The Lost Vedic River Sarasvati, Part 5


BY: SUN STAFF - 2.10 2020

Goddess Saraswati
Chore Bagan Lithograph, Calcutta, c. 1893
British Museum Collection

A serial presentation of writings about the sacred River Sarasvati.

No More Speculation: River Sarasvati is There Before Our Eyes

Thanks to the cumulative efforts of hydrologists, geologists, field archaeologists and space scientists, the entire course of Rigvedic Sarasvati, marked by dry beds of its old channels from Adi Badri in Haryana to the Runn of Kutch in Gujarat, has now been clearly charted out (Sharma, Gupta and Bhadra, 2005-2006).

The story of the river's rediscovery goes back to the year 1944 when Major F. Makenson, while surveying the area from Delhi to Sindh for a safe route, came across a dry riverbed that was wide enough, as he said, for construction of an eight-way lane. A quarter of a century later, in 1869, archaeologist Alex Rogue was baffled to find Himalayan alluvial deposits in the Gulf of Khambat since the rivers Sabarmati, Narmada, etc, falling in the gulf could not have accumulated them, as they were not Himalayan in their origin. He therefore felt that these deposits must have been brought there by the River Sarasvati before its drying up.

Another quarter of a century had not elapsed when in 1893, C.F. Oldham of the Geological Survey of India affirmed that the dry riverbed skirting the Rajasthan desert was definitely that of the Vedic Sarasvati.

Retreating Gangotri Glaciar at Garhwal

These early glimpses of Sarasvati had alerted the archaeologists who started recognizing and reporting the presence of dry beds of the river from various segments of its possible course in Rajasthan and western India. Significantly, at several places Late Harappan settlements were found on the dry bed itself, indicating that the river must have dried up much before the time of those early settlers.

Then, a major step forward in Sarasvati research was taken in the 1970's and 80's, when Landsat imageries provided by NASA and Indian satellites enabled scientists like Yashpal and Baldev Sahai to chart paleo-channels of the Ghaggar-Hakra and its tributaries that fitted perfectly well with the Rigvedic descriptions of Saravati.

As critically brought out in a paper (Yashpal et al., 1984), several points were quite clear by that time. First, the river had a constant width of about 6 to 8 km. from Shatrana in Punjab to Marot in Pakistan. Second, a tributary (Channel Y1) joined it southeast of Markanda. Third , another tributary (Channel Y2) that corresponds with present Chautang (ancient Drishadvati) joined it near Suratgarh. Fourth, it flowed into Runn of Kutch without joining the Indus. Fifth, Sutlej was it main tributary, which later shifted westward, probably due to tectonic activity. Sixth, the Yamuna changed its course at least thrice before joining the Ganga.

In 1985, V.S. Wakankar set out with his team of scientists on a month long Sarasvati expedition. The expedition was extremely fruitful. It brought to light several significant facts about ancient settlements on the river and physically confirmed, on the ground, the realities which the space scientists were pointing to by analysis of Landsat imageries.

Himalayas at Central Gharwal

Source of the Saraswati - The Glacier at Gharwal

During the last two decades that have passed since then, research on the Sarasvati have vigorously continued, throwing much fresh light on the river and its history. In a well-researched and thoroughly documented paper, geologists V.M.K Puri and B.C. Verma (1998) have shown that the Vedic Sarasvati originated from a group of glaciers in Tons fifth order basin at Naitwar in Garhwal Himalaya. The river flowed for some distance in the mountains and receiving nourishment from Algar, Yamuna and Giri, followed a westerly and southwesterly course along Bata Valley and entered the plains at Adi Badri. This proves that the Rigvedic description of the Sarasvati as flowing from the mountains was a ground reality, not a figment of poetical imagination.

In that very paper, Puri and Verma have discussed at length the various developments responsible for the river's desiccation. According to them, reactivation of the Yamuna tear, constriction of Vedic Sarasvati's catchment area by 94.05 %, emergence and migration of the River Drishadvati towards the southeast, acquiring the present day Yamuna course, and finally the shifting of Shutudri (Sutlej) forced the Vedic Sarasvati 'to change drastically from the grandeur of a mighty and a very large river to a mere seasonal stream' (Puri and Verma 1998:19).

We now also know when the Sarasvati dried up, thanks to the cumulative efforts of scholars like B.B. Lal, Robert Raikes and others. B.B. Lal's excavations at Kalibangan, the famous Harappan site situated on the left bank of Sarasvati in Rajasthan, revealed that its occupants had suddenly abandoned the settlement 'even though it was still in a mature stage and not decaying'. After a thorough study of available evidence, Raikes concluded that it was abandoned because of scarcity of water in the river (Raikes, 1968). The radiocarbon dates this abandonment at around 2000 B.C. (Lal, 1997:245-46). Thus, it became clear that the Sarasvati had almost completely dried up by that time. This is extremely significant information for the chronology of the Rigveda. Since the Rigveda was composed when the Sarasvati was flowing in it full majesty, it cannot be assigned to a period later than 2000 B.C.

Many more scholars have contributed to Sarasvati studies. The list is long, but we may mention a few names. K.S. Valdiya, Fellow of the Jawaharlal Nehru Institute of Advanced Studies and Research, Jakkur, Banglaore, has come out with his book, Sarasvati: The River that Disappeared, published by the Universities Press in 2002. It is a valuable source of information on the physical presence of the Sarasvati on ground. The life history of this 'mighty, snow-fed river that flowed from the foothills of the Himalayas to the shores of the Arabian Sea' has been discussed within the framework of geological parameters, and the inferences rigorously evaluated on the anvil of geodynamics.

Also significant are the contributions of S.M. Rao, a nuclear scientist at the BARC. He was examining samples of water collected from deep wells in the Pokharan area of Rajasthan to check whether any radioactive elements were present therein due to the nuclear tests. To his great and pleasant surprise, he found that the samples were of Himalayan glacier water 8,000 to 14,000 years old. This brought to his mind the Vedic Sarasvati, and he carried on further investigations on this topic. Later on, he came with the results of his investigations in a paper entitled, 'Use of Isotopes in Search of Lost River', that appeared in the Journal of Radioanalytical and Nuclear Chemistry in 2003. In his paper he has shown that the 'fresh groundwater in that region was indeed ancient and slowly moving southwest and probably had headwater connection in the lower ranges of Himalayas, but not to any glacier'. It was also noticed that 'the isotope data compared well with the data in a similar study in another branch of buried channel in the Cholistan part of the Thar Desert in Pakistan'.

Also worth noting is an authoritative anthology entitled, Vedic Sarasvati: Evolutionary History of a Lost River in Northwest India, edited by B.P. Radhakrishna and S.S. Merh. It contains several important papers by scholars like Baldev Sahai, A.S. Rajawat and others.

In view of the enormous literary, archaeological and scientific data and evidence referred to above, it is clear that there is only one Rigvedic Sarasvati, not two or three as imagined by some, and that river survives as the Ghaggar-Hakra-Sarasvati of the Survey of India maps. Though dried up on the surface, it is still flowing underneath. Currently the Haryana State Government is planning to revive it to meet the water requirements of the state, both for drinking as well as irrigation purposes.

Perhaps the day is not far off when Sarasvati will be found flowing again from Haryana to Gujarat. Only those who have blindfolded themselves under a spell of bigotry can deny these facts.


Adapted from B.B. Lal's 'Sarasvati - The Mother of Indian Civilization'