A personal odyssey

Search for Sarasvati: Michael Danino. Photo: K. Ananthan  

Sarasvati was the most sung about ‘mythical' river in the Rg Veda: “the impeller of happy truths”, “best of mothers, best of rivers and best of goddesses”. She was the ‘sapthasindhava' whose “impetuous flow is unbroken from mountain to sea”.

The last battle of the Mahabharata between Bhima and Duryodhana was fought on the banks of the Sarasvati, yet the Mahabharata describes her as a “disappearing river” and the Puranas refer to the place where she vanished as “Vinashana”.

Where and how did the Sarasvati vanish? In the past 200 years eminent Indologists, archaeologists, geologists, explorers, scientists and historians — both foreign and Indian — have sought to unravel the mystery of this lost river. One such person is Michel Danino, proto-historian and author of the recently launched The Lost River: On the Trail of the Sarasvati. Excerpts from an interview

Why Sarasvati? Why pull out a ‘mythical' river out of the mists of time?

It was a long lasting interest in Indian civilisation, which led me to study the Harappan culture. For the past 40 years, it has been accepted that the loss of the Sarasvati played a role in the dissolution of the Harappan city states. Why did this remarkable civilisation with its excellent town planning, standardised writing and weight system suddenly collapse? There are no major signs of internal or external conflict. So the thinking turns towards climatic changes and other ecological issues.

Could you elaborate?

There are 360 mature Harrappan sites in the Sarasvati basin, the Ghaghar Akra and its tributaries. This system certainly dried up and we find a drastic change in the settlement patterns between the mature Harappan and later Harrappan sites. Kalibangan a Harappan site in Rajasthan was suddenly abandoned in 1900 BCE. Scholars believe that the Sarasvati river system disappeared creating a domino effect on other settlements. And yes, as a proto- historian, studying the Sarasvati trail was a personal odyssey.

Earlier scholars from Tod to Oldham, Max Mueller, Burrow and others have identified the Sarasvati as the Ghaghar or the Sarsuti in Harayana. Is there any confusion here?

Till the 1970s, there was consensus that the Ghahar Akra had to be the Sarasvati that flows between the Sutlej and Yamuna as the Rg Veda places it. Sarsuti is a small stream at the head of the Ghaghar, so there's is collaborative evidence here too.

Aurel Stein, the early 20th century explorer who was aware of the Sarasvati's identification with the Ghaghar, explored the Sarasvati basin in 1941. He found many Harappan culture sites based on evidence provided by pottery shards and now the confusion arose.

By the 1970s and 1980s the chronology of the Harappan sites became very clear due to radio carbon techniques. It also became clear that the Sarasvati valley was abandoned between 2000 and 1800 BCE because the river had receded.

The paradox is that the Sarasvati is related to the Rg Vedic culture dated 1500 BCE and peopled by Aryans. If the Sarasvati system no longer existed by then or was only a small stream, how does this correlate with the Rg Vedic description of a ‘mighty river'.

The logical conclusion is that the Rg Veda was composed while the Sarasvati was in full flow around 3000-2000 BCE.

What does this suggest?

I am not personally sure what the Vedic civilisation was. I'd call it Vedic culture. We can only say that behind the Harappan civilisation we can see elements of Vedic culture such as the presence of Swastika and tree worship symbolism, fire altars and Shiva lingams, conches, yogic postures ...

The world woke up to the existence of the Sarasvati with U.S. Landsat satellite pictures and the subsequent ISRO finds. Does this corroborate what was identified by textual references so far?

It proves that in ancient times a mature river flowed into the Ghaghar Akra valley and into the Rann of Kutch. Chronology issues remain but a lot of isotope studies have been done in the Sarasvati basin. According to A.K. Gupta, formerly of ISRO, scientists have found water in Rajasthan desert where no sources of water recharge exist and these waters are several millennia old. It is definitely a line of independent corroboration.

Also if you drill a borewell (as has been done) in the paleo-channels of the Sarasvati basin you get sweet water.

There is a widely accepted theory that a tectonic movement shifted the Yamuna to the east so that its water began to flow into the Ganga, leading to the Sarasvati drying up?

There is continuous tectonic activity in the Northern regions. This might, in ancient times, have led to earthquakes lifting the region and forcing the Yamuna to the east. Scholars believe that this could be behind the Sarasvati drying up and the Harappans shifting northwards to the Shivalik hills and eastward toward the Yamuna-Ganga region.

Despite its place in Rg Vedic literature, the Sarasvati has so little mythology while the Ganga abounds in it.

Attributes of the sanctity of Sarasvati were transferred to the Ganga. It was very interesting to me as I was proposing the theory of the transfer of the Harrappan legacy to the Gangetic region based on migration due to the Sarasvati's drying up. Ganga is mentioned only twice in the Rg Veda but repeatedly in the Upanishads, Ramayana and Mahabharata.

Where does the holy Prayag where the Ganga, Yamuna and the lost Sarasvati meet fit into the Sarasvati's geographical route from the Himalayas through Punjab, Haryana, Rajasthan and Gujarat?

I regard this (Prayag) as a Puranic tradition. The Hindu mind works in such a way that continuity of worship is more important than physical fact.

When the Harappans migrated eastward towards the Gangetic region, they carried with them their memories of the Sarasvati. The myths and sanctity were transferred to Prayag.

Interestingly, in the Rann of Kutch where the Sarasvati dried up, there are two rivers called the Sarasvati which are still considered sacred.

How has the Sarasvati evolved from the Rg Vedic “most sacred of rivers” to the image of goddess of learning?

In India gods and goddesses evolve. The continuity is the pot (in the second hand) signifying Sarasvati's memories as a river.

In the Yajur Veda, she became the goddess of speech or ‘Vak' along with knowledge and the arts symbolised by the Veena.

Have you done the Sarasvati trail?

No. I wish I had, though I did cross the Gahaghar on my way to Shimla.

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Printable version | Apr 10, 2021 12:51:08 PM |

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