Saturday, 30 December 2017

Redefining the Geography of the Sapta Sindhu

History has been full of assumptions, theories and hypotheses. As E.H Carr has said, “History is a continuous dialogue between the past and the present.” As newer evidence and theories arise, our perceptions of history change accordingly. One such issue is of the exact geographical location of the Sapta-Sindhu (abbreviated as SS). This article proposes the theory that SS is the region of Saraswati and its six tributaries (Satluj, Yamuna, Markanda, Ghaggar, Dangri and Chautang) in Haryana region and not the oft repeated Punjab region of river Indus + 5 Punjab rivers + Saraswati.

The 7 rivers of Saraswati valley form the original Sapta Sindhu.  (Map Courtesy- K.S Valdiya Report)


Sapta Sindhu is not clearly defined in any of the ancient texts. The Rigveda merely mentions the story of Indra slaying Asura called Vritra and released the waters of the ‘Sapta Sindhu’ obstructed by Vritra. Few verses mention the name Sapta-Saindhavah or the region of the Sapta Sindhu but don’t define it. This ambiguity has given rise to theories regarding the region of Sapta Sindhu.

Theory One- It considers the Punjab region as the zone of SS. The rivers Indus or Sindhu, Shatadru (Satluj), Parushni (Ravi), Vipasa (Beas), Asikni (Chenab) and Vitasta (Jhelum) and the Saraswati constitute the SS, thus placing the region of Rigveda in the Punjab region. This is by far the most circulated theory originating from the 19th century Indologists like Oldham, etc. This entire theory was crystallized in the 20th century when in 1921, John Marshall discovered the Indus Valley Civilization and now it became pertinent to place the Aryans in the Punjab region to prove the Aryan invasion from the north-west. More you place the SS to the northwest, the better.

Theory Two- Some historians, in their eagerness to prove the invasion, tried to place the Saraswati itself outside India, into Afghanistan. The Avesta mentions the Helmond River of southern Afghanistan as Harahvaiti, which is similar to Saraswati (S becomes H in Avesta just like Sindhu became Hindu). Avesta also mentions the region as Hapta-Handu, which is similar to Sapta Sindhu. Thus, the SS is in Afghanistan and the ‘Vedic Aryans composed Rigveda in Afghanistan before invading into India’. The discovery of Saraswati in India itself rubbishes this theory and hence doesn’t warrant any further discussion.

It is the first theory that this article seeks to counter. The problems in this theory are summarized as follows-

The entire process of zeroing in on the Sapta Sindhu appears like a layman’s effort. Given the crude methods of historical study then, the historians could have proceeded something like this- The word Sapta-Sindhu has the word ‘Sindhu’, which not only means a river but also the name of Indus river. Thus, Sapta Sindhu must include Indus River. Now we must find 6 other rivers. The most obvious candidates are the five tributaries of Indus mentioned in the Rigveda- Shatadru (Satluj), Parushni (Ravi), Vipasa (Beas), Asikni (Chenab) and Vitasta (Jhelum). The last remaining river was considered as Saraswati due to the fact that it was mentioned the most in Rigveda.

A primary reading of the Rigveda will tell you that Saraswati is the most important river of the SS region. If we consider the pattern of human settlement, the river having crucial significance in the lives of people will be in the center of the settlement. The humans will seek to spread on both the sides, keeping the river in the center due to its geographical and religious significance.

This theory relegates the Saraswati to the easternmost corner of the SS with the central region occupied by the Doab of Ravi and Beas. This is completely contrary to any pattern of human settlement. If the Vedic Aryans indeed considered Saraswati as the most important river, their spread must be around the Saraswati and not keeping it in one corner of the Sapta Sindhu region.


The theory presented in this article is that it is the Saraswati and her 6 tributaries Satluj, Yamuna, Markanda, Ghaggar, Dangri and Chautang that form the Sapta Sindhu region. But before going to the details of these rivers, let’s first look at why should the region around the Saraswati be considered the fittest candidate to locate the Sapta Sindhu. The intention is to prove that if the entire focus of Rigveda and later texts has been on the Saraswati and its surrounding region, this has to be the most plausible location of the Sapta Sindhu (SS)

If SS is the most holy land, the holy places mentioned in the texts must lie in that region. For example, for Christianity, the holiest land is of Israel wherein lies Jerusalem, Bethlehem, etc. Let Christianity expand anywhere in the world, the holy land retains its importance. The Crusades of Europeans to reclaim Jerusalem prove the point. Similarly, if Vedic Aryans consider SS as their core region, the holy places mentioned in the ancient texts must lie there.

The Rigveda chiefly mentions two holy places in the SS region, namely Ilayaspada and Manusha. RV (3.23.4) calls Ilayaspada as the best place on earth (Vara A Prithivya) while elsewhere, they are called the center of the earth (Nabha Prithivya). Now these two places must be located in the core SS region.

Phenomenal study has been done by Shrikant Talageri in his book The Rigveda-A Historical Analysis. He mentions the Tirthayatra of Balarama from Mahabharata (3.81) where he visits chief Tirthas on the banks of Saraswati. MBh (3.81.53) mentions Manusha, which M.L Bhargava has identified as Manas near Kaithal in Haryana. Similarly, Ilayaspada has been identified at Shergarh near Kaithal. A point to be noted is that Saraswati flows just to the north of Kaithal.

If the ‘best place’ and the ‘central place’ are located along the Saraswati river, the region surrounding these holy places must be the SS and not the lands to its west till the river Indus that will render these holy places to one corner.

Moreover, the Puru-Bharata clan is the most important one in Rigveda. The Rigveda seems to be written completely in the favour of Puru-Bharatas. The RV (7.96.2) mentions Purus living on the ‘grassy banks of Saraswati’ showing the Purus owning the most important land of those times. Also, the Vishnu Purana (4.10) talks of an earlier story of king Yayati, who ruled the major sections of northern India then, giving away the ‘central’ land to Puru (i.e Saraswati valley). The Vishnu Purana calls Puru the supreme monarch of “earth”. The surrounding regions went to his brothers- southern region to Yadu (Yadavas), western to Turvasu, northwestern to Druhyu and northern part to Anu. Thus, the descendents of Puru ruled the central part of the kingdom, which the Rigveda points to be the Saraswati valley. This is confirmed by the Mahabharata which says the Kuru-Jangala kingdom of the Saraswati valley, ruled by the Pandavas belongs to the Puru clan.

Plus, the holiest sites of those days are around the Kurukshetra region ruled by the Puru clan, on the banks of Saraswati and its tributaries, as mentioned in the travels of Balarama in Mahabharata. There are as many as 360 Tirthas in the Kurukshetra region, all near the prominent rivers. Best example is of the ancient Pruthudaka Tirtha located on the confluence of Saraswati and Markanda in today’s Pehowa in Haryana. (You can check a big list of such Tirthas around Kurukshetra from here )

In short, if the most-mentioned and celebrated clan in the Rigveda (Puru)  is situated around the most important river of the Rigveda (Saraswati) and rules the holiest places of those times (Kurukshetra region), this region has to be in the center of Sapta Sindhu.

Even the earliest place of settlement as mentioned by the Puranas is called Brahmavarta, set up by Swayambhuva Manu. The Manu Smriti (2.17) records, “The land, created by the gods, which lies between the two divine rivers Sarasvati and Drishadvati, the (sages) call it Brahmavarta.” Thus, the divine land of the earliest settlement is also in the Saraswati valley. Hence, wherever we search, the most sought after land is in the Saraswati valley.

Lastly, archaeology also points out to a rough trend of better preference to the Saraswati valley than the Indus valley for human settlement. For the moment, consider the Aryan Invasion Theory to be true. By 1900 BCE, the Saraswati has dried up in its lower course and people are moving towards north. The late and post-Harappan settlements can be either in the Indus Valley where water is available in plenty or in the upper reaches of Saraswati in Haryana region where river survives a bit. In this situation, the Aryans invade and populate northern India. The settlements in this transition period are concentrated in the Saraswati valley, not in the Indus Valley

Late Harappan Settlements concentrated in Saraswati Valley and parts of Ganga Valley

Even the Painted Grey Ware (after 1200 BCE), considered to be the pottery of early Aryans, is found in the Haryana and west UP region chiefly. Remember, it is these same Aryans who are composing Rigveda around the Saraswati during this same time (1200 to 1000 BCE)

Painted Grey Ware sites after 1200 BCE in Saraswati Valley

Now assume the Aryan Invasion is not true and that the Indus Valley Civilization is indeed the Vedic civilization. Yet again, majority of the mature Harappan sites are concentrated in the Saraswati valley including its lower course and not in the Indus Valley. In short, archaeology points out that the Indus Valley was never preferred much for human settlement as compared to the Saraswati Valley. 

Compare the Harappan sites in the two boxes- One of Indus Valley, other of Saraswati Valley. Even the dense sites around Ganweriwala are on banks of Saraswati.

Thus, all evidences tend to point out that the Saraswati valley is preferred for geographical, religious and settlement purposes. It is indeed the chief area where the Sapta Sindhu ought to be located.
Now, let us see exactly which 7 rivers can possibly constitute the Sapta Sindhu.


A clarification at the start- These 7 rivers that we will be seeing are not being found artificially to somehow add up to seven rivers of the Sapta Sindhu or just to prove the theory. They were substantial rivers in ancient times and their old palaeochannels have been unearthed by the geologists recently. The information has been compiled in the report “Palaeochannels of Northwest India: Review and Assessment” by K.S Valdiya, submitted to Ministry of Water Resources in 2016.

Zoomed map of the Seven Rivers of the Saraswati Valley, based on old palaeochannels

As noted earlier, the seven rivers are thus from west to east direction-
  • Satluj- Satluj originates at Rakas Sarowar near Kailas and flows through Himachal Pradesh and enters plains in Punjab. It used to flow southwards from Ropar and meet the Saraswati at a place called Shatrana, south of Patiala. The combined river was 6-8 km wide at Shatrana. Yashpal el al (1980) have found palaeochannel of Satluj from Ropar to Shatrana broadly in N-S direction, extending for 75 kms with a width of 1 to 6 km. C. F Oldham in 1873 opined that this channel shifted towards the west from Ropar and began joining the Beas thus depriving of the Saraswati of its crucial waters.
  • Ghaggar- Ghaggar originates at Sirmaur in Himachal and flows through Panchkula and it demarcates the boundary between Punjab and Haryana. It used to join the Satluj in ancient times. Today it traces the old path of the Saraswati after Sirsa in Haryana, enters Rajasthan and then vanishes in the Cholistan desert near Bahawalpur.
  • Tangri- Tangri or Dangri originates in Morni hills of Himachal and flows through Ambala district. It used to join the Saraswati just downstream from Pehowa. Today it joins the Ghaggar Hakra. It’s palaeochannel have been marked by the satellite images by Bhadra et al in 2009.
  • Markanda- Known as Markandeya River. Markanda originates from Dharti Dhar in Himachal and enters plains at Kala Amb. Study by Bajpai and Kshetrimayum in 2011 analyzed underground sand sediments and concluded the Markanda indeed met the Saraswati near Pehowa-Thikri-Malakpur region
  • Sarsuti- Sarasuti is considered the original flow of the Saraswati but with its course shifted little to the west. The river originated at Adi Badri in the Siwalik Hills and flows through sites like Mughalwali, Mustafabad, Kurukshetra, Pehowa, Fatehabad and beyond Sirsa traces the course of today’s Ghaggar-Hakra. Study by Chaudhari et all in 2008 revealed the course of Sarsuti near Bhor Saidan in Kurukshetra district to be around 2 km wide. Soil samples from Bir Pipli, Kanepla, etc in Kurukshetra district reveal a palaeochannel that flowed till 2000 BCE.
  • Drishadvati- Chautang River today is a seasonal river arising out of the Siwaliks that flows through central Haryana and meets today’s Ghaggar-Hakra near Suratgarh in Rajasthan. In ancient times, this was the Drishadwati River which used to combine with Yamuna and together used to meet Saraswati. Bhadra et al in 2009 used remote sensing satellite data to delineate the channel of Drishadvati in Haryana.
  • Yamuna- Yamuna originated at Yamunotri and originally joined the Tons or Tamasa river. But later on, it flowed down from Paonta Sahib and took a west turn to flow through central Haryana, joins the Drishadvati and finally meets the Saraswati near Suratgarh in Rajasthan. Clift et al (2012) did a study on the sediments at IVC site at Ganweriwala, allegedly on the banks of the Saraswati. They reveal similarity with sediments of Yamuna plains showing the Yamuna used to empty in the Saraswati in ancient times.

If these rivers are indeed considered as Sapta-Sindhu, it will considerably narrow down the core area of Rigveda and also explain the overbearing religious importance of the region of Kurukshetra in later times.

On a concluding note, this article was a crude attempt to define geography of the Rigveda in a new way. There exist strong arguments as to why the Sapta Sindhu be located in its postulated location in Punjab. But as I said in the start- History has been full of assumptions, theories and hypotheses- There is no fun without them!

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