Unearthing the Saraswati mystery

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Work is on in Yamunanagar to dig up what’s being claimed is the ancient Saraswati. Denying any nationalistic agenda, Haryana’s BJP government says its faith in the project to revive the ‘lost river’ is backed by science. The myth, it adds, is now a reality. In the minds yes, but the mystery remains.

The truth is still out there Rigveda, the oldest of the four ancient Hindu texts, mentions the “mighty” Saraswati 45 times. When NDA’s former Culture minister Jagmohan ordered excavation in Haryana to trace the course of this mythical “lost river” in 2002, he faced criticism of pushing the Sangh Parivar’s agenda of equating the supposed pre-Vedic Harappan era with Hindus in the garb of promoting religious tourism. A related charge was of trying to establish the indigenousness of Hinduism while discounting the Aryan invasion theory, and making it appear as a continuing 5,000-year-old civilisation centered around the Saraswati.
Denying giving Saraswati a civilisational virtue or aiming to revive Brahmanism and the sanctity of Vedas, he said it was not important whether the river was found or not. “However,” he pointed out, “in the course of the research, a certain consciousness will find its way into the minds of the people… that it was not a mythological desert river.”
That consciousness seems to have seeped in. The Saraswati river as a reality has still not won the day, but it being a myth is losing ground as the earth is being dug up since April 21. At Rohlaheri village in Yamunanagar, fresh water has been found not far below at 7 feet, bringing a flood of outsiders and locals to the excavation site. Such is the rush that a community kitchen (bhandara) has been set up in the vicinity. Some are simply inquisitive, but there is a sprinkling of those who want to immerse themselves in the “holy goddess”. The Ramayana, Mahabharata, Brahmanas and Puranas all talk of Saraswati, some even calling it Brahma’s sacred daughter Ikshumati — the greatest of mothers, greatest of rivers and greatest of goddesses.
Locals say a number of seasonal rivulets in the area are dotted with small temples, alluding to the notion that the river has always existed — in their minds, at least. It was March this year that Haryana’s BJP government announced excavation of the Saraswati river from Adi Badri, the point from where it is said to have originated. The digging is to be spread over 43 villages of Yamunanagar district starting from Rohlaheri (Bilaspur tehsil) to Uncha Chandna (Mustafabad sub-tehsil), a distance of 50 km.
The government says the “revival of the ancient river” will take a couple of years, but to begin with, a 7-km water channel will be dug up. This, it claims, will act as a link for a dam and reservoir to be built subsequently over 1,000 acres. What will become of such plans is best left to the travails of time. Can an extinct river be revived by bringing underground water to the surface?
The work is being executed under the rural job guarantee scheme and around 400 families have been entrusted with the task. Chief Minister Manohar Lal Khattar has announced Rs 50 crore for the project, though the administration is yet to receive this money.
The Development and Panchayats Department says it has conducted the demarcation by using satellite imagery. Another claim is that advanced technology resulted in the discovery of water “from Saraswati” at Mughalwali village. Water gushing out is no myth, 2,500-3,000 people paying a visit daily and some taking the “holy water” too is a fact. But is this the fabled Saraswati, or just a seasonal channel?
Marwa Khurd village resident Sohan Lal, 70, can’t understand what the confusion is. “I have seen Saraswati flowing near Bilaspur (in the area of Kakroni village) for many years. The goddess has always existed,” he says, referring to one of the many seasonal rivulets. The myth is a reality in his case. No confusion. “Saraswati is our cultural heritage and we are working on the path shown by satellite images. Water being found from the site has proved its past. The excavation is going on and after completion of the work, there would be a flowing Saraswati,” says a confident Khattar.
Former Congress state secretary Satpal Kaushik exercises caution. “I am not questioning the existence of Saraswati in Yamunanagar. But, it is a fact that the water that came out in Mughalwali is not that of the Saraswati. It may be ground water,” he says, adding that the excavation will create a new problem for farmers as it will divide the land.
District Development and Panchayat Officer (DDPO) Gagandeep Singh has a bigger picture in mind. He says the Saraswati revival project has multi-dimensional aspects such as water conservation, water harvesting, ground water recharging, flood protection, improvement in ecological balance, flourishing of flora and fauna and development of eco-tourism, recreation tourism and pilgrim tourism. Is this long list for real?
Going back and forth
Hindu mythology refers to Saraswati as the goddess of wisdom and knowledge, manifesting itself in the form of a river. “Ganga, Jamuna, Saraswati” find a common mention in many theological and cultural contexts. The Rig Veda refers to Saraswati as the mighty river flowing from the high mountains to the sea. In fact, the Vedas lay more importance to Saraswati than Ganga.
French scholar Michel Danino in his book The Lost River: On the Trail of Sarasvati suggests that Saraswati was no mythological river. He says there is strong evidence to suggest that the Saraswati of yesterday could be the Ghaggar of today.
A major proponent of making the Indus civilisation and the Rigveda compatible has been BB Lal, former Director-General of the Archaeological Survey of India (ASI). He claims that the Rig Vedic Saraswati and the present-day Saraswati-Ghaggar combine, which flows through Haryana and Punjab and dries up near Sirsa, are the same. His theory thus refutes the Aryan invasion theory.
Indus and Saraswati, Danino writes in his book, were the lifeline of the Indus Valley and Harappan civilisation (between 3,500 and 1,900 BC). Ancient Sanskrit texts as well as maps plotted by the British some 200 years ago indicate that Saraswati was the Ghajjar-Hakra river (Ghaggar in India and Hakra in Pakistan) that passes through Haryana.
Archaeologist Marc Aurel Stein recorded in 1880s that the easternmost tributary of Ghaggar was still known as Sarsuti at that time, which he said was a corruption of the name over a period of time. Richard Dixon Oldham, an officer of the Geological Survey of India, suggested around the same time that geological changes and tectonic movement were responsible for the Saraswati changing course and finally drying up. He suggested that Sutlej and Yamuna were tributaries of Ghaggar-Hakra. Geological changes diverted Sutlej towards the Indus and Yamuna towards the Ganga. As a result, Saraswati did not have enough water to reach the Arabian Sea and it dried up in the Thar Desert that extends from Rajasthan into some portions of Haryana, Punjab and the Rann of Kutch in Gujarat.
What science offers, and the critique
Research conducted by various institutions, including the Indian Space and Research Organisation (ISRO), has suggested the course of the Saraswati. Satellite images have unearthed the hidden course of what could be the Saraswati river below the sands of Thar Desert in Rajasthan. As per an ISRO report, the mapped course of the river is 4-10 km wide, passing through Haryana, Punjab, Rajasthan and Gujarat, confirming the findings of Oldham.
Geological studies carried out to ascertain the existence of a palaeo-channel — remnant of an inactive river or stream channel that has been either filled or buried by younger sediment — in the north-western alluvial plains by the Department of Geology, Kurukshetra University, highlight the presence of a river system in the area demarcated for excavation.
Prof Dr AR Chaudhri, chairman, KU’s Department of Geology, says studies have indicated that Saraswati boosted the development of Vedic civilisation. “The sedimentological characteristics of the alluvium in Kalayat and palaeo-riverbed near Kurukshetra point to the presence of a trans-Himalayan river system. The channel, which is being excavated in Bilaspur area of Yamunanagar district, is along the palaeo-path of the erstwhile river which has been identified as per the official revenue record of British era,” he says.
Saraswati, it is believed, got lost due to tectonic movement. “Satellite images obtained from ISRO prove palaeo-channels of the lost river still exist below the ground,” says Darshan Lal Jain, president, Saraswati Nadi Shodh Sansthan, who’s been advocating the revival of the Saraswati since 1999.
Those claiming that Saraswati is no more a myth cite research in the fields of archaeology, geology, hydrology, glaciology, remote sensing and ground water technology. Even revenue records with entries that mention the Saraswati are given as evidence.
In revenue records, Saraswati travels from Adi Badri of Yamunanagar district to Pehowa in Kurukshetra district. Along this site are several historical temples. One such place believed to be the dry basin of Saraswati is where Lord Krishna is said to have delivered preachings of the Gita. It is believed that the battle of Mahabharata was also fought on the dry bed of Saraswati river.
There is a folklore associated with this site. Wherever the river flows, there are shamshan ghats (cremation grounds) on the embankment. The locals do not go to Haridwar for immersion of ashes in the Ganga. They treat Saraswati as an equally holy river and immerse the ashes in the open fields, believing that the river flows there. “When we were young, the water (believed to be of Saraswati) flowed in our village. After the cremation, the villagers would immerse the ashes in the water of the river,” claims Ram Narain of Rohlaheri village.
However, there are historians who say the Saraswati might not have been a mighty perennial river. They say remote-sensing and satellite imagery of palaeo (past) channels begin in the north, move towards Rajasthan and then get lost. There is hardly any proof, they claim, of these images being that of the Saraswati. They also point out how remote-sensing does not reveal the antiquity of the images, is not capable of dating and is ineffective on moist soil.
Looking back, ahead
GN Srivastva, Superintending Archaeologist, Chandigarh circle, has collected samples of pebbles and earthen pottery from Mughalwali. “The earthenware is of the Rajputana period from the eighth to the 12th century. The Saraswati river passage found in Yamunanagar and Kurukshetra has links to Prachi-Saraswati of Pehowa (Kurukshetra),” he says. “The Prachi-Saraswati river is mentioned in the stone inscription of the time of King Bhoj of Pratihar dynasty, ruling in the 9th century AD.”
A report of the Central Ground Water Board for Yamunanagar prepared in 2007 says the three blocks of Bilaspur, Mustafabad and Radaur have moved in the category of dark zone due to over-exploitation of underground water and mismanagement of ground water. The report recommends construction of a reservoir in the Kandi belt to enhance ground water and underground water quality and quantity.
Several agencies are involved in the Saraswati project and the Haryana government has hired the Water and Power Consultancy Services (India) Limited (WAPCOS) to prepare a detailed project report for revival of the river. Other agencies to be involved include the United Nations Development Programme, NABARD and Asian Development Bank.
Director (Exploration), Oil and Natural Gas Corporation, Dr NK Verma, has also helped in narrowing down the location for drilling of deep borewells for tapping of the Saraswati river palaeo-channels. The ONGC has committed to carry out drilling of deep borewells in the “Saraswati river course”.
Deputy Commissioner Dr SS Phulia says the “ONGC has identified three points in Yamunanagar district and one each in Kurukshetra, Kaithal and Fatehabad districts to install tubewells in the Saraswati river course”.
So, it is the fabled Saraswati? It is not a no. It’s not a convincing yes either.
COUNTING THE GAINS OF RIVER REVIVAL PROJECT
Yamunanagar Deputy Commissioner Dr SS Phulia claims the excavation will help in preventing flooding in the area. He says crores are spent on flood protection works on the Somb river every year.
The project, he says, will help in reclaiming thousands of acres of land that is rendered unusable during monsoons. The administration has associated the revival of Saraswati with construction of a dam, artificial reservoir and channelising untamed drains during monsoons, he adds.
The reservoir to harness rainwater is expected to be more than double the size of Sukhna Lake at Chandigarh.
A recreational water park, botanical garden and zoo will also be constructed. The Chief Minister has announced an express highway along the Saraswati Revival Project which will start from Kalka (Panchkula) and run up to Kalesar (Yamunanagar).
A temple of Goddess Saraswati is proposed on the embankment of the reservoir. A historical gurdwara (Rampur Kamboyan) already exists. But the work regarding the construction of the dam and the reservoir will start only after project reports. The project is expected to be executed in two years.
LOTS TO SAY ABOUT THE RIVER
Rigveda calls Saraswati the seventh river of the Sindhu-Saraswati river system, hence the name Saptsindhu for the region bound by rivers: Saraswati in east, Sindhu (Indus) in west.
Ancient texts say the Saraswati springs from Himalayan glaciers in Har-ki-dun in Uttarakhand and emerges at Adi Badri, 30 km north of Jagadhri (Haryana), through the foothills of Shivalik ranges. About 5,000 years ago, it traversed 1,600 km, through Himachal, Haryana, Punjab, Rajasthan and Gujarat.
Around 3,500 years ago, tectonic changes caused river migration and its desiccation.
Modern quest for the Saraswati began in the 1970s when American satellite images showed traces of water channels in northern and western India that had disappeared long ago.
The finding of Saraswati river disproves the Aryan invasion theory, which states that Aryans who originally lived in central Asia migrated to India in around 1,500 BC attacking the local Dravidians and moving them south.
Saraswati Heritage Project was started in 2002 by NDA. It was dropped by the UPA after a parliamentary panel termed it an unscientific quest.
CPM’s Sitaram Yechury, former panel head, said the project’s justification was mythological, not archaeological.
Some believe monsoon-fed Ghaggar-Hakra river, which flows through northwest India before entering Pakistan, is a remnant of the Saraswati.