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Bed of Ghaggar River near Hanumangarh. Researchers claim this is the ancient Saraswati River. Source: Bharat Jhunjhunwala / CC BY-SA 2.0.

Legendary Saraswati River of Harappan Civilization Found

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Researchers in India believe that they have solved an age-old riddle. They believe that they have finally identified the location of the mythical Saraswati River . They appear to have found evidence that this ancient river, which is very important in Indian myth and religion, once ran a course on the northwest plains of India. Its course was more or less identical to a modern seasonal stream that flows during the monsoon season.

The occurrence “of a large number of Harappan settlements along the banks of the Ghaggar-Hakra stream” has baffled archaeologists for decades according to Scientific Reports . The Harappans were a very important Bronze Age civilization and the earliest known civilization in the region.

Why they would create a series of large urban centers in an arid region, which meant that they would have had to depend on unpredictable seasonal rains (monsoon) has been something of a mystery. Other cities built by the civilization are all located on major rivers such as those at Mohenjardo and Harappa.

Harappan Bronze Age Civilization Depended on the Saraswati River

Many have speculated that the Harappan settlements were built on the banks of the seasonal Ghaggar-Hakra stream when it was once a river that flowed all year, a perennial river. Since the late 1800s, many researchers have argued that this stream, “shares an identical geographic position with the legendary glacier-fed river Saraswati mentioned in some ancient Indian scriptures” according to Scientific Reports . They theorize that the modern seasonal stream was the famed river and this would have provided water essential for the Harappan settlements.

The Saraswati River is mentioned in the sacred Hindu works known as the Rig Veda . It is mentioned in several holy hymns and it was seen as the route to paradise after death and often identified with the Milky Way . The goddess Saraswati, the deity of learning and wisdom was originally the personification of the river. Once, this river was as holy as the Ganges is to modern Hindus and some believe that it was the homeland of the earliest Aryan people who played a crucial role in the development of Indian civilization .

Saraswati, goddess of knowledge, music, art, speech, wisdom, and learning. (Praveenp / Public Domain)

Saraswati, goddess of knowledge, music, art, speech, wisdom, and learning. (Praveenp / Public Domain )

Scientific Tests – To Locate the Ancient Saraswati River

A new research project, that was a collaborative effort between the Physical Research Laboratory in Ahmedabad and the IIT Bombay, has attempted to determine if the Ghaggar-Hakra was once the mighty Saraswati. They sought to achieve this by investigating the sandy deposits and organic material at the bottom of the modern stream flood plain. Researchers found three distinct forms of sediment along a 200 mile (300 kilometer) course of the river, that were extracted 10-30 feet (3-10 meters) beneath its alluvium.

Study area and subsurface stratigraphy along the Ghaggar-Hakra. (Scientific Reports)

Study area and subsurface stratigraphy along the Ghaggar-Hakra. ( Scientific Reports )

One of the soils, a gray sediment was found to have “resembled that of typical channel fills in neighboring Himalayan rivers” reports The Weather Channel . This means that the seasonal steam was once connected to the large rivers, such as the Sutlej, that originate in the Himalayas.

Then, The Weather Channel reported, the shape and clay content of the other two soils would indicate the “transformation of the fluvial system from a high-energy domain to a low-energy one”. That is the sediment that would indicate that the Ghaggar-Hakra, stream was once a large river, and this corresponds to ancient descriptions of the Saraswati River.

Composite stratigraphy of the Ghaggar alluvium based on field and age data from this and earlier studies. (Scientific Reports)

Composite stratigraphy of the Ghaggar alluvium based on field and age data from this and earlier studies. ( Scientific Reports )

Dating the sediment was a challenge. The research team “focused on collections of mollusk shells buried in situ along with the sediment” according to the Scientific Reports , and these were dated in a laboratory in Spain. Quartz found in the sediment was also dated using “optically stimulated luminesce” testing reports the Times of India .

The Ghaggar-Hakra Stream Was Once the Legendary Saraswati River

Based on these findings the river flowed from 80,000 to 20,000 years ago before it dried up because of an Ice Age. J S Ray, a scientist involved in the study, told the Times of India that “the river revived its strength about 9,000 years ago and flowed” again. This coincided with the development of the Harappan culture , and the presence of the river allowed this society to build large-scale settlements in the area.

The ancient Harappan settled along the Saraswati River. (HassanNaul / CC BY-SA 3.0)

The ancient Harappan settled along the Saraswati River. (HassanNaul / CC BY-SA 3.0 )

Later the river dried up because of a change in the course of the river Sutlej, which fed it. This led to the collapse of the Harappan culture in the area as people abandoned the urban settlements.

Changing the Pre-history of India

The research has proven that the Ghaggar-Hakra stream was once a river that flowed at the time of the Harappan culture. This has provided a great deal of evidence that the stream was once the river mentioned in Hindu sacred literature. The seasonal stream is all that is left of the legendary river, which is so prominent in Indian mythology and religion.

The Saraswati River is mentioned in the Rigveda, an ancient Indian collection of Vedic Sanskrit hymns. (BernardM / Public Domain)

The Saraswati River is mentioned in the Rigveda, an ancient Indian collection of Vedic Sanskrit hymns. (BernardM / Public Domain )

The team of researchers has also proven that the drying up of the river was probably a contributory factor to the collapse of the Harappan culture. If the Ghaggar-Hakra was identical to the mystical Saraswati River, it would mean that the Aryans were also probably living in India much earlier than thought and this could have important implications for the pre-history of the sub-continent. The results of the research have been published in the open-access journal Scientific Reports .

Top image: Bed of Ghaggar River near Hanumangarh. Researchers claim this is the ancient Saraswati River. Source: Bharat Jhunjhunwala / CC BY-SA 2.0 .

By Ed Whelan

Comments

Gary Moran's picture

The diagrams/illustrations on age and straitgraphy probably don’t mean much except to pro geologists without some sort of legend or key to the colors and abbreviations. Altho, it does seem pretty obvious that the rivers run downhill. Duh!

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