She has been worshiped for ages as the deity of knowledge and consort of Brahma. She is the giver of ‘vidya’ (education/knowledge) as well as the ruler of ‘arts’. However, in the Vedic Age, she was a living entity, a river in full spate nourishing the lands which form the present day North and West India. Yes, we are talking about the river Saraswati who has been mentioned at least 45 times in the Rig Veda.
In recent times the Haryana Government has commenced a project to unearth the lost river at a cost of close to rupees 50 crores. While there are sceptics who doubt the existence of such a river, the faithful are certain that what has been discovered is indeed the river that had been in full flow during the Vedic Age and has resurfaced after all these years.
Saraswati during the Vedic Age and later times:
Rivers have played, and continue to play, an important role in the progress of civilizations all over the world. Of the several rivers that flowed through the country several centuries ago, Saraswati enjoyed an exalted position. All rivers were personified as Devis and hymns were composed praising them. River Saraswati has been mentioned in all important Vedic as well as later Vedic scriptures such as the Rig Veda, Brahmanas and even Mahabharata. The Nadistuti (Hymn in praise of river) sukta (Rig Veda 10.75) identifies the major rivers of those times which include Ganga, Yamuna, Saraswati and Sutudri (Sutlej). Several verses in the Rig Veda are testimony to the fact that the river indeed originated in the Himalayas and flowed into the ocean namely the Arabian Sea. The later Vedic texts talk of the gradual disappearance of the river and the Mahabharata mentions the drying up of Saraswati as being lost in the desert. The scriptures also mention that even though the river dried up physically she continues to flow underground and meets the Ganga and Yamuna at the Triveni Sangam.
Not much was known about how the river disappeared and there were even raging debates as to whether Saraswati actually existed as a physical river during the Rig Vedic times. In recent times several modern techniques such as satellite (paleo-channels have been confirmed by images captured by ISRO and NASA) and ground mapping, analysing paleo-seismic and paleo-climatic records etc. All these techniques have helped to successfully identify the Vedic Saraswati and trace her channel.
So what happened to a river flowing in full spate? It is not a matter of speculation that Himalayas are a seismic zone and prone to earthquakes. The Indian subcontinent keeps pushing into the Asian plate thereby causing the Himalayas to rise every year. Experts opine that a combination of climatic changes along with tectonic activities caused the river to first dwindle and then gradually disappear. A major earthquake is believed to have cut off the feeder rivers of Saraswati thereby reducing the quantum of water that flowed into the ocean. With the onset of arid climate, towards the end of Indus Valley Civilization, the river further lost her water sources and soon disappeared. It is believed that the river flowed during the times of Mahabharata and that Krishna might have escaped the wrath of King Jarasandha by fleeing from Mathura to Dwaraka by boats on the River Saraswati. Thus one of the names given to Krishna is Ranchod (Someone who flees from the battle).
It is interesting to note that several smaller streams, lying in the present state of Haryana and Rajasthan, have been named Saraswati. This could be the believers’ way of keeping the memories of the river alive. Another simpler explanation is that these smaller streams could be a part of what once formed a mighty river nourishing the land.
Amidst this background the Haryana Government launched the ambitious ‘Saraswati Revival Project’ on 21st April 2015 at Rolaheri village in Yamunanagar district of Haryana (River Saraswati Revival Project). This project aims to revive the Saraswati by using a combination of excavation, constructing check dams and diverting water from the Som River. The benefits are expected to be manifold including increase in religious tourism and water conservation among others.
No project is without its fair share of criticism and the skeptics are of the opinion that the government is simply trying to waste money on a ‘dead river’. Some also believe this is an attempt by the rightist government to give the issue a political and religious hue. Whether or not that is true is a matter of debate. I, for one, believe that if the project is going to bring in long term benefits then we need to give it a shot. Besides not everything is to be seen or interpreted with tinted glasses. Keeping an open mind is particularly important in issues which involve the sensitivities and sentiments of people at large.
While the political debate continues to rage, the river Saraswati continues to intrigue us. Till the time that she returns in full spate to nourish the lands of Haryana, Rajasthan and Gujarat and retrace her journey from the Himalayas to the Arabian Sea we can continue singing her paeans with this Rig Vedic hymn
अम्बितमे नदीतमे देवितमे सरस्वति।अप्रशस्ता इव स्मसि प्रशस्तिमम्ब नस्कृधि॥ऋ २।४१।१६॥
(Meaning: Oh Mother, the greatest of the mothers, rivers, and Devi, oh Saraswati, we are unfit, make us fit.)