The mystery of vanishing Sarasvati
Reviewed by Kuldip Dhiman

The Lost River: On the Trail of the Sarasvati
By Michel Danino. Penguin Books. Pages 358. Rs 399.

The Lost River: On the Trail of the SarasvatiTHE importance of Ganges as the most sacred river in Indian culture cannot be overstressed. However, there was another river which was a lot more important than the Ganges. In fact, there are not very significant references to the Ganges in the Vedas. The pride of place was given to the Sarasvati, a river that no longer exists!

The Rig Veda considered it to be the mother of seven seas. There are 45 hymns in which the Rig Veda eulogises it. In the Ramayana, it is referred to as the sacred Ikshumati—Bhrahma’s daughter. The Mahabharata too has references to the river. But the story does not end here: there is strong evidence that apart from the Indus, the Sarasvati was also the lifeline of the Indus Valley Civilisation, thus prompting some scholars to call it the Indus-Sarasvati Civilisation.

In The Lost River: On the Trail of the Sarasvati, Michel Danino, a French scholar, gives a detailed account of the renewed interest in the disappearance of the ancient river.

Archaeologists have long speculated that the humble Ghaggar, which flows out of the Shivaliks, is actually the Sarasvati of antiquity. Danino says it is truly noteworthy that when the British archaeologists mapped the Indus Valley sites about two hundred years ago, they found most were located round the dry bed of Ghaggar-Hakra.

But why zero in on the Ghaggar-Hakra as a relic of the Sarasvati? Aren’t there other contenders? The Rig Veda mentions Sarasvati as a mighty river flowing from the mountain to the sea and located between the Yamuna and the Shutudri (Sutlej). The Mahabharata, the Brahmanas, and the Puranas also make similar references to the Sarasvati. Danino says the British explorers who took up the clue found several seasonal streams emerging from the Shivalik Hills, but no major river flowing between the Yamuna and the Sutlej. They continued their search nevertheless because there was a strong tradition mentioning a mighty river flowing westward and getting lost. This tradition correlated with Sanskrit texts, and the maps plotted by the British lent strong support for the thesis that the bed of the Ghaggar-Hakra was indeed a remnant of the mythical Sarasvati.

The author reviews the various projects undertaken by the British and other European adventurers since the days of the East India Company to find the Sarasvati. One of the earliest explorers was Colonel James Tod who speaks of the absorption of the Caggar (sic) river as one of the causes of the depopulation of the northern desert.

Almost 200 years ago, a French scholar named Vivien de Saint-Martin, too, argued that all the streams that flow from the west to the east, the Ghaggar, the Markanda, the Dangri, the Sarsuti and the Chautang unite in a single bed which is the Rig Veda’s Sarasvati. Marc Aurel Stein, another archaeologist who came to India in the late 1880s, postulated that the easternmost tributary of the Ghaggar was still known as the Sarsuti, a corruption of ‘Sarasvati’.

Modern scholars, too, have suggested that the Ghaggar is a strong contender for the mythical Sarasvati. Satellite imagery of the region shows that the Ghaggar, in other words the Sarasvati, was important not only in the Vedic times but also during the Harappan age. The Ghaggar was the lifeline of the Indus Valley Civilisation, because out of a sample of about 1,400 Harappan sites, more than 75 per cent are situated on the banks of the Ghaggar-Hakra channel.

If it was such an important river, what happened to it? Why did it vanish suddenly? Some researchers have suggested that it was the lack of rainfall over the years that dried up the Sarasvati. Richard Dixon Oldham, a British geologist, who joined the Geological Survey of India in 1879, rejected such theories. If that were the case, other rivers of the region would have got affected too.

He argued that part of Yamuna’s waters might have flowed into the Ghaggar-Hakra bed in Vedic times: "It may have been that the Yamuna, after leaving the hills, divided its waters and that the portion which flowed to the Punjab was known as Sarasvati, while that which joined the Ganges was called the Yamuna." Geological changes were responsible for the Sarasvati changing its course and finally getting lost.

Recent studies give credence to the theory that geological and tectonic movements were responsible for some of the shifting rivers. Evidence from survey fieldwork and recent satellite imagery strongly suggests that the Ghaggar-Hakra system in the past had the Sutlej and the Yamuna as tributaries. Geological changes diverted the Sutlej towards the Indus and the Yamuna towards the Ganga, following which the river did not have enough water to reach the sea, and it dried up in the Thar Desert.

And this vanishing act happened much before the Vedic age. In fact, one of the reasons for the sudden fall of the Indus Valley Civilisation was the drying up of the Sarasvati. The Harappans were thus forced to move eastwards but they did not forget their revered river. They kept its memory alive by making it part of the Triveni Sangam, where it meets (albeit invisibly) the Ganges and the Yamuna. Danino says, "Not only was the Sarasvati thus made to connect with the Ganges, but in the course of time, Sarasvati the goddess passed on many of her attributes to Ganga. ... In many ways, Ganga is an avatar of Sarasvati, just as the Ganges civilisation is a new avatar of the Indus-Sarasvati civilisation."

Michel Danino has produced a scholarly work which will inspire future explorers and theorists to try to solve the mystery of the vanishing sacred river.