An ancient lore has for some years now attracted the attention of archaeologists to the shores of the Arabian Sea in Northwest India, impelling them to sort through debris from an ancient past to discover the truth. Myth or fact? Did an island fortress exist in the Arabian Sea that excelled all earthly and heavenly opulence? Ancient manuscripts of India like the Mahābhārata, Bhagavata Purāṇa, and Hari-vaṁśa say it did. Scientific excavations off the coast of Gujarat have now discovered evidence to support the ancient “myth.” Dvārakā, a city so magnificent that it is difficult for the mortal mind to conceive of its beauty, was the island capitol of the great Yadu dynasty and the proposed residence of one of the divine incarnations of Godhead (Nārāyaṇa) during his earthly appearance 5000 years ago.
A description of Dvārakā from the Bhāgavata Purāṇa has given researchers some clue as to the whereabouts and grandeur of this wonderful and mysterious city:
“To protect the members of the Yadu dynasty, Nārāyaṇa decided to construct a formidable fort where no two-legged animal, either man or demon, could enter. This he achieved by constructing a fort in the midst of the sea. He first constructed a very strong wall covering ninety-six square miles. The wall itself was within the sea. It was certainly wonderful and was planned and constructed by the demigod Viśvakarma. It was a well-constructed city with planned streets, roads, and lanes. There were gardens filled with kalpa–vṛkṣa or wish-fulfilling trees. There were many palaces made of gold and large gateways. The inner chambers were decorated with jewels which shone with such brilliance that there was no need of lanterns or lights at night. Almost all the palaces reached up to the sky, and in each and every house, big pots of gold and silver and grains were stocked in underground rooms. The palace floors were mosaic pavements of marakata jewels. When the new city was fully constructed according to plan, Nārāyaṇa transferred all the members of the Yadu dynasty, numbering one billion, to Dvārakā.”
The modern city of Dvārakā, which itself has existed for over a thousand years, lies within the area archaeologists refer to as the Harappan civilization. The Harappan civilization is believed to have reached from the western banks of the Indus River to the Himalayan Mountains in the north and as far south as central India before 3000 B.C. Then for no known reason the Harappans vanished into thin air, leaving behind whole city complexes such as the one at Mahenjo-daro, discovered at the digs in Pakistan.
Archaeologists believe that Mahenjo-daro was the capitol of the Harappan civilization. Excavations at Dvārakā, however, tend to throw new light on the theory, possibly shifting the capitol of the Harappans to that of Dvārakā rather than at Mahenjo-daro.
This kind of information may not be of interest to anyone except archaeologists. We might rightfully ask, “What difference does it make where the capitol of a people who lived so long ago was anyway? What’s that got to do with me?” True enough. Where people lived in the past may not be so important at the present. The findings at Dvārakā, however, answer a point of controversy which has existed among scholars, researchers, historians, and theologians for the past 300 years as to whether the stories found in India’s ancient manuscripts are simply myths or true facts and accurate statements. In other words, God may not be as dead as some people would like to believe if he just paid a visit to Earth only 5000 years ago. If there’s some “evidence” that a Godhead does indeed exist, then we may safely presume that such findings may have some relevant bearing on all of us. We are then not as alone in the universe as we might have thought, and the goal of human life might be something more significant than we have yet imagined.
The search for ancient Dvārakā first began in 1963 when the Deccan College of Pune opened an onshore dig at the site where a modern building had been demolished. Their findings revealed evidence of a settlement dating back to the first century A.D. Later in 1979 further onshore excavations uncovered an ancient temple with beautifully carved pillars and walls intact. The roof of the temple however was missing, believed to have been destroyed during a storm or by a tidal wave.
Beneath the foundation of the temple, more ruins of yet earlier civilizations were uncovered. The second find was dated from the second century B.C. Finally, at the bottom of the dig a distinct pottery referred to as “lustrous red ware” was found. This pottery is identified as being identical with the pottery of the Harappan civilization. This was indeed an important find since it tied in the possibility of there having existed a city at this location 5000 years ago. But to confirm this beyond a reasonable doubt, it would be necessary to locate similar evidence offshore.
Until 1980 no department of marine archaeology existed in India nor had any exploration been carried out in Indian waters. To fill the need, a marine archaeology unit was established at the National Institute of Oceanography (NIO) at Goa in 1981. Their objective, offshore excavations at Dvārakā.
First, radar scans of the surrounding area of Dvārakā were taken by submarine and the findings were most encouraging. It was evident that at least 5000 years ago the sea level at Dvārakā was 60 yards lower than at present. Observations were also made of 30-foot-high pinnacles separated by flat terraces lying submerged in the Gulf. This helped to narrow down the search.
By 1984 several large fortification walls were discovered in submerged waters. Alongside these walls, six trenches were sunk into the seabed, and with an airlift technique tons of sand was removed and brought to the surface. Among the finds were pottery, shell objects, a bronze bell, stone blades, terra cotta beads, bronze statues, and several types of ship’s anchors.
The dates of the objects uncovered ranged from modern times to the Harappan Age. The most significant finds were a ceramic jar with an inscription across its lip and a conch-shell seal engraved with a three-headed animal representing a bull, a unicorn, and a goat. Both these finds were important discoveries to establish the ruins in question as the same as those of the Dvārakā mentioned in ancient manuscripts as the residence of Godhead.
The inscription on the ceramic jar read mahākaccha śaḥ pa, which conveys the meaning, “O lord of the sea, please protect me.” The style of the inscriptions was that of archaic Sanskrit. According to the Mahabharata texts, offerings and prayers to the demigod of the sea, Varuṇa, were in vogue during the Dvārakā period.
The conch-shell seal with the animal motif was the most important find. The small seal has a perforated bottom on the back, making it attachable to a ring or similar object for easy access. It is said in several places in the text of Hari-vaṁśa, “Every citizen of Dvārakā had to carry a mudrā (seal) as a mark of identity, and the city’s guards had to make sure that this instruction was followed.”
The only thing supposedly lacking to “prove” the existence of that ancient Dvārakā seems to be the wealth of gold and jewels which the palaces were said to have been made of. But at least to some extent that too has been found on the seashore at Dvārakā: literally hundreds of people and researchers make significant finds of gold every day. “There’s gold on them thar beaches!”—a unique phenomenon indeed. Gold mining at low tide is a significant part of the economy of modern-day Dvārakā. Twice a day as many as a hundred or more people can be seen wading in ankle deep water at the seashore with gold-dish pans in hand. What do they find? Gold dust and gold nuggets sometimes as big as marbles!
Gold sand beaches, sunken treasure, and ancient ruins certainly attract a lot of people to Dvārakā, but that’s not the only reason why people come to this ancient place. Dvārakā is a holy place of pilgrimage, a dhāma , for millions of India’s faithful. In fact, confirmed by archaeological evidence or not, it hardly seems important to the millions of pilgrims who come to Dvārakā every year to pay homage to the place of Godhead’s pastimes and to worship his deity in the magnificent Dvārakādīśa Temple located at the centre of the city. According to Indian spirituality, a dhāma is a transcendental abode which, although purely spiritual, appears on Earth at the same time as the appearance of Godhead. The dhāma is thus considered the eternal residence of Godhead.
Actually, when articles appeared in Indian journals and newspapers around the country announcing the archaeological findings at Dvārakā, it scarcely got anyone’s attention. And those who did notice it had more the “I told you so” attitude than they had cause for surprise or new faith; most people in India have implicit faith in their ancient religious manuscripts and don’t really require “scientific proof” to confirm their devotional sentiments.
The faithful pilgrims who come to Dvārakā don’t doubt the existence of Godhead (whom they call Nārāyaṇa) or the fact that he manifested his appearance on Earth. They are satisfied to worship the deity in the temple and to hear the wonderful stories of when Nārāyaṇa established his residence at Dvārakā. Seeing, we say, is believing. But for the faithful pilgrims, hearing is believing.
I’m not an archaeologist, but I am a Westerner, and being a Westerner I can appreciate solid evidence, especially if it concerns spiritual subject matters. So I decided to go to Dvārakā and see what was happening. I’m glad I did.
Dvārakā can be reached by either a 24-hour train ride from Bombay or by several days’ drive in a car. Train is by far the easiest and preferred method of travel by most pilgrims. While approaching Dvārakā, the first sign of a long journey’s end is a glimpse of the large yellow flag flying from the top of the pagoda of Dvārakādīśa towering 170 feet in the sky. The temple flag can be seen at a great distance and the pilgrim’s sight of it is usually an impetus for the flow of devotional feelings. When the flag is first sighted, pilgrims offer their heartfelt prayers with folded hands or by bowing down their head.
The pagoda of Dvārakādīśa is the tallest building in Dvārakā, being 17 stories high. Its light at night is also easily visible for ships at sea where for many centuries sailors have used it as an important landmark, a guiding light in more ways than one. The detail of the sculpture which covers the outer structure and the gold kalaśa (spire) at the top is itself worth a trip around the world to see.
As I approached Dvārakā by train I remembered those first travellers from the West such as Marco Polo, who saw the great pagodas like the ones at Konark, Mahabalipuram, and Srirangam, and I wondered what they must have thought. I was, to say the least, impressed.
Upon reaching the city, it is first necessary to secure a suitable lodging. There are many hotels and guesthouses that provide exceptionally good facilities for visitors and pilgrims at very reasonable rates. A double room with vegetarian meals runs about $2.50 per day. Air conditioning, required for most of the year, is $1.00 extra. After checking into their room, the first thing most pilgrims do is visit the temple for darśana, viewing the deity.
Passing through the narrow streets leading to the temple, one steps through a high archway with wide stone steps and into the temple courtyard. The temple is as impressive from the inside as it is from outside, but here no photography is allowed. The main temple structure rests on 60 stone pillars, each ornately carved with the figures of animals and celestial beings. The floor is made of pink and black marble and the ceilings are beautifully decorated with fine paintings depicting the pastimes of Nārāyaṇa. There are seven stories, though most of the temple activities take place on ground level. The smell of incense fills the nostrils and the murmur of prayers and mantras fills the ears immediately upon entering.
Life in the temple at Dvārakā is spontaneous and filled with things to do. There is almost always a dance performance, a classical music concert, a drama, or a spiritual discourse being held. In the centre shrine stands the main attraction, the deity of Dvārakādīśa. Dvārakādīśa means the lord of Dvārakā or Nārāyaṇa. His five-foot-high blackish figure is dressed in colourful silk cloth and decorated with a fortune in gold, silver, and jewels. His countenance appears calm and serene, blessing all who come before him.
On all sides of the deity stand the brāhmaṇa priests who sing Sanskrit mantras praising the glories of Godhead and telling of his benevolent nature. A visitor from the West will be pleasantly surprised to see, carved in stone above the threshold of the sanctum sanctorum, a pair of winged angels guarding the chamber of the deity. I inquired about these angels from a temple brāhmaṇa, who informed me that they were Gandharvas, or residents of heaven.
“Heaven,” I later found out, is not the same for an Indian as the heaven we have heard so much about here in the West. Among Indian theists, the concept of “heaven” is, as the word implies, a kind of utopia where life has a long duration of millions of years and the standard of pleasure is very unique. The Gandharvas in heaven are believed to have mystic powers and the ability to travel anywhere in the universe without the aid of a spaceship or similar mechanical devices. That heaven, however, is not thought to be the place where God lives eternally or where souls go to live eternally. According to the Indian concept, heaven is a highly elevated place in the material world, yet the miseries of birth and death still exist there. The place where Godhead resides eternally, they say, is called Vaikuṇṭha, and that is above all contact with the material world and its indigenous characteristics like birth and death.
The brāhmaṇas of the temple try to accommodate everyone as far as possible, answering questions and performing religious rituals whenever required, but if you are a foreigner to Dvārakā, you will have to answer the $64,000 question: Are you a “devotee”? If the answer is no, you will have to be contented with darśana from outside the temple gate.
Outside the walls of the temple is a busy city filled with medieval houses, narrow streets and crowded markets selling everything from locally grown organic vegetables and exotic perfumes to AA alkaline batteries. At the southern end of the beach is a small, unimposing temple where the Gomatī River meets the sea. The place is called Cakra Nārāyaṇa. During my visit to Dvārakā I went often in the evening to watch the sun set into the Arabian Sea. Looking into the red horizon I tried to imagine the splendour which was once Dvārakā, and I wondered if the archaeologists would ever uncover one of the fabulous palaces made of gold and jewels.
One evening as I sat in meditation at the seashore, an unusually tall man approached me and engaged me in a conversation in broken English. “What do you see?” he inquired. “Oh, nothing,” I replied. “I’m just looking for the ancient Dvārakā.”
“Well,” he said, “you don’t find that Dvārakā with a shovel. The ancient Dvārakā where Sri Nārāyaṇa lived was a spiritual city. You don’t find it with a shovel. The scientists are looking in the water. If they want to see Dvārakā they should look within.” And he pointed to his heart. “Dvārakā is eternal and the eternal is within.”
“Yes,” I said. And I returned to my meditation.
According to the scholars and saints of the theistic tradition of India, the dhāma (transcendental abode) of Godhead known as Dvārakā has its replica on Earth in the form of a geographical Dvārakā. The Dvārakā on Earth is known as the prākṛta-prakāśa or the manifested abode. When the dhāmas is not manifested on Earth but exists on the eternal plane, it is called aprākṛta or unmanifest. Both the manifested and unmanifested dhāmas are identical in nature, but appear as separate due to the clouded vision of conditioned souls. On the other hand, the siddhavasthās, souls who have attained the stage of pure and unalloyed dedication, can see at present the eternal pastimes of Godhead being performed in his abode. However, when Nārāyaṇa descends on the Dvārakā on Earth to perform his pastimes, even those who are not devoted can see him.
Since Nārāyaṇa is all-perfect and self-satisfied, he is never in want of anything and his activities are without any self-fulfilling motive or conscious effort. They spring from exuberance of intrinsic bliss or ānanda. They are therefore called pastimes.
Just as there are infinite manifestations of Nārāyaṇa, there are infinite manifestations of his dhāma. For each manifestation of Nārāyaṇa there is a corresponding manifestation of his dhāma. Just as each manifestation of Nārāyaṇa is transcendental and all-pervading (vibhu), so each manifestation of the dhāma is also transcendental, although it may appear phenomenal or limited. Even the objects within the dhāma are also transcendental or cinmaya.
The dhāmas are said to be situated one above the other in terms of excellence. Above the mundane sphere, which is gradated into fourteen worlds according to karma and desire, there lies the Virajā River, the demarcation between material and spiritual. Above the Virajā is situated the Brahmaloka or the Siddhaloka, which is the residence of liberated souls, mukta-siddhas. Above Brahmaloka is the Paravyoma, the expanse of spiritual sky wherein resides the eternal forms of Godhead known as avatars. The planets of the avatāras are called Vaikuṇṭha. Above Vaikuṇṭha are the three principal dhāmas known as Dvārakā, Mathura, and Goloka.
The situation of the dhāmas above and below each other should not, however, be taken in its literal sense. It actually implies their gradation according to excellence (mahimā). That excellence can be measured in terms of sweetness (mādhurya) and grandeur (aiśvarya). Dvārakā ranks third in excellence among the eternal dhāmas. It is here that Nārāyaṇa manifest his majestic aspect to attract the hearts of all living beings of the material world who have falsely positioned themselves as lords or enjoyers.