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Saraswati or the Lost River

Hundreds of thousands of years ago, majestic rivers began to flow down from the Himalayas to the present states of Punjab, Haryana, and Rajasthan – making them the greenest and most fertile states of the Indian subcontinent – while today, some of these states such as Rajasthan, are mostly desert. All great civilizations flourished on the banks of major rivers, which tempered the climate, allowed navigation, irrigated the fields and provided drinking water for all. The ancient texts of India, including the four Vedas (Rig, Vayur, Sama, Atharva), the Puranas and the Mahabharata, mention many times the existence of a river of this type, called Saraswati.

Hindus have always venerated their rivers as female goddesses and Saraswati is the goddess of wholeness and perfection in work.

The Rig-Veda mentions Saraswati – with reverence – more than fifty times. She is described as “the best of mothers, the best of rivers, the best of goddesses”. The famous Rig-Veda hymn, the Nadi Stuti, “River Ode”, mentions a group of rivers that includes the Ganges, Yamuna, Saraswati and Sutlej, and geographically places Saraswati between Yamuna and Sutlej. Its origin is indicated in the hymn which proclaims: “The purest of rivers, vibrant, the Saraswati, flows from the mountains to the ocean, lavishing its immense riches to the world…” Another hymn sings the strength of the Saraswati: “This river has shattered the mountain peaks with its large and powerful waves as easily as uprooting the lotus stems…”

It has long been thought that the Saraswati River was a myth… However, as early as 1872, C. F. Oldham and R. D. Oldham undertook a detailed study of the area where the Saraswati and its tributaries were thought to have flowed. They claimed to have located the course of Saraswati and concluded that the Saraswati had once been fed by two large rivers, the Sutlej and the Yamuna – before disappearing, following a westward movement of the first and an eastward movement of the second.

Later, in 1940, Aurel Stein explored part of the dry course of Saraswati, in the former state of Bahawalpur, where she is known as Hakra, and he identified up to ninety sites on the banks of the river. In 1969, Herbert Wilhelmy, a renowned German geologist, studied the relevant regions and also concluded that as a result of geological shifts, the Yamuna had had to change course and drain all the water out of the Saraswati.

Today, recent archaeological discoveries, as well as the new science of satellite imagery, have helped to reconstruct the birth and death of the Saraswati River. These discoveries showed that Saraswati was much wider and deeper than the Indus, which occupies the main place in our current history books. It originated in the Bandapunch Massif in the current Himalayan state of Gharwal, descended through Adibadri, Bhavanipur, Balchapurand, and flowed into the plains. There, it took a southern direction, crossing the current states of Punjab, Haryana, Rajasthan, Gujarat and finally threw itself into the old mouth of the Arabian Sea, the “Grand Rann of Kutch”. The decline of the Saraswati River appears to have begun about 5,000 BC as a consequence of tectonic plate movements in the Siwaliks foothills of the Himalayas.

Indeed, all of the Siwalik Mountains, stretching from Potwar, Pakistan, to the state of Assam in India, began to move in the Pleistocene era, that is to say, thereabout 1.7 Ma. It is probably one of those movements that cut the Saraswati from the glaciers that fed it. Thus, the Saraswati, depending only on monsoons, would have gradually dried up until disappearing completely around 2,000 BC. Today, satellite images show that the course of the Ghaggar River roughly represents the old bed of Saraswati. Studies with carbon and isotopic oxygen on sand particles of this river have all indicated that it was during the “Middle Ages” of the Pleistocene that this region enjoyed a temperate climate, a great abundance of water and even frequent floods.

Saraswati and Indus would thus have constituted the two great rivers during the Vedic period, but their tributaries, some of which still exist today, even though they have deviated from their course, have also played an important role: the Yamuna, Jhelum, Chenab, and Sutlej rivers.

Recent explorations, both in India and Pakistan, in the Indus and Saraswati basins have led to the identification of more than 2,000 Harappan sites. The number of sites identified in the Saraswati Basin is about seven times higher than the sites surveyed in the Indus Basin, suggesting that the Saraswati Basin has contributed to a larger share of the formation of this civilization. The total area covered was about 2.5 million km2 and stretched roughly to Ropar in the North, Dainabad on the Godavari River in the South, Alamgirpur on the Hindon near Delhi. to the East, and Sutkagendor and Mirikalat, on the Arabian Sea, to the West.

Various scientific researches (by remote sensing or isotopic geology), as well as excavations, have been able to establish even more precisely the history of Saraswati. Indian IRS-1C satellite photos, combined with radar imagery from the European Remote Sensing Satellite, have identified underground portions of the Saraswati that still exist today in the Thar Desert in Rajasthan.

Another satellite study showed that there was a natural channel between the Indus and Saraswati rivers, confirming that these two rivers were interdependent. Geological studies conducted to find drinking water in today’s dry areas of Bikaner, Ganganagar and Jaisalmer in Rajasthan have finally revealed several areas of underground rivers unrelated to the melting glaciers of the Himalayas and which would therefore be remnants of the Saraswati. A team of three scientists from the Central Arid Zone Research Institute in Jodhpur, conducted an extensive study of the area using Landsat satellite imagery. In this report, the team concludes: “We believe that the Saraswati has contributed to the alluvial deposits of the westernmost part of the desert, and that the groundwater of this part comes mainly from what was the Saraswati River, as well as precipitation that had been infiltrated into the ground over the centuries.” To prove this, the Central Ground Water Commission dug a number of wells on and along the dry bed: out of twenty-four holes, twenty-three produced drinking water.

After the Pokharan nuclear explosions of May 11, 1998, the Bhabha Atomic Research Centre conducted a series of tests to estimate their impact on water quality in the surrounding area. These tests revealed that the water in the area was drinkable and that it was about 8,000 to 14,000 BC old. It would have come from the Himalayan glaciers and would have slowly been recharged by the aquifers from the North, in spite of scant rains. These revelations reinforced the theory of what is now called the “Lost Saraswati”.

François Gautier

(extract from his forthcoming book: “AN ENTIRELY NEW HISTORY OF INDIA”

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