Saraswati-Sindhu Civilization

published on November 1, 2008

By M. P. Ajithkumar



Right from early times India’s
northwestern part had been the cradle of cultural florescence that gave birth
to one of the ancient civilizations. Differently called as Harappan Culture or
Sindhu Valley Civilization, this early civilization of India has been
of much historical interest to archaeologists, geologists and even space
researchers. However as archaeological research progressed, the very name Indus
Civilization proved to be a misnomer since the remains of this civilization
unearthed from various parts of India reveal that it was not confined
exclusively to Indus Valley. Its cultural dissemination took place in an area
of about 2.5 million sq. KM. of India.
The northern most of Indus sites is Manda located on river Beas near Jammu. The southern most
is Bhagatrav on river Tapti in Maharashtra.
The eastern most sites are Alamgirpur on river Hindon near Delhi
and Mandoli near Nandanagari in North Delhi.
In the west it extended to Sutkagendor on the ancient shore
of Arabian Sea near the eastern border
of Iran.
The main sites include Harappa, Mohenjodaro,
Chanhudaro, Lothal, Rupar, Kalibengan, Banavali, Kunal, Kot-Diji, Dholavira,
Surkothada, Mehrgarh, Rahmandheri, Ranagundai, Amri, Kil Gul Mohamad and a host
of other major and minor ones.



       However what is most
astonishing is the concentration of these sites in the vast tract lying between
Indus on the west and Ganges on the east,
where the archaeologists and geologists alike have discovered the paleochannels
of a lost river with more than 22 KM breadth at some places. This according to
D N Wadia is the “old bed of Saraswati … at a time when it and the Sutlej
flowed independently of the Indus to the sea, i.e. the Rann
of Kutch
”. (D N Wadia, Geology of India, Delhi, 1984, p.
368.First published in 1919) By 1886 itself R D Oldham, the then Deputy
Superintend of the Geological Survey of India had pointed to the existence of
this river during ancient times. Oldham was the first geologist who studied and
gave as early as 1886, geological comments about river Saraswathi and the
changes in the drainage pattern of the rivers of Punjab and western Rajasthan
that reduced the once fertile region into a desert.  He observed the paleochannels of a river that
flowed in between the Yamuna and Sutlej and
that this river had two channels one of which passed through Haryana (Khaggar-Saraswati
channel). He also observed some shifts in the channels of this river, which
according to geological findings had changed its course many times. Analyzing
the fossils unearthed from the beds of these old rivers, he concluded that
these were of the creatures, which floated in the same river, which proved that
these channels were of the same river. (R D Oldham, ‘On Probable Changes in the
Geography of the Punjab and its Rivers an Historico-Geographical Study’, Journal
of Asiatic Society of Bengal
, 1886, Vol.55, pp.322-343)  C F Oldham also took notice of the
paleochannels of this river. He traced an old riverbed, the Hakra or Sotra
(Ghaggar) or Wahind, more than thousand Km. in length, the channel of a lost river,
traceable from Ambala near the foot of the Himalayas through Bhatinda, Bikaner and Bahawalpur to
Sind and thence onwards to the Rann of Kutch.
Quoting from the Rig Veda, Mahabharatha and Manusmrithi,
he concluded that this was the channel of the ancient river Saraswati around
which had lay the highly civilized centers. He wrote:


The existence of this river
at no very remote period and the truth of the legend which assert the ancient
fertility of the lands through which it flowed, are attested by the ruins which
everywhere overspread what is now an arid sandy waste.


     Throughout this tract are scattered
mounts, marking the sites of cities and towns. And there are strongholds still
remaining, in a very decayed state, which were places of importance…


    Amongst these ruins are found, not only the
huge bricks used by the Hindus of the remote past, but others of much later
make too.


     Taking the once urban nature
of these areas and the unerring geological findings about the long and wide
riverbed of the lost river, he concluded that this was nothing other than the
Vedic Saraswati referred to in the ancient Indian literature. (C F Oldahm, ‘The
Saraswati and the Lost River of the Indian Desert’, Journal of the Royal
Asiatic Society
, 1893, Vol.34, pp.49-76) Later the geologists engaged in
the geomorphologic survey on the eve of launching the Fakra-Nangal project also
came across the old bed of a long river, which flowed in the southwest
direction and ended up in the desert. (B C Roy, ‘Geological Map of Rajasthan’, Geological
Survey of India
, Vol. 86; ‘Lost Course of Saraswati River in the Indian
Desert’, Geographical Journal, Vol-145 (3), 1979)


  The evidence from Manusmrithi
about the existence of the rivers Saraswati and Drishadvathi, which flanked the
area it calls Brahmavartha is further attested by the most modern geological
findings and also imageries sent by the earth sensing satellites of both NASA
and ISRO. They give information about the ancient geological structure of the
northwest India based on the
pictures of the paleochannels of the rivers that flowed and ended up in the Thar Desert. (Yas Pal, ‘Remote Sensing of the Saraswati
River’, Frontiers of Harappan Civilization, (Ed. B B Lal and S P Gupta),
New Delhi, 1984, pp. 491-498)


    According to Geological and
hydrological findings this area, though now appears arid, was in ancient times
watered by a group of mighty rivers that flowed in between Sindhu in the west
and Ganga on the east. River Saraswathi,
according to the literary tradition was bigger than the Sindhu during its
heydays and had coursed through the region between modern Yamuna and Sutlej. (A. V. Sankaran, “Saraswati – the ancient river
lost in the desert”, Aseema, Mangalore, Vol. 5. No. 7, January 2005, pp.
7-14.) Though Saraswathi is lost its sister rivers outlived and have survived
to this day. It is to be noted that most of the big rivers of North India in
the time of the Vedas – Saraswathi, Shatadru (Sutlej)
and Yamuna – derived their waters from the Himalayan glaciers during the
Pleistocene times. The melting of these glaciers during the Holocene later led
to the origin of many rivers that coursed down the Himalayan slopes. The Vedic
bards symbolically present the thawing of these glaciers through the war
between God Indra and demon Vritra. Indra is represented in the Vedic
literature as the shaker of the forts or Purandara who shatters the saradiyapura
or the snow fort, a story, which has been misinterpreted by Mortimer wheeler
and others to buttress up their version of Arya-Dravida conflict. The long
channel of the river sourcing off the foot of Sivalik ranges and coursing
southwest was junctioned with many streams having considerable volume of
water.  The main Khaggar-Saraswati
channel was enriched from the west by Sutlej arising from Mount Kailas while
from the east the rivers like Drishadvati (the present Chautang), Yamuna and
Markanda combined flowed into the Saraswati-Khaggar channel which took its
mighty southwestern course till it emptied itself into the sea at Rann of
Kutch. (K S Valdia, Saraswati – The River that Disappeared, Orient
Longman, Hyderabad, 2002, pp. 23-36.). Consequently the areas between Saraswati
and Drishadvati became resourceful for the all-round prosperity of those who
peopled there. Interestingly, Saraswathi’s course in the states of Punjab, Haryana and Rajasthan is highlighted in the
LANDSAT imagery by the lush cover of vegetation thriving on the rich residual
loamy soil along its course. That this region was once watery is further
confirmed by the earth-science studies conducted here. Geophysical surveys by
the Geological Survey of India to study the ground water potential in Bikaner, Ganganagar and
Jaisalmer districts of western Rajasthan came across many zones of fresh and
less saline water in the form of arcuate shaped aquifers similar to other
palaeochannels found in different parts of the state. Studies on hydrogen,
oxygen and carbon isotopes on shallow and deep ground water samples from these
districts further confirm that these surface palaeochannels are of the ancient
rivers. A report on an environmental isotope study conducted along an
identified palaeochannel in western Rajasthan by a team of scientists of the
Isotope Division, Bhabha Atomic Research Centre, Trombay thus reads:


 A number of palaeochannels have been
identified in western Rajasthan using remote sensing techniques and field
observations … One of these channels traced is in western Jaisalmer along
Kishangar, Ghantiyali and Shahgarh. Inspite of the highly arid condition of the
region, comparatively good quality ground water is available along the course
below 30 m depth. A few dug wells in the study area do not dry up even in
summer and the tube wells do not show reduction in water table, even after
extensive utilization for human as well as livestock consumption. Ground water
away from this course is saline. This course is seen to have link with the dry
bed of Ghaggar river in the northeast, while in the southwest it is met with or
even cut across the surviving courses of Hakra or Nara
rivers in Pakistan.
The above course is thought to belong to the legendry river Saraswathi of
Himalayan origin, mentioned in many early literary works and known to have
existed before 3000 BP. (A. R. Nair, S. V. Navada and S. M. Rao,
“Isotope Study to Investigate the Origin and Age of Groundwater along
Palaeochannels in Jaisalmer and Ganganagar Districts of Rajasthan”, (Ed. B. P.
Radhakrishna and S. S. Merh) Vedic Sarasvati – Evolutionary History of a
Lost River of Northwestern India
, Memoir of the Geological Society of
India,    No. 42, 1999, pp. 315-319.)  


       The SaraswathiValley
as well as the growth of civilization there are thus facts confirmed both by
geology and archaeology. According to Manu this was the most auspicious place
and hence suitable for all kinds of spiritual activities and he calls it Brahmavartha,
the god-created land:



saraswatidrushadvathyor devanadyor yadanantharam

devanirmithamdesam brahmavartham prachakshathe

(Manu. 2. 17)


       This opinion of Geology
has not changed till date and it continued only to be buttressed up by similar
findings of archaeology and space research later. Interestingly, most of the
sites of what was so far called the Indus Valley Civilization have been
excavated from the areas this lost river with its many feeder sources had
flowed and changed its course different times. Indeed most of the
archaeological finds regarding what we call the Harappan civilization have been
unearthed from the Cholistan desert area where the Pakistani team of
archaeologists headed by M Rafique Mughal concentrated its surveys along 300
miles of the dry bed of the HakraRiver. The Cholistan
discoveries, Mughal says, have given a “new perspective and orientation for
planning future research on Indus Valley Civilization”, because “sites of
various periods, and their concentration or distribution, provides a reliable
basis for reconstructing various changes in the course of the Hakra River,
often identified with the Saraswati of the Vedic period” (M. Rafique Mughal,
‘Recent Archaeological Research in the Cholistan Desert’, Harappan
, (Ed. Gregory L. Possehl) New Delhi, Oxford & IBH, 1993,
pp. 85-94) Further excavations in Cholistan and other sites which dot all
across the regions where this lost river had flowed have brought to light that
what has been thus far described as the Indus Valley Civilization had only a
few sites on the Indus. Most sites of this civilization including the maritime
and other navigational centers were concentrated on the strands of the once
mighty River Saraswati or were connected to it.


    One may wonder as to whether
this lost river was so big that its sand beds and valleys had helped flower so
great a civilization and fostered it for a long time till it ceased to have its
mighty flow and ended up in the desert. According to geologists the two
thousand year period, between 6000 and 4000 B.C., witnessed the full splendour
of Saraswati when as a great river it watered the plains of Punjab, Rajastan, Gujarat and Haryana. Definitely this mighty river became
an object of much praise and veneration and was deified and eulogized by the
seers who authored the Vedic hymns. She is described in the Rig Veda as:


Saraswati nadinam suciryati giribhya a samudrat
(Rk Veda. 7:95:2)


“She is flowing from the mountains to the ocean”. So great was she to
the Vedic people that they praised her as the best of mothers, best of rivers
and best of Goddesses and invoked her blessings:


naditame devitame Saraswati

iva smasi prasastimamba naskridhi

(Rk Veda. 2:41:16)


“Best of mothers, best of rivers, Best of Goddesses, Saraswati we are
ignorant and untrained, give us wisdom and knowledge”


       She is described as the
river whose unlimited and uninterrupted flow with its swift movement and speedy
rush gushes forth with tempestuous roar:


ananto ahnuta stvesa scarisnurarnava amascarati roruvat
(Rk Veda.


Her mighty current is described to have broken the boulders on either
side with as much ease as breaking the lotus stems. (Rk Veda.6: 61:2)
Similarly Yajur Veda, Atharva Veda, Brahmanas, Manu
, Mahabharatha and the Puranas wax eloquent in praise
about River Saraswati, which was the lifeline of the versatile progress of
ancient northwest India.


     But all the available
sources say that the river gradually dried up and lost its course in later time
and the civilization that flowered on its banks turned lackluster with its
industrious population migrating to elsewhere.

It is
natural that the one time industrious group who peopled the valley of Saraswati
quit this place and migrated to the Sindhu valley when they saw Saraswati
drying up. According to archaeologists around 1900 BC, signs of gradual decline
emerged. People started to leave the cities. Those who remained were poorly
nourished. Even fishes died out in Saraswati. The crucial factor may have been
the disappearance of substantial portions of the Ghaggar-Hakra river system.
Geology has it that a tectonic event had diverted the system’s sources toward
the Ganges plane, though there is a little
uncertainity about the date of this event.

(Still the Gauda Saraswath
Brahmins of South India and the Saraswath Brahmins or Pundits of Kashmir have
their tradition according to which the both were the migrants from the SaraswathiValley who left its valley at the time
of the river’s disappearance owing to natural calamities.) The plate tectonics
had done away with the existing earth structure resulting in the hydro changes
of the area leading to aridity. A comparative study of the paleochannels of the
Sutlej and Yamuna as found in the imageries sent by the satellites and the
geological graphs, with their present courses would reveal that some
catastrophes like an earthquake resultant of plate-tectonics caused Sutlej to
take a westerly course to join the Sindhu, and Yamuna an easterly one to flow
into the Ganga. Consequently the main channels
now sparse of water, with no feeder channels, dried up in the dreary desert

This is supported by the Mahabharata, which mentions that
the Sarasvati river ends in a desert (modern day Rajasthan area)


What remained were only the Ghaggar, Chautang and
some insignificant channels, which could not help Saraswati and Drushadvati
flow with as much waters as in the time fed by Sutlej
and Yamuna.

sources like Panchavimsa Brahmana, Latyayana Srauta Sutra, Baudhayana
Dharmasutra, etc.,
state that Saraswati of later times had very little

It may again be noticed that though the earlier hymns of
Rg Veda praise Sarasvati, the later hymns mention the river to be meandering
and sluggish, and praise the Sindhu river instead.

Saraswati dried up with its
fishes dieing and the occupants of its valley

the cities and

migrating to other places in search of safe settlements. Manu Smriti
says that Saraswati lost its flow and went underground at the place called
Vinasana which the scholars identify as somewhere at Kalibengan, one of the
major sites of Saraswati-Sindhu civilization.



vinasyati anthardadhati saraswati atreti vinasanam

. (Manu Smruti, II, 21)


 The oral tradition that
Saraswati is vilupta or completely hidden at Prayag is thus testified
right by archaeological, geological, literary and other sources. According to
S. P. Gupta:


   “It may also be noted that from Adi Badri in
the Sivaliks supposed to be the source of Saraswati, to the site of Bahar,
running past Kapalmochana, Bhagawanpura, Thanesar-Kurukshetra and Pehoa, the
river is still seasonably alive. At Bahar it meets the river Ghaggar. Its old
course, which is now seen running parallel to that of the Ghaggar, is still
visible on the ground in the form of a long and wide depression, some four to
five km. At the widest, called SottarValley … This old channel
runs through the districts of Jind, Hissar, and Srisa in Haryana until it meets
the modern Ghaggar near the Rajastan border. The old channel of Saraswati is
popularly known as Rangoi, Nai, Nadi, Hakra, Ban, Sarsuti, etc”. (S. P. Gupta, The
Indus-Saraswati Civilization
, pp. 13-14)



The geostructural
changes that led to the disappearence of Sarasvati was a part of the major
tectonic change that took place on the northwestern cost of India. This, as already noted, is
referred to in the Mahabharata and the literary evidence is amply shored up by
geology of the area. According to Mahabharata thirtysix years after the
Kuru-Pandava war the people of Indraprastha-Hasthinapur region saw the great
river running in opposite direction and the birds overhead wheeling in circles.
Similarly they saw anomalous animal behaviour along the cost during the same
time. The Musala Parva thus says: “streets swarmed with rats and mice which
came out of their holes looked dazed, earthern pots showed cracks and were
broken from no apparent cause, birds chirped ceaselessly, cattle and goats
cried themselves hoarse, and horses bolted away from their carriages”. The city
of Dwaraka was
shortly engulfed by marshes due to ground subsidence. Understanding the
possibility of a natural calamity Sri Krishna sent all his people to safer
places including Prabhas. Soon after the departure of the people, Mahabharata
says, “the sea, the abode of the monsters, engulfed the gem-filled Dwaraka”.
The city thus sank into the sea “presumably due to a tectonic movement
accompanied by an earthquake”. (K. S. Valdiya, Saraswati – The River that
, op. cit, p. 80)  Thus in
the light of literary, archaeological and geological evidences it could be
construed that by around 1800 BC, most of the cities were abandoned, leaving
them to desolation and decrepitude, allowing the regional cultures showing the
influence of Indus civilization to emerge like the ‘Cemetery H culture’ of
Harappa and the ‘Ochre Coloured Pottery culture’.


   A possible natural reason of Saraswathi
civilization’s decline is connected with the climate change. In 2600 BC, the Saraswathi-SindhuValley was verdant, forested, and
teeming with wildlife. It was wetter, too; floods were a problem and appear, on
more than one occasion, to have overwhelmed certain settlements. As a result, Indus people supplemented their diet with hunting. By
1800 BC, the climate is known to have changed. It became significantly cooler
and drier. Besides, there was the problem of the recurring floods, and as
evident from the archaeological remains this compelled the inhabitants to erect
mudwalls and fortifications around their cities which some western historians
in their early stages of research have mistaken as the walls of defence against
the invading Aryans. In fact the recurring floods that submerged the layers of
construction forced the people to build new cities over the ruins of the old
which required the felling of the trees in abundance both for construction wood
as well as firewood for baking bricks. This certainly must have resulted in the
deforestation of the area, turning it arid and dry. Naturally the place slowly
turned sparse in vegitation and human habitation, and the Saraswati
civilization began to find new pastures on the bed of the River Indus to
continue as a living civilization in times to come.



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