Allahabad or Prayagraj is one of the holiest sites for Hindus. Here, the Ganga, the Yamuna and the Saraswathi rivers meet at the Triveni Sangam. Hindu holy texts declare that taking a dip in these waters will wash away all sins committed in that person’s lifetime. She is one of the seven rivers that flow through the Saptha Sindhu, along with Indus, Jhelum, Chenab, Ravi, Beas and Sutlej. The Saraswathi is believed to have disappeared into the sands of north-western India and many Hindus believe that the mighty river flows with its past glory under the ground. Did the mighty river exist? If so, what happened to it?
Ancient literature on the river
The Rig Veda describes it as ‘Nadimatha’ or the mother of rivers, the greatest of rivers flowing down from the mountains, rushing to join the sea. She is also the fountainhead of knowledge and illumination, and on her banks, the Vedas were composed.
The Manu Smriti says that Manu, the son of God, established Brahmavarta, the land of pure Vedic culture, between the Saraswathi and her tributary, Dsrishadwathi. In the Mahabharata, the Saraswathi is reduced to a dried –up, small stream, leading to the creation of the Thar Desert. Several kingdoms are present on its banks. Many other Puranas and texts mention the river.
The Saraswathi-Sindhu civilization
Several cities of the Indus Valley Civilization flourished on the banks of River Saraswathi, so much so that, some have called it the Saraswathi-Sindhu civilization. Kalibangan, Banawali, Rakhigarhi, Dholavira and Lothal are the most well-known. But, until today, the script of the civilization remains undeciphered; so we do not know if the Saraswathi was revered by them nor if the Saraswathi was as mighty as described in the Rig Veda.
Considering the course of the river, it is obvious that the river does not flow anywhere close to Prayagraj. Then how did the confluence of the three holy rivers occur? It is claimed that some streams of the Saraswathi united with the Yamuna which then went on to join the Ganga at the Triveni Sangam.
The million dollar question
What happened to the mighty river? Did it actually exist as described in the Rig Veda? If it did, then why did it dry up? But first, this question needs to be answered: which present day river is identified with River Saraswathi? There are two rivers which are claimed to the successors – the Ghaggar-Hakra River which flows through India and Pakistan; and the Helmand river flowing through Afghanistan.
The Ghaggar-Hakra River
The Rig Veda says that the Saraswathi flowed between the Sutlej and the Yamuna. The only river which fits this description is the Ghaggar-Hakra River. The course of the Saraswathi as mentioned in the Puranas and the Mahabharata and the cities that lay along its course match with that of Ghaggar-Hakra. But the Ghaggar-Hakra is a seasonal river flowing only during the monsoon which drains inland without reaching the sea. Geologists and researchers have discovered that a mighty river did flow though the course of the Ghaggar. But most experts claim that the paleo-Ghaggar was a monsoon fed and not fed by glaciers as claimed in the Rig Veda.
Why did the river dry up? Some have suggested that it was because of climate change, which led to decrease in monsoonal rainfall over the Thar region. Around the same time, the Harappans moved out of cities into rural areas towards the east, into Northern India, as they could not survive in the dry conditions.
Some experts claim that the Yamuna and the Sutlej were tributaries of the Saraswathi. Due to tectonic changes, the Yamuna and the Sutlej changed courses, the former joining the Ganga and the latter joining the Indus. The Saraswathi, deprived of major sources of water, got reduced to a seasonal river. Recent studies done by Physical Research Laboratory, Ahmedabad and IIT, Mumbai have suggested that the Saraswathi was indeed fed by the Himalayan glaciers. It also claims that the Ghaggar had two periods of perennial flow, the first, around 80,000 years ago and the second, around 9,000 to 4,500 years ago. The second period of perennial Ghaggar can be correlated with the Rig Vedic Saraswathi and the mighty river which nourished the Early Harappan settlements.
But there is some issues with the identification of the Ghaggar-Hakra with the Saraswathi. The Ghaggar-Hakra arises in the lowest ranges of the Himalayas and not from the glaciers of the higher ranges. Also, by the time the Vedas and Puranas were composed, the river had already dried up. Even if the Yamuna and the Sutlej did strengthen the river in its lower course, the upper course of the Ghaggar would still be as small as it is now. Besides, most experts agree that the Ghaggar was a monsoon-fed river.
This has led some geologists and historians to claim that the Vedic Saraswathi was actually the Helmand river of Afghanistan.
The Helmand River
The Avestan (language of ancient Iranians) name for the Helmand River is Haraxvati or Harkavati, bearing a similarity to Saraswathi. The Helmand originated in the Hindu Kush Mountains, fed by its glaciers. Its course ended in a swamp in the Iranian plateau, which could be interpreted as the ‘samudra’ into which the Vedic Saraswathi flowed. The Avesta (holy book of Zoroastrianism, the religion of ancient Iranians) also showers praise on the Helmand River, like the Rig Veda does on the Saraswathi. Again, there are disagreements with this identification.
(The Aryans migrated through Iran)
There is also a suggestion that, for the Vedic people, the Saraswathi was both the Helmand River and the Ghaggar. As they migrated from the basin of the Helmand River into the Indo-Gangetic plains, they named the new rivers they came across with the names of the rivers they had left behind. The earlier part of the Rig Veda was composed when they had settled on the banks of the Helmand. As they migrated east, the mighty river mythically disappeared and the later parts of the Rig Veda were composed on the banks of the Ghaggar, a seasonal and small river.
Efforts are underway by some organizations and sections of Hindus to locate the Saraswathi as well as rejuvenate the river. Today, the Saraswathi is not only a river but also the Goddess of knowledge and learning. Perhaps it is more pertinent to rejuvenate the Saraswathi in ourselves, which is knowledge and learning, so that the Saraswathi who disappeared into the depths of human ignorance truly becomes mighty again.