It is hard to believe that at one time, 2.6 million years ago, there was a gigantic ‘super’ river that flowed across a vast swathe of land to the North, in the Indian subcontinent. Referred to by geologists as the Indo-Brahma or the Siwalik River, rivers such as the Indus, Ganga and even the Brahmaputra, the largest and most famous of India’s rivers all emanated from this single river. As the Himalayas rose, this mighty river was forced to bifurcate, change course and break up. Interestingly, the Kailash Mountain range, considered the seat of Lord Shiva in the Hindu tradition, played a pivotal role in the reshaping of this mighty river and giving birth to the three great rivers that have shaped India’s history, geography and legends.
To trace the story of this ‘mother’ or ‘super’ river, you have to go back to millions of years ago. During the Tertiary period of Earth’s history, which lasted from 66 million years ago to 2.6 million years ago, there were great changes in the physical geography of the landmass of what we know as India today.
The super-continent of Gondwanaland, comprising modern-day India, Africa, South America, Madagascar, Australia, and Antarctica started breaking up and drifting apart (to where they are today) around 180 million years ago. However, the actual breakup of the Gondwanaland mass took millions of years and it occurred in stages. It was only 50 million years ago, that India collided with the Eurasian plateau. The speed of this collision gave rise to the Himalayan fold Mountains, which continue to rise as the subcontinent pushes ahead.
It is important to understand that the Himalayas were not entirely created together or at once. There were primarily three major tectonic upheaval events that gave rise to the Himalayas. The first major mountain building event occurred from 41 to 32 million years ago, the second from 13 to 9 million years ago and the third and the final one from 4 million years ago to about 300,000 years before the present. Each had a telling effect on the subcontinent.
For instance, when the Tibetan Plateau and the Himalayan mountains were uplifted, it caused the monsoon to intensify. The heavy rains caused by the powerful monsoons led to massive erosions creating the steep slopes of the Himalayas. The eroded young rocks were carried by the Himalayan Rivers and deposited into the Arabian Sea. This is when the mighty Indo-Brahma or Siwalik river emerged, from the massive glaciers at Manasarovar. The great river then flowed down along what is today Nainital towards the west.
In the second phase, the rising Himalayas and the creation of new ranges, especially the rise of the Kailash range, known as the Trans Himalayas, broke the mighty Indo-Brahma river into two- the Proto-Indus which flowed to the West and the Proto-Brahmaputra which flowed to the East.
In the third phase, the rise of the Siwalik hills, the foothills of the Himalayas, broke the Proto-Indus river into the Indus and its tributaries such as the Chenab, Beas, Ravi, Jhelum as well as Ganga and its tributaries. Bio-chemist and author, Pranay Lal, in his book Indica terms the Indus the oldest river in India, having stayed on its course for 18 million years. The Brahmaputra river, while flowing east, then suddenly turned westwards in Assam as the Shillong plateau rose, thus forming a hairpin like bend.
While the folding Himalayas reshaped the great river, creating a network of others, the rise and disappearance of River Saraswati deserves a special mention. Lost through history, this river which is so frequently referred to in Indian texts was once considered to be a mythical river. It is only in recent times that there has been extensive research done to trace the river. The Saraswati river is said to have originated in Har-ki-dun glacier in West Garhwal in Uttaranchal. Then it flowed through Punjab where it was joined by Yamuna and Sutlej as tributaries, following the course of the present day Ghaggar-Hakra river in Rajasthan and Bahawalpur in Pakistan. Researchers believe that this river ran parallel to the Indus before emptying into the Rann of Kutch.
It is well established that the Saraswati river played an important role in the rise of many of the old Harappan urban centres like Rakhigarhi, which were established in the Ghaggar-Hakra basin. The Saraswati river mentioned in the Rigveda began to decline in importance over time and historians believe that this could have also been because of climatic change. A decline in the monsoons and shifting of the course of Saraswati’s tributaries - Yamuna, which joined the Ganga and Sutlej which joined the Indus, led to the drying up of the Saraswati.
Interestingly, there are four rivers in the Gujarat-Rajasthan region locally called the Saraswati. One starts from the Siwalik hills, another originates from Pushkar, a third rises from the Aravallis and the fourth from Gir Hills. Michel Danino , an Indian author who has traced the river Saraswati in his book ‘The Lost River: On The Trails of Saraswati’ believes that the memory of the mighty river was so strong in the areas of Rajasthan and Gujarat, and once the mighty Saraswati dried up, the moniker and veneration got transferred to these other rivers.
The great city of Ahilwad Patan in North Gujarat, which was the capital of the Solanki dynasty that ruled Gujarat between 950 and 1300 CE, was said to have been built on the banks of one of the four Saraswati rivers. Prof Kirit Mankodi, in his book ‘The Queen’s stepwell at Patan’ claims that this Saraswati river was serviceable right until the 16th century CE.
What makes the story of the rivers so interesting is how their changing course over time, also changed societies around it. Author of the book Indica, Pranay Lal describes how just 250 years ago, Ganga and Brahmaputra were 200 miles apart, but the Brahmaputra branched out and its western branch known as Jamuna (Different from the river Yamuna) joined the Padma, a southern tributary of Ganga. Even river Yamuna, which flowed by the walls of the Red Fort, has changed its course and moved afar.
Interestingly, the present networks of rivers we see in northern India, form one of the youngest hydrographic systems of the world. In contrast, the rivers of peninsular India are far older and haven’t changed over millions of years. The Deccan plateau in peninsular India rises to 2000 ft above sea level and slopes gently to the east. As a result, rivers such as Godavari, Krishna, Tungabhadra, Kaveri and Mahanadi emerged and drained out along the east coast of India.
While the rivers change and as does the ecology around it, what remains constant are just memories, which over time get incorporated into mythology. Understanding the history and the evolution of the Indian subcontinent, and the role the rise of the Kailash range played in the creation of the three great river systems that define a large part of India for instance, gives a whole new meaning to the story of Shiva. Part of the holy trinity of the Hindus, Lord Shiva is believed to live on top of the Kailash Mountain, overlooking the Mansarovar lake and the story goes that he entrapped the Ganges in the locks of his hair… an apt description of what happened as the Kailash range rose millions of years ago!
It is fascinating, how the mountain range which is seen as the seat of Shiva, in the Hindu tradition, also played such a pivotal role in shaping the rivers … history, legends and myths it seems, converge on this range.
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