Haryana government recently built a lake park near Pipli, in district Kurukashetra, where the legendary river Sarasvati would have crossed the Grand Trunk road. The statue of goddess Sarasvati installed in the newly built park bears the inscription of the Rigveda phrase: Ambitame, Naditame, Devitame, in praise of the mighty river of the past. This monument is as much a tribute to the legendary river as it is in recognition of the efforts of numerous Indian scholars, historians, archaeologists, hydro-geologists and the new breed of scientists - the satellite imagery experts- diligently pursuing research on the Sarasvati legend. Combined effort of these scholar-scientists is daily turning over new evidence in support of the Sarasvati legend. In fact, we are witnessing a great event, which promises to move the legend of Sarasvati into the realm of history. This event will pave the way for pushing back the recorded history of the Indian sub-continent by a few thousand years. Even more important is the fact that this is the first effort, at this scale, undertaken by the scholars and scientists from this sub-continent.
There are numerous references to river Sarasvati in the ancient Indian literature of the Vedic and post- vedic period. Rigveda, the largest and the most ancient of the four Vedas, describes Sarasvati as a mighty river with many individually recognised tributaries. The sacred book calls Sarasvati as the seventh river of the Sindhu-Sarasvati river system, hence the name Saptsindhu for the region bounded by rivers Sarasvati in the east and Sindhu (modern Indus) in the west. Rigveda hymns also describe life and times of the people residing in the Sarasvati river valley. Indian literature also contains references to the existence of many centers of learning on the banks of this river and its tributaries. Some of the tributaries of the lost river like Markanda and Tangri still bear the names of the Vedic sages. The awe and esteem the river inspired during the vedic period is best summed by the three-word tribute to the river in the Rigveda: ambitame – the best of the mothers, naditame – the best of the rivers, and devitame – the best of the goddesses. These words have been appropriately inscribed on the statue of Sarasvati at the Haryana monument.
In other words, during the Vedic period, Sarasvati was recognised as greatest of the rivers that nurtured the people living on its banks like a loving mother, and supported a number of learning centers and their resident scholars, ascetics, sages and seers (rishies and munis) like a benevolent deity. In view of this, it may be safe to assume that the ancient Vedic literature was itself written on the banks of this river. By nurturing such a pursuit of divine knowledge, Sarasvati appropriately assumes the status of the goddess of language, learning, arts and sciences - the best of the goddesses. If this is true, what a great scholarly heritage the Vedic Saptsindhu – the later Punjab spread from Peshawar to Delhi - is endowed with!
Post- vedic literature, most prominently the Mahabharata, has references to the drying river Sarasvati. Mahabharta describes Balrama’s pilgrimage from Dawarka to Mathura along the drying bed of this river. There are also references to Balrama’s visits to a number of centers of learning (rishi Ashrams) during this journey completing the picture of a mighty drying river that supported great centers of learning in its heyday. Later, during the middle ages, there are references to fissures and faults in the ground on the dry bed of river Sarasvati. Invading armies of Islam marching from Sindh province to Delhi are reported to have taken longer mountain route instead of the shorter route of the dry Sarasvati bed because of the difficulties in crossing the fissure in the river bed. Recently, Landsat (USA launched series of remote sensing satellites) imagery has also confirmed the existence of a large number of ground faults in the earthquake prone northwest India, that constituted the Sarasvati –Sindhu valley. Such ground faults have caused the seepage of Sarasvati water to underground channels, contributing to the legend of the Vedic Sarasvati disappearing underground.
Chance discovery of Harappa and Mohenjodaro in 1920s, as a result of the railroad building activity, revealed a lost but mature civilisation. Sir John Marshall, leading the excavations at that time, named it as the Indus Valley Civilization because these two ruined cities were located on the banks of the Indus river and its tributary, Ravi. Discovery of Harappa type ruins at Ropar in the Indian side of Punjab, soon after partition, proved that the Indus Valley Civilasation was more extensive than originally thought. This, and some similar finds in quick succession, started a competition, perhaps the only healthy one, between the Indian and Pakistani archaeologists for the search for Indus valley civilisation sites.
In the process, more than 1400 sites containing the Harappa like artifacts have been discovered and more are still being revealed. Two third of these sites are located on the Indian side the remaining one third are located on the Pakistani side of the border. Prominent among these sites are Guneriwala in Pakistan, Manda in Jammu and Kashmir, Ropar in Punjab, Banawali and Rakhigarhi in Haryana, Alamgirpur near Meerut, Kalibangan in Rajasthan, Lothal, Dholavira and Surkotada in Gujarat and Daimabad in Maharashtra. When plotted on the map, these sites seem to crowd around the dry bed of river Ghaggar in Punjab, Haryana and Rajasthan, and rivers Hakra and Nara in Bahawalpur and Sind in Pakisstan, and ending in the Rann of Kutch in Gujarat. Ghaggar is called Hakra when it enters Bahawalpur in Pakistan and continues as Nara in the Sindh province.
The artifacts recovered from these Harappan sites confirm the description of the professions followed by the Sarasvati valley people of the vedic times. Their professions included agriculture, weaving, animal husbandry and pasturing, metalworking, pottery, beads manufacturing and gold and silver working. At the Lothal site, a huge dock capable of handling ocean going and river navigation ships has been excavated. Some donut shaped stone anchors have also been found at Lothal and other sites indicating internal and external maritime trade. A visitor to the photo exhibition of the Harappan sites, held at Chandigarh recently, was visibly impressed with the evidence of town planning, brick structures, water management and drainage. He wondered loudly as to how much more time is needed for the modern Indian cities to achieve the sophistication of these ancient sites.
Harappan sites match the Vedic description of the Sarasvati valley people, and these sites are concentrated around the dry bed of Ghaggar river, which is also being recognised as the dry bed of the river Sarasvati. The combination of archaeological evidence on the ground, and satellite imagery from space would place the extent of this civilisation at approximately one and a half million square kilometers – the largest among the contemporary civilisations like Sumer and Egyptian. Considering the evidence gathered so far, it is more appropriate to rename the Indus Valley Civilisation as Sarasvati – Sindhu Civilisation. This civilisation was so much dependent upon the river Sarasvati that it was ill prepared to survive its loss. Losing their means of subsisdence as the river started drying, the population started migrating to east and south to settle on the banks of rivers Ganges, Yamuna, Godavari, Krishna and Kaveri. This fact truly justifies the Rigveda title of Ambitame – the best of the mothers – for the river Sarasvati.
In 1980, Professor Yashpal and others recognised the palaeo-channels of the erstwhile Sarasvati using Landsat imagery. In 1996, Professor Valdiya traced the course of river Sarasvati from West Garhwal in the Himalayas to the Gulf of Khambat in Gujarat using hydro-geological studies. There is remarkable similarity in the course of the river Sarasvati identified from these two different sources. According to this, the Vedic Sarasvati followed the course of modern rivers Ghaggar, Hakra and Nara where most of the Indus Valley sites are also located. In 1997, Drs. S.M. Rao and K.M. Kulkarni of the Bhaba Atomic Research Center tracked the old course of river Sarasvati from its source in Himalayas and its flow through Rajasthan, Bhawalpur and Sindh to the Rann of Kutch in Gujarat, again using Landsat imagery. Using low levels of tritium, a naturally occurring radioactive isotope, they also collected evidence to prove that waters trapped in the underground channels below the ancient course of the river Sarasvati belonged to that river. Other scientists have used Indian Remote Sensing (IRS – 1 series) satellites to track the bed of the lost river Sarasvati, confirming the results reached by the scientists mentioned above.
Dr. S. Kalynaraman, who took premature retirement from the Asian Development Bank to work on the Sarasvati river project, has set up the Sarasvati-Sindhu Research Center at Chennai. At this center, he has compiled a 200-page monogram reviewing the Sarasvati related research. This book is available for downloading from the internet site http://www.probys.com/sarasvati. The map on this page shows the history of the river system in northwest India with the course of river Sarasvati and its tributaries in the vedic period superimposed on the current river system of the Indo-Gangetic plain. The map is the result of research collated from all sources by Dr. Kalyanaraman’s team. Incidentally, Dr. Kalyanaraman’s work also inspired the Haryana’s Sarasvati Park project.
River Sarasvati originates from the Har-ki-dhun glacier in West Garhwal, Bandarpunch massif in the Himalayas alongwith river Yamuna. The two rivers flowed parallel for some distance and later joined together, proceeding south as the Vedic Sarasvati. More seasonal rivers and rivulets, including Ghaggar, joined Sarasvati as it followed the course of the present river Ghaggar through modern Punjab, and Haryana. River Sutlej, the Vedic Shatdru, joined the river Sarasvati as a tributary at Shatrana, approximately 25 kilometers south of Patiala. Sarasvati then followed the course of Ghaggar through Rajasthan and Hakra in Bhawalpur before emptying into the Rann of Kutch via Nara in Sindh province, running parallel to the Indus river. There is no doubt that the river Sarasvati, carrying the waters of three perennial and numerous seasonal rivers, was a mighty river in the vedic times and well deserved the Rigveda title of naditame – greatest of the rivers.
How and when was this mighty river lost? Evidence collected so far shows that the river disappeared due to a combination of reasons spread over a few hundred years possibly between 2000 to 1500 BC. Main reasons contributing to the drying of the river Sarasvati appear to be the loss of its important tributaries due to changes in river course, climate changes like long periods of draught and water seepage through earth faults and fissures combined with the obstruction of river flow by shifting of sand due to high winds. Whole of northwest India, upto the Rann of Kutch, was subject to earth quake activity resulting in raising of the ground, and creation of earth faults which contributed to the loss of water of this river.
When the Aravallis range is traced north to the Himalayas there is evidence of rise in the ground level on the line of Aravallis. This change in the ground level appears to have caused the turning of the river Yamuna eastwards at Paontasahib to join the Ganges at Allahabad. This river capturing denied the waters of Yamuna to Sarasvati. Another blow to the river Sarasvati was struck when Sutlej took a sharp U-turn at Ropar moving to flow parallel to the river Beas, the Vedic Vipasa. Having lost both of its perennial tributaries, i.e., rivers Yamuna and Sutlej, river Sarasvati would have been a drying river in around 2000 BC It is probable that desertification of Rajasthan would have taken place at that time. As supported by the hydro-geological evidence, the ground faults and sand movement would have caused the seepage of the remaining waters of river Sarasvati to underground channels, leaving a dry riverbed.
Last part of the legend is that the Sarasvati meets the Ganges and Yamuna at the confluence (sangam) at Allahabad (Paryag). Neither archaeological finds nor satellite images support any evidence of the river Sarasvati ever flowing east towards Allahabd, either over the ground or underground. Some modern scholars interpret the capture of Sarasvati waters by Yamuna also to mean the confluence of Yamuna and Sarasvati jointly with Ganges at Allahabad. If this is accepted, meeting of Sutlej with Beas has equal claim to the confluence of three rivers, i.e., Sutlej, Beas and Sarasvati. When, however, the Rigveda tribute to the river Sarasvati as devitame – best of the goddesses - is considered, an entirely new perspective to the legend emerges.
There is enough evidence in the ancient Indian literature to prove that there were numerous centers of learning (rishi asharams) on the banks of river Sarasvati and its tributaries. These learning centers supported a large number of scholars (gurus) and students (shishyas), mostly Brahmins. Considering the ancient Indian scholarly traditions, the composition, recording, preservation and dissemination of the vedic knowledge was purely an oral process and no written medium was used for the purpose. Thus, goddess Sarasvati resided with the ascetics and scholars who were repository to the divine knowledge. Authors of the ancient Indian philosophy were, therefore, rightly conscious of the need for periodic meetings between the Vedic scholars spread over the country for improvement, preservation and spread of this knowledge. With these aims in view, and knowing the 12 year cycle of the solar eclipses to last to eternity, they smartly prescribed meeting of the scholars every 12 years at Paryag (Allahabad) before a dip at the confluence of rivers Ganges and Yamuna at the onset of the solar eclipse. Allahabad is located at the geographic center of the country and, as such, is an ideal location for the scholars from the whole of the country to meet, specially when they had to travel on foot. This is like setting up a timetable for the annual Indian Science Congress conferences for eternity.
The saints and scholars would set on their journey to Allahabad from all parts of the country sufficiently in advance of the coming solar eclipse. They would walk from village to village on the way, disseminating their knowledge of the scriptures to the local population through evening discourses. Some enterprising individuals would pack up and travel with them to earn the merit of the goddess Sarasvati. There would be continuous conferences of these saints at Allahabad debating the most current interpretation of the scriptures. These conferences would concluded just before the onset of the solar eclipse. The saints would then go in a triumphant procession to take a collective dip at the sangam, at the onset of solar eclipse. Since goddess Sarasvati resides with these scholars, the collective dip in the river amounts to the ceremonial visit of goddess Sarsvati to the goddesses Ganges and Yamuuna. It is at this moment that the confluence of three rivers has taken place. The general public would then take the dip in the confluence of three rivers/goddesses including Sarasvati, the goddess of learning, and the vedic amitame – the best of the goddesses. Thus, earning the merit of the three goddesses.
It is only the beginning of the multi-disciplinary research in the Sarasvati legend. Many questions like the languages, scripts and administrative set up of the Sarasvati-Sindhu Civilasation still need to be answered. It may be worth waiting for these answers.
ambitame, nadi_tame, devitameDr. Naresh K. Gupta article in Tribune