Saraswati: River, myth or mirage

While experts say there was a river system in place where the Haryana government is trying to revive the water body, there are doubts whether it was actually the Saraswati mentioned in holy texts

By Rajeev Khanna
Published: Monday 07 January 2019
The Ghaggar river, thought to among one of the channels of the ancient Saraswati river, in Haryana's Panchkula. Credit: Wikimedia Commons

The Haryana government just shifted gears to realise its vision of reviving the 'mythological' river. But Saraswati, for now, remains a 'mirage' in many ways with more questions than answers. It remains caught amid political ideologies and people’s aspirations amid a lack of genuine research. There are many misconceptions about the river and its channels that need to be cleared at the earliest.

Its revival keeps making it to the media headlines off and on. Last week the Haryana Saraswati Heritage Development Board (HSHDB) met under the chairmanship of chief Minister Manohar Lal Khattar and approved 11 projects, including for the restoration of various heritage sites along the course of the Saraswati. Khattar reiterated that fresh water flow in the river is a priority. He also launched a mobile App developed by the HSHDB that provides information related to the river including ‘scientific evidences’ of its existence and relevant studies.

On the cards are:

  • Rejuvenation and development of Saraswati, including the construction of Somb Saraswati barrage and Saraswati reservoir
  • Construction of Adi Badri dam and other development works in Himachal Pradesh
  • Rejuvenation from Saraswati reservoir to its outfall in the Ghaggar river
  • Interlinking of Markanda and Saraswati through the Kainthla supply channel
  • Construction of waste water treatment plants
  • Saraswati Ghats at Bhaini and Mangna villages in Kurukshetra
  • Bridges on "the river" at Ishargarh and Beer Pipli in Kurukshetra
  • Restoration of heritage places along the river's course
  • Linking of Saraswati River Heritage Research Institute with the Centre of Excellence for Research on the Saraswati River, Kurukshetra University.

The Board also approved the proposal for appointment of a consultant to assess the techno-feasibility for waterway, heritage development and pilgrimage tourism from Pipli to Jyotisar and at Pehowa in Kurukshetra. Those present at the meeting were also informed that the HSHDB has identified the heritage sites including various temples, ghats and other structures along the course of the Saraswati for development and restoration.

Before one takes all this in, there are many questions on the river:

  • Did something by the name of Saraswati exist?
  • Did it originate in Haryana and flowed into Rajasthan? 
  • What then is celebrated as Saraswati at Allahabad or in Patan, Gujarat (including by Prime Minister Narendra Modi)?

Politically speaking, there is a viewpoint in the Left that playing up the existence of the Saraswati is the Right wing psychology at work. With no claims left on the Indus Valley Civilization since the river now flows in Pakistan, the Right wing wants to erect a Saraswati civilization in India. According to the Left, what is being projected as Saraswati is nothing but one of the water channels in the foothills of the Shivaliks and this is yet another example of saffronisation at work.

Experts say what is claimed to be the Saraswati river is actually buried water channels and the politics is around reviving the myths related to these channels. There is also a reported point of view that a river by the same name had existed in Afghanistan and the Aryans on coming to India had renamed various water channels as Saraswati.

Geologist A R Chaudhuri, who has been working on the issue for more than a decade, puts the thing into another perspective: Research has shown that a river system did exist in the area and the archeological sites discovered one to two kilometres in the radius of paleo channels also point towards this.

“The whole thing needs to be put in the right context. What is more important than the theory propagated by the British that the Aryans came to India and it was the outsiders who civilized us is that we did have a civilization of our own,” he said.

He also pointed that what a common man sees in the entire government exercise is water coming from it. At the same time, he underlines that most of the research that has come out on the issue is merely ‘copy paste’ and not genuine. Neither has the excavation work gone much deep.

Prof. Chaudhuri says that there should not be negative propaganda about the issue; rather it should be presented in the right perspective. He also explains that the normal course of things in such a scenario is that someone discovers a site, reports it to the authorities, the academicians come in, get government help in taking it further and eventually the media reports it. But there it is the political class and the media driving the narrative with the academicians on the sidelines.

He further said that water is not a thing to be taken lightly. “The possibilities do exist but at this point of time we do not have enough data,” he said. He once again put out that things are not being presented in the right earnest and false hopes should not be generated as it is ‘criminal’.

The efforts to trace the Saraswati had initially been put on fast track in 2003. A Saraswati Heritage Project was launched by the Union Ministry of Tourism and Culture but it had to be shelved in 2005 when the Parliamentary Standing Committee on Transport, Tourism and Culture reportedly objected to the project, leading to its burial.

The Committee had reportedly said the project did not conform to the criterion fixed for excavation of archaeological sites since no academic body or university had recommended the project. “The Ministry is not clear as to which research agency/scientific survey actually pointed out that the dry beds of the Ghaggar and Chautang (Drisadvati) were the bed of the Saraswati," the report said.

But it has been a different story at the state level. While the previous governments had shown interest in developing the site of the ‘hidden’ river as a religious tourism site, the present one claims to have put the project on priority. It is another matter that the deadlines spelled out by the Haryana government in July 2016 for the river’s revival were never met. For the common man, the hope still lies in getting water from a project in which the government has involved dozens of institutes.

(The author is a freelance journalist who has extensively reported on a wide array of issues across several Indian states for more than 2 decades for reputed publications and websites)

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