Pass Notes : Sarasvati – The lost river of desert

For last few decades, many scholars of Indian history have started to argue, sometimes with official patronage, that Indus civilization was not only Aryan, but also Vedic or even post-Vedic. To make their view credible they tried to prove, among other things, that the ‘Rigveda‘ was composed around 3500 BC, a date contemporaneous to with the Indus civilization. Their opponents claim that these proponents usually reject the entire method of dating by linguistics comparisons. Two enthusiasts even invented the evidence by forging an Indus seal. These deplorable methods apart, the positive arguments advanced for a very early date of the ‘Rigveda’ are two-fold : one based on river Sarasvati and other on astronomical data. This note is about Sarasvati river. For the matter of Indian astronomy, one  would benefit greatly by reading the chapter titled ‘Indian Calender’ in the book ‘Argumentative Indians’ by Prof. Amartya Kumar Sen.
The ‘Lost River of the desert

Meteorologists have established that the climate regime as we have today, with precipitation mainly deriving from the monsoons, has prevailed since the onset of Holocene, the geological epoch beginning about 10,000 years ago. It has been suggested, however, that there have been hot and cold or dry and wet period within it. Much of this speculation in regard to India is connected with what in 19th century was identified as the problem of the ‘Lost River’ of the desert, but is now often formulated as the question of Sarasvati river.

Map by Faiz Habib. Digitized and used without his permission.

All rivers debouching into the plains between Sutlej and the Yamuna rise in the Siwaliks or the lower Himalyan slopes. They draw on rain-fed drainage. These streams are tributaries of two major rivers, Chautang and Ghaghar , both run dry well before they approach Thar desert of western Rajasthan. As can be seen in the map, the Chautang’s dry channel runs westward from Haryana to Rajasthan and there it meets the dry channel of the Ghagar, whose tributaries include the Sarsuti (Sarasvati). This united channel runs further west into the district of Bahawalpur in Pakistan, where, after a junction with another dry channel coming from the north, it acquires the name of Hakra.

The argument has been advanced that in these dry channels of the Ghagar, Hakra and Nara, we have traces of a continuous river identifiable as the Sarasvati which, on the basis of Rigvediv verses, is held to have been a ‘mighty river’ running into Rann of Kutch. It is claimed that this could happen because Satluj and Yamuna, together or by turn, were its tributaries. LAND-SAT satellite imagery has the reinforced the older suggestions, based on ground field-work, the some old channels ran off present courses of the Sutlej and Yamuna into the Hakra catchment area. Studies of Gudwara and other salt lakes in Rajasthan by Gurdip Singh have suggested that an earlier very arid phase ended after 12000 BC, and that there was a sub-humid phase between 4420-2230 BC. During the later phase, therefore, it is argued that there must then have been a higher rainfall than today, and so with larger amounts of rain water to draw on, the Saravati could have flowed as a great river in the humid phase.

Rigveda is a religious text and one should not neglect this aspect. All religious texts contain mythological creatures and places. So if Rigveds talks of a great river, then it is not impossible that it is talking of a mythological or celestial river. Such mythological nouns are usually praised or condemned in superlatives in religious texts. In the hymas of Rigveda, Sarasvati is

called ‘naditama, the best of the rivers’ (Rv 2,41.16), which surpasses ‘in majesty and might all other rivers’ (Rv 7.95.2). It is ‘fierce’ (Rv 6.62.7), and ‘swifter than the other rapid streams’ (Rv 6.61.13). It ‘comes onward with tempestuous roar’ (Rv 6.61.8) ‘bursting the ridges of the hills with its strong waves’ (Rv 6.61.2). Sarasvati springs from a ‘three-fold source’ (Rv 6.61.12) in the mountains (Rv 7.95.2), and finally ends in a samudra (literally ‘the gatherer of the waters’ or sea) (Rv 7.95.2). It is a long river because many kings live on its banks (Rv 8.21.18) and the five tribes (Rv 6.61.12) derive their prosperity from it. It also has a number of tributaries; it is ‘sindhu-mata, the mother of rivers (Rv 7.36.6). It swells with rivers (Rv 6.52.6), said to be seven in number (Rv 6.61.12), Sarasvati being the seventh (Rv 7.36.6). Two rivers, Drishadvati and Apaya, are explicitly named in (Rv 3.23.4) in conjunction with Sarasvati. In addition, it is called ‘sapta-svasa‘, ‘with seven sisters’ (Rv 6.61.10). Another verse (Rv 8.54.4) speaks of Sarasvati and seven rivers (Sapta-sindhavah). These must be the ‘seven mighty rivers’ that ‘seek the seas’ (Rv 1.71.7). [1]

There are, however, number of objections to such a claim. One is based on the facts of linguistics. ‘Sarasvati’ (modern of medieval ‘Sarsuti’) is the name given since ancient times to a small rivulet which comes from the Siwalik slopes and passes by Thanesar in Haryana. It thus is unlikely that it may have been a great river by itself, like of other great rivers originating from Himalayas. The name ‘sarsuti’ is not even applied anywhere to the dry channels of the Ghaggar and Hakra. It is likely that if Sutlej or Yamuna ever flowed into these channels then they collectively would have been called by this name. Moreover, Yamuna’s runs in much deeper bed than its earlier higher terraces on its west bank. The rise of Shivalik mountains was the reason of Yamuna’s eastward migration. Some believes that Yamuna would not have flowed into Ghaggar basin within at-least ten thousands years. If we agree that there were larger amount of rainfall untill 2030 BC (a fact not firmly establised by any means as similar study of the Pachpadra salt basin has shown), then we can explain how the present dry Hakra channels were carved out. But does it make Saraswati a mightier river which carried proportionally larger amount of water than other snow-fed Himalayan river? Because if rainfall was higher than other rivers would have carried proportionally larger amount of water gathered from their own far extensive catchment area and they could have flowed into Hakra channel by themselves.

So if one mighty river was not dried out why water does not flow in Hakra channel? One explanation is based on man’s handiwork without invoking great climate change. Man has cleared a large amount of forest and scrubs and undermined the retentive power of soil. With the reduction of green cover, level of rainfall was also decreased. Moreover, as long as three to four thousand years, ‘bunds’ have been set up on the streams and flood channels of eastern Punjab and Haryana in order to divert water for irrigation. This may have shut off the water supply to Hakra.

There is a sound thesis in defense of Sarasvati being a celestial rather than a earthly river. In this context, it does not mean the modern Thanesar stream going by the name of Sarsuti, but the Indus or even the Arghandab-Helmand (Avestan Harakhvaiti = Sarasvati, the ‘s’ of Sanskrit changing into ‘h/kh’ of Avestan) in Afganistan. Many rivers are often given the same name : compare the Ghaggar, into which Sarsuti flows, and the Ghaghara of Uttar Pradesh plains, a large Himalyan river; or, again Sind, that is the Indus, and the small river in Kashmir and central India bearing the same name. Nonetheless, the later portions of Rigveda, especially in the River Hymn in Book X, the Sarasvati does seem to correspond to the modern Sarasvati, for that hymn places it between Yamuna and the Sutudri or Sutlej. But then here there is no indication of its great size or even sanctity, and the Sindhu or Indus is praised in same high terms as the Sarasvati is in verses elsewhere.


[1] On the identity and chronology of the Rigvedic river Sarasvati,  Rajesh Kochhar, Indian Institute of Astrophysics.
[2] River Piracy, Sarasvati that disappeared, K. S. Valdiya, Resonance, May 1996.
[3] Imagining the river Saravati: A defence of common sense, Irfan Habib, Social Scientist, Vol XXIX, Nos 1-2. You can find detailed references to current controversy over Sarasvati rivers.



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