Vedic Saraswati and the Arabian Sea

R.V.Karanth, P.S. Thakkar, M.S. Gadhvi, D.A. Sant and J.G. Negi

One of the highly debated geo-archaeological aspects is existence of the River Sarasvati, most respected river of the land in the ancient Hindu text of Vedas. The debate is of more than one type; (1) whether the river exist at all, (2) if existed during which period, (3) what were its tributaries, (4) where was it flowing, (5) was it debouching into the sea/gulf or was it a tributary of some other major river, (6) if it was debouching into the sea/gulf where and near which geographic location, (7) when and why did it disappear? Several palaeo-channels of rivers have been identified in the region of Rajasthan, Haryana Uttar Pradesh and adjacent areas some of which are assigned to Sarasvati. The River Sarasvati is considered to have migrated from east to west. Most discussions end up the River Sarasvati to the north of the state of Gujarat in western India (viz. Oldham, 1886; Wilhelmy, 1968; Sridhar et al., 1999; Malik et al., 1999), debouching into Arabian Sea/Rann of Kachchh. Whereas a few others placed the river in the eastern part of Kachchh and Saurashtra, emptying itself into the Gulf of Kachchh/Little Rann at Prabhas Patan near Mehsana (Iyengar and Radhakrishna, 2005). There is the view that Saraswati flowed through central Saurashtra and entered Arabian Sea near Prabhas Patan, Somnath-Veraval (Thakker, 2002). The present paper deals with the extension of Sarasvati and other northern rivers into the region of Gujarat and its entry into the sea, taking historical, geomorphic, tectonic and palaeo-climate/sea level changes aspects into consideration.

Two very important factors to be considered are: (1) Rise and fall of the sea level in the last Glacial from –120m around 18,000 yrs BP to +5-7m around 4,500 yrs BP during which the civilization of the region evolved socially and intellectually. The unusually large shelf offered a vast fertile land for the early civilization to prosper and flourish using the waters of the northern rivers flowing through their land. Withdrawal of the sea by –50m and –100m exposes additional 100, and 250, respectively to the western shelf. The period of late Quaternary Glaciations and subsequent melting of the ice sheets resulted in the onset of dry and wet phases. In addition to melting ice sheets from the Himalayas, copious rains in the wet phase had provided a large network of fluvial system to evolve in western India. (2) Tectonic instability of the region owing stresses generated from intense compression in the late Cenozoic which is expressed in the form of recurring seismic events (two earthquakes of magnitude over M7.5 within the span of last two centuries) and upheaval and subsidence of land (e.g., uplift of Allah Bund by 5-6m and subsidence of Sindree Fort and surrounding area during 1819 Kachchh earthquake. An overall uplift of the region is expected from the existing compress ional regime. These two factors have brought frequent changes in the fluvial system of western India.

A critical study of the satellite imageries reveals several palaeo-channels in Rajasthan, Haryana and Utter Pradesh extending to west and southwest. Further tracing of the channels extend the rivers into the region of Gujarat finally entering the sea through the Ranns and Gulf of Kachchh and Gulf of Cambay. During low sea level regime the Rann of Kachchh and Gulf of Cambay have played a significant role in sustaining the course of northern rivers as well as the human settlements to thrive as evidenced by the following: (1) Discovery of distinct palaeo-channel with fortified settlement within the Great Rann of Kachchh (Thakker, 2001) and numerous channels that appeared in the Great Rann of Kachchh immediately after 2001 Bhuj Earthquake. (2) Recent discovery of underwater township near Surat (Gupta et al., 2002 and Kathiroli et al., 2003). Study of the satellite imageries point to the existence of a channel in the Gulf of Cambay extending for 250km. The channel ends with some obscure features resembling human settlements (Thakker, 2005).

The zone that connects Saurashtra and Gujarat Mainland forms yet another curious structure. It formed a depocentre for the sediments brought by rivers from the east and west, and presently it accommodates the famous Nal Sarovar, a possible remnant of the sea. This zone offered channel for the rivers to flow in the past.

The river under discussion was flowing several millennia ago when the sea level was far lower (-60 to-120m, over 10,000yr BP); i.e., a greater part of the western Indian shelf was exposed and also when the sea level was higher (+5-6m, ~4-5000yr BP) than the present. Study of the satellite imagery reveals the traces of several palaeo-channels and human settlements within the Rann of Kachchh indicating flow of rivers in the Ranns in the past which subsequently flowed through the area between Saurashtra and Gujarat Mainland, further extending into the region which presently forms the Gulf of Cambay and entering the sea around 150 km west of present strandline.

Geoarchaeological studies in coastal Maharashtra: Implications for understanding

Savita Ghate*, S.G. Deo and S.N. Rajaguru
*Dr. Ambedkar College, Pune 411 006

In recent years it has been realized that concept of global sea level curve can not be applied even to tectonically and isostatically stable coasts. Formerly it was thought that the sea level reached its present level around 6000 B.P. on the coast of Maharashtra and it then fluctuated within the amplitude of 1 or 2 m in the last 6000 years. In the last decade detailed archaeological investigations of some famous port sites like Sopara, Chaul, Kelshi, Guhagar, Palshet have been carried out by scholars from the Deccan College, Pune.

These ports seem to have been in operation since the beginning of the Early Historic period (~2nd 3rd century B.C.) and got defunct only recently (i.e. in 18th century). Our geomorphological and archaeological studies show that these ports were either on open sea or slightly inland on the creeks affected by tidal fluctuations.

In most of the cases the virgin layer over which any human activity has taken place is beach-dune complex rock- locally known as 'karal'. Sites mentioned above are within 3-4 km from the present shore. Archaeological data received from these sites indicate that these sites are affected more by configurational changes than by global factor like glacio-eustasy. 7th National Conference on Marine Archaeology of Indian Ocean Countries  7th National Conference on Marine Archaeology of Indian Ocean Countries

The ancient channels identified by ISRO may be seen on the map prepared by ISRO based on an analysis of satellite images and ground truth.

UPA now admits Saraswati existed

Rajesh Singh/Santanu Banerjee | New Delhi, Pioneer, Sunday, December 13, 2009

Earlier, had refused to agree despite Govt agencies confirming existence of river

In a significant shift from its earlier stand that probes conducted so far showed no trace of the mythical river, the Union Government has recently admitted that scientists have discovered water channels indicating “beyond doubt” the existence of the “Vedic Saraswati.”

The Government’s fresh submission came in response to an unstarred question in Rajya Sabha on December 3 by Prakash Javadekar (BJP), who wanted to know whether satellite images had “established the underground track of Saraswati, and if so, why should the precious water resources not be exploited to meet growing demands.”

To this, the Union Water Resources Ministry quoted in writing the conclusion of a study jointly conducted by scientists of ISRO, Jodhpur and the Rajasthan Government’s Ground Water Department, published in the Journal of Indian Society of Remote Sensing. Besides other things, the authors had said that “clear signals of palaeo-channels on the satellite imagery in the form of a strong and powerful continuous drainage system in the North-West region and occurrence of archaeological sites of pre-Harappan, Harappan and post-Harappan ages beyond doubt indicate the existence of a mighty palaeo-drainage system of the Vedic Saraswati river in this region… The description and magnanimity of these channels also matches with the river Saraswati described in the Vedic literature.”

A leading educationist and currently chancellor of Jawaharlal Nehru University, Yash Pal, who had published in 1980 in his own words “a small paper on the existence of Saraswati river which attracted attention,” concurred with the view. “Surveys so far have brought out clearly the path the river had taken when in flow,” the national research professor told The Pioneer. He did a stint with ISRO (which has played a pivotal role in the probes so far) from 1973-1980 where he set up the Space Application Centre.

On whether the Union Government should assume a proactive role on the issue of reviving the river to tackle the water shortages, he said, “With advancement of technology more research should be conducted. The river was not lost yesterday; perhaps due to tectonic shifts it disappeared ten thousand years ago. We have to keep these issues in mind.”

All through its tenure until now, the UPA Government had denied the existence of the mystery river. Then Culture Minister Jaipal Reddy had told Parliament that excavations conducted so far at nine sites had not revealed any trace of the lost river Saraswati. He stated that the UPA Government had not extended the sanction for the project given by the NDA Government. Giving a progress report of the Saraswati River Heritage Project launched by the NDA Government, he had said that though the project report was prepared in September 2003 envisaging a cost of Rs 36.02 crore, it was later slashed to Rs 4.98 crore.

The Leftists, who commanded great influence over the first five years of the UPA regime, too, were dismissive of the evidences. Senior leaders even castigated probe agencies for ‘wasting’ time and money over the study of the mystery river. Three years ago, senior CPI(M) leader and Politburo member Sitaram Yechury slammed the ASI for its efforts.

A Parliamentary Standing Committee on Transport, Tourism and Culture, which he headed in 2006, said, “The ASI has deviated in its working and has failed in spearheading a scientific discipline of archaeology. A scientific institution like the ASI did not proceed correctly in this matter.”

These assertions had come despite mounting evidence of the river collected by central agencies such as Indian Space Research Organisation (ISRO), Archaeological Survey of India (ASI), Geological Survey of India (GSI), Oil and Natural Gas Commission (ONGC), Bhabha Atomic Research Centre (BARC) and the Central Groundwater Authority (under the Water Resources Ministry). The Government had also failed to acknowledge expert opinion that the river’s revival could tackle the increasing water demands of more than 20 crore people in the North-West region of the country.

The first national impetus for research on Saraswati came during the NDA regime when the then Union Culture Minister Jagmohan in June 2002 announced excavations to trace the river’s course. He named a team of four experts - Baldeo Sahai of ISRO, Ahmedabad, archaeologist S Kalyan Raman, glaciologist Y K Puri and water consultant Madhav Chitle - for the task. But even earlier, States like Haryana had begun their study of the ‘underground river.’ 

Talking of the progress, SL Aggarwal, an official in Haryana Irrigation Department said, “Work on the 3.5 km stretch of river Saraswati between Jyotisar and Bibipur would be completed in one-and-a-half months and then we would be able to revive the ancient river and be able to use the water for irrigation purposes.” The Haryana Government recently sanctioned Rs 10.05 crore for the project of revival of the river, with the Oil and Natural Gas Commission carrying out geophysical and geoelectric surveys for drilling of wells in association with Kurukshetra University for exploratory purposes.

A non-government organisation (NGO), Saraswati Nadi Sodh Sansthan, has also been working for the revival of the ancient river through its entire track. Two seminars were held on this issue on October 22, 2008 and November 21, 2009 at Kurukshetra where representatives from ONGC, Geological Survey of India and Indian Space Research Organisation were invited. 

Rajasthan too has been an active participant in the project. Some four decades ago the Archeological Survey of India (GSI) had conducted excavations at a village named Kalibanga in Srigananagar district of Rajasthan, unearthing a full- fledged township beneath a mound, locally called ‘Thed.’

The ASI researchers came to the conclusion that the sight belonged to the Harappan period. Subsequent studies revealed that this flourishing town was situated on the banks of the Saraswati which once flowed from this part of the Rajasthan desert.

About two decades ago, scientists at Central Arid Zone Research Institute (CAZRI) at Jodhpur launched a project to track down the traces. They concluded that the ancient channels were a dead river that could well be Saraswati. Interestingly, here, the ancient texts and the geographical history of the region were constant bases of reference of the studies.

Analyses of images earlier taken by the American satellite Landsat in the 1970’s clearly showed the presence of underground water in a definitive pattern in the Jaisalmer region. As part of the project, then, underground water researchers were asked to dig bore wells at places from where this lost river used to flow. They selected Chandan Lathi near Jaisalmer for this purpose.

To the surprise of researchers, the water found after digging the bore wells at places on the course of the river was not only sweet but available in plenty. Encouraged by this discovery, they dug two dozen bore well in the area, from where the river used to flow, and in all of them they found sweet water. 

A few years later Dr Vakankar, a noted historian, as part his Itihas Sanklan Yojna, visited this and other sites linked with the river. Together with another expert Moropant Pingle, he concluded that the Saraswati used to flow from this part of Rajasthan, Sirsa in Haryana, Bhatinda in Punjab and Srigangangar district in Rajasthan.

With the Government indicating a shift in its position, it remains to be seen whether the research work by central agencies that had come to a near halt, will now resume.

-- With inputs from Lokpal Sethi in Jaipur and Nishu Mahajan in Chandigarh 

Sarasvati geography

“To begin with, one can straightaway ignore the ideas that the Sarasvati is a mythological river or that the Rigvedic Sarasvati has to be located in the Helmand area of Afghanistan.  The notion that the Rigvedic Sarasvati means the Helmand was propounded by Edward Thomas in 1883 (Thomas 1883), but one has to realize that Thomas had no argument whatsoever except the similarity in sound between Haraiqaiti of the Zend-Avesta and Sarasvati of theRigveda, and the general premise that there was an ‘earlier Aryan Sarasvati’ than the one mentioned in the Rigveda: “ It seems as if they had retained, in their new home, a reminiscence of a similar combination of river and lake in other lands.” While looking for an area with this combination, which has also to be on plausible migration route of the Aryans, Thomas latches on to the following account of the Helmand river by J. P. Ferrier who published his Caravan Journeys and Wanderings in Persia, Afghanistan, Turkistan and Balochistan in 1856: “The water of the Helmand is cold, clear, fresh and sweet, and though a considerable portion is turned off for the purposes of irrigation, there is at all times sufficient for navigating it from Girishk to its mouth “ (Ferrier 1856: 428).  This was enough to persuade Thomas that the Helmand River was the prototype of the of the Rigvedic Sarasvati. Thomas does not say that the Sarasvati as mentioned in the Rigveda was in Seistan, through which the Helmand River passes.  He only says that the river in Seistan was the prototype of the Rigvedic river.  The migrant Aryans transferred the name of the river, which they encountered on their way to India, to this Rigvedic river.  R.D. Oldham rejected ‘the ingenuous (sic) explanation’ of Thomas as early as 1886 (R. D. Oldham 1886), and in 1917, Aurel Stein while discussing the identification of some Rigvedic rivers, did not even mention the opinion of Thomas (Stein 1917), (Chakrabarti and Saini 2009, pp. 1-2).”

“In the 1893 article, C. F. Oldham forcefully brings the Rigvedic Sarasvati to the scene. Citing some major Rigvedic references he shows that in the Rigveda the Sarasvati is a large and rapidly flowing river from the mountains to the sea.  He specifically cites RV V. 61.2 (the Sarasvati, “by her force and impetuous waves, has broken down the sides of the mountains like a digger of louts fibers”), RV Vii.95.1 (the Sarasvati, a fertilizing stream, a stronghold, an iron gate, “moving along as on a chariot, this river surpasses in greatness all other waters”) and RV Vii.95.2 (“she who goes pure from the mountains as far as the sea”). In this context, Oldham points out that in the Manvdharmastastra of Manu the Sarasvati goes no longer to the sea, and the Mahabharata mentions that the river became invisible at the Vinashana The geographical position of the Sarasvati in relation to other rivers of the area has been clearly defined by RV X.75.5, i.e., the famous Nadistuti hymn which puts it between the Yamuna and the Sutlej.  Oldham (1893;51) concludes that “it is tolerably certain that the Saraswati of the present day is the river mentioned in the Veda and the Mahabharata,” (Chakrabarti and Saini 2009, pp. 19-20.)”

“This publication (by Aurel Stein in 1917) is on the identification of the rivers mentioned in theNadistuti hymn of the Rigveda.  The concerned rivers are the following:  Ganga, Yamuna, Sarasvati, Sutudri, Parushni, Asikni, Maruvridha, Vitasta, Arjikiya, and Sushoma.  The identity of the first four rives is subject to no doubt: “the order in which the first four are mentioned exactly agrees with their geographical sequence from the east to west.” Asikni has been carefully identified with Chenab or Chandrabhaga, although the Ans River which joins the Chenab above Raissi may carry, according to him, the lingering trace Asikni.  Parushni is the Iravati, the present day Ravi, Sushoma has been identified with the Sohan River of the Potwar plateau.  Stein identifies Maruvridha with the Maroowardhan River, which joins the right bank of the Chenab and is the united stream of Maru and Wardan.  According to Stein, Arjikiya should be one of the chief tributaries of Vitasta on the right bank, but of the two such tributaries, Kishanganga, and Kumhar, he does not know which one to select (Chakrabarti and Saini 2009, p. 21, first parenthesis added).”

“There has also been a strong contrary opinion, especially among those who are not happy with the idea of continuity of the Indian culture, Irfan Habib’s article Imaging River Saraswati, a defence of commonsense (Habib 2001) is representative of the publications of this genre and largely dependent on the belief that the Rigvedic Sarasvati was originally the Helmand River of southwest Afghanistan, where the Aryans, on their march to India lived for some time, and later in India, they transferred the name of this favourite river of theirs to a stream of that name in the Kurukshetra area of Haryana. , more than a 1000 k of map-distance to the east from South Afghanistan.  We have already commented on this identification and pointed out how R. D. Oldham and Aurel Stein both ignored it (Chakrabarti and Saini 2009, p.27).”

“From the archaeological point of view, the question of Sarasvati’s glacial/non-glacial origin is not of great significance.  It is the river’s history in the plains which is of crucial significance in understanding the human settlements which flourished in its valley.  Besides as Tripathi et. al.(2004) argue, there is isotopic homogeneity between Thar sands, aerosols, deposited loessic sediments and older Ghaggar alluvium, and this suggests the Ghaggar alluvium to be the most likely proximal source for the Thar sediments.  The former is derived mostly from the non-glaciated sub Himalayan Tertiary sediments (Chakrabarti and Saini 2009, p. 30).”

“As far as we know, Raverty (1892) is perhaps the only scholar who on the basis of his mediaeval textual sources has been able to outline the major changes in the courses of the Panjab rivers throughout their documented history.  One of his major credits also lies in delineating the old courses of the Sutlej and pointing out how the Sutlej was linked to the issue of the Sarasvati.  We think that the idea that the Sutlej flowed in the channel of the Ghaggar-Sarasvati for a long stretch and that its desertion led to the drying up of the Ghaggar-Sarasvati River system has much to recommend.  Raverty’s delineation of the river system still remains to be compared in detail with the evidence and interpretation derived from the satellite imageries.  For instance, his references to the streams coming to the Hakra from the Jaisalmer side has been amply supported by the remote-sensing evidence which has located palaeo-channels on the western side of the Aravallis  (Chakrabarti and Saini 2009, p. 36, parenthesis added).”

"If we de-link the question of the rise and fall of the Indus civilization from the opinion of the environmental determinist, of whom there seem to be too many today, we have to admit that the relevant river courses ceased to be perennial not primarily because of the onset of aridity but because, as some earlier scholars argued, the Sutlej which was the main supplier of water volume through the Ghaggar-Sarasvati-Hakra channel, shifted and joined the Indus River drainage.  The Yamuna was likely to have played a role in the fate of the Drishadvati system, which must have been seriously affected by the shifting of the palaeo-Yamuna to its present flow through Delhi.

Finally, the question which cannot be escaped is: what happened to the free-flowing Sarasvati of the Rigveda If there could be no free-flowing Sarasvati after aridity set in the first half of the third millennium BC (2700 BC or 3000 BC—this amounts to the first half of the third millennium BC), the image of a mighty and free-flowing Sarasvati can only belong to an earlier period.

The concerned literature repeatedly mentions the idea that, with the onset of aridity, people began to migrate towards the east, i.e., Haryana, Panjab, and the Ganga plain.  On the other hand, if we take a total view of the vast Indus-Ghaggar-Hakra plain stretching from the sea to the Siwaliks, and if we confess our ignorance about the details and comparative chronology of the way the sites of the Harappan tradition were disposed over this landscape, we shall possibly be more honest with ourselves and admit that it is too early to hypothesize great migrations form the west to the east in the Harappan context (Charkrabarti and Saini 2009, p. 38).”

Charkrabarti, D. K. and Saini, S. (2009).  The problem of the Sarasvati River and notes on the archaeological geography of Haryana and Indian Panjab. New Delhi: Aryan Books International.  ISBN:  978-81-7305-381-8 (HB)


See Prof. KS Valdiya's views

The recent article "Harappan collapse" by Peter Clift contributes specifically by confirming scientifically that Ghaggar-Hakra river (Sarasvati) ceased to flow in the period 3000 to 2000 BC around Fort Abbas in the Pakistani Punjab, based on radiocarbon dating of freshwater gastropod shells and wood from the pits excavated by his team of geologists. He also mentions that this find is confirmed by Optically Stimulated Luminescence (OSL) method.

Sarasvati: settlement reconnaissance in UP and Haryana by RN Singh, CA Petrie et al (2008)

Man and Environment XXXIII (2): 71-87 (2008) Abstract

Scholars have known of major palaeochannels that stretch across Haryana and Rajasthan in India and into Cholistan in Pakistan for over 130 years. They are generally believed to be the traces of a substantial glacier fed river (or rivers) that once flowed across these northern plains and this reconstruction is seemingly confirmed by the existence of numerous archaeological sites along these relic water courses. This co-occurrence has led to the suggestion that this river was instrumental in supporting some of the major sites of the Harappan Civilisation, and the drying of this river is believed to have been one of the critical factors in the abandonment of sites, and ultimately the collapse of the Harappan urban system. The relationship between prehistoric  settlement and the landscape has major importance for our understanding of prehistoric cultural development in the northwestern plains of India. This preliminary report outlines the first stage of a broader analysis of the relationship between archaeological settment sites and their geographical and landscape context in western UP and Haryana. These areas have a geographical relationship to the present courses of the perennial Yamuna and Hindon Rivers and of the ephemeral Ghaggar, Sarsuti and Chautang Rivers and associated nullahs.


Send me an email for a pdf copy of the full text,

Harappan collapse: Prof. Peter Clift

The fall of the Harappan Civilization has been associated with rapid weakening of summer monsoon rains. New work now shows that changing river patterns may also have played an important part in their demise. Peter Clift* reports.

Geoscientist 19.9 September 2009

Throughout history human societies have prospered or failed, not only because of their relationships to other cultures, but also because of environmental conditions affecting a range of key issues, including agriculture and drinking water supply. Periods of rapid climate change are particularly dangerous, as existing communities struggle to adjust to new conditions. Studying cultural decline in periods of climate change past, should help us plan for our own uncertain future.

No period is better for illustrating the interrelationship of environment and culture than the Late Neolithic, when the Indus, Akkadian, and Longshan civilisations all appear to have experienced a major shift in the way they lived. The Indus Valley, or “Harappan” civilisation (see Box) was one of the earliest advanced urban cultures known to archaeology - and appears to have collapsed around 2000 BCE.

Earlier palaeoclimate work has suggested a link between the end of settlement in major urban centres and a rapid weakening of summer monsoon rains. However, life may prosper in arid environments as long as it can be sustained by large river systems. The Leverhulme Trust has therefore funded a new study involving a diverse international group of scientists to explore the role that drainage reorganisation in the Indus Valley may have had on societal change at that time.

Our campaign of trenching and drilling across the flood plain of the Indus River system in western India and Pakistan is beginning to quantify, for the first time, how the Indus River and its major tributaries have changed over the last 8000 years - a period when summer monsoon rains were stronger than they are today. Although sedimentation continues to be active in the lower reaches of the river system, the new data show a cessation in sediment deposition in the north as the monsoon weakened and the supply of sediment from the Himalaya reduced. Provisional age data now show that between 2000 and 3000 BCE, flow along a presently dried-up course known as the Ghaggur-Hakkra River ceased, probably driven by the weakening monsoon and possibly also because of headwater capture into the adjacent Yamuna and Sutlej Rivers.

The possible impact of drainage reorganisation on early cultures in South Asia has long been a matter of debate, but has been consistently hampered by a lack of hard data. Major river reorganisation causes many problems for civilisations - as can be recognised in the repeated changes in course of the Yellow River in China over the past 1000 years, and the subsequent displacement of populations. More recently, the Kosi River floods of Nepal and India in summer 2008, caused massive disruption.

Abandoned former courses of the River Indus have also long been recognised, in the form of dried-up river channels along the edge of the Thar Desert. These were observed as long ago as the 1920s and 30s, in the work of Sir Marc Aurel Stein. More recently, they have been mapped in great detail using aerial and satellite images, and it has been possible to delineate the course of a now defunct “Ghaggur-Hakkra” River, which once ran from the Himalayas, between the Sutlej and the Yamuna Rivers. This palaeo-river was well positioned to have sustained the Harappan civilisation; though the age of water flow, and the patterns of interconnection between channels (and to the Indus itself) have remained speculative. Drilling

Following drilling in the Indus Delta by myself, Liviu Giosan (Woods Hole Oceanographic Institution) and Ali Tabrez (Pakistani National Institute of Oceanography) it has become clear that since the Last Glacial Maximum (around 20,000 years ago) the Indus experienced great changes in the composition and volume of sediment flowing through its channels. These changes appear to be linked to the changing strength of the summer monsoon rains.

Building on this earlier study, Clift and Giosan, together with Mark Macklin (Abersytwyth University) have initiated a new project to constrain how the river has evolved since the middle Holocene, ~5000 BCE. In 2008 Anwar Alizai and Sam VanLaningham (University of Aberdeen) undertook the first field excavations on the floodplain in the Pakistani state of Punjab, where the supposed Ghaggur-Hakkra River used to flow.

Using mechanical diggers (and local workmen where these were not available) they dug trenches into the deposits of the Holocene outwash plain. Targeting the channels themselves was hard, even with the aid of high-resolution satellite images. But in the end they were able to sample the flood plains of the palaeo-rivers, which allowed the team to start narrowing down when the river was flowing, and where its sediments were coming from.

Dates of sedimentation were obtained by radiocarbon dating freshwater gastropod shells and woody material recovered from the pits. Together, these showed that active river-flow along the Ghaggur-Hakkra had finished before 2000 BCE, at least in that region. New optically stimulated luminescence (OSL) ages, which measure the time since sediment was last exposed to sunlight (produced by Geoff Duller, Helen Roberts and Julie Durcan at Aberystwyth) support this general scenario. Today, the Ghaggur in India is a very small river, within a modest mountain catchment. How could it once have been a much larger stream? We believe it is possible that the river was once swelled by other headwater catchments that are now diverted into other directions. The neighbouring Yamuna and Sutlej Rivers are the most likely candidates for this, and could well have been captured from the Ghaggur during the Holocene. If either or both of these streams formerly flowed into the Ghaggur channel then the river could have been very much larger than it appears today.

It is clear that the Indus has experienced major changes since the mid Holocene, when the whole system appears to have been in active deposition. However, since that time the northern reaches of the Indus and its various major tributaries have incised river valleys 20–30 m deep. What caused this change in behaviour? A number of possibilities are presently in contention.

While delta drilling proved that the early Holocene (11,000 – 8000ka) was a time of very rapid sediment flux, probably driven by fast erosion under the influence of a strong summer monsoon, the period since 8000 years ago has been one of weakening rains and reduced sediment flux, as established from lake sediment records in India and in cave records from Oman. In this case, the river may be “cannibalising” itself in its upper reaches, reworking the older floodplain sediments over which it is now flowing.

In order to reconstruct what the river system looked like at any given time in the past we have to know the provenance of the sediments in its overbank deposits. This can tell us how each tributary was connected to its neighbours and indeed to the trunk stream itself. In this respect the Indus is a great system for geologists because it receives sediment from several sources, with each characterised by quite different geochemical characteristics and ages.

Zircon to the rescue

The western Himalaya are especially heterogeneous with respect to the U-Pb age of zircon grains. Grains from the Lesser and Greater Himalayan Range display old zircon ages of around 400 Ma, 1000 Ma and 1800 Ma and older, whereas the Karakoram and Kohistan typically display ages younger than 250Ma - representing Andean-style magmatism along the southern edge of Asia, prior to its collision with India. This makes changes in large-scale drainage or erosion patterns easy to spot.

New technology (see Box) now allows large numbers of single grains to be analysed quite rapidly. U-Pb dating of zircon grains tells us when each grain cooled below 750?C (i.e. the age of its crystallisation from its source magma). The Laser Ablation Inductively Coupled Plasma Mass Spectrometer (LA-ICP-MS) at University College, London, now allows around 100 such grains to be dated every day. Such large numbers are needed for each sample in order to generate statistically reliable data sets.

Andrew Carter who runs this operation has shown that grains younger than ~250 Ma are unique to the main Indus River, whereas the major tributaries of the Indus that join from the east are dominated by much older grains sourced from the Greater and Lesser Himalaya. Thus zircon grains have the potential to show us whether sands were deposited only from the Ghaggur-Hakkra River, or also had contributions from the main Indus River too.

(For more information on the science of Single Grain Provenance,
 click here)

Initial analyses of the sands sampled in pits on the course of the Ghaggur-Hakkra River at Fort Abbas have shown a significant number of grains with young U-Pb age signatures. At first sight this would seem to require a huge swing in the Indus River, since they were deposited more than 5000 years ago. Although it is possible that the Indus flowed this far east (c. 200km further east than its present course) it seems more likely that the sands found have been reworked from the sand dunes of the Thar Desert, which directly abut the river valley.

Nonetheless, this observation is important. If the Ghaggur-Hakkra River did flow through this channel and connected with the Indus 5000 years ago, then it appears that the river must have ceased to flow before the analysed sands were blown by wind into its channel. What might have caused this cessation in river flow? Although the headwaters of the ancient river may have been lost by capture it is also possible that the river simply died out because its supply of rainwater fell. Other radiocarbon ages from farther south (around the enigmatic Nara River valley) suggest that the sand dunes of the Thar Desert expanded in that region at 5000–6000 years ago. Not only is that conclusion consistent, it is also corroborated by other climate indicators, suggesting a steady decrease in summer monsoon rains.

It now seems that the river system in this region was indeed responding to climate change taking place during the mid to late Holocene. At present, our age control is insufficient to allow conclusive links to be made with the evolution of human societies. Early signs are encouraging, however, that we shall be able to build intriguing links between climate and cultural development in SW Asia in the not too distant future.

This is of more than academic interest at a time of accelerating climate change. A more detailed understanding of how the Indus valley river system has responded to climate change during the Holocene will allow for better planning for anticipated changes driven by global warming.

Author affiliation

*Prof. Peter Clift, University of Aberdeen, is the leader of the Harappan investigation.

The science of Single Grain Provenance

The science of Single Grain Provenance

Full caption: This probability density plot shows the most likely ages for zircon ages in four of the biggest source terrains in the western Himalaya. Young grains are unique to the Karakoram and Transhimalaya, while even here differences do occur. Grains younger than 10Ma or older than 110Ma (insert) are only found in the Karakoram. Although the Lesser and Greater Himalaya have significant overlap, there are nevertheless ages that are typical of each range and allow a first-order sediment budget to be made.

Improved microanalytical methods in recent years have greatly increased the ease of single grain provenance analysis and our ability to reconstruct ancient patterns of erosion.

Although analysis of entire sediment samples for chemical composition and isotopic character are still widely used determining the relative influence of a number of different sources is impossible in complex river system systems without single grain methods. The best method for a given river is not always the same, but will vary depending on how diverse the source regions are, and what the local history of deformation and magmatism has been.

Lower temperature thermochronometers, such as fission track dating apatite or zircon, can be used to determine when crystals cooled below 110°C and 200°C respectively. Unfortunately, these methods alone are usually insufficient to resolve all sources in the Himalaya. Previously, ion probe methods were used to date the crystallisation of zircon grains, or to determine the Pb isotope character of potassium feldspar sand grains, both of which are heterogeneous across the western Himalaya and Karakoram. Now zircon grains can be dated at lower resolution but at much higher speed and lower cost using a LA-ICP-MS. This is important because statistical analysis demands that more than 100 grains need to be dated for a robust result.

Whereas this used to be prohibitive in cost and machine time, it is now practical - and allows at least one sediment sample to be processed each day. Although the crystallisation dates are not as precise as those obtained with ion probe, the huge differences in crystallisation ages that are known from across the Himalaya allow good constraints to be placed on the grain’s origin from even an approximate age.

The Indus Valley Civilisation (mature period 2600–1900 BCE) flourished around the Indus River basin and encompassed most of what is now Pakistan (mainly the provinces of Sindh, Punjab and Balochistan), as well as Indian states Gujarat, Haryana, Punjab and Rajasthan. IVC remains have been found in Afghanistan, Turkmenistan and Iran. The mature phase of this civilisation is technically known as the Harappan Civilisation, after the first of its cities to be unearthed - Harappa in Pakistan. 

The civilisation is sometimes referred to as the Indus Ghaggur-Hakra civilisation or the Indus-Sarasvati civilisation. The appellation Indus-Sarasvati is based on the possible identification of the Ghaggur-Hakra River with the Sarasvati River mentioned in the Rig Veda, but this usage is disputed on linguistic and geographical grounds.

The full paper of Peter Clift (pdf) can be read at (5054kb)

Excerpt of 5 page article at: Please email me for a copy. (Geoscientist 19.1 September 2009)

Satellite imagery and Sarasvati: tracing the lost river by JR Sharma and BK Bhadra, ISRO

Geospatial Today, April 2009


Sarasvati Nadi in Haryana by Bidyut K. Bhadra, AK Gupta, JR Sharma (Journal Geological Society of India, Feb. 2009)

Renovated portion of Sarasvati ghat at Pehowa (Prthudaka of Mahabharata)(2000)

Nadi tame, (Best of rivers), Vedic Sarasvati Nadi

Sarasvati river is GhaggarJayant K. Tripathi1,*, Barbara Bock2, V. Rajamani1 and A. Eisenhauer2
1School of Environmental Sciences, Jawaharlal Nehru University,
New Delhi 110 067, India
2IFM-GEOMAR, Leibniz-Institut für Meereswissenschaften, Wischhofstrasse, 1-3, D-24148 Kiel, Germany (Current Science, Vol. 87, No. 8, 25 Oct. 2004)

River Piracy -- Saraswati that disappeared (May 1996) -- KS Valdiya

Comment- HS Virk (2002)

Saraswati: The River That Disappeared By K.S. Valdiya Published by Orient Blackswan, 2002 ISBN 8173714037, 9788173714030 128 pages


Vedic Saraswati: scientific signatures on its origin from the Himalaya, causes for its complete disappearance in Indian sub-continent and settlement pattern in its basin: VMK Puri (July 2008)

Vedic Saraswati and Dawn of Indian Civilization -- B.P. Radhakrishna
Researches on ancient texts and Hindu civilization traditions on Vedic River Sarasvati
Selected articles excerpted from Vedic Sarasvati (Monograph No. 42, GSI 2000) pp. 25-329
Selected articles excerpted from Vedic Sarasvati (Monograph No. 42, GSI 2000) pp. xi - 24
Neotectonic controls on the migration of Sarasvati river of the Great Indian Desert: SM Ramasamy (pp. 153-162)
Palaeo-delta complex of Vedic Sarasvati and other ancient rivers of Northwestern India: JN Malik, SS Merh and V. Sridhar (pp. 163-174)
Impact of Vedic Sarasvati River researches

Late quaternary drainage disorganization in Vedic Sarasvati river basin (2001) Source: Roy, A.B. and Jakhar, S.R. (2001)," Late quaternary drainage disorganization and migration and extinction of Vedic Saraswati", Current Science, Vol.81, Number9, pp.1188-95.
Sarasvati -- the ancient river lost in the desert (1999) Source: Sankaran, A.V.," Saraswati-the ancient river lost in the desert" Current Science, Vol. 77, No. 8, pp.1054-1060.

Environmental issues in the Indus-Sarasvati Civilization -- Michel Danino (Oct. 2008)

Rebirth of Sarasvati. Sarasvati mahanadi roopaa nahar at Mohangarh, 55 kms. west of Jaisalmer in the Great Thar desert. Another 150 kms. the waters from Manasarovar, Mt. Kailas will reach Gujarat. Sand dunes have disappeared yielding place to forests on either bank.
Nahar Project

Indira Gandhi Canal


Indira Gandhi Nahar Project (IGNP) is one of the most gigantic projects in the world aiming to dedesertify and transform desert waste land into agriculturally productive area. The project objectives include drought proofing, providing drinking water, improvement of environment, afforestation, employment, rehabilitation, development and projection of animal wealth and increasing agricultural produce.
The project construction commenced in the year 1958. Though the project is only partially complete it has shown remarkable success.

Indira Gandhi Nahar Project was designed to utilise 9,367 Mm3/yr of the total 10,608 Mm3/yr allocated to Rajasthan from the surplus waters of the Ravi and Beas rivers. The construction of the project has been divided into two stages.

Stage I

Stage I consists of a 204 km long feeder canal, having a headworks discharge capacity of 460 m3/sec, which starts from Harike Barrage. 170 km of the feeder canal lie in Punjab and Haryana and 34 km in Rajasthan.

The entire system of stage-I consists of the 204 km long feeder canal, 189km long main canal and 3454 km long distribution system, is concrete lined, and serves 553 kha of culturable command area, out of which 46 kha are served by pumping to a 60 m lift, through four pumping stations.

In addition to irrigation and domestic water supply through this project , it has been proposed by the Rajasthan State Electricity Board (RSEB) to install a total of 12.76 MW of mini hydro electric power stations, to utilise the available water fall in the canal. One such power station, with an installed capacity of 2´2 MW has already started functioning at the Suratgarh branch of IGNP stage I.

Stage II Indira Gandhi Canal

IGNP Stage II comprises construction of a 256 km long main canal and 5,606 km of a lined distribution system, and will serve 1,410 kha of CCA (873577 ha area in flow and 537018 ha under lift), utilising 4,930 Mm3/yr of water. The main canal in the entire length was completed in the year 1986.