The Saraswati river is at the confluence of faith and science, of legend and history. Internet activists and academics like Stephen Knapp and Irfan Habib have fought endless, winless Mahabharatas on its banks. The former strive to reimagine history in their image. The latter insist, quite rightly, on the historicity of history. The river is a catchment area for cultural anxieties and identity crises, and therefore the wise have seen fit to relocate it beyond the realm of the sensible. Designated “antarvahini” (roughly, flowing underground), it surfaces into reality only at Prayag, where it can safely mingle with the Ganga and Yamuna.
But every NDA government causes the Saraswati, which lost its way in the desert sands in the Mahabharata era, to resurface with the enthusiasm of Old Faithful. The Vajpayee government had set hordes of scholars onto remote-sensing data, to seek old riverbeds in the region generally agreed to be Aryavarta. There were several, each of which may or may not be the Saraswati. But confusion is no deterrent. Heinrich Schliemann famously found Troy by believing the Iliad, the story on which he was raised. Now, the NDA government is founding a research institute and museum that will work on India’s mythical river.
The initiative comes from the ministry of tourism, under a scheme for pilgrimage rejuvenation and spirituality augmentation, which renders it relatively harmless. If it had been moved by the ministry of science and technology, on the other hand, it would have been a fighting matter. But what would we do with the Saraswati if it were found? The pan-Indian instinct would be to immediately pollute it with industrial effluents and coliform bacteria, and then to build vegetarian studio apartments, holistic resorts and holy water bottling plants along its banks. Historical materialism, in a certain sense.