Saraswathi River

There are references to the river Saraswathi in the Valmiki Ramayana and the Mahabharata and the Vedas. The drying up of the Vedic Saraswathi River led to the end of the  Saraswathi River Civilizations and to the rise of the Sindhu Valley Civilizations. There are some modern rivers named after Saraswathi today, but they are not The Saraswathi.

Notes  from by A. V. Sankaran. Please see the original article for diagrams and for more details.

  1. Hindu mythology records several legends and anecdotes that are intertwined with the river’s geologically brief existence. Every aspect of the river’s life, right from its birth to its journey down the Himalayas and over the plains towards the Sindhu Sagara (ancient Arabian Sea), have found mention in one religious text or other, like Rigveda, Yajurveda, Atharvaveda,Brahmana literature, Manusmriti, Mahabharata and the Puranas.
  2. These descriptive legends have often proved helpful in cataloguing some of the natural events of the period and linking some of them with the river’s perturbations. For example, the graphic description of a war between Gods and demons detailed in one of these texts and use of fire (Agni) in the destruction of a demon hiding in the mountains which trembled under the onslaught may possibly refer to volcanic and seismic episodes of the period.
  3. Today, more than 8000 years since the Vedas came into existence, some of the rivers mentioned therein have become defunct or have shifted from their original path. In the earlier years of study, their erstwhile courses were mainly inferred from archaeological evidences. These included sites of ancient settlements (some 1200 are known) of Harappan, Indus or Saraswati civilizations along river banks, the scripts and seals left behind, and references in Hindu mythology to river-bank Ashrams and Yagnya Kundams preserving evidences about the ritual worship practiced by the ancient inhabitants
  4. Over a 3000 year-long period since the Vedic times the drainage pattern of many rivers had changed much from that described in the earlier religious literature. The decline of Saraswati appears to have commenced between 5000–3000 BC, probably precipitated by a major tectonic event in the Siwalik Hills of Sirmur region.
  5. Geologic studies indicate destabilizing tectonic events had occurred around the beginning of Pleistocene, about 1.7 my ago in the entire Siwalik domain, extending from Potwar in Pakistan to Assam in India, resulting in massive landslides and avalanches.
  6. These disturbances, which continued intermittently, were all linked to uplift of the Himalayas. Presumably, one of these events must have severed the glacier connection and cut off the supply of glacier melt-waters to this river. As a result, Saraswati became non-perennial and dependent on monsoon rains.
  7. All its majesty and splendour of the Vedic period dwindled and with the loss of its tributaries, major and minor, Saraswati’s march to oblivion commenced around 3000 BC.
  8. Bereft of waters through separation of its tributaries, which shifted or got captured by other neighbouring river systems, Saraswati remained here and there as disconnected pools and lakes and ultimately became reduced to a dry channel bed. Lunkaransar, Didwana and Sambhar, the Ranns of Jaisalmer, Pachpadra etc.,are a few of these notable lakes, some of them highly saline today, the only proof to their freshwater descent being occurrences of gastropod shells in these lake beds.
  9. With the decline and disappearance of Saraswati, the ancient civilizations, that it supported, also faded.
  10. Considerable tectonic activity connected with Himalayan orogeny continued during the Holocene and later times although uplifts to heights of 3000–4000 m were at their peak during 0.8–0.9 my span.
  11. The high elevation of the mountains perturbed the wind circulation patterns and induced climatic changes. Moderate terrain of earlier times became rugged and hilly affecting the channels of rivers.
  12. That was the scenario of the Himalayan region when Saraswati emerged as a major river about 9000 y ago and flowed in all splendour during the vedic times till its decline to an impermanent monsoon dependent state some 4000 y later.
  13. Bulk of earlier studies on Saraswati pertain more to the civilizations that flourished along its banks and many of the reasons attributed for the decline of this river were speculative. The impacts of middle to late Quaternary geologic events on the river systems in this region, however, had received only cursory attention.
  14. Awareness to the potentialities of geologic, meteorologic, climatic and other cyclic events, basically triggered by plate tectonism, earth’s orbital and tilt variations and similar global phenomena came up much later. Attempts to investigate their roles over the decline and desiccation of Saraswati began only since close of nineteenth century and gained momentum during the last three decades.
  15. Oldham, a geologist of Geological Survey of India, was one of the first to offer as early as 1886, geological comments about Saraswati. According to him, the present dry-bed of Ghaggar River represents Saraswati’s former course and that its disappearance was precipitated when its waters were captured by Sutlej and Yamuna.
  16. This view differed from that of several others who felt that Saraswati vanished due to lack of rainfall.
  17. However, later-day meteorological research about palaeoclimates, oxygen isotopic studies, thermouminescenct (TL) dating of wind-borne and river-borne sands in the Thar desert region, radiocarbon dating of lake-bed deposits and archaeological evidences have all indicated that during early to middle Pleistocene period this region had enjoyed wetter climate, heavy rainfall and even recurring floods and that increase in aridity commenced by mid-Holocene (5000–3000 BC) only.
  18. Intense investigations during the last thirty years have yielded fruitful data obtained through ground and satellite based techniques as well as from palaeoseismic, and palaeoclimatic records all of which had enabled a good reconstruction of the drainage evolution in northwestern India.
  19. In addition, TL-dating of dry-bed sands and isotopic studies of the groundwater below these channels provided useful links in these reconstruction efforts. The observed river-shifts and other changes could also be correlated with specific geologic, seismic or climatic event that occurred during the mid- to late-Quaternary period.
  20. Particularly helpful were the information gathered from LANDSAT imagery about location of former river courses in the plains and beneath the Thar desert upto the Rann of Kutch, about existence of palaeo-river valleys and identifying major structural trends (lineaments) in the region.
  21. In spite of a large volume of such data, the chain of natural events during the Quaternary period has given rise to different interpretations about the former river courses.
  22. Mainly, Indus and Saraswati, were the two major river systems of northwestern India during the Vedic period but the network of their tributaries, some of which are known to have deviated from their initial course or become non-existent today, have given scope for grouping these rivers into convenient classifications.
  23. Sridhar et al. have classified the rivers into four main groups (Figure 2) – (i) Sindhu (Indus) and its tributaries Vitasta (Jhelum) and Askini (Chenab); (ii) Shatadru (Sutlej) and its two major tributaries Vipasa (Beas) and Parasuni or Iravati (Ravi); (iii) Saraswati and its three tributaries Markanda, Ghaggar and Patialewali, in its upper reaches and a major tributary in its middle course; (iv) Drishadvati and Lavanavati. Baldev Sahai grouped them into Sutlej, Ghaggar and Yamuna systems while Yash Pal and co-workers recognized only two major systems – the Sutlej and the Ghaggar.
  24. The waning period of Vedic civilization around 3700 BC was also the period that disrupted both Saraswati and Drishadvati. Several evidences indicate that rivers of this area changed their courses often in the last 5000 y andone detailed study about Saraswati has identified at least four progressive westward shifts in Rajasthan, due to encroaching sands. In their evaluation of the palaeochannel imagery obtained from LANDSAT, Yash Pal et al.observed a sudden widening of Ghaggar near Patiala which, they argue, can take place only if a major tributary had joined it. According to them, ancient Shatadru or Sutlej must have been this tributary and possibly ancient Yamuna (palaeo-Yamuna) also flowed into Ghaggar, a conclusion they claim is strengthened by archaeological findings of active life that existed at one time on their banks.
  25. During a subsequent period, Shatadru (Sutlej) swung suddenly westwards near Ropar to join Indus (as also Vipas/Beas and Parasuni/Ravi, its two tributaries), deserting its earlier channel to the sea. This sudden diversion of Sutlej as well as depletion of waters from Drishadvati due to loss of its feeding streams, appear to be major events that heralded the drying up of Saraswati.”

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