Thursday, June 2, 2016

The Theory Of The Glacial Sarasvati Has Been Given A Quiet Burial

Something significant went unnoticed and unreported amongst all the hoopla surrounding the recent paper on Harappan civilization and its link to climate change. The theory of the glacial Sarasvati got dumped. The paper does not even mention it as a possible reason for the reduced water flow in the Ghaggar. Based on its geographic description in the Rig Ved the Ghaggar has been equated with the Vedic Sarasvati river.

The glacial river theory proposed that the river Yamuna and the river Sutlej, both glacially sourced from the high Himalaya,  earlier flowed into the Ghaggar. They changed course around 2000 B.C or so to their present day channels. This switch starved the Ghaggar of water and it became a smaller ephemeral river. This theory also accepts that climate change did occur, but the main reason for the apparently sudden water shortage was the changing of course of the glacial rivers.

Until a few years ago, there just wasn't enough detailed work done on the sediment provenance (comparing characteristics of old channel sands of Ghaggar with those of present day Yamuna and Sutlej) and channel chronology of the Ghaggar system to say whether this theory was correct. But work  published in 2012 on river sediment provenance tied to a chronology and analysis of fluvial landforms have shown that the Yamuna and Sutlej did once flow into the Ghaggar but changed course to their present locations by late Pleistocene-earliest Holocene, thousands of years before the Harappan civilization. Since this work, no new data challenging these results has appeared. Scientists as evidenced by this paper appear to now accept that the Ghaggar was a monsoonal river right through the Holocene.

This result has annoyed not only geologists who had proposed the glacial river theory but also supporters of the indigenous Aryan theory. They had used the glacial river theory to time the presence of the Vedic people in the plains of Haryana and Punjab before 2000 B.C. The reasoning was that the Rig Ved describes a mighty Sarasvati flowing down from the mountains. Hence, it must have been glacially sourced and must have been the present day Ghaggar. The Aryans would have had to have been present in northwest India before the river became less mighty i.e. before 2000 B.C. This according to them destroyed the Aryan Invasion /Migration theory which proposed that the Aryans, who were a Central Asian people, entered India after the Harappan civilization disintegrated.

Where do we stand now in terms of the Aryan question in the light of the new results on the Ghaggar river?

Well, in exactly the same place as before! It was always futile to try to link the condition of the river, whether glacial or monsoonal to the question of the origin of the Aryans. The Rig Ved describes a big river. It doesn't really say that it was glacial in origin. If the Aryans had been present in the Punjab and Haryana before around 2000-1800 B.C. they would have seen a larger Ghaggar (due to a wetter climate).

At the same time, this supposed earlier presence of the Aryans in the Harappan realm does not automatically answer the question of their origins. They just as well could have represented an earlier wave of Central Asian migrants who settled in northwest India during the latter stages of the Harappan civilization. For this same reason, the indigenous Aryan theory would not have been strengthened even if the river had turned out to be glacial during Harappan times.

The geological history of the river cannot solve this riddle. A combination of archaeology, deciphering the script and genetics will be required. We await with anticipation the results of the DNA recovered from Harappa age skeletons.

In the meantime, people who tend to read too much into Rig Vedic hymns should accept that the Vedic poets who wrote (source) -

"This (Sarasvati river) has shattered mountain peaks with her fast and powerful waves, just (as easily) as one uproots the lotus-stems, let us invoke her,who strikes what is far and near, with holy hymns and prayers"..

and ..

"Whose boundless, impetuous and swift-moving flood gushes forth with a tempestuous roar"

may have been really looking at a brown colored muddy, silty, sluggish river originating in the Siwalik hills.

Put that down to poetic license!

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