The Saraswathi river – Window on to the past – Part Two

A body of water in the Sariska Reserve, Rajasthan

Five fire altars have been found, at Kalibangan, from the Harappan period, which suggests that the people worshipped Agni, the fire god.  In all the Indus Valley cities other than this one, there is evidence of the worship of the Mother Goddess, but not here.  There were raised platforms of mud bricks, with fire-pits and posts.  They resemble the descriptions of the Vedic ritual sites.  Indeed they may have been the very same sites.

It used to be thought that the Aryans (or Indo-Europeans), having first originated in the Caucasus Mountains, invaded from the northwest coming into India over the mountain passes, then conquered and destroyed the Indus Valley Civilization. This theory is no longer held by most scholars.

It’s hard to maintain a theory when there isn’t any evidence, and there’s never been any sign of an invasion, or of a foreign people swooping in through mountain passes, or of any such people coming from the Caucasus mountains.  So, currently, the accepted view is that the Rig Veda was created in and by the Indus Valley Civilization itself, which lay on the land stretching from the banks of the Indus to the west and the ancient Saraswathi (now the mostly dry Ghaggar) to the east.  There are hundreds of cities making up this ancient civilization, whose script has never been deciphered.

A female Nilgai in the Thar Desert

According to this now widely accepted view, the Rig Veda, and the other three original Vedas, along with the entire Vedic tradition, took form within India itself in an unbroken line that extends back into the mists of time.  So there were no invading armies of conquering Aryans, though clearly many peoples have entered India over the millennia from many directions.  But the culture of India is, it seems, rooted in India.

The Saraswathi River has its origins in the Shivilak Hills, which extend 1600 kilometers (a thousand miles); they are the foothills which are the outer Himalayas.  Going east to west, the Shivilak Hills go from Sikkim, in eastern India, through Nepal, through Uttarakhand, and on to Pakistan.

The River Saraswathi originated from a glacier, along with the river Yamuna. The Yamuna went off to the east, in the Indian hill state of Uttarakhand, which is in the north of India and is the western neighbor of Nepal.

There are many Hindu pilgrimage sites in Uttarakhand.

Native people, the Kols, originally settled there.

Leaving the Himalayas, the river Ghaggar (Saraswathi), in the form it exists in today, runs for around three hundred miles south before disappearing into the great Thar Desert, which lies mostly in the Indian state of Rajasthan.

The riverbed of the Ghaggar is very wide, which indicates that the river carried the great volumes of water that cascaded down from the Himalayas during the massive meltdown that occurred around 10,000 years ago, at the end of the Ice Age.

The ancient Saraswathi then continued its journey south on through the now mostly dry Hakra River.

A male Nilgai, often called a blue bull

The Saraswathi River is mentioned in every book of the Rig Veda, except the fourth book, and it is the only one of the Indian rivers that has entire hymns dedicated to it.  It is described as a large divine river, and, according to some views, was of even greater importance than the Indus River.

It is thought by many scholars that the Rig Veda itself came into being on the banks of the Saraswathi River, perhaps as long as 7,000 years ago, since settlements have been found extending back to 5,000 BC, as it was first passed down through oral tradition and later written down in Sanskrit.

Saraswathi is the Goddess of knowledge, language, writing and the arts.  Her vehicle is the magical swan, Hamsa.

Thousands of years later, the epic tale, the Mahabharata, depicts the Saraswathi as a dying river (perhaps divine knowledge had begun to fade by this time too).   One of the heroes, Balarama (who is the older brother of Krishna), travels from Dwarka to Mathura along the river bed.  Great fissures in the river bed have recently been detected by satellite, and legend has it that the river went underground, and so disappeared.

A coach driver from the Indus Valley

Scientists believe that the river dried up due to a number of climate changes taking place between 2,000 and 1,500 BC.  One of the changes seems to have been that the river Yamuna turned east to join the Ganges, whereas previously it had flowed into the Saraswathi River.

Another major tributary, the Sutlej, also turned aside and no longer ran into the Saraswathi.  Apparently, the desertification of Rajasthan and the Thar Desert took place around the same time, by 2,000 BC.  All this may have been due to extensive earthquakes, known to have taken place during these times.  All the earthquakes and the diversions of the major tributaries could have spelled the end of the great river in its above-ground form.

A bullock cart, Rajasthan

Mohenjo Daro lies in Pakistan, along the Indus River, which goes into the Arabian Sea a few miles to the east of Karachi.  Harappa, the other well-known early city, from which the ancient Harappan civilization takes its name, is further north, a little to the East of the Indus River.  The neolithic city Mehrgarh, considered to be a precurser of the Indus Civilization, lies to the west, in Balochistan, Pakistan, about 200 kilometers  (124 miles) from the Indus.

According to archaeologist K. Kris Hirst, the city of Mehrgarh goes back to 7,000 BC, and the people there invented dentistry.  The remains of nine adults in a graveyard were found to have had drilling done in their molars.

On the other site of the Indus-Saraswathi Civilization, to the east—M.R. Mughal surveyed the Hakra river between 1974 and 1977 and mapped 400 sites along 300 miles of the river—most of these dated from 3,000-4,000 BC.

S. P. Gupta counted over 600 sites on the combined length of the Ghaggar-Hakra River.

Because so many of the sites of the Indus Valley Civilization have been found not on the Indus, but rather along the Ghaggar-Hakra, S.P. Gupta and others have proposed calling the civilization, the “Indus-Sarasvati Civilization”.

Satellite photographs have shown that the Ghaggar-Hakra was large, and that it dried up several times.  The Hakra River bed is huge—between three and ten kilometers wide (two miles to six miles).  As well as the theory that earthquakes may have contributed to the drying up of the river,  there have also been suggestions that deforestation and overgrazing played a part.

Mehrgarh is much to the west of the Indus River, so we can say that this vast civilization, comprised of well over one thousand cities, extended from Mehrgarh in the west to the Saraswathi in the East and beyond.  Lasting over 5,000 years, it may be the origin of some of the world’s most profound philosophy, literature and spiritual thought, and some might say that it never really ended at all, but continues to this day as one of the main threads woven together to become India.

Top photo: Corey Theiss  / Creative Commons Attribution 2.0 Generic, Wikimedia Commons / A body of water within the Sariska Reserve, Rajasthan


Second photo: Creative Commons Attribution-Share Alike 3.0 Unported, Wikimedia / Female Nilgai


Third photo: Creative Commons Attribution-ShareAlike 3.0, Wikipedia / male Nilgai, an antelope found in the Thar desert, sometimes called a blue cow or blue bull


Fourth photo: Dennis Richardson / / Bullock cart


Fifth photo: Miya.m / Creative Commons Attribution-Share Alike 3.0 Unported, Wikipedia / Coach driver, Indus Valley


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