The Mythical Saraswati Is A Subterranean Flow, Posits New StudyMar 24, 2023 | Shalini Rai
They say serendipity is deeply gratifying. Making momentous discoveries by chance would certainly be a great feeling and a handful of people, among them a Bhopal-based former scientist with the Central Ground Water Board, would know this well.
In 2015, Dr Subhash Chandra Singh was assigned to look into what he thought would be a routine matter. While he was going about his usual work in Madhya Pradesh’s Chhatarpur district, he was asked by his senior to investigate the water flow at Bheem Kund in the district’s Bajna village.
Little did he realise that he had just been handed the chance at the discovery of a lifetime — the fate of the fabled Saraswati river.
The Saraswati river has, for centuries, been believed to have ‘disappeared’ or become ‘invisible’. Yet, mentions of it in Hindu scriptures point toward a robust riverine presence which some validate by referring to the confluence of three rivers at present-day Prayag (Allahabad), Uttar Pradesh, as Ganga, Yamuna and Saraswati.
It is believed to have originated in the Himalayas, specifically from the Har-ki-Dun glacier in Garhwal, Uttarakhand. It was 1500 km long, 5 m deep and 3–15 km wide. The Saraswati finds mention as a major river in the Rig Veda and other Vedic texts and is part of the Sapta Sindhu rivers mentioned in the Rig Veda, the six other rivers being Sindhu (Indus), Sutudri (Satluj), Vitasta (Jhelum), Vipasa (Beas), Askini (Chenab) and Parushni (Ravi).
The Rig Veda says the Saraswati flows between the Satluj in the west and the Yamuna in the east, before making its way into the ‘samudra’. Later Vedic texts (and the Mahabharata too) mention that it dried up in a desert. Many modern-day scholars have put forth the claim that the Ghaggar-Hakra river system in northwestern India could be identified as the Saraswati river of yore.
But the hypothesis by Dr Singh states that the invisible/unseen river is a subterranean flow of water which is present in the Bundelkhand region of Madhya Pradesh, follows extensive, deep limestone cavities/caverns and converges at the confluence of the Ganga and Yamuna rivers at Prayag. He bases this conclusion upon his scrutiny of the water flow at Bada Malhara block of Chhatarpur district.
“Around 4,000 years ago, the mythical river Saraswati disappeared in the wake of major tectonic activity in the Himalayan region. It is also said that at the same time rainfall had declined drastically and resulted in meagre water flow in the Ganga and Yamuna rivers for some days. During the same period, people are believed to have seen some water flow coming from subsurface at the confluence of the Ganga and Yamuna at Prayag, which they believed could be the lost epic Saraswati river. This was reinforced due to tectonic bustle that reappeared from subsurface and people named this place as Triveni Sangam,” says Dr Singh, as I interview him one March afternoon at his home in Bhopal.
Over the years, the central government formed committees — including one by former Union minister Uma Bharti under the aegis of the Ministry of Water Resources in 2017 — to investigate the fate of the mythical river but there have been no conclusive results and no convincing answers backed by empirical evidence.
“When I looked into the water pattern at Bheem Kund, Arjun Kund, Sadwa Cave and Paatal Ganga — in Bada Malhara block of MP’s Chhatarpur district — I found limestone sinkholes and cavities with huge quantities of water with massive flow but could not fathom where the water is going,” says Dr Singh.
“I took the study forward. On Google Maps, I discovered a lineament that starts from the Bada Malhara block and goes right upto Triveni in Prayag (a lineament is a linear topographic feature that reveals a characteristic such as a fault or the subsurface structure). On that lineament, I found the Pandav Caves in Panna district, the Gupt Godavari on the border of MP and UP — again with extreme subterranean flow of water but no proof of where the water eventually goes,” he adds.
Could it be that this massive subterranean flow of water forms part of the mythical, ‘invisible’ Saraswati river which disappeared so many millennia ago?
What piqued Dr Singh’s curiosity further was the fact that the geology along the lineament — limestone formation — matches completely. “The basement geology in Prayag is the same as that in MP’s Bada Malhara,” he adds. “My study postulates that the Saraswati — the ‘unseen’ river — is a subterranean flow which originates from Bundelkhand region of Madhya Pradesh, follows the extensive deep limestone cavities/caverns, converges at the confluence of the Yamuna and Ganga at Prayag. It is evocative that the nature and extent of these cavities/caverns may further be examined by applying various geo-scientific techniques, including gravity and resistivity tomography geophysical method.”
Efforts have been made in the past to find definitive answers to the mystery of the Saraswati and the National Geophysical Research Institute (NGRI) conducted a heliborne survey of the stated area in 2021.
The research letter titled “Airborne Electromagnetic Signatures of an Ancient River in the Water-Stressed Ganga Plain, Prayagraj, India: A Potential Groundwater Repository” states, “An airborne electromagnetic study in the Ganga-Yamuna doab, India, supplemented with drilling and logging data to address the groundwater crisis, has unraveled exhaustive aquifer information with a discovery of 45 km long buried river, having dimensions comparable to those of Ganga and Yamuna. We use an airborne electromagnetic study that has unravelled exhaustive aquifer information with discovery of a buried paleoriver, having dimensions comparable to those of Ganga and Yamuna Rivers near Prayagraj, India. This ancient river is characterized by a porous and permeable structure and is hydrogeologically linked with Ganga and Yamuna rivers through an underlying principal aquifer. Significantly, the location of this major paleoriver falls within the region where the lost River Saraswati was flowing in the past. The results add a new physical dimension to this mythological belief.”
This is a heartening development in the search for the missing Saraswati and has been covered in the media, although not extensively.
Meanwhile, Dr Singh’s hypothesis seems to be substantiated by the NGRI’s heliborne survey, presence of the distinctive lineament from MP’s Chhatarpur to UP’s Prayag and awaits further study using geo-scientific techniques. His paper titled “The Unseen River Saraswati at Prayag is a Subterranean Flow” has been published in the journal of the International Association of Hydrogeologists and presented at the Science Congress, Nagpur. It awaits peer review.
While the last word on this emotive topic remains to be spoken, there is growing hope and excitement that the mystery around the ‘invisible’ river may just be unravelled for the first time in millennia.