There is a terrific photograph on page 131 of this book. It shows, in the foreground, the small figure of a man walking from left to right across the picture, along the edge of a high ground. Beyond him is a broad, flat depression, sparsely dotted with desert shrubs. And beyond that, in the distance, is another long slab of even higher ground. It looks dry, sandy and windblown.
The caption, however, informs us that this is “A view of the Ghaggar’s wide bed at Anupgarh”, taken in 1950. The Ghaggar is a seasonal river whose course passes mostly through Rajasthan. Anupgarh is a tiny town not far from the Pakistan border.
A century earlier, a British army officer named F Mackeson was looking for a direct route between Sirsa and Bahawalpur (now in Haryana and the Pakistani Punjab, respectively) for the movement of colonial troops. In 1844, he identified this same dry riverbed as a natural highway. He reported that “camels may march by it fifty abreast on either side of a column of troops”, adding that along his chosen route, the wells yielded sweet water; on either side, the wells were brackish. The highway was never laid, because the British annexed the Punjab in 1849 and no longer needed the desert route.
But why — since it is a seasonal stream that starts in the Shivaliks and not the snow-supplied Himalaya, and even in colonial times never flowed as far as Anupgarh — does the Ghaggar have such a wide bed? Well, says Michel Danino, because thousands of years ago it was a major river.
There’s no escaping that conclusion, if one looks at the terrain. The vast northwest plain of our subcontinent is scored with the tracks of defunct rivers. Some of these palaeochannels are the abandoned courses of existing rivers. But others — notably the Ghaggar and its downstream extension, the Hakra — are the remaining traces of a large, perennial river, once probably fed by the combined waters of the Sutlej and the Yamuna — before those two rivers turned away to join the Indus and the Ganga.
Danino summarises the scientific evidence very nicely. Channels have been mapped, soil sediments studied, groundwaters analysed and earthquake history investigated. And not all of this is recent work.
European colonial surveyors, agents and adventurers of all kinds who travelled at ground level, as it were, observed, measured and recorded what they saw. They also noticed that this arid, thinly populated wasteland was densely peppered with the remains of ancient, permanent settlements — many of them city-size, which could never have existed without abundant year-round water. In some cases, these pioneers recorded what they heard too, such as folk traditions which told of a time when a great river flowed through the region.
Those past observers, few of them specialised academics, did not hesitate to make the leap from physical to cultural evidence. The Rig Veda, the earliest Indian literary source, spoke particularly of a great river called the Sarasvati between the Sutlej and the Yamuna. Well, the Ghaggar-Hakra was the only serious contender. So, it must have been the Sarasvati.
Naturally, this identification is a little contentious — though not so much among archaeologists, who describe what they actually find in the ground, as among historians. Danino, who is an amateur scholar in the good, old sense (he has also done copious translations of writings by Sri Aurobindo and the Mother; and he lives and works in Tamil Nadu), is attentive but practical. To him, the identification is secure.
Once the fact of the Sarasvati is settled, Danino turns to the implications. Part 2 is about the Harappan civilisation. This is because most Harappan sites are located not along the Indus but in clusters along the course of the expired Sarasvati. Some later sites are in the bed of the river, and this helps archaeologists map the slow decay of the river as it gradually lost its waters.
One wonders at the detailed survey of Harappan sites in a book on the Sarasvati — until Part 3 dispels the mystery. Here Danino argues, very precisely, that many things we know about the Harappans and their culture did not vanish. There are, he says, no gaps in the archaeological record and no facts in or on the ground which point to a separate people — namely, the Aryans — driving in from the west. Harappan tropes recur in the Vedic civilisation centred on the Ganga, from architectural proportions to weights and measures, imagery and iconography, even (though here the evidence is weak) the script.
This is the crescendo to which the book rises — and though the facts are too few to settle the matter, they are eye-opening stuff. Are we, in fact, Harappans?
All this may be well-debated in specialist circles, but rarely outside. Danino’s book is so well written as to be almost a thriller, and it is beautifully produced.
THE LOST RIVER On the Trail of the Sarasvati Michel Danino Penguin X + 358 pages; Rs 399