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New study challenges existence of Saraswati river, says it was Sutlej’s old course

Researchers from IIT Kanpur and Imperial College say the Sutlej changed its course around 9,000 years ago, leaving a defunct channel that many now believe is the mythical Saraswati

india Updated: Nov 29, 2017 10:52 IST
Malavika Vyawahare
Malavika Vyawahare
Hindustan Times, New Delhi
saraswati river,sarasvati river origin,saraswati river existence
A topographic map of north-western India and Pakistan showing major Himalayan rivers and the distribution of Indus Civilisation urban settlements. (Data for map courtesy of NASA and US Geological Survey)(Courtesy: P.J. Mason/S. Gupta)

The remains of a river largely believed to be the mythical Saraswati may in fact be an older route taken by the Sutlej river, according to a new research carried out by scientists at London’s Imperial College and the Indian Institute of Technology, Kanpur.

The Saraswati river is sacred for Hindus due to its mention in the Vedas, and the Bharatiya Janata Party governments at the Centre and in Haryana have launched projects to trace its route and revive it, setting aside at least Rs 50 crore.

“The Ghaggar–Hakra palaeochannel has been claimed as the former course of a large Himalayan river... the palaeochannel has been linked with the mythical Sarasvati River first referred to in Vedic texts (sic),” the paper published in Nature Communications, said.

“We find that the locus for the abundant Indus Civilisation urban settlements along the Ghaggar–Hakra palaeochannel was the relict, underfilled topography of a recently abandoned valley of the Himalayan Sutlej River rather than an active Himalayan river,” the paper concludes.

The Sutlej, the researchers said, changed course about 9,000 years ago.

Topography of Sutlej-Yamuna plains showing how modern Himalayan rivers occupy incised valleys. (Data for map courtesy of NASA and U.S. Geological Survey) ( P.J. Mason/S. Gupta )

A palaeochannel is a term used to describe the remnant of stream, and the those who support the Saraswati theory identify it as parts of the seasonal stream that runs between Ghaggar and Hakra.

“In early 2000 I found papers on how rivers influence the Indus civilisation,” Sanjeev Gupta, a co-author from Department of Earth Science and Engineering at the Imperial College said. “There were speculations that were not ground-truthed. Around 2005 I teamed up with Rajiv Sinha at IIT Kanpur. What we wanted to do was test the claims on the ground.”


Given Saraswati’s importance in Hinduism —it forms the Hindu holy triumvirate along with the Ganga and Yamuna, and their hypothetical confluence in Allahabad is the site of the world’s biggest gathering every 12 years during the Kumbh Mela — the question of its existence has been a matter of controversy.

Researchers on both side vehemently defending their findings, much of what is based on remote sensing data.

One of the few groups that have collected samples from the ground and concluded that the Saraswati existed is at the Wadia Institute of Himalayan Geology in Dehradun.

Their work, as yet unpublished, was commissioned by the Haryana government as part of its campaign to revive the river. The state set up the Haryana Saraswati Heritage Development Board in 2015 to revive not just the river but the heritage associated with it.

“They should challenge the ISRO, NASA, we will talk scientifically those who want to politics they can do that,” Bharadwaj said, referring to the latest research challenging the existence of the river.

He added that the Wadia Institute study was limited in scope. The Haryana Board is planning to sign a Memorandum of Understanding with the Geological Survey of India for geological mapping from Uttarakhand to Gujarat.

“We cannot call it a manmade river, the natural flow is there,” said Prashant Bharadwaj, deputy chairman of the Haryana Sarasvati Heritage Development Board. “We cannot make it the big river that it was. We have revived the river last year, it is seasonal, the challenge now is how to make it perennial.”

The state government is constructing a system of dams, reservoirs and ponds to recharge water flow in the channel.

Gupta suggested the latest research should not be made about Saraswati. “The real message is that the civilisation was very adaptable, they thrived even in an area where an active river did not exist,” he said of his work, which was focussed on the relationship between settlements and water systems, and challenged the idea that settlements of the Indus civilisation were largely dependent on active rivers.

The question of whether it is the Saraswati is difficult to resolve, according to Gupta, because there cannot be any specific channels for a river that is mentioned in ancient texts.

“We showed that there was a mighty river in that channel in Haryana till at least 1600 years ago,” Rai said. “We cannot say that this is the same river that is mentioned in the Vedas.”

First Published: Nov 29, 2017 10:50 IST