Hunt for mythical Saraswati river a test of history and science
A tiny village in the foothills of the Himalayan Shivalik range was humming with activity with mechanised earth diggers burrowing the soft cropland soil and a community kitchen set up for sadhus and disciples serving hot free meals to everyone.
At the centre of this carnival-like atmosphere, some 40km from the industrial town of Yamunanagar in Haryana, was the state government’s Saraswati Heritage Project — a multi-crore-rupee hunt for the mythical Saraswati, the river believed to be buried several feet down by natural forces.
Mugalwali and its twin village, Adi Badri, are in an animated state ever since the diggers found water five feet below the surface of a crop field, reaffirming the belief that the Saraswati flows underneath. Had it been groundwater, it would be many feet down.
More pits were dug, samples sent for tests and a beeline of leaders, including Union roads minister Nitin Gadkari, thronged the area on January 18 after the state’s BJP-led government announced a week-long Saraswati yatra.
And before the government machinery moved in to claim the plaudits, the pandits and sadhus were already there — setting up a small ashram and starting a fortnight-long recitation of verses from the Gita.
A bhandara, or community kitchen, offered free meals from January 15 to 22, attracting residents of nearby villages. The elderly narrated stories of a river that ran through the site decades ago.
Suddenly everybody remembered Adi Badri — Adi means ancient and Badri is short for Badrinath, the most important of the four sites in Hinduism’s Char Dham pilgrimage in Uttarakhand.
According to scientists, the Saraswati flowed from its origin at Adi Badri to its meeting point with the Chautang river in the plains. This is said to be the course the river followed in the Vedic era.
Adi Badri is known for a temple in a thick forest and a hill, where drops of water trickle down through a small channel. That’s believed to be the Saraswati’s source.
Religious myths, oral history, and scientific research overlapped in this search for the Saraswati, which forms the Hindu holy triumvirate along with the Ganga and Yamuna, and the hypothetical confluence of these three rivers in Allahabad is the source of humanity’s biggest gathering every 12 years during the Kumbh Mela.
The Saraswati, named after the goddess of learning, finds mention in the epic Mahabharata and ancient Hindu texts such as the Rig Veda. History has it that the river supported the Harrapan civilization nearly 4,500 years ago.
But the current hunt is for the river’s course depicted in the Survey of India’s 1913 and 1969 topographical sheets, according to which the Saraswati flowed through Haryana, Rajasthan and Gujarat before draining in the Arabian Sea.
Scientists believe tectonic activities along the Shivalik Himalayas separated the river’s course from Adi Badri and it never recharged because of a series of climatic disasters. The river died and vanished eventually.
Efforts to find and revive the river began in 2003 when the BJP-led NDA government launched the Saraswati Heritage Project, but the Congress-led UPA government shelved it when it came to power in 2004. The Narendra Modi government revived the project and the Haryana Saraswati Heritage Development Board (HSHDB) was formed in 2015.
Experts pored over satellite imagery provided by the Indian Space Research Organisation (Isro) and British-era maps and charts, and relied on extensive excavations and soil tests to sketch the river’s buried course.
Sediments tested by Kurukshetra University’s geology department showed the presence of a trans-Himalayan river system flowing through Jind district. The excavation at Mugalwali revealed sediments typical to riverine land, sources close to the development said.
The HSHDB experts are supervising the digging of a 67km manmade channel that will replicate the lost river’s course, or at least a part of it. Chief minister Manohar Lal Khattar has announced Rs 50 crore for the project and more funds are pouring in from individual donors, including ministers.
Along the newly-charted course, teams from the Water and Power Consultancy Services (India) Limited, a public sector enterprise that reports to the Union water ministry, and the Oil and Natural Gas Corporation will help in the project.
The plan is to divert a portion of water from the Yamuna and Ghaggar rivers and the defunct Dadupur Nalvi canal to feed the Saraswati. The government believes the modern-day Saraswati will improve the state’s water reserve and promote religious tourism.
The major challenge will be to acquire land for a 7km stretch of the river covering eight villages in Yamunanagar. The Saraswati is not mentioned in the land revenue records, which dates back to the colonial period, for these villages.
Farmers in Sabilpur village recently protested against the government as they are reluctant to part with their land. “They conducted a fresh survey in our village as they require about 1km of land. They have to pay the farmers in accordance with their demand,” said Naresh Kumar, the headman of Mohri village.
Some believe the river never existed.
American geologist Liviu Giosan of the Woods Hole Oceanographic Institution (WHOI) said in a study that the Harappan heartland showed signs that only monsoon-fed rivers were active during the Holocene, the era since the end of last Ice Age about 11,000 years ago. This contradicted views that a large glacier-fed Himalayan river, identified by some as the mythical Saraswati, watered the civilisation that flourished in the area.
But BB Lal, a former director general of the Archaeological Survey of India (ASI), believes the Saraswati was the Ghajjar-Hakra river, Ghaggar in India and Hakra in Pakistan, that passed through Haryana.
The Saraswati’s flow got cut off from the Himalayan glacier about 2000 BCE because of tectonic factors, but its traces can be seen in the trickle that flows from Adi Badri, he said.
According to the state’s Congress legislature party leader and former tourism minister, Kiran Choudhry, a major revival of Adi Badri was initiated on her watch. “But the BJP government is mixing religion with politics, which is not done,” she said.
The opposition Indian National Lok Dal (INLD), too, accused the BJP of doing river politics. Party spokesperson Praveen Atri, who is from Pehowa in Kurukshetra district, said members of his family have been priests at a Saraswati temple for generations. “The holy river existed and still exists.”
The project’s main driving force is faith — evident from the incantation of Vedic hymns and sound of bells and cymbals at the temples already in existence along the river’s hidden course and the makeshift shrines that have sprung up in recent times.
The road to Mugalwali and Adi Badri was buffeted by acres of crops, trees and stark landscape. But not anymore. Heavy road-building vehicles and men are working tirelessly to repair and widen the road. Dhabas and shops have sprung up on its flanks.
Saffron-clad sadhus and pilgrims are trekking to Adi Badri already.