The vedas mention the mighty Saraswati river flowing down the Himalayas and then westwards towards Rajasthan. But Rajasthan is a desert. So where did this huge river, which the vedas say was bigger than the Ganga, disappear?

It is widely believed that this river still flows under the Thar desert, though no one has been able to prove this for sure.

Even the epic Mahabharata, written in 1000 BC, mentions Saraswati as the once-mighty river that was drying up. As of now, the Saraswati has completely disappeared from the earth’s surface, which is why several people even doubt that it ever existed. For long scientists have been hunting for traces of the Saraswati in the desert.

Saraswati in the Thar
Saraswati in the Thar [Illustration by Shinod AP]

A few years back The Sunday Observer newspaper reported that two scientists at the Bhabha Atomic Research Centre, Dr S M Rao and Dr K M Kulkarni, claimed to have traced the Saraswati in the Thar desert. They have traced the course of the river using satellite images. This is called Landsat imagery.

Rao and Kulkarni say that the Saraswati originated from the same source as the Sutlej river, which flows through Punjab. Then it flows through northern Rajasthan, Bhawalpur and Sind in Pakistan till it empties out in the Rann of Kutch. All the time remaining underground.

The scientists discovered many underground fresh-water channels and claimed that the water was that of river Saraswati’s. They found a naturally-occurring form of hydrogen, called tritium, in the water. The tritium helped them to establish how old the water was.

In channels at Ghantiali, Kuriaberi and Nathurakuan in Jaisalmer district of Rajasthan, the water was found to be 8,000 years old, the scientists said. The narrow strip of vegetation along the course of this underground water body, as seen through the satellite, also supports this theory. The presence of the vegetation is remarkable as the surrounding areas continue to be dry.

Since the Saraswati is a legendary river, there are several theories about what its original course was. The river has changed its course to the west at least five times. Earlier, a study linked the ancient river to the Ghaggar river that exists today. Some other scholars say that at one time the Sutlej flowed into the Saraswati and then later shifted to westwards to join the Indus river.

Some other scholars say that the Indus itself may have been a tributary of the Saraswati at one time. But all these are just theories, no one knows for sure what the Saraswati’s course was.