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The elusive Saraswati River: What the long search has found

Govt’s expert panel on Saraswati is the latest in a long line of initiatives to trace the course of the stream mentioned in the Rig Veda.

Written by Divya A | New Delhi |
Updated: March 9, 2016 7:28:21 am
underground-main Underground water found in Mughalwali in Yamunanagar district of Haryana (Express photo by Praveen Khanna)

Last week, the Haryana government changed the name of Mustafabad tehsil in Yamunanagar district to Saraswati Nagar. The renaming of Mustafabad, home to over 8,500 people, was done to brand it as the place that marks the discovery of the mythical river Saraswati. Haryana’s first BJP government, headed by Chief Minister Manohar Lal Khattar, has sanctioned Rs 500 million for the excavation of the river. Construction of a palaeo-channel, digging of borewells, carbon-dating and other works have already been initiated.

Centre’s role

On the same day that Haryana renamed Mustafabad, the central government set up a panel under former Kumaon University vice-chancellor Prof K S Valdiya to verify Haryana’s claims. Union Minister for Water Resources Uma Bharti said the “task force” comprising Valdiya and other water experts and historians would look into the apparent discovery of the lost river in Haryana and Rajasthan. Traces of underground water flow were found in Yamunanagar last year. “The Ministry will think further about the river only after the veracity of the claim is established,” Bharti said.

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In the ongoing session of Parliament, Col Sonaram Choudhary, BJP MP of Barmer, asked Finance Minister Arun Jaitley to make provisions in the Budget for researching and re-discovering the “lost” Saraswati. The Vasundhara Raje government has already prepared a detailed project report on the search. In 2014, the BJP MP from Ambala, Rattan Lal Kataria, moved a motion in Parliament seeking a “Saraswati Research Institute” for the “revival” of the river.


NDA’s pet project

The BJP and NDA have always been enthusiastic about “finding” the lost river. In 2002, the Atal Bihari Vajpayee government gave the job to a high-power panel headed by Culture Minister Jagmohan, with 36 months to complete the project. Two years later, the UPA came to power and scrapped the project. The Modi government intends to revive it, with the Ministry of Culture as the nodal agency and the ASI as the implementation agency.

Myth, mythology, literature

The Saraswati finds mention in the Rig Veda — likely composed between 1,500 BC and 1,200 BC — which speaks of the river flowing between the Yamuna in the east and the Sutlej in the west. The Mahabharata, which reached its final form probably in the 4th century AD, mentions that the Saraswati dried up in a desert. There are indications of a Saraswati river in a 17th century map by Van den Brouck and the poet Bipradas Pipilai’s Manasamangal kavya, but these refer to a stream in Bengal.

The Lost River: On The Trail of the Sarasvati, Michel Danino’s 2010 book, presents numerous arguments from topography, geological studies and satellite imagery to support the view that the dried up riverbed of the Ghaggar-Hakra was the vedic Saraswati river. The Ghaggar-Hakra once sustained the Bronze Age Harappan civilization, which flourished between 3500 BC and 1300 BC.

Modern theories

Those who believe in the existence of the Saraswati say the river is represented by the Ghaggar and its tributaries in Haryana, Punjab, Rajasthan and Gujarat, and the Cholistan region in Pakistan.

The dried-up palaeochannel of the Ghaggar is being explored, and its course is being excavated. ASI has excavated several sites from present-day Adibadri in Haryana’s Yamunanagar district to Khirsara in Rajasthan’s Kutch district. Last year, the mounds of Binjore in Rajasthan’s Ganganagar district were excavated.

Another theory suggests that the Helmand river of southern Afghanistan corresponds to the Vedic Saraswati; yet another set of people believes the Saraswati is a mythical river that forms a confluence with the Ganga and Yamuna at the Triveni Sangam in an invisible form.

Search so far

Despite efforts by geologists and scientists since the 19th century, nothing concrete has emerged to establish the existence of the Saraswati. Post-independence, as Harappan sites got scattered across India and Pakistan, the efforts to locate the river too became scattered. The identification of the Saraswati with the Ghaggar-Hakra was proposed by the first generation of orientalists and Indologists such as Christian Lassen, Max Müller and Aurel Stein in the 19th and 20th centuries. Between 2002 and 2004, the ASI conducted excavations under the Saraswati Project at 10 sites along the route. These include Adibadri, Kurukshetra, Fatehabad and Hisar in Haryana, Ganganagar and Hanumangarh in Rajasthan, and Kutch in Gujarat. The ASI also conducted independent excavations in 2009-13 at Khirsara (Gujarat) and in 2012-14 at Karanpura (Rajasthan), but says that only a multidisciplinary approach involving the Geological Survey of India and other agencies can establish a conclusive link between the Saraswati and Ghaggar-Hakra.

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