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The River That Disappeared

By  M.M. Munshi

The rivers have played a prominent part in the hymns of Rigveda and subsequently in early vedic religion. Seven rivers have often referred in the Rig Veda The Avesta’s Hafta Hindu are equated with the vedic Safta Sindhu or Sindhavatha, and Sarasvati has been referred as a she meaning a feminine one with seven sisters. It is still confusing as to how the seven sisters [rivers] were intended to be enumerated These have been often described in the north western part of India and Pakistan. Even if Sarasvati is included as one of the seven rivers and five rivers of Punjab namely Satudri (Satluj) Vipasa (Beas),Parushni or Iravati (Ravi), Aksini or Chandar Bhaga (Chenab), Vitasta or Biloda (Jhelum) at present part of the Sindhu (Indus) System one river still remains elusive as Sindhu itself like Bhramputra is a special case as having been declared as a masculine and not a feminine gender and not invoked as a goddesses.

The most prominent river of the early Rigveda is Sarasvati losing its prominence to Sindu in the late Rigveda. This has been ascribed to the migration of Vedic Aryans from Gandhara (Eastern Afghanistan and Present day western Pakistan) to Indus valley and beyond. Most probably the drying up of Sarasvati resulted in loss of its prominence to Sindhu. The Nadustut [hymn in praise of rivers] 10.75 of Rig Veda places the Sarasvati between the Yanuna in the east and Satluj in the west. Latter texts have mentioned that Sarasvati started drying up and ended in a desert. The Goddess Sarasvati was originally personification of this river, and later developed as an independent identity. Most of the scholars agree to the hypothesis that a number of references to the Sarasvati in the Rig Veda point to the dry bed of Ghaggar Hakra river while few believe that Helmend River in Afghanistan as the locus of the early Rig Veda river. Whether such transfer of name from Helmand to Ghaggar or vice versa is yet to be resolved.

The name Sarasvati has descended from Proto Indo Iranian saras-win (seles-wnt-in-th) meaning - “she with many pools”, saras in Sanskrit means “Pool Pond” the sarasi means large or swampy pool cognate with swamp. The way the crane Grus Antigone derives its Indian name Saras from Sar(pool) the same way river Sarasvati also derived its name from pool/pond which was gradually personified as a river GoddessThe Rig Veda refers Sarasvati mostly to stagnant waters. Mention of Sarasvati has been made in almost all the chapters of Rig Veda as already stated it has figured as chief of Safta Sindhu.The seven rivers of early Rig Veda. And listed in the geographical list of the ten rivers in the Nadistuti Sakuta of the late Rig Veda. Sarasvati has been described as best of all the rivers” the seventh mother of floods Sarasvati Saptath Sindumata - “ ambitame the best of the mothers, naditambe the best of rivers and devitambe the best of Goddessesexpresses the reverences vedic poets paid to Sarasvati River. When Sarasvati started drying up some unknown poet further expressed “Sarasvati do not kick us ,do not let us go away from you. Another reference to the Sarasvati is in the geographical enumeration of the late Rig Veda Nadastuti Sukta which includes all the important rivers from Ganga in the east up to Sindhu and beyond in the west in a strict Geographical order as Ganga,Yamuna and Sarasvati Sarasvati has been placed between Yamuna and Satluj corresponding with the Ghaggar identification. * It is no doubt that even if Sarasvati has lost much of its former prominence it remained a personified river goddess throughout the Rig Veda Several Puranas describe the Sarasvati river and also record that flowed through several lakes.

“The impetuous Sarasvati is rich for ,magnificent cows ,excellent horses ,good chariots beautiful garments and abundance of gold “ Such was the prominence in which Sarasvati river was held during the vedic period even greater than that of Ganga (Ganges), Sindhu (Indus) and other rivers. The mythology and history of Sarasvati River is interesting. The diversion of the waters of (1) Yamuna to Ganges system sometime during the vedic times and epic of Mahabharta and (2) Satadri (Sutluj) to Indus system much latter dried up the Sarasvati which was once a mighty river flowing from Himalayas in to Rann of Kutch independent of Indus and Ganges river systems was reduced to a legend.. Even today it is believed by many that Sarasvati river flows underground and joins Ganges system at latter’s confluence with Yamuna..The quest for the legendry river about a century back when a British engineer C.F.Oldham while riding across wide dry river bed visualized that a three kilometer river bed could have been made by a puny seasonal stream like Ghaggar but by a the course of a bigger river in the past.

The area between the present day limits of Indus and Ganges river systems or to be precise between the present day courses of Satluj and Yamuna a couple of seasonal water channels flowing in a west to south west directions along very broad dry river beds namely Ghaggar and Sirsa meet at Rasula near Patiala and further downstream at Batnair near Bikaner in Rajasthan or joined by another seasonal water channel Chitrang which can be traced upstream to Yamuna is the old and abandoned course of Yamuna. Upstream of Bathnair and downstream of Karnal the Ghaggar is joined from the north by another dry seasonal channel known at present as Wah, Sirhind or Wahind which traceable upstream as far as Ropar where Satluj emerges from the foot hills after traversing Himalayas This was the original course of Satudri (Satluj) before it changed its course to join Bipasa  (Beas) of the Indus system. Below the conflunce of Satluj and Beas the river is not known as Satluj but Beas to the natives in Pakistan though the former is larger of the two.. In Bikaner and further downstream for a length of about 150 Kms.the dry river Channel where it has attained a width of 8 to 10 Kms. is known by the name of Hakra or Sotur and at places as Sarasvati.. The former river course in scientific/geological language as Paleo channel has been traced around Mirgarh, Dhilawar in Bhawalpur and eastern Sind in Pakistan western Rajasthan and Gujarat into Rann of Kutch quite distinct from Nara the abandoned eastern channels of Indus delta.   

Along the course of this paleo channel about 175 pre and early historic sites have been excavated and confirmed by archeologists while only 85 of similar sites have been located along the Indus in Pakistan dwelling places, pot sheds and other types of Harapan and Mohonjodaro objects /artifacts. Recent excavations at Dholvaria in Gujarat and other places have revealed figures of ocean of going vessels providing clues to the navigability of the former river. Based on these findings some scholars have argued that Indus Valley civilization should be renamed as Sarasvati Valley Civilization. It has been universally accepted that earliest settlements in the Indian Sub-Continent and elsewhere came up along the river valleys and not along dry arid regions or uplands. How the pre historic settlements with riverine culture could have come up along abandoned river courses unless major rivers were flowing in the pre/early historic times along these Paleo Channels.

Historical evidences also suggest that Bhawalpur in Pakistan and Bikaner in Rajasthan ere fairly well watered about third century BC and even as late as 9th century. The Rann of Kutch was fairly a deep inland sea and ships and dows of Arabs used to travel along the river to Sind. Todd in his book “Annals of Rajasthan” has stated that Hakra became dry in 11th century AD. Historical records of Arabs also indicate that Satluj was not considered as a Punjab River.As already stated Satluj had abandoned its original Course near Ropar and joined the Beas. Satluj below the conflunce with Beas is still known as Beas., though it is larger of the two.

The existence of a 1680 kms. long dry river bed /buried channel. /paleo channel existing from the trijunction of present Himachal Pradesh, Utrakhand, and Haryana through Patiala, Karnal ,Bikaner, Bhawalpur, eastern Sind and south Rajasthan to Rann of Kutch in Gujarat has been confirmed by study of black and white as well as coloured satellite imageries by experts including Amal Kar, Bimal Gosh and scientists of Central Arid Zone Research Institute P.S. Thakar of ISRO and others is the dried course of once mighty Sarasvati River with its dried up tributaries quite distinct from the Indus system This is corroborated by some verses of Rig Veda which indicate that Saraswati originated in Giris (mountains) where she burst with stronger waves against the ridges of the hills and spread in the plains as a swollen river (Pinnavamna) by other rivers apparently Yamuna and Satluj.

Sasrasvati River deprived of its waters, by diversion of Yamuna to Ganges system during the vedic age and Satluj to Indus System much latter due to neo tectonic moments along the Aravli Axis was reduced to a dry river bed of several kilometers in width.. Having lost its snow and glacier fed sources disappeared and only a legend remained in the folklore The inhabitants on its banks migrated gradually and in stages westwards to far of places like Kashmir, West Punjab, Rajasthan, Konkan in Maharashtra, Karnataka as far south as northern borders of Kerala. Most of whom still call themselves Sarawatas or Saraswat Brahmans. In mythology and scriptures the prominence of Sarasvati was taken by Ganga.

A prominent Kashmiri Pandit writer residing in Jammu has stated that in one of the community magazines that River Sarasvati was fed mainly by the out flow from the south eastern corner of the Satisar  (Pliestocene Lake covering the Kashmir Valley) and due to development of a cleft on the western side, the said lake was drained of its water resulting in depriving the Sarasvati river of its source of water. This concept is not feasible as water from Kashmir valley even if it flowed eastwards could have joined Chenab in Kishtwar area instead of Jang Sarar in Pakistan but under any circumstances would not have flown underneath four major rivers namely Chenab, Ravi. Beas and Satluj and surfaced like a siphon to feed Sarasvati. Secondly the desiccation of the Kashmir lake and disappearance of Sarasvati river is separated by a time gap several millenniums. For similar reasons the theory that Sarasvati flows underground and joins the Ganga near Allahabad is also not feasible.

Copyrights M.M.Munshi 2012



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