Wednesday, November 17, 2010

The Great Flow of History

Everyone’s heard of the Ganges, but earlier, there was another mythical river considered even more significant and sacred. The river Saraswati dried up thousands of years ago, yet it not only plays an interesting role in my cultural history but is also making exciting news in modern times.

Modern archaeologists have confirmed that the Saraswati was real, and that the region around it was one of a few great civilizations, known as the Harappans, that thrived from about 5,000 B.C. till about 2,000 B.C., in the time of Sumeria, Mesopotamia, ancient Egypt, and the Indus Valley. The Saraswati flowed down from the Himalayas throughout India and into the Arabian Sea. The region near the base of the mountains flourished for thousands of years with rich, fertile agriculture, domestic and international trade, and a society that used science and mathematics.

One of the holiest sites in India, Triveni Sangam marks
the convergence of two of India’s most sacred rivers,
the Ganga and the Yamuna, and what is thought to be
the spot where they originally met the mythic Saraswati
river. All three are named after Hindu goddesses.
Silver ornaments, for example, are among the fascinating discoveries at
one Saraswati site in the state of Haryana. It’s notable because, unlike gold which also held high value in those times, silver does not appear in pure form but must be extracted from other metals such as copper. This means the original Saraswats who lived around the river in those times, performed an advanced form of metallurgy sometime around 3,500 B.C., a historical feat that isn’t recorded again until around 700 B.C. in Mesopotamia.

It’s believed that Saraswats are the original authors of the Rig Veda, also known as the Vedas, a collection of sacred Sanskrit verses. Estimates vary widely, but historians place the Vedas anywhere from 2,000 to 8,000 years old. Either way, it survives as one of the world’s oldest religious texts in any Indo-European language. And it’s still in use—Hindus continue to chant Vedic hymns in modern religious ceremonies.

The text itself provides detailed insight into the river, including its precise location, history, people, and so forth, much of which scientists and historians have been able to use to study the earth and ancient societies.

Between the 6th and 8th centuries, the
Japanese began worshipping
Saraswati, the Hindu goddess of
wisdom. They called her Benzaiten,
which in Japanese, also represents
anything that flows—water, words,
knowledge, music.
Some time after the Vedas were written, tectonic shifts and climactic changes began taking place on earth, resulting in among other things, massive droughts, changes in wind circulation patterns, uplifted tributaries, and eventually the river drying up. It's thought that these geophysical changes marked the decline of all the ancient civilizations. Saraswats essentially became nomads, settling throughout India, in Kashmir, along the western coast, and in the south.

I’d always thought it the stuff of mythic legend until one of my college history professors, more excited about the connection than I had been at the time, confirmed an interesting tidbit for me: the Saraswat community I hail from was one of the five original communities that once lived along the banks of this river, making ours one of the oldest communities in India, itself one of the world’s oldest civilizations.

Fast forward to present day, as scientists try to solve water shortages in arid northwestern India. Take the western region of the state of Rajasthan, once a green, fertile area in Vedic times, and later, when the Saraswati dried up, a vast desert. Using data from French and American satellites and the latest geographic information system (GIS) and remote sensing technology, geologists have been able to tap into 3,500-year-old Saraswati riverbeds and explore the stunning possibility of providing pure, ancient groundwater to residents in this desert region. In the neighboring state of Haryana, scientists discovered another portion of the river when water began oozing out of a dried riverbed (known as a paleochannel) near a temple. Construction on a 50-kilometer channel is now underway there, which means a portion of the Saraswati will soon flow again.

What have you discovered about your ancestors that has amazed you?


  1. My ancestors were part of the Spanish Armada and the other side were Scottish Lords (there is a Sinclair castle in Scotland - in ruins, but still...). I often wonder if my knack for picking up Spanish is in the genes. ;-)

    I love finding out about family history. And Supriya, I know of the underground river you talk about. I remember hearing a lot about it in my travels in India. How cool for you to be connected to such interesting ancestory.

  2. I have a Swiss cousin who is into family history and always sends me interesting bits of info that he's tracked down. Family trees, old newspaper articles and letters. His enthusiasm was contagious so one day I packed my bags and went to the Swiss village where my grandfather was born and poked through the church archives. Not only did I discover that my grandfather had been the first member of my family to leave the village since the 9th century, but it seemed that half the people in that town had the same last name as me!

    The 1200-year trail I was following pales in comparison to your family history, Supriya! Imagine tracing your roots back 3500 years. Pretty cool!

  3. Really fascinating!Thanks for sharing this.

  4. Hi Supriya, This blog is wonderful and so informative. It is really neat to have these different cultures converge on one blog. Kudos to all of you. Can't wait to read the next post.

  5. Thanks, Shikha, for the kind words and for stopping by. It means a lot to hear such feedback.

    Heidi and Alli, you've piqued my curiosity! Guess you two have another blog topic to cover. J