Swat Valley in Afghanistan: Region of Rama’s ancestors
by Jayasree Saranathan on 31 Oct 2020 0 Comment

It is everybody’s knowledge that Rama belonged to the Ikshvaku race who ruled from Ayodhya located in north east India. But a reading of Valmiki Ramayana reveals that someone identified as Rama’s ancestors once lived in North West India, long before Rama’s times, in a region that bears close resemblance to Swat region of Afghanistan. Fortunately, no proponent of Aryan Invasion Theory cares to read Ramayana of Valmiki or else they would have interpreted this as a proof of incoming Aryans who later spread to East India to found a kingdom at Ayodhya!


The reference to this place and its association with the ancestors of Rama is found in the context of the route taken by the messengers of Ayodhya to Kekaya to bring back Bharata upon the death of Dasaratha (Valmiki Ramayana 2-68). Ramayana mentions the places and rivers crossed by them en route, along with the importance wherever applicable. The names are as they existed during Rama’s times and are not the same today. There are exceptions like the name Hastinapura which helps us in digging out unknown information, thereby giving us better understanding of the past history related to them.


For example, when we read in Valmiki Ramayana that the messengers crossed the Ganga River at Hastinapura, we understand that Hastinapura was established before Rama’s times. But the general perception is to link Hastinapura with Mahabharata. Looking for cross references, we come across the genealogy of Puru’s dynasty in which Hasti is mentioned as having established Hastinapura (Mahabharata 1-95). Hasti was the great grandson of Bharata, son of Dushyanta.


Hasti’s father, Suhotra was the grandson of Bharata while his mother Suvarna came from the house of Ikshvakus! So Hasti had matrilineal connection with Ikshvakus of Ayodhya who could have had a say in the way Hasti planned his endeavours, one of them being the establishment of the city of Hastinapura. The specific reference to Hastinapura in the route could well be due to this familiarity and connection with Ikshvakus.


This place is found today on the old bed of Ganges. Hasti built it in on the banks of Ganges and during Rama’s times it was on the banks of Ganges. Today the Ganges has shifted course and Hastinapura can be seen on two sides of the old route of Ganges.


The archaeological works done in this place so far (by B.B. Lal) had different aims, but not much was done to ascertain the antiquity of the dried bed of Ganges that runs for considerable distance. Such works could help in establishing the time period of Hasti and Bharata or Dushyanta. Today there is more talk on Jain connection to this place, but its original and early history is only of Vedic culture having connection with both Bharata’s and Ikshvaku’s dynasties.


The route taken by the messengers further on also is familiar to us. After crossing Hastinapura, they crossed Kuru Jangala and Panchala kingdom, observing the rivers and lakes. That means they had crossed the five rivers of the Indus and proceeded further west. Then they crossed Sharadanda river after which they crossed a region of a sacred tree Satyopayaachana, that fulfilled people’s prayers. Here it is mentioned that they performed circumambulation of the tree. This is proof of the antiquity of the practice of circumambulation of sacred places (Pradakshina) going back to times before Ramayana.


After Satyopayaachana, the messengers reached a city called Kulinga. From there they reached a village called Abhikaalam. There they crossed a sacred river called Ikshumati. This river was flowing down from a mountain called “Bodhibhavana”. This place was associated with the father and grandfather – of who? Obviously of the Ikshvakus!


The word used is “pitR^ipaitaamahiim”. The father mentioned here could not be Dasaratha (Rama’s father), and it could not refer to the father of Dasaratha as well because in the Ikshvaku dynasty the eldest sons ruled from Ayodhya. This is reiterated at quite a few places in Ramayana itself. Therefore the reference to pitR^ipaitaamahiim is not about the direct ancestral lineage of Rama (or Dasaratha) but of others coming in the lineage of siblings or step brothers sometime before Dasaratha.


To get an inkling of whom they could be, we have to first identify this region where Ikshumati flows down from the mountain of Bodhibhavana. Valmiki Ramayana records Ikshumati in another context also. After Sita’s marriage with Rama was finalised, Janaka, (Sita’s father) sent messengers to his younger brother Kushadhvaja to inform him of the marriage. This brother was the king of a city called Saankaasya that was surrounded by Ikshumati River like a moat (Valmiki Ramayana 1.70.2 &3). If it is assumed that the text on ancestors (pitR^ipaitaamahiim) referred to the Sita’s ancestors (father’s brother is almost like father), it is refuted that there is no mention of his city, Saankaasya in that context. And also there is no mention of conveying the sad demise of Dasaratha to him, as naturally expected if they were to cross his country.


To resolve this, one can point out a difference in the description in the two contexts.  Kushadhvaja’s kingdom was like an island surrounded by the waters of Ikshumati whereas the region of ‘pitR^ipaitaamahiim’ was close to the location where the river flows down from the mountain (Bodhibhavana). Island formations in a river happen downstream when the river meanders its way through land-obstructions. In view of this we can assume that the location in the course of Ikshumati near where it descends was the not the place of Kushadhvaja.


(The kingdom of Kushadhvaja in such a faraway place from Mithila ruled by his eldest brother, Janaka, can be cited as a proof of spread of Vedic people from Indian mainland to west and not vice versa. Usually the eldest in the dynasty is bequeathed the throne. His younger siblings had to look for newer places to enjoy exclusive rights and freedom as a monarch. In most cases, they started their own dynasty in the new places). We can safely assume that the reference is indeed to someone in the lineage of Rama coming in sibling-branches. And they must have made a mark for themselves in some remarkable way that it got mentioned by Valmiki.


Kekaya, part of Vedic Bharat


Let us look at the adjacent regions to identify this place. After crossing this place, the next location was Bahlika kingdom, Balkh region in Afghanistan. Also known as Bactria, this region is now in the focus of adherents of Aryan Invasion Theory who are pushing forth an idea that this was the previous stop for the Aryans before they entered India! But Ramayana reveals that one has go beyond this region to reach Kekaya kingdom, the paternal home of Kaikeyi! And Kekaya was not outside the map of Vedic people as we hear about six sages in Chandogya Upanishad going over to Kekaya to meet its ruler Asvapati to learn from him the concept of Vaisvanara Brahman. Incidentally, Asvapati is the name of Bharata’s grandfather (Kaikeyi’s father) in Valmiki Ramayana. It is possible to assume that both are the same. This puts the period of the six sages (one among them was the well-known Uddalaka Aruni) and Ramayana on the same time scale.


No wonder this place has remnants of Vedic culture, but to attribute it to someone coming from the steppes is without basis, whereas Ramayana and Chandogya Upanishad stand as evidence of spread of Vedic culture from within India to this place. Vedic culture had existed up to Kekaya and not beyond, as AIT proponents themselves could not show any proof of it beyond this region.


With the information above we can zero in on the location of Rama’s ancestors as falling in between River Sindhu and its tributaries in the east and Balkh (Bactria) in the west. A major river in this region is River Swat! There are similarities in the names of places with Ramayana description.


According to Ramayana, after Kulinga one reaches a village called ‘Abhikaalam’ where one crosses River Ikshumati. Checking this with Swat River, there is a place called Kalam (pronunciation not known) where one crosses Swat River. Ramayana says that Ikshumati flows down the mountain called Bodhibhavana and passes through a village, Abhikaalam. But Abhikaalam is not in the plains as the messengers passed through a place called “Vishnu Padam” after Abhikaalam. Generally the place where a river touches down the plain is known as Vishnu padam (Vishnu’s feet). So Abhikaalam must be in a higher region. The location of Kalam is also in higher region, in the upper reaches of Swat valley. With Islamic invasions, most names have been changed. Somehow the mountain valley name retains the Sanskrit name as ‘Mahodanda’!


Original name of Hindu Kush


Swat River emerges from the Hindu Kush Mountains and passes through Mahodanda valley. Ramayana has named Bodhibhavana as the mountain from which Ikshumati flows down. Whether this was the old and original name of Hindu Kush needs to be probed with local legends and ancient chronicles of this region. However the presence of Buddhism in this region in later days is reminiscent of the presence of a knowledgeable and yogic community in this region since Ramayana times or even before.


The name Mahodanda (valley) resonates with the name of a river that the messengers crossed before reaching this place. It was River ‘Sharadanada’. Sharadanda refers to stalk of a plant that grows in water. Mahodanda refers to tall or big stick-like trees. The region of Mahodanda valley is covered with dense forest of pine trees which fulfills this description.


With the valley’s name still being Mahodanda, it is possible that the original name of the mountain even during Ramayana times was Mahodanda. But it acquired the name Bodhibhavana due to presence of learned people. Ramayana does mention about Brahmins well versed in Vedas living there. Such a place noted for Vedic rituals and learned ones patronised by the ancestors of Rama is yet another proof of a migration from North east India to this region and not from outside of India to this place.


The King of Swat region


A famous Vedic king was associated with Swat region. He was none other than King Sibi (Sivi) who offered his flesh to a hawk to save a pigeon. In his book, Ancient Geography of India, Cunningham quotes Hieun Tsang that “the legend of ‘the hawk and the pigeon’ in which Buddha, to save a pigeon tears his own flesh and offers to hawk” occurred in the region of Swat. He also quotes Fa-Hian as saying “that Buddha was then a king named Shi-pi-ka or Sivika”. The name, Bodhibhavana during Ramayana times reinforces the presence of ascetics and others immersed in Knowledge and salvation in this region of Swat.


Sibi was originally a king of Vedic culture, born to Madhavi, the daughter of King Yayati. His father was Usinara. In an amazing correlation, Swat River that starts at Kalam is joined by two rivers one of them known by name ‘Ushu’! The phonetic similarity with Usinara cannot be ignored.


Mahabharata recounts this legend of King Sibi at many places (MB: 3:196, 3; 207, 13:32, 13:67 &14:90). At one place he is said to be the king of Kasi (MB 13-32). But as with siblings and cousins, Sibi must have sought a place for himself away from ancestral roots and chosen the region at the commencement of Swat, then known as Ikshumati! His descendants occupied the entire region of River Sindhu in due course, taking up various names as Sivi, Saibya, Sauvira and so on. The lesser known name is ‘Sembiya’ which the Cholas of Tamil lands held for themselves. It is from the genealogy of Cholas, we come to know that Sibi was an ancestor of Rama!


Sibi as ancestor of Rama and Cholas


The genealogy of Cholas is found in the copper plates of Thiruvalangadu. It traces the origin of Cholas from the Solar dynasty of the Ikshvakus and continued with the same names of Rama’s genealogy till Mandhata. After Mandhata a divergence comes. In Rama’s genealogy, Susandhi takes over the reign from him (Valmiki Ramayana 1.70.26). In Chola’s genealogy, Muchukunda’s name appears after Mandhata and continues with Vallabha, Prithulaksha and others till Bharata. Cholavarma, one of the sons of Bharata, founded the Chola race in the Chola country.


Only the eldest son came to the Ikshvaku throne. This explains why the genealogy diverged after Mandhata. Sibi came in the lineage of Muchukunda, the sibling to the king of Ayodhya.


The Cholas were proud of their lineage from Sibi and called themselves as ‘Sembiyan’ – a derivative from Sibi. This was mentioned at several places in Sangam literature and to name a few in Puram 37 and 39. The information not known to outside world is that Rama also was considered as an ancestor of the Cholas.


Though there is no direct mention of the name as Rama (so also with Sibi, as that name was never mentioned in the verses but only through an allusion to the legend of hawk and pigeon), the reference to him is found mentioned along with Sibi. Rama’s name was indicated by the reference to the destruction of Ravana’s city, signified as “thoongeyil” - the fortress that was hanging from the sky - a reference to its location on a mountain touching the clouds. It appeared as though Ravana’s city was hanging down from the clouds. Allusion to Rama as the destroyer of “thoongeyil” is mentioned in Purananuru -39, Siripaanaattru-padai – 79-82, Pazhamozhi- 49, Silappadhikaram – 29- 16 -4/5, Manimegalai- 1-4, Kalingatthu-p-paraNi – Raja- 17, Raja raja Chozhan vula – 13, Vikrama Chozhan vula 8-9.


With the Tamil chronicles establishing Rama along with Sibi in the same lineage, the verse in Ramayana on ancestors of Rama in the city watered by river Ikshumati could only be an allusion to Sibi. 


Was Swat, the Vedic River Suvastu?


From Cunningham’s records we come to know that Swat was earlier known as ‘Su-po-fa-su-tu. The phonetic similarity with Suvastu makes people think that Swat was the river mentioned in Rig Veda as Suvastu (RV 8-19-37). This name appears only once in the entire corpus of Rig Veda, in the hymn on Agni. It is Su-vaastu meaning a good place for dwelling. This meaning suits well with Swat having excellent environs. But this name does not appear in Valmiki Ramayana.


So we expand our search and look for the name in “Kurma Chakra”, the division of lands of ancient Bharat (Vedic India) in Brihat Samhita authored by Varahamihira. The countries of Northern division of Bharat have some surprises for us. This northern division of Bharat contains Kekaya, Vasati, Yamuna, Bhogaprastha, Arjunaayana, Agnidhara, Adarsh, AntadvIpi, Trigarta, Turagaanana, Shvamukha, Keshadhara, Cipita, Nasika, Daaseraka, Vaatadhana, Sharadhana, Taxila, Pushkalavata, Kailaavata, Kantahdhana, Ambaraavata, Madraka, Malava, Paurava, Kachhaara, Dandapingalaka, Maanahala, Hunas, Kohala, ShItaka, Mandavya and Bhutapura.


These names were as they were in use 2000 years ago. Some are recognisable and are mostly found in Afghanistan and North West Pakistan. Kekaya, the maternal home of Kaikeyi, tops the list given by Varahamihira. It is followed by Vasati, a name very close to Suvastu in meaning. Both refer to good dwelling conditions. Agnidhara reminds one of the Rig Vedic hymn in praise of Agni which ends up with a reference to Suvastu. Sharadhana seems to be a corrupt form of Sharadanda, a river the messengers had crossed. Arjunaayana fits well with the description of Mahabharata on Arjuna’s military expedition to the northern territories before Rajasuya yajna.


Cipita could actually be a corrupt form of Sibi or Sivi, for both Mahabharata (6-9) and Vishnu Purana (2-3) record a sequence of rivers starting with Siva (corrupt form of Sivi) followed by Viravati, Vastu and Suvastu.


Viramatsya was a region that Bharat crossed on his return journey. (He took a different route). All these seem to convey that rivers by name Sivi, Vasati and Suvastu existed in the region North West of India- in today’s Pakistan.


A concurrence for this hypothesis comes from the names Taxila and Pushkalavata. These cities were established by Bharata for his sons, after Rama ascended the throne. These places are in between Bahlika and Panchala. The identification of these locations and the potential in them for habitation could have been noticed by Bharata only during his trips to Kekaya, his maternal home land. This is once again a proof of expansion of cities and Vedic culture from Indian mainland to outside and in this context by the one who was from a long established lineage of north east India.


Swat being occupied by the ancestors of Rama (Sibi and his progeny), it is logical to expect Bharata to have made visits to that place in his numerous trips to his maternal grandfather’s house or his own sons’ cities. It seems even Rama had visited that region once during his regime. There is a place called “Ram Takht” in the Swat region which is situated on top of Mount Elum at a height of 9200 feet. Ram Takht means ‘Rama’s throne’! It is believed that Rama visited this place during exile. This is not true as per Valmiki Ramayana.



However it is probable that Rama visited this region of ‘‘pitR^ipaitaamahiim’ (ancestors) sometime during his reign or possibly when Bharat founded the cities of Taxila and Pushkalavata. The sacredness attached to this place, held next only to Amarnath, reinforces a historical event of Rama having visited Swat region and scaled the mountain as a mark of ascending the throne to establish the rule of Ikshvakus in this part of ancient Bharat. 



In the final analysis, we found the name Ikshumati not appearing anywhere outside Valmiki Ramayana. Etymologically Ikshumati is connected with Ikshvaku – wherein Ikshu means sugarcane. One interpretation could be that the river having water as sweet as sugarcane came to be named as Ikshumati. Another can be linked with Ikshvakus whose branch, in their capacity as the first explorers of this region, named the river after their parent dynasty when they made this region their dwelling place.


The agreeable environment and comforts provided by the river coming uppermost in the minds of the dwellers, resulted in them naming it as ‘Su-vaastu’ – a name that entered the Rig Vedic hymn. Isn’t this a proof of antiquity of Ramayana, preceeding the time of composition of this Rig Vedic hymn?




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