Tuesday, December 18, 2007

Antarctica - the India connection

In all our great epics like various Puranas (Vishnu Puran, Shiv Puran) or Shri Mad-Bhagwat or Vedas written 3000-5000 years ago, there is uniform mention of seven continents in this universe. During my schooling days 45 years ago, our books and teachers taught us the Earth consisting of five continents only, while at home mother read the stories from these epics telling us of seven continents. Finally now the world recognizes the Earth to have seven continents with America now divided into two continents, South and North, and Antarctica being recognized as the seventh. So, Indian sages recognized Antarctica even in the ancient times! You all have read the story of Kumbh Karan, the younger brother of demon king Ravan in the famous India epic Ramayan. Kumbh Karan was known for many things, the most important being his sleep pattern of sleeping for 6 months and remaining awake for the next 6 months. Was he living or ruling over Antarctica?

Antarctica has many kinds of snow and ice. Only some of them have been named and described. One such formation is 'sastrugi' in which for miles there are dunes like formation of ice as sand-dunes in deserts. These ice-dunes or sastrugi can be as tall as 10 meters. Mr Arun Chaturvedi, a senior scientist at Geological Survey of India, narrates interestingly the possible origin of this name in his book 'Antarctica: rochak and romantic'. He once met a European sailor who had been working in Antarctica for 20 years. He had searched in many languages including that of Eskimos to find out origin this word 'sastrugi'. He wanted to know if any Indian language had a similar word. Mr Chaturvedi recollected the name of a demon in Indian epics, 'Sahastra Tung' meaning thousands summits. Did his word, sahastra, gradually become sastrugi?
India and Antarctica are connected to each other otherwise also.

Around 200 million years ago, Antarctica was joined with Australia, Africa, South America, India and New Zealand in the supercontinent Gondwanaland. Ten million years later, Gondwanaland began the enormously slow process of breaking into the pieces we recognize today, and continents, subcontinents and islands began moving into their present positions. By 70 million years ago, the continents were becoming widely separated, the Drake Passage opened, and Antarctica made its final detachment from another continents and, Australia, Africa, South America, India and New Zealand went their own ways. By about 45 million years ago, Antarctica had settled into its present polar position and began to cool dramatically. There is theory and prediction that in distant future running into billions of years all the detached pieces of Gondwanaland will unite together once again. (Refer to United States Geological Survey website).

German naturalist Alexander von Humboldt, noticing the shapes of the continents bordering the Atlantic, was the first to suggest (c1800) that they might once have been joined. Austrian Eduard Suess, in 1885, was the first to propose that there had been a southern supercontinent. Suess gave it the name Gondwanaland, derived from Gondwana, the historic region in central India (occupied by the Gond people) where fossil strata similar to that of other widely removed continents was found - and thus supporting the supercontinent theory. The Godavari basin between the Indian states of Andhra Pradesh and Maharashtra has many features similar to Antarctica.

India once again reestablished its relationship with Antarctica when Late Mrs Indira Gandhi, the then Prime Minister of India, founded Department of Ocean Development in 1981 and launched Operation Gangotri to work out logistics for Antarctic Expedition. In December 1981, the first expedition of 21 members sailed from Goa and stepped on Antarctica on 9 January, 1982. In 1983, India established its first station, Dakshin Gangotri which allowed the expeditions to spend the entire year at Antarctica. However, being on an ice-shelf, it gradually sunk into ice, and then in 1988 new and present station, Maitri, was built on Schirmachor hills (an oasis of rocks in midst of ice and snow). India is soon launching its third station at Larsmann Hills.

1 comment:

Uma Krishnaswami said...

I write books for children, and I am fascinated by your musings in this post--I love the idea of Kumbhakarna retreating to Antarctica for his extended nap. As a child I also wondered about the missing continents in my geography lessons! Thank you for a wonderful blog.