Did Mythical Saraswati River Really Exist?

Indian civilisation owes much to its numerous rivers. Rivers guaranteed survival; attracted settlements and enabled trade. River Saraswati is often referenced in Indian tradition but today it does not officially exist. Although there is proof that it existed some still doubt. Did the river ever really exist or was it fictional? If it did exist, where did it reside and why did it disappear? 

According to the ancient Indian scripts of Rig Veda (conservatively dating back to 2000 BC) the river was larger than both Indus and Ganges and flowed from the mountains to the sea. Rig Veda mentions that the river lied between rivers Yamuna in the east (starts in the lower Himalayas, passing through Delhi, Agra and merges with the Ganges at Triveni Sangam in Allahabad) and Sutlej in the west (starts in Tibet, moves through north west India, enters Pakistan and connects to Indus river). Also, rivers Drishadvati and Apaya were its tributaries. The Rig Veda also mentions that the Saraswati river inspired its writing and that it was written by its banks. In total, Saraswati is mentioned 71 times in Rig Veda. Such was the impact of the river in Vedic times that it was personified in the form of a goddess by the same name. With time, Saraswati´s identity and significance was expanded beyond the river (godess of music, arts, wisdom and learning). 

One of the most prevailing theories is that the dry river of Ghaggar (changes to Hakra in Pakistan) that lies between Yamuna and Sutlej and runs only during the monsoon river is the once great Saraswati. Ground surveys; satellite pictures and isotope analysis are indicating that the dry riverbed of Ghaggar-Hakra was once a large river that sustained the Indus valley civilisation (more information can be found in “The Lost River: On the trail of the Saraswati” a book by Michael Danino). Furthermore, ancient cities of the Indus valley civilisation have been discovered in what is now a desert. A careful look indicates that many sites are spread near the path of the dry riverbed (Kalibangan, Banawalli and Ganweriwala)

According to S.R.N. Murthy (1), the Vedic Saraswati is not a myth. It was a live river in the Vedic time, and irrigated large areas supporting the Vedic Culture to a considerable extent. Its extinction is due to geological changes in the area.

In the Mahabarata which was written many years after Rig Veda we get a different picture of the Saraswati river. The river seems to have diminished in size. Also, it is mentioned that the river includes and underground section; “The Saraswati disappears in the desert at Vinshana and reappears at Chamasa”. Furthermore, other texts such as the Tandya and Jaiminiya Brahmanas which were also written after the Rig Veda mention that the Saraswati dried into a deser (the Thar desert). Archaeological evidence collected from ancient settlements suggests that the river dried-up around 2000BC. At that time old settlements were abandoned and new ones were constructed close to the Ganga and Yamuna rivers.

It would not make sense that Saraswati did not exist. After all ancient Indian scriptures make references to many rivers that exist today. What would be the purpose of introducing a fictional river?


Sources

  1. S.R.N Murthy. The Vedic River Saraswati; A Myth or Fact. A Geological Approach. Indian Journal of History of Science, 15 (2), pp 189-192, November 1980.

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