Finding River Saraswati

A river is a Mystery; of distance and source,Touch its flowing body and you touch far off places..You touch a story that can’t stop telling itself,
A story that’s always just beginning..The song of a river ends not at her banks,But in the hearts of those, Who have truly loved her.

Saraswati means the ‘Flowing One’, the one that flows like a river as well as the one through whom flows knowledge. Devi Bhagvata Puran mentions that Goddess Saraswati in her full glory became Brahma’s consort while a part of her incarnated on earth as the river Saraswati. A part of the goddess descended in Bhârat and is thus also known as Bhârati as well as Brâhmî because she is dear to Brahmâ.

Saraswati is the most sung about river in the Vedas and is called the Ambitame, Naditame, Devitame – the Best of mothers, Best of rivers and Best of goddesses in the Rig Veda. Ancient Sanskrit texts abound with references to the river:

  • Kartikeya was anointed the Commander of Deva forces on its banks,
  • Pururava,the scion of Lunar Dynasty, met Urvashi while galloping along the Saraswati,
  • Parshu-Raamtook bath in the purifying waters of the river after cleansing Earth of tyranny,
  • Mahabharat War that ended an Era, was also fought along the banks of Saraswati!
Saraswati, the River Goddess of Arts & Learning

Saraswati has the distinction of being the only river-goddess with entire hymns dedicated to it in Rigveda [6.61], [7.95] [7.96 ]. She gave birth to canonical literature, the most scientific language in the world  and a vivid mythology. She is the river that gave birth to a Civilization. Yet, ironically, the existence of this same river has been under debate for a large part of our History! 

Scriptural References to River Saraswati

According to the 7th Mandala of the Rigveda, Saraswati was a mighty river that flowed from the mountain to the sea sustaining the lives of Vedic people. This very reference gives a valuable pointer to Saraswati’s geography and the search for the river invariably begins from the Himalayas.

Origin of Saraswati near Indo-Tibet border

The Shalya Parva of Mahabharat quotes Rishi Dadhichi (the one whose bones were later used to make the Vajra) to give her a benediction in which he states that she had risen from the Lake of Brahma in days of yore. This lake of Brahma is the Mansarovar Lake in Tibet at the base of Mt. Kailash which is indeed linked to many Indian rivers such as the Brahmaputra and the Indus. So it would not be surprising that Saraswati also originated somewhere in that region.

Rigveda Book 10 Verse 75 lists the prominent rivers of the Puru region and places Saraswati in the vicinity of the various tributaries of Indus. The names of the rivers are from east to west direction:

5 Favour ye this my laud, O Gan!gā, Yamunā, O Sutudri (Sutlej), Paruṣṇī (Ravi) and Sarasvatī: With Asikni (Chenab), Vitasta (Jhelum), O Marudvrdha, O Ārjīkīya with Susoma hear my call.

The Hymn 96 of Book 7 mentions the region she waters:

  1. I SING a lofty song, for she is mightiest, most divine of Streams. Sarasvatī will I exalt with hymns and lauds, and, O Vasiṣṭha, Heaven and Earth. 2 When in the fulness of their strength the Pūrus dwell, Beauteous One, on thy two grassy banks, Favour us thou who hast the Maruts for thy friends: stir up the bounty of our chiefs.

The Vaman Puran clearly mentions it as flowing through the region of Kurus or Kurukshetra.

Still more details are available in the Skanda Purana Section VII.1. 33. 11-100 & Chapter 34 detail the story of how Saraswati was forced to arrive on earth in order to take a terrible devastating fire to the ocean so that it would not destroy the whole world. It moves to the west and even goes underground at places when it can’t support the heat of the fire it is carrying! 

 The next verses mention how she splits into five channels just before entering the ocean. This is clearly the description of a delta formed by the river before she joins the sea and this place where it merges into the ocean is mentioned as the Prabhas Kshetra which lies in modern day Gujarat. The Shalya Parva mentions many pilgrimage places linked to Saraswati that Balram travels to. Since he lived in Dwarka which was near the coast of Gujarat, he began his pilgrimage from the aforementioned Prabhas.

Despite all these references, Saraswati is currently not identifiable in the Indian sub-continent and numerous theories have been suggested to trace its route and origin. However, one man took the onus of compiling all this information and set about ‘Finding’ the Lost river. This man is the French proto-historian, Michel Danino and we will see what science has to say about Saraswati according to the research Mr. Danino has painstakingly conducted.

Finding the Lost River

Michel Danino has researched extensively about Indian history and is the author of numerous works of great scholarship. Based on recent research in a wide range of scientific disciplines, Mr. Danino puts two and two together remarkably well and brings to life the VITAL role this river played in sowing the seeds of Indian civilization. The result of his stupendous efforts is the hugely popular and widely acclaimed book – The Lost River
 

Michel Danino’s Classic

Danino begins his journey of discovery from a tiny seasonal river called Ghaggar. As soon as I came across the name, I realized this is the river that passes through my hometown!! At most places, the river is just a stream expanding to its banks only if the monsoon is really heavy. However, the ancient riverbed is 3 to 10 kilometers wide at places proving that it had indeed been a mighty river once!

Current arrangement of Northern Rivers
Ghaggar flowing near my Home

This is corroborated by the presence of the only temple to River Saraswati that I have come across which is situated in Pehowa, a small town in Haryana about 45 kms from Chandigarh.There is a huge water tank here which is supposed to contain the now stagnant waters of the river and where thousands of people come every year to do the Shraadh or Pind Daan of their ancestors. 

It is believed that Shri Krishna Himself came there with the Pandavs before the war to get them the blessings of the goddess. Some legends also say that this was the place where Vishwamitra, the Kshatriya king finally obtained the title of Brahma-rishi!

Michel Danino has painstakingly gathered data from a wide variety of sources – Study of Ancient literature; Recorded Historical accounts; Official reports from archives of the British Raj; Data from Archaeological Survey of India records; Pollen analysis from the lakes of Rajasthan; Studies of  Oxygen-Isotope ratios; Remote sensing satellite etc.
These and other such techniques have helped present a pretty conclusive picture of the ORIGINAL course of the river and the factors leading to its disappearance. According to Danino’s research, about 5000 years ago, the flow of Saraswati was supplemented by the waters of Yamuna and Satluj both of which are perennial rivers from Himalayan glaciers. When we envision the combined volume of these three, we can actually visualize the magnificence of Saraswati as extolled in the Vedas.

Another French scientist, Henri-Paul Francfort, had discovered the dry river bed of Saraswati utilizing advanced imagery from the Satellite SPOT. His studies led to the conclusion that the river bed was pre-Harappan and had already started drying up by the middle of 4000 BCE. 
It appears that the river originated from the Har-ki-Dun glacier in West Garhwal along with the river Yamuna. The two rivers flowed parallel for some distance and later joined, proceeding south as the Vedic Saraswati. The seasonal rivers and rivulets, including Ghaggar, joined Saraswati as it followed the course of the present river through Punjab and Haryana. River Sutlej (Shatadru in Sanskrit), joined Saraswati as a tributary at Shatrana, approximately 25 km south of the modern city of Patiala.

Saraswati then followed the course of Ghaggar through Rajasthan and Hakra in Bhawalpur before emptying into the Rann of Kutch via Nara in Sindh province, running parallel to the Indus River. ISRO scientist A.K. Gupta, found fresh-water in the Thar Desert at places, where no sources of water exist.

Saraswati flowing through the Thar Desert

In the Jaisalmer district, even with very little rainfall (less that 150 mm) and extreme weather conditions, groundwater is available at a depth of 50-60 m (!!!) and wells in the vicinity do not dry up throughout the year. Groundwater samples exhibit negligible Tritium content indicating ABSENCE of modern recharge. Independent Isotope analyses have also corroborated this fresh water stored UNDER the sand dunes and Radiocarbon data suggests the groundwater is at least a few thousand years old! Not surprisingly, these stores of fresh water are located on the DRY river-bed of Saraswati!.

So what went wrong?


Imagine the might of Saraswati when you combine it with the waters of Yamuna and Satluj. Such a river would be the perfect water-way for trade and commerce and its fertile deltas and basins would support settlements all along its banks. However, some major earthquake in ancient time altered the topography of Northern India sufficiently enough to DIVERT the old courses of Saraswati’s tributaries and while the Satluj changed direction to join Indus in the West, river Yamuna turned East to align with the Ganga.
 It seems the Tectonic shifts pushed Saraswati underground which BTW tallies quite well with the popular belief about the flow of the river. Satellite images have confirmed the existence of a large number of Ground-Faults in the Saraswati-Sindhu and have caused the seepage of Saraswati water to underground channels, contributing to the legend of the Vedic Saraswati disappearing underground. 

From a practical point of view, if we can somehow revive this ancient source of water, it could become a LIFELINE for the parched desert areas of Western and Northern Rajasthan!

Around the same time, a global drought has been proven to have affected civilizations across an immense belt right from southern Europe to India. The Sumerian civilization of Mesopotamia was practically wiped out around 2200 BCE, while in Egypt, the so-called Old-Empire collapsed because of this change in climate! Incidentally, the Shrimad Bhagavatam holds Balrama, the brother of Shri Krishna, responsible for the alteration of the course of river Yamuna which was originally a major tributary of Saraswati!
Balrama altering the course of Yamuna!

In such a scenario, with BOTH its major tributaries gone, and a GLOBAL drought drying up the rivers, the results were catastrophic for our Saraswati, leading to the desertification of Rajasthan!

The Indus Valley Connection


If you carefully look at the course of the river plotted on the map of Indian sub-continent, you can not fail to grasp the proximity it shared with the course of the Indus. Interestingly, the time-frame of its existence ALSO coincides with what was till now known as the Indus ValleyCivilization!
Now, some historians ask, could there be a possibility that this archaeologically OLDEST civilization of the Indian sub-continent was sustained NOT by Indus alone, but by Indus and Saraswati BOTH???  
More than 300 sites have been discovered along the ancient course of the Saraswati

With the work of researchers like Danino, this conjecture has indeed been proven to be true! In the early part of the century, Aurel Stein, a Hungarian archaeologist, had identified scores of Harappan sites in what is NOW recognized as the dry basin of the Saraswati right from Haryana in India to Punjab in Pakistan!
In fact, there are MORE archaeological sites along the bed of Saraswati (around 360!!!) than those along the Indus (just about 3 dozen)!!Moreover, with the latest discoveriesof sites like Bhirrana it is now conclusively proven that this civilization did not progress from west to East but in the opposite direction. 
Perhaps THIS is the reason why this river-goddess is also worshiped as the Goddess of Art, Culture, Literature & Knowledge!

For those who do not know what I am talking about, let me explain – Till recently the biggest and oldest (as per Carbon-dating) sites were found in Pakistan. But the efforts of the Archaeological Survey of India have helped discover many new sites on the Indian side of the border thereby bringing to light two major sites. Bhirrana, which is a small village in Haryana has been carbon dated to 7570 BCE, the oldest of any city in the ancient world! Similarly, Rakhigarhi has been shown to be roughly 350 hectares, bigger than even Mohenjodaro which was considered the biggest Harrappan city earlier.

This could well turn out to be the turning point for re-defining our Actual History! BOTH of them are located on the now-discovered dry bed of the Saraswati and clearly this is where the legend about the Goddess being the guardian of civilization emerged from. [Read more about these here – Haryanas-Bhirrana-oldest-Harappan-site-Rakhigarhi-Asias-largest]
Because of the above discovery, it becomes so easy to understand the reason for the decline of the Harappan Civilization! It was NOT because of an invading force from the North composed of white-skinned, chariot-riding, horse-taming, iron-using Aryans as the older archaeologists are fond of claiming. The most ancient civilization of the Indian sub-continent declined because of the MASSIVE change in topography of the region!
Another study titled {Fluvial Landscapes of the Harappan Civilization} has come out after the writing of this article, which also supports this view and declares that waning of monsoons spurred both the rise and fall of the Harappans! The study was conducted by a team of scientists from US, UK, India, Pakistan and Romania between 2003 and 2008. Using state-of-the-art Geoscience technology, the researchers concluded that Harappans lived in a favorable climatic window which saw few floods and sufficient rains but things started changing around 4000 years ago.
s monsoon drying subdued devastating floods, the land nearby the rivers – still fed with water and rich silt – was just right for agriculture. This lasted for almost 2,000 years, but continued aridification closed this favorable window in the end

Read more at: http://phys.org/news/2012-05-climate-collapse-ancient-indus-civilization.html#jCp
s monsoon drying subdued devastating floods, the land nearby the rivers – still fed with water and rich silt – was just right for agriculture. This lasted for almost 2,000 years, but continued aridification closed this favorable window in the end

Read more at: http://phys.org/news/2012-05-climate-collapse-ancient-indus-civilization.html#jCps monsoon drying subdued devastating floods, the land nearby the rivers – still fed with water and rich silt – was just right for agriculture. This lasted for almost 2,000 years, but continued aridification closed this favorable window in the end

Read more at: http://phys.org/news/2012-05-climate-collapse-ancient-indus-civilization.html#jCp
s monsoon drying subdued devastating floods, the land nearby the rivers – still fed with water and rich silt – was just right for agriculture. This lasted for almost 2,000 years, but continued aridification closed this favorable window in the end

Read more at: http://phys.org/news/2012-05-climate-collapse-ancient-indus-civilization.html#jCp
The new findings serve to strengthen the premise that what we refer to as the Indus Valley Civilization was largely located on the banks of and in the proximity of the Saraswati river which withered away due to climatic conditions. The sudden change in the course of a river as wide as the Saraswati, would invariably lead to flooding in certain areas as its tributaries change their course, and a drought in the long run as the waters of the mighty river start dwindling and are unable to sustain the vast cities built on its banks.

From Saraswati to Ganga

Because of this dramatic turn of events, the denizens of the IndusSaraswati had to relocate Northwards, Westwards and Eastwards. The eastward movement formed the major chunk of migration and the sacred attributes of Saraswati were gradually transferred to the other major river of the sub-continent, the Ganga.

Goddess Ganga takes over Saraswati’s role

Most Early Harappan sites are located in the middle Ghaggar-Hakra river valley, and some on the Indus and the Saurashtra area of Gujarat. However, in the LATER period, the number of sites in the Ghaggar-Hakra and Indus diminish, while increasing in the Ganges plain and Saurashtra.

Indeed, the community of Saraswat Brahmins still trace their origin from the banks of Saraswati and are today spread all over the country right from Kashmir in the north to Kutch in the West to the Konkan region in the South of the country!

As the senior Indian Archaeologist, S.R. Rao observes –

In circa 1900 BCE most of the mature Harappa sites were wiped out forcing the inhabitants to seek new lands for settlement. They seem to have left in great hurry and in small groups, seeking shelter initially on the eastern flank of the Sutlej and the Ghaggar and gradually moving towards the Yamuna. The refugees from Mohenjo-Daro and southern sites in Sind fled to Saurashtra and later occupied interior of the Peninsula.
Supporting data is present in the literary evidence where the earliest texts like the Rig-Veda mention Ganga only twice, but later literature like the Upanishads, mention the river repeatedly!

Indus-Saraswati Civilization and Vedic India


Interestingly, archaeological sites discovered on the banks of Saraswati, mirror the descriptions from ancient Vedic texts as well. According to Mahabharat 1.90.25-26, many great kings used to perform Yagnya on Saraswati’s banks, which co-relates well with the abundance of fire-altars discovered at places like Kalibangan, a major Harrapan town located on the southern banks of the Ghaggar.

Fire-altars discovered at Kalibangan

Traditional historians had refused to put faith in the abundant descriptions of Saraswati and had declared the date of arrival of the Aryans in India around 1500 BCE (Before Common Era). Also, they envisioned the Aryans as marauding forces who wiped out the resident Harrapans and branded them as Dasyus!!

However, the findings mentioned above throw up some very important questions viz.-

  • Saraswati is related to the Rig Veda and is worshiped by the Aryans, so how is it that more than 400 Harrapan sites co-relate so perfectly with its course???
  • If the river had dwindled to a stream around 3000 BCE, how does it fit in with the traditional dating of Aryans entering India around 1500 BCE???

The artificial dating of Aryans in India is questioned in what is known as the Frawley’s Paradox given by Professor David Frawleythe Founder-Director of American Institute of Vedic Studies at Santa Fe, New Mexico. The paradox brings to fore an extremely pertinent point viz.- 

On one hand we have the vast Vedic literature without any Archaeological evidence to support it, while on the other hand we have almost 2500 Archaeological sites associated with the Indus-Saraswati civilization without any literature associated with it. 

For any sane person, the logical conclusion would be pretty obvious – The Rig Veda was composed while the Saraswati was in full flow much before 3000 BCE and the Vedic AND Harrapan cultures belonged to the SAME civilization!

There is NO need to assume that Indus-Saraswati people were DIFFERENT from the Vedic Aryans. This assumption was created out of thin air by early British historians who found it difficult to believe the existence of an Asian civilization pre-dating the Hellenistic civilizations of Europe.

Indeed Harrapan Seals show a preponderance of Hindu motifs such as the Swastika, the Bull, and the Peepal leaf. Numerous figurines display Yogic postures and various seals have been identified with Shiva and the Goddess.

Harrapan seal identified with Shiva
Seals with Trident, Bull and Peepal motifs

As mentioned before, the Mahabharat states that Balram traveled from Dwarka to Mathura, on river Saraswati, to immerse the ashes of the Yadavs after the battle.This implies, the river was still navigable at the time of the Mahabharat War and the Epic was written BEFORE it had dried up i.e. at least before 3000 BCE (instead of 300 BCE given by older historians). Quite fittingly, this corresponds with the astrological dating of the War in 3rd Millenium BCE.

Krishna and Arjun on Battlefield Mahabharat

The discovery of vast number of sites on the banks of Saraswati, the co-relation with excerpts from Vedic scriptures, the revision of dates of these scriptures based on latest findings about the river, all these are tied to each other and lead to a common conclusion – The till now considered MYTHICAL Saraswati was HISTORICALLY present in the Indian sub-continent, sowing the seeds of Hindu religion and giving birth to the OLDEST Civilization in the World, that of Indus-Saraswati.. 

Saraswati Flows On


The worship of Saraswati is not limited to India alone and she has a huge fan following in Japan where she is revered as BENZAITEN – the only goddess in a group of seven lucky gods! In fact many other Indian gods also find place in the Japanese pantheon.

Benzaiten – Saraswati

Benzaiten (Saraswati), Kangiten (Ganpati) and Bishamonten (Kuber) in Japan

Our Scriptures were written on its banks, numerous Yagnyas performed in its vicinity, the very FOUNDATION of our religion was laid using the fertile kilns of the Saraswati. No wonder then, that the river is worshiped as Bharati, the Mother of Bharatiya civilization and many old Indian script supports her appellation like the Sharada that was used in Kashmir and the more widespread Brahmi

I consider myself lucky enough to have seen the river and touched its HOLY waters even before I knew of its real significance, and I was lucky enough to have also met the MAN who achieved the Himalayan task of tracing its origins :o)

 

My fortunate meeting with Mr. Danino

 I hope I was able to kindle a spark of excitement in my readers about this brilliant phase of our Cvilizational history and for those interested in knowing more, I highly recommend the book by Mr. Danino. For all who believe in the divinity of the river, I’m sharing this image by the brilliant artist Swapnil Singh, depicting Goddess Saraswati in all her sublime glory.

Saraswati, the Goddess of Learning

I pay obeisance to Saraswati, the Fountainhead of Knowledge, for awakening my mind to this reality and helping me believe in what, at some level, I instinctively knew was the truth. May the river Saraswati re-attain her lost glory and find its True place in the History of our ancient land..


The Goddess who is fair as the Jasmine flower,
Whose hands are adorned by the Celestial Veena,
Whose seat is the pure White Lotus;
O Mother Goddess, remove our Ignorance!  

The purifying Saraswati in All her forms of Plenty,
Enriching all substance, the Creatrix of Word,
May she desire the offered sacrifice;
O Mother Goddess, remove our Ignorance!

She, the Impeller of all Auspicious Truths,The Inspirer of All the right Musings,
May Saraswati, uphold the Sacrifice;O Mother Goddess, remove our Ignorance!

She who Awakens the Consciousness,
The awakener of the movement of Reet,
And the Illuminator of our Thoughts;O Mother Goddess, remove All our Ignorance!
.

Aum Shanti: Shanti: Shanti:

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