A Hindu Quest
for Some Holy Water
Attempt to Unearth Ancient Waterway May Affect Indian History and Politics
KATGARH, India -- In a verdant valley amid the
foothills of the Himalayas, Hindu villagers prayed in silence and piously threw
petals into a small puddle they believe was a mighty river some 4,500 years ago.
Not far away, an archeologist leaned over a trench to examine freshly excavated
pieces of broken pottery.
"We have found remains of so many ancient
settlements here. There must have been a very important river flowing,"
said Sanjay Manjul, 35, squinting as he held up a piece against the sun.
"It must have been our holy Saraswati River."
Manjul is not the only one looking for the
Saraswati, which was mentioned in the oldest Hindu religious text, the Rig Veda
and which devout Hindus believe disappeared mysteriously thousands of years ago.
Dozens of archeologists like him have fanned across the northern Indian state of
Haryana in the last seven months to look for traces of the river. A group of
geologists and glaciologists, armed with satellite imagery maps and remote
sensing data, are studying rocks, glaciers and sediments in the Himalayas,
seeking any trace of the river's course.
A heady mix of religion, politics, science and
archeology drives their efforts, and the results of the search may not only
challenge some fixed notions about the earliest civilization on the Indian
subcontinent, but could also confirm fears among India's secular historians that
the country's Hindu-nationalist ruling party is trying to rewrite history to
suit its agenda.
For decades, history books have maintained that
the Indus Valley people, who settled an area that straddles modern India and
Pakistan about 3000 BC, were the subcontinent's earliest civilization, preceding
the birth of Hinduism. Historians have held that the Aryans, said to be the
descendents of an Indo-European race who came to India from near the Caspian Sea
around 1500 BC, gave birth to Hindu thought.
Hinduism became the region's predominant
religion. Today, 84 percent of India's 1 billion people are Hindus.
That predominance, however, did not prevent India
from embracing secularism when it achieved independence in 1947 and enshrining
it in the country's first constitution. Ruled by the staunchly secularist
Congress party for most of the past five decades, India pursued policies
designed to ensure equality for Muslims, Christians and followers of other
Nevertheless, many Hindus regarded their religion
and culture as supreme. A political force since the 1920s, Hindu nationalism
reached the peak of its influence in 1998, when the Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP)
formed a coalition government with several other parties. The BJP-led coalition
set about a slow but systematic program to place historians sympathetic to
Hindu-nationalist ideology in charge of research institutions and to introduce
changes in history textbooks in schools.
Last summer, the Culture Ministry appointed a
special committee of experts to prove that the Saraswati was not merely a
mythological river, dismissed by historians as nothing more than a figment of
the imagination of Hindu sages who praise it as the "greatest of mothers,
greatest of rivers and greatest of goddesses" in the Vedas. If the panel
succeeds, the birth of Hinduism would be pushed back at least 1,000 years by
establishing that the ancient Indus Valley civilization was Hindu in character.
"Saraswati is not only a
matter of Hindu faith, but also fact," said Ravindra Singh Bisht, director
of the Archaeological Survey of India, who supervises excavation along what is
believed to be the course of the river. "The overwhelming archeological
evidence of ancient settlements along the course of what was once the Saraswati
River proves that our earliest civilizations were not confined to the Indus
river alone. Those who wrote the Hindu Vedas on the banks of the Saraswati were
the same as the Indus Valley people."
The BJP-led government already has taken steps to
make these findings official. In October, it ordered several significant changes
in the history textbooks, one of which was to change the name of the Indus
Valley civilization to the Saraswati River civilization.
The first real boost to the Saraswati believers
came in the 1970s, when American satellite images showed signs of channels of
water in northern and western India that disappeared long ago. When popular folk
memory was matched with the images, some historians ecstatically claimed they
had cracked the riddle of the revered river. In 1998, groundwater experts dug
wells along the dry bed identified in the images and they found potable water,
even under vast stretches of desert.
"We still need to study the sediments to
prove the origin of the river was in the Himalayan glacier like our Vedas
claimed," said Baldev Sahai, a member of the Culture Ministry's expert
committee, who was the first, in 1980, to use remote sensing data to study the
course of the river. "After that, we can proudly claim to be the oldest
living civilization and culture with an unbroken link to our past."
Once the entire course of the river, "from
the Himalayas to the Arabian sea" is established, the Culture Ministry
plans to turn archeological sites of lost cities along the Saraswati into
tourist hubs. And water specialists in the government wish to give new life to
the Saraswati River, by reviving old water channels.
The Hindu-nationalist government's quest for the
Saraswati has split historians along political lines, with some accusing the
government of giving a deliberate Hindu slant to Indian history and others
alleging that much of Indian history was written from a Eurocentric perspective
by British colonizers and needed to be "Indianized."
"Hinduism was not brought to us by a foreign
race called Aryans. It was born here on our land. The Rig Veda was composed here
on the banks of Saraswati by indigenous people around the time of the Indus
Valley period," said Arun Kesarwani, professor of ancient history at
Kurukshetra University. "That is why the quest for Saraswati is important.
It will shatter all the prevalent theories to pieces."
But many say that history is being distorted to
suit the ruling political ideology.
"This is an assault on history," said
historian Arjun Dev. "This version of the past is crucial to their
political and religious ideology of Hindu supremacy. They will go to any lengths
to achieve this -- even put forth a fake, invented past."
"It is propaganda work," said Suraj
Bhan, a retired archeologist. "The quest for Saraswati is not about
history, it is myth-making."
For the devout Hindus who pray at tiny ponds and
puddles, the Saraswati is both a real river and a deity.
"In our hearts we know this is the water of
holy Saraswati," said Prem Vallabh, 75, head priest at a Saraswati temple.
"We don't need any scientific proof."
is comparable to what Romilla Thapar said in the BBC Channel 4 radio programme
on Mystic River Sarasvati: Sarasvati river was there, but then it is hijacked by
Sarasvati is the very embodiment of divinity, a river and a mother who had
nourished a civilization. She is va_k, the divinity of knowledge, arts and
How pathetic these marxists and p-secs are, that they have lost all sense of
perspective in evaluating evidence of archaeologists and geo-hydrologists and
glaciologists like Prof. Valdiya and Dr. VMK Puri; Hindutva is the big stick
which can be used to deny everything about the cultural heritage of a
civilization. Blinkers on, the p-secs refuse to face the ground-truth.
am amused at the intellectual contortions that these eminent historians will go
thru to deny historical and archaeological reality. In India the standard of
discourse has fallen to such an extent that no longer is it a question of 'is it
true, is it plausible ?' but a question of 'who supports it'. Forgotten is the
fact that no Hindu (even extreme right wingers) is suggesting that because there
was a Sarasvati, that non-Hindus are Children of a lesser God or that India
should revert to an era when tehe Sarasvati flowed. The search for the Sarasvati
is a search for Indic roots and what is so 'Hindutva' about that ?