Saraswati: Pumpkin under a grain of rice
By Sandhya Jain
A famous Tamil saying avers: you cannot hide a pumpkin under a grain of rice. It was precisely such a preposterous attempt—the denial of the very existence of the mighty river Saraswati by motivated Western and Indian Marxist scholars—that was powerfully overturned at the recent Saraswati Colloquium at Kurukshetra, Haryana (November 17 to 20, 2006).
Organised under the aegis of the Akhil Bharatiya Itihasa Sankalana Yojana and the Saraswati Nadi Shodh Prakalp, the colloquium distinguished itself with a fascinating exhibition highlighting the material, scientific and administrative evidence of the existence of the river that nourished and inspired the country's ancient Vedic civilization. A nation-wide dissemination of the exhibition would soon put the political-academic detractors of the river to flight and diminish those who continue to deny the Vedic roots of the Harappan (Indus-Saraswati) civilization.
The exhibition featured Survey of India maps published in 1969 and 1970, which trace the route of the vanished Saraswati and its adjacent waters in the Haryana districts of Kurukshetra, Jind, Ambala, Karnal, Rohtak and Sonipat. There are detailed satellite images of its palaeo-channels and present-day drainages in Haryana, Punjab and Himachal Pradesh, undertaken by ISRO's Regional Remote Sensing Service Centre at Jodhpur.
But the most clinching evidence of official administrative acknowledgement of the Vedic river and its northern Indian trajectory comes in the form of the small revenue maps traditionally maintained by village patwaris. These are historical government records, and the organisers of the exhibition have imaginatively culled out and joined the revenue maps of the villages of Yamuna Nagar and Kurukshetra districts, which clearly depict the course of the now invisible Saraswati.
At least 38 villages are covered by the maps, including Khera Kalan; Khera Khurd; Sabalpur; Muftabad (renamed Saraswati Nagar); Mali Mazra; Uncha Chandna; Gundana; Shahaberpura; Gajlana; Ram Nagar; Gog Mazra; Gura Singhal; Sultanpur; Kali Rona (Baban Khelna); Kandhauli; Bhaini; Gohan; Ishargarh; Bohti; Mukarpur; Pipli (Khetra Ratgal); Amargarh Majhada, Kurukshetra Jail ke peeche, Ratgal Shetra; North of Kurukshetra, front of Sector 13; Dera Khurd; Thanesar; Sheikh Chilli Maqbara Shetra; Gaon Bahri Kurukshetra, NE Shetra; Jogna Khera; Narkatari; Gulabgarh; SYL - Bhakra-Pehowa Road; Jyotisar (birthplace of Bhagvad Gita); Gaon Garhi Rojhan; Gaon Chailo; Murtzapur Bibipur lake; Sehda Unthsal Derhaja Bangdi; and Bodla Gaon.
This is incontrovertible evidence that the Saraswati's course has been known to cartographers from the time the river flowed powerfully from the mountains to the ocean, to the time it disappeared following tectonic movements in the earth's crust. Since the river did not dry up overnight, but continued to flow in lesser water systems, its course was remembered by succeeding generations. Interestingly, the Rig Vedic river is still known as Saraswati in its upper reaches in Haryana; it then joins the Ghaggar and later dries up near Sirsa. It is known as Ghaggar in Rajasthan, Hakra in Cholistan (Pakistan) and Nara in Sindh. Its final destination was the Rann of Kutch, east of the present-day Indus.
The Rig Veda envisages the Saraswati as having descended from the heavens. It is interesting that this river, which is the fountainhead of Indian culture, originates in the Tibetan Himalayas, as does the Brahmaputra, also associated with the creator-god Brahma. These two rivers thus embrace and irrigate the eastern and western extremities of India. Given the legendary fertility of the Saraswati, the states of Haryana, Gujarat, and Rajasthan have taken the initiative to link rivers to provide drinking water and irrigation facilities to farmers and with this raised the possibility of reviving the great river Saraswati.
The route of the vanished river was first established by the late Dr. Haribhau Wakankar, through satellite imagery and archaeological sites along its route. The Saraswati project was scrutinised by eminent archaeologists and geologists, and an earnest search for the lost river was launched in 1982, when Dr. Wakankar created a team of 49 scholars. Many events synergized thereafter. In 1995, the Bhabha Atomic Research Centre (BARC) found water in the Rajasthan desert at depths of merely 50 to 60 metres, making agriculture possible even in extreme summer. The Central Arid Zone Research Institute (CAZRI), Jodhpur, mapped the defunct course of a river through satellite and aerial photographs and field studies.
Satellite imagery suggests the river originated in Kailash Mansarovar and emerged on the plains from the Siwalik Hills at the foothills of the Himalayas in Himachal Pradesh, flowed through the Ghaggar valley in Haryana and the Rajasthan desert, on to Hakra in the Cholistan desert (Sindh, Pakistan), before reaching the Rann of Kutch through the Nara Valley and falling off into the Arabian Sea. This river is obviously the Saraswati, as it is the only river in Indian literature and tradition that vanished. Scientific studies suggest it dried up around 2000 BC, which makes it a contemporary of the Indus Valley civilization and gives the Rig Veda a greater antiquity than previously suspected, as the Saraswati was a powerful river when the seers composed the Vedic shlokas.
Interestingly, after Pokharan 1998, the Bhabha Atomic Research Centre (BARC) tested the underground water for tritium (radio-active fallout), and found potable waters in the desert. These, derived from Himalayan glaciers, were 8000 to 14000 years old, and were being slowly recharged through aquifers from somewhere in the north despite the semi-arid region having scanty rainfall. BARC thus confirmed ISRO findings about the river.
In 2003-04, archaeologists from Shimla Circle established Adi Badri as the site where the river entered the plains, descending from the Rupin-Supin glaciers north of Paonta Saheb, where a Yamuna tear caused by plate tectonics caused a lateral shift of the Shiwalik ranges. This caused the eastward migration of the Yamuna, a tributary of Saraswati, taking the Saraswati waters to join the Ganga at Prayag and create the Triveni Sangam. This tectonic diversion of the Yamuna waters is recorded in our cultural memory through the story of Balaram, brother of Krishna, dragging the river Yamuna towards Mathura.
Reputed scholars now hold that the Saraswati-Indus and Vedic civilization are one and the same. They say it is impossible that the so-called Aryans left a massive literary corpus (Vedas) but not a shred of material culture as evidence of their presence in the region. At the same time, a rich material culture has been found in the same place at the same time, with evidence of writing found on seals. There is no evidence of invasion, or even substantial inward migration, but a population shift following the loss of a major water source. Dr. R.S. Bisht, former director, ASI, who excavated Dholavira (Gujarat) and supervised the search for the Saraswati in 2001, stressed: "The overwhelming archeological evidence of ancient settlements along the course of what was once the Saraswati River proves that our earliest civilizations were not confined to the Indus river alone. Those who wrote the Vedas on the banks of the Saraswati were the same as the Indus Valley people."