River Sarasvati

Fiction as history

Print edition : May 12, 2017

Rakhal Das Banerji, the ASI officer who discovered Mohenjo-Daro, at the site in 1922. Photo: The Hindu Archives

Two of the four human skeletons belonging to the Harappan era that were discovered at a burial mound in Rakhigarhi village in Hisar, Haryana, on March 11, 2015. Photo: Manoj Dhaka/AFP

The excavated site at Bhirrana, Haryana, considered one of the oldest of the Indus Valley Civilisation sites. Photo: Photo courtesy ASI

Irfan Habib Photo: S. Subramanium

D.N. Jha. Photo: Shanker Chakravarty

The site known as 4MSR, situated a couple of kilometres from Binjor village, along the Ghaggar (Ghaggar-Hakra) river valley. Photo: V.V. Krishnan

Scholars and historians see a right-wing agenda in the Haryana government’s proposal to rename the Indus Valley Civilisation as Sarasvati Indus Civilisation.

OLD wine is being sought to be served in a new bottle in the corridors of history and archaeology in Haryana. A fresh proposal to rename the Indus Valley Civilisation as Sarasvati Indus Civilisation or simply Sarasvati Civilisation has been made by the Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP) government in the State. Earlier this year, the Haryana Sarasvati Heritage Development Board, headed by Chief Minister Manohar Lal Khattar, stated there was enough evidence to rename the Indus Valley Civilisation. The proposal said: “There are less than hundred sites in Pakistan dating back to the so-called Indus Valley Civilisation while there are nearly a thousand sites in Haryana…. The largest Harappan site Rakhigarhi and the oldest Bhirrana are both in Haryana. The State government is restarting excavation at Kunal in Fatehabad district.”

The move failed to impress historians and archaeologists alike. The eminent historian Irfan Habib, who has written extensively on the Sarasvati, dubs it “an exercise at fiction”. “It is an old BJP slogan based on politics, not history,” he says. Prof. D.N. Jha, who is widely respected for his path-breaking work on ancient India, dismisses the proposal: “The idea of renaming the Indus Valley Civilisation is many years old. The Sarasvati Heritage Board was established in 2002 under NDA [National Democratic Alliance] rule but was scrapped in 2005-06 after the UPA [United Progressive Alliance] came to power. Its revival under the communalist Modi regime is no surprise. It is reminiscent of the gross misuse of archaeology during the Nazi regime.”

The noted archaeologist Shereen Ratnagar, who has taught at Jawaharlal Nehru University and authored the widely read book Understanding Harappa, clears the air by underlining the difference between history and archaeology, making unnecessary the State government’s attempt to find favour with historians for renaming the civilisation that preceded the Vedic Age by about a thousand years. “History cannot support an archaeological claim—they are different disciplines,” she says. “This is nothing new. The late S.P. Gupta and others said so many years ago.” As for the huge number of sites in Haryana, she says: “They get such a large number because they count sites of various cultures.”

In her book Understanding Harappa, she makes it clear that the ancient civilisation known to us for over 150 years is indeed the Indus Valley Civilisation and that it cannot be called Sarasvati Civilisation. She argues that irrespective of the number of discoveries claimed by those asking for the civilisation to be named after the river Sarasvati, Harappa and Mohenjo-Daro remain the largest sites. They have the richest artefacts and the most elaborate architecture. “They are likely, therefore, to have been economically or politically central, even dominant places. Thus, ‘Harappan’ is a satisfactory label,” she writes. “If in an ancient mound we find only one pot and two bead necklaces similar to those of Harappa and Mohenjo-Daro, with the bulk of pottery, tools and ornaments of a different type altogether, we cannot call that site Harappan. It is instead a site with Harappan contacts....Where the Sarasvati valley sites are concerned, we find that many of them are sites of local culture (with distinctive pottery, clay bangles, terracotta beads and grinding stones), some of them showing Harappan contact, and comparatively full-fledged Mature Harappan sites,” she writes.

However, the debate rages over whether the period should be named after Sarasvati, a tributary of the Indus. Says Jha: “It is often suggested that this was the civilisation of the Sarasvati river, not the Indus. Vedic literature gives importance to a river known as the Sarasvati, which some archaeologists identify with the mostly dry river now known as the Ghaggar in India, and, further downstream in Pakistan, as the Hakra, that is, its course being from mountains in the north-east towards the Indus channel in the south-west. It has been said that there are several relic mounds of the period (example Kalibangan) along the banks of this Sarasvati river system, more than along the alluvial valley of the Indus. So, it was claimed, this is the Sarasvati civilisation, not the civilisation of the Indus. There are difficulties about this suggestion. First, fewer Harappan sites lie along the banks of the Ghaggar-Hakra than is made out. Second, there is no proof at all that the Sarasvati of the Rg Veda was in fact this (now dry) river—the identification is itself open to doubt.” Jha questions the supposed evidence of the presence of a thousand sites. “All these sites are dispersed and do not form a chain along any big river.”

However, it is said that there are satellite images that confirm the claims of the Haryana Sarasvati Heritage Development Board. If one were to believe the images, the Sarasvati was indeed an awe-inspiring river with free-flowing water and habitats around its banks. The noted historian Satish Chandra, however, dismisses the claim: “They are trying very hard to find the Sarasvati river. They claim it was a big, majestic river and quote evidence of the existence of so many Harappan period sites. What is forgotten is that civilisation grew on the banks of small rivers. Traditionally, people did not use water from the river but wells and baolis. The question of having a big river does not hint at civilisation.”

Irfan Habib dismisses the “proof” of satellite imagery, saying: “The claims of water being sighted are all fiction. Satellite images show no connection between the Hakkar and the Indus.” His viewpoint is similar to Shereen Ratnagar’s. As she puts it: “The geology in that region is complex. In the medieval period, too, it had several rivers and irrigation canals. Subsoil water in one stretch or another cannot be proof of an ancient water course from the Shivaliks to the Gulf of Kutch.”

She points out: “R.N. Singh and a team of archaeologists explored this region and reported in 2008 that the landscape has been so altered by human activity in the recent past that the use of satellite imagery does not help us to correlate site location with ancient river courses. Moreover, the locational data given for Harappan sites was in many cases faulty and not all were in close proximity to dry beds of the Ghaggar river.”

From myth to reality

Amidst all this, there are conflicting claims on the course of the Sarasvati, indeed its very existence. The Board states: “The river is no more a myth; its existence is a reality. No one should call Sarasvati a myth since it has already been proven that the river was present. No one should also use the word mythology in association with the river.” Legend has it that the river remains hidden and meets the Ganga and the Yamuna in Prayag. One school believes that the river flowed westward to Rann of Katch and into Pakistan.

“The Sarasvati as part of a larger river trinity is a myth,” insists Habib, before taking on those who believe that the river had a westward course. “According to their logic, the river originates in submersible water in Haryana. If they can bring water from a nullah in Haryana, then the original source of Sarasvati will be in Haryana, not Himachal Pradesh. Then Sarasvati originates in the plains and cannot carry much water. A river that originates in the Shivaliks cannot carry water to either the Rann of Kutch or the mythical union with the Ganga and the Yamuna in Prayag. The present-day Sarasvati neither rises in the Himalaya nor flows down to the sea. Its connection with the Ghaggar is relatively recent, and its link with the Hakra is not as certain as everyone assumes.”

Habib adds more detail to his argument by revealing that scrutiny of alluvium from the Ghaggar plains ruled out any larger river coming down from the Himalaya to the area here. He does agree that the Sarasvati is indeed mentioned in Chapter X of the Rg Veda, where it is mentioned that it is located between the Yamuna and the Sutlej. That is probably the present-day Sarsuti. The Brahmanas mention Sarasvati’s disappearance at Vinasana, thus ruling out its merger with the Ghaggar.

Jha elaborates: “The Sarasvati of the Rg Veda was not as big as it has been made out to be; nor did it directly flow into the Rann of Katch as the Sarasvati enthusiasts insist. On the other hand, the idea that the river, which dried up in Vinasana, flowed underground for nearly 500 kilometres may not be very old. But insistence on the Sarasvati flowing down to Rann of Katch would mean that the Triveni Sangam is a myth. So it is for the Hindutva ideologues to choose between their communalism and the popular superstition about the Triveni Sangam.”

If that is the case, why is there so much eagerness, such unbounded enthusiasm, to rename the Indus Valley Civilisation after Sarasvati?

Cultural agenda

Says Jha: “The idea of renaming the Indus Valley Civilisation is many years old and is part of the right-wing communal agenda. The ‘othering’ of Muslims as foreigners has led to the assertion that Hindus are indigenous people and so are their supposed ancestors, the Aryans. Since they claim to be the original inhabitants of India, they have to be the progenitors of the oldest civilisation, the Harappan Civilisation. But some of its important centres (Mohenjo-Daro and Harappa) are in Pakistan, so its roots must be found in India. Not surprisingly, Hindutva enthusiasts have named the Harappan Civilisation after the river Sarasvati. Thus, one can immediately see the link between the depiction of Muslims as foreigners and the naming of the Harappan Civilisation after the river Sarasvati.”

His argument finds support from Shereen Ratnagar. “The term Sarasvati conjures up an identity between the culture reflected in the Vedic literature and that of the Harappan Civilisation, when there is, in fact, hardly any correspondence. Thus, the label Sarasvati is difficult to defend on scholarly grounds and we should not forget that, in any case, the river in question was a tributary of the Indus.” And not a majestic, though hidden, companion of the Ganga and the Yamuna.

So, is the myth of the Sarasvati Civilisation buried for good? Jha has a clincher: “That the river Sarasvati is mentioned in the Rg Veda is not a myth. But the Sarasvati Civilisation is.” Says Habib: “Just fiction. How does one fight fiction?” A myth is a narrative about the remote past. Scholars (Leftists included) have used the term wrongly, creating confusion in people’s minds. A myth is believed to be the truth, but there is no hard evidence for it. The more appropriate term would be legend. How do you ‘prove’ something fictional anyway?” Indeed.