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When exactly did the Ghaggar River dry?

Updated on August 31, 2014
Ghaggar River at present in monsoons.
Ghaggar River at present in monsoons.

Ghaggar-Hakra River has become a center of prime attraction and fascination for many reasons. Over a thousand Indus civilization settlements found on the banks of this river led to the hypothesis that the Ghaggar is the lost river Sarasvati of the Rig Veda and hence the ancient settlements on its banks are the creation of ingenious Vedic Aryan’s. Previously the time approximately fixed for drying of the Ghaggar being 1750 to 1900 BC, coinciding with the collapse of the Indus civilization that encouraged some scholars to link mythological stories of the lost River Sarasvati with the Ghaggar.

But what are the facts? The river bed of the Ghaggar and other palaeo-channels are being vigorously researched and examined on various aspects to know the provenance of the ancient river system. Instead of going into much technical jargon, let us see what the latest findings are and whether they can be linked with Vedic Sarasvati or not.

Let us have a look at the findings and observations made by the Japanese team that worked for almost five years conducting large scale investigations in the basin of the Ghaggar and adjoining Rivers as presented in the paper “Geomorphological Constraints on the Ghaggar River Regime During the Mature Harappan Period” by Hideaki Maemoku, Yorinao Shitaoka, Tsuneto Nagatomo, and Hiroshi Yagi as follows:

  1. The width of the Ghaggar floodplain is much smaller than that of other glacial fed rivers like Indus and its tributaries.
  2. Most of the sand dunes accompanying Choutang and Ghaggar on either side of the floodplain are as old as 10 to 15000 years. They did exist during mature Harappan period.
  3. The results are supported by habitation layers on the sand dunes dating back to mature Harappan period and many by the Harappan sites occurring in its present floodplain.
  4. Ghaggar did not experience drastic changes in water discharge during the Harappan period.
  5. Ghaggar was not glacial fed river anytime.
  6. The mythical Sarasvati did not exist as described in Veda’s in the Ghaggar basin as a glacial fed large river such as the Indus and its tributaries at least during mature Harappan period.

Ghaggar near Chandigadh, flooded in July 2013,
Ghaggar near Chandigadh, flooded in July 2013,

Many scholars intentionally or by sheer misunderstanding jump to the conclusion that if the river bed of the Ghaggar at some places is as wide as 8 kilometers, it must have been a mighty river in the past. Actually, the width corresponds to the floodplain, not the riverbed as much tauyted by the Vedic scholars. The Himalayan fed rivers has floodplains ranging from 10 to 20 kilometers wide whereas Ghaggar’s average floodplain is 5 kilometers wide. The largest floodplain width is documented in Rajasthan region at some places to the extent of 8 kilometers. It is agreed by Sridhar et al. (1999) ephemeral rivers often have wider floodplains because of the shallow riverbed. The satellite imagery had shown the width of floodplains, not of the riverbeds. Actual fieldwork exposes the difference between riverbed and floodplain of the Ghaggar River. Ghaggar recently had experienced severe floods in 1988, 1993,1995 and 2010. Except for summer monsoons normally Ghaggar is a dry river. However it was never a dead or lost river.

There have been many small archeological sites in the floodplain of the Ghaggar. It does mean that the Harappan people never suffered from the devastating floods since they settled there. Otherwise there wouldn’t be any human settlements in the floodplain. Occurrence of the floods may be once in several decades.

In a paper ‘Fluvial landscapes of the Harappan civilization’, Giosan et al, in March 2012, published in Proceedings of National Academy of Science, has stated that, “This widespread fluvial redistribution of sediment suggests that reliable monsoon rains were able to sustain perennial rivers earlier during the Holocene and explains why Harappan settlements flourished along the entire Ghaggar- Hakra system without access to a glacier-fed river.”

Further stated is “…Contrary to earlier assumptions that a large glacier-fed Himalayan river, identified by some with the mythical Sarasvati, watered the Harappan heartland on the interfluve between the Indus and Ganges basins, we show that only monsoonal-fed rivers were active there during the Holocene. As the monsoon weakened, monsoonal rivers gradually dried or became seasonal, affecting habitability along their courses. Hydroclimatic stress increased the vulnerability of agricultural production supporting Harappan urbanism, leading to settlement downsizing, diversification of crops, and a drastic increase in settlements in the moister monsoon regions of the upper Punjab, Haryana, and Uttar Pradesh.”

From above it occurs that the Ghaggar was not the Himalayan snow-fed river. The monsoons were stronger in Harappan period which sustained river flow round the year. However because of the climatic changes the monsoon started reducing precipitation by late Harappan period. The chronology of the climatic changes in north-west India is recorded in following order.

6200 BC - 4000 BC: Wet Phase

4100 BC - 3800 BC: Dry Phase

3800 BC - 2200 BC: Wet Phase

2200 BC - till Present: Wet Phase begins to decline.

(Linguistics, Archaeology and the H uman Past” (Edited byToshiki OSADA and Akinori UESUGI)

From the above data it can be surmised that the dry and wet phases have occurred in north-western region alternatively after almost thousand and more years. It does not mean wet phase remained wetter throughout or dry phase remained drier throughout. However rise or drop in average rainfall must have influenced the human settlements in the region. However the studies suggest that the decline of the Harappa civilization was a gradual process, it didn’t occur suddenly due to drastic natural or social events. The gradual decline resulted in disintegration of trade network connected with different regions of Indus society, thus harming economy as well.

From archeological evidences it seems that about 2000 BC the Harappan settlements started to decline, later were abandoned because of the climatic changes making agriculture unsustainable During Harappan era, though Ghaggar was a stable river though it never was a large river as interpreted by some scholars from the width of her floodplain. Since the riverbed of the Ghaggar was and is shallow, there is no question of its being Sarasvati which is described as mighty and bursting with her strong waves, in Rig Veda.

Shrikant Talageri’s “Out of India” theory too collapses on the geological accounts because after decline of Harappan civilization, many of the Harappan people moved towards wet regions of Gangetic planes, towards east, which is evidenced from the post Harappan settlements found in the eastern regions.


It is widely assumed by the Indian scholars that during Harappan Phase Yamuna and Satlej used to be tributaries of the Ghaggar River, thus adding immense water in the Ghaggar channel and making it a mighty river. The assumption came from the satellite images that do not define the minute topography and geological age of the channels.

Whether ever Satlej and Yamuna did flow in the channel of Ghaggar? The opinions are divided on this. According to “Current Scince” article (2004) contributed by Indian and German scientists, “...the “Sarasvati" did not carry glacier waters. The Ghaggar-Hakra area does not show mineral deposit of Himalayan glaciers, and thus could not be a big, perennial, glacier fed river, but, rather, a smaller, seasonal, monsoon fed one. Based on sediment geochemistry and composition and geomorphologic and palaeoclimatic constraints that the Ghaggar-Hakra River was likely always Siwalik fed.”

This does mean that Satlej and Yamuna were never ever tributaries of Ghaggar. Satlej and Yamuna are glacial fed rivers hence had they been fed into the Ghaggar in the past, the glacial mineral traces would have been detected in the sediments of Ghaggar channel. But that is not the case.

However Peter D Clift et al in a paper “U-Pb zircon dating evidence for a Pleistocene Sarasvati River and capture of the Yamuna River” suggests that, “…although loss of the Yamuna from the Indus likely occurred as early as 49 ka and no later than 10 ka. Capture of the Yamuna to the east and the Sutlej to the north rerouted water away from the area of the Harappan centers, but this change significantly predated their final collapse.”

According to Sanjeev Gupta (Imperial College London), the river sediments ceased in the tract of the palaeo channel after 14000 BCE, long before the Indus civilization. His conclusion is formed after his team had done extensive drilling into the 30-40 m thick sand body in the subsurface beneath a tract of the Ghaggar-Hakra palaeochannel adjacent to the Indus city of Kalibangan.

Sedimentary Geologist Suvrat Kher, referring to the research of Clift and his colleagues, states that the Yamuna and Satlej stopped flowing in Ghaggar long before 50,000 and 10,000 years respectively. While doing in depth analysis of the critical issue, he clearly states that, “…I have stressed that this attempt to link a hypothesis of a mighty Sarasvati to the presence of Aryans is misguided and one that has caused harm to the public understanding of the topic and to what constitutes good science. Many geologists and archaeologists accepted the validity of a glacial Sarasvati without critically weighing the evidence. Taking their cue, in web forums and books, supporters of a glacial Sarasvati have popularized the hypothesis of a late river avulsion and often presented it as irrefutable evidence favoring the indigenous Aryan theory.”

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From the above we can conclude the following:

  1. Ghaggar is not the mythical river Sarasvati.
  2. Satlej and Yamuna had stopped flowing in to the Ghaggar channel long before early phase of the Harappa culture had began.
  3. The decline of the Harappan culture was gradual due to the climatic changes and was not a sudden event as thought by some scholars.
  4. When Harappa civilization was declining due to the aridity, Harappans moved towards the east, not to the west.
  5. At the least Ghaggar = Sarasvati equation cannot become the basis of indigenous Aryan theory.

Basically the problem with some Indologist’s seems anyhow finding the location of the original habitat of the Aryans. Was Aryan a race? All the genetic proofs go against the very notion of the race theory. Aryan was not the race. In fact what attempts are being made are to locate the habitat of Vedic people in India itself to prove them being indigenous. It doesn’t end here. The scholars want to establish the connection of the Vedic people with Harappan culture as its founders. As discussed in earlier articles religious faith and lifestyle of the Harappan people nowhere match with of the Vedic people. Distorting or misrepresenting the geological proofs to make a theory plausible is something that is not desired from the serious scholars.

The Ghaggar River never was a lost river, like Sarasvati. It always flowed, though seasonably, in summer monsoons. The desertion of Harappan sites was a gradual process that might have been continued intermittently over hundreds of years. No foreign aggression or sudden natural or social calamity has been recorded.

Vedic culture, as evidenced from Rig Veda, had been distinct. We will have to find their homeland elsewhere without keeping any prejudices.


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      Moon 2 years ago

      Your answer shows real inleltigence.

    • profile image

      Riezcha 2 years ago

      "Francesco Brighenti" wrote> > Like Dr. Clift I, too, find your "basic model on Ghaggar-Hakra issue" (see above) entirely reslanobae -- no irony intended. I hope you realize that such a model rules out any possibility that the Ghaggar-Hakra, a river sourced from the Siwaliks, fed only by seasonal monsoon rains (viz., not by Himalayan glaciers), and joined by just a few monsoon-fed tributaries, could flow to the Arabian Sea after, say, 8000 BCE. > > ...Dear Francesco,Thanks.My model also "suggests" that between 8000 and 5000 BC (Early Holocene), not being supported by Sutlej and Beas, but due to strong southwest monsoon (Srivastava 2011), the channel of Ghaggar-Hakra (which reached the sea by joining Nara river near Sukkur) did not disappeare but became thiner (not as wide or strong as in Pleistocene).Between 5000 and 3000 BC (first part of Mid Holocene) Ghaggar-Hakra started to shrink even more until it stopped to reach the sea (via Nara river) due to a weaker monsoon.But based on Clift et al's report of "major channels" ca. 7.3 ka at Marot and ca. 5 ka at Tilwalla, I can say that around 5300 to 3000 BC Ghaggar-Hakra did still flow beyond Cholistan. We must remember that weakening of monsoon was gradual all through Holocene.Best regards,Carlos

    • sanjay-sonawani profile image

      Sanjay Sonawani 2 years ago from Pune, India.

      Thanks Sammy!

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      Sammy 2 years ago

      Dear Dr. Clift, The following is my basic model on Ghaggar-Hakra issue based on Clift et al. 2012."U-pb zicron dating evidence for a Pleistocene Sarasvati River and capture of the Yamuna River"; and it is a brief commentary to Dorian Fuller's recent note in his blog from 6 Feb, 2012. Any opinion is welcome. As Clift et al. (2012) point out in conclusions of their paper, drainage capture did not cause directly the Harappan collapse. In other words, Sutlej and Beas rivers were already out of the Ghaggar-Hakra much time earlier (before 8000 BC), and by 2500 BC Ghaggar-Hakra was already a monsoon-fed river but strong enough to sustain winter crop agriculture with many inhabited sites at its banks (Fuller 2012-blog). Around 2200 BC Ghaggar-Hakra river started to reduce its flow due to monsoon's reduction (Enzel et al.1999, Staubwasser et al.2003, Wunneman et al.2010, Meadow & Patel 2011, Clift et al.2012), and by 1900 BC due to a 300 years of gradual monsoon's weakening resulting in poor crop production, Harappan people were forced to start migration from Ghaggar-Hakra banks towards better watered regions (Srivastava 2011). Later, the river continued to flow as a little brook in Iron Age, ceasing to flow completely in post Iron Age, and covered by desert sands before 600 CE. Best regards, Carlos AramayoHistorianUniversidad Mayor de San AndresLa PazBolivia***Dear CarlosThis sounds entirely reasonable to me. I would only say that the dunes had started to cover the Ghaggar-Hakra before 600 CEBest wishesPeterPeter D. CliftCharles T. McCord Professor of Petroleum Geology,Department of Geology and Geophysics,E235 Howe-Russell-Kniffen Geoscience ComplexLouisiana State University,Baton Rouge, LA 70803,USA***

    • sanjay-sonawani profile image

      Sanjay Sonawani 2 years ago from Pune, India.

      Thanks Kalparaman.

    • Kalpatraman profile image

      Kalyanaraman Raman 2 years ago from NOIDA

      Well written. Compliments.

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