River Saraswati

April 22, 2009 at 2:49 pm 23 comments


Myths, if our schoolbooks are to be believed, are all the foundation ancient India stands on.  If our eminent historians have it entirely their way, soon our children shall believe that ancient India was a concept born out of jingoism, opium and/or bed-time stories.  Let us take one myth at a time, and search for some history there. If there is no real history to be found anywhere in the sanskrit texts, I must confess that our ancestors were an unimaginably creative lot, and we should hang our heads in shame for becoming a call-center race. If, on the other hand, there is even a shred of reality in these myths, we should see to it that our historians are rehabituated in professions related to performance arts, for no other profession is likely to appreciate their antics.

Allow me to deal with one myth (as Romila Thapar calls them) at a time, because presenting real academic proof is not to be done with the generic sweep.

River Saraswati:

The river Saraswati is considered to be a product of folklore and myth according to the politicians and a majority of the Indian press.  Since most of our politicians prefer the thumbprint to the signature, I suggest we turn to people who know what they are talking about. The historians:

“Even the issue whether the Saraswati was a major river in ancient times or a nala as available evidence would indicate could be a subject of debate.”

– Irfan Habib at the History Congress

I consider myself to be a moderately devout Hindu and a proud Indian, and it does not please me to see Saraswati being called a drain. But that does not justify debunking what an academician of such stature has said. Probe a little further, shall we? Using the “available evidence” as Mr. Habib suggests:

I am no expert in the field of history. All I have is common sense, the Internet, and access to public libraries. Before we begin, I find it apropos to quote Prof. B. B. Lal, a retired Director-General of the Archaeological Survey of India (ASI), from the Hindustan Times:

NEW DELHI, INDIA, November 23, 2002: Eminent historian and archaeologist, Professor B. B. Lal has dismissed as baseless the allegations of misrepresenting history in the new history text books for class XI at a lecture organized by the National Council for Educational Research and Training (NCERT). He claimed that for some time, four myths had been perpetuated, obscuring India’s past. These are the Aryan invasion of India, the Harappans being Dravidian-speaking people, the Rigvedic Saraswati being the same as the Helmand of Afghanistan and the extinction of Harappan culture. The attempt to correct these myths in new history books has been criticized by some historians as a distortion and misrepresentation of ancient Indian history. Prof. Lal, supplementing his talk with evidence from recent discoveries, said the Vedas were erroneously dated back to 1200 BCE by German scholar Max Mueller. The Vedas include many references to the river Saraswati, which had dried up before 2000 BCE, therefore the time of Vedas has to be before 2000 BCE. The Harappan civilization itself was found dating back to fifth millennium BCE. Prof. Lal explained that since there were no Harappan sites in South India nor were Dravidian sites found in North India, it was a myth that the Harappans were pushed down South.

So, if we are to trust our historians and/or our archaeologists, the Vedic river Saraswati is no myth. To remove all the shards of subjectivity from this, we seek help from the satellite LandSat MSS2, which marks out the Saraswati river paleochannel (Remote Sensing Geology, Ravi P. Gupta: pp. 529; Springer, 2003). Additional arguments supporting this proof can be found at the Geospatial Resource Portal.

It is, therefore, evident that the Vedic river Saraswati was as real as Ganga or Nile or Amazon. Was it, indeed, a mere drain, as Irfan Habib would like to insist?

Before I answer the question, I wonder why I ask the question in the first place. In the Rigveda, a few rivers are mentioned in the following order:  Ganga, Yamuna, Saraswati, Shatadru, Parusni, etc. Shatadru is modern Sutlej, a river of no negligible dimensions or volume. And we all know that Ganga and Yamuna are not drains (in terms of size, not pollutants). Why would the Rigveda mention a small drain while listing down the most magnificient rivers? Moreover, as the satellite images show, a river originating in the Himalayas and ending at the Arabian Sea after meandering through the plains for more than 500 kms, is probably bigger than Mr. Habib’s imagination.

This BBC report manages to shed some light on the matter: India’s Miracle River.


River Saraswati is no myth. And I was able to arrive at this conclusion with ample evidence provided by several geologists and archaeologists in the form of research papers, books, and conference presentations. Many of these resources are available on the Internet and in easily accessible libraries. If a reputed historian such as Mr. Habib has a more limited pool of available evidence, then, I am afraid, it simply shows lack of honest endeavour.

I can’t help notice that his comment, which, I quoted at the beginning of this article, reeks of cheap thrill; very much like the “your mom” jokes born in America. If so, I would say Irfan Habib is to academics what Chetan Bhagat is to literature.

Entry filed under: history, india, nationalism, society, theory. Tags: , .

The Premio Dardos Award Staring into the night

23 Comments Add your own

  • 1. pechi  |  April 26, 2009 at 1:45 pm

    try reading nihar ranjan in bengali to get a detailed analysis of the aryan race theory. it gives a detailed anthropological explanation about the evolution of dravirians and aryans being completely different. with the rest of the article, i couldn’t have agreed more with you.

    • 2. sid  |  June 9, 2009 at 6:01 am

      dear pechi, I do’nt know what is written in that bengali book mentioned by you;but I surely know that inside none of the old sanskrit literature,the word “Arya” is used to refer a particular race.Rather this word was everywhere used to show respect for any individual like the words “Shriman”,”Shri” etc., we still use in india.So I am surprised how the historians at the first place concluded that there was a race called Arya.

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  • 4. Harish Krishnan  |  May 18, 2009 at 11:43 am

    What a well researched post. Many things which have been written in the Vedas are being proved in science now. It won’t be long before the River Saraswati gets her due as well. I must say after reading your post, any doubts about it needs to be laid to rest.

    • 5. Ritwik Banerjee  |  May 18, 2009 at 7:58 pm

      Thank you Harish for the encouraging comment. I do hope that the history of India is given a chance to be objectively studied before rubbishing all our texts as supposed mythologies.

  • 6. The Saniyan  |  July 3, 2009 at 8:26 pm

    Neat article. Well researched, factual and nice to read. Couldn’t disagree with anything that you’ve mentioned (including the Aryan funda).

  • 7. Ishita  |  July 10, 2009 at 11:05 pm

    Wonderful article Ritwik! The research is laid out, none of which can be denied. About the ‘Aryan debate’ (or anything to do with Indian history), everyone can check out : http://koenraadelst.bharatvani.org/
    Many I know (including my father) vouch for Koenraad. A must read.

    Keep more such articles flowing in man 🙂

  • 8. Anon  |  July 29, 2009 at 12:48 pm

    There are a lot of fundamental problems with this hypothesis. The oft quoted Saraswati river is basically Ghaggar. There are a lot of problems with this. For instance, Harawati(which corelates to saraswati of vedas) of Avesta is Helmand in Afghanistan. So the question is how do we co relate an ancient river found as the same river to be mentioned in the text of rig veda’s? If we look back to sanskrit of those days, were they even talking about what we call a river? (sanskrit hermeneutics changed very dynamically with time and rig vedic sanskrit is very very different from sanskrit of arthashastra, which is precisely the cause of some of the vicious debates in indian philosophical school. most of the schools interpret words differently)
    Irfan Habib’s path breaking work in history is seminal his work on Mughal taxation and he is no expert on ancient history, his views on that regard need not be taken seriously. Romilla thapar is possibly the best authority in this regard. A lot of nonsense is attributed to her by people who have NEVER READ A SINGLE scholarly work of Romilla thapar apart from some NCERT books of which she was among the many many authors.I would suggest Early India to understand the nuances of the problem. Plus the whole aryan myth is concerned, as Romilla thapar clearly advocated from her earliest days as a historian, these are linguistic terms and cannot be racial terms and that there is evidence to suggest a migration of speakers of Indo aryan language from central asia as supported by linguistics and partha chatterjee’s work in genetics. If there are chetan bhagat’s of history , it would be the Koenard elst and gang.

    • 9. Ritwik Banerjee  |  July 29, 2009 at 7:38 pm

      You are right in saying that Vedic Sanskrit is very different from later Sanskrit. Vedic Sanskrit should be studied using Panini grammar and the two dictionary-like texts by Yaska called Nirukta and Nighantu. There were other schools of grammar such as Gaalab’s grammar which have been lost forever. So Panini is our only remaining hope of understand Vedic literature. The problem with almost all modern Indologists and specialists in ancient Indian history is that there works are based on the explanation of Vedas as written by Sayanacarya. That explanation does not follow Panini grammar, and it was not even written by Sayanacarya himself. He had employed several young brahmins to translate the vedas, and later collated those translations into what is now known as “Sayanacarya’s work”. This work, needless to say, has never been considered seriously by Sanskrit scholars in India. Max Muller’s study of ancient India and his comments on Vedic literature is solely based on this work. And Thapar’s interpretation of Vedas (or parts of them) is solely based on Max Muller’s work. Any serious student of ancient Indian history should not touch this clan of historians with a barge pole.

      Now let us come to the finer points of your comment:

      1) “Saraswati river is basically Ghaggar” : Saraswati, according to the Rig Veda was born in the Himalaya, so it can, indeed be Ghaggar. If you have taken the pains to click on the paleochannel link I have provided, you will notice that this channel is more or less parallel to the channel of Ghaggar. The Vedic Saraswati river is certainly not Helmand, If that was the case, then Bharatavarsha lies in Afghanistan …. in Manusmriti, Brahmavarta-varsha is described as the land between the two rivers Saraswati and Drishadvati. In Vishnu Purana, it is mentioned that Brahmavarta-varsha is the ancient name for Bharata-varsha.

      2) I have mentioned not a single word about the Aryan Invasion Theory. The first comment to my post refers to a book that has some possibly interesting take on the anthropoligal arguments of Aryan and Dravidian differences.

      3) I am more than aware of the linguistic similarities that you speak of. They were advocated not by Romila Thapar, but by the linguist Suniti Kumar Chatterjee and the noted Sanskrit scholar Gopinath Kaviraj. And contrary to the ‘evidence’ of migration from Central Asia, Vedic literature is full of evidence that shows a migration TO Central, Western and Northern Asia. Since you mention Harawati and Avesta, may I direct you to my later post on the subject: India Outside India – I

      4) I have not discussed Koenraad’s works in this post. To be honest, I found this last sentence of yours (as a retaliation to a comment above, no doubt) rather immature and defensive.

      Lastly, if I may add my frank opinion:

      There have always been one particular school of historians who have tried to take India away from India, spending their entire lives upholding statements saying that everything good in this part of the world came from somewhere outside. Romila Thapar forms the current core of that group. And I have no qualms stating that I have no respect for her works. And my opinion is not based on NCERT text books.

    • 10. Ritwik Banerjee  |  August 3, 2009 at 9:48 am

      Quite accidentally, yesterday I happened to come across a sukta in Rig Veda that is pertinent to a claim you have made. The Rig Veda mentions a river called Yajwavati. The sukta struck me as a bit odd, and I started checking for other references. I came across a very similar sukta in Atharva Veda with only one word changed: Yajwavati had become Hwaravati in Atharva Veda.
      Further piqued, I consulted Yaaska’s Nirukta (the only remaining expansive dictionary of Vedic Sanskrit), and found that the words Yajwa and Hwara are synonyms.
      Thereby, I was forced to conclude that the Avestan Harawati is the same as Hwaravati of Atharva Veda and Yajwavati of Rig Veda.

  • 11. fdfw  |  September 9, 2009 at 7:37 am

    great research Ritwik…….this should stop people thinking Helmand as our Saraswati….

  • 12. Iniyaal  |  September 18, 2009 at 4:39 am

    Nice post and quite well researched. Theanks for sharing all this information on archelogical and historcal proofs of river saraswati. Though I tend at agree with your writing pertaining to river Saraswati, I differ from your views on the aryan/dravidian origins.

    Recently, about six months back, yet one more excavation site in Tamil Nadu revealed pottery and caves that had figurines similar to those found in harappa archaelogical findings. These figurines are different from the younger dravidian archelogical sites, but have a striking resemblance to the findings in older draividian sites and harappa sites.

    This is not the first time such a finding has been unearthed, it has happened many times in the past too. This clearly establishes a connection between the earlier dravidian and the harappan archaelogical findings. I hope you will be able to find more references to this if you go through the archives of the ‘The Hindu’ or other resources from South.

    • 13. Ritwik Banerjee  |  September 21, 2009 at 5:34 am

      Thank you for your comment, Iniyaal. Quite a few comments on this post have been directed at the Aryan Invation Theory (AIT). I fail to understand why! I merely quoted another extremely respected Historian on the subject on the subject of River Saraswati. That quote mentions the AIT as a similar myth. The act of considering AIT and Saraswati’s equivalence to Helmand as similar distortions of History is an opinion expressed by Prof. B B Pal, not me. Perhaps I should have omitted parts of his quote and restricted myself to the topic concerned …. but I felt it was better if I reproduce the exact statement made by the professor.

  • 14. Sreeja  |  December 15, 2009 at 6:47 am

    It’s a beautiful article, very informative.

  • 15. sandeep  |  March 10, 2010 at 8:41 am

    Nice article. Its an eyeopener for all Indians. government should seriously start reseraching more about our history and should include the findings into our academic books, so that the comming generation should get a chance to know about our rich culture.

    We should stop thinking about everything that is written in our Vedas as mere myth and should try to research more with an open mind.
    Almost everything that is mentioned in our books can be found …Ramsethu, Dwaraka, Saraswathi….

    • 16. Ritwik Banerjee  |  June 3, 2010 at 11:33 am

      Stamping all our literature as “myth” was one of the most cunning policies adopted by the British academia during the colonial oppression. Everything written in Sanskrit was labelled as “myth”. Moreover, with the current trend to make India progressively more “secular”, researching ancient Indian history looks like a distant dream. For all we know, there was a baseball manual which made our historians consider it to be a mythical game of the Gods because the manual was written in Sanskrit.

      • 17. Mahesh  |  October 10, 2013 at 6:58 pm

        Hi Ritwik,

        I agree to your post completely. Another reason why I strongly agree is because I am a Saraswat Brahmin. The history of our community is that we were living on the banks of the ancient Saraswati river in Kashmir. Around 4000 BC the river started drying up because of tectonic activity at its source. Slowly the river dried up and our ancestors migrated to other parts of India. Today you find Saraswat Brahmins nearly all over India. My ancestors migrated and settled in Goa which has a large population of Saraswats. Later Saraswats spread to Karnataka, Maharashtra and Kerala from Goa.

  • 18. Beda Ranjan Ghosal  |  July 8, 2010 at 7:30 am

    As I understand that the existence of Saraswati and the vedic age ( 2000 BCE ) are dependent on each other. Any one if independently proved, other will be automaticaly proved. what i found most of the time , in different sites and posts that both the hypothesis are half proved, and for the complete prove relying on the other.
    Definitely there are strong arguments for both of the hypothesis and both line are approaching to each other, but still i feel that that the corner stone is yet to be grouted.

    Please throw light.

  • 19. Beda Ranjan Ghosal  |  July 8, 2010 at 7:34 am

    As I understand that the existence of Saraswati and the vedic age ( 2000 BCE ) are dependent on each other. Any one, if independently proved, other will be automatically proved. what i found most of the time , in different sites and posts, that both the hypothesis are half proved, and for the complete proof, relying on the other.
    Definitely there are strong arguments for both of the hypothesis and both line are approaching to each other, but still I feel that that the corner stone is yet to be grouted.

    Please throw light.

  • 20. raghavendra  |  August 4, 2010 at 7:33 pm

    i like to recommend the recent book by michel danino on river saraswati to further strengthen the case and also give a larger picture

    The Lost River – On the trail of the Sarasvati (2010). ISBN 9780143068648.

  • 21. jessy  |  November 26, 2011 at 7:46 am

    the hindus and muslims need not compete…was the matriach sarah a myth or not similarly the divine Saraswathi of the hindus….the river is a symbolism of these and their wisdom it unites not seperates

  • 22. Ravi  |  March 28, 2014 at 4:40 am

    Some things are clear now

    1) The Indus-Saraswati Civilization began before 5000 BC. Mehrgarh in Balochistan is one very ancient site

    2) The civilization reached its peak during 2500 – 2000 BC, extensively trading with other civilizations, having a central administration and a large number of “ethnic” groups, with many peoples migrating to the cities (just like today)

    3) The Saraswati river dried up around 1750 BC, resulting in drought and mass migration of people to the north, east (Ganges) and south (Gujarat area). They carried their culture with them. Of course, when cities decline, crime and anarchy becomes rampant, especially when the decline is so sudden. It is as if overnight the water supply is cut to city of Mumbai

    Palaeochannels have been discovered by ISRO. Even the UPA govt. has acknowledged the Saraswati existed (statement made in Parliament).

    Historians should not only take into account written sources to construct ancient history, but rely more on archaeological sources. The problem with armchair ancient historians like Romila Thapar is that their construct of history is based only on written sources and they interpret them with pathetic knowledge of Sanskrit, and also with a negative mindset, as if wanting to find evidence that supports the eurocentric theory.

  • […] never vanished. There was a shift of population after the economy around the Sarasvati river collapsed due to the drying up of the river. People moved to the east and to the northwest and to […]


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