In Pragati: Book Review – The Lost River by Michel Danino

The Lost RiverIn 2003, the Union Minister for Tourism and Culture, Jagmohan sanctioned Rs. 8 crore to the Archaeological Survey of India (ASI) to search for the river Sarasvati. Though it was an inter-disciplinary archaeological program involving the Indian Institute of Technology and the Birbal Sahni Institution, designed to settle different schools of thought regarding the existence of the river, the venture was seen as “an attempt by RSS inspired historians to liken the Harappan civilisation with the Vedic era.” The project was shelved by the UPA Government.

In February 2009, the “International Conference on the Sindhu-Sarasvati Valley Civilization: A Reappraisal” was held in Los Angeles, CA, “to discuss, reconsider and reconstruct a shared identity of the Sindhu (Indus) and Sarasvati cultures, using archaeological and other scientific evidence as well as Vedic literature.” The title of the conference, specifically the use of the word Sarasvati, caused consternation among few Western scholars prompting Prof Ashok Aklujkar, Professor Emeritus at University of British Columbia to write a scathing rebuttal.

To understand why Sarasvati is a controversial topic in the 21st century we need to look at evidence from a number of sources: from tradition, archaeology, literature, geology, and climatology. We need to understand the path of Sarasvati, its life span, and traditions that arose within its banks that survive to this day. Finally, we also need to look at how Sarasvati challenges the Aryan invasion/migration theory.

In this 368 page book, Michel Danino narrates Sarasvati’s tale, assembling it from the reports of Western explorers, Indian scholars, Archaeological Survey publications, and Vedic texts. Danino who was born in France and has been living in India since the age of 21, has published papers like The Horse and the Aryan Debate (2006), Genetics and the Aryan Debate (2005), A Dravido-Harappan Connection? The Issue of Methodology (2007) and also the book The Invasion that Never Was (2000) on the Aryan Invasion Theory.

The Lost River

The evidence starts with the most ancient Indian text: the Rig Veda. Displaying great familiarity with the Indian North-West the nadistuti sukta lists nineteen rivers from the Ganga to the Kurram sequentially from East to West. According to the Vedic tradition, Sarasvati flowed between the Yamuna and Sutlej, a location mentioned in other texts as well. She is described with superlatives: “great among the great”, “limitless, unbroken, swift-moving”, “mother of waters.”

But when British explorers visited the region between Yamuna and Sutlej, instead of “mother of waters”, they found seasonal streams like Ghaggar, Sarsuti, Markanda and Chautang. They observed that the river Ghaggar (called Hakra in Pakistan) was once wider than Sutlej, but was unsure when. They also noted a local tradition which mentioned westward flowing river which vanished into the desert. Synthesizing tradition, the Vedic texts, and the accounts of British surveyors, geologists, administrators, and army officers, the French scholar Vivien de Saint-Martin identified the Ghaggar, Sarsuti, Markanda and other small tributaries as part of the Rig Vedic Sarasvati. Scholars like Max Müller, Sir Monier Monier-Williams, A. A. Macdonnel, A.B. Keith, Louis Renou, Thomas Burrow A. L. Basham along with Indian scholars like M. L. Bhargawa, B.C.Law, H.C. Raychaudhuri, A.D. Pusalker and D.C. Sirkar concurred.

While newspaper reports would like you to believe that the search for Sarasvati started only in the late 20th century, Danino makes it clear that the identification of Ghaggar as Vedic Sarasvati was done more than a century earlier. By 1850, the maps published by the British Govt. reflected this. As early as 1885, the Imperial Gazetteer of India noted that the earliest Aryan settlements were on the banks of Sarasvati and this place was venerated since Vedic times.

The suspicion of those early explorers, that Ghaggar was once a wide river, was confirmed by geological studies done by a French team in 1985 which showed that copious waters once flowed through the desert region; Geographers like Herbert Wilhelmy suggested that the extra ordinary width of Hakra was due to a glacial source. In fact some accounts suggest that the Tons river was Vedic Sarasvati in the upper stretches, which would mean that Ghaggar had a glacial source. But others have argued that Sarasvati was never glacier fed to which Danino replies that the Vedic texts just mention that it flowed from mountain to sea.

If Ghaggar was not glacier fed, how did it become a Yamuna like river? The widening of the of the Ghaggar after Patiala has been confirmed by remote sensing; satellite images shows a paleo channels from the Sutlej connecting to the Ghaggar. The river was also fed by the Yamuna, through the Chautang river. A combined French and ASI team, after exploring the area of Haryana and Rajasthan in the 1980s, found grey sands similar to the Sutlej and Yamuna in the Ghaggar basin.

Before his death, Aurel Stein, a Jewish-Hugarian explorer who explored the Ghaggar and Hakra valleys, mentioned to Sardar K. M. Panikkar that his work would prove that Indus civilization originated not in Sindh, but in Rajasthan. Panikkar convinced Prime Minister Jawaharlal Nehru to provide a special grant to the ASI to continue work. ASI’s work in the Sarasvati valley (their terminology) identified numerous Harappan sites which would not have been possible if the river had already disappeared. Similarly Pakistani archaeologists found hundreds of Harappan sites in the Cholistan desert along the path of the Hakra.

One piece of data in this book stands out; among the 1140 Mature Harappan sites, the Sarasvati basin has 32%; Gujarat, 28%. Sindh, where Mohenjo-daro is located has just 9%. Since the vast majority of the sites are outside the Indus Valley, isn’t it appropriate to call it Indus-Sarasvati civilization as proposed by S.P. Gupta and used by J.M.Kenoyer and Jane McIntosh?

The Chronological Conundrum

Sarasvati flowing during the Harappan period creates a dilema. According to standard view established by linguistics, Sanskrit speaking Indo-Europeans reached Punjab many centuries after the abandonment of the Harappan sites in the Sindh. Now we have evidence of the Vedic culture and the Harappan civilization in the same geographical region, during the same period, but with evidence of only one civilization on the ground. If the Vedic people arrived after 1500 BCE, then Sarasvati would have dried following the tectonic events affected the course of the Sutlej and Yamuna between the Early and Mature Harappan period. It becomes hard to explain why the Vedic people would cross four major rivers and settle on the banks of a minor stream and call it a majestic river.

In the absence of any new Aryan material culture and with genetic studies discrediting an Aryan invasion/migration, Danino argues that there can only be one conclusion: Vedic culture was present in the region in the third millennium BCE. Indian archaeologists like B.B.Lal, S.P. Gupta, V.N. Mishra and Dilip Chakrabarti also argue that Vedic people lived along the banks of Sarasvati while it flowed from the mountain to the sea during the Mature Harappan period. But Danino refrains from concluding that Harappans were Vedic people because such conclusion can only be made after the Indus script has been deciphered.

To maintain the sanctity of the immigrant view — of Indo-European migration around 1500 BCE — various theories have been proposed. One of them suggests that Sarasvati was not in India, but was the Harahvaiti in Afghanistan. Some suggest that the Vedic people were writing about their memories of Sarasvati. According to one historian, Sarasvati as a river did not even exist, except in the imagination of the rishis. Danino takes on a prosecutorial role, asks critical questions, and offers alternative explanations. If Harahvaiti was indeed the Sarasvati, then why did the Aryans transfer its name to a stream which was puny by the time they reached there while bigger rivers like Sutlej and Yamuna flowed on either side or why didn’t they transfer the name to Indus, the first river they encountered in Punjab? If Sarasvati was an imaginary river then why was it placed at a specific location with various epics like Mahabharata describing it non-allegorically.?

Danino reiterates that there is a kernel of truth in ancient texts.In the PBS documentary, Bible’s Buried Secrets, Carol Meyers, an archeologist and professor of religion at Duke University mentions that there is tendency to think of ancient texts as either history or fiction with nothing in between. She uses the word mnemohistory to explain how the ancients recorded their history. Since the Vedic poets were not writing objective history, it is important for historians to peel through mythology and exaggeration and validate the findings scientifically. If the texts present a consistent tale, which agrees with archaeology, geology, and local tradition, it cannot be brushed away.

The book is not just a compendium of more than a century of scholarship distilled for the layman, but is supplemented by Danino’s own original research in this field. When was showing slides of altars found in the Harappan site of Banawali (discovered on the bank of the Ghaggar dry bed) to Vedic scholars in Kerala and they immediately identified them as Vedic altars used even now. If a Hindu time traveled to the Harappan period, Danino writes, he would notice the swastika, lingas, kolams still drawn in South India, seals displaying yogic postures and humped bulls. Some figurines found in Nausharo had traces of red pigment at the parting of their hair, a custom still practiced by Hindu women.The familiar iconography of Shiva under an arch of fire resembles a Harappan person standing under an arch of pipal leaves. The meeting points between Harappan and Vedic culture are too many to ignore.

In 1990s, while the Harappan city of Dholavira was being excavated by the ASI, an Italian team visited Kampilya in Uttar Pradesh. When the Italian team presented the dimensions of the ‘Drupad Kila‘ to the team which was excavating Dholavira, they were surprised since it coincided with Dholavira’s dimensions. But the two cities were separated by 2000 years in history. While historians like Romila Thapar make ex cathedra pronouncements that there was discontinuity between the pre-Aryan Harappan culture and the later Aryan Gangetic culture, Danino presents pages of evidence to the contrary.

A Fair Hearing

In The Quest for the Origins of Vedic Culture (2004), Prof. Edwin Bryant writes that till recently most scholars in the West were unaware that there was an Aryan debate: the issue was considered settled. With exceptions like A Survey of Hinduism (2007) by Klaus K. Klostermaier and An Introduction to Hinduism (1996) by Gavin Flood, very few books mention the debate. But even among those books which mention this debate, Sarasvati, which challenges the normative view, has not got a fair hearing. In Prof. Bryant’s book, Sarasvati gets less than 5 pages; Thomas Trautmann’s The Aryan Debate (2008) has a 50 page abridged version of S.P.Gupta’s article on the Indus-Sarasvati civilization. Thus it is commendable that Danino has expanded on a rarely mentioned topic.

In the Aryan migration debate, this is a book which challenges the prevailing view politely. The word politely is intentionally used, because in this dispute, questions like who is a Hindu nationalist or Marxist fundamentalist or colonial historian has become more important than data. Currently it is like a football stadium filled with academics, politicians, mailing list moderators, and untrained activists all blaring their vuvuzelas in unison; personal insults are common and the polite disagreements like in The Vedic Age (1951) rare. Thus when a scholar, who has published numerous papers in this area, presents a persuasive argument supported by references, it has to be taken seriously.

As Thomas R. Trautmann mentions in The Aryan Debate (2008), there will always be political camps in a charged up issue like the Aryan debate, but that need not hold the truth hostage. Trautmann further writes, “the truth of ancient history is indifferent to our wishes, our politics, our religion, in short, our own social and historical location.” To resolve this issue what is needed is more archaeology and geological studies, not less. For this politicians have to repudiate the laager mentality and let the scientists do their job.

The good news is that scientists are silently doing their job. The Sarasvati Heritage Project, over which politicians were feuding, was quietly resurrected by the ASI. The 20th European Association for South Asian Archaeology and Arts (EASAA) Conference which has held last month in Vienna featured a paper which looked into the paleo-channels between the Ganga and Indus river systems, specifically the one adjacent to the major Harappan urban centre of Kalibangan in Rajastan. It is such scholarly stress test, not political correctness, that can unveil the mysteries of Sarasvati.

The Lost River: On The Trail of the Sarasvati by Michel Danino, 368 pages, Penguin Books India (15-March-2010)

(An edited version of this review appeared in the August 2010 issue of Pragati)


  1. This book looks pretty interesting. I just ordered my copy. Thanks for the review!

    Question: If the govt. has an issue funding a particular archaeological investigations, do you know if there are any blockers to private individuals taking the initiative and raising funds for archaeological studies and digs? After all, govts have their own priorities, so it may not be realistic to depend on govt initiative.

  2. archaeological studies are not going to be helpful if the archaeological evidence that turns up is rendered inadmissible as an evidence by reason of unauthorised personel getting involved.
    Bodies like ASI are not created by the powers that be to serve the people of the country, they are created so the establishment can maintain its interests.
    The fact of the project being shelved should give a good idea as to why Congressis and P-Secs don’t want to face the facts. If they think that New Archaeology is at fault, then there is all the more reason to fund the studies. That should lay to rest the falsehood if any involved. OTOH…….
    I am afraid the law howsoever big an a _ _, it may be will have to be followed.
    Lets hope in time a new generation will be able to complete the study and overthrow the stupid establishment.

  3. The marxist historians of India are allergic towards archaeologiy and interdisciplinary studies. Michel Danino does not contemplate on any ideological backdrop or speculations.Danino presents a variety of documents ranging from administrative records,travelogues, gazateers,antiquarian reports,literature, indological research, geological studies, hydrological research, plaeoenvironmental studies and archaeological evidence as tools in his meticulous study on Sarasvati. It breaks conventional methodology of theoretical interpretation and ideological twists.A hundred figures, maps and tables illuminate the brilliant study on the lost Sarasvati river.

  4. I don’t know how this piece of info is related to this, but just feeling to write here.

    There is a underground way(path) in Sikarpura, Luni, Rajasthan,India (near Jodhpur). Some people say it leads to Dwarka, Gujarat. My maternal Grandfather have went into it and he came out after almost 1 day. He said its like tunnel and quite often leads to wide open space where there are many big trees. But after moving for few hours they came across a huge water body(like river) which was deep. They were not able to move any further and thus came back.

    In my region, many people say that the “saraswathi” river flows underground.

Leave a Comment

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