For over a century, historians and scientists alike have looked for traces of the "mythical" Saraswati river in India.
Said to have flowed from the Himalayas to the Arabian Sea and is distinct from the other historic river Indus, the Saraswati river has long captured the imagination of Indologists, historians and religious scholars. The river has found repeated mentions in ancient Indian texts such as the Vedas and Puranas, the epics such as Mahabharata, Smritis. It has also been mentioned in historical texts and documentation by colonial officers such as the 19th century British East India company official James Tod. The latter extensively traveled through and surveyed Rajasthan and his notes seem to refer to Saraswati as "the lost river of the desert". According to Tod, the river originated neat in the Himalaya's Shiwalik range parts of present-day Haryana and Rajasthan before joining the eastern branch of the Indus Delta.
But did the river ever really exist? Despite several references to Saraswati in the Vedas, researchers have not yet been able to identify the route of the river and have been unable to match it with existing or formerly existing river systems.
The 'lost' river
The Rig Veda, where the river was first mentioned, deifies Saraswati river the deification continued in later Vedic and post Vedic texts as well, making it an important part of Vedic culture and religion. It finds mention in three of the four books of Rig Veda. However, in the Vedas themselves, the descriptions of Saraswati differ'. Mid and later Vedic books described Saraswati as a small river that ended in a "samudra" which could mean both ocean or lake.
In post-Vedic times, several references of the goddess Saraswati who developed as a separate entity can also be found. The Saraswati has also been described as a powerful river that brought mighty floods. According to Hindu mythology, the existence of the Saraswati river goes beyond the physical realm into the metaphysical world, and believe the Triveni Sangam was formed by the confluence of the sacred Indian rivers Ganga, Yamuna and Saraswati.
Over the years, there have been several attempts to locate or recreate the course of the 'lost' Saraswati river by interpreting the information available in the Vedas. For instance, the Nadistuti hymn in the Rigveda mentions the Sarasvati between the Yamuna in the east and the Sutlej in the west while another describes it as flowing into a samudra. Late Vedic texts such as the Tandya Brahmana, Jaiminiya Brahmana, as well as the Mahabharata, refer to the Sarasvati drying up in a desert.
While ‘Nadistuti Sukta’, which is Book 6 of the RV, exhorted Saraswati river as the “perfect mother, unsurpassed river, supreme goddess”, the focus seems to shift to the river Indus by the Book 10, the last part of the RV. Indus was known as Sindhu to Indian ancestors. in the later Panchvimsha Brahmana which was part of the Sama Veda written c. 800 BC, the river stopped being referred to as ‘Nadimata Saraswati’ and instead being called ‘Vinasana Saraswati’, - an entity that can “no longer able to hold up the heavens and consequently has gone underground”.
What happened to the great river? How did a great river of such proportions get lost without any trace?
One of the most propagated and believed history of the Saraswati river came about in the late 19th century when Indologists and historians started identifying Saraswati it as part of the Ghaggar-Hakra river system that flows between Yamuna and Sutlej through north-western India and Pakistan before ending the Thar.
The latest research has shown that the Ghaggar-Hakra river channel may have been a paleochannel of the Sutlej river that flowed into the Nara river, a delta channel of the Indus. The Sutlej diverted its course about 10,000-8,000 years ago, turning the Ghaggar-Hakra into a rainfed river system.
This conclusion that the Saraswati was part of the Ghaggar system has been challenged by researchers who claim that the Ghaggar-Hakra river system had dried up before the Harappan civilization ended. The Harappan civilization emerged on the course of the river system 5,000 years ago after the monsoons diminished. The Harappan civilisation is believed to have ended 4000 years ago after the further decline of monsoons dried up the Hakra. This was before the advent of Vedic culture in north-western India. The Vedic people arrived in the area and wrote the Vedic books mentioning Saraswati after the system had dried up. Mentions of Saraswati's course found in the Rig Veda also do not match the course of the Ghaggar-Hakra system.
Some scholars have also identified the Saraswati river with the Helmand river in Afghanistan.
A renewed push
The identification of the Ghaggar-Hakra system with Saraswati took on a newer significance in the 21st century when some scholars linked it to the Indus Valley civilization. These scholars have suggested an earlier dating of the Rig Veda and the renaming of the Indus Valley civilization as the 'Sindu Sarasvati' or 'Indus Sarasvati' civilisation. According to the central government, the Archaeological Survey of India (ASI) has already conducted excavations under Saraswati Project since 2003 at these sites - Adibadri (in Yamuna Nagar district), Thanesar (Kurukshetra), Bhirana (Fatehabad), and Hansi (Hissar) in Haryana; Baror (Ganganagar), Tarkhanwala Dera (Ganganagar), Chak 86 (Ganganagar) and Karanpura (Hanumangarh) in Rajasthan; and Junikaran (Kachchha) and Khirsara (Kachchha) in Gujarat, as per a PTI report in 2015.
In a land where fact and myth often get mixed up, the last few years have seen a renewed push for modifying historical narratives to espouse the proponents of the right-wing Hindutva ideology that purports Hinduism to be the oldest religion in the world and portrays Hindus as the descendants of. an ancient culture that was rich in knowledge systems and treasures that were eventually looted and destroyed by Islamic invaders. This has been done through careful addition and deletions, not only in social science textbooks for schools but also with a new focus on "ancient Indian knowledge systems" in the teachings on science and geography.
In 2015, The Rajasthan government constituted the Rajasthan River Basin and Water Resources Planning Authority to revive the Saraswati river in the state besides looking into various issues connected with river basins including intra-basin river water transfer. In 2021, the Haryana government decided to include the Saraswati river as part of the school and university curriculum. Haryana has also seen excavation work for finding remains of the river's course.
Much left to be found
French-born Indologist Michel Danino, who has authored "The Lost River: On the Trail of the Sarasvati" in 2010, says partial revival of the upper course of the Saraswati (including the Markanda, Dangri, Ghaggar and other streams in this river system) is possible only through massive reforestation of the Shivalik Hills' slopes and water harvesting in the plains.
"...We need more geological and hydrological studies to understand the river's evolution. It would also be a good idea to draw lessons from the Saraswati's disappearance and make sure Ganga and other Himalayan rivers do not suffer the same fate - which they might well if we continue to recklessly misuse our water resources," Danino had told PTI in 2015.
(With inputs from PTI)