Mapping the Saraswati: A review of Michel Danino’s book The Lost River – Koenraad Elst

Dr Koenraad Elst“The Saraswati is mentioned in the Rg-Veda as a mighty sea-going river, but subsequently it shrank so that in the Mahabharata it appears as an ordinary river that runs dead in the desert. Even then it retained some of its Vedic aura, for Krishna’s brother Balarama went on pilgrimage to sites along the river including its locus of disappearance. The number and size of the city ruins along its riverbed warrant the renaming of “Indus civilization” as “Indus-Sarasvati civilization”. Danino surveys all the geological, archaeological and philological data pertaining to this river’s history in great detail.”- Dr Koenraad Elst

Prof Michel DaninoMichel Danino is a scholar of Jewish-Moroccan origin born in 1956 in Honfleur, France, and settled in Tamil Nadu since 1977. He is a practising environmentalist involved in saving forests, and editor and translator of several books by or concerning Sri Aurobindo and The Mother. In booklets published over the last two decades, he took up the revision of ancient Indian history where Aurobindo’s former secretary, K. D. Sethna (recently deceased at age 107) had left it. In The Invasion That Never Was (2000) he went over the classical arguments in favour of the Aryan Invasion Theory (AIT) and found them wanting. In his view, there is no solid evidence for the official belief that the Vedas were written in 1500-1200 BC by a recently-immigrated people that brought the Indo-Aryan languages into India from the Northwest. In 2006, an updated French edition was brought out by France’s most prestigious classics publisher Les Belles Lettres. His latest book, The Lost River: On the Trail of the Sarasvatī, has been published by Penguin, as mainstream as you can get.  Questioning the AIT may be off limits in JNU and Harvard, but sizable sections of the scholarly world are opening up to the possibility that the long-established theory may not be the gold standard after all.

The Lost River: On the trail of the SarasvatiIn the 11 chapters and 357 pages of this book, Danino zooms in on a crucial section of the evidence body concerning ancient Indian history, both Vedic and Harappan, viz. the Sarasvati river. This river is mentioned in the Rg-Veda as a mighty sea-going river, but subsequently it shrank so that in the Mahabharata it appears as an ordinary river that runs dead in the desert. Even then it retained some of its Vedic aura, for Krishna’s brother Balarama went on pilgrimage to sites along the river including its locus of disappearance. The number and size of the city ruins along its riverbed warrant the renaming of “Indus civilization” as “Indus-Sarasvati civilization”. Danino surveys all the geological, archaeological and philological data pertaining to this river’s history in great detail.

In recent years, the waters of the debate have been muddied by Harvard Sanskritist Michael Witzel c.s. who have tried to identify the very use of the name Sarasvati in the term “Indus-Sarasvati civilization” with Hindu nationalism, and who have mocked the claim that the Sarasvati survives in present-day rivers, principally the Ghaggar in Haryana. In fact, as Danino demonstrates with a string of quotations from primary sources, this identification is the object of a wide consensus, starting in 1840 with H. H. Wilson, and including such paragons of Indologist orthodoxy as F. Max Müller and M. Monier-Williams as well as the on-the-spot explorer Aurel Stein. Even the “Hindu nationalist claim” that the river dwindled as a consequence of tectonic events causing the course of its tributaries Yamuna and Satlej to shift away from the Sarasvati basin, turns out to be quite old and mainstream, starting with R. D. Oldham in 1886. Indeed, the ancient geographer Strabo already noted that seismic instability caused changes in the course of major rivers in India.

So, Danino has every right to bypass and disregard the polemical atmosphere in which some champions of the AIT have tried to drown the Sarasvati evidence. Especially because the latest findings are only confirming the river’s importance in Vedic and Harappan history.

Ghaggar Hakra River MapIn a recent lecture at the University of Ghent, Belgium, on the state of the art in Harappan excavations and the emerging picture of the “Indus” civilization, Cambridge (UK) archaeologist Cameron Petrie showed, next to his own map, a map of excavation sites used by Michel Danino in The Lost River, which Petrie called “a popular book”. By this he did not mean that it was a bestseller nor that it was much read and quoted; it was too recently published to speak of sales figures nor of citation indexes; only that it was written by a non-academic, obviously tapping into the outdated impression that the questioning of the prevailing theory is only the doing of amateurs. Danino’s map shows a high concentration of Harappan sites along the Ghaggar river, i.e. the remains of the once-mighty Sarasvati; but Petrie’s map showed a paucity of sites in the same region. That looked like a serious anomaly. But the very next item in his talk reversed this impression. He reported on an as yet unpublished survey of Haryana by a Ph.D. candidate from Rohtak who during 2008-10 identified “hundreds” of unexcavated Harappan sites. The student’s map showed a concentration of “new” sites precisely in the “empty” Ghaggar region. Did it not dawn on Petrie that this finding made his own textbook map dated while Danino’s proved up-to-date? Of the 3781 Harappan sites identified so far, 2378 are located around the Sarasvati river, from Haryana and northern Rajasthan to the Cholistan desert in southwestern Panjab .

Petrie didn’t break the consensus among archaeologists that proof for the AIT is lacking. Prof. B. B. Lal, who had made his name in the 1950s and 60s by detailing our knowledge of the Painted Grey Ware and identifying it as characteristic of the invading Aryans moving deeper into India, later repudiated any claims of an Aryan invasion, noting that no archaeological trace of an Aryan invasion has ever been found or identified. Prof. Michael Witzel has likewise admitted that “as yet” no archeological evidence of an Aryan invasion has been discovered. Petrie himself, as a field archaeologist freshly returned from the most recent excavations, agreed that he too had no sensational discovery to announce, of actual pieces of evidence for an Aryan invasion. So: as of 2011, after many decades of being the official and much-funded hypothesis, the Aryan Invasion Theory has still not been confirmed by even a single piece of material proof.

Human migration out of Africa to India and from India to Europe.That said, AIT skeptics should accept the burden of outlining and proving an alternative scenario that can explain the “Indo-European” linguistic commonalities between South Asia and Europe, viz. an emigration from India. So far, nobody in India has taken this challenge: Indians are satisfied that Indo-Aryan language and culture did not originate outside India but don’t have the ambition to show or even claim that conversely, most European languages ultimately came from India. “Out-of-India Theory”, the term commonly used for the denial of the AIT, is a term virtually without object in India, applying only to the work of non-archaeologists S. S. Misra and Shrikant Talageri. However, as an honorary Indian, Danino does take it upon himself to discharge another obligation on AIT skeptics, viz. to refute the impression of a sharp discontinuity between Harappan culture and post-Harappan culture with a fresh review of the archaeological data.

Orthodox academics like Prof. Romila Thapar and Prof. Shereen Ratnagar insist that all the typical features of Harappan culture disappeared in the early 2nd millennium BC to make way for what Sir Mortimer Wheeler used to call “the Vedic Dark Age”. Danino details how among archaeologists, not just most Indians but also Westerners like Jean-François Jarrige and Jim Shaffer, a new consensus has emerged, viz. that the high Harappan age was followed by a localization phase, with a devolution of the more unitary culture into different local cultures. And even after the Harappan building style disappeared, ca. 1300 BC, many Harappan-attested elements persisted down to the historical age (1st millennium BC) and sometimes even down to the present. From the town-planning grids and measurement system to the motifs on Harappan seals and on the much later punch-marked coins, numerous types of material continuity are in evidence from early Harappan days. The tale of the Crow and the Fox, still told by Indian grandmothers and also retold in the French fable collection by Jean de la Fontaine, was already depicted on a potsherd from Lothal ca. 4500. 

John Marshall and his famous reportDanino’s argument, while unusually convincing because of the wide array of data mustered, is not really revolutionary. It is only in the noxious atmosphere imposed on the AIT debate by some shrill polemicists both in India and the US that the continuity between Harappan and post-Harappan cultures becomes a daring proposition. In fact, in cooler times many prominent scholars have spoken out to the same effect. Art historian Stella Kramrisch noted the similarity between the art of Mohenjo Daro and contemporary folk art. Already in 1931, Sir John Marshall observed that the Harappan religion must have been “so characteristically Indian as hardly to be distinguished from still living Hinduism”.  By bringing all such findings together, Danino takes the case against an invader-induced post-Harappan rupture back out of the margins. – Koenraad Elst  Blog, 20 July 2015

Saraswati River

Excavations show Harappan civilisation died as Saraswati dried up – Utpal Kumar

Saraswati River

Rakhigarhi resident looks over ancient siteRakhigarhi, or Rakhi Garhi (Hindi: राखीगढ़ी; Rakhi Shahpur + Rakhi Khas), is a village in Hisar District in the state of Haryana in India, situated in the north-west about 150 kilometers from Delhi. In 1963, archaeologists discovered that this place was the site of the largest known city of the Indus-Sarasvati civilization, much larger and ancient than Harappa and Mohenjodaro sites. It is situated on the dry bed of the Sarasvati river, which is believed to have once flown through this place and dried up by 2000 BC. According to the archaeologists, Rakhigarhi is an ideal nucleus from where the Harappan civilisation began in the Ghaggar basin in Haryana and gradually grew from here and slowly expanded to the Indus valley.” – Wikipedia

Priest-King of Indus CivilisationThe Indus Valley civilisation, popularly known as Harappan civilisation, has been a puzzle for several decades now. But with the ongoing excavation in Rakhigarhi, history is on the verge of being rewritten.

“After Rakhigarhi, we can say that the Harappan civilisation was at least 1,000 years older than earlier thought. 

“And contrary to our long-held, conventional understanding, it first emerged in the east and then moved west, originating as it did in the heart of the Ghaggar-Hakra basin, regarded by many as the place where the Saraswati once flowed,” says Vasant Shinde, vice-chancellor of Deccan College who heads the team of archeologists — the largest Harappan site overtaking Mohenjo-daro in Pakistan’s Sind province. 

What’s going to ruffle quite a few feathers, is Harappa’s supposed Saraswati connection, especially the way the drying up of one probably led to the decline of the other. 

Prof Vasant ShindeRewriting history 

Shinde says that prior to his excavation it was believed that Rakhigarhi had all the three phases of the Harappan culture – ‘Early’, ‘Mature’ and ‘Late’. 

“Our work proves that this place doesn’t have the Late Harappan phase. It collapsed around 2000 BC,” says he, adding: “I believe Rakhigarhi’s sudden demise can be explained with the drying up of the Saraswati in 2000 BC.” 

Amarendra NathShinde’s claim is supported by Amarendra Nath, former ASI archaeology director who had carried out an excavation in Rakhigarhi between 1997 and 2000

“The ASI has so far discovered over 2,000 Harappan sites spread over Punjab, Haryana, Uttar Pradesh, Rajasthan and Gujarat. 

“Of these, about 1,400 can be located in the Saraswati belt alone, while the Indus belt doesn’t have more than 300-400 sites,” he says, adding: “We, in the ASI, had reached this conclusion long back. It’s just that this information is coming out now.” 

But not everyone is impressed. A Delhi University professor, wishing to remain anonymous, thinks this entire saga can only be analysed through the politico-ideological prism, rather than the academic. 

“For me, Saraswati is a mythical river and nothing more. It’s not a mere coincidence that all these things are coming up soon after the BJP came to power. 

“It’s an attempt to rewrite the history, the Aryan history,” says he. 

Shinde seems circumspect on the Aryan migration issue

“It’s for historians to decide. But as an archeologist, I can say with confidence that for at least 7,000 years, there has been no migration into this region. 

“You go to the village today, and you will feel you are walking through the same, old Harappan civilisation thriving 5,000 years ago. The style of pottery is similar. So are the food habits,” he says. 

Prof Irfan HabibNath is more direct. 

“There will always be a set of historians who will continue to deny the existence of the Saraswati — to meet their ideological and personal requirements. 

“They can afford to do that as history can be interpretational. (But) Not archaeology, which is based on solid evidences and facts. 

“And evidences for long have been supporting the existence of the Saraswati in the region. Satellite imageries have proved beyond doubt the existence of a ‘mighty’ river drying up 4,000 years ago,” Nath says. 

Michel DaninoMichel Danino, author of The Lost River: On the Trail of the Sarasvati, reminds us of the dilemma . 

“If we accept the Vedic hymns’ description of a river flowing from the mountain to the sea and located between the Yamuna and Sutlej, the Ghaggar remains the sole candidate. 

“But as we now know, this description can only apply to the third millennium BCE or earlier, an epoch that does not fit with the conventional scenario of a second millennium Aryan migration into India,” says the French author. Nath has a solution to bridge this ‘historical’ divide. 

“Why don’t the historians objecting to our claims set up their own body of archeologists and excavate these sites? Facts don’t change with the change of experts. 

“Sadly, they won’t come up with such initiatives,” he says. 

Neelesh Jadhao, co-director of the excavation, is excited that Korean forensic experts would conduct DNA tests on the excavated skeletons

“This time we have ensured skeletons don’t get contaminated. We would know for the first time what the Harappans looked like, what they ate, what was the colour of their skin or hair, etc. It will add a new perspective to the Harappan study,” says he. – Mail Online India, 22 May 2015

Archaeologists and scientists of Deccan College, Pune, examining a full-length skeleton of a male excavated from a Harappan burial site in Rakhigarhi in March. Photo: Deccan College, Pune

Rakhigarhi Graphic

Rakhigarhi Dig Siteplan

Sindhu Saraswati Civilization

River Saraswati: Historical facts, scientific proof – Kumar Chellappan

Kumar Chellappan“Mr Habib’s apprehension is that the Indus valley civilisation, whose two major cities, Mohenjo Daro and Harappa now lie in Pakistan, could be renamed as Saraswati civilisation. Mr Habib must know that the moment Saraswati river’s existence was proved, both Mohenjo Daro and Harappa were gone. Since blood is thicker than water, Mr Habib is sad that Pakistan lost its significance.” – Kumar Chellappan

Prof Yellapragada Sudershan RaoWhenever there is a change of Government at the Centre and the BJP comes to power, it is not the Congress or the factions of the Janata Dal who get upset and create panic. Instead, it is the self-styled intellectuals, especially a section of historians and their political masters, the Leftists, who are not at ease. What concerns them is the fear of losing control over the Indian Council of Historical Research and related organisations, which has been monopolised by them for a long time now. The ICHR takes care of their material needs.

This was proved by the apprehensions expressed by the Leftist historians and their puppeteers when the Union Government, appointed Mr Yellapragada Sudershan Rao, as the Chairperson of the ICHR. The Leftists wanted the ICHR to be governed by a person of their choice. The fact that Mr Rao has been a professor of history for more than four decades and has authored acclaimed articles in international journals has not cut ice with them. To be acceptable to them, the historian had to publish research papers in peer-reviewed journals. All of these peer-reviewed journals in India are controlled by the same Leftist historians who act as a coterie. But there is no need to go in-depth into this subject. A reading of Eminent Historians by Mr Arun Shourie will throw light on the modus operandi and intentions.

Marxist Historian Prof Irfan HabibIrfan Habib, the octogenarian Left historian who is a former ICHR Chairperson, has questioned the claims of Hindutva forces that there was a river by the name of Saraswati. What provoked Mr Habib was the BJP-led Haryana Government’s move to re-create the Saraswati river, an issue which is of great sentimental value for the Hindus because this river finds a mention in the Vedas as well as in the great epics. In an article published in a leading South Indian daily [The Chindu], more known for its CPI(M) leanings, Mr Habib rules out the theory that there was a river by the name of Saraswati. Mr Habib, known more as a Marxist historian, describes those who believe in the existence of Saraswati river as Sangh parivar intellectuals.

For Mr Habib, what matters is the observations of Rudolf von Roth, a German professor of Oriental languages, and Heinrich Zimmer, a German-born historian of South Asian art, who were not convinced about the river Saraswati. The octogenarian professor quotes Ms Marie-Agnes Courty of the European Centre for Prehistoric Research, who rules out the presence of any large river coming down from the Himalayas. But Ms Courty told this author that she does not rule out the existence of seasonal water streams originating from the Siwalik Hills. Advancements in science and technology, along with geology and hydrology, have proved that there was a river by the name of Saraswati.

Dr. S. KalyanaramanScholars in Sanskrit who have read all the great works related to Indian heritage, strongly believe that the river Saraswati meandered from the Himalayas through the north Indian States and joined the Arabian Sea at the Rann of Kutch in Gujarat. These scholars include S. Kalyanaraman whose comprehensive volume Sarasvati is rated as a landmark work, K. S. Valdiya, an archaeologist of international repute, and internationally acclaimed scientists like S. M. Rao and K. M. Kulkarni (Bhabha Atomic Research Centre, Trombay).

Mr Rao is not a specialist in any Oriental language but a physicist who is an authority on radio isotopes, materials known for testing the origin of elements, materials, mountains, rivers, seas, soil and what not. In addition to these experts, remote sensing scientists like J. R. Sharma and B. K. Bhadra of the Indian Space Research Organisation have proved, beyond doubt, that the Saraswati flowed through the Indian sub-continent.

Mr Habib must know, one can manipulate history and literature to a certain extent, but scientific findings cannot be defeated. He should read the archaeological findings of Mr Rafique Mughal, an archaeologist from Pakistan, who discovered hundreds of sites in Cholistan and referred to Sutlej, Ghaggar-Hakra and also Saraswati. For Mr Mughal (now a professor in Boston University), the Saraswati is not a myth.

Michel DaninoIn addition, Mr Michel Danino, an Indian author, originally from France has written The Lost River: On The Trail of the Sarasvati. What Mr Habib missed in his article was the scientific research done by the scientists of the Indian Space Research Organisation, the Bhabha Atomic Research Centre, Trombay and the Geological Survey of India.

Messers J. R. Sharma and B. K. Bhadra of ISRO’s Regional Remote Sensing Centre, Jodhpur, discovered the paleochannels of the vedic river using Remote Sensing and Global Information System techniques. “Data from the Indian Remote Sensing Satellite was used to delineate the buried palaeochannels through image processing techniques in parts of Haryana, Punjab, Rajasthan and Gujarat. The discovered river course has been validated with ground information like historical maps, archaeological sites, hydrogeology, sedimentology, drilling (litholog) and geochronological data,” said Mr Bhadra about the work he and Mr Sharma did to prove the existence of Saraswati.

Mr Habib got annoyed when the Haryana Government decided to drill tubewells along the course of the Saraswati traced by Mr Bhadra and Mr Sharma. “Drilling of tubewells on the palaeochannels shows the availability of large quantity of potable water which may be tapped as groundwater source in the water striven Thar desert,” said Mr Bhadra. Mr Habib’s anger is understandable as his political masters, though irrelevant in Indian politics, do not subscribe to the theory that perennial water shortage in India can be resolved by reviving the Saraswati.

Messrs S. M. Rao and K. M. Kulkarni, two senior scientists of the Isotope Chemistry Division of the BARC too proved by radio isotope studies that there was a river named Saraswati which flowed through the Indian sub-continent about 10,000 years ago. Along with Messrs A. K. Gupta and G. Sreenivasan, their colleagues in RRSC, Mr Sharma and Mr Bhadra have found that the river disappeared in 3,000 BC due to climatic and tectonic changes. 

Gopalaswami ParthasarathiMr Habib’s apprehension is that the Indus valley civilisation, whose two major cities, Mohenjo Daro and Harappa now lie in Pakistan, could be renamed as Saraswati civilisation. Mr Habib must know that the moment Saraswati river’s existence was proved, both Mohenjo Daro and Harappa were gone. Since blood is thicker than water, Mr Habib is sad that Pakistan lost its significance.

These ‘eminent historians’, with the active help of their Communist masters have succeeded in distorting Indian history. It all began with Indira Gandhi, the former Prime Minister, enlisting the services of Gopalaswami Parthasarathi, a diplomat-turned-advisor to the Nehru-Gandhi family to bring on board historians and social scientists who would go on to distort the country’s past history to suit her political convenience. – The Pioneer, 6 May 2015

» Kumar Chellappan is a senior journalist with The Pioneer based in Chennai.

Saraswati River

Irfan Habib still searching for the Saraswati River – Yvette Rosser

Ostriches & Marxist Historians

Yvette Rosser“I was professionally embarrassed for Irfan Habib regarding his lack of scholarly research, when thirteen years ago, he made this uniformed comment, ‘It matters little that the ‘mighty Sarasvati’ supposedly flowing down to the sea through the desert is a sheer figment of the imagination with no support from geography or geology.’ (Outlook, February 13, 2002.) Back then, I wrote: ‘these are very strong words for a respected historian to use when there is overwhelming documented scientific evidence that a huge river did flow in that part of western India 3800 years ago.’” – Dr Yvette Rosser

Irfan HabibIn the 17 April edition of The Hindu, a sarcastically penned article, printed prominently at the top of the page in the Opinion-Comment section, titled “Searching for Saraswati”, was written by the renowned historian, Professor Irfan Habib.

The attached cartoon reminded me of an article I wrote in 2003, titled “Ostriches and Archaeologists”, which discussed the long-standing disputes between a vocal group of Indian historians (formally self-identified as Marxist historians, but since the fall of the USSR, now calling themselves ‘progressives’) versus the Archaeological Survey of India (aka: mainstream Indian archaeologists).

My humorous title, “Ostriches and Archaeologists” reflected the absurdity that archaeologists are digging in the earth to discover historical artifacts, while this group of historians, colleagues of Professor Habib, have their heads buried in the sand refusing to look at the emerging evidence regarding the discovery of the paleo-geographic river bed of the long-dried up Saraswati River, as well condemning as other pre-modern (aka: Medieval) archaeological excavations.

Prof B.B. LalIn 2003, I vetted a copy of that article, “Ostriches and Archaeologists” to Professor B. B. Lal, who is often referred to as the father of Indian archaeology. Months later, I visited him at his home and his son who is a pilot and an officer in the Indian air force said to me that he hadn’t realized that his father, an octogenarian scholar, was a revolutionary. I replied with the famous quote, that in times of deceit and cover-up, telling the truth is a revolutionary act.[1]

In my research regarding India’s Social Sciences a dozen years ago, under the heading “Historiography in the Headlines” I noted that there was a vocal group of historians in India, who for decades have used the mainstream media to further their causes, while consistently refusing to look at archaeological evidence. Irfan Habib was among the usual signatories who critiqued not only archaeologists, but their material finds as well.  Even the artifacts were condemned as communal and saffron, if they incidentally lent credence to the ancientness of Dharmic traditions.

Artifacts are not saffron unless they were buried in ochre colored soil for a few thousand years. Facts are not Saffron, unless you are afraid of them and hope to sarcastically trivialize the emerging data, which Habib does like a seasoned pro. Using the reducto ad absurdum fallacy to reduce the argument to the absurd, converting an intellectual debate into a lopsided political one and avoiding the facts by ridiculing the supposed ‘intention’ and source of the data, Professor Habib’s critique was mostly political with very few historical considerations.

Instead of talking about merits of the case his strategy was to be distracted by side issues, bringing up controversies then changing the topic, and by sleight of word, Habib uses a bait-and-switch methodology to avoid the real issues at hand.

IVC SiteFor reasons tied up with ideological predispositions, there is a group of very vocal historians in India who have staked their professional careers against the research emerging from IVC sites in western India.  These professors fight pitched battles in the media and on the Internet to oppose the very existence, much less the evolving nomenclature of the Sindhu-Saraswati culture. Yet, strangely, despite being supposedly objective academicians, they are operating in complete denial of archaeological and other contemporary scientific data. For some strange reasons that are very detrimental to India’s social sciences, these historians’ minds are closed to dispassionate examination of contemporary historiographical research.

I was professionally embarrassed for Irfan Habib regarding his lack of scholarly research, when thirteen years ago, he made this uniformed comment, “It matters little that the ‘mighty Sarasvati’ supposedly flowing down to the sea through the Desert is a sheer figment of the imagination with no support from geography or geology.” (Outlook February 13, 2002.)  Back then, I wrote: “These are very strong words for a respected historian to use when there is overwhelming documented scientific evidence that a huge river did flow in that part of western India 3800 years ago.”

More than a decade ago, being thus astonished, I commented that “perhaps Professor Habib can be excused for not being up to date in paleogeology and satellite imaging, or even contemporary research on ancient Indian geographical history, since his specialty is Medieval India, but it is surprising that, being thusly uninformed, he has taken such a strong stand.”

You can well imagine how surprised I am when I witness, more than thirteen years later that Professor Habib has still not updated himself professionally. Yet ironically, he continues to use his valuable time to write op-ed pieces in the popular press condemning his archaeological ‘others’—a sad testament to the sorry state of social sciences and historiography in India.  After reading a random news report about some local water reclamation project in Haryana, Habib based his supposedly academically informed critique entirely on that scant bit of yellow journalism, and due to the dreaded saffron dominance in Haryana, Habib is overtly political in his critique. Facts be damned!

Ghaggra-Hakra (Saraswati) RiverThe only professional study to which Habib refers in this article is from the eighties. Whereas in the last thirty years there have been scores of scientifically sound research projects including paleogeological studies (with chemical analyses of soil samples), geographical studies, climatic studies, satellite imagery and landstat photography, isotope analyses, dozens of excavations by Indian and non-Indian archaeologists that support the hypothesis that there is a dried up riverbed of a great river that ran approximately where the seasonal rivers Ghaggar-Hakra now flow, as can be seen in satellite images. It ran down and around, heading in a southwesterly direction, wandering as rivers do over the millennia, from where it gained strength fed by other rivers, between the Yamuna and Sutlej, just where the ancient Hindu scriptures tell us this river used to run, and as Habib finally concedes in the last two paragraphs of his paper.

Ultimately, 4000 years ago, the legendary Saraswati River dried up due to tectonic activity and climatic changes, first slowly over centuries, forming numerous oxbow lakes before sinking into the sands of Rajasthan and disappearing into the sands of time.

Contrary to Habib’s claim in The Hindu, the Saraswati didn’t emerge from a ditch in Haryana, but as actually mentioned in the article upon which he based his critique, and in countless other documentations, the Saraswati originated in the Himalayas, where it emerged from the “foothills of the Shivaliks in the Adi Badri area” which is between Dharmasala and Simla. Hardly a “nullah” in Haryana!

In fact, recent research of soil samples in the Rann of Kutch and where the Saraswati emptied into the Arabian Sea have found Himalayan sand particles, particular to Uttaranchal in the sedimentary composition. These tests were conducted years after the 1980’s era study cited by Habib in The Hindu.

In Habib’s characterization, he sarcastically suggested the BJP government in Haryana should dig ‘two or three tube wells … to create an official spring.” Habib is confused as to the course of the ancient river. He should actually know this bit of geographic knowledge since he is an Indian historian who continually writes about this issue in the media!  He knows well that the Saraswati ran between the Yamuna and Sutlej as mentioned prominently in the Vedas and other historical Sanskrit texts and has can be seen on a modern landstat map.

Ghaggar RiverSeemingly, Habib cannot overcome the fact that in contemporary India, there is no roaring and raging Saraswati River running between the Yamuna and Sutlej, where the Saraswati was located. But I urge Professor Habib to visit the area and he would see that even today, the buried courses of the Saraswati still yield sub-surface water in the Rajasthan desert. “This sub-surface water in the desert comes from the Himalayan precipitation that flows through the buried courses of the Saraswati. Since the meagre rainfall (150mm) in the Rajasthan desert cannot contribute substantially to the perennial supply of sub-surface water, it is the quietly flowing Saraswati under the sub-surface of earth that is the source of year-round sub-surface water.” Dr Kar adds, “Field investigation by the researchers confirmed the existence of buried courses of the Saraswati River. It has been found that the areas through which the Saraswati flowed supports lush green vegetation today even during the summer months in the desert. In fact, some wells dug along the buried course of the Saraswati have yielded sweet water only at 30 to 40 metres.” [Quote from: Dr Amal Kar, senior geomorphologist at the Central Arid Zone Research Institute (CAZRI) in Jodhpur.]

I urge Professor Habib to visit the area before he condemns it again. He may also see, like the senior geomorphologist at the Central Arid Zone Research Institute, what seems like “a miracle in the Thar desert!” Or maybe it is just an ancient dried up river that still exists in some capacity below ground. Professor Habib may remember that after the dreadful earthquake in Bhuj in 2001, a spring opened up in the desert and clear fresh water flowed for days. There are many such stories across that broad area, from decade to decade, that report the emergence of a spring even after a mild earthquake.

But Professor Habib mocks the whole issue and dismisses the arguments and lumps all the informed and involved scholars into some kind of saffron stew that need not be heeded by the readers of The Hindu. He also seemingly dismisses satellite photography. No wonder for the last five millennia, Hindus thought that the Saraswati River must be mythical since they couldn’t find it on a map. Through the centuries, the popular lore considered that this non-existent, mythical Saraswati River, praised so prominently in the Rg Veda must be an underground river and it was presumed to meet the Ganga and the Yamuna at Prayag, in Professor Habib’s backyard. That old myth of an underground Saraswati has been demolished by contemporary research. A Times News article on June 15, 2002, stated that Habib, who “has written extensively on Saraswati, feels the exercise is a ‘waste of money.’” Then why, decade after decade, does Professor Habib continue to sensationalize the Saraswati and keep on writing ‘historiography in the headlines’ harping on a topic he refuses to research?

Heinrich Zimmer was a professor of Indology at Heidelberg Near to the end of his editorial comments in The Hindu, Habib cited Heinrich Zimmer for advocating the concept that the Saraswati is not an independent river but actually another name for the Indus. Heinrich Zimmer, whose excellent books on Indian art were published posthumously by Joseph Campbell passed away in 1943, decades before either the paleo-geological studies or satellite photography revealed the existence of the Saraswati River. [2]

To conclude his tirade directed towards researchers excavating along the banks of the Saraswati River, Professor Habib knowledgeably cites the verses in the Rig Veda where the Saraswati is mentioned and other relevant Sanskrit texts, such as the Panchavimsha Brahmana and the Manusmriti, where “Brahmavarta corresponds exactly to Haryana.”

In his final, strangely-worded sentence Habib writes, “From ancient tradition itself we thus have a depiction of the Saraswati that mocks neither geography nor history.” If that is true, why then did Professor Habib write an entire article that mocks the scientists researching the Saraswati River? Why, then, after all these decades didn’t he do his research? He would know that no scholars are trying to ‘stretch’ the Saraswati to pass below Allahabad. Obviously, purposes other than those of reason and common sense are at work guiding Irfan Habib’s perspectives.

Scholars researching the Saraswati River have embraced this relevant quote by Mahatma Gandhi: “First they ignore you, then they laugh at you, then they fight you, then you win.” Ultimately, research regarding the Saraswati River will continue moving forward and Professor Habib will prattle on in the popular press about saffron artifacts.  The sheer volume of the evidences will win the argument. – IndiaFacts, 23 April 2015


  1. That article “Ostriches and Archaeologists” emerged from my PhD dissertation, which was an investigation of historiographical approaches used in India, Pakistan, and Bangladesh. My dissertation: “Curricula as Destiny: Forging National Identities in India, Pakistan, and Bangladesh”, compared secondary Social Studies textbooks in India, Pakistan, and Bangladesh, three countries with thousands of years of shared history but very different contemporary perspectives of those events.  Among resulting publications: Islamization of Pakistani Social Studies Textbooks, RUPA, New Delhi, 2003. (See this review:
  2. Myths and Symbols in Indian Art and Civilization by Heinrich Zimmer. Edited by Joseph Campbell (1946).

» Dr Yvette Rosser first visited India in 1970, where she met Neem Karoli Baba who advised her to go to graduate school. She subsequently attended the University of Texas at Austin, where her Master’s thesis in the Department of Asian Studies examined the treatment of India in the social studies curriculum and how India and Hinduism are described in academic treatments. Her 2003 Ph.D. dissertation, Curriculum as Destiny: Forging National Identity in India, Pakistan, and Bangladesh, is a study of the politics of history in South Asia.

Saraswati River Map

The Making of the Taj Mahal – Shantanu Bhagwat

Taj Mahal, Agra, India
The author of this article on the Taj Mahal, Shantanu Bhagwat, is not happy with our reposting of his content from The Times of India series, so we have removed it and given the links to the original article instead. Though it is now more difficult to access the article, visitors are encouraged to do so and learn about the real history of the building of Taj Mahal. – Editor

The Times of India article links

Part One: Re-examining history

Part Two: The making of the Taj

Part Three: The leaking domes and clueless master builders

Part Four: The Taj & Badshahnama: Is this the smoking gun?

Part Five: Was the Taj Mahal really built to be a tomb?

The TOI article in PDF format is now available on Google Docs

The TOI article in PDF format is available on

Another version of the article is at

1 – Re-examining History: The Making of the Taj

2 – Re-examining History: The Gold Railing, the Leaks, the Palaces

3 – Re-examining History: The Motifs, the Design, the Features – Was the Taj Mahal really built to be a tomb?

Taj Site Plan

Taj Mahal Site Plan: The Taj Mahal complex can be conveniently divided into 5 sections: 1. The ‘moonlight garden’ to the north of the river Yamuna. 2. The riverfront terrace, containing the Mausoleum, Mosque and Jawab. 3. The Charbagh garden containing pavilions. 4. The jilaukhana containing accommodation for the tomb attendants and two subsidiary tombs. 5. The Taj Ganji, originally a bazaar and caravanserai only traces of which are still preserved. The great gate lies between the jilaukhana and the garden. Levels gradually descend in steps from the Taj Ganji towards the river.


Leading archaeologist says Old Testament stories are fiction – David Keys

David KeysProfessor Thompson … says that there is a complete absence of archaeological and historical evidence for many events portrayed in the Bible. The inevitable conclusion, he argues, is that the Israelite exile in Egypt, the Exodus and the Israelite conquest of the Promised Land never took place.” – David Keys

Prof Thomas L. ThompsonAbraham, Jacob, Moses, King David, and King Solomon in all his splendour, never existed, a 15-year study of archaeological evidence has concluded.

The study – by Professor Thomas Thompson, one of the world’s foremost authorities on biblical archaeology – says that the first 10 books of the Old Testament are almost certainly fiction, written between 500 and 1,500 years after the events they purport to describe.

Jewish TorahProfessor Thompson’s claims, outlined in a new book, The Early History of the Israelite People, are being taken seriously by scholars.

The British Museum’s leading expert on the archaeology of the Holy Land, Jonathan Tubb, said last week: ‘Professor Thompson may well be right in many of his arguments. His book is a work of tremendous scholarship. He has been meticulous in his research, and brave in expressing what many of us have thought intuitively for a long time but have been reticent in saying.’

Professor Thompson – from Marquette University in Milwaukee [and the University of Copenhagen] – says that there is a complete absence of archaeological and historical evidence for many events portrayed in the Bible. The inevitable conclusion, he argues, is that the Israelite exile in Egypt, the Exodus and the Israelite conquest of the Promised Land never took place.

Excavations have found no trace of a settled population around Judea and Jerusalem during the 10th century BC, when the Kingdom of David and Solomon was supposed to have flourished. A community that could have supported a kingdom did not form in Judea until at least a century later, Professor Thompson said. Jerusalem did not become a large and politically influential city until about 650 BC.

David by MichelangeloHe added: ‘It is out of the question that Saul, David, and Solomon, as described as kings in the Bible, could have existed. I think the biblical accounts are wonderful stories, invented at the time when Jerusalem was part of the Persian Empire in the 5th Century BC.’

The Israelite nation, he believes, was a creation of the Persian Empire and was formed around 450 BC. But the people who were moved to Jerusalem at that time were not the descendants of those who had been deported from the city after the Bablyonian capture in 586 BC. They were descendants of Syrian, Philistine, Phoenician, Judean, and other peoples who had also been forcibly deported to Babylon.

The first temple to Yahweh in Jerusalem was built at the instigation of the Persians, also in 450 BC – 500 years after the date suggested by the Bible. Before then, the main centre for the worship of Yahweh was in Samaria but, according to Professor Thompson, the religion had been in decline for several centuries. The Persian motive was to build up Jerusalem, with its newly-planted population, as a city of regional importance and to reduce Samaria’s standing. It was the Persian empire’s practice to build temples to important regional deities.

Professor Thompson’s thesis was taken calmly last week by leading spokesmen for Judaism. Rabbi Stephen Howard, chairman of the Union of Liberal and Progressive Synagogues Rabbinic Conference, said: ‘The Bible was written to explore the human relationship with God, not primarily as a history book. It is the wisdom, not the historicity, of the Bible which is of prime importance.’

Clive CalverRabbi Julian Jacobs, a member of Chief Rabbi’s cabinet, said: ‘The Bible, being of divine origin, can stand on its own feet and does not require supportive evidence.’

But the book – which is published by E. J. Brill in Leiden, the Netherlands – will offend some religious groups. The Reverend Clive Calver, general director of the Evangelical Alliance, which claims 1.2 million supporters, said it was the beginning of ‘a new phase in attacks upon the authenticity of scripture’. – The Independent, 28 March 1993

» David Keys is a history and archaeology consultant for TV documentaries, feature films and journalism. He writes for The Independent newspaper in London nand tweets at @Davidmkeys.

Will the real Moses please stand up – Ofri Ilani

Dr. Ofri Ilani“Thus it was a Jew, Freud, who came up with the theory that paints the people of Israel in the harshest light, as the murderers of their leader and founder of their own religion. In the 70 years since Freud published his book, mountains of criticism have been heaped on his murder-of-Moses theory.” – Dr Ofri Ilani

MosesOne day, King Amenophis of Egypt decided that he wanted to see the gods with his own eyes. He called on one of the kingdom’s sages and asked him how he could make his wish come true. The wise man replied that the king could do so if he were to cleanse Egypt of lepers and other impure people.

The king took immediate action. He gathered all the people with disabilities and diseases and expelled them all to the stone quarries east of the Nile, to endure hard labor and be separated from the rest of the population.

When the sage saw the king’s acts of cruelty, which were committed because of his prophecy, he feared the rage of the gods and the destructive consequences of his act, and killed himself.

The lepers labored in the quarries for a long time before Amenophis finally allocated the empty city of Avaris for them to live in.

Upon arrival, they made an Egyptian priest from Heliopolis named Osarseph their leader, and swore to obey his every order. Osarseph assigned the lepers a series of rules, each of them a violation of Egyptian law. Among other things, he forbade them to eat the animals that were sacred to Egyptians, and further ordered that these animals be slaughtered whenever they were encountered.

Next he dispatched emissaries to the Hyksos, a tribe of shepherds that had been expelled from Egypt by the Pharaohs and were living at that time in a city called Jerusalem — and invited them to join forces with the lepers and defeat Pharaoh. After anointing himself king over the shepherds and lepers, Osarseph changed his name to Moses.

To someone who has been hearing about the Israelites’ slavery and exodus from Egypt since childhood, this story sounds oddly familiar. It was written by Manetho, an Egyptian priest who lived in the 3rd century B.C.E., and who evidently based his account on ancient hieroglyphic inscriptions preserved in Egyptian tombs.

To a great extent, we can view the story of the enslaved lepers and their leader Osarseph as the Egyptian version of the Exodus story. Manetho’s tale continued by recounting that the joint army of lepers and shepherds from Jerusalem took over the kingdom of the Nile, vandalized the statues of the gods, and led a reign of cruelty over the kingdom. They quit Egypt only when Pharaoh came with a large army and drove them northward.

Was Moses actually an Egyptian priest who led a revolt against his country? Various writers have raised this theory on numerous occasions in the past, from the Hellenistic period to the 20th century. It is supported by, among other things, the recurrent appearance in ancient Egyptian sources of the name Mose, which was fairly common among the Egyptian nobility.

Unfortunately, Manetho’s book has been lost to history; the Moses-Osarseph story reached us thanks to Flavius Josephus, the 1st-century C.E. Jewish-cum-Roman historian, who quotes him in his book Against Apion.

Josephus tries to undercut the Egyptian priest Manetho’s version, and presents it as a ridiculous story that is rife with contradictions. Scholars today are divided over whether Manetho’s version of the birth of the Israelites is actually a deliberate distortion of the Biblical story about the Exodus from Egypt, or is perhaps based on certain historical elements that were preserved in Egypt and were passed down to him.

Titus Flavius JosephusMoses the general

Egyptologist Jan Assmann is of the second opinion. Assmann, author of the book Moses the Egyptian, argues that the story Manetho recounts is based on traditions that were left over from two traumatic events in Egyptian history: the religious revolution by Pharaoh Akhenaten, known as the Heretic King, who tried to ban idol worship and impose a monotheistic religion with the sun god Aten at its center; and Egypt’s conquest by the Semitic Hyksos shepherds.

Assmann contends that the story of the Exodus from Egypt as told in the Bible is a version of that affair — the nomads’ takeover and expulsion — that had been preserved in Canaan and found expression in the Torah.

Whether true or false, Manetho’s version of the Exodus from Egypt is among the first of countless theories and myths that grew up around the Biblical story down through the generations. These theories tried to solve the mystery of the story in various ways, and to imbue it with various meanings.

While Josephus Flavius denies Manetho’s story about the leper revolt, he provides another odd tale of his own. In his work Antiquities of the Jews, Josephus tells of a little-publicized chapter in Moses’ life.

Exodus leaves blank the chapter of Moses’ life from the time he was saved as a baby by Pharaoh’s daughter until he witnessed the suffering of his people and killed the Egyptian taskmaster. But Flavius provides details.

He recounts that Moses was raised in Pharaoh’s palace, and on reaching adulthood was appointed chief of the army and led the Egyptian troops in a war against their Ethiopian enemies.

It was a tough battle. To mislead the enemy, Moses guided the Egyptian army along an unexpected route, through the desert. But there he had to contend with a surprising foe: flying snakes, which according to Flavius are born in massive numbers from the desert soil.

Moses came up with a brilliant strategy to overcome this obstacle: He ordered baskets made, and placed in them the birds known in Egypt as ibises. He released the ibis in the desert and they hunted the snakes, clearing the way for the Egyptian army with Moses at the helm.

When the Egyptian army reached Sheba, the Ethiopians’ capital, Moses faced another problem: The city was walled and sat on an island in the Nile.

The Egyptians would have had to retreat had it not been for an act of treason on the Ethiopian side. Therbis, the daughter of the Ethiopian king, saw Moses over the wall and fell head-over-heels in love with him. She sent one of her servants to make him an offer: the city would be handed over to Moses on condition that he marry her.

Moses welcomed the deal, and the city was surrendered without a fight. Moses returned to Egypt with an Ethiopian wife.

We tend to believe Josephus when he tells of the revolt against the Romans and the suicide of Masada’s defenders, but for some reason the story of Moses the general never took root in Jewish historical lore.

The Bible scholars Yair Zakovitch and Avigdor Shinan claim, in their book That’s Not What the Good Book Says (Hebrew, Yedioth Ahronoth), that Josephus’ words might reflect an ancient tradition that was prevalent among the ancient Israelites, regarding Moses’ adventures in the early part of his life, i.e., at Pharaoh’s court.

The editors of the Torah, say Zakovitch and Shinan, tried to excise that tradition, because it portrayed Moses as a collaborator with the Egyptians.

Friedrich SchillerMoses the priest

While Jews have been handing down the story of the Exodus from Egypt from generation to generation, other peoples and cultures have expressed an interest in it as well. The Koran, for example, contains a version of the Exodus that is similar to the Biblical version, except that it includes a guest appearance by a surprising figure: Haman.

The well-known villain from the Book of Esther appears in the Koran as Pharaoh’s right-hand man, and at the end of the story he drowns along with the king. Apparently there is a connection between the name of Ahasuerus‘ adviser in the Book of Esther and that of Pharaoh’s chief minister in the Koran, but some argue that the name comes from the ancient Egyptian title Ha-amen, which was reserved for high-ranking officials in the Pharaonic court.

Christian scholars, particularly during the Renaissance period, were partial to a different theory that held that Moses was introduced to monotheistic belief by an Egyptian priest named Hermes Trismegistus.

The basis for this theory is a verse from the New Testament book Acts of the Apostles, which describes Moses as “learned in all the wisdom of the Egyptians.”

In the Enlightenment period this claim was the basis for scientific theories that the Torah laws Moses gave to his people were actually pale copies of Egyptian laws.

The German poet Friedrich Schiller went further than any other philosopher of his time in describing the Egyptian education that Moses received. According to his essay The Mission of Moses, the Hebrew boy attended a school for Egypt’s priestly caste.

There the idea of monotheism — a primal force that drives the universe — was bequeathed from one generation to the next.

However, the priests kept this knowledge a secret so as not to rouse their idol-worshipping people to rebellion, and thus encoded it in the form of hieroglyphs and animal statuary.

“The entirety of the civil constitution was founded upon the worship of gods,” Schiller writes, “and were this caused to collapse, all the pillars supporting the entire edifice of the state would have collapsed at the same time. It was still quite uncertain whether the new religion, conceived to take its place, would also stand firm enough to carry that edifice.”

During the time he was training to become a priest, Moses memorized the Egyptian hieroglyphs and the mysterious rituals of the order. When he came to know the suffering of his enslaved people, he wanted both to save them and reveal to them the secret of the true divinity, of whose existence he had learned at the school for priests.

But because he knew his people’s limited capacity for perception, Moses decided to identify that god with the national god of the Hebrews, who was already familiar to them from the tales of their ancestors. Moses revealed the secret of the Egyptian priestly caste, but covered over part of it with an old-new legend.

And thus the Hebrew religion was born.

Sigmund FreudMoses the murdered

Schiller’s theory about Moses’ Egyptian education, and other essays written throughout the 19th century, were the source for the most famous theory of our time about the unknown aspects of Moses’ story: Sigmund Freud‘s book Moses and Monotheism, which came out in 1939, shortly before the author’s death.

Freud adopted the claim that Moses had been an Egyptian priest. He argued that circumcision is an Egyptian idea, and that Moses instituted the religion of Egypt’s monotheistic Pharaoh Akhenaten among the Hebrews. Except that the wise Egyptian forced this faith on the people he had adopted, and the Israelites, a stubborn people, disobeyed him and rose up against him.

According to the father of psychoanalysis, they could not bear such a spiritual, abstract and lofty religion. So one day, they rebelled and killed their leader — a shameful event that was censored from the Biblical text and therefore forgotten.

As Freud has it, after they murdered Moses, the Jews renounced the imposed burden of Akhenaten’s religion, and crowned instead Jhave, “A rude, narrow-minded local god, violent and bloodthirsty,” in Freud’s words, who ordered his believers to destroy the people living in Canaan. The monotheistic idea was shrouded in darkness; guilt over the leader’s murder remained in the repressed memory.

It erupted only a thousand years later, in the writings of the Jewish Saul (later Paul) of Tarsus, one of the founders of Christianity. The repressed remorse at the murder of Moses turned into the story of Jesus, the son of God who was murdered but returned to save the world.

Thus it was a Jew, Freud, who came up with the theory that paints the people of Israel in the harshest light, as the murderers of their leader and founder of their own religion. In the 70 years since Freud published his book, mountains of criticism have been heaped on his murder-of-Moses theory.

But perhaps something of the Jews’ buried grudge against their greatest of heroes surfaced in former prime minister Golda Meir‘s words during a conversation with reporters in Germany in 1973.

“Let me tell you something that we Israelis have against Moses,” Meir said. “He took us 40 years through the desert in order to bring us to the one spot in the Middle East that has no oil!” – Haaretz, 29 March 2010

» Dr Ofri Ilany is an Israeli post-graduate student at Humboldt University in Berlin.


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