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Sarasvati: Tracing the death of a river

Saturday, 12 June 2010 - 12:32am IST | Place: Mumbai | Agency: DNA
Michel Danino, a Frenchman, who has lived in India for more than 25 years and recently authored The Lost River: On the Trail of the Sarasvatispoke to DNA on the saga of the lost river.

The common belief that the invisible river Sarasvati meets the Ganga and the Yamuna at the Prayag in Allahabad is just that: a belief. “After the collapse of the Harappan civilisation some of the late Harappans moved eastward, crossing the Ganga, and it is likely that they did not want to forget the sacred river. So they restored it in the new location, but as an “invisible” river,” says Michel Danino, a Frenchman, who has lived in India for more than 25 years and has most recently authored The Lost River: On the Trail of the Sarasvati (Penguin Books India, 2010). He spoke to DNA on the saga of the lost river.

A large number people believe that the search for the lost river Sarasvati is a very recent phenomenon. Is that true?
It is the recent study of the Sarasvati basin through satellite imagery that gives this wrong impression. But explorations of the region by British topographers, surveyors and geologists began in the 1820s, as I have documented in my book. They soon noted a wide, but dry, riverbed running more or less parallel to the Indus through a mostly arid region. It was called the “Ghaggar” and “Hakra” further downstream. They recorded numerous ruined mounds along its banks, local traditions of a “lost river of the Great Indian Desert” — a loss that explained the desolation of the region — and finally the presence of freshwater wells along that bed. Other explorations followed, building up a considerable body of evidence by the end of the 19th century.

From the evidence that is available, where exactly did the Ghaggar-Hakra river start and through which parts of India did it flow?   
The Ghaggar-Hakra starts its course in the Shivalik Hills, flows through today’s Haryana (it still does so during good monsoons), continues (its dry course, rather) through Punjab, northern Rajasthan, flows into Cholistan (the Pakistani extension of the Thar desert), and finally all the way to the Rann of Kachchh. This course was clearly marked, for instance, in a map of 1893 drawn by CF Oldham, who was a surgeon-major in the Indian army, but also an Indologist.

So the Ghaggar-Hakra river system that flows through Rajasthan into Pakistan is the Sarasvati? 

If in the nineteenth century most scholars identified the Ghaggar-Hakra’s course with the Vedic Sarasvati, it is basically for three reasons. The RigVeda, the oldest of the four Vedas, mentions various rivers but praises the Sarasvati above all others: it was a “mighty river” flowing “from the mountain to the sea”, and one hymn listed it between the Yamuna and the Sutlej — precisely the location of the Ghaggar-Hakra. Secondly, the local traditions regarding the “lost river” of the Indian desert matched those in the post-Vedic literature (including the Mahabharata), which recorded the gradual disappearance of the Sarasvati. Thirdly, scholars noticed a minor tributary of the Ghaggar called “Sarsuti”, an obvious corruption of “Sarasvati”: it rises in the Sirmur hills that are part of the Shivaliks and was marked on British maps as early as in 1788. Putting these three lines of evidence together, they concluded that the lost Sarasvati could only have flowed in the Ghaggar’s bed. In fact, it was a French geographer Vivien de Saint-Martin who reached this conclusion for the first time — in 1855! Since then, most archaeologists have accepted this identity between the Ghaggar-Hakra and the Sarasvati.

How did the Sarasvati river dry up and disappear?

The explanation offered by most scholars, geologists in particular, is that the Sarasvati was partly fed by waters from the Sutlej (in the west) and the Yamuna (in the east). Indeed many palaeo-channels connecting those three rivers systems have been traced. Now, the watershed between the Yamuna and the Sutlej is a very flat and a seismically active region; it has been proposed that it underwent a slight upliftment, which drove away the Sutlej and the Yamuna, leaving the Sarasvati with only a few seasonal tributaries originating in the Shivaliks.

Was the decline of the Harappan civilisation due to the drying up or disappearance of Sarasvati?
It does seem to have been a major contributory factor, but probably not the only one. It is certain that the urban Harappan sites in the Sarasvati basin, such as Kalibangan, Banawali or Rakhigarhi, had to be abandoned. In the Indus basin, on the contrary, floods and consequent shifts in the Indus appear to have occurred. All this must have greatly impacted agricultural resources and possibly the urban administration. The Harappan state was geographically quite overstretched, from the Yamuna almost to Iran, and from northern Afghanistan to the Narmada; it apparently could not survive these upheavals, and the Harappans had to revert to a rural stage.
How did Indians start to believe that Sarasvati is the invisible river that merges with Ganga and Yamuna at Prayag?
I think this is a transfer of name intended to remember the river, nothing more. Some of the late Harappans moved eastward, crossing the Ganga, and it is likely that they did not want to forget the sacred river. So they restored it in the new location, but as an “invisible” river. Such name transfers have been fairly common in India, showing that remembrance and continuity of worship mattered more to the people than geographical or historical accuracy.

Currently, there seem to be five rivers named after the Sarasvati. Where exactly are these rivers, and what are their exact names?
Yes, five at least: the Sarsuti I mentioned above; a small Sirsa river that runs from Kalka to meet the Sutlej above Ropar (“Sirsa”, like “Sarsuti”, derives from “Sarasvati”); then, starting near Pushkar, the upper course of the Luni River is locally known as “Sarasvati”; finally, we find two Sarasvatis in Gujarat, one flowing from the Aravalli Hills to the Little Rann of Kachchh, and another joining two other rivers at Prabhas Patan in Saurashtra. All these rivers are in, or near, the basin of the original Sarasvati, and it seems plain enough that they testify to the sacredness of the original river and to a desire to preserve its memory.

You write “the 21st century may well see the end of the 3,000 year old Ganges civilisation.” Why do you say that?
Because the Ganges and its tributaries are now endangered rivers. Global warming threatens not only Himalayan glaciers, which are their sources, but the very existence of monsoons. Rapid but blind industrialisation compounds these threats with intense pollution and wasteful use of water. The Ganges plains were the cradle of India’s classical civilisation; I hope they won’t be its grave too.

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