Who are Saraswats?
In India, there are at least five Brahmin communities who claim themselves as ‘Saraswat Brahmins’, including: Gaud Saraswat Brahmins, Chitrapur Saraswats, Rajapur/Bhalavalikar Saraswat Brahmins, Kashmiri Saraswats, Punjabi Saraswats, Sindh Saraswats, Kutch Saraswats and Rajasthan Saraswats. This community, as a whole, has produced eminent personalities including Pt. Jawaharlal Nehru, Vijay Mallya, Dr TMA Pai, Nandan Nilekani, Girish Karnad, Sachin Tendulkar, Sunil Gavaskar, Deepika Padukone, Shyam Benegal, and Guru Dutt.
Though being miles apart from each other for ages all Saraswat legends claim of their ancestors having once lived on the banks of now extinct river Saraswati. Today, however, there is no doubt that Saraswats are among the oldest living communities in India – still preserving their own indigenous culture which essentially hails from the Rigveda – that which is believed to have been written by their forefathers during their stint on banks of river Saraswati.
Their relationship with Saraswati River
Even to this day many Saraswat’s in their daily Sandhyavandana rite swears their allegiance to Rigveda. This apart, several of Saraswat’ rituals are conducted by reciting the hymns from the texts from Rigveda; firmly establishing links between Saraswats, Saraswati River and Rigveda.
According to two distinguished historians and Vedic Scholars Dr. NS Rajaram and Dr. David Frawley for Vedic Aryans the holiest river was “not Ganga but Saraswati.” This they said because “In Rigveda Ganga is mentioned only once while Saraswati is lauded no less than fifty times.” There is at least one whole hymn devoted to Saraswati River. In a famous hymn, Saunaka Gritasamda, the seer of the second Mandala lauds the Saraswati as ambitame, naditame, devitame Saraswati:
Sarasvati, the best of mothers, the best of rivers, the best of Goddess…
To follow the very descriptions given in the Vedic literature, Saraswati was the greatest river that then used to flow to the west of the Yamuna but to the east of the Sutlej. According to the seventh Mandala of the Rigveda attributed to the famous Rishi (Sage) Vasistha, the Saraswati was a mighty stream that flowed from the “mountain to the sea” sustaining the lives of Vedic people:
Pure in her stream, from the mountain to the sea, filled with bounteous abundance for the worlds, nourishing with her flow the children of Nahusa.
Interestingly, this very reference ‘from mountain to sea’ gives us a valuable pointer to Saraswati’ geography. But today we have no river called Sarasvati flowing in this country or elsewhere. The question then is: whatever became of it? Thanks to archeology and satellite photography we now know that Saraswati gradually became weaker and finally dried up completely around 1900 or 2000 BCE or even a little bit earlier.
According to several recent findings Vedic Saraswati once used to flow mainly through the channel of what is now an insignificant flow called the Ghaggar close to Indus thus making part of what we now know Harappa and Mohenjo-Daro civilizations. Even Satellite photos have shown that the Ghaggar was once a great river. Paul-Henri Francfort who recently surveyed the area calls it the “immense Ghaggar system”.
Intensive research carried by Dr. Frawley and Dr. Rajaram has completely debunked the Aryan-Invasion theory. They have also strongly established that the so-called Indus Valley or the Harappa civilization (of which Saraswati River is a part) did not consist of just a few urban settlements. It was a part of a vast civilization that stretched from the borders of Iran to East UP, with some sites as far south of Godavari River; as far as its duration is concerned, it represents a continuous evolution dating back to 7000 BCE in terms of the sites and more are being found all the time. So we can see that this great civilization spanned over 5000 years!
Regarding the ending of this great civilization, thanks again to recent archeological and ecological findings, we now know how that end came about. By putting together those evidences on the basis of archeological and satellite studies it was most certainly due to gradual depletion of water resources in North India that culminated in a calamitous drought in the 2200 BCE to 1900 BCE period.
Fig. 1: Map showing the flow of Saraswati from ‘mountain to sea’
Fig. 2: Area covered by Indus-Saraswati civilization and its over lap with area covered by early Vedic Civilization.
This was, also, a global phenomenon that affected civilization across an immense belt from southern Europe to India. The Akkadian (Sumerian) civilization of Mesopotamia was practically wiped out around 2200 BCE, while in Egypt, the so-called Old-Empire collapsed. In India itself, the mature Harappa civilization of which Saraswati was an integral part came to an abrupt end and there were severe dislocations. As SR Rao observed:
In circa 1900 BCE most of the mature Harappa sites were wiped out forcing the inhabitants to seek new lands for settlement. They seem to have left in great hurry and in small groups, seeking shelter initially on the eastern flank of the Sutlej and the Ghaggar and gradually moving towards the Yamuna. The refugees from Mohenjo-Daro and southern sites in Sind fled to Saurashtra and later occupied interior of the Peninsula.
That this was not restricted to India is clear from a recently concluded major French-American study in Mesopotamia. The report of the study notes:
At 2000 BCE, a marked increase in aridity and wind circulation, subsequent to a volcanic eruption, induced considerable degradation in land-use conditions… this abrupt climatic change evidently caused abandonment of Tell Leilan, regional desertion, and collapse of Akkadian empire based in southern Mesopotamia. Synchronous collapse in adjacent regions suggests that the impact of abrupt climatic change was extensive.
Whether a volcanic eruption was sufficient to trigger a drought so destructive may still be open to doubt; but whatever caused the draught, its effect now seems established beyond all doubts. The authors summarize their momentous findings as follows:
The abrupt climatic change that generated Habur hiatus I and the associated Akkadian-Gutti-Ur III collapse are synchronous with climate change and collapse phenomenon documented in the Aegean, Egypt, Palestine, and the Indus. The reoccupation of the Habur plains [in the northern Mesopotamia] in the 19th century BC and the sudden emergence of centralized Amorite control… was evidently facilitated by the amelioration of climatic conditions…
These very recent reports make it clear that the ending of Harappan civilization was a part of a world wide climate change phenomenon that affected all ancient civilizations.
Determining age of Saraswat Community
There is no doubt that Saraswats were the people who played a pivotal role in the authoring of Rigveda. Thus the age of the Rigveda can easily be regarded as the age of the early Saraswats.
Thanks to our understanding of ancient metallurgy, we can now say that Rigveda must be older than 3500 BCE.
Kunal, a recently discovered Saraswati site in Haryana has yielded silver ornaments. This shows that their metallurgy must have been quiet advanced; for unlike gold, silver never appears in pure form and has to be extracted by separating it from other metals like copper. The archeological research dates Kunal to be much earlier than 3000 BCE.
The presence of silver ornaments at Kunal shows that it is much later than the society described in the Rigveda. This is because Rigveda dose not know silver. The oldest Sanskrit word for silver is Rajata Hiranyam – literally ‘white gold’ – and it is mentioned for the first time in Yajurveda. This evidently disapproves the currently ascribed date of Rigveda as 1200 BCE as Kunal is evidently the last phase of the Saraswati civilization. Interestingly though there are proofs to suggest a date marking the end of the Saraswati civilization there is no evidence to suggest its exact beginnings.
Thus Dr. Rajaram has suggested that:
All we have to do is look hard and deep along the Sarasvati and other Vedic rivers. Such sites are likely to date to 3500 BCE or earlier. These when found are likely to be from the Age of Rigveda. The key identifying factor will be the relatively primitive metallurgy of their artifacts.
Today, though we have archeology telling us that: there was extensive trade between the Harappans, Egyptians and Sumerians besides presenting existence of science and mathematics much advanced to that age, our understanding of the Harappa Mohenjo-Daro or better put Sindu-Saraswati civilization is incomplete.
Though we have evidence to suggest existence of now extinct Saraswati we are yet to find evidence to suggest beginning of the civilization. However with the available information we can fairly conclude that:
The author, U. Mahesh Prabhu, is a Fellow of Royal Asiatic Society of Great Britain and Ireland, London (UK).
Fig. 1: Map showing the flow of Saraswati from “mountain to the sea”.