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There Flowed A River: In Search Of The Vedic Saraswati

Establishing the existence of the mythical river is key to the Hindu nationalist project of validating their origin story

There Flowed A River: In Search Of The Vedic Saraswati
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Here’s the mother of all conundrums—all the mighty rivers described in the Vedas—the Indus (Sindhu), Jhelum (Vitasta), Chenab (Askini), Ravi (Purushni), Beas (Vipasa) and Sutlej (Shatadru)—exist. Except Saraswati—described as “ambitame, naditame, devitame (the best of mothers, the best of rivers, the best of goddesses)” in the Vedas. How a snow-fed perennial watercourse could completely vanish, leaving no trace detectable by modern sci­ence, has triggered interest and debate for over a century-and-a-half.

But, what was a pursuit for precise knowledge of the past in the late 19th and early 20th centur­ies, turned into a heated political debate in indep­endent India, ever since archeologist Braj Basi Lal introduced the trend of excavating sites approximating descriptions in the ancient Hindu epics, instead of those noted by ancient travellers, which used to be the established mode of enquiry earlier. The project was called ‘Archa­eology of Mahabharata Sites’.

As early as in 1964, citing the discovery of Har­a­ppan sites far away from the Indus, especially the one at Alamgirpur in UP, Lal had argued that Har­appan sites on the Indian side of the border were not dependent on the Indus, hence India should consider changing the nomenclature of the Indus Valley Civilisation (IVC). Prime Mini­ster Lal Bahadur Shastri even wrote the foreword to a book of his. Lal would later be known more for his Ayodhya excavations to find a temple und­er the Babri Masjid, a report he published in 1990 in the RSS magazine Manthan instead of a peer-­reviewed archaeological journal.

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Still From the film Searching for Saraswati by Shirley Abraham & Amit Madheshiya

One of the earliest urban civilisations in the wor­ld, IVC is a contemporary of ancient Egypt and Mesopotamia, but its geographical expanse was greater than the two combined. The IVC is alternately called the Harappan civilisation. The first name refers to the river valley along which it is believed to have thrived, most of which is now in Pakistan. The second refers to the first archaeological site discovered, which is also in Pakistan. This is where the crux of the problem appears to lie—the Partition has circumcised the geographical area within which Hindu nationalists can eff­ectively seek an origin story.

Going by the Rig Veda, Sar­a­swati was a snow-fed perennial river that flowed into the Arabian Sea, whereas Ghag­gar-­Hakra appeared to flow only in the monsoon.

This is why the question of tracing the Vedic Sar­aswati began animating Hindutva-influen­ced archaeologists and geologists for the next few dec­ades. Establishing the existence of the mythical Saraswati would help them rename IVC as Sin­dhu-Saraswati, or simply Saraswati civil­isa­t­ion, especially as most of the Indus, and the archa­e­ological sites along in, went to Pakistan after Partition.  

Due to general scientific curiosity around the Har­appan civilisation, research papers attempting to trace the Saraswati have been published in almost all the decades since 1870s. But there has been a rise in their numbers due to institutio­nal support during both times the BJP has been in pow­er at the Centre—during the Vajpayee era and now, since Narendra Modi became the PM.

However, Hindu nationalist influence among Ind­ian archeologists had grown significantly, much before BJP tasted power at the Centre, esp­e­cially since the early 1980s, when two RSS-bac­ked organisations—Babasaheb Apte Smarak Samiti (named after the founder of Vishwa Hindu Parishad) and Itihas Sankalan Samiti—focused on supporting research exploring the identity of the Aryans, and finding the Saraswati.

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Still From the film Searching for Saraswati by Shirley Abraham & Amit Madheshiya

RSS sarsanghchalak Mohan Bhagwat—speaking on the occasion of the release of a book titled Dwi­r­upa Saraswati: Tracing the Glory of Indian Cul­t­ure and Civilization on March 1, 2022 in New Del­hi­­—­explained the importance. “Our whole history is intrinsically connected to that river. By denying Saraswati’s existence, everything that our ancestors said becomes figments of our imagination to them. This is what the British told us. Fin­d­ing Saraswati would destroy all these concocted illusions,” said the RSS helmsman.  

The new book on Saraswati used as preface a speech by Lal, who was a former director-general of the Archaeological Survey of India (ASI), and whose 2002 book, The Saraswati Flows: On the Continuity of Indian Culture, claimed to have found “compelling geographical data in the Rig Veda itself, which unambiguously shows that the Rigvedic Sarasvati is none other than the present-­day Saraswati-Ghaggar which flows through Har­y­ana and Punjab”.  

No wonder, Bhagwat added that with material evidence, the next step should be to restore the river so that it starts flowing again. The whole work should extend up to mapping all places where it still flows underground, and where its flow can be brought out to the surface.

Claims and objections

The first person to speculate that the seasonal riv­er Ghaggar (called Hakra in Pakistan)—whi­ch flo­ws only in the monsoons—was the lost Saraswati, was Charles Frederick Oldham, in his notes published in the Calcutta Journal in 1874. A surgeon with the Bengal Medical Serv­ice, Oldham served from the 1860s through the 1880s in present-day Punjab and Himachal Pra­desh, retiring as brigade surgeon. In 1893, he published a more detailed piece, titled The Sar­a­swatī and the Lost River of the Indian Desert, in The Journal of the Royal Asiatic Society of Great Britain and Ireland. He speculated that the Sar­suti river or nala (drain) of Haryana, which flo­ws into Ghaggar, was the Saraswati of the Rig Veda and Mahabharata.

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The descripti­ons were quite different in the two, though, and the claim was later contested, mostly because going by descriptions in the Rig Veda, Sa­r­­a­swati was a Himalayan snow-fed perennial river that flowed into the Arabian Sea, whereas Ghag­gar-­Hakra appeared to flow only in the monsoon.

Then in 1984, in a book edited by Lal and S.P. Gup­ta, archaeologist and later ASI director-gene­ral J.P. Joshi and others wrote an article, titled Ind­us Civilization: A Reconsideration on the Basis of Distribution Maps, that the valley of the Vedic Saraswati, not that of the Indus, was the main centre of the Harappan civilisat­ion. By 1989, Gupta, who was a vocal RSS supporter, proposed in his article, The Indus-Saraswati Civilisation: Some New Developments, that IVC be renamed Indus-Saraswati Civilisation. Historian Irfan Habib and archeologist Suraj Bhan, leftists both, called such theories absurd, citing that all major sites of the civilsation were along the Indus.

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Revivalist agenda NREGA project in Haryana to dig for the Saraswati, in 2015 | Photo: Getty Images

These debates intensified around the time of the Ram Temple movement and especially after the BJP came to power for the first time. In 1999, the Geological Society of India, which was then allegedly under the influence of Hindu nationalists, published the book, titled Vedic Sara­svati - Evolu­tionary History of a Lost River of Northwestern India.

In the book, the essay by archeologist V.S. Wak­­a­n­kar claimed “the upper Saraswati region forms the nucleus of human evolution”. Ameri­can author, astrologer and Hindutva proponent David Frawley soon claimed that the Saraswati was more prominent in the pre-IVC period (?) and that Indo-Europeans and other Aryan tri­bes migrated outwards from its banks. This was followed by mathematician-turned-­Hindutva scholar N.S. Rajaram, who reignited the claim that the Sar­as­w­ati river and the “Saraswati Civilisation” were ins­eparable, and hence the latter should be renamed after the river, instead of Harappa.

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Habib, in his paper titled Imagining River Saras­v­ati – A Defence Of Commonsense—presented at the 2000-01 Indian History Congress—strongly criticised these propositions, saying, “The Sarsuti running past Thanesar is too petty a str­e­am to fit the picture of the great river of the Rig Veda.” He went on to rule out the other Hindutva-laced propositions one by one, to conclude, “All cla­i­ms build upon the greatness of Saraswati are, accordingly, nothing but castles in the air, however much froth may be blown over them.”

He also pointed out that Wakankar’s assumption­—that ‘upper Saraswati’ or Haryana was the nucleus of human civilisation—was based on the finding of an ape fossil (Ramapithecus) in the Siv­a­lik Hills, whereas Ramapithecus “is not in the line of hominids, but of the orangutan”.

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In 2002, archeologist Suraj Bhan contested the new Saraswati theories in his article In Ary­anisa­t­ion of the Indus Civilisation, published in The Ma­k­ing of History: Essays Presented to Irfan Hab­ib, edited by K.N. Panikkar and others. But the same year, Lal’s book The Sarasvati Flows on: The Cont­i­nuity of Indian Culture, again arg­ued that the Ved­ic Saraswati and the present-­day Sarsut-Ghaggar are the same. In this battle of claims and counterclaims, there also were experts who did not belong to any parti­cular political camp. In the same year, 2002, a pub­lication by K.S. Valdiya, whom Ram­a­c­handra Guha has described as a world-class geologist, also came up in support of the past existence of Saras­w­ati in his book, Saraswati: The River that Disap­peared.  

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The goddess Painting of Saraswati, 1878-80, artist unknown Photo: Getty Images

The first attempt to excavate and trace the cou­rse of Saraswati in Himachal and Haryana was also taken up in 2002, when Union culture minister Jagmohan set up a panel of four experts. But the project was scrapped after the UPA came to power in 2004.  

The change of regime, however, did not stop pub­lication of papers from various quarters, both in support and in opposition, from experts with political leanings and without, from India and abroad, throughout the UPA era. After BJP retu­r­ned to power in 2014, when there was an uptick in Saraswati-related research projects backed by var­ious government departments.  

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The recent thrust  

The Saraswati excavation project in Haryana and Himachal was revived soon after the BJP returned to pow­er. In April 2015, the Hima­chal government sanctioned Rs 50 crore to start excavation work. It later tur­ned out that the project was green-lighted solely on the basis of a report prepared by the RSS-affi­li­a­ted Saraswati Nadi Shodh Sans­t­han. Nevertheless, the Haryana Sarasvati Heritage Development Board was established towards the end of 2015 to further the cause.

In April 2015, the Hima­chal government cleared Rs 50 crore for The Saraswati excavation project, on the basis of a report by a RSS-affi­li­a­te.

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In 2016, the Union government appointed a 16-member panel, hea­ded by Valdiya, which said in its report submitted the same year that “present-day Sarsuti-Markanda rivulets traversing the tract south of the foothills of Sivalik Hills in nor­thern Haryana, were water cou­rses of the eastern branch of a Him­a­layan river; and that the Gha­g­gar-­Patiali channels provided the pathways to the western branch of the Himalayan river. The two branches combined near Shatrana and flowed through the extraordinarily wide channel of the Ghaggar-Hakra and discharged into the gulf of the western sea”.  

The report went on to speculate that if the Sar­s­uti Fort at Sirsa, along the wide channel of the Gha­ggar, represents a tribute to the Sarsuti, “then the Ghaggar river in the past was known as the Saraswati River”.  

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Even their report did not end the debate, tho­ugh, as papers have been publis­hed in internati­o­nal journals since then, quest­i­oning the exi­­s­t­ence of the Saraswati. This incl­udes the 2017 study published in Nature, Counter-intu­i­t­ive influence of Himalayan river morphodynamics on Indus Civilisation urban settlements, whi­ch noted geologist Liviu Giosan described as “one more nail in the coffin of the Himalayan Sar­aswati theory”.

On March 1, at the launch of the book Dwiru­pta Saraswati, Ram Bahadur Rai, the president of Ind­ira Gandhi National Centre for Arts (IGN­CA), a ministry of culture-funded autonomous trust, said the book should end the debate around the civilisation linked to the Saraswati river. “This should begin a new chapter of cons­ensus that the Saraswati river did exist in India, it used to flow until 6,000 years ago. We should no longer debate this,” he said. At the launch were present former human res­ource developm­ent minister Murali Manohar Jos­hi, during whose tenure the first alleged atte­mpt at ‘saffronising’ textbooks in India had happ­ened during PM Atal Bihari Vaj­payee’s tenure, along with Bhagwat.  

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The book has been edited by Mah­esh Sharma and Sachchi­da­n­and Joshi and published by the Delhi-based Om Publication. Of them, Jos­hi is not only member-­secretary of IGNCA, but also the national pre­sident of the Nagpur-based, RSS-affiliated Bharatiya Shi­kshan Mandal, whose mission is “to evo­lve a completely Bhara­t­iya system of education, rooted in Bharatiya culture at all levels, from primary to higher education”.  

Sharma, who holds a PhD in app­r­opriate rural technology system from IIT-Delhi, is a member of IGN­CA’s board of trustees. He had served as the chairman of Khadi and Village Industries Com­mission (KVIC) from 1998 to 2004, until the first UPA government removed him during its ‘de-saffronisation drive’, after six years of Vajpayee rule.  

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Rai, Joshi and Sharma found their positions in IGNCA when the Narendra Modi government, in 2016, reconstituted the body with new members. Since then, IGNCA has taken special interest in tracing the historical existence of the Saraswati, apart from several IITs and other scientific insti­tutions.   

As recently as January this year, the BJP-led governments in Haryana and Himachal Prad­esh signed a memorandum of understanding to construct a dam at Adi Badri, to revive the Sara­swati. That same month, Sanjeev Sanyal, principal economic advisor to the government of Ind­ia, delivered a lecture titled, “Saraswati - The River That Gave Birth to Indian Civilis­at­ion” at the National Youth Festival. He said “actual proof of the river Saras­w­ati is referen­ced across ancient Hindu texts”, displaying some maps in support.  

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The debate shows no signs of dying down.

(This appeared in the print edition as "The Mystic River")

Snigdhendu Bhattacharya in Calcutta

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