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Friday, June 21, 2024

The Lost River: archaeology and chronology of the river Sarasvati (Part1)

Over several  years Michel Danino, well known Indic studies scholar has meticulously deconstructed the conundrum of  the legendary river Sarasvati through seamlessly weaving literature, tradition, geology, archaeology, epigraphy and climatology.  His pathbreaking book The Lost River: On the trail of the Sarasvati is a fascinating quest in lucid accessible prose  of the quest for the legendary Vedic river  Sarasvati that vanished, reportedly due to tectonic and seismic shifts in North West part of Bharat millennia ago.

With a formal education in science and engineering, French born Bharatiya scholar, educationist and author Michel Danino came to Bharat in 1977 and has been living in the country since then.  Devoted to the study of Bharatiya civilization with a rare passion, purpose and Swadeshi Indology perspectives, Danino, an ardent  seeker in archaeology and ancient  history, Danino has authored books on proto historical Bharat, including  the well known The Lost River: On the trail of the Sarasvati, that is currently poised  on the brink of an updated second edition.

He has taught and lectured on various aspects of Bharatiya civilisation  at several institutions, including the Indian Institute of Technology (IIT), Gandhinagar, where he was instrumental in establishing the Arachnological Sciences Centre that he currently coordinates.

In a webinar titled Sarasvati River: Archaeology and Chronology,  organised by the Hindu University of America,  Michel Danino presented an in-depth, informed analysis based on correlations between  archaeological evidence, tradition, geological and numismatic evidence and  and literary information to reiterate the importance of the river Sarasvati in the Vedic civilisation and piece together the different parts of the conundrum  to present a composite picture  of the river Sarasvati in perspective.

Excerpts from the webinar, the first of a two part series.

Q.) Could you tell us about your journey and engagement with Bharatiya culture and civilisation?  

I was drawn to Bharat in1977, inspired by the works  of Sri Aurobindo. His insights into the Vedas, written in 1910-1914, when the Harappan civilisation had not yet been discovered and his emphatic rejection of the misleading Aryan Invasion Theory (AIT) created a deep impression in me.

Even as a student I had a casual but curious and fairly deep interest in archaeology.  In the 1970s and 1980s, when I was reading Sri Aurobindo, I was struck by how relevant, rational and logical his ideas were even after eight decades!  In fact, he was not dealing with the AIT per se but was actually arranging the meaning of the Rig Veda in perspective!  To paraphrase Sri Aurobindo, it was belittling to translate and decode the message of the Rig Veda to a warfare between the incoming Aryan invaders and the natives!

By then  significant archaeological discoveries of the Bronze Age  Harappan (Indus) civilisation  inspired me. My point of departure: What did archaeology have to say for which Sri Aurobindo had no arguments in place?  Grabbing the books and papers I could lay my hands on,  23 years ago I met several great archaeologists—Prof. BB Lal, the late Dr. SP Gupta,  Dr. VN Mishra and Dr. RS Bisht and several foreign archaeologists—all of whom tolerated my rather ‘ignorant’ questions!  The result of my explorations was a little book in English  The invasion that never was  that became hugely popular. Not satisfied, I also wrote a bigger book in French (2006)  that is being translated into English.  It is a major study that explores all aspects of the Aryan Invasion Theory from different angles (archaeology, literature, anthropology, agriculture, metallurgy and genetics)  and the disappearance of the river Sarasvati is just one of them.

Q.) Why is the Sarasvati referred to as a ‘mythical’ river in popular understanding?  

You cannot read one article in Bharatiya  press without the word ‘mythical ‘being attributed to the Sarasvati and it has even become so cliched!  Our journalists are not state of the art researchers and they simply recycle what has been fed into the system! The Sarasvati is a ‘mythical’ river only in one aspect —at the Triveni Sangam at Prayag where she joins the Ganga and Yamuna—where  she is undeniably mythical. This is a legitimate cultural device of  attaching the Sarasvati there although she is invisible (adarshana) and  part of the mythology of the location, of  sacred geography of the location. There, it is justifiable.

However, back in the Vedic and Rig Vedic period of existence of the Sarasvati there is no mythicality associated with the river.  The various hymns  (Sukta) in the Rig Veda, especially the Nadi stuti sukta refer to the Sarasvati  in physical terms as a robust impetuous river  located between ‘non-mythical’ rivers such as the Ganga, Yamuna,  Sutlej, a  tributary of the Indus in North West  Bharat  and  finally the Afghan tributary  of the Indus. Thus, there is nothing mythical about the Sarasvati in the Rig  Vedic context.

In fact, she is the  first river in Bharatiya literature to be deified or elevated to the status of a Goddess. But that’s no reason to refer to her as mythical. The Sarasvati is described in the Rig Veda and the later Vedic literature (Brahmanas) as originating in the mountains and bouncing down to the plains. The Brahmanas, in fact, even precisely locate the Sarasvati between the Sutlej (Shatadru) and the Yamuna.  However, something happened to the Rig Vedic river that once flowed into the sea.  In the Brahmanas, it no longer does. At some point,  they mention the breaking up of the river and its destruction (Vinashana) and resulting invisibility thereafter.  In fact, the Vinashana becomes a holy spot  and the  first teertha yatra or pilgrimage depicted in any literature  begins from this very spot of disappearance of the sacred river and go up to its source in the mountains.

Interestingly, the Sarasvati became a ‘lost’ river even before the Mahabharata period.  The epic talks  about Balarama  who starts from Prabhasa on the Gujarat coast, follows the bed of the Sarasvati upstream and stops at the place where she is believed to have disappeared  under the sands  of the desert and visits the several ashrams that have sprung up along the course of the river. There are legends to explain the disappearance.  He then goes up to the Shivalik hills where the river is supposed to have originated. We have physical hints, which are not important for the story, but which makes them all the more important to us!

For example, a hint here is that when the final battle between Duryodhana and Bhima was to take place after the war had ended, a messenger travels to meet Balarama and inform him about this. Balarama is delighting at the source of the Sarasvati.  He can reach  Kuruskshetra in  day on horseback. All this points to a westward flowing river located between the Yamuna and Sutlej, as mentioned in the Rig Veda. It’s nothing to do with Prayag and the Gangetic plain.

Thus we can see that all these details from literature  cohere to create a consistent picture  of a river that somehow breaks up,  goes into decline. Of course, there is mythology attached to it and legends accounting for the disappearance of the river.  However, the river itself is not mythical as per Bharatiya literature. So, it’s a completely unjustified controversy.

Q.) When was the Sarasvati actually identified as a physical river and how did it happen?  

The question of identification is like asking “Who discovered America?!” If we answer “Christopher Columbus,” we forget that there were people living there even before Columbus! Similarly, there were people living in the Sarasvati region, and for many of them, this was the Sarasvati!  There was an existing tradition and we didn’t need the Europeans to come and tell us about the Sarasvati! The slokas of the Rig Veda repeatedly talked about the Sarasvati. But it took the Europeans to ask where, when, how, why—all these questions are very European in nature!  This was essentially the European approach to knowledge which was enquiry based.

The Rig Veda becomes known in Europe in the first decade of the nineteenth century, with several European scholars transcribing, compiling and translating the manuscripts, trying to make sense of  the revered text, which  European travellers had only heard of but not seen. So, it was a big mystery.

Once they began reading, they discovered that the geography was very clear. Sapta Sindhava clearly refers to the Indus and its major tributaries  and we know that we are dealing with the North west of Bharat. Besides the rivers were identifiable because  they were either continuity of terms (Sindhu/Indus)  or through Greek equivalents for the names of rivers.  Many of the rivers were known and therefore there was no mystery.

But when it came to Sarasvati they began to wonder what the river was and where is it now?  To their knowledge, in the early nineteenth century, there was no river by that name!  However, a succession of pioneering British and French explorers, topographers and surveyors such as James Rennel, George Louis Vivien de Martin, Alexander Cunningham and others concluded (by the end of the nineteenth century), based on archaeological, hydrological and topographical indicators and local legends and folklore – we have a beautiful consensus between the geographers, archaeologists, geologists and Indologists that the Ghaggar-Hakra river system,  a currently  seasonal river which flows through Bharat and Pakistan, is the relic of the Sarasvati of the Vedic times.

(To be continued)

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Dr. Nandini Murali
Dr. Nandini Murali
Dr. Nandini Murali is a communications professional,  author and researcher in Indic Studies.  She is a Contributing Editor with the HinduPost. She loves to wander in the forests with her camera. 


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