Saraswathi -Michel Danino’s The Lost River

Giving shape to the lost river-G K Rao

Among the many myths central to Indian culture, one is remarkably constant — the story of a lost or invisible river, which has immense religious significance for the average Hindu. In fact, the confluence of the Ganga and Yamuna at Prayag or Allahabad is called Triveni, a garland of three strands, the Ganga, the Yamuna and the Saraswati, the heart of the matter, the most sacred of India’s myriad waters.

There have always been two sharply defined schools of opinion on this subject, that of the average devotee and that of the scholar. The devotee has no doubt that the Saraswati exists, invisible, ineffable and intangible. Its influence is subtle but nevertheless decisive as it is the Saraswati that is the true touchstone of Indianness. The scholars, for their part, have puzzled over the numerous references to the river but having found no physical sign of it have treated it as a metaphor, an abstraction.

What if it is literally true? That the Saraswati once flowed through the heart of

India, but no longer does so? That is the theme of Michel Danino’s The Lost River. It is not a new story because there has always been speculation since the beginning of modern archaeology that there was a river in ancient times that got lost in the sands of the Indian desert. It never entered the history books perhaps because historians paid little heed to the archaeological evidence in the Gangetic plain.

In this story the star role belongs undoubtedly to the Archaeological Survey of India. To most people ASI is a protector of monuments and little else, but over the decades, the ASI has patiently worked in almost total obscurity to unearth some of the greatest treasures of the past, lost cities such as Dwaraka, Dholavira, Kalibangan and Lothal, all from the same cultural matrix as Harappa and Mohenjodaro. It is ASI which established that far from being confined to the Indus valley, the Harappa culture spread across a vast area between the Indus and the Ganga.

Students of Indian history have been particularly excited at the evidence that a great many of the sites may have been linked by a river, a river, moreover, that looked like being a mighty mass of water. Thus, faintly, the contours of the Saraswati first became visible as the byproduct of a search for something quite different.

Danino begins his quest by looking at a small, nondescript stream called the Ghaggar or Chaggar, which flows west of the Yamuna, through present-day Haryana, Rajasthan and then on to Sind in Pakistan where it becomes the Hakra. One of its tributaries is an even smaller stream called Saraswati or Sarsuti, which rises in the Shivalik Hills about 50 miles northeast of Ambala.

At first sight it is a most unpromising prospect. Both are seasonal rivers, swelling in the monsoon to a respectable size, but visible as a thin trickle for the rest of the year. It would be hard to believe that a city, much less a civilisation, could be built along its banks. But there is more to the story.

One pointer is the vast number of ancient settlements that have been found hugging what may be the original riverbanks, which also indicate a much greater flow than seen at present. At some places, according to Danino, the ancient riverbed is several kilometres wide, a mighty river indeed. But the question is, how did that happen, and what happened afterwards? Danino proposes a startling hypothesis.

In ancient times, that is, about five millennia ago, the Yamuna flowed into the Ghaggar. So did the Sutlej. These are major rivers and both are perennial, having their sources high up in the Himalayan snowfields. When to this is added the likelihood of a much wetter climate overall, it is easy to see that the Ghaggar (Saraswati) may indeed have been mighty, as the scriptures say. It could have reached the sea through the Rann of Kutch. Such a river would have been a highway for commerce and helped seed new settlements all along its length. The many maps in the book show just that kind of clustering of ancient sites discovered by the ASI.

The big question, of course, is what happened to end this happy state of affairs? Danino proposes that a big earthquake in ancient time altered the topography sufficiently to send the Yamuna away from its old bed. This is certainly a possibility as the river is already in the plains and even a minor change in the lie of the land could do the trick over the course of a few decades. As for the Sutlej, it has long been known as a vagrant, wandering across the plains, changing course many times over the millennia. Indeed, one of its names, in post-Vedic literature, Shatadru, means “of a hundred channels”. Some of those channels passed very close to today’s Ghaggar so it could well have deserted the Saraswati at some point. With the Yamuna gone and the Sutlej gone, the results would have been catastrophic for the settlements along the banks. One by one they would have gone, and so the light went out on a brilliant civilisation.

The second question is, where’s the evidence for this thesis? There is where the story gets interesting. The writer has painstakingly gathered data from a variety of sources, ancient literature, historical accounts, official reports by British administrators, ASI site data, hydrological reports, analysis of ancient sediments and pollen from the lakes of Rajasthan, studies of planktonic foraminifers from the Arabian Sea, and of planktonic oxygen isotope ratios, remote sensing satellite data, studies of ancient underground waters, and so on. Taken together, they do provide a picture approximately similar to Danino’s hypothesis but it should be stressed that the evidence is not definitive, but indicative. Danino has gathered many but not all of the pieces of the puzzle. It is an impressive collection but it has not reached critical mass.

The lost river is finally taking shape, even though it has not manifested itself completely. But given the trend one feels the evidence will be found and students of India can then raise a collective glass to the silent, unknown warriors of the Archaeological Survey. Incidentally, if the Saraswati is found it will deal the deathblow to the Aryan invasion theory. That is another subject that should occupy Indologists happily for decades to come.

— grao@expressbuzz.com

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