The plan to restore the river Saraswati as a symbol of India’s ancient glory is back in news yet again.

In the last week of March, the chief minister of Haryana announced that his government would start excavation at the site where the river is said to have originated. Water would be diverted from drains and pumped from the ground to be made to flow down the path that the river is believed to have taken in the ancient past.

In Rajasthan, the Archaeological Survey of India has begun excavations in search of the “lost river”. “A centrally protected site last excavated partially only in the 1970s, mounds at Binjor [in Ganganagar district] have been opened up again by ASI,” the Economic Times reported.

It may be recalled that during the previous National Democratic Alliance regime in the early 2000s, a similar move had been initiated by Jagmohan, the then union minister for tourism and cultural affairs.

Mythical status

The existence of the river itself has been a matter of debate with some believing it to have no more than a mythical status, since the Vedas where the river finds its most prominent reference are themselves in search of a historical validation.

According to a popular story, when dauji (Balarama), the elder brother of Lord Krishna, made his pilgrimage from Dwarka in Gujarat, upstream the river Saraswati, around the time of the epic battle of Mahabharata, he found the river in no more than pools in some of its stretches.

The above is in sharp contrast to the Vedic (in particular, Rig Veda) eulogies sung in praise of the mighty river Saraswati. Variously described as “fierce”, “swifter than other streams”, “coming forward with tempestuous roar and bursting the ridges of the hills with its strong waves”, the river had been called by names such as ambitame, naditame and devitame, meaning the best of the “mothers”, “rivers” and the “goddesses”.

Clearly something drastic had happened that reduced the “best of the rivers” of the Vedic times into almost an apology of a river by the time of the Mahabhara.

But there are those who are willing to take the above at its face value and even provide an explanation. They attribute this change to a cataclysmic tectonic event that snatched away two of the river’s most prolific tributaries namely the river Yamuna and Satluj – one (Yamuna) turning away eastwards and the other (Satlej) westwards.

Interestingly a sudden north-westerly turn noticeable in the present day alignment of river Satlej at Rupnagar in Punjab and south-easterly turn in river Yamuna at Poanta Sahib in Himachal Pradesh is cited as lending credence to such a happening. Both these turns are seen as these rivers respectively cut through the Shivalik range in the lowest rung of the Himalayan belt.

Restoring what?

Bereft of its key tributaries, it is posited that the river Saraswati lost its erstwhile grandeur and its position of pre-eminence amongst the rivers in the sub-continent. What we have in today’s Haryana instead is a seasonal river called Sarsuti that flows during the monsoon months through the Haryana districts of Yamunanagar and Kurukshetra to soon lose itself to the sandy depths of the Thar desert. Many claim that this Sarsuti is the surviving remnant of the once-mighty Saraswati.

So, the question that begs to be answered in the planned river Saraswati restoration context includes identification of the river that is proposed to be restored. Because if it is the Vedic period river Saraswati that is the target, then can tectonic changes be undone? And from where would the waters of rivers Yamuna and Satlej come, considering the fact that even the said two rivers are currently struggling to maintain their own identity while facing immense biotic pressures?

Alternatively, if it is a matter of protecting and rejuvenating the still existing but seasonal river Sarsuti as a remnant of the once mighty river Saraswati, then would the effort be anything more than symbolic, and thus avoidable, given that it is already no more than a monsoonal stream?

Resources invested in such symbolism are better utilised in protection and rejuvenation of rivers that though living are struggling for their own survival against increasing instances of diversion, pollution and flood plain encroachment.

The author is the convener of the Delhi based Yamuna Jiye Abhiyaan (Living river Yamuna campaign).