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The riddle of a river

Print edition : Aug 03, 2002 T+T-

Union Minister Jagmohan's efforts to establish a role for the Sarasvati river in the Indus Valley civilisation take the shape of a project of excavations, which will begin in Haryana.

UNION Minister for Tourism and Cultural Affairs Jagmohan has an unenviable task in hand - that of putting in place a cultural policy for "national reconstruction", which is explained as a cultural renaissance that will enable Indians to be aware of their heritage. One step in this regard is the revival of interest in the Sarasvati river, references to which are found in the Rig Veda. Efforts are on to identify the river's course and to ascribe to it a civilisational virtue under the camouflage of promoting domestic and religious tourism. These are based on the assumption that the seasonal Ghaggar river in Haryana is the ancient Sarasvati. The cultural revival as envisaged by Jagmohan will be made possible by excavating the course of the river in parts of Haryana and then developing certain areas there as religious and tourist sites.

At a seminar organised at Yamunanagar, Haryana, on June 12 by the Sarasvati River Research Centre (Sarasvati Nadi Shodh Sansthan), Jagmohan announced that the Central government, along with the State governments concerned, including the Haryana government, would undertake the excavation of the entire course of the extinct river. A four-member committee will be in charge of this. The committee comprises Baldev Sahai, former Deputy Director, Space Applications Centre, Ahmedabad; V.M.K. Puri, a glaciologist who was formerly with the Geological Survey of India, Lucknow; S. Kalyanaraman, a former senior executive of the Asian Development Bank, who is also trained in archaeology; and Madhav Chitle, former Secretary, Ground Water Management, and coordinator for Global Water Partnership. The first phase will involve the digging up of the stretch from Adi Badri in Yamunanagar district to Bhagwanpura in Kurukshetra district to Sirsa (all in Haryana). In the second phase, the excavation and related work will be taken up from Bhagwanpura to Kalibangan in Rajasthan. The Central government is yet to sanction the funds, as the estimates are still in the process of being prepared by the State governments concerned.

Darshan Jain, president of the Sarasvati Nadi Shodh Sansthan, feels it would be convenient if the first phase is launched before the annual fair in Adi Badri in November to mark the birth anniversary celebrations of Guru Nanak, the founder of Sikhism. As for the river whose origins are sought to be found at Adi Badri, Darshan Jain conceded that all that remained was a trickle from one of the rock formations. However, if fresh water could be filled in the several tanks that date back to the Mahabharata period, which are muddy now, people could take their holy dips in them, he averred.

The present effort is definitely novel. Jagmohan told Frontline that it was not important whether the Sarasvati was found or not. But in the course of the research on the "mighty river" which has been referred to 50 times in the Rig Veda, a certain consciousness will find its way into the minds of the people, he hopes. The river, the Minister explained, was mentioned along with other rivers, and if these rivers had existed, it was not correct to assume that the Sarasvati had not existed. He said that there was cultural, geological, hydrological and geographical evidence to show that the river was not a mythological desert river. "There is a school of thought - I would not say there is irrefutable evidence - that believes that a sophisticated civilisation flourished on the banks of the Sarasvati," said Jagmohan.

It is here that the real purpose of the programme comes into the open. The project is evidently a conscious effort to address the "plaguing problem" of the origin of the Aryans, an ideological riddle that was first raised by the Baba Saheb Apte Smarak Samiti (named after the founder of the Vishwa Hindu Parishad) and the Bharatiya Itihasa Sankalan Samiti (which is devoted to the rewriting of history) in the early 1980s. A survey of the lost Sarasvati was planned in 1983 by the former institution.

Attempts to make the Indus civilisation and the Rig Veda chronologically compatible have been afoot for quite some time now. One major proponent of the Sarasvati's civilisational link is B.B. Lal, former Director-General of the Archaeological Survey of India (ASI). In his latest book The Sarasvati Flows on: The Continuity of Indian Culture (Aryan Books International, New Delhi, 2002), Lal argues that the Rig Vedic Sarasvati and the present-day Sarasvati-Ghaggar combine, which flows through Haryana and Punjab and dries up near Sirsa, are the same. His other theory refutes the Aryan invasion theory. R.S. Bisht, Director for Excavation at the ASI, also subscribes to a similar theory though he is against the digging of the entire course of the river.

Bisht, who accompanied Jagmohan to Yamunanagar, asked how it was that so many sites were found located on the banks of the Sarasvati - such as Gaveriwala, Rakhigarhi and Dholavira - if it had not been a perennial river. Bisht contends that the territory of the Rig Vedic Aryans was coterminous with that of the Harappans. Between 2000 B.C. and 1800 B.C., a dry spell heralded the decline of the Indus Valley civilisation, he says. Bisht argues that the Sarasvati died a clinical death and rejuvenating it is impossible; but in the same breath he underscores the Vedic importance of the river. The Nadi Sukta or the river hymn, although a late composition compared to the Rig Veda, enumerated a large number of rivers that ran from the east to the west. Bisht said that it was thought that the Yamuna and the Sutlej flowed into the Sarasvati, an idea that was dear to S.P. Gupta, the historian who proposed the idea that the Indus Valley civilisation be renamed the Indus-Sarasvati civilisation. The Sarasvati is mentioned in the Rig Veda several times.

Over the years, man-made interventions obstructed the course of the surface water channels. To redeem the lost glory of the river, its easternmost source, in Haryana, was taken as the most sacred one. All the depressions along the course of the river would be symbolically cleaned, Bisht said.

ON the other side is Suraj Bhan, renowned archaeologist and historian. He argues that the Rig Vedic references to the Sarasvati do not always pertain to a particular river. In the early parts, it perhaps means the Harakhvati of Afghanistan and the Sindhu (Indus), he says. There is no evidence even to suggest that either the Sutlej or the Yamuna contributed to the Sarasvati, he contends.

R.C. Thakran, Reader in the Department of History, University of Delhi, who is a trained archaeologist and hails from rural Haryana, does not buy the argument that the Sarasvati was a mighty perennial river. Like the Yamuna, most perennial rivers have two important features on their surfaces and sub-surfaces - sand deposition and water reservoirs, the latter on account of the constant flow of water on their floodplains. Despite continuous exploitation of water in the sub-soil of the Yamuna, water reservoirs remain. And this could happen only if the river was a "mighty" one, he said. But in the case of the Sarasvati, sand deposits and water reservoirs were missing, he pointed out. The impact of a river with a bed ranging from 10 to 30 kilometres should be felt along its course and depositions would be naturally available. But nowhere in the State were sand deposits visible either on the sub-soil or the surface soil, he said. The depth of the sand deposits would indicate the impact of the river, said Thakran. Even if they did find sand deposits, it by no means would establish that the river was a perennial one. Sub-soil reservoirs were missing in most parts of Haryana. The water was not fresh. Only in some districts, such as Karnal, Kurukshetra and Ambala, water was of good quality and was freely available (but not to the extent in the Yamuna belt). He said that most tubewells were shallow, and that the majority of borewells were located in areas where canal water had reached. On the theory of the dry period, Thakran said that the region received erratic rainfall from ancient times. Even so, people never made habitations along the banks of rivers, especially mighty rivers, for the simple reason that they posed a hazard, he argued.

Thakran said rivers per se were not essential for human settlements; what was essential was the supply of water in one form or the other. Ethnographic archaeology or the study of modern lifestyles in the State could explain how people coped with the semi-arid conditions. The prevalence of village ponds widely indicates a certain degree of rainwater harvesting. Wells were also constructed alongside the ponds. The muddy water in the wells would be desilted and stored for later use. Thakran recalls that in his childhood days clearing of ponds was a community activity, which gradually diminished as alternative sources of water, such as canals, appeared. According to him, villages located themselves near ponds, not rivers.

Thakran said that in the mid-1980s an ASI-French archaeological mission found that there was no river action in this belt in the Harappan times and even afterwards. Water action observed at local levels revealed surface water run-off or rainwater run-off. On the question of settlements, Thakran said that only a nominal number of them were observed though there was a mild increase in their numbers between the early and mature Harappan phases. After agriculture, pastoralism is the other known source of subsistence for people in the State. Cattle outnumber other domestic animals as they are hardy and require less water and food than others. The practice, which started in the proto-historical times, continues even today. Pastoralists would not have known how to control such a mighty river as the mythological Sarasvati, said Thakran.

As for remote-sensing and satellite imagery of paleo-channels or past channels of water, Thakran said the images appeared as impressions of flowing water. They begin in the north, move towards Rajasthan and get lost beyond that. There is hardly any evidence to show that these images are that of the Sarasvati. However, he said, remote-sensing did not reveal the antiquity of the images and was not capable of dating or soil morphology. In such a situation, it was difficult to say which period an image belonged to. He said another limitation of remote-sensing was that it was effective only on dry soil. Moisture in the sub-soil tends to absorb the signals and therefore a message cannot be sent to the satellite.

Thakran is certain that the Ghaggar river made no contribution to the evolution and development of the early and mature Harappan settlements. Nor was the number of settlements found to be substantial. On the contrary, a greater number of early and mature Harappan sites were found in the upland dry areas which had saline water, away from the rivers. A far greater concentration of Harappan settlements was found in the Ghaggar basin and in the basins of other rivers, but these were not in the formative phase but in the terminal phase of the civilisation. Hence the river neither was helpful in promoting human activities nor could become a centre of human settlements by the end of the mature Harappan phase.

But, according to Jagmohan, there is a preponderance of evidence to show that the Sarasvati was an important river. There were 1,500 settlements along the course of the Sarasvati, though in the late Harappan period, he said. He added that the Central Water Commission, with assistance from its counterparts in the State, had been told to dig two wells in the Adi Badri area; if there was water in them "it would come out", he said.

The Rig Veda makes references to several rivers, including the Indus. To magnify the importance of one particular river in this context and promote tourism around it only betrays the enthusiasm of the BJP-led government in the case of anything Vedic. But many feel that both the Centre and the Haryana government should concentrate more on getting water for the parched State from Punjab instead of promoting an extinct Sarasvati.