Sunday, December 02, 2012

The Lost River : On the Trail of the Sarasvati - Michel Danino

The myth about River Sarasvati, was imbibed in every Indian. Often described as the underground river, which joins Ganga and Yamuna at the 'triveni Sangam' at Prayag ( Allahabad). As is obvious that around every myth, there are some historical truth, or belief system which existed. Sarasvati, to the Hindus are beyond the river, but of larger influential existence. It is the goddess of all knowledge, its is the power of arts and music, it's the motherly incarnation of the goddess. The speculation about the identity of the river continued to torment the scholars of India for a while.

French Scholar Michel Danino's attempt to narrate the tale of Sarasvati, is thus very interesting and important. Here is an attempt to put together all the knowledge from various facets of information, from vedic to archeological, in a well researched and beautifully presented book.

Sarasvati River, according to new evidences  ran parallelly to the Sindhu ( Indus) originated from the great Himalayas, with tributaries like Yamuna and Satlej. It is now evident that the once mighty river is now dried and non-existent, leaving only traces of its past glory for experts to excavate the theory from various angle. As it was mentioned here, one of the possible reason ( and the best so far) could be the change of the geographical structure of the plains due to the tectonic plate shifts, causing diversion of one of its huge tributary, Yamuna (the geographical evidence gives us sufficient proofs to believe thus), and a shift in the Sutlej's flow , leaving Sarasvati, to be fed by few streams originated from Aravalli.

Michel Danino's research goes beyond the standard, geographical analysis of plains. He then goes through the Rigvedic text of the 'nadistuti sukta', which lists rivers from the west to east ( 19 in total) with great detail. The 'shloka' which describe the  7 rivers ( sapta sindhu) is analysed in greater detail  and try to deduce the importance of the river in discussion. From the Vedic texts, it is evident that the Saravati was flowing between Yamuna and Sutlej and the use of superlatives in describing the river as 'great among the greatest' , 'mother of all waters', and as  a river whch flows ' limitless, unbroken and swift', explains the importance of Saravati to the Vedic people.

However, when the later days, the British and French explorers visited the region for clues, they could only find the evidences of much depleted rivers like Gaggar ( or Hakka as called in Pakistan) , Sursuti and other small rivers. But, it  was observed that Gaggar  had much wider bed than the Sutlej and other existing rivers. This couple with the local folklore about a river that had vanished into the desert triggered further interest in this region. An array of Surveyors, geologists, Army Officers, Government administrators added with a flurry of data. French Scholar Vivien de Sait Martin, German Indologist Max Muller and few other scholar of Indian and Western origin started to identify the Gaggar and its tributaries to the Vedic River Sarasvati.  The progress from then on were remarkable, however according to Danino, the real quest and search had begun long log ago, 

One could argue that this quest and research there on, had its impact on discovering ancient Indian civilization sites at the basin of various rivers in the western India. Unearthing of Indus Civilization sites gave us much larger clues of the territory. Interestingly, Danino points out, that more than 35% of the identified Indian Civilization sites were on the banks of Sarasvati, and a meagre 9% on the banks of Sindhu ( which include the largest Mohanjo-Daro). He goes to the archeological information of the terrain, and the influx of information that paved way to newer insights. The exploration and finding of the Indus Valley Civilization and its various settlements, gave glimpses of the might of the river.

This discovery had caused many other questions un-answered,  According to the estimate ( largely in agreement with various stake holders) , the once mighty Sarasvati, had dried during BC 2300- BC 1900 time frame. Which means, the Vedic texts would have been written, even before the degradation of the Sarasvati's prowess. Which could put a lot of question on the origin of the Indo-European invasion theory ( supposed to be during BC1500) and the development of Sanskrit as a language. That gives a birth to other theories of Vedic Sarasvati to be the Afghan river of Harahvati ( the way its pronounced in the Zorashtrian language of Avestha). There are other theories about people who migrated from the Indus area, moved to the base of River Ganga and brought their memories of their river.

There was also theories that there are no evidence of continuity of the civilization. Danino spend a lot of time and pages on proving the continuity of the civilization into the modern India.From the agricultural techniques of western India, the mathematical geometrical practices of construction etc are discussed to conclude that the vast knowledge of Indian Civilization is not lost. May be this was a digression from the intended topic, but very interesting none the less.

Despite the density of the infornation and the subject of deep scientific nature, the book was a fascinating and absorbing read. At no point, I found it to be dragging or losing its pace. To his credit, Danino does not present this as an authority of the subject. He merely , albeit tactfully, present is case for judgement. The counter points, some of the as interesting as the association of these rivers to Afghan, are also discussed with his own justification and reasons of countering them. One can not but notice the ever debated question of Aryan Invasion. 

In this book of 357 pages, Michel Danino, quotes from various sources to narrate the tale of the River Sarasvati. The world travelers, the Western explorers of India , some of the part of British East India Company and few independent, Indian scholars in the field of History and Archeology, the maps of Satellite images, Archeological Survey reports, Vedic Texts, Historical books and publications. As a reader with little knowledge of the subject, it triggered a lot more curiosity in me about ancient history and civilization. However, I should say, it perplexed me , shaken some of my old beliefs and left me a lot more questions at the end. I think, for that reason, this book was a great read.

The Lost River : On the Trail of the Sarasvati ( 2010)

Michel Danino

Penguin Books

357 Pages
Interview in Hindu, Interview with Rediff, The DNA, VarnamDocumentary

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