Sunday, 8 December 2013

River Saraswati- The Lost River and Antarvahini

      River Saraswati is a lost river in the desert Thar and a Antarvahini in present days. It is a Rigvedic river and is called the Ambitame(Best of mothers) , Naditame(Best of rivers) and Devitame ( Best of goddesses). It is the river that gave birth to canonical literature and a civilization. Mother saraswati is the Goddess of Art and Learning.

Thousands of years ago when the mighty rivers started flowing down the Himalayan slopes, Western Rajasthan was green and fertile. Great civilizations prospered in the cool amiable climate on riverbanks of northwestern India. The abundant waters of the rivers and copious rains provided ample sustenance for their farming and other activities. Years later, Saraswati, one of the rivers of great splendour in this region, for reasons long enigmatic, dwindled and dried up. 

The greenery of Rajasthan was lost, replaced by an arid desert where hot winds piled up dunes of sand. The flourishing civilizations vanished one by one. By geological standards, these are small-scale events; for earth, in its long 4.5 billion years history, had witnessed many such changes, some of them even accompanied by wiping out of several living species. But those that occurred in northwest India took place within the span of early human history affecting the livelihood of flourishing civilizations and driving them out to other regions.

According to the geological and glaciological studies, saraswati was supposed to have originated in Bandapunch masiff, descended through Adibadri, Bhavanipur and Balchapur in the foothills of the plains. The river took a southwesterly course, passing through the plains of Punjab, Haryana, Rajasthan and Gujarat. Saraswati river has 3 tributaries, Shatadru( Sutlej) arising from Mount Kailash, Drishadvati from Siwalik Hills and the old Yamuna. Together they flowed along a channel presently identified as Ghaggar river, also called as Hakra in Rajasthan and Nara in Sindh. 

The identification of the River saraswati with the Ghaggar-Hakra River was done in 19th and the early 20th centuries. According to proto-historian Michel Danino, In ancient times a mature river flowed into the Ghaghar Akra Valley and into the Rann of kutch which is identified as the rigvedic river, saraswati.

About 360 sites were found along the bed of saraswati river in archeological survey when along the Indus river are about 35 only. This explains the reason for decline of Harappan Civilization.

                 Civilization across river bed

French scientist, Henri-Paul Francfort, had discovered the dry river bed of Saraswati utilizing advanced imagery from the Satellite SPOT. His studies led to the conclusion that the river bed was pre-Harappan and had already started drying up by the middle of 4000 BCE. The reason of disappearance may be due to the major Earth quakes playing havoc with the river courses in the North-western region of the country. Due to it the old courses of saraswati’s tributaries has took diversion and the Sutlej changed direction to join Indus in west, river Yamuna turned east aligning with Ganga.

It is believed that the river saraswati flows underground and hence known as Antarvahini. At the Triveni sangam of Allahabad, the two visible rivers Ganga, Yamuna and the Invisible river Saraswati merge. This place has a religious importance and the site for historic Kumbh Mela held every 12 years. Vajasaneya samhitha of the yajurveda and Brahmanas in the Vedas explain the existence of river along with the details of its areas.

                                  Naga Sadhus at Kumbhamela

Saraswati River Pushkaram are considered auspicious and celebrated. In 2013, they were celebrated from May 31st at 6:49 AM to June 11th. In this duration Brihaspati ( Guru) enters into Mrigasira Nakshatra marking the beginning of sun’s journey in Midhuna Rashi(Gemini).

Kurukshetra is at the banks of this sacred river. At a distance of 9 kms from Badrinath at Maana Village we can see the Saraswati River. From here the river flows for 5kms and merge in Alakananda river. This place is popular as Keshava Prayaga.

In Gujarat- Somnath Jyotirlinga temple and Siddhapur temple, Rajasthan- Brahma temple are the Important sites of saraswati pushkara’s. Another confluence of Saraswati and Narmada rivers is at Bedaghat in Madhya Pradesh.

Mythological Link:-

  • Karthikeya was anointed the commander of Deva forces on its banks.
  • Bhargavaram/Parashuram purified himself by taking bath in the sacred water after cleansing earth of the scourge of tyranny.
  • Mahabharatha war was also fought along the banks of river Saraswati.
  • Balarama, brother of Shri Krishna responsible for the alteration of the course of Yamuna which is a tributary of Saraswati.
                                            Balaraama, changing course of river Yamuna
Scientific Approach:-

Questions on the existence of sacred river is well answered by the Indian Space Research Organization and the association of Rajasthan Underground Resources department, Indian Archaeological survey department that the river do existed in vedic period with the disclosed pictures of satellite.

Raise and fall of Harappan Civilization

            Liviu Giosan, geologist with the Woods Hole Oceanographic Institution and lead author of the study, says, ‘We reconstructed the dynamic landscape of the plain where the Indus Civilization developed 5,200 years ago, built its cities, and slowly disintegrated between 3,900 and 3,000 years ago.’
Their conclusion gives the clearest picture yet of the fate of the Harappans. According to Giosan, ‘The Harappans were an enterprising people taking advantage of a window of opportunity—a kind of “Goldilocks civilization”. As monsoon drying subdued devastating floods, the land nearby the rivers—still fed with water and rich silt—was just right for agriculture. This lasted for almost 2,000 years, but continued acidification closed this favorable window in the end.’
              Some 5,000 years ago, as the monsoon started to weaken, the flooding of the rivers became less intense and regular across Punjab.
              The rivers of the Indus system, fed by snow-melt from the Himalayas, underwent a change. As the silt from the monsoon declined, they started incising river valleys. According to Giosan, ‘There is a fine balance between deposition and erosion along rivers. If you decrease the sediment relative to the water in a river you favor erosion. In the case of Indus Himalayan tributaries water is perennial and provided by melting. All these rivers incised and their incised valleys are wide (km to tens of km).’

          The story was different on the other major river system of the Harappan civilisation—the Ghaggar-Hakra. Often identified with the mythic Saraswati of Rg Vedic and Puranic literature, Giosan and his team determined that this river system has had no connection with either the Yamuna or the Sutlej in the past 10,000 years.
           Giosan offers a straightforward explanation: ‘No incised connection from either Yamuna or Sutlej exists to the Ghaggar-Hakra system.’ This needs to be decoded. Since both the Yamuna and the Sutlej are Himalayan rivers, like the Indus rivers, they would have been incising their course within the past 10,000 years. The absence of any incised connection from the two rivers to the Ghaggar indicates that these connections did not exist during the past 10,000 years.
           The team also noted a lack of incision along the course of the Ghaggar-Hakra. According to Giosan, ‘Lack of a wide incised valley tells us that rivers of the Ghaggar-Hakra did not behave like all other Himalayan rivers. Flow in these monsoonal rivers can be perennial or seasonal. For a perennial flow you need enough monsoon rain to recharge groundwater to insure a baseflow during the dry season. For a seasonal flow the groundwater is not recharged enough to insure baseflow.’

                                              Indus Vs Harappan Civilization

           Giosan’s team has correlated the geological date with the pattern of settlement of the Harappan towns along the two river systems. This indicates that the Ghaggar-Hakra was perennial for much of the Harappan period, and till as late as 2,900 years ago, water, whether seasonally or perennially, may have flowed all the way to the Nara valley in Sindh.  
Just focusing on the Ghaggar-Hakra during the period of Harappa’s decline tells an interesting story. The western part of the river system sees a decrease from 174 sites to 41 and the settled area decreases from 974 to 209 hectares. In the upper or eastern course, the site number actually increases from 218 to 853, but the settled area only rises from 2,943 hectares to 2,985 hectares. It seems the larger urban sites along the entire course were giving way to numerous smaller sites on the upper course, indicating an urban collapse. This is reflected in the Indus settlements as well with the total settled area declining while the number of sites rises. large cities, but would have been reliable.’

          According to Giosan, this collapse is not simply a matter of the drying up of the Ghaggar-Hakra:
‘I cannot favor this explanation because the Indus domain was vast—decadence in one region could have been compensated by the other regions. And why would folks from the Indus system leave their houses if the GH would dry but their rivers would still flood reliably? The floods on the Indus system also probably started to be irregular and/or [were] not large enough to insure the previous way of life—this coupled with drastic reduction of flow on Ghaggar-Hakra led to a crisis across the whole Harappan domain—this is what we favor now as an explanation.’
This explanation is also supported by the agricultural record of the Harappan settlements, which shows a significant shift in the later phase from winter crops, which depend on the flooding of the rivers, to summer crops directly dependent on rain rather than the river.


  1. Thats truly amazing and interesting story of the lost river

  2. Very enlightening post as a peek into the past! (Y)