On the Identity and Chronology of the Rigvedic River Sarasvati
This paper shows firstly, that the attributes of the celebrated Rigvedic river Sarasvati do not match those of the Old Ghaggar, even if one assumes that the Satluj and the Yamuna flowed into it; and secondly, that the Ghaggar was already defunct in Rigvedic times. While the identification of the Sarasvati of the later texts with the present-day Ghaggar is retained, arguments are given in support of the identification of the original Sarasvati with the Helmand in south Afghanistan, having the original Yamuna and Ganga as its tributaries. In this picture, the rivers to the east of the Satluj bearing Rigvedic names are not Rigvedic rivers at all, but merely named in their honour. This hypothesis can be tested by excavating the region between Helmand and Arghandab (identified with Drishadvati) and by carrying out a detailed geomorphological and hydrological study of the Ghaggar river system.
Information on Prehistoric India comes from two distinct sources: (i) the literary tradition represented in the main by the faithfully preserved corpus of Vedic texts headed by the Rigveda (Griffith 1896; Macdonell and Keith 1912); and (ii) the archaeological tradition ranging from the Aceramic Neolithic of Mehrgarh and the various phases of the Harappan civilization to the Iron Age Painted Grey Ware and the Northern Black Polished Ware cultures (Agrawal 1982; Shaffer 1992). At the current level of scholarship the Rigvedic and the pre-Iron Age archaeological traditions remain mutually exclusive; it is not possible to place the two in a self-consistent spatial and temporal context. In view of the inherent limitations of the Rigveda and associated texts as historical documents, it is important to critically examine the geographical references in them with a view to determining the region of their composition. The Rigveda mentions a number of rivers. The Indus and its tributaries, eastern and some western, are easily recognised. There are others which are merely named and so provide no clues to their identification.
The only river to be described in some detail is the Sarasvati, on whose banks the bulk of the Rigveda was composed and whose name was given to the Hindu Goddess of Learning. The general practice has been to identify it with the Old Ghaggar lying in the region between the Satluj in the west and the Yamuna in the east. The river Ghaggar is also important from the Harappan point of view. There are more than 1000 Harappan sites on its bank as against only 50 on the Indus (Mughal 1992). The Ghaggar river system is therefore in a unique position to permit an examination of the archaeological and literary traditions vis-à-vis each other.
Sarasvati: Naditama versus Vinasana
One must distinguish between the celebrated Sarasvati of the old mandalas and the Sarasvati mentioned in passing in the River Hymn (Rv. 10.75) of the tenth mandala (Hildebrandt 1927: I.343; Kochhar 1997). The former has been described in detail in one exclusive hymn (Rv 6.61) and in various other passages. It is described in superlatives. It is called 'naditama, the best of the rivers' (Rv 2,41.16), which surpasses 'in majesty and might all other rivers' (Rv 7.95.2). It is 'fierce' (Rv 6.62.7), and 'swifter than the other rapid streams' (Rv 6.61.13). It 'comes onward with tempestuous roar' (Rv 6.61.8) 'bursting the ridges of the hills with its strong waves' (Rv 6.61.2). Sarasvati springs from a 'three-fold source' (Rv 6.61.12) in the mountains (Rv 7.95.2), and finally ends in a samudra (literally 'the gatherer of the waters' or sea) (Rv 7.95.2). It is a long river because many kings live on its banks (Rv 8.21.18) and the five tribes (Rv 6.61.12) derive their prosperity from it. It also has a number of tributaries; it is 'sindhu-mata, the mother of rivers (Rv 7.36.6). It swells with rivers (Rv 6.52.6), said to be seven in number (Rv 6.61.12), Sarasvati being the seventh (Rv 7.36.6). Two rivers, Drishadvati and Apaya, are explicitly named in (Rv 3.23.4) in conjunction with Sarasvati. In addition, it is called 'sapta-svasa', 'with seven sisters' (Rv 6.61.10). Another verse (Rv 8.54.4) speaks of Sarasvati and seven rivers (Sapta-sindhavah). These must be the 'seven mighty rivers' that 'seek the seas' (Rv 1.71.7).
The picture that emerges is as follows. The long and mighty, partly mountainous river Sarasvati receives a number of tributaries and is called their mother. In addition, there are independent rivers in the region which flow independently to the sea and Sarasvati if referred to as their sister. 1
So far we have depended only on the Rigveda for information on the Sarasvati. For additional details, we now turn to the secondary Vedic literature which though linguistically younger, seems to contain material belonging to an earlier era. Pancavimsa Brahmana (25.10, etc.) introduces us to the region Kuruksetra in which Sarasvati, Drishadvati, and Apaya flowed. In it were located the lake and district of Saryanavant and the district of Arjika mentioned in Rv (1.84.14). Another lake, Anyatah-plaksa, is also placed in Kuruksetra (Satapatha Brahmana (220.127.116.11.). The well-respected Baudhayana Srauta-sutra (18.45) says that in Kuruksetra there are lotus lakes called Bisavatis and hills and hills named Ausanasas. The Srauta-sutras of Asvalayana (12.6.1) and Sankayana (13.29.24) tell us that the source of the river Sarasvati is a place called Plaksa-prasarvan. Rv (6.61.1) talks of a people, Paravatas, slain by Sarasvati. These Paravatas are placed on the river Yamuna by Pancavimsa Brahmana (9.4.11). Yamuna in turn is associated with Drishadvati, as can be seen from the Latyayana Srauta-sutra (10.19.8.9): 'He should proceed on the southern bank of Drishadvati. When he has reached the arma whence from she springs, he should offer his offering and descend into Yamuna in the vicinity of the place [called] Triplaksa-vaharana.' 2. The above passages suggest that Yamuna is a tributary of Sarasvati in the hilly areas where the Drishadvati also originates. The River Ganga must also be part of this network as can be seen from the exploits of the celebrated king Bharata, son of Dushyanta. Bharata won his victories on the Sarasvati (Aitareya Brahmana 8.23) as well as on the Ganga and the Yamuna (Satapatha Brahmana 18.104.22.168).
We shall refer to this river as the naditama Sarasvati. On the other hand the later Vedic texts contain descriptions that are inconsistent with the above data. Pancavimsa Brahmana (25.10.1), Jaiminya Upanisad Brahmana (4.26.12) and the associated Srauta-sutras say that Sarasvati disappears in the desert sands at a place called Vinasana (literally disappearance). We shall henceforth refer to this river as Vinasana Sarasvati.
The identification of the naditama Sarasvati is made more difficult by the well documented Himalayan rivers and the vast artificial irrigation network in the alluvial plain. Between the Satluj and the Yamuna the inconsistent Ghaggar river system comprises from the west to east, the Wah, the Ghaggar, the Dangri, the Markanda, the Sarsuti and the Chautang 3. These rivers are formed by a junction of small rivulets rising from low-lying hills of the Sivaliks and act as a rainwater drainage system for these hills. The water collected is however not sufficient to flow down to the sea, some 1400 km away and the Ghaggar loses its way in the Thar desert. The now-dry lower bed of Ghaggar is locally known as the Hakra. Fieldwork conducted in the19th century supplemented by recent satellite imagery, suggests that in the past, the snow-fed Satluj and Yamuna both flowed into the Ghaggar, making it a very powerful river. Geological changes subsequently diverted the Satluj westwards into the Indus and the Yamuna eastwards to flow into the Ganga, thus converting the Ghaggar into a seasonal stream.
It has been often implicitly assumed that changes in the Ghaggar took place during Vedic times. It is also a long established belief that the Ghaggar is identical with the Sarasvati of literary texts; the Old Ghaggar with the naditama Sarasvati and the present-day Ghaggar with the Vinasana Sarasvati of the later texts. Superficially the identification of the naditama Sarasvati with the Old Ghaggar appears plausible. In fact any long river which flows from a mountain to the sea and receives tributaries on its way can fit the general description of the naditama Sarasvati. It has indeed been suggested, in all seriousness, that in some Rigvedic passages Sarasvati is another name for the Indus. If such an identification is to be accepted, it should not be superficial but should conform to the recorded description down to the minutest detail. We now present arguments to show that the Old Ghaggar does not conform to the attributes of the naditama Sarasvati. The two major arguments are as follows:
Footnotes : 1. The number seven may have been used in the sense of an
auspicious number than in an exact sense.
Identifying the Naditama Sarasvati
If the Ghaggar system was already defunct in Rigvedic times or otherwise considered unworthy of description, we must look further west to locate the naditama Sarasvati. For a clue we turn to the Avesta. The Avestan Harahvaiti, phonetically the same as Sarasvati, was known to the Greeks as Etymander and is now called Arghandab. The naditama Sarasvati however is to be equated not with Arghandab but with Helmand of which Arghandab is the main tributary (Hildebrandt 1929, II:210). Another instance of transfer of the name from the main river to a tributary is provided by Oxus (Amu Darya). Oxus corresponds to the Sanskrit name Vaksu which now survives in Vakhsh, a tributary of Oxus (Burrow 1973). The name Vaksu however does not figure in the Rigveda. Helmand, whose Avestan name is Haetumant (Setumant), is a 1300 km long river in Afghanistan (Dupree 1980:37). It rises in the recesses of the Koh-e-Baba range, about 80 km west of Kabul, and flows in a generally south-westerly direction. (The three major rivers of Afghanistan, the Helmand, the Kabul and the Hari-rud, all get their waters from the same geographical area, that is central Hindu Kush ranges. The Kabul and the Helmand start from within 50 km of each other. Since the Rigvedic people knew the Kabul (Kubha), they can be reasonably expected to have known the Helmand also). In the mountains the Helmand flows in narrow valleys with gorge-like cliffs. About 65 km above Girishk the topography changes. The Helmand enters a flat country and flows over a gravely bed. Near the Iranian border, it takes a sharp turn north and empties into an inland lake in Seistan called Hamun-e-Sabari.
Several tributaries join the upper Helmand; Kaj-rud, Tirin, Rud-e-Musa, Gala, etc. The only other major river in the system is the 560 km long Arghandab which also rises in the mountains. A low line of hills separates the river from the city of Qandhar. Arghandab joins Helmand at Qala Bist, 70 km below Girishk. Two intermittent streams, Kushk-e-Nakhud and Garm Ab, join Arghandab from the north. The 280 km long Arghastan runs east of and parallel to Arghandab. Arghastan receives Lora No.1 and Kushk-e-Rud and itself falls into Dori which joins Arghandab. Tarnak, 320 km in length, lies between Arghandab and Arghastan and finally joins Dori. Helmand always has plenty of water. In ancient times when there were no dams, it was subjected to spring floods when snow melted in the mountains.
There is an uncanny similarity between the Rigvedic description of Sarasvati and Avestan description of Helmand. Rigveda (Rv 6.61.8) talks of Sarasvati 'whose limitless unbroken flood, swift moving with a rapid rush, comes onward with tempestuous roar', while Yasht (10.67) refers to 'the bountiful, glorious Hetumant swelling its white waves rolling down its copious floods'. This suggests that the same river is meant in both the cases. If we identify naditama Sarasvati with the Helmand we can consistently account for all its attributes. Arghandab can then be equated with Drishadvati and Tarnak with Apaya. Sarasvati is the mother of minor tributaries like the Kaj-rud. Other rivers in the region like Farah-rud and Khash-rud will then be the sisters mentioned in the Rigveda. These rivers, we suggest, define the Rigvedic and Avestan region Sapta-sindhavah. There have already been suggestions that Arjikiya be identified with Arghastan. Lakes like Saryanavant and Anyatah-plaksa can easily be placed in the hilly areas of Koh-e-Baba from where Helmand starts. The place name Girishk in the region is probably an old name connected with Giri, the mountain. The Rigveda also refers to a person named Giriksit. In this situation the original Ganga and Yamuna are the tributaries of Helmand lying between the Helmand and the Arghandab. It is now easy to understand the association of Paravatas, the mountain people, with Yamuna and Sarasvati. These Paravatas are probably related to the people called Paroyetai mentioned by Ptolemy and believed to have been located near the southern border of Paropanisadae (Kabul).
Ghaggar as Vinasana Sarasvati
We have argued that the naditama Sarasvati (identified with the Helmand) was located in Afghanistan. Sarasvati was the foremost river the Rigvedic people were familiar with till they came eastwards to the Indus which was mightier than any river they had seen before. So, they named it Sindhu, "The River". The Avesta recognizes the equivalent homonym as a generic word for river but not as the river Indus. Moving beyond the confluence of the Beas and the Satluj, they would have found the Ghaggar system in more or less the same condition as it is now. On one of its rivers was bestowed the name and the sanctity of the original Sarasvati. Except for Sarsuti no other river of the system carries a Rigvedic name. The names of the original Sarasvati tributaries, Ganga and Yamuna, were given to the two major rivers further east. It is at this stage that the river hymn (Rv 10.75.6) would have been composed which while enumerating the rivers lists Ganga, Yamuna, Sarasvati and Sutudri in this order. In this late hymn the pride of place belongs to the Indus. All epithets of the naditama Sarasvati are here transfered to the Indus, which is the new naditama. The Sarasvati mentioned in this hymn cannot be the celebrated river of the old mandalas. It must then be the Vinasana Sarasvati; and Ganga and Yamuna the present-day rivers.
The nomenclature of the present Yamuna is revealing. The word 'Yamuna' means a twin. When the Vedic people reached the Ganga they gave it the first name which was known from the Brahmana literature but which hardly had any connotation in the old mandalas. Yamuna was then a natural name for its tributary. This implies naming Ganga first even though Yamuna was crossed earlier. The real Sarasvati by this time was long forgotten. As a mark of respect to the Vedic references it was now made into an invisible river that joined the Ganga and the Yamuna. In its transition from the naditama to the Vinasana to a mythical river, the Sarasvati traces the stepwise history of the Indo-Aryan migrations from Afghanistan to the Ganga plain.
Harappans on the Ghaggar
The Ghaggar was the lifeline of the Harappans. Of a total of some 1600 Harappan sites, more than 75% are situated on the banks of the Ghaggar-Hakra channel. The older sites corresponding to the pre-Harappan and mature Harappan periods are located on the lower part of Ghaggar-Hakra whereas the late Harappan sites are concentrated on the minor rivers in the Sivalik hills. In-depth study of the sites suggests that this upstream shift took place c. 1700 BC (Misra 1992). It is certain that the settlements on the lower course of the Ghaggar-Hakra could not have been sustained with the present volume of water. The river therefore must have had more water in the past. There is however no justification in assuming that the Ghaggar at that time was a mighty river, with the Satluj and the Yamuna flowing into it. What the Harappans needed was running water, not the combined might of two snow-fed rivers. In fact, it is likely that a mighty Ghaggar would have precluded Chalcolithic settlements from appearing on its banks.
Let us assume that the Satluj and Yamuna were flowing into the Hakra during Harappan times. When the two rivers changed course we would have expected the Harappans to resettle themselves accordingly. The Harappans did not do this, but moved northwards to settle on the banks of rainwater streams arising from the Sivaliks. It is noteworthy that the Harappans did not settle on the banks of the Indus and its eastern tributaries which are similar to the Satluj or Yamuna in terms of being snow-fed rivers. This suggests that the Harappans were consciously avoiding snow-fed rivers and that the Hakra they knew was not a mighty river. The choice of habitat was dictated by available technology. Snow-fed rivers would have been conducive to the growth of natural forests. The Chalcolithic Harappans did not have the wherewithal to clear these forests and would therefore have sought semi-arid conditions and weak rivers.
In this context, it is noteworthy that geologists believe that the major north Indian rivers have been flowing in their present channels for at least 30,000 years (Singh et at. 1990). The ancient climate of the Thar desert has been reconstructed by analysing pollen from different layers of sediment at the bottom of the saline lakes Sambar, Lunkaran-sar and Didwana. Studies show that the monsoon was particularly heavy in the period c. 8000-2000 BC. About 1600 BC the wet period ended abruptly and was followed by a long drought (Singhvi and Kar 1992). It is surmised that during this arid period, the Ghaggar ceased to be a perennial river. Sand would have choked the dry bed, incapacitating the river permanently. There are indications that the aridity was not merely confined to the Thar, but extended over the whole of India (Sukumar et at. 1993) and even central Asia (Sarianidi 1987). It appears likely that the prolonged draught brought about the collapse of farming economics in the greater Indus valley, south Turkmenistan, Iran, and Afghanistan and in the process preparing the ground for the Indo-Iranians to take over.
There is another problem with the identification of the naditama Sarasvati with the Old Ghaggar. It implies identifying the Rigvedic people with the Harappans. There are a number of reasons why this cannot be so. For one, the lower layers of Mehrgarh, the starting point of the Harappan tradition, represent an Aceramic Neolithic sedentary settlement. In sharp contrast the peripatetic Indo-Aryans and the other members of the Indo-European phylum were already familiar with metal, horse and wheeled vehicles before they dispersed (Kochhar 1997).
Much of the interpretative work on Vedic texts was accomplished before archaeological evidence became available. There is a need to examine this question afresh in the light of subsequent developments. Both the Harappan and the Rigvedic traditions lacked the technological capacity to venture into topical forests of the Ganga plains lacking as they did iron implements. Large-scale settlement only became possible with the advent of the Iron Age. Therefore rivers to east of Ganga cannot be Rigvedic rivers. On contextual grounds the Rigvedic Gomati has always been identified with the Gomil of Baluchistan and not the Gomati of east Uttar Pradesh. If the Rigvedic people did not know the present-day Gomati, it is even less likely that they would have known Sarju (Sarayu) further to the east. We identify the Rigvedic Sarayu with its homonym the Hari-rud of north Afghanistan. It is interesting to note that Sarsuti in Haryana and Sarju in east Uttar Pradesh both are named after Rigvedic rivers and both flow into rivers with identical names Ghaggar/Ghoghra. The significance of this is not clear.
Seen in isolation, the Rigveda is undateable. However, by placing it in the context of external evidence some useful time brackets can be assigned. The reference to copper, harnessing of domesticated horse for transport and draft, and use of wheeled-vehicles show that the Rigveda cannot be older than 4000-3000 BC and is likely to be much later. Around 1700 BC the Harappans were moving from the lower to the upper course of the Ghaggar-Hakra river. The Indo-Aryans could have arrived on the Ghaggar only after this event. The overlap of the late Harappan and Painted Grey Ware cultures at Bhagwanpura and Dadheri suggests that intermingling of the Harappans and the Indo-Aryans took place around 1400 BC. Intriguingly, tradition places the closure of the Rigveda at the time of the Bharata battle, which is assigned the period 1000-900 BC (Pargiter 1922; Kochhar 1997). This implies that some late portions of the Rigveda may contain Harappan elements.
To sum up, this paper argues that the bulk of the Rigveda was composed on the banks of the river Helmand; the Ghaggar was already defunct when the Indo-Aryans encountered it; and that many rivers to the east of Satluj (Sarasvati, Yamuna, Ganga, Gomati and Sarayu) were given Rigvedic names for the sake of nostalgia.
To test this hypothesis, we suggest the following two projects; (i) Excavation of the region between Helmand and Arghandab which has remained untouched so far and
(ii) A detailed study of the geomorphology and hydrology of Ghaggar
with a view to precisely determining the epochs of its transition from a
mighty river to a merely perennial river to its present pitiable state.
This study covering the whole of the Gahaggar-Hakra might be undertaken by
a joint Indo-Pakistan mission under the auspices of UNESCO.
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