Somewhere in the Haryanvi village of Mughwali, there is a little aquifer. That is to say, there is a hole in the earth, bricked around, and a circlet of still water. There's a frog paddling in it.
Nothing about this image suggests “river”. As farmer Jarnail Singh points out, a river is that which flows; this is groundwater. Others disagree. This water, they insist, is the same river Saraswati, the one mentioned in the Rig Ved. Built around contestations of what it is, what it can achieve and what's at stake, is a 20 minute documentary film, Searching for Saraswati, showing on the New York Times website.
Filmmaker duo, Shirley Abraham and Amit Madheshiya, trace these contestations through conversations with Sahiram Kashyap, on whose piece of land this aquifer was found; Gopal Das, a Hindu priest who shows up and starts to organise religious events in the village and promises to turn it into a religious tourism hotspot; the sceptic farmer Jarnail Singh, who understands the environmental dangers posed by a “restoration” attempt.
In real terms, there has been no evidence of Saraswati except for the mention in the Rig Ved. There are disputes about whether it was a great river or a small tributary, or some other kind of water body. However, with the NDA government returning to power at the centre in 2014, there have been renewed efforts to trace the river's course, and to revive it. The Haryana government sanctioned Rs 50 crore for the Saraswati Restoration Project.
Several bodies and groups have objected in previous years, pointing out the dry beds of other rivers like the Ghaggar were being declared as found evidence of the existence of the Saraswati, which is more of a mythological concept. More recently, researchers pointed out that the ancient course being attributed to Saraswati is likely to have been that of the river Sutlej, which is known to have changed its course about 9,000 years ago.
How does it matter, one could ask. Is Sutlej not worthy of veneration as a river? Aren't all rivers holy?
However, the struggle to establish the Saraswati as a historical and geological fact is special for it mirrors the struggle for India’s soul. Are we a diverse, modern nation built upon the triumph of reason and evidence-based sciences over unquestioning faith, or are we a long-surviving, Vedic, mono-cultural civilization that is not allowed to question anything?
The search for a long lost river thus acquires a sharp political edge. It is not enough to find water and to write paeans to it as our Vedic ancestors did. It has become imperative to prove that ancient texts like the Vedas and Puranas can be taken at face value, as scientific truths. And where there is no evidence, evidence will have to be created.
Whether or not the river lived and died, it is now an article of faith. In the film, questions are raised about who tested the water, compared it to what ancient sample? They ask to see the scientific communication undertaken so far through Right to Information applications. The state had nothing to show.
The state does not deny that it is trying to create a river instead of discovering one. In a speech at a local school, Prashant Bharadwaj of the Saraswati Heritage Development Board, poses a question:
Can humans create a river? He then goes on to say that, within a year, they will do it.
Just as it is impossible to make people see reason once they have decided to believe in something, it is also impossible to limit the costs this belief may extract. Especially if the ones paying the costs are not the ones benefitting from the faith.
Singh has serious concerns as a farmer. There is talk of digging tubewells to suck up all the groundwater in the area in order to force the river, or at least a river-like flow, into being. The artifical channel will be described as the Saraswati. But the removal of that much groundwater means that the land in several villages may turn barren.
Gopal Das, the priest, has decided that the aquifer is the ancient Saraswati, and there is no room for doubt. It is a matter of cultural pride, he says. Other villagers too declare that they believe in it because they are Hindus and especially because they are Brahmins.
Through the course of the film, Gopal Das' influence grows. People kneel and bow before him. Babies dressed up as Lord Krishna are handed to him. Little girls are dressed up in red and gold, like they often are as representations of other mother goddesses. Currency notes appear along with puja thalis. Das advises others on money: they ought to set up an NGO rather than a charitable trust, because that way, the organisation can receive funds from abroad and from the government.
While Sahiram Kashyap does not grow in power, his faith seems to solidify. He speaks of miracles. The touch of the water is supposed to heal all sorts of medical conditions, including fixing the hole in a little girl's heart. But that little girl is never seen in the film and the question of what we might discover if we examine her medical records objectively hangs in the air. Kashyap's own wife has not been healed by this water. Jarnail Singh points out that he had to take her to hospital.
Briefly, a woman counters these claims of miracle healing. She asks why the river doesn’t fix all the men around here? The question is merely smiled at.
Kashyap calls the river 'Mata' and says he will not leave the side of the aquifer until she starts to flow again. If we revere the mother, he says, she will be kind. Yet, as it is with flesh and blood women, nobody seems very interested in who the mother is, and where she wants to go. The river, like Indian women, must be subjected to men's idea of reverence and become a pawn in their power games. Even a river that isn't quite there.
(Annie Zaidi is a playwright, short filmmaker, writer and documentary filmmaker.)