Posts tagged ‘saraswati’

River Saraswati


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.

April 22, 2009 at 2:49 pm 23 comments

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