Thursday, June 19, 2014

When exactly did the Ghaggar River dry?

Ghaggar River at present in monsoons.
Ghaggar River at present in monsoons. 
Ghaggar-Hakra River has become a center of prime attraction and fascination for many reasons. Over a thousand Indus civilization settlements found on the banks of this river led to the hypothesis that the Ghaggar is the lost river Sarasvati of the Rig Veda and hence the ancient settlements on its banks are the creation of ingenious Vedic Aryan’s. Previously the time approximately fixed for drying of the Ghaggar being 1750 to 1900 BC, coinciding with the collapse of the Indus civilization that encouraged some scholars to link mythological stories of the lost River Sarasvati with the Ghaggar.

But what are the facts? The river bed of the Ghaggar and other palaeo-channels are being vigorously researched and examined on various aspects to know the provenance of the ancient river system. Instead of going into much technical jargon, let us see what the latest findings are and whether they can be linked with Vedic Sarasvati or not.

Let us have a look at the findings and observations made by the Japanese team that worked for almost five years conducting large scale investigations in the basin of the Ghaggar and adjoining Rivers as presented in the paper “Geomorphological Constraints on the Ghaggar River Regime During the Mature Harappan Period” by Hideaki Maemoku, Yorinao Shitaoka, Tsuneto Nagatomo, and Hiroshi Yagi as follows:
  1. The width of the Ghaggar floodplain is much smaller than that of other glacial fed rivers like Indus and its tributaries.
  2. Most of the sand dunes accompanying Choutang and Ghaggar on either side of the floodplain are as old as 10 to 15000 years. They did exist during mature Harappan period.
  3. The results are supported by habitation layers on the sand dunes dating back to mature Harappan period and many by the Harappan sites occurring in its present floodplain.
  4. Ghaggar did not experience drastic changes in water discharge during the Harappan period.
  5. Ghaggar was not glacial fed river anytime.
  6. The mythical Sarasvati did not exist as described in Veda’s in the Ghaggar basin as a glacial fed large river such as the Indus and its tributaries at least during mature Harappan period.
Ghaggar near Chandigadh, flooded in July 2013,
Ghaggar near Chandigadh, flooded in July 2013, 
Many scholars intentionally or by sheer misunderstanding jump to the conclusion that if the river bed of the Ghaggar at some places is as wide as 8 kilometres, it must have been a mighty river in the past. Actually, the width corresponds to the floodplain, not the riverbed. The Himalayan-fed rivers have floodplains ranging from 10 to 20 kilometres wide whereas Ghaggar’s average floodplain is 5 kilometres wide. The largest floodplain width is documented in Rajasthan region at some places to the extent of 8 kilometres. It is agreed by Sridhar et al. (1999) ephemeral rivers often have wider floodplains because of the shallow riverbed. The satellite imagery had shown the width of floodplains, not of the riverbeds. Actual field work exposes the difference between riverbed and floodplain of the Ghaggar River. Ghaggar recently had experienced severe floods in 1988, 1993,1995 and 2010. Except for summer monsoons normally Ghaggar is a dry river. However, it was never a dead or lost river.

There have been many small archaeological sites in the floodplain of the Ghaggar. It does mean that the Harappan people never suffered from the devastating floods since they settled there. Otherwise, there wouldn’t be any human settlements in the floodplain. The occurrence of the floods may be once in several decades.

In a paper ‘Fluvial landscapes of the Harappan civilization’, Giosan et al, in March 2012, published in Proceedings of National Academy of Science, has stated that, “This widespread fluvial redistribution of sediment suggests that reliable monsoon rains were able to sustain perennial rivers earlier during the Holocene and explains why Harappan settlements flourished along the entire Ghaggar- Hakra system without access to a glacier-fed river.”

Further stated is “…Contrary to earlier assumptions that a large glacier-fed Himalayan river, identified by some with the mythical Sarasvati, watered the Harappan heartland on the interfluve between the Indus and Ganges basins, we show that only monsoonal-fed rivers were active there during the Holocene. As the monsoon weakened, monsoonal rivers gradually dried or became seasonal, affecting habitability along their courses. Hydroclimatic stress increased the vulnerability of agricultural production supporting Harappan urbanism, leading to settlement downsizing, diversification of crops, and a drastic increase in settlements in the moister monsoon regions of the upper Punjab, Haryana, and Uttar Pradesh.”

From above it occurs that the Ghaggar was not the Himalayan snow-fed river. The monsoons were stronger in the Harappan period which sustained river flow round the year. However, because of the climatic changes, the monsoon started reducing precipitation by the late Harappan period. The chronology of the climatic changes in north-west India is recorded in the following order.

6200 BC - 4000 BC: Wet Phase
4100 BC - 3800 BC: Dry Phase
3800 BC - 2200 BC: Wet Phase
2200 BC - till Present: Wet Phase begins to decline.
(Linguistics, Archaeology and the Human Past” (Edited byToshiki OSADA and Akinori UESUGI)

From the above data, it can be surmised that the dry and wet phases have occurred in north-western region alternatively after almost thousand and more years. It does not mean wet phase remained wetter throughout or dry phase remained drier throughout. However, rise or drop in average rainfall must have influenced the human settlements in the region. However the studies suggest that the decline of the Harappa civilization was a gradual process, it didn’t occur suddenly due to drastic natural or social events. The gradual decline resulted in the disintegration of trade network connected with different regions of Indus society, thus harming the economy as well.

From archaeological evidence, it seems that about 2000 BC the Harappan settlements started to decline, later were abandoned because of the climatic changes making agriculture unsustainable During Harappan era, though Ghaggar was a stable river though it never was a large river as interpreted by some scholars from the width of her floodplain. Since the riverbed of the Ghaggar was and is shallow, there is no question of its being Sarasvati which is described as mighty and bursting with her strong waves, in Rig Veda.

Shrikant Talageri’s “Out of India” theory too collapses on the geological accounts because after declining of Harappan civilization, many of the Harappan people moved towards wet regions of Gangetic planes, towards the east, which is evidenced from the post-Harappan settlements found in the eastern regions.


It is widely assumed by the Indian scholars that during Harappan Phase Yamuna and Satlej used to be tributaries of the Ghaggar River, thus adding immense water in the Ghaggar channel and making it a mighty river. The assumption came from the satellite images that do not define the minute topography and geological age of the channels.

Whether ever Satlej and Yamuna did flow in the channel of Ghaggar? The opinions are divided on this. According to “Current Science” article (2004) contributed by Indian and German scientists, “...the “Sarasvati" did not carry glacier waters. The Ghaggar-Hakra area does not show the mineral deposit of Himalayan glaciers, and thus could not be a big, perennial, glacier-fed river, but, rather, a smaller, seasonal, monsoon fed one. Based on sediment geochemistry and composition and geomorphologic and paleoclimatic constraints that the Ghaggar-Hakra River was likely always Siwalik fed.”

This does mean that Satlej and Yamuna were never ever tributaries of Ghaggar. Satlej and Yamuna are glacial fed rivers hence had they been fed into the Ghaggar in the past, the glacial mineral traces would have been detected in the sediments of Ghaggar channel. But that is not the case.

However Peter D Clift et al in a paper “U-Pb zircon dating evidence for a Pleistocene Sarasvati River and capture of the Yamuna River” suggests that “…although loss of the Yamuna from the Indus likely occurred as early as 49 ka and no later than 10 ka. Capture of the Yamuna to the east and the Sutlej to the north rerouted water away from the area of the Harappan centers, but this change significantly predated their final collapse.”

According to Sanjeev Gupta (Imperial College London), the river sediments ceased in the tract of the palaeo channel after 14000 BCE, long before the Indus civilization. His conclusion is formed after his team had done extensive drilling into the 30-40 m thick sand body in the subsurface beneath a tract of the Ghaggar-Hakra palaeochannel adjacent to the Indus city of Kalibangan.

Sedimentary Geologist Suvrat Kher, referring to the research of Clift and his colleagues, states that the Yamuna and Satlej stopped flowing in Ghaggar long before 50,000 and 10,000 years respectively. While doing in depth analysis of the critical issue, he clearly states that, “…I have stressed that this attempt to link a hypothesis of a mighty Sarasvati to the presence of Aryans is misguided and one that has caused harm to the public understanding of the topic and to what constitutes good science. Many geologists and archaeologists accepted the validity of a glacial Sarasvati without critically weighing the evidence. Taking their cue, in web forums and books, supporters of a glacial Sarasvati have popularized the hypothesis of a late river avulsion and often presented it as irrefutable evidence favoring the indigenous Aryan theory.” 

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From the above we can conclude the following:
  1. Ghaggar is not the mythical river Sarasvati.
  2. Satlej and Yamuna had stopped flowing into the Ghaggar channel long before the early phase of the Harappa culture had begun.
  3. The decline of the Harappan culture was gradual due to the climatic changes and was not a sudden event as thought by some scholars.
  4. When Harappa civilization was declining due to the aridity, Harappans moved towards the east, not to the west.
  5. At the least Ghaggar = Sarasvati equation cannot become the basis of indigenous Aryan theory.
Basically, the problem with some Indologist’s seems anyhow finding the location of the original habitat of the Aryans. Was Aryan a race? All the genetic proofs go against the very notion of the race theory. Aryan was not the race. In fact what attempts are being made are to locate the habitat of Vedic people in India itself to prove them being indigenous. It doesn’t end here. The scholars want to establish the connection of the Vedic people with Harappan culture as its founders. As discussed in earlier articles religious faith and lifestyle of the Harappan people nowhere match with of the Vedic people. Distorting or misrepresenting the geological proofs to make a theory plausible is something that is not desired from the serious scholars.

The Ghaggar River never was a lost river, like Sarasvati. It always flowed, though seasonably, in summer monsoons. The desertion of Harappan sites was a gradual process that might have been continued intermittently over hundreds of years. No foreign aggression or sudden natural or social calamity has been recorded.

Vedic culture, as evidenced from Rig Veda, had been distinct. We will have to find their homeland elsewhere without keeping any prejudices.

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