Researchers have been scouring India for signs of the “mythical” Saraswati river for more than a century.
The Saraswati river has long piqued the interest of indologists, historians, and religious experts. It is believed to have flowed from the Himalayas to the Arabian Sea and is separate from the other famous river, the Indus. Ancient Indian scriptures like the Vedas, Puranas, epics like the Mahabharata, and Smritis frequently mention the river. Colonial officials like James Tod, a representative of the British East India Company in the 19th century, have also made reference to it in historical documents and documentation.
The latter travelled widely through and explored Rajasthan, and according to his notes, Saraswati is referred to as “the lost river of the desert.” Before joining the eastern branch of the Indus Delta, the river, according to Tod, began in the Himalaya’s Shiwalik range in regions of modern-day Rajasthan and Haryana.
However, was the river ever actually there? Despite several allusions to Saraswati in the Vedas, academics have unable to pinpoint the river’s course or connect it to now or formerly existing river systems.
River that was “lost”
The river is deified in the Rig Veda, which is where it is first referenced, and in subsequent Vedic and post Vedic literature as well, making it a significant component of Vedic culture and religion. Three of the four books of the Rig Veda make reference to it. However, Saraswati is described differently in the Vedas themselves. Later Vedic texts refer to Saraswati as a little river that empties into a “samudra,” which can refer to either an ocean or a lake.
Numerous references to the goddess Saraswati, who evolved into a distinct being, can also be discovered in post-Vedic times. Another description of the Saraswati is that it was a strong river that caused enormous floods. Hindu mythology holds that the Triveni Sangam was created by the meeting of the holy Indian rivers Ganga, Yamuna, and Saraswati. Hindu mythology also holds that the existence of the Saraswati river extends beyond the physical world into the metaphysical world.
By interpreting the data contained in the Vedas, several attempts have been made over the years to find or recreate the path of the ‘lost’ Saraswati river. For instance, the Sarasvati is mentioned in the Nadistuti hymn in the Rigveda as flowing into a samudra whereas the Yamuna and Sutlej are in the east and west, respectively. The Sarasvati is described as drying up in a desert in late Vedic writings like the Mahabharata, Tandya Brahmana, and Jaiminiya Brahmana.
The RV’s Book 6—”Nadistuti Sukta”—praised the Saraswati River as the “perfect mother, incomparable river, and ultimate goddess,” but by Book 10—the final section of the RV—the emphasis appears to have shifted to the river Indus. Indian predecessors referred to Indus as Sindhu. c. in the later Panchvimsha Brahmana, a section of the Sama Veda. The river’s name was changed from “Nadimata Saraswati” to “Vinasana Saraswati” in 800 BC, denoting an entity that was “no longer able to hold up the skies and as a result has gone underground.”
How did the vast river fare? How could a large river of such size disappear completely?
Few theories: The Ghaggar-Hakra river system, which runs between the Yamuna and Sutlej through north-western India and Pakistan before coming to an end in the Thar, is one of the most widely spread and believed histories of the Saraswati river. Indianists and historians first identified the Ghaggar-Hakra as the river system that includes the Saraswati in the late 19th century.
The Ghaggar-Hakra river channel may have been a paleochannel of the Sutlej river that flowed into the Nara river, a delta channel of the Indus, according to the most recent research. About 10,000–8,000 years ago, the Sutlej changed its path, making the Ghaggar–Hakra a rain-fed river system. Researchers who contend that the Ghaggar-Hakra river system dried up before the end of the Harappan civilization dispute this finding that the Saraswati was a part of the Ghaggar system.
Following a decrease in the monsoons 5,000 years ago, the Harappan civilization arose along the route of the river system. It is thought that the Harappan civilisation came to an end 4000 years ago when the Hakra dried up due to the monsoons’ continued decrease. This was before Vedic culture in northwest India emerged. After the system dried up, the Vedic people moved to the region and composed the Vedic texts that reference Saraswati. The Rig Vedic references to Saraswati’s course do not line up with the Ghaggar-Hakra system’s itinerary either.
The Saraswati River and the Helmand River in Afghanistan have both been compared by certain academics.
Since some academics have connected the Ghaggar-Hakra system to the Indus Valley civilization, the association of the Ghaggar-Hakra system with Saraswati has gained fresh relevance. These academics propose that the Rig Veda be dated earlier and that the Indus Valley civilization be renamed “Sindu Sarasvati” or “Indus Sarasvati.” According to the central government, the Archaeological Survey of India (ASI) has already carried out excavations under the Saraswati Project since 2003 at these sites: Adibadri (in Yamuna Nagar district), Thanesar (Kurukshetra), Bhirana (Fatehabad), and Hansi (Hissar) in Haryana; Baror (Ganganagar), Tarkhanwala Dera (Ganganagar), Chak.
The Rajasthan government established the Rajasthan River Basin and Water Resources Planning Authority in 2015 to plan for the state’s water resources and to revive the Saraswati River. The authority will also investigate other issues relating to river basins, such as intra-basin river water transfer. The Saraswati River would be covered in the school and university curricula, the Haryana government decided in 2021. In Haryana, excavation work has also been done to look for remnants of the river’s route.