The mythical Saraswati river has long ceased to exist a long time ago. But the river still exists in our minds as the spiritual Saraswati river, which sustained early Vedic ages, and has been praised for providing water to early Vedic Civilization. Saraswati river is mentioned in Rig Veda as a perennial river flowing through between the Indus and Ganges basin, and flows directly into the sea. It is being worshipped by the Vedic people and the source of life and agriculture in arid landscape. However, no such Saraswati river has been found in India till recent years.

The exact location of the Saraswati river can not be ascertained from Rig Veda or the Vedic civilization, as Vedic civilization was rural by nature, and lacked important cities or ruins along the river channel. However, if we go back a few hundred years earlier, we can find the flourishing Indus Valley Civilization, which is predominantly urban in nature. The Indus Valley Civilization grew up not only on the course of the Indus river, but lay scattered across far flung places which lie beyond the Indus basin. Starting from the north, we have Ropar in Punjab, Rakhigarhi in Haryana, Kalibangan in Rajasthan, Dholavira and Lothal in Gujarat. With the exception of Lothal, which is a sea-port and has access to the sea, the other sites lay far from any navigable rivers. Hence, many historians and archeologists have come to the conclusion that a large river existed at the sites of Indus Valley Civilization in India. The large river can be a perennial one, probably the mythical Saraswati river, though this theory is debated.

A seasonal stream named Ghaggar-Hakra channel flows starting from Ropar, through Rakhigarhi, Kalibangan and ends at swamps of Dholavira. In early years of research, the scientists have found evidence of an exceptionally wide river bed at some places. This led them to believe that a much wider river, with a huge discharge previously flowed through the channel sometime in the past. Many scientists have thus claimed the existence of a large perennial river, presumably the Saraswati river to have existed in the channel of Ghaggar-Hakra channel in Punjab, Haryana and Rajasthan.

Now the question arises is from where so much water would have come. Scientists have found no headwater source between the Satluj and Yamuna rivers. The Ghaggar-Hakra river is entirely seasonal flowing only during monsoon, and there is no possibility of a perennial snow-fed source in the Himalayas. The scientists have collected bed-rock sediments in the river bed, and have made extensive studies on their characteristics. As late as 2019, the researchers found that the bed-rock sediments in Ghaggar-Hakra channel matches only those of Satluj river, a major perennial source of the Indus river flowing from Lake Manasarovar in China. This led to a final conclusion that the Sutlej previously flowed through a different course, possibly through the Ghaggar-Hakra channel.

So, does it mean that the Indus Valley Civilization died with the changing course of Satluj? On the contrary, scientists say that the Satluj meandered long before the Indus Valley Civilization came into picture. The drifting began at least 16000 years ago, and the migration would have completed by 9500 years ago. The Indus Valley Civilization dating 3000-1500 BC may not have received Saraswati river up to its full potential. However, many historians opined that Saraswati would have still contained a lot of water by the Harappan era, catching water from run-offs from the Himalayas, which is enough to sustain a civilization, but insufficient to cause disastrous flooding. The basin also was thought to receive more rainfall than today, until the expansion of the desert and catching of the run-offs by the Sutlej and Yamuna at the time of Vedic era.

Today, the Ghaggar-Hakra channel is almost non-existent except during monsoon season. The desert has expanded to the whole basin, choking any water streams that flow from the north. There are plans by the Indian Government to revive the Saraswati river to its full glory for both religious, as well as irrigation purposes. How the Government is planning to revive the river in the middle of the desert is being covered in the second part of this article.

Written by – Himadri Paul