Journal : The River Sarasvati And Its People

Part I : The Saga Of The Quest

The Saga of the Quest for the River Sarasvati :

M.A. Jayashree, M.A. Narasimhan and Haribhau Vaze

There has been many a saga in the history of mankind that has captured the imagination of generations of humanity. In our millennium we speak of adventures of Marco Polo, Columbus’ discovery of the shores of America, Amundsen’s expedition to the North Pole, Vasco da Gama reaching the shores of Bharata and many more. All these look dramatic and fascinating when we realise they were undertaken more with courage and determination than in the security of reliable information. Yet they succeeded in obtaining for posterity enormous benefits in terms of the perspective about the world that we lived in.

One such saga of recent times is the quest for river Sarasvati. Looking back, we see the formidable obstacles that one faced in trying to investigate the history of a river that was non-existent and believed to be a myth : Was there was a real physical river called Sarasvati or was it just a myth, a poetic creation of the Aryans ? If such a river existed where did it flow ? How are we to trace its source, course and termination ? If it did exist : why, how and when did the river disappear ? If it was an ancient river with claims as the cradle of an ancient civilization, is there any archaeological evidence of the its banks ?

Louis Renous 1947 map of the Sarasvati basin

Added to the confusion was the reverential and emotive association Bharatiyas had with the River Sarasvati, that made them identify every other river, big or small, with the divine river Sarasvati itself. They still have the same inclusive approach and attitude towards the rive Ganga. Thus the Haradvati that flows in the north-west region was also Sarasvati. It was the third (invisble) river at Sangam, the confluence of Ganaga and Yamuna at Prayag. A branch of Ganga near Calcutta, a river flowing from Abu to Khambayat in Gujarat, the river that joins the ocean at the Prabhasa Kshetra … all are called Sarasvati. Under such a condition, in the hostile atmosphere of the world of historians monopolised by western scholars who were bent upon proving that the existence of river Sarasvati was a myth, that all literary evidence were figments of imagination and who, demanding material evidence for proof, declared that the quest and the search for it was an exercise in futility, there were bravehearts who proceeded undeterred.

The “Quest For River Sarasvati” scholars came together under the banner of Bharatiya Itihasa Sankalana Samiti. Yes, we call them brave because they staked their international academic reputation to chase a myth and to prove that the seeming mirage was in fact a reality. The academic world scoffed at them and laughed at the venture. Well, it did last for more than a decade. Most of them are no longer with us now to celebrate the fruition of their foundational quest. This post is to honour and pay homage to them.

Our deepest appreciation and gratitude goes to pioneer Sri Sridhara Vaman Wakanker and his team Sarasvati Samshodhana Mandal. At the same time we recall that the quest for river Sarasvati has a long history, spanning nearly two centuries. All scholars and lovers of Bharata and its heritage fell under the spell of this mysterious river Sarasvati, after going through the vast Vedic literature. They did their best to verify the physical existence of the river with tools then available. The voluntary attempts of Oldham (1893), Wadia (1938), Amal Ghosh(1960), H.S. Parikh (1965), WilHelmi (1969), Alwin, Goudse, and Dr. Hegde(1978) merit our scholarly attention.

Extensive studies to survey the invisible course of Sarasvati in 1942 by Gen Cunningham, Arthur A. Macdonnel, A.B. Keith and Aurel Stein were well publicized. In 1963, Dr Narasimha Narayana Godbole surveyed the route of the Sarasvati in Rajasthan. Dr. M.A. Krishnan gives us in detail the course of the river in his work, Geology of India and Burma, published in 1968. Dr M.N. Godbole’s monumental work, Rgvedic Sarasvati, based on geological research throws more light on many of the ticklish problems associated with the quest.

The current quest had its origin in 1981, when Babasaheb Apte Smarak Samiti, Nagpur, was celebrating the District History Day at Kurukshetra, in the presence of Sri M.N. Pingale, the Working President of Babasaheb Apte Smarak Samiti, who drew the attention of the audience to the need and relevance of a research work on the lost Vedic river Sarasvati and the possible consequences of that research on the ancient history of Bharata. Dr. Vishnu Sridhar Wakankar, the senior most archaeologist of the country then, explained with great fervor the archaeological importance of the issue. Immediately there was a vociferous demand from the audience for setting up of a Samiti for such a “Quest.” Thus, the All India Project of Sarasvati Shodhan was born.

It took nearly four years to investigate, consolidate, plan and recruit eminent scholars to form a team to launch the Sarasvati Shodhan project. It was termed as Quest Mandal Expedition and was inaugurated on Tuesday, the 19th Nov. 1985 by the steersman of the Quest, Sri M.N. Pingale. The Quest Mandal headed by Padmashri Dr. V.S. Wakankar, with a team of scholars belonging to all branches of knowledge, set out for Adi Badri in Himachal Pradesh, the presumed source of river Sarasvati. Points of fact were jotted down meticulously as and when they emerged during the visits. Photographs were taken wherever they were considered relevant. Audio tapes, about 19, were effectively put to use to collect more important information related to the river. The notes thus prepared covered a wide canvas including literary sources, art, history, poetry, archaeological remains, oral observations, traditional references, etc.

The Quest team also recorded age-old stories and songs which were full of reverential references to the Sarasvati River from the Charans who reside in Palloo, Bikaner and Karani Devi of Rajasthan. The Charans, as is well known, make their living by singing folk-songs with stories of past heroes and legends.

The Quest got a fortunate filip when the team was provided with clinching evidence about the dried-up river Sarasvati. The Arid Zone Research Institute gave authentic data that literally broke through the great haze of obstruction holding up the quest. A NASA satellite launched in 1972 had taken pictures of a dried-up huge river which ran from the Himalayas to the Rann of Kachchh. The images had been analysed by many scientists associated with scientific institutions of India but none had recognised its historic worth. The compiled information handed over by Dr. Agarwal consisted of studies done on this dried-up river bed by Bimal Ghose et al. (1979), Ramasamy, Bakliwal and Verma (1991), Yash Pal et al. (1980).

The accurate scientific data regarding the course of the river and the time when it went dry gave a powerful impetus to the Quest. The images sent by LandSat disclosed the following : The width of the Ghaggar Sarasvati bed was on an average between 6 and 8 km from its entry in Punjab to present-day Marot in Pakistan; the course of Markanda River got diverted to north-east of Kshatrana and even today the river Sarasvati flows through this route during rainy seasons; the dried-up Y-2 route indicated the width of the present day Choutang River and its confluence with Ghaggar near Suratgarh.

It was clear from the received images that the ancient Ghaggar River got bifurcated near Anupgarh, with one branch getting lost near Marot and the other losing itself at Baireena. It meant that during that period the banks of Sarasvati River had spread to these two places. Incidentally, these details point to a possibility of the Vinashana Tirthin Sarasvati, where Balaram of the Mahabharata offered his reverence to his late father, and that it could be situated near about these two places. The Quest team therefore decided to search for :

1. Information about the course of the river from Adi Badri

through the plains and regions close to Sindhusagar.

2. Traces and collections of the remains and reminiscences

in the environment.

But the search route as indicated by the LandSat was a stupendous, as the dried-up bed was expansive. Dr. Wakankar studied the dried-up bed of Sarasvati with his fellow researchers from archaeological point of view. He was thus able to concentrate their month-long quest only on select spots. The Quest team went though Adi Badri, Ambala District, where the Sarasvati slides into the plains after crossing the mountainous area through Kanthghar, and then to the Shivalik mountain ranges starting from Jagadhari(Yugandhara), beyond which stands the mountain Manu, where the Sarasvati, icy and hidden, flows as an undercurrent through the cracks, crevices and cleavages of the mountains.

The team also visited YamunaNagar, Sarasvata Nagar (Mustafabad), and then on to Kurukshetra where the seed of the whole quest had been sown. At Kurukshetra, under the guidance of Pandit Sthanudatta Sharma, the team went to the actual site of the river Sarasvati in the celebrated city. Remnants and reports related to the site gave the team enough information, motivating them to study in depth the city of Kurukshetra in the context of the course of the lost river. Stone implements of the Prehistoric period were collected in a large quantities from all places visited by the team : painted mud-pots of pre-Harappan period, which are also available in the valleys of Sarasvati (Ghaggar) and Drshadvati (Choutang) at Bhagvanpur, Banavali, Sirisha, Mitthal, Raja Karn ka Keela, Doulatpur, Mirjapur, Sudha, Balu, Kudal, Agroha and nearby places. The team also did a close study of 20 to 30 metres long sand-dunes of Bikaner. In Gujarat, the team visited Ambaji mountains, where Bhel trees are in abundance, and then on to Koteshvar where one stream of the Sarasvati flows underneath.


The river, after playing hide and seek, finally emerges on the surface at Siddapur to meet the Nala Sarovar. This mountain range, part of Ambaji, is known as Mainaka, the source of Gurjar Sarasvati. Kunwar, on the banks of Nanuran (Nanukaccha), where the Sarasvati enters the ocean in sevenfolds (saptadha), was the next destination of study. Now Nanu is a sandy desert. Near one of the seven streams, Dr. V.S. Wakankar found pieces of an egg of a Shakha Mrga that helped him to conclude the period of Kunwar could be at least 25-50 thousand years BC. Later, the team came across an old ocean coast harbour called Lothal, which was an ancient city of Nanukaccha. A dockyard specially meant for repair of ships was discovered there. Now there has been an in depth study of Lothal showing the maritime capabilities of our ancestors.

Travelling eastward, on the banks of the Gurjar Sarasvati of ancient times, the team came to the vicinity of the holy Somnath mandir at the junction of rivers Gautami, Hiranmayi and Sarasvati. Thus, the Quest pilgrimage covering a distance of about 4000 km came to an end. Curiously, this Quest did not come up with just a report on the course, date and the civilization that prospered on the banks of the fabled river, as it happens with almost all historical expeditions. It also indicated the possible sites on the banks of Sarasvati for archaeological excavation, the study of which would meet the challenge of proving whether this water mass, which was still flowing underground in most of the places, was really the same river that had its source in Himalayan glaciers.

That seeming impossibility evoked worldwide interest. Many teams of scientists came and did their own investigations and confirmed the existence of the river Sarasvati, proving that most of the narrative history of Bharat, be it folk or of the Vedas, was factual. The spin-off of this information was the opening of another avenue which has never been the forte of history : to resurrect the lost river and bring the hidden Gupta Gamini Sarasvati onto the surface !

That was the task taken up, again, by the Akhil Bharatiya Itihasa Sankalana Yojana under the title Sarasvati Nadi Shodh Prakalpa. The Prakalpa is now engaged in enabling the waters of Sarasvati flow once again along its course, so that millions of hectares of parched land of this blessed country can become green and give life to over 200 million people. It also provides strength to the devout and vindicates their faith when he and she take a holy dip in their sacred river Sarasvati.

The Prakalpa plans to create National Water Grid in order to reach the Brahmaputra flood waters to Kanyakumari, making every river south of Vidhyas in India a perennial one (jeevanadi) and potentially adding 90 million acres of additional wetland, and enabling four-crop cultivation with availability of water round the year. This revolution would empower rural India consisting of more than half a million villages.

The revival of river Sarasvati is proceeding apace, as part of the National Water Grid : inter-linking of rivers, master plan drawn by National Water Development Agency. The waters of Manasarovar flowing through rivers Sutlej and Beas have already been brought to the Rajasthan Nahar (called Sarasvati Mahanadi Roop Nahar). The Sarasvati Nahar waters have now reached up to Gadhra Road in Barmer District, after traversing a distance of about 1000 km. Another 150 km extension of this Nahar will ensure that Sarasvati River waters will reach Rann of Kachchh and Gujarat.

It’s a miracle of gigantic proportion, my dear reader ! Especially when you consider that the desert of Rajasthan was threatening to extend up to Haryana and even Delhi, the capital city, barely a couple decades before.

The Saraswati Basin Civilisation


3 thoughts on “Journal : The River Sarasvati And Its People

  1. Reblogged this on Truth Within, Shines Without and commented:

    This miraculous resurrection of a hitherto mythical river, and the civilisation it spawned over ten millenia ago, needs to be told and retold … to set the records of Indian history straight and real, as it was.

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