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The Lost River Sarasvati

By  M.M. Munshi


Ambitame, Devitame,

Naditame Sarasvati

O best of mothers,

O best of Goddesses ,

O best of rivers.

Sarasvati do not kick us away,

do not let us go away from you to distant lands


was eulogised in the Rig Veda. 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 times even greater than that of Ganga (Ganges and Sindu (lndus) and other rivers. The mythology and history of Sarasvati is very interesting. The withdrawal of waters of Yamuna sometimes between Vedic times and epic of Mahabarta and (ii) Satadru (Satluj) sometimes during the eleventh century dried up Sarasvati which was once a mighty river flowing from Himalayas to Rann of Kutch quite independent of the Indus and Ganges river systems was reduced to a legend. Today it is still believed by many that Sarasvati follows an underground course and joins Ganges along with Yamuna at Triveni. The quest for the lost river began about a hundred years back when a British engineer C.F Oldham while riding across the broad dry bed of a small stream called Ghaggar visualised that a 3 km wide river bed could not have been made by a puny seasonal stream like Ghaggar but must have been the course of a bigger river in the past.

In the area between Indus and Ganges river systems or to be precise between the present courses of Yamuna and Satluj couple of seasonal dry channels flowing in westerly and southwesterly directions along very broad dry river beds namely Ghaggar and Sirsa met at Rasula near Patiala and further downstream near Bathnair near Bikaner in Rajasthan are joined by another dry seasonal channel called Chitrang which can be traced upstream eastwards up to Yamuna is most likely the old abandoned course of Yamuna Upstream of Bhatnair and downstream of Karnal the Ghaggar is joined by another buried channel (dry river course) known at present as Wah, Sirhind or Wahind which can be traced upstream as far as Ropar where Satluj emerges from the from the hills after traversing the Himalayas. This was the original course of the Satluj before it changed its course to join the Bipasa (Beas ) of the Indus system.

A few more dried up channels north of Sirhind Channel called nahiwals have also been traced up to Ropar. In Bikaner and further downstream for a length of about 150 km the course of the channel is known as Sotur or Hakra where it has attained a widith of about 5 to 8 km. At places the course of the river is still called Sarasvati by the locals. Further downstream the river course can be easily traced around Mirgarh, Dilawar in Bhawalpur and eastern Sind in Pakistan ,southern Rajasthan into Rann of Kutch through Gujarat quite distinct from the abandoned eastern channels of Indus delta.

Along the course of this buried channel 175 of pre and early historic archeological sites have been excavated and confirmed by archeologists while only 85 of similar sites have been located along Indus in Pakistan. These sites have revealed dwelling sites, potsheds and other Mohonjodaro and Harrapan types of objects /artifacts. Recent excavations at Dholsvaria and other places have revealed figures of ocean going vessels providing clues to the navigability of the dried up river. lt has been universally accepted that earliest settlements in the Indian subcontinent and elsewhere the major river valleys and not along dry river beds/abandoned river courses or uplands. How pre or early historic settlements especially with riverine culture could have come up on the sides of buried channels , unless major rivers flowing along in the past.

On the basis of these findings some experts have argued that the Indus valley civilization should be renamed as Sarasvati Civilisation Historical evidences also suggest Bhawalpur in Pakistan, and Bikaner in Rajasthan continued to be well watered at the time of Alexander’s invasion in 3rd century BC and even as late in 9th century AD. The Rann of Kutch was a fairly deep inland sea and ships and dhows of Arabs moved along the then existing river to Sind. Todd in his book “Annals of Rajasthan" has stated that Hakra in Bikaner became dry in 11th Century AD.

Historical sources of Greeks and Arabs indicate that Satluj was not a Punjab river till 11th century after which it abandoned its course and joined the Beas.. Below its present confluence with Satluj it is still called Beas though Satluj is larger of the two rivers. The existence of a 1600 km. long dry river bed/buried channel / paleo channel varying in width from 3 to 12 km extending from Sirmoor Hills in Himachal Pradesh to Rann of Kutch has been confirmed by the study of both black and white and coloured satellite imageries by experts including Bimal Ghosh, Amal Kar, and scientists of Central Arid Zone Research Institute, P.S. Thakkar of ISRO and others that Paleo Channels extending from the present trijunction of Himachal Pradesh, Punjab and Haryana through Patiala, Karnal, Bhawalpur, Bikaner, south Rajasthan. Sind to Rann of Kutch in Gujarat is the dried course of once mighty Sarasvati River quite distinct from the Indus river system.

Sarasvati River deprived of its water by diversion of Yamuna to Ganges System sometime between Vedic age and epic of Mahabharta and Satluj to Indus System much later due to neotectonic moments along the axis of Aravali range was reduced to a dry river bed of several km in width. Having lost its snow fed sources the mighty Sarasvati river disappeared and only legend remained in the folklore.

The inhabitants from its banks migrated to far off places like Kashmir, western Punjab, Rajasthan, Gujarat, Maharashtra, Karnataka and even as far south as Kerala along the west coast some of whom still call themselves as Saraswat Brahmans or simply Saraswatas. In mythology the prominence of Sarasvati was taken over by Ganga A Kashmiri Pandit writer in one of his articles “Kashmiriyat: An Evolving concept” published in July 2004 issue of Koshur Samachar has surmised that River Sarasvati was fed mainly by the outflow of water from the southeastern corner of Satisar (Pleistocene lake covering the entire valley). Due to development of a cleft on Baramula side Satisar was practically drained of its waters deprived Sarasvati of its feeder which ultimately resulted in drying up of the mighty river. The said concept is not feasible as waters of Satisar could not have flowed underneath across four major rivers namely, Chandar Bhaga ( Chenab), Irvati (Rawi), Bipasa (Beas) and Satadru (Satluj) before meeting Sarasvati. Secondly the desiccation of Satisar and drying of Saraswati were not simultaneous events but as already indicated separated by a period about 10 to 12 millenniums.

Source: Kashmir Sentinel  




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