Most ancient civilizations flourished in river valleys and flood plains. So when the digging for construction of a railway line in Northwestern British India revealed remains of an ancient civilization, archaeologists were not very surprised! Since the first two sites found were Harappa, and Mohen-jo-Daro, in the vicinity of the river Indus (Sindhu) and it’s tributaries, the civilization came to be known as the Harappa civilization or the Indus valley civilization.

Detailed excavations at these sites revealed that these indeed were huge cities with remains of several layers of city living, with the latest layers dated from around 2000 years before Christ, and the oldest, to about 3500 years before Christ.

A View of Mohen-jo-Daro

A View of Mohen-jo-Daro

Detailed excavations at these sites revealed that these indeed were huge cities with remains of several layers of city living, with the latest layers dated from around 2000 years before Christ, and the oldest, to about 3500 years before Christ.

The cities of Mohenjo-daro and Harappa, as well as other smaller sites that were found later on, were very well planned with streets running at right angles, and laid with burnt bricks. The cities and had a sanitary system of well connected drains to carry the waste from every house.  The sites from this civilization occupied a vast area spread across in an area that now corresponds to parts of Afghanistan, Pakistan and India.  19th century Indologists and archaeologists postulated that invading nomads from central Asia brought this civilization to an abrupt end, since most the sites showed a decline around about 1800-1500 BC, with no continued habitation in those locations.


As more sites were found by  archaeologists, they observed something strange found more and more sites, they found a strange thing.  A vast majority of them were in the area that now comprises of the Thar desert, far from the Sindhu (Indus) river system of Punjab, but along a dry river bed, what is now called as the Hakra or Ghaggar river. The Ghaggar is a seasonal stream which flows for a few months and which ultimately dries up in the desert without reaching the sea! This was a perplexing indeed.

For the solution of this problem, we have to go to ancient Indian texts called Vedas. Veda means Knowledge, derived from the verb, vid – to know, are the oldest poems in this world that are still extant. The Vedas, instead of talking about the five rivers of Punjab, spoke about “sapta sindhu” or the seven rivers, and the most important river among the seven was Saraswathi. The Rig Veda called Saraswati the “ Most beloved of mothers, the mightiest of all rivers, and the best among Goddesses.” It is also described as a river flowing from the Himalaya mountains to the ocean.  But today, the Saraswathi  river is  a small tributary to the seasonal Ghaggar.

As early as during early 1800s,  archaeologists who  had found parts of a dry river beds in the desert  had postulated a great river must have flown there. interestingly this river bed they had found  is the continuation of the Ghaggar, into which the current day Saraswathi river flows as a tributary.

The width of the dry riverbed is generally more than a mile wide, and at places it is as wide as 7-8 miles. But what was the source of the water to fill this huge river?  The current source of river Saraswathi could not have provided that vast amount of water!

Now science comes to the rescue: The satellite imagery from the late 20th century has ascertained these earlier observations. These have also confirmed the existence old river beds   belonging to two other major rivers, Yamuna, and Satluj which are now part of the Indus andSarasvati Ganges river systems, that once flowed into the old bed of now dry Ghaggar.

So what caused the drying up of Ghaggar or the historic Saraswathi? Sometime between the 6000 and 4000 years, due to tectonic movements the rivers Yamuna and Sutlej that were the main feeders for Saraswathi changed course.

The glacier fed Sutlej  moved westwards, and started flowing into the Indus river. The other glacier fed tributary of  Saraswati, the Yamuna started flowing eastward, into the Ganga river instead of Saraswathi. These events thus deprived Saraswathi a perennial water source.

Probably to support this movement of Yamuna  is the common belief held in India even today that the river Saraswathi flows as an invisible river, and joins the Ganga and Yamuna at their confluence at Prayaga (Allahabad).

With this river migration understood, we can easily understand  why there are far greater number of archaeological sites in the desert along the dry Saraswathi river compared to the Indus river valley. When the rivers migrated, the people living in the Saraswathi river area had to move to newer locations, and they did so.  There is no need to bring  in any fictitious “nomads from central Asia”  to describe a bloody and sudden ending to the civilization. Indeed a study of later archaeological sites shows that several aspects of the these sites were adapted there as well.



Today, the river Sarswathi may flow from the Himalaya all the way to the ocean. It may have become just a small monsoon rivulet. Or if you go by the  popular mindset,  the river Saraswathi might have become invisible.  But the culture of the people lived on it’s banks is still alive and well! For example, its very easy to find  artwork from this civilization, that looks almost the  same as some of the artworks created by current day craftsmen and artists!  This is but one of the many aspects where such parallels can be drawn.

Given all these facts, it truly befits to call this as the Saraswathi-Sindhu civilization rather than Indus Valley civilization or the Harappa civilization!


(All photo credits belong to their respective copyright holders)

(p.s: Enough material is available on the Internet about the Saraswathi-Sindhu civilization. Then question may arise why this post :) This was a speech I gave at my Toastmasters Club as part of the “Speaking to Inform” advance speaking manual. The project was : The Speech to Inform)

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