Subscribe to South Asia Citizens Wire | feeds from | @sacw
Home > Resources / Links > India: Sarasvati Theories & the Constraints of Geography | Zahoor Ali (...)

India: Sarasvati Theories & the Constraints of Geography | Zahoor Ali Khan

28 August 2014

print version of this article print version

People’s Democracy, 24 August 2014

Sarasvati river has for some years been at the centre of attention of government departments and organisations concerned with culture, archaeology and history. Its lower reaches were seen to lie, under the Gulf of Cambay by the minister of human resources development, and its sources were placed high in the Himalayas by the minister of culture of the NDA government in a formal statement. This article seeks to raise certain questions essentially by examining the geographical implications of certain statements made in, as academically reputed a work as a Memoir of the Geological Society of India, under the title Vedic Sarasvati: Evolutionary History of a Lost River of North Western India, Bangalore, 1999. Basically the article is concerned only with the claims made relating to the Holocene, beginning c. 8000 BC, within which the Vedic corpus is placed by all whose contributions were published in that volume, including the late V S Vakankar, who would push the Rigveda back to 8000 BC. Secondly, the implications are examined only in regard to (a) the possibility of the higher Himalayas feeding any river between the Sutlej and the Yamuna during the Holocene; and (b) the topographical possibilities of either the Yamuna or Sutlej feeding streams in the upper part of the Indus-Gangetic divide.

It is often forgotten, it seems, that topography must also be heard; and for this purpose it is extremely important to propound our ideas on such matters by first checking their topographic implications.


The first point which is of some importance regarding the statements that contributors to the Geological Society memoir have made, especially Dr BP Radhakrishna, president of the Geological Society, himself in his paper ‘Vedic Sarasvati and the Dawn of Indian Civilization’ (pp. 5-13), is river nomenclature. Can we just call any river Sarasvati because it suits us? The old Quarter-Inch sheets (maps) show that there was a firm distinction between Ghaggar and Sarasvati (“Sarsuti”). The Ghaggar river rose on the lower Himalayan slopes, pierced the Shiwaliks in the Chandigarh gap and flowed west of Ambala. The Sarasvati rose in the Shiwaliks, debouched in the plains east of Sadhaura, and ran past Thanesar (where, incidentally Bana in the seventh century also recorded its presence in the Harshacharita), took in the Markanda, another Shiwalik river (also flowing well east of Ambala), and then joined the Ghaggar. A still older course, took it further down south running parallel to the Ghaggar. There has been no identification on the ground between the Ghaggar and the Sarasvati. Yet OP Bharadwaj on whom BP Radhakrishna heavily relies creates ‘three Sarasvatis’, the Ghaggar, Markanda and Sarasvati, and abandoning the last, the really holy river, hands the crown to Ghaggar, as the Vedic Sarasvati (Vedic Sarasvati, pp. 16-17). This is done for no other reason than that the holy Sarasvati is a small seasonal stream and the Ghaggar comes from the Himalayan slopes and is much the larger river. But, in other words, the “sacred Sarasvati” is abandoned simply for convenience of argument.

The next assertion, on proving which the then energetic minister of culture deployed considerable resources of government (to go by his press statements) is breath-taking; there have been, says, BP Radhakrishna, such “tectonic disturbances” after 5000 BC as cut off the Sarasvati “from the perennial source of water from the snowy Himalayas” (pp.8-9). For this he surprisingly cites not a geologist but OP Bharadwaj, with no known geological skills. Bharadwaj puts this “large-scale tectonic-seismic-volcanic upheaval” (p.190) even later, around 3000 BC. Uptill now no proof has been offered of such recent volcanic activity in the Himalayas within the Holocene, and Bhardwaj’s reference to it should surely have put Radhakrishnan on guard. As to “seismic” there is no known earthquake in history which could have had such consequences as levelling huge high mountains and raising others to divert courses of rivers in the Himalayan range. Not a single instance of an earthquake-induced change of course in a mountain river of this magnitude has been cited anywhere.

Finally, “tectonic”: it is so convenient a word these days! But let us see what work we are going to demand from the tectonic uplift. As our contours show, the Sarasvati is separated from the “snowy” Himalayas by the Shiwaliks which rise to 1500 ft. and then by the lower Himalayas which rise to well over 2000 ft. The only way the Yamuna could have captured any Himalayan source away from the Sarasvati is to have diverted Giri river which flows almost due east into the Yamuna from an earlier supposed connection with the Sarasvati. But Giri is separated from the present source of the Sarasvati (reaching barely to a level of 1,000 ft.) by a Lower Himalayan range nowhere below 2000 ft. and with a peak rising to 5030 ft. In order to imagine that the Sarasvati could have had a connection with Giri river at any time we must imagine an intervening tectonic uplift of at least 1000 ft. or above 300 metres, which alone could have broken this connection.

Is such a tectonic uplift in a period of time so short as the Holocene going back to 10,000 years at all possible, especially when, as Radhakrishna does, we have to pack it all up within a matter of 2000 years?

The beginning of the rise of the Himalayas is dated back to Eocene, or, let us say, some 50 million years ago. If they rose 10,000 metres (which is above the height of Mt. Everest), they have risen, on average just one metre in 5000 years! Even if one brings down the period of the rise of the Himalayas to 25 million years ago (Miocene) it would be an average rise of one metre in 2500 years. A tectonic rise of 300 metres over such a large area as one is being asked to imagine in 2000 years (average: one metre in seven years) would not only have shaken up the Himalayas, it would have rocked the entire globe with unimaginable consequences (including earthquakes). And all this just to have had Giri river flowing into Sarasvati, a situation in which Sarasvati would have been a somewhat larger, but still not a “great”, river.

If such is the case with the presumed previous connection with Giri river, a rather modest Himalayan stream, we can see that any connection with the Sultej or any of its Himalayan tributaries on its left side would be even more impossible: a tectonic lift of some 600 metres might be required at the very least. We would practically have to say that the Himalayan ranges below Shimla were all created after 5000 BC!

So much for the Himalayan sources of the Sarasvati. The other assertion is that both the Yamuna and the Sutlej were tributaries of the Sarasvati in the plains. We must now remind ourselves again that we have to confine ourselves to the Holocene. There are all kinds of palaeo channels which LANDSAT imagery throws up, of which two good maps one of the whole Indus basin and the second of the Bahawalpur-Rajasthan area are provided in the Vedic Sarasvati volume, at pages 241-2. The basic fact is that there is not the slightest trace in LANDSAT imagery of any palaeo water-course beyond the point in Bahawalpur where the Ghaggar-Hakra (“Ghaggar/Sarasvati/Markanda”) river’s dry channel today disappears, so that there is no evidence connecting the dead river either with the Indus or to Eastern Nara. In other words, the Ghaggar system rivers have never carried any volume of water at any time that could have made the Ghaggar a tributary of the Indus or the Eastern Nara. The existence of a Sarasvati of immense proportions is thus disproved by LANDSAT imagery.

Today, states can run canals across all drainage lines, as the projected Sutlej-Yamuna canal so well illustrates. But nature does not so violate them. Water flows down the slope it finds. One can see that, even including the Yamuna in the upper plains, all the rivers and streams in the Ghaggar basin run south-westwards. To believe that the Sutlej could have in the Holocene thrown up a channel, say from near Ropar, to flow into the Sarasvati above Thanesar, is just impossible – for it would have to run across the whole lie of the land. Any channel it could have thrown southwards would have run very far down south, and then only into the Hakra, and would have not put any water in either the Ghaggar or Sarasvati.

This leaves the Yamuna. A possibility certainly exists of a channel leaving the Yamuna – one can see how one Yamuna channel below Khizrabad runs in the direction of Chautang R. On the other hand there is also a Sarasvati channel that leaves it above Thanesar to join the Chautang. The Chautang follows a long course south and then west, past Hansi and Hissar running dry around Bhadra, below what its dry bed runs into that of Ghaggar. Such a connection of Yamuna with Chautang, and Sarasvati as a tributary of Chautang is, indeed, topographically possible. Yet how this connection could convert that river into Sarasvati is difficult to imagine, since, then, Sarasvati would only be a petty tributary of a Yamuna flowing eastward.

Other evidence greatly restricts even this topographic possibility. There are the high banks of the Yamuna to consider: they show that its course from back in Pleistocene has been its present one. Chautang and Sarasvati have no high banks, showing they never carried high volumes of water to lay much alluvium. Nor are the old beds of the Chautang such as to suggest that they ever carried more than the flood off-shoots of the Yamuna. Finally, of course, the LANDSAT evidence: Had the Yamuna ever flowed into the Chautang, its water would not have stopped in the middle of Bahawalpur desert, but gone on further.

Can one, therefore, make a plea to all, from geologists to politicians, to return to reason and geography in what has been so blatantly made into an emotional and propaganda issue?


The above article from People’s Democracy is reproduced here for educational and non commercial use