Cowboys, Indians And The River Sarasvati - A Look At Recent Findings About The ‘Mythical’ River
Anil Kumar Suri reviews the latest scientific evidence and discourse on the much talked about Sarasvati river.
The river, identified as Ghaggar-Hakra today, was not a glacially fed river, unlike the Indus, Ganga and their tributaries. It was probably a monsoon-fed river like all the rivers of central and peninsular India.
Sarasvaty abhi no neṣi vasyo māpa spharīḥ payasā mā na ā dhak |
juṣasva naḥ sakhyā veśyā ca mā tvat kśetrāṇy araṇyāni ganma ||
(“Please do not deny us your water, O Sarasvati! Please do not spurn us, leaving us to travel to other lands distant from you!”)
— Rig Veda (RV, Mandala 6, Sukta 61, Verse 14 – composed by Bharadvāja)
Few topics in Indian history have been the subject of as much debate and controversy as the Vedic River Sarasvati. Notably, in the last year, the Sarasvati has been the partial subject of a bad opinion piece by Mihir S. Sharma in the Business Standard, a rambling column by historian Irfan Habib in The Hindu and, most recently, a poorly researched article by Devdutt Pattanaik in Swarajya itself.
I shall try to bring the reader up to speed with the latest evidence pertaining to the Sarasvati, and its implications for Indian history. In the process, I also hope to illustrate how these three articles represent the three standard methods employed by those who present a false picture of Indian history – outright denial, obfuscation, and interpolation after convenient distortion, respectively.
A school of historians has long denied that the Sarasvati was ever a literal river (this theory finds Sharma’s approval). Those who do concede it was indeed a cannot agree on its location; for some of them, it is the descriptions of the Sarasvati, such as a great river (nadītame, RV 2.41.16), one characterised by great floods (arṇah, RV 1.3.12, 6.61.8) etc. that are not literal. Thus, while it is common to read that the Sarasvati is identified by some scholars with the present-day seasonal Ghaggar-Hakra, it is equally common to find it identified with the Helmand River in Afghanistan (which was known in ancient times as Harahvaiti), or described as a purely mythical river. In his article, Habib tries to play up this ambiguity, whilst failing to provide a balanced account of current evidence. Figuring out the truth about the Vedic Sarasvati is crucial to the larger question of settling if there was an influx of Indo-Aryan people to the subcontinent around 2000-1500 BCE, after the decline of the “native” Indus Valley Civilisation, which is claimed by many historians to have been the case (and repeated by Pattanaik).
The originally roving, horse-borne, cattle-herding Aryans – verily the cowboys of the 2nd Millennium BCE – are believed to have composed the Rig Veda after settling down in the northwest. After graduating to an agricultural lifestyle almost overnight, they slowly spread down the Gangetic plain through the 1st Millennium BCE, which is also supposed to be the period of composition of the “later” Yajur, Sama and Atharva Vedas, and the events described in the epics (the Ramayana and the Mahabharata). The Sarasvati occupied pride of place in the Rig Vedic pantheon, being described as the personification of a benevolent, life-sustaining river, and elevated to the giver of knowledge and wisdom.
According to the Satapatha Brahmana (2.3.4), no-one would venture to cross the Sadanira river (identified with the Gandak) as it was untouched by a brahmana’s holy fire; then, the sage, Gotama Rahugana travels with his sacred agni from the banks of the Sarasvati and takes it to the other side of the Sadanira, where it is used to clear the forests and prepare the land for agriculture. Archaeology tells us that agriculture began on the eastern bank of the Gandak no later than the 3rd Millennium BCE. The Sarasvati once flowed from the mountains to the sea (RV 7.95.2). However, later, some Brahmanas and the Mahabharata say that the river no longer extended up to the sea, but came to an end in the desert. Eventually, the Sarasvati did vanish, coming to be preserved in popular memory as antarvahini, implying that its channels had become subterranean, and being regarded as present at the Triveni Sangamam at present-day Allahabad for ritual purposes. Communities of Sārasvata Brahmins, who believe their ancestors originally resided in the Sarasvati valley can today be found all over India.
There were some old studies which had concluded that probably no major river existed in that Ghaggar-Hakra region in the Holocene (i.e., the last 10,000 years) at all. Some historians, like Habib in his article, went to town with this theory, implying this basically put an end to the possibility of finding the Rig Vedic Sarasvati there. This suits those arguing in favour of an Indo-Aryan migration into India very well. However, some obvious questions present themselves.
Firstly, why are there so many Harappan sites in the Sutlej-Yamuna interfluves if there was no source of water?
Secondly, how did the Harappans manage without an irrigation network in such a dry place? After all, the Mesopotamians and ancient Egyptians had to rely on extensive irrigation to sustain their agriculture.
And where anyway is the Sarasvati the Rig Veda extols so much, even as it mentions it along with the Indus and its tributaries?
Indeed, mapping of the Ghaggar-Hakra region has shown the presence of many dry channels. However, this could imply that either the Ghaggar-Hakra was once much larger than it is today, or that rivers like the Yamuna and the Sutlej once flowed into the Ghaggar-Hakra, but later changed course to join the Indus and Ganga respectively, as we know them today. If it was the Sutlej and Yamuna that once fed the Ghaggar-Hakra, when did they move away?
The latest evidence
A team of geologists led by Peter Clift have come up with extremely insightful answers to these questions. Using a geochemical technique called uranium-lead (U-Pb) zircon dating, they were able to establish that the sediments from the various rivers – Indus, Beas, Sutlej, Hakra and Yamuna – could be distinguished from each other and, further, the sediments from the dry channels matched with those from the Sutlej, Beas and Yamuna rivers, suggesting that it was these rivers that were flowing in the dried up channels.
Next, analysing the sediments by radiocarbon- and optically stimulated luminescence (OSL) dating, they were able to determine that the Yamuna sediments were deposited in the channels (i.e., the Yamuna last flowed into the Ghaggar-Hakra) about 50,000 years ago, and the Sutlej and Beas about 10,000 years ago. There was also no sediment from the Yamuna, Sutlej or Beas in the main channel of the Ghaggar that could be said to be less than 5,000 years old. All this implies that the Ghaggar-Hakra was a much bigger river before the Holocene, but this would have been well before the supposed arrival of the Indo-Aryans around 4,000 years ago, and even the rise of the Indus Valley Civilisation.
So does that mean that there was no major river there in the last 10,000 years? Does the Sarasvati of the Vedas belong to an entirely different region, or is its description a significantly embellished one, or is it altogether mythical?
Here is a twist in the tale: all that the study of Clift and his group tells us is that the Ghaggar-Hakra was not a glacially fed river, unlike the Indus, Ganga and their tributaries, but probably a monsoon-fed river like all the rivers of central and peninsular India. A word of caution: Clift and group worked only in Pakistan, and have not studied the Ghaggar or present-day Saraswati Nadi in India.
Perennial, monsoonal Sarasvati
The fact that geological studies have indicated the ancient Ghaggar-Hakra did not have its origins in Himalayan glaciers, but in the Sivalik ranges, does not rule it out as the likely Vedic Sarasvati, as some have tried to needlessly argue. The Rig Veda says that the river extended from giri (RV 6.61.2, 7.95.2) to samudra (RV 7.95.2), so its origin in the Sivaliks cannot be a problem. Indeed, popular belief has it that the Sarasvati originated in Adi Badri in the Sivaliks, which is part of the Sapta Badri pilgrimage sites.
Clift and his group describe the Sarasvati as a perennial, monsoonal river with multiple courses, fed by many streams, and with gentle floods that contrasted sharply with the fury of rivers like the Indus, that very effectively sustained agriculture in the Harappan civilisation.
This picture explains the extremely high density of Harappan settlements in the region between the Yamuna and Sutlej rivers, rather than along any one course. It also explains why the Harappans did not need recourse to canal irrigation for agriculture. To take the example of Haryana, Bidyut Bhadra and colleagues point out that clustered Mature Harappan (2600-1900 BCE) sites are located in Jind and Karnal districts near paleochannels, as well as Late (1900-1300 BCE) and Post Harappan (1500 BCE and later) sites along streams like the present-day Saraswati Nadi and Markanda River, which join the Ghaggar.
When the river swelled in the monsoon, it would gently flood its plain, leaving it ready for the sowing of winter crops like barley and wheat. Unlike the glacially-fed Indus and its tributaries, the Sarasvati did not pose the danger of unexpected floods from early melting snow in February/March that might destroy the crop, which could be harvested in the spring.
This explains why the agriculture in that region was based on barley and wheat, unlike the Gangetic plain, where it was based on rice. Interestingly, it can also explain a common tradition: that of offering barley (Jau) on the occasion of the spring festival of Sarasvati Puja on the day of Vasanta Panchami, although barley is not commonly cultivated – it may well be a several millennia-old practice that we have faithfully retained!
Given the extremely munificient and gentle nature of the river, with none of the danger of floods common to the other rivers, it is little wonder that the Sarasvati came to be eulogised as ambitame, nadītame, devitame (“greatest of mothers, greatest of rivers, greatest of goddesses”, RV 2.41.16).
Also, it may have been peculiarly conducive to the establishment and development of agriculture in the region. Already, Rakhigarhi in Haryana, believed to be close to the paleochannels of the Sarasvati, is turning out to be the largest “Harappan” site by some distance.
Archaeology may yet show that the earliest evidence of sedentism and agriculture may be in the Sarasvati region rather than the Indus Valley, as is currently the case. By enabling sedentism and ensuring food security very easily, the Sarasvati probably made possible further development and progress, which is why a grateful people elevated the personification of the river to the status of goddess of learning and culture.
In another study, Clift et al. also throw light on the possible factors behind the poorly-understood urbanisation process in the Indus Valley Civilisation. The Harappans seemed to have developed a sudden urge to build cities around 2600 BCE (not 8,000 years ago, as Pattanaik states!), leading to rapid and widespread urbanisation in just about a century. Even as aridification had set in, a remarkable stabilisation of rivers and reduction in the intensity of floods occurred, that proved conducive to intensive agriculture and, subsequently, urbanisation. However, the decline in the monsoon, reaching its worst around 2100 BCE tipped the scales, triggering the decline of the Harappan cities. The Sarasvati itself started drying up around 4500 years ago, and was completely covered by sand dunes around 600 CE.
Contrary to long-held theories that Indo-Aryans entered the subcontinent at this juncture and began imposing their culture on the natives, we find the development of distinct regional characteristics, and the shift towards hardier crops like millets and Kharif crops after 1900 BCE, suggesting that there was no new population – much less one with rudimentary agricultural skills as the incoming Aryans would have been – but a native one that knew the land and conditions intimately enough to diversify and adapt quickly in a rapidly changing scenario. More importantly, the Indo-Aryans seem to have had an apprehension that the declining monsoon may well lead to the vanishing of the Sarasvati, as the verse in the beginning of this article suggests. That can only mean one thing. Interestingly, Clift and his group seem to think so too, for they conclude:
“This is a testament to the acuity of the Rig Veda composers who transmitted to us across millennia such an incredibly accurate description of a grand river!”
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