Bringing a long-lost sacred Indian river back to life
Top officials back a search for the sacred waterway “They mess with history and with geography”
Gagandeep Singh stands at the edge of a trench cutting through a sugar cane field in India. He looks down at a dozen or so men toiling in the mud and bellows, “Dig!” There’s no time to stop, says Singh, a district development officer in Haryana state, over the chop-chop-chop of small, crude shovels gouging the earth.
The work gang is part of a project about 124 miles north of New Delhi to re-create a river named Saraswati, which has been revered for as long as there have been Hindus. It’s named dozens of times in the millennia-old sacred text, the Rig Veda, as water source and deity. The plan is to dig a canal along the Saraswati’s presumed route—perhaps even finding evidence of its past. The canal, if all goes according to plan, would wind its way through three parched states before emptying into the Arabian Sea on the Gujarat coast. The water will come from a nearby seasonal river that appears during the monsoon and will be dammed up and diverted to the canal.
Some critics are concerned the project is meant to support a conservative religious agenda that
The speed with which the dig has taken off reflects political backing up to the highest levels
will alienate India’s Muslims and other minorities. For Hindu nationalists, proof of the Saraswati’s existence could buttress claims that the Rig Veda is more factual than mythical and that today’s Hindus descend directly from the founders of India’s original civilization.
The project needs final environmental and planning approval from several different offices, but Singh says he expects clearance—and access to heavy machinery—soon. The speed with which the dig has taken off reflects political backing up to the highest levels. The state’s chief minister, a member of the ruling party of Prime Minister Narendra Modi, announced in February a research initiative targeting the river. In May a worker on the project dug a hole and found water. It became a pilgrimage site and made headlines.
In 2005, when Modi was chief minister of the western state of Gujarat, he decreed that a flow of canal water be diverted to what his administration said was the dry riverbed of the Saraswati—a project of more limited scope, reminiscent of the current digging in Haryana. The state declared in an annual review of its record: “The state government has performed great effort for the ancient Saraswati river to make it live again.” Singh says so far 500 million rupees ($7.5 million) have been approved for the Saraswati.
Although India is a land of holy waters, such as the Ganges, the federal government has done little to preserve them. A report in late 2011 by the Comptroller and Auditor General, a government watchdog, found that despite decades of cleanup programs, river water “remains critically polluted.” Scientists tracking depletion rates of the world’s 37 major aquifers say the one feeding northwest India is usually the worst, according to Jay Famiglietti, a senior water scientist with a NASA laboratory in Pasadena, Calif. Modi’s government says it will spend 500 billion rupees through 2020 on irrigation, rainwater harvesting, and related efforts. But bureaucracy often gets in the way.
Little is hampering the search for the Saraswati. In August 2014, Water Resources Minister Uma Bharti informed the lower house of Parliament that the government “is committed to the revival of the ancient Saraswati river.” Bharti’s office turned down requests for an interview.
To the Rashtriya Swayamsevak Sangh, or RSS, the Hindu volunteer organization that trained and nurtured Modi, it’s a crucial step toward establishing a rationale for a nation by and for Hindus, says Aditya Mukherjee, a history professor at the Jawaharlal Nehru University in New Delhi. “So, therefore, they mess with history and with geography,” says Mukherjee, a critic of Modi. RSS spokesman Manmohan Vaidya says, “Saraswati is not mythological. She was a real river … the central and state governments are looking into this. So funding will not be a problem.” Satellite images show dry riverbeds that some see as relics of the Saraswati. Interpretations of these and other findings yield conflicting suggestions for the river’s age, course, and size. Finding the Saraswati would reveal “the best locations to track groundwater,” says Shashi Shekhar, the water ministry’s top bureaucrat. “This is the economic reason—more than historical or mythological.”
Singh has already overseen construction of 9.3 miles of the canal, which runs roughly 8 feet deep and more than 10 feet wide. Even though benefits include irrigation and flood control, Singh says, “the government wants to show that this is the oldest civilization in the world.” Singh is Sikh, but says he’s a patriot and considers his religion an offshoot of Hinduism. Ashok Gulati, an agricultural economist at the Indian Council for Research on International Economic Relations in New Delhi, calls the enterprise “a good wish and a good dream.” He suggests, though, “if we can protect our current rivers, that’s a better strategy than looking for a lost river.”
The bottom line The search for a lost river in northwest India has religious and ideological overtones.
The plan is to dig a canal along the Saraswati’s presumed route, and maybe find evidence of its past