Trivia Time: The River Sarasvati

According to legend, the Rg Veda, India’s oldest spiritual manuscript, was composed by the sage Vyasa on the banks of the Sarasvati River. (Sometimes spelled Saraswati.) The Veda sings the praises of the fast flowing river many times over, saying it poured out milk and ghee (Clarified butter).


In case you want some.

Sarasvati became an important goddess in Vedic mythology and in modern Hindu faith. She is not just the Goddess of the River, but Goddess of knowledge, music, art and culture. She is prayed to for help with mental tasks of all kinds, ranging from mundane schooling to enlightenment. Her mantras include the Gayatri, prayed or chanted for thousands of years in the east and, far more recently, made famous in the West by Elizabeth Gilbert’s book Eat, Pray, Love.

But where is the river Sarasvati? Check out google maps, you won’t find it.

Source: Wikipedia

Source: Wikipedia

Is it just a myth? A garden of Eden sort of place? For years many have believed so.

Western Archeology once declared the city of Troy, famous for the Greek sacking told about in the Iliad, as a myth. But the site of the city was later rediscovered by a handful of archeologist. (Credit for the rediscovery most often goes to Heinrich Schlieman, a german archeologist working in the late 1800’s. The current site and academic confirmation of the finding goes to Manfred Korfmann. But in truth there were many who kept alive the belief that Troy was real and led to its eventual discovery.)

The discovery of Troy is an important aside in the history of the River Sarasvati because it fueled many young would be archeologists working in the British Raj in India. Perhaps the mythic river of this land also had a basis in reality.

The evidence quickly mounted as survey after survey found dry river beds running through parts of the Tar desert on the border of what is now the Indian/Pakistan border. The course of this dry bed conforms closely to the mythical Sarasvati river.

They soon discovered signs that this river had been site of a civilization as ancient as Sumer or Egypt, among the earliest known anywhere in the world. It was dubbed Harappa, after the first site. Though others have renamed in after the largest city so far excavated, that at Mohen-daro. Yet others have proposed to call it Sarasvati valley civilization or to even expand the term Indus Valley civilization to Indus-Sarasvati Civilization, tying it more directly to later Indus valley cultures.

As surveys continued into this century and down through modern times, the scope of Harappa grew with it. Harappa once spanned from parts of Iran, near the border with the concurrent city states of Sumeria, to well into central India. The cities are large for the time period and remarkably uniform and organized. From the size of the bricks used in construction to the layout of the cities themselves, everything is uniform. So much so that it has been suggested that when new standards were introduced, whole new cities were built to conform to those standards and the old ones abandoned or razed to the ground! Harappan cities have sewer systems and bins for trash removal, something London wouldn’t get until late nineteenth century.

Two very remarkable facts hide within the sameness of Harappan cities. Sumerian cities of the time were extremely stratified. The rich lived in luxury while the majority lived in mud huts and abject poverty. In Harrappan cities the houses are uniform in size and relative grandeur as well. A rich Harappan merchant may have had a compound made of four normal sized dwellings, but there is nothing that compares to the palatial estates found elsewhere. While it is difficult to say much without more study, the evidence seems to point to there being little gap between the rich and the poor in Harappa.

The Dancing Girl of Harappa. Source: Wikipedia

The Dancing Girl of Harappa.
Source: Wikipedia

Harappan cities have walls and fortifications (we think, we often label buildings based on what we’ve found elsewhere and there is little to prove these labels true.) There are no murals depicting battles or conquests. The Harappan’s worked bronze and made elaborate toys, trinkets and jewelry, but their spearheads and arrows are less refined. Some archeologist suggest spears were ceremonial and the walls meant to keep out animals or the occasional raiding tribe, rather than for warfare.

All of which paints a picture of a civilization very different from the rest of the ancient world, or even the modern one for that matter. There is little to indicated a strong ruling or military class. And yet there is a great deal of organization.

It may be that these things existed, but weren’t recorded for some reason. It might be that Harappa did have masses of poor people, living outside the city proper in houses that have long degraded. It may be that the rich depictions of great rulers and military conquest have vanished somehow.

But it seems unlikely. Instead it seems more likely that Harappa challenges our western assumptions about human nature and power. That without autocratic rule people can learn to get along and live in relative peace and prosperity.

A partial explanation might lie in the land itself. The Sarasvati river was known to have a “deep earth channel” by Vedic writers. Modern geologist confirm this, much of the water spilling down into this region was underground. That meant that despite being a hot, mostly rainless region, wells could be dug and water found only a few feet down. Imagine a land lush with life, where agricultural wealth is easy to come by. It may have been a land of milk and ghee, as the Vedas suggest.

What happened to this beautiful land? Archeologist aren’t sure. The mostly likely explanation is an earthquake further up in the Himalayan mountains changed the course of the head waters that once fed the region. At any rate the waters of the Sarasvati began to flow elsewhere, into the Ganges river and the Yamuna River. The region grew increasingly arid and couldn’t support the population.

Those populations fled eastward, into the Indus Valley. This time was recorded in prehistory as the “forest period” when the Rig Veda and the Indian epics, the Mahabharata and the Ramayana were written.

I have always been intrigued by ancient history, and by Indian culture. The two come together for me in the story of the River Sarasvati. Unfortunately there is so much we don’t know about Harappa. We have yet to decipher their written language. The India-Pakistan divide left most of Harappa north of the new border, in Pakistan. Given the current politics, neither Indian or Western archeologist have had access to dig or survey sites since.

I am not sure yet exactly how this particular bit of research fits into my writing, but I thought it interesting enough to share. I do have a story tickling at the back of my brain that will be set in this ancient land. When I finish it, I will be sure to share.

Until then, If you want to know more about the River Sarasvati, I learned much from the book The Lost River: On the Trails of Saraswati by Michel Danino.

Bookmark the permalink.

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *

(Spamcheck Enabled)