On a hot May morning, Salma, 55, was working on an MNREGA project in her village in Mughalwali, Yamunanagar district, Haryana. They had been digging for over 10 days, and the brief was clear: to find water. They worked in twos, Salma being paired with her brother-in-law Khaleel. Though they had been instructed to dig up to five feet, Khaleel and Salma dug deeper, “around 10 feet, and then we heard the bubbling of water.”
That find has been celebrated by the Haryana government as the “discovery” of the mythical Saraswati river, which is mentioned in the Rig Veda, and has been the object of much debate, enquiry, efforts and disbelief that it exists. At Mughalwali, a channel about 5 km long has been marked out as Saraswati Marg. It is dry, but for Khaleel and Salma’s “find”, which has become a tourist spot of sorts. “Bhandaras happen every week and at least a few hundred people come to see Saraswatiji,” said sarpanch Somnath.
In 2002, the BJP-led NDA government took a decision that was never implemented — of digging from Adibadri in Haryana — where the river is believed to flow underground — all the way to Sirsa. This time, there is greater coordination between the BJP governments in Haryana and the Centre and the RSS-backed Saraswati Nadi Shodh Sansthan. The Narendra Modi government has gone on to announce the setting up a Saraswati research institute at Mughalwali — and is, by all accounts, treating the river as a matter of certainty.
Additional block programme officer Dilawar Singh Gill spoke about how he plans to encourage the river to flow with greater force. “The plan is to connect river Som to this demarcated channel and make some of that water flow here, so people can pay respects to this river and it can be brought to life,” he said. Unlike 12 years ago, a local officer associated with the dig said, “we decided we would do more and devote less time to paperwork.” Vaibhav Garg, general secretary of the Sansthan, had no doubt over what the water was: “From satellite imagery, revenue records, survey maps and references, it is clear that the Saraswati ran right here.”
But even scientists supportive of the enterprise to “find” Saraswati are not as emphatic. Dr AR Chaudhry, geologist at Kurukshetra University, would wait a while before declaring mission accomplished. “This excavated channel is on a paleo-river bed of the Ghaggar and might have been a contributing channel to the erstwhile Saraswati river,” he said.
Why is it important to dredge up the remains of a river which disappeared thousands of years ago? And why is it important to establish that it flows in Haryana as a gupt river? The Saraswati is mentioned in the Vedas, as the “best” or “foremost” of rivers, “pure in her course from mountains to the ocean”. It is believed to survive in the form of the dried river Ghaggar in Haryana, Punjab, Rajasthan and Gujarat.
In the Hindutva reading of history, the river’s existence is crucial to assert the idea of Hindu supremacy. The contest is, really, over the origins of Indian history.
In the beginning was the Indus Valley civilisation, dated to around 3300 BC, which flourished in what is now Pakistan and the north Indian states — long before the Vedas were written (2000 BC). Establishing that the Saraswati was a large sprawling river here and contiguous with the Harappan civilisation is a way to claim that the people who wrote the Vedas (Hindus) were also the urban people who created and lived in the cities of Harappa and Mohenjodaro. And hence, the Indus Valley Civilisation was “our own”. In 1996, historian SP Gupta suggested that the civilisation be renamed the Indus-Saraswati Civilisation.
As historian Romila Thapar said in a famous lecture in 2002, “The intention of Hindutva history is to support the vision of its founding fathers — Savarkar and Golwalkar – and to project the beginnings of Indian history as authored by indigenous Aryans. Contrary to the evidence so far excavated, there is an insistence that the origins of the Indus civilisation be located on the banks of what some identify as the Saraswati river. This would allow it to be called the Saraswati civilisation, further evoking a Vedic source…”
Prof RC Thakran, former head of the history department at Delhi University, who has studied the area from 2001 to 2007, contests the belief that the Saraswati was a “mighty, perinneal river”. Citing his work along the Yamuna floodplain, he identifies the three markers of mighty and perennial rivers in the region: “the presence of a vast floodplain, the thick deposit of a fine-grained steel-gray sandsheet going down 200 feet and the presence of a huge groundwater reserve as in the case of the Yamuna. These are signatures of rivers which last over millennia. They are missing along the Ghaggar, which is being equated with ancient Saraswati. There is a small stream in the area denoted as Saraswati, but that starts and finishes in Kurukshetra.”
On the claims of “paleo-channels” found via satellite imagery, Thakran says the term “paleo” is misleading. “Satellite imaging of this kind indicates whether there was some water here or not. This NASA technology cannot tell you what kind of a water body this was. It does not prove that the river flowed here,” he said.
Neither the government nor the faithful are buying into the scepticism. The older lore of the Saraswati merging with the Ganga and the Yamuna in Allahabad has also been junked. Garg rubbishes it as “incorrect history, taught by Muslims and the British”. “The Saraswati is here,” he says. “The most important thing for history is what the buddhe-buzurg say.”