The Lost River: On The Trail of the Sarasvati, by Michel Danino

One-line review: Remarkable book that tells the remarkable history of a remarkable river that sustained a remarkable civilization!

Short review: It is rare that a book flows with the same ease and felicity as the river it seeks to describe. This is that rare book. The river Saraswati, when it flowed some five thousand years ago, gave birth to the most massive and advanced ancient civilization that existed. The almost million square kilometres of land that formed the Indus Saraswati Civilization saw the development of the most advanced urban planning in the ancient world, a system of standardized weights and measures that boggles the mind, a social order that was more egalitarian than has ever existed anywhere since.

When the river stopped flowing – severely depleted by the “double desertion” of the Sutlej and Yamuna – it caused a massive abandonment of the Indus Saraswati sites, with its residents migrating to the Gangetic plains and elsewhere, giving birth to a new phase in the evolution of the Vedic dharma which saw its birth amidst the fertile plains of the Indus Saraswati. That the existence of this once mighty river is in dispute is itself a sordid tale of ideologies polluting academics. Michel Danino writes fluidly, engagingly – makes this book a page-turner.

Long review:

The river Saraswati has existed in the imaginations and hymns of hundreds of millions of Indians with little controversy for millennia. It was venerated in the early parts of the Rig Veda as a massive river. It was not only a mighty, “impetuous” river; it also found its way into Vedic literature via rich symbolism, “embodying the flood of illumination or inspiration.

She is the ‘impeller of happy truths’ who ‘awakens in the consciousness the great flood and illumines all the thoughts.’” So, while there was liberal symbolism that the Saraswati inspired in the Vedas, that it was derived from its magnificence as an actual river was made clear in “one of its very rare geographical descriptions, the Nadistuti sukta, a hymn in praise of rivers“:

“First you flow united with Trishatama with Susartu and Rasa, and with Svetya, O Sindhu with Kubha (Kabul) to Gomati (Gumal or Gomal), with Mehatnu tp Krumu (Kurram), with whom you proceed together.” [pg 37-38]

While the Vedas had copious references to the Saraswati, the “next generation of Vedic literature, the Brahamans” however talked about the disappearance of the river at a place called Vinashana – “the Saraswati’s previously unbroken flow to the sea was no longer so.

“In later literature Vinashana moved eastward, eventually reaching Kurukshetra in the Bhagavata Purana. This can only mean that the river’s drying up was gradual, not a sudden vanishing act – a significant point that archaeology will bear out.”

In a landmark paper published in 1980 – “Remote Sensing of the ‘Lost’ Sarasvati River”, by four scientists – “Yash Pa, Baldev Sahai, R.K. Sood and D.P. Agrawal”, they found “‘a distinct paleo-channel which seems to suggest that the Sutluj flowed through the Nara directly into the Rann of Kutch'”. This impetuous, “braided” nature of the Sutluj is hinted at sufficiently in the Vedas and Mahabharata. The Vedas referred to this river as “Shutudri” – “swift flowing”, and “Shatudur” – “of a hundred channels” in post-Vedic literature. Even the story of Vashisht and Vishwamitra alludes to this nature of the Sutlej.


Perhaps the biggest impetus to Indian archaeology came from none other than Lord Curzon – surprising, given the “viceroy’s contemptible political record in Bengal” – who in 1899 reconstituted a floundering Archaeological Survey of India and appointed John Marshall, “a twenty-five year old classical scholar trained in archaeology in Greece, Crete and Turkey” as its director.

Marshall would start massive excavations at Taxila, but his lasting fame would rest on his excavations at Harappa, where digging began in January 1921, after delays caused by the First World War. Mohenjedaro would be the largest city of the unearthed civilization, with an estimated population of 40,000 – 50,000 and an estimated total area of approximately 300 hectares, making it “possibly the largest city of the ancient world.

The excavations that unearthed the massive Indus Valley civilization almost a century ago continued till after Independence in 1947. What were less than fifty sites in August 1947 burgeoned to close to four thousand sites as more and more sites were discovered – less than 10 per cent of these sites have been fully excavated, thanks to lack of funds and a continuing national apathy towards our heritage. The extent of the extant ancient civilizations kept getting expanded and the use of modern satellite and hydrologic studies unearthed the remnants of a river long lost in the mists of myth and hymns – the venerable Sarasvati – that nourished close to two thousand sites of the ancient civilization.

“Those seven centuries [around 2600 BCE to 1900 BCE] represent the mature phase of the Indus civilization, whose hallmarks include an advanced civic order, standardized brick sizes and proportions, a standardized system of weights, steatite seals inscribed with still mysterious characters, and specific art forms expressed through figurines, painted pottery, ornaments and daily objects.

Less conspicuous aspects were also at work. One, an agriculture that produced enough surpluses to feed the cities, regardless of unpredictable rivers or the vagaries of the monsoon. Two, refined technologies, particularly in the fields of bronze metallurgy, water management, sanitation and bread-making.” [pg 93-94]

About one-third of the excavated sites are situated along the now dry channel of the Saraswati River. Scientific studies have revealed the river to have been a river perhaps more massive than the Ganga, and that flowed into the Rann of Kachch in Gujarat and into the Bay of Bengal. Based on archaeological and geographical studies and a study of “settlement patterns of the Indus Age“, it appears that till about 3000 BCE, the Saraswati was a river in “full flow” and included the Yamuna and the Sutlej as its tributaries – no surprise that it was a massive, perennial river.

At “some point in the Mature phase“, two catastrophic events caused the Saraswati to lose much of the water from its two tributaries. The Yamuna was “captured by the Gangetic system, resulting in the drying up of the Drishtadvati and of middle sections of the Saraswati“. The Sutlej shifted “westwards.” Finally, in the “post-Urban phase (2000 – 1500 BCE)“, the Sarasvati and “its tributaries are reduced to seasonal rain-fed rivers in their upper reaches.” A prolonged drought around 2200 BCE would send the Harappan civilization into an irreversible decline.

Urban Planning and Ethos.

The Harappan’s urban planning and standardization was amazing for its time, and again, unparalleled in the ancient world. Indeed, it would be more than a thousand years later that the rest of world would match some of the civic advancements of the Harappans. “… Michael Jansen calculated that an inhabitant of that city could get water at an average distance of 35m” – this speaks to a remarkably egalitarian and well-planned society. Wells were constructed using special “trapezoid” bricks that “would lock together if water of loose soil pressed on the well’s outer sides...”.

“‘Two thousand years later’, Jansen remarks, ‘even the Romans usually used rectangular linings (mostly made of wood) which often collapsed due to the enormous pressure of the soil.'” [pg 105].

The Harappans were, literally speaking, a thousand years ahead of the rest of the world!

“Indeed, most houses, even modest ones, had their own bathrooms, an unprecedented luxury in that age.” Covered drains took the waste water out of the houses “to a collective sewer; this in turn was connected to a network of drains made of carefully aligned baked bricks, with cesspits or soak jars provided at regular intervals to collect sullage.”

Stunningly, “[I]n a few houses of Mohenjo-daro’s lower town, vertical terracotta pipes embedded in the walls point to bathrooms located on the first floor!

Such a highly sophisticated sanitation system was accompanied by an equally advanced system of urban planning. At Kalibangan, “the lower town’s streets formed a well-planned and carefully maintained grid; their widths, starting from the narrowest, were 1.8m, 3.6m, 5.4m and 7.2m, in a perfect geometric progression of 1:2:3:4. … The only structures permitted on the streets were small brick platforms jutting out near house entrances, where people evidently sat together in the evening to chat and exchange the day’s news;

Such well-planned ratios existed elsewhere in the Harappan civilization. The tidal dockyard at Lothal – its 1.5m to 1.8m thick walls “made of millions of carefully adjusted baked bricks” – had proportions of 6:1 (217 m by 36 m), while the huge stadium in the middle town at Dholavira had dimensions of “283 m long and 47.5 m wide” – the same ratio of 6:1!

That the rain pattern of the region in the Kachch region has not changed much in over four thousand years can be gauged from the fact that the Harappans at Dholavira were well aware of the need to conserve water – a trait found sadly lacking in modern India. Danino writes that “as much as a third of Dholavira’s area was intended to conserve water“, and the two largest reservoirs at Dholavira “measured about 73 x 29m and 33 x 9m respectively, with the latter carved out of massive rock, making it, in Bisht’s opinion, ‘the earliest ever rock-cut example’ of water structure.’” One only has to look at the modern city of Bangalore and the destruction of its lakes that threaten the very survival of this “city of lakes” to realize how far we have fallen from the pioneering genius of the urban planners we had five thousand years ago!

The design of a uniform system of measures and weights, progression in a systematic manner, across the entire civilization meant a remarkably efficient system of decentralized planning existed. A first series grew geometrically – doubled, and then switched to a multiple of lower weights. Such a series of weights is also described in the Arthashastra – written about two thousand years after the decline of the Indus Saraswati Civilization. In fact, “The Indus weight system is … still in use today in traditional markets throughout Pakistan and India.

The presence of the world’s largest ancient tidal dock yet discovered, at Lothal, and artefacts from faraway lands points to a flourishing trade with the rest of the world. “It appears that Mesopotamian rulers were particularly fond of Harappan jewellery.” [‘The Lost River”, pg 107]

Social life in the Indus Saraswati Civilization was marked by a lack of a royal, princely class. The focus was on an egalitarianism that did not exist anywhere, and has not been seen anywhere else, ever. John Marshall had this to say in 1926:

“There is nothing that we know of in pre-historic Egypt or Mesopotamia or anywhere else in Western Asia to compare with the well-built baths and commodious houses of the citizens of Mohenjo-Daro. In those countries, much money and thought were lavished on the building of magnificent temples for the gods and on the palaces and tombs of kings, but the rest of the people seemingly had to content themselves with insignificant dwellings of mud. In the Indus Valley, the picture is reversed and the finest structures are those erected for the convenience of the citizens.”

D.K. Chakrabarti pointed out “that the ‘value’ system of Indian kings was ‘different and the royal power was also tempered by an ideal of duty.’

“Indeed, no piece of Harappan art glorifies rulers, conquests or warfare.” [J.M. Koyener]

While the beginnings of that most intellectual of games – Chess, is lost in the mists of time, and while it is generally accepted that the game originated in India, what still manages to surprise is the discovery of a “terracotta set of chessmen found at Lothal“, which could have been an ancient precursor to the modern game of chess.

The double series of weights mentioned earlier in the review is also “at the root of the weight system described in the Arthashastra.” – providing further evidence of continuity from the Harappan times onwards.

While there is still some debate over the deciphering of the Indus script, it does bear a striking resemblance to the later Brahmi script in that both use “composite signs and modifiers” – if not related, then surely “a rather remarkable double coincidence.

Link with Hinduism and Continuity.

While the Aryan Invasion hoax that continued to be peddled by Marxist and colonial historiographers alike for decades insisted that the Indus civilization was violently uprooted by the so-called invading Aryans and who were responsible for the Vedas and what became Hinduism, the excavations along the Indus and Saraswati sites reveals that roots of Vedic, Hindu philosophy and religion can be seen to have emerged during the Mature Harappan period – almost five thousand years ago.

A yogic pose for example connects the Harappans to the early forms of Lord Shiva in Hinduism.

The Harappan “endless knot” is another graphical symbol that has continued to this day, unchanged, “and can still be seen today in some of the rangolis (or kolams in South India) drawn by Hindu women“. The same is the case with the “swastika” that can be found on “pottery at several early historical sites, on punch-marked coins, one some of Ashola’s edicts…

The Harappan “endless knot”

And then we have the “majestic bull, generally humped” that is found frequently depicted on Indus seals, and which “[M]any scholars have seen in it a precursor of Nandi, Shiva’s mount.

Lingas found at Harappa and Kalibangan have “much the same shape as those” in temples today.

Even the ‘proto-Shiva’ is seated in a posture that is “the classical mulabandhasana, a difficult asana whose function is to help awaken the kundalini.

Lingas found at Harappa (left) and Kalibangan

And then there is a “striking example from Harappa” that “shows a man seated cross-legged with his hands joined in the traditional Indian namaste.”

“Taken as a whole, [the Indus Valley people’s] religion is so characteristically Indian as hardly to be distinguished from still living Hinduism.” [John Marshal, in 1931, pg 233]

Even the old fable of the “Crow and the Fox”, also referred sometimes to as the tale of the sour grapes, can be seen on pottery sherds found at Lothal by S.R. Rao. The difference being that instead of grapes or cheese the crows have a fish in their beaks.

As the Late Harappans began to migrate from the Saraswati River and to the Gangetic plains, they found a way to keep alive the memory of the massive river that had nurtured them for thousands of years. The river was sanctified and remembered as a lost river that flowed invisibly, below the ground, meeting the other two holy rivers of Ganga and Yamuna at the triveni Sangam, “which became one of the locations for the famous Kumbhamela festival.” In many ways, the Ganga became “an avatar of the Saraswati“, and “inherited many of Saraswati’s characteristics.

The Aryan Herrings

As regards the existence of the river, attacks have come from all directions, and have ranged from the outright outlandish objections to more reasoned ones. To pick two examples from the set of the somewhat bizarre objections, one is from noted Marxist historiographer Irfan Habib – Danino generously calls him a “noted medieval historian” – who airily “concludes, ‘All claims built upon the greatness of River Saraswati are, accordingly, nothing but castles in the air, however much froth may be blown over then“, “generously” allowing that references to the river are to be taken “in the abstract state” [pg 270]. Similar to the untenable position of Habib’s other arguments, even this last one seems to have little basis in fact or logic. As Danino gently points out:

“If Saraswati were ‘the river in the abstract’, why place it specifically after the Ganga and the Yamuna and before the Sutlej, or in company with the Dhrishadvati and the Apaya? … Also, some of the Saraswati’s descriptions in the Rig Veda … evoke physical rather than abstract traits. And what can one say of specific instructions found in the Shatapatha Brahmana, for instance, where one is asked to collect Saraswati water first among several others and sprinkle the combined waters on a king for his consecration? Are these abstract waters, too?” [page 270]

In a flourish reminiscent of other Marxist historiographers, if Irfan Habib brands proponents of the Saraswati as guilty of “false patriotism“, then the charge also needs to be laid at the door of such giants as “CF Oldman, Pargiter, Aurel-Stein, Mortimer Wheeler, Jean-Marie Casal, Asko Parpopla, the Allchins, Gregory Possehl, Jane McIntosh and the late Pakistani archaeologist Ahmand Hasan Dani – all of whom supported the same identity.

Warped ideology, unfortunately, has taken precedence over academic integrity for Irfan Habib.

But assaults against the fact of the Saraswati can best be understood if one realizes that the existence of the Saraswati is the proverbial nail in the coffin for the monstrosity that has been the Aryan Invasion hoax. For decades now colonial historians and Marxist historiographers alike have banded together to argue that a mythical band of Aryan warriors invaded India, ransacked the Indus Valley civilization, drove its “Dravidian” residents down to the southern parts of India, and then proceeded to bring Sanskrit to India and compose the Vedas, around 1200 – 1000 BCE. This is a remarkable sequence of events for which no evidence – historical, literary, archaeological, anthropological, or other – has been found despite close to a century of searching by proponents of this hoax.

Furthermore, the apologists for the Aryan Invasion hoax would want us to “believe that the Aryans crossed at least five large rivers – the Indus and its four tributaries – to settle down on the banks of a long, dry river, which they went on to extol as ‘mighty’, ‘impetuous’, ‘best of rivers’, etc. The proposition is incongruous to the extreme.” [pg 254]

“J.-M Casal’s statement made forty years ago still holds good:

“Until now, Aryans have eluded all archaeological definition. So far, no type of artefact, no class of pottery has been discovered that would enable us to say: ‘Aryans came this way; here is a typically Aryan sword or goblet.'”

Accepting the historicity of the Saraswati has two implications, none palatable to colonial and Marxist historiographers – first, that there was no Aryan invasion, and second and worse – the Vedas are not only the composition of indigenous Indians but also that these were composed around or even before 2500 BCE.

The hymn from the seventh mandala of the Rig Veda must, therefore, have been composed before 2500 BCE – a whole millennium earlier than the conventional dates.

“Moritz Winternitz, a noted German Indologist, for example, chose to disagree with the dominant chronology: [proposed by the Aryan Invasion apologists]”

“We cannot explain the development of the whole of this great [Vedic] literature if we assume as late a date as round about 1200 BC to 1500 BC as its starting point. We shall probably have to date the beginning of this development to about 2000 or 2500 BC…”

Winternitz hinted strongly as to the reasons behind this malicious post-dating of the Vedic civilization, when he “made this extraordinary statement“:

“I, for my part, do not understand why some Western scholars are so anxious to make the hymns of the Rigveda and the civilization which is reflected in them so very much later than the Babylonian and Egyptian culture.” [pg 257]

There is a key word here: ‘civilization’. Ever since Max Muller made it a dogma that the Rig Veda reflected a ‘primitive’, ‘nomadic’ and ‘pastoral’ culture, those labels have stuck, despite much contrary evidence provided by the text itself.

The mighty Saraswati river thus washes away two particularly pernicious falsehoods about India and its culture – that it is an imported artefact, the things Indians hold dear – the Vedas – are the imported wisdom of a superior, and more importantly, western race; secondly, that it is neither as old nor as glorious as the Egyptian or Babylonian civilizations, and thus undeserving of being called one – at best a collection of nomadic and pastoral tribes that were colonized and civilized by the so-called Aryans. In a way, the Aryan Invasion hoax is the “White Man’s Burden” in another garb. No wonder the assaults against the facts put up by the Sarasvati have been unrelenting.

Michel Danino’s book, for all these reasons, deserves to be read by every Indian – adult and child alike. Perhaps Danino will bring out a “children’s version” of this book – which would be one of the greatest services to this nation under siege.

I would also strongly recommend that people read Sanjeev Sanyal’s “Land of the Seven Rivers“, that borrows substantially from Michel Danino’s “The Lost River” when covering the Indus Civilization period, but also contains a wealth of information about the latter periods in Indian history.

Book Details:

Published by: Penguin Books India

Published: 15 Mar 2010

Imprint: Penguin

Book Format: Demy

Extent: 368

Binding: Flexi

ISBN-10: 0143068644

ISBN13: 9780143068648

Buying Info:

The Lost River:

Amazon US | UK | CA | IN

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Land of the Seven Rivers:

Amazon US | UK | CA | IN

Kindle e-book US | UK | CA | IN

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These are the personal opinions of the author.


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Abhinav Agarwal

Abhinav Agarwal

Son. Husband. Father. IIM-B gold medalist. Analytics product manager. Reading and photography hobbies.