River that Vanished

A river flowing perennially is often presumed to be there since eternity and is expected to continue to flow till all times to come! Well the presumption is just a figment of imagination. A peep in to the ‘Rigveda’ and one reads about the seven major rivers. They includeShatadru (Sutlej), Vipasa (Beas),Askini (Chenab), Parsoni or Airavati (Ravi), Vitasta (Jheum), Sindhu(Indus) and Saraswati. Today we have the first six rivers, but where is the seventh? The Saraswati River-it is no where to be seen.

Devout Hindus and many geologists claim that the Saraswati was there and it has vanished. As per the Hindu belief the Saraswati has gone underground and it meets the Ganga and Yamuna at Prayag - at the ‘Triveni Sangam’ (confluence of three sisters). What is known to us as the Saraswati was known as Markanda, Hakra, Suprabha, Kanchanakshi, and Visala, Manorama etc in the Manusmriti, Puranas andMahabharata.

Those following my columns here must be aware about the newer slopes which were created as a result of the mountain building movement started some 20 million years ago. The Himalayas thus came in to existence and water began to flow down the new slopes. Water, most essential for existence of life, looks so tranquil, yet is a big universal solvent. And as the rivers started to flow, over a period of time they began to carve their channels. Mountain building movements on one hand and erosion by water together began to form deep valleys, through which the rivers began to rush down the slopes. These rivers soon cut across the boundaries of the mountains and hit the plains. The sudden change of gradient silenced their roar and gurgling brooks became wide, quiet flowing rivers as they began to flow through the plains. 

Saraswati was no exception. During its heydays, the River used to follow a southwesterly course, and follow the course of the contemporary Sutlej, as per the Vedas. Some rivers like Markanda, Chautang and Ghaggar are contemporaries of Saraswati, they are still flowing. But unfortunately the Saraswati was lost say the scientists who claim to have the evidences of past channels of the mystic Saraswati.

In the mythological era, scientific thought had not evolved. Everything around us was either ascribed to the gods or demons. Thus the glaciers were called as the ‘demon serpent’ or the ‘Ahi’. The rivers were said to have originated from gently moving ‘Ahi’ (glaciers). As the human thinking evolved and scientific thought and temper developed, there were changes in the views. 

Amongst the geologists those supporting the existence of the Saraswati River believe it originated from Bandarpoonch massif at Naitwar in western Garhwal at the confluence of Sarawati and Rupin Glaciers. It flowed through Adibadri, Bhavanipur, and Balchapur in foothills to the plains, of Punjab, Haryana, Rajasthan, Gujarat and ultimately in to the ancient Arabian Sea. According to some geologists the Saraswati had three major tributaries-the Sutlej (or Shatadru of Vedic period), Drishavati from Shiwalik hills and the old Yamuna. Yes those supporting the existence of the Saraswati believe that till a few thousand years ago Yamuna was flowing westwards through Rajasthan and meet Saraswati. It is also believed that in Rajasthan the upper combined course of Yamuna, Sutlej and Drishavati was also known as Hakra in Rajasthan and Nara in Sind. It is believed that in the upper reaches the combination of three rivers, viz. Yamuna, Sutlej and Drishadvati is the present day Ghaggar River.

What started as a mighty river, the Saraswati had a brief existence. It came in to being during the last phase of the Himalayan orogeny and around 1.7 million years ago massive landslides occurred all through the length of the Himalayas. Perhaps some these severed the glaciers feeding the Saraswati, conjecture some believers of the River. The actual decline of the Saraswati commenced sometimes around 5000 to 3000 B.C. when the River was truncated at several places due to non-availability of water from the sources. The remnants of the River formed large lakes. Some of them like Lunkaransar, Didwana and Sambhar and the Ranns of Jaiselmer, Pachpadra etc are believed to be the leftovers of the mighty River Saraswati! These lakes are all saline, yet fresh water gastropods are found in their beds considered as proof that these were once upon a time fresh water bodies formed due to cutting off of a river.

The Saraswati has been an enigma since past generations. Several reasons other than geological were ascribed to the vanishing act. With the development and awareness about science geologic, meteorological, climatic, tectonic reasons started coming forth to explain how the river vanished.

R.D. Oldham, a geologist with Geological Survey Of India was perhaps the first earth scientist to explain in 1886 how the Saraswati vanished. He said that the present day dry-bed of Ghagger River represents Saraswati’s former course and that its disappearance was precipitated when its waters were captured by Sutlej and Yamuna. However, several other geologists claimed that the river vanished due to lack of rainfall. 

During the last 30 years several investigators have tried to solve the mystery of vanished Saraswati through ground and satellite based techniques as well as from the paleoseismic and palaeoclimatic records. The data available is immense, yet the chain of natural events during the past 1.70 million years has given rise to different interpretations about the former river courses.

Yash Pal and his co-workers B. Sahai, R.K. Sood and D.P. Agrawal in 1980 tried to trace the paleo-channel of the River through Punjab and Haryana. They found the course highlighted in the LANDSAT imageries through these States. They interpreted that the River vanished in to a depression in Pakistan, instead of debouching in the Arabian Sea-an observation shared by few other observers as well. However, later workers found paleochannels beneath the sands of Thar Desert in Rajasthan. These channels are seen to extend up to Fort Abbas and Marot in Pakistan and appear in a line with present day dry bed of Ghaggar.

In a recent attempt to highlight the findings H.S. Saini, Sai Mujtaba and R.K. Khorana of Geological Survey Of India, alongwith S.K. Tandon of Delhi University and N.C. Pant of IIT Kharagpur reported evidence of buried major sand bodies at various depths in Haryana. They published their findings in the December 2009 issue of the Current Science. From the evidences gathered they conclude that there were two separate phases of riverine activities. Amongst these, the younger activity took place between Toahana and Sirsa, which has earlier also been considered part of the lost Saraswati. The older activity is around 20 to 30000 years old. Thus it happens to be older than the last Glacial Maxima (18000 years ago) - considered a wet phase of the earth. The younger activity is dated around 6.0 to 2.9 thousand years before present.

Professor Indra Bir Singh an internationally acclaimed geoscientist, specializing in the fluviatile (riverine) regimes says in the absence of any fool proof ground evidence for the existence or otherwise of the River Saraswati it is difficult to accept the so called evidences. On the ground he says if such a mighty river system had existed, it could not have vanished in thin air, without leaving any trace of evidence. However, he says there are many things which exist in our faith and they can not be challenged.

Well whether such a mighty river existed or not only time will tell, but it is certain that rivers are capable of doing a vanishing trick. For want of water, Arvari a river in Rajasthan had vanished. Samaritans like Rajendra Singh were able to revive it with the help of the villagers along the route of the river. But compared to many others, Arvari was a small river and it was possible to revive it. 

In the past, it was the nature which alone was responsible for the existence or otherwise of the rivers. Now the anthropogenic intervention in the form of constructing large dams for storing water for electricity, irrigation and drinking water, the existence of some of the rivers is at stake. Ganga is one of the victims of our wrath. With large dams in the Himalayas and the proposed Ganga Expressway in U.P. plains if the Ganga decides to vanish some day, then it would be well nigh possible to revive it and the scientists of future will be busy searching clues-like we are trying to find out where and how did the Saraswati vanish?     


More by :  V. K. Joshi (Bijji)

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