| the decline in the monsoon, reaching its worst around 2100 BCE tipped the scales, triggering the decline of the Harappan cities. The Sarasvati itself started drying up around 4500 years ago, and was completely covered by sand dunes around 600 CE.
By Anil Kumar Suri
Perennial, monsoonal Sarasvati
The fact that geological studies have indicated the ancient Ghaggar-Hakra did not have its origins in Himalayan glaciers, but in the Sivalik ranges, does not rule it out as the likely Vedic Sarasvati, as some have tried to needlessly argue. The Rig Veda says that the river extended from giri (RV 6.61.2, 7.95.2) to samudra (RV 7.95.2), so its origin in the Sivaliks cannot be a problem. Indeed, popular belief has it that the Sarasvati originated in Adi Badri in the Sivaliks, which is part of the Sapta Badri pilgrimage sites.
Clift and his group describe the Sarasvati as a perennial, monsoonal river with multiple courses, fed by many streams, and with gentle floods that contrasted sharply with the fury of rivers like the Indus, that very effectively sustained agriculture in the Harappan civilisation.
This picture explains the extremely high density of Harappan settlements in the region between the Yamuna and Sutlej rivers, rather than along any one course. It also explains why the Harappans did not need recourse to canal irrigation for agriculture. To take the example of Haryana, Bidyut Bhadra and colleagues point out that clustered Mature Harappan (2600-1900 BCE) sites are located in Jind and Karnal districts near paleochannels, as well as Late (1900-1300 BCE) and Post Harappan (1500 BCE and later) sites along streams like the present-day Saraswati Nadi and Markanda River, which join the Ghaggar.
When the river swelled in the monsoon, it would gently flood its plain, leaving it ready for the sowing of winter crops like barley and wheat. Unlike the glacially-fed Indus and its tributaries, the Sarasvati did not pose the danger of unexpected floods from early melting snow in February/March that might destroy the crop, which could be harvested in the spring.
This explains why the agriculture in that region was based on barley and wheat, unlike the Gangetic plain, where it was based on rice. Interestingly, it can also explain a common tradition: that of offering barley (Jau) on the occasion of the spring festival of Sarasvati Puja on the day of Vasanta Panchami, although barley is not commonly cultivated – it may well be a several millennia-old practice that we have faithfully retained!
Given the extremely munificient and gentle nature of the river, with none of the danger of floods common to the other rivers, it is little wonder that the Sarasvati came to be eulogised as ambitame, nadītame, devitame (“greatest of mothers, greatest of rivers, greatest of goddesses”, RV 2.41.16).
Also, it may have been peculiarly conducive to the establishment and development of agriculture in the region. Already, Rakhigarhi in Haryana, believed to be close to the paleochannels of the Sarasvati, is turning out to be the largest “Harappan” site by some distance.
Archaeology may yet show that the earliest evidence of sedentism and agriculture may be in the Sarasvati region rather than the Indus Valley, as is currently the case. By enabling sedentism and ensuring food security very easily, the Sarasvati probably made possible further development and progress, which is why a grateful people elevated the personification of the river to the status of goddess of learning and culture.
In another study, Clift et al. also throw light on the possible factors behind the poorly-understood urbanisation process in the Indus Valley Civilisation. The Harappans seemed to have developed a sudden urge to build cities around 2600 BCE (not 8,000 years ago, as Pattanaik states!), leading to rapid and widespread urbanisation in just about a century. Even as aridification had set in, a remarkable stabilisation of rivers and reduction in the intensity of floods occurred, that proved conducive to intensive agriculture and, subsequently, urbanisation. However, the decline in the monsoon, reaching its worst around 2100 BCE tipped the scales, triggering the decline of the Harappan cities. The Sarasvati itself started drying up around 4500 years ago, and was completely covered by sand dunes around 600 CE.
Contrary to long-held theories that Indo-Aryans entered the subcontinent at this juncture and began imposing their culture on the natives, we find the development of distinct regional characteristics, and the shift towards hardier crops like millets and Kharif crops after 1900 BCE, suggesting that there was no new population – much less one with rudimentary agricultural skills as the incoming Aryans would have been – but a native one that knew the land and conditions intimately enough to diversify and adapt quickly in a rapidly changing scenario. More importantly, the Indo-Aryans seem to have had an apprehension that the declining monsoon may well lead to the vanishing of the Sarasvati, as the verse in the beginning of this article suggests. That can only mean one thing. Interestingly, Clift and his group seem to think so too, for they conclude:
“This is a testament to the acuity of the Rig Veda composers who transmitted to us across millennia such an incredibly accurate description of a grand river!”