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Wednesday, December 8, 2021

The Lost River: Archaeology and Chronology of the River Sarasvati (Part 2)

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  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 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 second and concluding part of this series (view first part here):

Q.) Nearly 70 years after the Sarasvati was mapped, the discovery of the Harappan and Mohenjo Daro  civilisation on  either side of the River Indus challenged prior ideas about the chronology of Bharatiya civilisation. How does the Sarasvati connect with the Indus Valley Civilisation?   

This is a fundamental question! If there had not been any Indus civilisation, then today, nobody would be questioning the identity of the Sarasvati!  However, in 1920, the discovery of Harappa, and Mohenjo daro a year later, and very quickly a few more in the Indus valley were identified as having a proto historical culture going back to the Bronze Age. It was the first time in Bharat that any relics older than the Buddhist  Age (personally I don’t approve of the practice of using religion to match archaeological periods)—the earliest archaeological remains before this discovery were cities mentioned in Buddhist literature and dated around 500 BCE that all scholars were agreeing upon.

Suddenly, here is a culture that doesn’t know iron, has bronze  and copper  and has mysterious seals that have actually  been known from the nineteenth century. Picked up through random explorations, a few of the Harappans seals were already in the British museum.  When more of them came to light, John Marshall, the Head of the Archaeological Survey of India, began to explore the origin of those seals. He published an article in 1924, where he asked scholars  for their opinion because the period of the civilisation was still not clear.

The Bronze Age is a very elastic term. Within a  week, several archaeologists responded to Marshall’s query. They replied that the Harappan seals were also found in the cities of the Mesopotamian civilisation on the banks of the Tigris Euphrates basin that were “unreadable, undecipherable” and totally unlike Mesopotamian seals.  They  concluded that the civilisation  in North West Bharat  must be the origin of the  similar Mesopotamian seals  and therefore the two civilisations must be contemporaneous.  This this gave the first bracket of dates from the Indus/Harappan civilisation.

Initially, most of the sites were limited to the Indus Valley and a little of the Makran coast and Baluchistan, and Rupar (now in Eastern Punjab) to the East of the Indus Valley. Marc Aurel Stein, a famous British explorer, known for his discoveries in Central Asia and Chinese Turkemistan, came to Bharat at the age of  78, and had a “hunch” that there had to be Harappan sites East of the Indus Valley. He began his exploration (with the help of the Maharaja of Bikaner), on horseback and camel back, of Bikaner and Bahawalpur and in the latter place, paid particular attention to the cultural context of the sites he came across.  By the end  of the season, he had identified typically Harappan pottery, seals and other artefacts.

After Independence, several Indus Valley sites were discovered in Gujarat (Dholavira), Haryana and across the international border between Bharat and Pakistan. After Partition, Mohenjo daro and Harappa were  now located in Pakistan as did several sites on the border between the two countries. Hence many archaeologists  in Bharat felt suddenly “orphaned” as these Indus Valley sites were now “lost “ for these archaeologists who often had to obtain special permission to be able to visit the sites.

Ghosh, the Director General of ASI in the 1950s, revisited Kalibangan (a Harappan site) and identified it as a mature Harappan civilization site. Currently, around 1500 mature (urban 2600-1900 BCE) Harappan sites  have been discovered in the basin of the River Sarasvati (all the tributaries of the present Ghaggar Hakra system).  However, it was only in the 1980s  that the entire picture of the Indus Valley civilisation emerged with many more Harappan sites discovered in the Sarasvati basin: Kalibangan, Banawal, Bhirann located on branches of the Ghaggar. What also emerges is that the rivers in this region have been shifting courses and thus many sites are also located in the paleo beds of this system.

The consensus emerged among scholars that there are three phases of the Harappan civilisation: Early phase (prior to the urban development that starts about 3500 BCE),  the mature phase (urban 2500 BCE) and  the late  phase after the disintegration of the urban order (1900-1300 BCE). Thus, what emerged clearly is that there were more Harappan sites in the Sarasvati basin than in the Indus Valley proper. These (Sarasvati Basin and Indus Valley )  are the two heart  lungs of the Indus Valley Civilisation, with sites in Baluchistan which have strong regional features.

However, Gujarat, which is neither in Baluchistan nor the Sarasvati Basin, has 800 Harappan sites, a few of which are proper Harappan sites and the rest regional  variation of the Harappan culture, which can be described as variations of the classical Harappan culture. Thus, if we include the regional variations, there could be 3000 to 4000 Harappan sites in Gujarat.

However, the point is that we don’t know how many rural settlements were there.  There is a misconception in the media and popular imagination that Indus valley is an urban  civilisation. While it certainly was urban, it also had hundreds of rural settlements  because it needed to control the agricultural surplus that was going to feed the cities. The cities would not have been stable without adequate support from the rural hinterland.

Q.) What is the current status of research on the Sarasvati River and what are the implications for chronology of Bharatiya civilisation?  

From the 1970s onwards, there was satellite imagery of the Ghaggar Hakra region that showed clear marks of paleo (fossil) river  beds. The picture became more complex when ISRO (Indian Space Research Organisation) began to plot several Harappan sites along the Sarasvati basin. Then came the realisation that there was not one river bed but several—beds that the Sarasvati may have occupied while shifting course over time.  It is probable that the river gradually shifted from the Eastern part to the West. In any case, some of the paleo beds do end up in the Rann of Kutch where Dholarvira, a Harappan site, is located.

Currently, there is considerable research on Harappan sites at the Rann of Kutch including scientists from IIT Gandhinagar, to determine  the impact of riverine fluvial activity (pertaining to activity by rivers and streams)  on the Rann of Kutch. The compilation of several satellite studies reveals that there is hardly any spot between the Yamuna and Sutlej which is not the location of a paleo bed  because this river (Sarasvati) kept shifting all the time! Besides what also emerges is that parts of the Sutlej and Yamuna were earlier feeding into the Sarasvati and they too gradually moved away because the whole interfluve was tectonically raised up.

Given this kind of complexity it will take decades before a complete hydrological reconstruction of the entire region can be reliably done.  There are other kinds of studies like resistivity studies led by Rajiv Sinha of IIT Kanpur  to measure the underground conductivity of the soil, that gives you a measure of how much humidity (water) is trapped in the soil.  These studies proved that there are  huge resources of underground water and all of them dated to remote ages as part of the Ghaggar system.

However, the sediment studies gave a slightly different picture, showing a combination of brown silty clay top soil and grey micaceous sand characteristic of the Himalayan region. Hence the question geologists ask is: when did the Sarasvati or Ghaggar Hakra have contribution from the Himalayas?  What is clearly emerging is that the whole river system is complex and our earlier image of it was simplistic. Earlier, some geologists were in favour of glacial (Himalayan)  contributions to the Sarasvati until the Harappan  period.  However, the consensus now is that this happened some 8000-12,000 years ago and hence a connection with the Himalayan river systems is not a recent phenomenon and goes back several millennia. However, a few sites, depending on the exact location of drilling, give a recent picture.

The higher regime of the Sarasvati River system is  between 10,000-40,000 years old. From 8000 BCE, it seems that the Sarasvati is at first abandoned by the Yamuna and later by the Sutlej although the exact chronology remains to be worked out.  However, there have been revivals  because as there is very little difference in altitude for paleo channels to be reactivated.  And it looks like even in medieval times there was an activation of some channels connecting the Sutlej with the Sarasvati.

Q.) When you say that the Sarasvati was ‘abandoned’ by the Yamuna or Sutlej, what exactly does it mean?  

It means that since the interfluve region was very flat, possibly it was tectonically uplifted. The Yamuna and Sutlej, which did have connections earlier with the Ghaggar (and the paleo beds are there to show it), they moved away because this was now higher ground. Rivers can also shift course because of deposit of geological  sediments and are forced to move away and find another bed. Again, it’s a complex picture and from 4000 BCE to the early Harappan Phase, we can still have some contribution from the Himalayas.

The Markanda River, a tributary of the Ghaggar flows through the states of Himalayas and Haryana. A seasonal river, it can be quite powerful at times. We examined the Markanda Valley and  counterintuitively, we found that even around 2800 BCE , there were floods happening  in this region, although the Sarasvati is presumed to have disappeared by then. However, studies reveal that there were still massive flood occurrences which could have sustained flows downstream that happened during the late Harapan Civilization.

This is something that is counter intuitive  and now  the whole debate, which is still ongoing  among geologists and archaeologists is: If the Himalayan sources  through the Yamuna and Sutlej or an upper connection of the Ghaggar itself had disappeared during the mature Harappan phase, was this Ghaggar River, the relic of the Sarasvati, perennial or not?

Some geologists argue that it could not have been perennial but had become seasonal. Archaeologists, however disagree as they say that there are several cities such as Kalibangan, Bhanwali and Bhirrana that are right on the edge of the Ghaggar river. Obviously, all these cities would not have been constructed on the banks of a river that had dried up by that time. Therefore, archaeology strongly supports the fact that even though the Sarasvati may have considerably diminished during the mature Harappan Phase, it was still flowing perennially. The several settlements along the paleo channels are strong indication that they were flowing.

Q.) Why is the River Sarasvati so ‘controversial’? What is driving the controversy?    

We see a complete abandonment of the  central Sarasvati  basin through the early, mature and late Harapan phases and by 1900 BCE most cities are concentrated near hills.  So, clearly something has happened to the river.  Vedic literature tells us that the river was disappearing. But when does it tell us? In the Brahmanas and not the Rig Veda. 

And this is where the controversy begins. In the Rig Veda, the Sarasvati flows continuously. It doesn’t mention that it is lost anywhere! And therefore, this normally would date the Rig Veda to the phase where the river is flowing continuously—before 1900 BCE. In fact, it is even before 2700 BCE because in 2500 BCE during the mature Harappan Phase, there is already a break happening here which was noticed by the Pakistani archaeologist Rafiq Mohammed.

This is not something that the conventional chronology of Bharatiya civilisation based on the Aryan Invasion Theory (AIT) is prepared to accept because it wants the Rig Veda to be datable on an average to 1500 BCE. However, they are not ready to consider that the Rig Veda would be pre-Harappan or Harappan and instead place it post Harappan! According to them, the Harappan civilisation therefore would be pre-Vedic. That is the mainstream view that several of us Bharatiya and foreign scholars are contesting.

However, the reality is that many archaeologists have rejected the theory of Aryan migration into Bharat. The point is that if one accepts the description of the river in the Rig Veda and not torture the text, if one accepts the verdict of archaeology that this river system, whatever name one gives it, has a first break around 2700 BCE and  totally collapses around 1900 BCE, then one has to put two and two together and accept that the Rig Veda dates back to a much older time and is contemporaneous with the Mesopotamian civilisation, which on the level of comparative mythology, makes a lot of sense.

This is why we suddenly have ‘controversy’ erupting. Although there was no controversy in the nineteenth century. Even defenders of the AIT like Max Mueller was very happy with the consensus around the Sarasvati! However, now, people have to reinvent the Sarasvati because the data doesn’t fit their theory! In science, when  the data doesn’t fit the theory, one has to look at the theory and question it!  But in history, when there is too much ideology, one opposes it! One tries to change the facts because one doesn’t want to change the theory.  Therefore, the Sarasvati found herself relocated to Afghanistan because it was hard to find acceptability that the Ghaggar was indeed the Sarasvati!

Q.) The Sarasvati pushes back the date of the so called AIT from 1500 BCE, if such a  thing ever happened. If so, it must have happened before 2700 BCE, which is when the first break in the river is noticed and  the Rig Veda  doesn’t even know of the break.  That’s the place of the controversy.  There is also a corollary: if the Rig Veda was indeed compiled during that period (3500 BCE and before), then what does that make of the so-called Indus Valley Civilisation and  the Harappan sites which then become the seat of Vedic civilisation—that’s when the ‘controversy’ becomes unacceptable to mainstream historians.   

The whole question now is of the nature of Harappan culture that has to be reasoned. For example, we have on the one hand, scholars like Prof. BB Lal, Dr. RS Bisht who read a lot of Vedic culture in Harappan remains, structures and artefacts. This, to some extent, was accepted even by conventional archaeologists who still  believed in AIT! But again, now this has become controversial and one by one,  despite the consensus that for example there were fire altars in Kalibangan, Lothal and other Harapan sites, some scholars go into convoluted arguments  in trying to reject this identity.  One by one, artefacts are re examined and there are great efforts to prove that Harappan  culture has nothing to do with the Vedas!

My own conclusion, however, is not that Harappan culture  is 100 percent Rig Vedic or Vedic culture. There are many bridges between the two. I didn’t expect the Vedic Rishis to have gone and lived in Harappan cities!  The core of Bharatiya culture, as we read it in the Rig Veda, is marginal to the Harappan civilisation. But there was a lot of interaction and much of it is still visible in iconography, artefacts—my book The Lost River documents the bridges between Harappan and Vedic cultures.

I am not saying they are one and the same! Harappan culture is a popular culture. What remains in the archaeological record is only a fraction of what was there in the actual life of the society! We don’t see more than 5 to 10 percent!  So, the Harappan culture is a popular culture; whereas the Rig Vedic culture is not for popular consumption. It is a specialised effort by a community—poets, singers and seers. I will not put the two cultures on the same level; but I think there are lots of connections.

Q.) Can we place the complete disappearance of the Sarasvati around 1800 BCE?

Complete is a tricky term! It never completely disappeared! The Ghaggar remains a seasonal river. In 2019, during a massive monsoon, we were coming back from Shimla and we visited a number of sites in Haryana along the small Sarsuti River. The Ghagaar in spate was not a puny river!

However, what you mean, probably, is the disappearance of the central basin, the central part of the Sarasvati.  You see, if the Harappan civilisation had collapsed and the river was still there, we would have Late Harappan sites in the central basin of the Sarasvati. We don’t. For example, Kalibangan and Bhirali  don’t have a Late Harappan phase!  People in those places have just abandoned cities in the absence of warfare or disease. The one thing one needs most is water, which probably explains the disappearance of  the cities. For example, agriculture would still be workable to some extent but if you don’t have water, you have to go. There is no alternative. This happened sometime after 1900 BCE.

Q.) The Triveni Sangam at Allahabad beautifully commemorates the memory of the lost Sarasvati participating in the Sangam. How do we interpret this?

This is primarily a cultural device. The Late Harrapans would have carried with them the memory of the Sarasvati. Some of them migrated into the Gangetic plains. They were already familiar with the upper part of the Gangetic Yamuna plains. Some Harappan sites were also along the Yamuna and hence their familiarity with the river. Then they came upon the Ganga and decided to fix their memory at this spot as this was a confluence of rivers and regarded as sacred.

We have other Triveni sangams in Bharat, by the way! For instance, in Saurashtra, with the small Sarasvati. This is a perfectly valid, legitimate way of ‘fixing’ the memory of the land. And that is how you create a sacred geography. To me, there is no physical reality of the river, except the Yamuna, which once had a connection with the Sarasvati. People say there is an underground river; I don’t think that’s correct.

Q.) IIT Gandhinagar has been conducting research at Dholavira, a Harappan site in the Rann of Kutch. Can you tell us about some of the findings?  

After the excavations from 1989  to 2005 by Dr. RK Bisht of the ASI,  there have been a number of people doing occasional research because  the Dholavira site is so rich, so vast and one of the largest Harappan sites in Bharat, that there is immense potential for research and not more than 20 percent of the site has been excavated.  

Excavation is one way of exploring the site. You  can also explore ancient flora (paleo botanical research), ancient fauna (paleo zoology – we have a major research in this aspect being initiated at the moment). We have also conducted a drone survey with 3D imagery to provide us with 3D mapping of the site. We also have a project on the criticality of the sea level during the time of Dholavira. Was it the sea or river water? We have preliminary findings that are counter intuitive. River sediments, sea levels and tectonic shifts are some of the layers of complexity in this issue. All this has to be worked out and we are trying to contribute to this.

Q.) With  entrenched narratives about the chronology of the region, what do you see as the task of converging the different bodies of research, evidence and hypotheses and speculation? How do they come together to form some sort of credible historical reconstruction of the narrative?  

That’s a very difficult question!  We can endlessly  discuss this because there may be  as many views as there are scholars, eventually!  This will go on for some time! You see, we need certain clinchers at some point if we wish to move forward because otherwise  there are things that are indicative, lots of clues and hints, but there’s so much of politics and ideology.

Of course, the Leftist historians blame Hindutva for views such as the identity of the Sarasvati,  conveniently forgetting that this was completely established by Western scholars in the nineteenth century!  Therefore, to move forward in what is hardly a debate (more like a fish market bedlam!), we need some clinchers. One, of course, would be the deciphering of the Indus script that would be acceptable to most people.  This , however, is not happening.

Otherwise, the slow accumulation  of  evidence from archaeology will help us to refine  our understanding of Harappan society  and culture. But that’s s slow process. Unfortunately, a lot of sites are being destroyed in the process through farming and urbanisation.  However, if you try to work with what is available today and try to put up a coherent narrative, I am not optimistic that you will be able to convince even scholars of one school of thought to come up with the same narrative.


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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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