Book Review: The Lost River

Danino, Michael, The Lost River: On the Trail of the Sarasvati (Haryana, India: Penguin Books India, 2010).

Where do you find a missing river? Not a buried river, like the Fleet in London or the one under 5th Avenue in New York City, but one that disappeared over two thousand years ago and that may or may not have ever existed? Especially when finding that river could trigger international crises? You start with the written clues, then the archaeological, then environmental. This is, more or less, what Michael Danino does in his book about the Sarasvati River and the Harappan Civilization. Along the way he introduces readers to archaeology, historiography, environmental change, and the long-lost Sarasvati River.

The book divides into three major sections. The first one gives the history of the “missing river,” as the British in India, and a few other intrepid souls who wandered into what is now a desert, observed that a very large river had once flowed through the area, and later that a number of cities had existed along the now-vanished stream. Several students of South Asian cultures and literatures suggested that this missing stream might be the former Sarasvati River mentioned in the Vedas and other early Hindu literature.

The second section talks about the cultures that had once existed along the stream, most famously the cities of Harappa and Mohenjo Daro. Danino goes into some detail about the discoveries and about what we can know about the culture, and what people have thought that proved to be incorrect.  He has nice illustrations and descriptions, including long quotations from the original excavators and early reports. What became of the people of the Indus-Sarasvati culture (also called Indus-Ganges, or Harappan) and the rivers they depended on leads into the third section, his take on some of the controversies about the timing of the river’s disappearance and what probably happened to it.

If you are not interested in the ins-and-outs of scholarly and nationalist controversies in South Asia, you may find yourself doing a lot of skimming. Some of the fights wouldn’t be so serious except for the ongoing tensions between India, Pakistan, and China, and how Hindu nationalists and others attempt to use various esoteric academic disputes for political purposes.

The book is written for readers in South Asia, so an American reader may blink at some of the spellings and language conventions.

The environmental and archaeological portions of the book are excellent, with very good maps and clear discussions about the geology and environmental considerations. Danino gives full credit to all sides in the debates, letting each argument speak for itself before he explains why he opposes or supports one or another. I wish he’d spent more time on evidence for the tectonic events leading up to the demise of the Sarasvati, and on the other environmental problems around the Harappan settlements, in addition to the de-watering that led to their demise.

I have to disagree with Danino’s dismissal of the “Aryan Invasion” hypothesis, because he elides over some very good questions in favor of arguing that the Harappan/ Indus Valley people were the source for the Vedas and the stories of Sarasvati and the core of Hindu culture. Language, concepts in the Vedas that were unknown to the Harappans (as best archaeology can tell at this moment) and a few other pretty major arguments for the arrival of Indo-Aryan peoples from the steppe are brushed over or ignored. While I agree with his problem with the timeline of theoretical Indo-Aryan arrival vs. disappearance of the river, I remain unconvinced that outsiders did not arrive and add their caste and military traditions on top of the preexisting Harappan-Ganges culture after 1500 BC/BCE.

In summary, if you are interested in environmental history of South Asia, of how archaeology can play into international politics, or the ways a river can fade into sacred memory and flow long after the physical river disappears, you will enjoy this book. You will need to buy a used copy, and it does not seem to be available as an e-book at this time.

FTC Note: I purchased this book for my own use and received no compensation from author or publisher of this review.

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2 thoughts on “Book Review: The Lost River

  1. Thanks for posting this review. I’ve long been fascinated by the Harappan civilization since I encountered them in an archaeology course. The combination of how much was known about their material culture from the archaeological finds but how little was known about their history or society, or their connections to earlier or later cultures, made them intriguingly mysterious. I may very well have to track a copy of that book down and give it a read.

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