When and where did river Saraswati flow?

Manoj Pandey*

Land and water formations such as hills, rivers, lakes, deserts and plains originate, change their shape and size, and even disappear over long periods of time. Take the case of rivers. Arid areas the world over have rivers that just disappear into sand. In India itself, many rivers are said to have changed their course, merged with others or have disappeared altogether. 

However, no lost river has received as much public attention in India as the river Saraswati. There are many reasons for this: 

  • Religious and cultural significance. For Hindus, the river is sacred as it has been mentioned with reverence repeatedly in scriptures. The legend of Saraswati has also been kept alive by the locals of some parts of Haryana state. The river has retained its importance for religious-political reasons too.
  • Historical significance. The river’s existence and disappearance are closely associated with Harappan and Aryan civilizations. More so, as the river’s description changes over time even in ancient scriptures. It is expected that when the chronology of flow and exact location about the river are established without doubt, some existing historical theories relating to Indus Valley civilization, Vedic civilization and Aryan migration into India might undergo a thorough change.
  • Interest of international researchers. Western Indologists as well as those studying the West Asian and South Asian civilizations have shown interest in Saraswati as the river has been described in a large number of historical documents, including accounts of foreign travellers. Interestingly, a river with similar name has been described to be flowing in Iran and Afghanistan, which is now called river Helmand. 
  • Intriguing nature of the river’s size and course. Other rivers that have disappeared over time have a rather straight-forward history and geology. The rivers were also not as big as Saraswati. Many of the rivers that have disappeared in the recent past have dried up or changed course due to excessive exploitation, man-made change in the course of the river, climate-change-led shortage of water/ snow in their catchment areas, or encroachment by humans. In the case of Saraswati, the river was fed by today’s mighty rivers that now drain into other rivers (Satluj into the Indus, and Yamuna into Ganga) and yet the river dried up without a trace on the ground. This is, thus, a magnificent case of river piracy (stealing away of a river’s tributary by another rivers).

Was there a river called Saraswati?

Let us first settle this question. Though some scholars still think of Saraswati as a mythological river, it is now conclusively proved that a river of that name did flow in north-western Indian plains. It is also now settled that even if some ancient documents refer to Saraswati as an Iranian or Afghan river, that could be a coincidence or misrepresentation. The established view is that the river Saraswati flowed in the plains between today’s Yamuna and Indus rivers.  

The following quote represents the view of those who steadfastly cling to the idea that river Saraswati is a myth even if they agree that geological changes might have dried up some insignificant rainfed river in the arid lands of present-day Haryana and Rajasthan: “Thus, the diaspora – the Vedic Aryans, often of tenuous status within their host majority culture – the Harappans – could have created mythic memories of their homeland as a way to assert their exclusivity and otherness. So it is also likely that the Saraswati was a mental construct of the Vedic Aryans, which metaphorically overflowed as they encountered the bleak, water-poor landscape of the Indus-Yamuna interfluve.” [ref 3 listed below]

Varied views about the age and location of Saraswati

In recent times, the river Saraswati evoked interest among scholars of Hinduism on the one hand and geologists on the other, some hundred years back. But soon, many scholars, even historians who were not experts in this genre, and self-proclaimed scholars on everything Indian, started giving their opinion. It is interesting to see how the river Saraswati has been depicted by scriptures, historians and geologists over time:

  • Saraswati was a big, holy river that flowed between Yamuna and Satluj and flowed into Samudra. [Vedic scriptures]
  • Samudra connotes a lake. Saraswati was a small, rainfed river that flowed in today’s Haryana and Rajasthan and ended up under sand, without meeting the sea. [some historians]
  • Scriptures gave a bigger-than-life status to Saraswati because it was around this place that some of the ancient Indian scriptures were composed. The exalted status might also have arisen as the river caused devastating floods. [some historians]
  • Saraswati was formed with Shatadru (Satluj) and Tamsa (Tons) rivers joining at Shatrana in Haryana. Drishadwati joined it further down. [Post-Vedic references.] 
  • Five rivers flowed into Saraswati: Shatadru (Satluj), Chandrabhaga (Chenab), Vipasa (Beas), Iravati (Ravi) and Drishadvati. [Yajurveda]
  • Saraswati was the largest of the seven rivers in Saptasindhav (the north-western plains of India) during the Vedic period. [Reference in Rigveda.]
  • The river Saraswati bestowed people with rich crops of barley, and the land along the river was a blessed land. [Manusmriti, Atharvaveda] 
  • Saraswati disappeared underground and showed up again, and had marshlands. It drained into the sea. [Mahabharata]
  • Saraswati was today’s Ghaggar-Hakra-Nara, a non-perennial river that flows in western India and eastern Pakistan. [a large number of geologists]
  • A rivulet called Sarsuti actually flows in Haryana. There is also a dilapidated fortress named Sarsuti at the bank of the present Ghagghar river. [fact on the ground]
  • Saraswati originated at Adi Badri in Haryana. [local cultural beliefs that the local river Sarsuti was the real Saraswati, getting political support in the State]
  • Satluj used to flow into Ghagghar. [1908 Imperial Gazeteer]
  • Saraswati’s perenniality: Some historians claim, it was a perennial river. On the other hand, others think, it was a rain-fed river that originated at Adi Badri in today’s Haryana.
  • Civilizations fed by Saraswati: While some scholars think this river nurtured Vedic civilization, others feel its flow and disappearance are closely related with Harappan civilization. Some find a new relationship between Vedic and Indus Valley civilizations based on the flow of rivers in this area.
  • Saraswati was the name of Heraxvati (now called river Helmand) that flows in parts of Afghanistan and Iran. [some historians]
  • Saraswati is one of the three rivers making Triveni sangam (= meeting point of three rivers) at Allahabad/ Prayag, the other rivers being Ganga and Yamuna. The river has gone underground, but it emerges at Triveni and becomes part of Ganga. [popular Hindu belief]

Once geologists/ hydrologists started studying the river with modern tools, strong evidences started accruing that corroborated the notion that Saraswati was a mighty river. These findings also provide explanation to many archaeological discoveries. Let us look at the major ones:

  • Saraswati flowed between Yamuna and Satluj but dried up later. The main river broke into many channels, most of which were dry but carried water during rains. The floodplains of the river were wide, and dense forests (Sitavan, Kamyakvan, etc.) flourished in these plains. Ashrams of many renowned sages lay in these forests. [geological/ hydrological finds; post-Vedic scriptures]
  • Most Harappan settlements in Haryana and Rajasthan were located in the fertile beds of this river system. The major archaeological sites in Haryana are located within a radius of less than 500 m from Saraswati and Drishadwati palaeochannels (=water channels buried under sediment that was deposited by rivers that once flowed there). The presence of over 2000 ancient human habitations along the river over many millennia cannot be explained if the river were not perennial. There are also archaeological evidences of canals criss-crossing this land – something that would happen only with perennial rivers. [facts on the ground; hydrological interpretations]
  • The area where the upper reaches of river Saraswati and its tributaries flowed is tectonically highly sensitive and has witnessed shifting of land masses and earthquakes. This resulted in earlier elevated lands turning lowlands, thus causing new alignments among rivers. The lower reaches (Rann of Kachh) have witnessed major seismic upheavals and also desertification. [strong geological evidence]
  • The main tributaries of Saraswati must have originated in the higher Himalayas because a lower origin does not explain the wide palaeochannels that are now discovered in Haryana-Rajasthan. The river must be receiving copious quantities of perennial flow from higher reaches to be able to deposit that much sediment. [geological evidence]
  • In some places in Haryana, deep exploration found water of very ancient origin (up to 10,000 years old) and originating at glaciers. That indicates that waters from the Himalayas once flowed into the lost river system. 
  • A recent study published in June 2021 [ref 4 below] says, the network of Saraswati’s streams was so extensive that its total length was 2984 km within Haryana and the width of floodplains varied from 1.5 km to 13 km. It also says, the river declined earlier, but it was flowing overground as late as AD 1402. [inferences based on detailed study of available geological, carbon-dating and remote sensing data]

Whether the river is flowing underground

Yes, and that is not unusual. There are large aquifers in different parts of the globe, that lie under dead or living rivers.

Based on geological and remote sensing studies, aided by the analysis of soil and water where ONGC carried out surveys for hydrocarbons), it has been proved that a huge body of water flows where Saraswati flowed at one time. 

In fact, because of this expansive underground water channel, some wells in Rajasthan do not dry up even during drought. In addition, though brackish water is often encountered in tube-wells of the semi-arid plains of Haryana, abundant sweet water is found at certain depth in the Saraswati basin area.

The most accepted view

Many shades of opinion – some conflicting – still float, about the actual course of Saraswati, timings of its decline and disappearance, whether all scriptures and historical documents refer to the same river, and the chronology and exploits of civilizations that prospered (and declined?) along the course of the river.

Whether the Harappan and Vedic civilizations occurred in a continuum or were drastically separate (and which one preceded the other), the most accepted view about the river Saraswati is that it was a perennial river draining into the sea and it nurtured human habitations. Its main channel corresponds to Ghagghar-Hakra-Nara river, which is now purely rainfed. The river had a very wide floodplains in parts of present-day Haryana and Rajasthan and a small part of Pakistan. It is also highly likely that at one stage the present-day Yamuna drained into Saraswati.

The change in the course of major perennial rivers, especially Satluj, due to tectonic shifts seems to be the main cause for decline of the river. Other factors such as the river breaking into many channels, sandy nature of soil, climate change, and human actions might have contributed to the disappearance of the river and the area becoming arid. 

Further reading

  1. On the existence of a perennial river in the Harappan heartland
  2. Prehistoric River Saraswati, Western India [pdf]
  3. Saraswati: The River That Never Was, Flowing Always in the People’s Hearts
  4. Saraswati River in northern India (Haryana) and its role in populating the Harappan civilization sites—A study based on remote sensing, sedimentology, and strata chronology 
  5. Saraswati underground
  6. Tracing the Vedic Saraswati River in the Great Rann of Kachchh
  7. Vedic Saraswati

Maps courtesy: Saraswati water channel: adopted from a satellite map by Bhuvan/ ISRO; map of Vedic-time rivers: as proposed by KS Valdiya, geologist, author of Saraswati, the River that Disappeared

*Manoj Pandey is a former civil servant. He does not like to call himself a rationalist, but insists on scrutiny of apparent myths as well as what are supposed to be immutable scientific facts. He maintains a personal blog, Th_ink

Disclaimer: The views expressed in this article are the personal opinion of the author and do not reflect the views of raagdelhi.com which does not assume any responsibility for the same.

1 COMMENT

  1. Scientific and historical analysis of Aryan’s origin & river Saraswati. 👍….भारोपीय परिवार की समस्त भाषाओं के हजारों शब्दों की समानता यह सिद्ध करती है कि आर्यों का मूल स्थान एक ही था ।

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