Monday, February 22, 2010

Saraswati flows on in ASI records

(First appeared in The Pioneer)

Rajesh Singh

While it is only now that the Union Government has admitted to the existence of the Vedic river Saraswati after being in a denial mode for five years, the Archaeological Survey of India’s National Museum in New Delhi has all along displayed for visitors maps and written text highlighting not only the river’s existence but also its crucial role in sustaining what we know as the Indus Valley Civilisation.

Not only does the Museum endorse the river’s existence before it dried up, it also refers to the Indus Valley Civilisation as Indus-Saraswati Civilisation.

The National Museum is a repository of historical and archaeological heritage of the country and comes under the same Culture Ministry whose Minister in the first UPA regime had categorically denied the river’s existence. The Museum is patronised by visitors from across the country and abroad.

This is what a text put up in the Harappan Gallery of the Museum says: “Slowly and gradually these people evolved a civilisation called variously as the ‘Harappan civilisation’, the ‘Indus civilisation’, the ‘Indus Valley civilisation’ and the ‘Indus-Saraswati civilisation.” After all, experts have pointed out that nearly 2,000 of the 3,000 excavated sites are located outside the Indus belt and along the Saraswati course.

The text further elaborates the important role of the river: “It is now clear that the Harappan civilisation was the gift of two rivers — the Indus and the Saraswati — and not the Indus alone.” It is clear, yes, but not to the Government that only now has rather reluctantly accepted the river’s existence.

The Harappan Galley also has a map titled Major Excavated Sites of the Indus-Saraswati Civilisation (the terminology once again) which shows the Saraswati river (dotted possibly because it has dried up) emptying into the Arabian Sea at Rann of Kutch in Gujarat. Yet another display, the Harappan Civilisation Map highlights the Ghaggar river (dotted) flowing on a similar path. Experts have identified the Ghaggar — now a seasonal river — as what was once the mighty Saraswati.

The Museum thus emphasises the following: One, there was a river Saraswati; two, it existed in the Vedic period; and three, since the Indus Valley civilisation was nurtured by the Saraswati as well, the civilisation must be referred to as Indus-Saraswati civilisation.

But even in the face of these assertions, backed by years of research and mounting new evidence, the official response has been status quoist, preferring not to tamper with old beliefs handed over to us by early Western academics and eagerly adopted by home-grown experts. ASI director BB Lal writes in the preface of his acclaimed book The Saraswati flows on, about the "persistent assertion by Western linguists and historians and their more vociferous, Indian counterparts that the Rig Vedic Saraswati was the Helmand of Afghanistan."

Calling the assumption "completely baseless", he pointed out that the Rig Veda (10.75.5) clearly stated the river Saraswati lay between the Yamuna and the Sutlej - none of which existed in Afghanistan! Since the Rig Veda incidentally mentions the Saraswati as many as sixty times, and on many occasions in detail, it should be clear to all but the supremely blinkered that the river did indeed exist in the Vedic period.

The establishment of this fact then leads us to a bone of contention: Did the civilisation end due to an Aryan invasion or the drying up of the river?

NS Rajaram in his excellent book Saraswati River and the Vedic Civilisation notes that the discovery of the river 'dealt a severe blow" to the theory that Aryans invaded India which then had the Harappan Civilisation. The theory supposes that the Harappans were non-Vedic since the Vedic age began with the coming of Aryans.

But the National Museum makes no such distinction. In fact, as we have earlier noted, it refers to the role of the Saraswati in nurturing the Harappan civilisation. Now, since the Saraswati flowed during the Vedic period, the Vedic era ought to have coincided with the Harappan age. Rajaram says in his book that the Harappan civilisation "was none other than the great river (Saraswati) described in the Rig Veda. This means that the Harappans were Vedic."

So, if the Harappans were Vedic and thus 'Aryan', who invaded the civilisation and caused its demise? Experts have pointed out that there is no evidence through the excavation in the Indus-Saraswati region that an invasion had ever happened, much less from Aryans who "came from outside". Rajaram, like many others, believe that the Saraswati's drying up was the principal cause for the civilisation's decline. This fits in well with the National Museum's contention that the Saraswati was a major lifeline of the Indus-Saraswati civilisation.

Rajaram adds his voice to the theory. He notes in the book, "It is beginning to be recognised that what ended the Vedic Age (the Harappan era) was not any invasion but the drying up of the Saraswati - an event that was first placed at 1900 BC but which may have been pushed back beyond 2000BC for the date of 'complete' drying up of the Saraswati river."

Well known scholar on Indian Studies and Sanskrit, Wendy Doniger is cautious on the invasion theory. She remarks: "The Vedic people had other enemies, and the Indus Valley people had other, more likely sources of destruction, nor is there any evidence that their cities were ever sacked… The smug theory that a cavalcade of Aryans rode roughshod into India, bringing civilisations with them, has thus been seriously challenged."

But, although her book is a remarkable history of the Hindus and demonstrates her knowledge and appreciation of the Hindu way of life, it fails to do justice to the Saraswati river issue. There is just a very sparse mention of the river that is not just held in reverence by millions of Hindus but also holds the key to understanding our ancient civilisation.

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