Prayag – the confluence of the Ganga and the Yamuna rivers, has always held a special place in the hearts of the Hindus. It is known for the “Kumbh Mela” – one of the biggest religious gatherings in the world. But most Hindus have heard it being alluded as Triveni Sangam – the confluence of three rivers. Three rivers? Counting from left to right there is the Ganga and there is the Yamuna. What is this third river that tradition seems to be talking about? Legend has it that it is the Sarasvathi river that joins the Ganga and the Yamuna in this place of holy confluence. It is also told that the Sarasvathi flows below the ground and hence is not visible to the human beholder.
One looks askance at such a belief and tends to dismiss it as nonsensical. The most charitable view is to attribute an elaborate symbolism to the entire thing and let it rest there. But there have been new developments in the study of Indian history which seem to suggest an alternate theory. I wanted to discuss some of these and my own hypothesis based on these developments in this blog post. But first, let us take a little detour to one of the by lanes of history before we come back to this topic.
Indus Valley Civilization
The Indus Valley Civilization is one of the earliest discovered human habitations in the world. In addition to the Mesopotamian (or Sumerian), Egyptian and the Chinese, this civilization has been studied in extensive depth by historians and archaeologists alike. Most of the ruins and excavations were found at the banks of the Indus river thereby giving this civilization its name. The excavations revealed very advanced cities with extensive sewer systems, established law and order and a great craftsmanship along with a mastery over sciences. One of the mysteries was “How did such a great civilization end?” It looked as if they just abandoned their great cities and vanished!
The parochial Britishers who ruled India , had meanwhile postulated the fabled Aryan Invasion Theory(called the AIT) which said that a non indigenous, nomadic, caucasian group was supposed to have invaded India around 1500 BC. So it seemed logical that the Indus Valley Civilization ended with the Aryans destroying the cities and obliterating the local population who had to emigrate elsewhere.
This theory was accepted at its face value and everyone in the world swallowed it hook, line and sinker. Importantly, many Indians used this theory very effectively to polarize the populace into Aryan and non Aryan. But in the recent times, there have been serious questions raised questioning the veracity of the Aryan Invasion Theory. The AIT has now been revealed to be a colonial anachronism rather than a historical verity.
So what happened to our Indus valley brethren? Why did they have to abandon their beautiful cities and seek refuge elsewhere? To answer this, let us take another small detour. I know at this point in time that if you are still reading this article, you feel like Alice in Wonderland wondering through a convoluted labyrinth. But I promise you this would be the last detour.
The Sarasvathi River
It has been suggested (in David Frawley’s eponymous book “Gods, Sages and Kings” among others) that the Sarasvathi river used to be one of the biggest rivers in ancient India. This river was the sustaining force behind the so-called “Indus Valley Civilization” which, now it is theorized, must more appropriately be called as the Sarasvathi River Civilization. The Rg Veda waxes eloquent in its praise of this river which was supposed to be over 7 kms wide in a few places. This river was the sustaining force behind the Indus Valley Civilization. Over a period of time, the river started drying up. Its chief tributaries Sutlej and Yamuna, deviated to join the Indus and the Ganga respectively. The river did not have enough water to make it to the ocean and instead had to vanish timidly in the Rajasthan desert. The vestiges of this river can even be seen today in the Ghaggar and the Hakra rivers. The Ghaggar is the “upper Sarasvathi” (i.e. closer to the mountains) and the Hakra river in pakistan is the “lower Sarasvathi” (i.e. closer to the ocean) These two rivers are no longer joined because the Sarasvathi has dried up for the most part in between.
So more enlightened Indological scholarship accepts, albeit with a dose of skepticism from the challengers, the theory that the Indus Valley Civilization declined with the disappearance of the Sarasvathi. It declined due to migration and not due to any battles that were fought by the “indigenous dravidians” and the conquering Aryans as was originally postulated with the AIT.
So here comes my hypothesis
This is all fine. But what does it have to do with the Triveni Sangam which was the original topic that I started with? My belief is that the disappearance of the Sarasvathi stuck a big blow to Ancient India. People realized that the waters that were hitherto flowing into the Sarasvathi through the Yamuna, have suddenly diverted to join the Ganga instead! Hence our ancestors have preserved this knowledge by calling Prayag (the point of confluence between Ganga and Yamuna) as Triveni Sangam. This indicates figuratively that the Sarasvathi waters have now joined Ganga instead and hence shifted the Indian cultural hinterland from the Sarasvathi to the Ganga.
This theory seems to also be borne by the fact that the spiritual emphasis in Hindu books shifted from Sarasvathi to the Ganga. The Rg Veda (which is the earliest Hindu treatise) hardly mentions the Ganga while it lavishes praise on the Sarasvathi. The Puranas (which are later creations) do the exact reverse. They edify Ganga and hardly mention the Sarasvathi. The word Sarasvathi has now been shifted to mean the Goddess of learning. This is to indicate the fact that the ashrams in the bank of the Sarasvathi were the original “universities” of Hinduism. Since the river no longer existed, the name remained to signify the learning.
The name “Triveni Sangam” seems to be a reminder to us about this shifting of the river course. Interesting huh?