The Saraswathi River: Window on to the past – Part One

The Indus River today

When we think of the earliest civilizations in the world, we might think first of ancient Egypt or Mesopotamia, or even China, but we shouldn’t forget another one that’s every bit as old, lying along the Indian/Pakistani border, and, of course, Pakistan was historically part of India.

The Indus Valley Civilization, as discovered by modern archaeologists in 1922, was first believed to go back to around 2,600 BC.  It astonished archaeologists, when it was first found, by the magnificence and the vast extent of the cities there.  In recent years the origins of this extraordinary civilization have receded even further back into time.

This civilization is also often called the Indus-Saraswathi Civilization, since it was bounded on the west by the Indus River and on the East by the Saraswathi River.

The Rig Veda spoke of the Saraswathi River as a huge river, cascading down from the Himalayas.  She is also a Goddess, as Indian rivers tend to be.  Actually, all Indian rivers are Goddesses.

“The Saraswathi  River,” Dr. Nanditha Krishna tells me, “is first mentioned in the Rig Veda.”

The Rig Veda is the oldest book in the world.  No one knows how old since it was first passed down through oral traditions, and then written down in Sanskrit (the world’s oldest language).

Everything in India tends to be very old—and generally no one knows exactly how old.

The ruins of Kalibangan

Dr. Krishna wears many hats.  She is the Honorary Director of two foundations: the C.P. Ramaswami Aiyar Foundation and CPREEC, the C.P. Ramaswami Environmental Education Centre.  In addition, she is one of the leading authorities in Indian art, iconography, archaeology, history, traditional crafts, education, and environmental education, as well as the author of more books and articles than one can actually count.  All this is without even mentioning the invaluable work that her two foundations do throughout much of India.

Dr. Krishna has been immensely generous in sharing her knowledge of the extraordinary history and traditions of India.  At the same time, she is not to be held responsible for any wayward thoughts that may have strayed into my writing. I am not pretending to be a scholar, so there may indeed be a few odd thoughts or misperceptions that could creep in.

In the early twentieth century, discoveries of this huge, unsuspected, early civilization were made along the two rivers; the Indus, now in Pakistan, and the Ghaggar-Hakra, in India.  Along the Indus lie the ruins of the ancient cities, Harappa in the north and Mohenjo-Daro in the south.

There were more cities found to the east, lying along what is now a dry riverbed most of the time, the Ghaggar-Hakra, and these are all part of the same civilization as those along the Indus River.  The Ghaggar-Hakra is believed to be the same river that was once called the Saraswathi River, the one mentioned in the Rig Veda. The civilization of the earliest cities in India lay along these two rivers.

A few of the Harappan cities

Later on, the great Indian epic, the Mahabharata (again, this epic work is also very old, and no one knows how old it is) was written down after having been passed on through the centuries as an oral tradition.  The Mahabharata may have been written down sometime between the eighth century BC and the fourth century AD.  In any case, it was definitely written down a long time after the Rig Veda, maybe several thousand years afterwards.  The interesting thing is that the great River Saraswathi is described in the Mahabharata as being in the process of drying up.

So, at one time the Saraswathi flowed as one of the greatest rivers in India, and at that time the earliest cities were built on its banks, and later on, it dried up. In recent years the probable course of the ancient Saraswathi has been traced for hundreds of miles.  Some of this stretch is completely dry, while other stretches have become a seasonal river. There are many varying channels, and there is some dispute over where the original river may have had its banks.

Many books have been written about the Saraswathi. The site of the river holds a great deal of fascination because the civilization that was there was contemporaneous with ancient Sumer and Egypt, and was part of the earliest written human history.

Among the modern-day towns which lie along the banks of the Ghaggar River bed, which now flows only during the monsoon rains, is Kalibangan, meaning “black bangles.”  Another nearby town is called “Yellow Bangles”.

The western citadel, Kalibangan

As is described in a Wikipedia article, the ruins at Kalibangan, were discovered by an Italian Indologist, Luigi Pio Tessitori, in the first years of the twentieth century, but the significance of his find was not immediately clear, and its link to the Indus Valley Civilization, as yet undiscovered, was not recognized until 1924, about five years after his death. The culture found here, in the earliest levels, is called proto-Harappan and goes back to 3500 BC, or five and a half thousand years ago.

Born on December 13, 1887, Tessitori lived just 32 years and died on November 22, 1919. Tessitori was the first to recognize that these ruins were prehistoric, and were pre-Mauryan.  He must have found this buried city very fascinating, as he uncovered the mysteries of a time so long gone, spending the last five years of his life here, until he died young and unexpectedly of a sudden illness. He had also devoted much of his time to Indian literature and poetry.

The remains of the earliest plowed field in the world are found there, at Kalibangan, dating to 2800 BC. The grid pattern that was used at that time, for planting two different crops on the same field, is the same pattern that is used there today.

In the proto-Harappan phase, the people produced several different styles of pottery—among them, red-painted pottery, with white lines and motifs of insects, leaves, flowers, and trees.  In another style, animals and flowers were painted in black on a red background.

There is evidence that an earthquake occurred around 2600 BC.  At this time the people abandoned their city, and the next layer is of the Harappan civilization. The Harappan age that followed (part of the Indus-Saraswathi Civilization) extended from 2500 – 1750 BC.

Proto-Shiva or Pashupati, God of the animals

At Mohenjo-Daro, a figure has been found on seals that seems to depict a proto-Shiva, or Pashupati, God of the animals.  Seated in a yogi position, the figure is surrounded by animals.  There is some dispute over whether this indicates that the roots of Hinduism go back to this time or whether the meaning of the figure is being misunderstood, and perhaps it is not Shiva or perhaps not even a yogi.

Likewise the origins and language of this society are also uncertain  and have been the topic of vast, seemingly unending, speculation.

When the concept of the Aryan invasion was in vogue, it had been assumed that the language of the Indus Valley was a kind of proto-Dravidian, and that this had been more or less supplanted by the Indo-European language of the conquering people.

But now, with the fading away of the whole concept of the Aryan invasion, which seems never to have happened at all, it looks like the language spoken in the Indus Valley could have been a kind of proto-Sanskrit, which would mean that all the Vedas and all the Sanskrit tradition, were home-grown from the start.

More on this in Part Two…

Top photo: Pierre Jean Durieu / / The Indus River

Second photo: Kk Himalaya / Public Domain, Wikipedia / The Ruins of Kalibangan

Third photo: GNU Free Documentation License, Version 1.2, Wikimedia commons / Map of the Indus Valley, showing the blue line of the Indus River; the Ghaggar-Hakra River bed is to the east, in India, near the gray line of the Pakistani/India border

Fourth photo: Kk Himalaya, Public Domain, Wikipedia / Kalibanga, the western Citadel

Fifth photo: Public domain, Wikimedia commons / Proto-Shiva or  Pashupati, Lord of the animals, discovered at Mohenjo-Daro

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