In the following article Mathomathis would present a discussion on continent of Uttarakuru which is the most mysterious and mythical in character. Before proceeding further, readers are advised to read the previous article Buddhist Conception Of The World | Western Continents | 102. Though the name Uttarakuru is common between the Brahmanical and the Buddhist literature, there is a distinct difference in its treatment in these texts just as it happens in the case of Jambudvipa. Uttarakuru of the Buddhist literature is an Island Continent situated to the north of the Sumeru or Sineru mountain. But in the Brahmanical literature it (also called Harivarsa) is referred to as one of the northern varsas or subcontinents of the Jambudvipa (which may precisely be said coextensive with the continent of Asia). The other northern varsas referred to with Uttarakuru are Ramayaka and Hiranmaya. It is interesting to note that in both Brahmanical and Buddhist literature Uttarakuru is said to be situated to the north of Meru or Sumeru.

Uttarakuru and its inhabitants find mention in our ancient literature from very early times. The Aitareya Brahmana knows it. It has been said there that it is the land of the gods and cannot be conquered by human beings. The author of the Bharatakosa remarks on the basis of this statement that Uttarakuru had a real existence and was still historically alive in the memory of people. D.N. Sen also believes that though Uttarakuru is often mentioned in terms which would make it a legendary land”, yet “it is also sometimes spoken of in a way which leaves no shadow of doubt that Uttarakuru was a real country”. But later on people gradually became oblivious of its real entity and believed it to be a fictitious land. In the Mahabharata, the Ramayana and the Puranas it is presented with an excessive color of imagination. The Ramayana gives the following description of this country in a mythic fashion(127. N.C. Das, ‘Ancient Geography of Asia compiled from valmlki Ramayana, pp. 90-91 f.n.; E. Kiskindhyakanda, Ch.43, SIokas 56-59. N.C. Das also quotes Griffith’s translation of these verses)

Where the golden lands of lilies gleam Resplendent on the silver stream! Still on your forward journey keep, And rest you on the ‘Northern deep’, Where springing from the billows high Mount Somagiri seeks the sky, And lightens with perpetual glow The ‘sunless realm’ that lies below. Then turn Vanaras, search no more Nor tempt the ‘sunless’ boundless shore.

Tamatikramya sailendramuttarah payasannidheh
Tatra Somagiri nama madhye hemamayo mahan
Sa tu deso visuryo’pi tasya bhasa prakasate
Suryalaksmyabhi jneyastapatyeva vivasvata
Sa hi Somagiri nama devanamapi durgamah
Tamalokya tatah ksipramupavartitum arhatha
Etavadvanaraih sakyam gantum vinarapuhgavah
Abhaskaramamaryadam na janimastatah param

Not only the Ramayana, but other Brahmanioal texts also refer to this country. Thus the Mahabharata and the Brahmanda Purana mention Uttarakuru. The latter places it far to the north of India and mentions that it was bounded on the north by the ocean. Nundolal De in his Geographical Dictionary of Ancient and Medieval India remarks in this context that the name perhaps exists in Korea which appertained to Uttarakurudvipa. Before we switch over to the description of Uttarakuru as found in the Buddhist literature it will not be out of context to have a short discussion on the probable identification of this country as suggested by eminent scholars.

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It has been said in Muir’s Sanskrit Texts, Vol.I: The Uttarakurus, it should be remembered may have been a real people, as they are mentioned in the Aitareya Brahmana, VIII. 14 ……… wherefore the several nations who dwell in this northern quarter beyond the Himavat, the Uttarakurus and the Uttaramadras are consecrated to glorious dominion and people term them glorious. Professor Lassen places it to the east of Kashgarh. His arguments deserve special attention. He has examined facts very carefully to identify the Uttarakuru with which the Harivarsa appears ‘at the furthest accessible extremity of the earth*. Lassen thinks that “the Uttarakurus were formerly quite independent of the mythical system of dvipas though they were included in it, at an early date.” The foundation of Lassen’s opinion that ‘the conception of the Uttarakurus is based upon an actual country and not on mere invention’ is laid on the following arguments:

  • The way in which they are mentioned in the Vedas proves it.
  • Uttarakuru exists in historical times as a real country.
  • The way in which the legend makes mention of that region as the home of primitive customs also may be presented in support of this view.

Ptolemy speaks of a mountain, a people and a city called Ottoro-korra. It is a part” of the country which he calls Serica. According to Lassen’s view, this Ottoro Korra of Ptolemy must he sought to the east of Kashgarh. Uttarakuru has teen referred to as Kuo-lo Island by Yuan Chwang. According to Mr. Bunsen the slopes of Belur Tagh. A mountain range in Central Asia in the high land of the Pamir in which the great rivers of that region have got their source, are the Uttarakuru of the Aryan Hindus. The Belur Tagh is also called the Ki-un-ldn; it forms the northern boundary of Western Tibet and is covered with perpetual snow. It is also called Mustagh, Karakorum, Hindukush and Tsunlung. Nundolal De in his Geographical Dictionary expresses the opinion that Uttarakuru is the northern portion of Garwal and Hunadesa where the river Mandakini and Citraratha Kanana are situated. According to him it originally included the countries beyond the Himalayas. It appears from the. Ramayana and the Mahabharata that Tibet and eastern Turkestan were included in Uttarakuru.

N„C. DaS in his Ancient Geography of Asia compiled from the Valmiki Ramayana has laid some precious remarks about the identification of Uttarakuru. His opinion is based on the description of this country given in the Ramayana. He thinks that the fantastic realm of the Uttarakurus may be placed in the ‘indefinite semi-mythic tract which extends from the Kail as a range and the great desert of Mongolia on the east and south, to the Arctic Ocean on the north. It probably included the countries now known as Mongolia, China and Siberia‘. This unexplored ‘region’ according to ancient belief was the land of the Siddhas and demi-gods like the Yaksas and Kinnaras. P.C. Bagchi remarks that Uttarakuru, Ottorrogorra of the Classical Writers was in Chinese Turkestan. D.N. Sen with his profound wisdom has put forth a great number of evidences and arguments in support of the view that Uttarakuru represented in ancient times some trans-Himalayan country. He has drawn our attention to two curious Pali words “digharattam” (= Sanskrit dlrgharatram) used in the sense of ‘a long time’, and rattannu (= Sanskrit ratrijna) used in the sense of knower of time. He comments that these two words; “may take us hack to the period of the history of the Pali speaking people when they lived in regions where nights were more prominent than days”. Some countries according to him refer undoubtedly to a region beyond the Himalayas and among such countries he names Uttarakuru first. He has quoted several passages from the Brahmanical Sanskrit and Pali Buddhist texts to show that the Uttarakuru was a real land to the north of the Himalayas. The Ramayana describes Mt. Somagiri lightening with perpetual glow the “sunless realm” of Uttarakuru. This description reminds us of Aurora Borealis or Northern lights seen in the Arctic region (and also Aurora Australis seen in the Southern Hemisphere) during the six months of darkness there. Dr. H.C. Raychaudhuri in his “Studies in Indian Antiquities also comments that “Scholars find in these lines (sa tu deso visuryhpi tasyabhasa prakasate) a reference to the Aurora Borealis and are inclined to credit the Ramayana with some accurate knowledge of the north”. In Buddhist literature Uttarakuru has been treated as a land of all wonder, in fact the ’El Dorado’ of the ancient world. The Digha Nikaya gives a detailed description of this country which is quite interesting, but in most places incredible. Other Buddhist texts also speak of this continent in various contexts. From these records which mingle greater amount of fiction with perhaps very insignificant amount of reality, we have to glean those information which are important from the geographical point of view, or interesting otherwise.

The inhabitants of Uttarakuru do not have any personal or private property, nor even do they have their own wives. Their cities are built in the air. The names of these cities are rather interesting, e.g. Atanata, Kusinata, Natasuriya, Parakusitanata and so on. The chief city is named Alakamanda. There is a lake named Dharani in Uttarakuru. The trees of this wonderful continent are all evergreen. A Kapparukkha (= Sanskrit Kalpavrksa) or ‘wishing tree’ has been mentioned which lasts for a whole kappa (= Kalpa in Sanskrit). This tree is a mythical one like the Jambu tree in the Jambudvipa. It is hundred yojanas high, and when the people require anything, the tree extends its branches to them and gives whatever desired. The people of this continent do not live in houses and they sleep on the ground and therefore are called bhumisaya. Curiously enough there exists no relationship as father, mother, or brother. The whole continent is a low place or valley. The dead bodies there are not cremated, but are left In the cemetery from where enormous birds, more; powerful than elephants, convey them to the Yugandhara rocks.

This description reminds us of the ancient Persian system of cremating the dead. The continent of Uttarakuru has been described as a rich, ever prosperous and resourceful one, frequently visited by the Buddha and several Pacceka buddhas and ascetics for alms.- The inhabitants of Uttarakuru are square faced. Hardy remarks that it is supposed that the legends respecting square faced or square headed animals have had their origin in the appearance of the sea dogs that inhabit the lakes of Siberia. Both the males and females of Uttarakuru always retain the appearance of persons about sixteen years. There is a resemblance in position and general character between the inhabitants of Uttarakuru and the Hyperboreans who dwell beyond the influence of Boreas, have never felt the cold north-wind., whose females were delivered without the sense of pain, who live to the age of a thousand years without any of the usual accompaniments of senility. As to the extent of this continent, there is a diversity of opinions among the Buddhist texts and commentaries. In the Lalitavistara, its extent is said to be 10,000 yojanas Elsewhere in the commentarial literature its extent is fixed to 8,000 yojanas and it is said to he surrounded by the sea. Sometimes it is referred to in the list of the four Mahadipas each of which is surrounded by 500 islands. In the Encyclopedia of Religion and Ethics it has been said to be an oblong 4 x 2000 leagues. According to the Lalitavistara the Uttarakuru island had its own alphabet which was mastered by the Buddha. Though it is very difficult to separate the facts from the huge bulk of imagination and over coloring and consequently the task of giving a specific geographical identification to Uttarakuru has been rendered harder, one is, however, attracted to the curious fact that there are strange similarities between the Uttarakuru people and the Eskimos. The Eskimos also have no rigid bond of social relationship like father, mother or brother among them. Their old skin withers out and a new skin appears over their bodies thus giving them a much younger look somewhat resembling the endless youth of the Uttarakuru people. The Eskimos also have no specific or permanent home. They dwell in tents in summer and in their snow houses called ’igloos’ in winter. This natural and somewhat insignificant home of the Eskimos reminds us of the epithet ‘bhumisaya’ given to the Uttarakuru people. We cannot, however, speak of any definite connection between the two people in absence of any decisive proof at hand.