epithet ‘Hiranyabahu’ or the ‘golden armed’.

Proficient as he was in both Greek and Sanskrit, Jones realised that ‘Erranoboas’ was the Greek rendering of the Sanskrit ‘Hiranyabahu’. Finally, when Jones was translating the Mudra-rakshasa from Sanskrit, he read of a man named Chandragupta who had seized the throne of his rival and ruled from his capital in Palimbothra/Patliputra. Chandragupta rendered into Greek became Sandrakottos. Subsequent archaeological discoveries near the site of the riverbed confirmed the location. These two discoveries from Jones, Patliputra and Chandragupta became foundation stones for the reconstruction of India’s ancient past since, amazingly, it emerged that the same Sandrakottos was also the founder of ancient India’s most important dynasty – Maurya.

As I stood there, watching the Sone flow towards its confluence with the Ganga near Patna, I thought about Chandragupta and Patliputra emerging from the shadows and how much more remained lost. If I could forget reading about the historical significance of the confluence, it made sense to me that we had forgotten much of India’s ancient history when knowledge was held by few, to begin with. These stories are best held widely – as the words of the pujari reminded me.

Ayush Khanna is a data scientist from Bangalore who writes on history and politics.

Featured image: Pixabay