The Sarasvati River (Sanskrit sárasvatī nadī) is one of the chief Rigvedic rivers mentioned in ancient Sanskrit texts. The Nadistuti hymn in the Rigveda (10.75) mentions the Sarasvati between the Yamuna in the east and the Sutlej in the west, and later Vedic texts like Tandya and Jaiminiya Brahmanas as well as the Mahabharata mention that the Sarasvati dried up in a desert. The goddess Sarasvati was originally a personification of this river, but later developed an independent identity and gained meaning.
The identification of the Vedic Sarasvati River with the Ghaggar-Hakra River was accepted by a number of scholars already in the 19th and early 20th century, including Christian Lassen, Max Müller, Marc Aurel Stein, C.F. Oldham and Jane Macintosh, while some more recent Vedic scholars (e.g. Kochhar 1999) believe the Helmand River of southern Afghanistan corresponds to the Sarasvati River.
Course of Saraswati
Palaeo-drainage network formed by several palaeochannels has been worked out by different researchers in western Rajasthan and neighbouring states, which is mainly buried under sand cover of the Thar Desert and parallel to the Aravalli Hills 6–8. In the last couple of years with the advancement in satellite and remote sensing technology, palaeochannels have been mapped systematically. Different workers have different opinions about the number of courses of Saraswati River. Ghosh et al.6,9 reported five, Yashpal et al.10 reported one, Bakliwal and Grover11 reported seven. On the basis of aerial photographs and Landsat imagery, faults/lineaments and palaeo-drainage system in NW India have been delineated6,7,9,12–15. Several authors16–18 have opined that upliftment of the Aravallis led to the westward migration of Saraswati River system due to fault-controlled movements. The faults have been and continue to be active, registering various sideways and up–down movements in the geological past. As a consequence, there was uplift and sinking or horizontal (lateral) displacement of the ground. Under such tectonophysiographic upheavals, the rivers and streams were frequently forced to change their courses, sometimes gradually, sometimes abruptly, as seen on satellite images.Recent Hindu belief is that still Saraswati river flows underground and meets Yamuna and Ganga at their confluence in Prayag (Allahabad).
The Saraswati Civilisation
A fresh study by a group of international scientists confirms the dominant role of Saraswati river in sustaining the so-called Indus Valley Civilisation. A new study titled, ‘Fluvial landscapes of the Harappan civilisation’, has concluded that the Indus Valley Civilisation died out because the monsoons which fed the rivers that supported the civilisation, migrated to the east. With the rivers drying out as a result, the civilisation collapsed some 4000 years ago. The study was conducted by a team of scientists from the US, the UK, India, Pakistan and Romania between 2003 and 2008. While the new finding puts to rest, at least for the moment, other theories of the civilisation’s demise, such as the shifting course of rivers due to tectonic changes or a fatal foreign invasion, it serves to strengthen the premise that the civilisation that we refer to as the Indus Valley Civilisation was largely located on the banks of and in the proximity of the Saraswati river.
More than 70 per cent of the sites that have been discovered to contain archaeological material dating to this civilisation’s period are located on the banks of the mythological — and now dried out — river. As experts have been repeatedly pointing out, nearly 2,000 of the 3,000 sites excavated so far are located outside the Indus belt that gives the civilisation its name. According to experts who have studied the map of all relevant underground channels that are intact to date and connected once upon a time with the river, the Saraswati was probably 1500 km long and 3–15 km wide. The latest study, whose findings were published recently in the Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences, too is clear on the river’s existence and its role in sustaining the ancient civilisation. The report said that the Saraswati was “not Himalayan-fed by a perennial monsoon-supported water course.” It added that the rivers in the region (including Saraswati) were “indeed sizeable and highly active.”
The Union Water Resources Ministry had then quoted in writing the conclusion of a study jointly conducted by scientists of Indian Space Research Organisation, Jodhpur, and the Rajasthan Government’s Ground Water Department, published in the Journal of Indian Society of Remote Sensing. Besides other things, the authors had said that “clear signals of palaeo-channels on the satellite imagery in the form of a strong and powerful continuous drainage system in the North West region and occurrence of archaeological sites of pre-Harappan, Harappan and post-Harappan age, beyond doubt indicate the existence of a mighty palaeo-drainage system of Vedic Saraswati river in this region… The description and magnanimity of these channels also matches with the river Saraswati described in the Vedic literature.”