By Dr. Ashok Malhotra, Ph. D. UBC Canada
Abstract: A recent exhaustive study by K. S. Valdiya on the now extinct Saraswati River concluded that the origin of this river was a Himalayan Glacial one. In the present work, the author examines major glacial rivers in the designated Himalayan region so as to locate the precise glacial sources and rivers that were likely to have contributed to this river. It is suggested that The Tons and Baspa Rives are possible original Himalayan sources of the Saraswati River before they changed their course to flow westwards and eastwards into the present day Yamuna and Sutlej Rivers respectively.
The Saraswati (also spelt Sarasvati) River is one of the main Rigvedic Rivers mentioned in ancient Sanskrit texts. This river more or less disappeared from South Asian subcontinent perhaps as early as 1500 BC. Its precise origin and route remains a matter of debate for scholars. Some years ago, this author, based on available studies, had written an informal socio-cultural blog note on the topic  and speculated that the glacial origins of this river may be the Tons and Baspa rivers of the Himalayas. Since then, others have expressed interest in the idea and would like a more scholarly albeit brief note on the topic. Therefore, this author is now reproducing the main thesis on the glacial origins of the Saraswati River as the present day Tons River as also perhaps the Baspa River in this brief online note for rapid availability of any interested person.
The Ghaggar-Hakra River
There is reasonable agreement among scholars on the route of this river in the plains as the present day seasonal river, the Ghaggar- Hakra, especially the part that passes through Haryana and Rajasthan. This is well confirmed by an overwhelming body of both ancient as well as modern scientific evidence. Most scholars accepted identification of the Vedic Saraswati River with the Ghaggar-Hakra River as early as the 19th and early 20th century, including Christian Lassen, Max Müller, Marc Aurel Stein, C.F. Oldham and Jane Macintosh amongst others. However, its northern connections and tributaries to the Himalayas are not yet fully ascertained as also its southern routes of flow into the ocean.
Clinching evidence in favor of identifying the Ghaggar-Hakra River as the lost Saraswati River is recent archeological evidence that traces ancient cities dotted along the route of this ancient river including prominent recent discoveries of Bhirrana and Rakhigarhi . The greatest of early civilization of mankind had all developed along the banks of major rivers from the Indus to the Nile. Although Indus valley civilization is the name given to this ancient civilization of the sub continent, the Saraswati River rather than Indus was the prominent course of this civilization at its peak in light of discoveries since the earliest cities of this civilization were discovered along the Indus River. It would now be more correct to refer to this ancient civilization as the Indus-Saraswati Civilization as a civilization of two rivers.
Himalayan Glacial Origins
In his recent well-argued and thorough study, K. S. Valdiya  proves with an enormous body of supporting scientific evidence and arguments, the fallacy of some modern studies  that deduced that Saraswati River did not originate in the Himalayas but was merely a monsoon river. Moreover, additional recent archeological evidence since of extensive and thriving cities discovered in Haryana such as Bhirrana and Rakhigiri would not have been possible if the river was not a perennial one. Therefore, the conclusion is that the Saraswati River was a glacial fed river seems reasonable.
The Nadistuti hymn (10.75) of the Rigveda  mentions that the Saraswati flowed between Yamuna in the east and the Sutlej in the west. Later Vedic texts like Tandya and Jaiminiya Brahmanas as well as the Mahabharata mention that the Saraswati dried up in a desert. The goddess Saraswati was a personification of this river. The late Rig Vedic Nadistuti sukta enumerates important rivers from the Ganges in the east up to the Indus in the west in clear geographical order. Here (RV 10.75.5), the sequence “Ganges, Yamuna, Saraswati, Shutudri” places the Saraswati between the Yamuna and the Sutlej, which is consistent with the Ghaggar identification. The river being a perennial one may have caused floods in the monsoon months month much as the Nile River used to as suggested by Rigveda 7.95.1-2 Here the Saraswati is described as:
This stream Saraswati with fostering current comes forth,
Our sure defense, our fort of iron.
As on a chariot, the flood flows on,
Surpassing in majesty and might all other waters.
Pure in her course from mountains to the ocean,
Alone of streams Saraswati hath listened.
Thinking of wealth and the great world of creatures,
She poured for Nahusa her milk and robustness.
The wide river bed (paleo-channel) of the Ghaggar river suggest that the river once flowed full of water during the great meltdown of the Himalayan Ice Age glaciers, some 10,000 years ago, and that it then continued through the entire region, in the presently dry channel of the Hakra River emptying into the Rann of Kutch. The Late Glacial Maximum, 13,000-10,000 years ago is defined primarily by the beginning of the modern warm period, in which the earth warmed substantially. Southampton researchers  have estimated that sea level rose by an average of about 1 meter per century at the end of the last Ice Age, interrupted by rapid ‘jumps’ during which it rose by up to 2.5 meters per century. Global sea level rose by a total of more than 120 meters as the vast ice sheets of the last Ice Age melted back. This melt-back lasted from about 19,000 to about 6,000 years ago in which period it is expected that the flow of the Saraswati River would have been at its peak. The river continued to flow, with reducing flow, until perhaps around 1500 BC helping create one of the earliest known civilizations of mankind. Presently the remnants of it as the Ghaggar- Hakra are seasonal monsoon river having been disconnected from its Himalayan source.
It seems clear from Rig Vedic descriptions that it is not that the Sutlej or Yamuna Rivers that have moved away from Saraswati River although their course has altered somewhat over the centuries but those rivers too existed in ancient times. Rather it is the tributaries of Saraswati that have shifted away and most likely begun to flow into the former rivers instead of the Saraswati River.
The most important tributaries in the Himalayas that emerge from glacial sources in the region between the Sutlej and Yamuna are the Baspa that now flows into the Sutlej and the Tons that now flow into the Yamuna. The Tons River develops from its tributaries, the Rupin and Supin Rivers. In ancient times it is likely that tectonic shifts altered the course of these latter tributaries to feed into the Sutlej and Yamuna rivers as at the present time. This conclusion is in accord with that of Validya  although they have not identified the rivers by name. They state in all their works that the discharge of the once mighty Saraswati had diminished when its eastern branch swung south to join with the Yamuna.
During the active Indus valley civilization, Saraswati River was not just a monsoon river because it was fed by glacial tributaries that presently flow into the Yamuna and Sutlej aside from the additional monsoon fed tributaries that flow from the Shivaliks at a point somewhat west of the Yamuna but east of the Sutlej in the Himalayas so as to become the mightiest of rivers of the time. When the Tons River changed its course due to seismic activity or landslides and began to flow into the Yamuna, it dealt a blow to the Saraswati River in the dry months of the year . The deduction is that Tons and perhaps also the Baspa rivers in their original state as existed soon after the late glacial maximum some ten thousand years ago were glacial sources for the sacred Saraswati River
The Tons River
It appears that the Tons River became a tributary of the Yamuna a few thousand years ago following a tectonic event in the Himalayas. Prior to the shift, the Tons river, possibly also enriched by the present day Baspa river, once ran an independent course running southwest into Haryana where other tributaries merged into it. This river was the Saraswati River mentioned in Vedic texts as the greatest of all Indian rivers. The fact that Saraswati River was the mightiest of rivers of its time is not in doubt as evident from prominent Indus valley sites dotting its course. The source of Tons River lies in the 6,315 meters high mountain presently known as Bandar punch and it would perhaps be more appropriate to refer to them now as the Saraswati Mountain Ranges. The Tons is the most major of perennial Indian Himalayan Rivers. In fact, it carries more water than the Yamuna itself that it now meets but appears not to have a few thousand years ago when it was one of the major Himalayan sources of the Saraswati River.
It has been argued that the Tons River as also perhaps the Baspa River were original glacial source of Saraswati River and that its change of course became the major cause of drying up of Saraswati river it must be mentioned that drying up of the Saraswati region may have been accelerated due to natural solar cycles or due to man made causes very much like the present day climate change as indeed some recent studies suggest. Deforestation and urbanization is likely to have been a contributing cause of climate change and this must have taken place in Indus-Saraswati valley civilization because of agricultural needs. A recent NASA study ascertains that trees and forest help to create rain. The Indus Valley civilization was wiped out 4,350 years ago by a 900-year-long drought, scientists at the Indian Institute of Technology in Kharagpur (IIT-Kgp) have found. The study revealed that from 2,350 BC (4,350 years ago) till 1,450 BC, the monsoon had a major weakening effect over the zone where the civilization flourished. This ancient civilization was eventually forced to abandon cities along the Saraswati and move eastwards towards the greener Yamuna and Gangetic plains.
- Wright, Rita P. (2009), The Ancient Indus: Urbanism, Economy, and Society, Cambridge University Press, p. 133, ISBN 978-0-521-57219-4,
- K. S. Valdiya, The River Saraswati was a Himalayan-born river K. S. Valdiya Current Science, Vol. 104, No. 1, 10 January 2013, http://www.currentscience.ac.in/Volumes/104/01/0042.pdf
- Giosan, L. et al., Fluvial landscapes of the Harappan Civilization. PNAS, 2012 (www.pnas.org/cgi/doi/10.1073/pnsas.1112743109)
- The Rigveda, translated by Stepahnie W. Jamison and Joel P. Brereton, 3 Volume Set, Oxford University Press, 2014
- Jain, Sharad K.; Pushpendra K. Agarwal; Vijay P. Singh (2007). Hydrology and water resources of India- Volume 57 of Water science and technology library – Yamuna River. Springer. pp. 344–354. ISBN 1-4020-5179-4.
NOTE: This note can be found as a downloadable online note at: