Friday, June 22, 2012

The Saraswati Civilisation

(First published in The Pioneer dated June 6, 2012)


A new study titled, ‘Fluvial landscapes of the Harappan civilisation’, has concluded that the Indus Valley Civilisation died out because the monsoons which fed the rivers that supported the civilisation, migrated to the east. With the rivers drying out as a result, the civilisation collapsed some 4000 years ago. The study was conducted by a team of scientists from the US, the UK, India, Pakistan and Romania between 2003 and 2008. While the new finding puts to rest, at least for the moment, other theories of the civilisation’s demise, such as the shifting course of rivers due to tectonic changes or a fatal foreign invasion, it serves to strengthen the premise that the civilisation that we refer to as the Indus Valley Civilisation was largely located on the banks of and in the proximity of the Saraswati river.
More than 70 per cent of the sites that have been discovered to contain archaeological material dating to this civilisation’s period are located on the banks of the mythological — and now dried out — river. As experts have been repeatedly pointing out, nearly 2,000 of the 3,000 sites excavated so far are located outside the Indus belt that gives the civilisation its name.
In other words, the Indus Valley Civilisation was largely and in reality the Saraswati River Civilisation. Yet, in our collective consciousness, numbed by what we have been taught — and what we teach — we continue to relate this ancient civilisation exclusively with the Indus Valley. For decades since Independence, our Governments influenced by Leftist propaganda, brazenly refused to accept even the existence of the Saraswati river, let alone acknowledge the river’s role in shaping one of the world’s most ancient civilisations. In recent years, senior CPI (M) leader Sitaram Yechury had slammed the Archaeological Survey of India for “wasting” time and money to study the lost river. A Parliamentary Standing Committee on Transport, Tourism and Culture which he headed in 2006, said, “The ASI has deviated in its working and has failed in spearheading a scientific discipline of archaeology. A scientific institution like the ASI did not proceed correctly in this matter.”
Yet, on occasion after occasion, scientific studies have proved that the Saraswati  did exist as a mighty river. According to experts who have studied the map of all relevant underground channels that are intact to date and connected once upon a time with the river, the Saraswati was probably 1500 km long and 3-15 km wide.
The latest study, whose findings were published recently in the Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences, too is clear on the river’s existence and its role in sustaining the ancient civilisation. The report said that the Saraswati was “not Himalayan-fed by a perennial monsoon-supported water course.” It added that the rivers in the region (including Saraswati) were “indeed sizeable and highly active.”
Will the new findings lead to a fresh thinking on the part of the Government and an acknowledgement that the time has come to officially rename the Indus Valley Civilisation as the Saraswati-Indus Civilisation? But the UPA regime had been in denial mode for years, much like the Left has been for decades. As the then Union Minister for Culture, Jaipal Reddy told Parliament that excavations conducted so far had not revealed any trace of the lost river. Clearly, for him and his then Government, it meant that the river was the creation of fertile minds fed by mythological books with an even more fertile imagination. The UPA Government then went ahead and slashed the budget for the Saraswati River Heritage Project — which had been launched by the NDA regime. The project report had been prepared in September 2003, envisaging a cost of roughly Rs 32 crore on the scheme. The amount was ruthlessly pruned to less than five crore rupees. In effect, the project was shelved.
However, despite its best efforts to do so, the UPA could not completely ignore the facts that kept emerging about the reality of the river and the central role which it had played in the flourishing of the so-called Indus Valley Civilisation. In a significant shift from its earlier stand that probes conducted so far showed no evidence of the now invisible Saraswati river, the Government admitted half-way through its first tenure in office that scientists had discovered water channels indicating (to use the scientists’ quote) “beyond doubt” the existence of the “Vedic Saraswati river”. The Government’s submission came in response to an unstarred question in the Rajya Sabha on whether satellite images had “established the underground track of Saraswati, and if so, why should the precious water resources not be exploited to meet growing demands?”
The Union Water Resources Ministry had then quoted in writing the conclusion of a study jointly conducted by scientists of Indian Space Research Organisation, Jodhpur, and the Rajasthan Government’s Ground Water Department, published in the Journal of Indian Society of Remote Sensing. Besides other things, the authors had said that “clear signals of palaeo-channels on the satellite imagery in the form of a strong and powerful continuous drainage system in the North West region and occurrence of archaeological sites of pre-Harappan, Harappan and post-Harappan age, beyond doubt indicate the existence of a mighty palaeo-drainage system of Vedic Saraswati river in this region… The description and magnanimity of these channels also matches with the river Saraswati described in the Vedic literature.”
Interestingly, the Archaeological Survey of India’s National Museum has been as forthright on the issue. This is what a text put up in the Harappan Gallery of the National 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’.” The text further elaborates on the importance 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.”
There is another interesting aspect to the new study by the group of international scientists that deserves mention. The report has discounted the possibility of ‘foreign invasion’ as one of the causes of the ancient civilisation’s decline. But, long before this report was published, NS Rajaram, who wrote the book, Saraswati River and the Vedic Civilisation, had noted that the discovery of the Saraswati river had “dealt a severe blow” to the theory that the Aryans had 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 the Aryans.
But, 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.”
Not just that, experts have pointed out for long that there is no evidence of an invasion, much less from the Aryans who ‘came from outside’. Rajaram, like many others had concluded that the drying up of the Saraswati river and not some ‘invasion’ was the principal cause for the civilisation’s decline.
However, the latest study by the international group leaves a question mark on the origins of the river. The report claims that Saraswati was not a Himalayan river. But, several experts believe that the river originated from the Har-ki-Dun glacier in Gharwal. Let’s wait for the final word.

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