The Sarasvati River : Its Origins

published on June 3, 2013

Understanding the origins of the Sarasvati River is part of the ‘revolution’ (a word used by Indic scholars) in Indic Studies, a revolution that is basically summarised by 3 events :

1. The demise of the famed Aryan Invasion of India Theory.

2. The deciphering of the Indus script.

3. The discovery of the lost Sarasvati River.

We shall focus on the third event in this article, although its connections with the first two topics are also there.

The Sarasvati River was mentioned some 70 times in the Rig Veda and disappeared in the post Vedic period. It rapidly became thought of as a mystical heavenly river that joined the Yamuna and Ganga and became the site of the famed Triveni (at Prayag) and the site of worship for millions of Hindus during the Kumbh Mela every 12 years. More than two decades ago archaeologists and earth scientists discovered primarily through satellite photography,the paleochannels of a mighty river that originated in the Himalya and ran its full course to the sea, the Rann of Cutch in the Arabian sea.

Indic scholars and scientists wrote treatises and books on the subject and organised conferences . The well known names associated with this project are B.Lal, K.S.Valdiya, S.Kalyanraman, Michael Danino , N.S. Rajaram etc., names that the general public are now familiar with(The list of scholars is long and the present writer asks to be excused for not mentioning all of them). These scholars/scientists were uniformly of the opinion that this discovery proved that the mighty Sarasvati of the Rig Veda existed and originated from the Himalaya.

There were dissenting voices such as those of the astrophysicist Rajesh Kochar who placed the Sarasvati in Afghanistan and popularised the name the Gaghra Harakka rather than the Sarasvati. Kochar’s arguments were somewhat convuluted and depended on his errroneous reading of the distinction between the Rig Vedic Sarasvati which he identified with the Helmand in Afghanistan and the smaller intermittent Gaghra Haraka in India. Marxist scholars, hostile to Hinduism, endorsed this effort and went so far as to say that in reality the Sarasvati was only a small river, a nulla so to speak(Marxist scholar Irfan Habib). Still others argued that the Sarasvati in India was a monsoon rain fed river, not a glacier fed river that rose from the Himalaya. This position has been advocated by Giosan and his colleagues in a recent article ‘Fluvial landscapes of the Harappan civilisation’ ( 2012). In fact, some of the terminology used by Dr. Giosan lends itself to a downgrading of the Sarasvati to a mere river drainage system. Irfan Habib, apart from being a Marxist was also not a Hindu. Hence, his casual use of the word ‘nulla’ to describe what millions of Hindus venerate as the Vedic Sarasvati.

The Giosan position has been criticised by the eminent geologist K.S. Valdiya in his paper ‘The river Saraswati was a Himalayan river’ (Current Science, Jan.10, 2013).

In this paper Dr. Valdiya gives a succint account of why the Sarasvati is a glacial fed river originating from the Himalaya. This is continuous with his earlier papers and books on the subject, with the additional feature of pinpointing the errors of those like Dr. Giosan who advocate the theory of the monsoon fed Sarasvati. His scientific position as an experienced geologist is that CLIMATE CHANGE ALONE cannot explain the complex interactions that take place in the formation and the continuance of a river system. There are many geological features.

The political significance of this debate is far reaching and we shall examine that in a bit. But first let us survey the debate between Valdiya and Giosan. Both papers are easily accessible in pdf on the internet.

Dr. Giosan and his colleagues (hereafter referred to Giosan et al) refer to the Sarasvati as the Gaghra Harakka. The 7 page paper is of a technical nature but written with sufficient clarity so that the general reader can understand the central point made by these researchers : the Sarasvati was a monsoon fed river, not a glacial fed river rising from the Himalaya.

Between the Indus and Ganges basins, they said, only monsoon fed rivers were active during the Holocene (the period following the Pleistocene, the Ice Age, approximately 10, 000 years ago). Hence, as the monsoon weakened, monsoon rivers gradually dried up or became seasonal. Agricultural production became vulnerable and the Harappan settlements (of the Indus Valley Civilisation) were downsized and there was an increase in the moister monsoon regions of the upper Punjab, Haryana and Uttar Pradesh.

Between the Indus and the Ganges was the smaller drainage system, the Ghaggar-Hakra which was heavily populated during the Harappan times ( before 3,900 BCE). Many explanations have been given for the collapse of Harappan society : foreign invasions, social instabilities, decline in trade, environmental factors, aridification, hydrological changes such as the drying up of the Ghaggar-Hakra system etc. It must be noted that Giosan et al consistently refer to the Sarasvati as the Ghaggar-Hakra.

Giosan et al point out that lack of information on fluvial dynamics (river water dynamics) ,high resolution topographic data and sedimentary chronologies have been lacking in almost a century of research on the Ghaggar-Hakra. To quote from their paper :

” Shuttle Radar Topography Mission (SRTM) data combined with field surveys and radiocarbon and optically stimulated luminescensce dating offers us a way to analyse fluvial land forms and date deposits of the Indo Gangetic Plain. In this context, we reexamine the archeological site distribution to understand how climate controlled changes in river dynamics affected the Harappans” (p.1)

A reading of the Giosan paper makes it obvious that their thesis on the monsoon fed Sarasvati is based SOLELY on climate change. Their methodology therefore also appears to be flawed.

The Valdiya Critique of Giosan et al :

Dr. Valdiya begins with a brief general criticism and follows it up with a detailed 4 point criticism.

As a general criticism of Giosan et al, he points out that if the Sarasvati were just a monsoon river fed by springs and seepages in its upper reaches during non monsoon months – as the Hindan river and the Gomati river in central Uttar Pradesh (UP) then it would be necessary to establish this assertion by GPR Survey. This would give a comprehensive study of groundwater elevation in relation to topographic laws combined with hydrogeological studies on the quantum of spring loading to the streams that make the river Saraswati . He observes:

“There is no mention of this kind of study and no relevant data provided by Giosan et al in support of their thesis.”

That thesis is : there are no large scale incisions (cuttings made into the ground) in the upper reaches of the river and there is a slowing of sedimentation from gradual decrease of flood intensity.

It should be pointed out to the reader that Hydrogeology is linked to the discipline of Hydrogeomorphology, which is simply the scientific name for the linkages between hydrogeological processes. The discipline is relatively new and studies the way water is delivered to and moves through a hillslope, river, or landscape. Geomorphology recognises that this process affects land forms and earth materials.

Additionally, in his introductory general criticism of the Giosan paper, Dr. Valdiya points out how landscape can be obliterated by desert storms. These were particularly prevalent in the western part of the Indo Gangetic plain. The devastation caused by dust storms is described. These dust storms conceal land forms including water bodies where everything is concealed under heaps of sand that look like knolls or hillocks. Dr. Valdiya remarks :

” Under such a circumstance how can one expect the pre 3,500 -year -old river formed land forms in the Sarasvati domain to be visible today on the surface to the geologists-geomorhologists and to the satellite-borne cameras, no matter how high their resolution is, in the region that fell under the sway of recurrent storms ?” (p.2).

After this general criticism Dr. Valdiya then examines in some detail the 4 aspects of the problem:

1. the reality of the topgraphic situation

2. the action of the wind

3. the neotechtonic movements of the terrains through which the Saraswati flowed

4. the great thickness of channel fills

This section is detailed and has maps and illustrations. Although cogent and clear and easily understood by the non specialist reader, it is advisable for the reader to go directly to the scientific account to get its full import. The result of Dr.Valdiya’s enquiry is that climate change (the action of monsoons) alone cannot explain the domain of the Sarasvati, as Giosan et al have argued.

Some Comments on the Sarasvati Controversy.

Dr. Giosan seems carried away by the rhetoric of his own partisanship. He accuses Dr. Valdiya of being influenced by emotional reasons. This is hardly the case as any objective reader of the eminent geologist’s paper can attest to.
The paper is clearly argued and is backed not only by his own expertise (acquired after a long and distinguished career as a geologist and attached to the Jawaharlal Nehru Centre for Scientific Research) but also an impressive bibliography culled from both Indian and Western scientists.

Dr. Giosan refers not only to the ‘mythical’ Sarasvati river but has been seemingly influenced by the approaches of scientists such as Rajesh Kochar the astrophysicist who placed the Rig Vedic Sarasvati as the Helmand river in Afghanistan. With due respect to Dr. Kochar he is not a Vedic scholar and therefore not in a position to accurately interpret the Rig Vedic references to the river Sarasvati.

Indeed his 1999-2000 book The Vedic Peoples, Their History and Geography may have influenced the writings of Marxist scholars who are virulently anti Hindu. In the case of Irfan Habib who called the Sarasvati a mere nulla the fact that he is not a Hindu only added to his lack of understanding of the role of the Rig Vedic Sarasvati.

For the Hindu, whether the average pious Hindu or the scholar/scientist the Rig Vedic Sarasvati is central. It is the river on whose banks the Harappan civilisation flourished and as some journalists, notably Hartosh Singh Bal have pointed out (‘The Truth about the river Saraswati’ Open Magazine, Sept.1, 2013) the possibility exists of some linkage between the Harappan peoples and the Rig Vedic peoples. Indeed, mathematicians and scientists such as Dr. N.Rajaram have already pointed out that the Indo Europeans who inhabited the Indian subcontinent were prior to the Harappans who borrowed their knowledge of using bricks from the fire altar ceremonies of the Rig Vedic peoples. His remarkble articles on the Origins of the Indo Europeans are a 3 part series based on his forthcoming book Gene Times and the Birth of History (See Folks Magazine). Dr. Kalyanraman (Director of the Sarasvati Research Centre) has diligently worked out the rhebus method of interpreting the Indus script and his encyclopedic reference works Indus Script Cipher ( 2008) and his most recent book Indus Writing in Anceint Near East (2013) have added to the thesis that the Harappans came after the Rig Vedic peoples. Greek scholar N. Kazanas had been advocating this thesis through his scholarly study of the Vedic texts, especially the Rig Veda.

In conclusion, there is no need for Hindus to feel apologetic for their attachment to the Vedic Sarasvati since it was no less a personage than the Sage Agastya who in his hymns in the Rig Veda spoke of Sarasvati as the ‘light’, as the giver of knowledge (I have written about this in the article ‘Sarasvati and Resurgent Hinduism’ in Haindava Keralam, May 8,2013 ).

(Dr. Rajiva is a Political Philosopher who taught at a Canadian university)

Welcome to Haindava Keralam! Register for Free or Login as a privileged HK member to enjoy auto-approval of your comments and to receive periodic updates.

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *

 characters available

twelve − two =

Latest Articles from Bharath Focus

Did You Know?