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India is spending millions to find an ancient river that probably never existed

The Saraswati, a river mentioned in several ancient Indian texts and believed to have disappeared some 4,000 years ago, is now being furiously searched for.

Soon after coming to power in May 2014, the Bharatiya Janata Party-led government launched efforts to trace the lost river, considered holy by many Hindus. Since then, Haryana and Rajasthan are separately working on finding and establishing the existence of the Saraswati river.

In July 2015, Rajasthan sought Rs70 crore from the central government to conduct studies and trace the route of the Saraswati river. The state has set up the Rajasthan River Basin and Water Resources Planning Authority (RRBWRPA) to study the paleo-channels—remnants of an inactive river—and help revive the Saraswati river.

“The data of the Central Ground Water Board and ISRO (Indian Space Research Organisation) satellite maps indicate that there are paleo-channels flowing under the ground. However, it has to be further analysed and studied whether these channels are Saraswati river,” Sriram Vedire, chairman of RRBWRPA, told reporters on Aug. 12.

Last week, the Rajasthan government asked the RRBWRPA to submit a report on its findings in the next six months. Meanwhile, the Haryana government allotted Rs10 crore for establishing a Haryana Saraswati Heritage Development Board and committed Rs50 crore for reviving the river in April this year. The board will work alongside the United Nations Educational, Scientific and Cultural Organization (UNESCO) and the Archaeological Survey of India (ASI) for the project.

In August 2014, union water resources and river development minister Uma Bharti said, “There are enough scientific evidences on the presence of the river Saraswati in some parts of the country through which it flowed about five to six thousand years ago…Saraswati is not a myth.”

The logic so far

Since 2003, the ASI has conducted excavations under the Saraswati Project at 10 locations spread across Haryana, Rajasthan and Gujarat.

So far, most explorations have indicated that what is now called Ghaggar river—a seasonal river that flows between India and Pakistan during the monsoon months—may be what was referred to as Saraswati in ancient Indian literature.

This, however, isn’t the first time that such a theory has been floated.

In 1880s, archaeologist Marc Aurel Stein recorded that the eastern-most tributary of the Ghaggar river was still known as “Sarsuti” at that time, which he argued was a corruption of the name “Saraswati.”

Another believer of this idea is French scholar Michel Danino. In his 2010 book The Lost River: On the Trail of Sarasvati, Danino suggested that Saraswati was not a mythological river, instead claiming that there is strong evidence linking the Ghaggar and the fabled river of India’s ancient texts.

Meanwhile, in May this year, the Haryana government—immediately after it started excavation work to find the river—found water pools on a dry river bed, further strengthening its claim about the presence of the river. But since then, not much has been discovered.

The Saraswati river has been mentioned in several Hindu manuscripts, where rivers are described as sacred, and often personified as deities. The Mahabharata glorifies the Saraswati as the river that covers the universe, while the Rig Veda describes Saraswati as one of the seven major rivers of the Vedic times.

Reviving the river may not be easy and is likely to take a long time. But perhaps, the Modi government can take a cue from all the efforts to revive a dead river, to ensure that many of its existing rivers—which are at the verge of dying—don’t end up becoming another Saraswati.