Reclaiming Saryu : From Sarmul forests to Ayodhya and onward

Saryu RIver

Ayodhya city is gearing up for the big Ram Temple inauguration on January 22 and naturally there is excitement in the air among devotees. The small town of Ayodhya always fascinated me for its diverse plural culture and home to so many sages, saints and great persons. Of course, Ayodhya is directly linked to legend of Lord Rama and his kingdom. In Buddhist treatise, Ayodhya is known as Saket and there are many places which can be termed as related to Buddhist history. Ayodhya is also home to many Sufi saints and five important Jain Teerthankaras were said to be born in Ayodhya. The beauty of Ayodhya town lies in the tradition of cooperation and respect. There are very few towns in India today where a river really adds to its beauty and give it a sanctity.

Rivers are our civilisation and identity of a city

Rivers in Indian context have special relation with the religious values and part of our culture, history and mythology. In fact, rivers are not merely sacred due to their religious purposes but they are our identity and definitely a beautiful river passing through a city only add to its glory and make it look majestic.  The crisis that Yamuna face in Delhi, Mathura and Agra actually is a heavy loss to these cities and the cultural life around it. Look at Varanasi, as it is the only city at the moment in north India where magnetic Ganges add to its glory. Ofcourse, Ganga, Yamuna, Saryu, Kali remain absolutely stunning and magnificent when they descend from the serpentine Himalayan valleys in Uttarakhand. Anyone, who visit Rishikesh can vouch how glorious and mesmerising is Ganga at Munikireti, in front of Swargashram. Unfortunately, in rest of north India our beautiful rivers been relegated to sewage drainage and urbanisation and ‘development’ has destroyed the sanctity of our rivers. Apart from Varanasi, Ayodhya is another town were the river look stunning though somehow did not get the importance it deserved. Ayodhya is incomplete without Saryu and the river bank is beautiful and it is equally important to reclaim Saryu and undo the historical wrong done with this extremely important river emerging from beautiful forests of Kumaon region in Uttarakhand. The historical wrong is basically with the fact that many people till a few years ago considered Saryu river a myth and whatever was visible in Ayodhya town was basically Ghaghara river being termed as saryu when passing through Ayodhya just for religious purposes. It is absolutely wrong to say that and hence important to understand this fact from geographically which clearly indicate that the river is not a myth but a reality though due to absence of ground work or out of ignorance efforts were not made to trace where is Saryu emerging from and why a river which is Ghaghara prior to reaching Ayodhya becoming Saryu in Ayodhya and again ‘return’ to being called as Ghaghara in rest of its journey till it conflate with Ganga at Teendhara near historic town of Chirand in Saran district of Bihar. Let us understand this reality that Saryu is an extremely beautiful river and the water that is passing through Ayodhya is that of Saryu river rising from the hills in the district Bageshwar of Uttarakhand.

In January 2020, Uttar Pradesh cabinet approved a proposal to ‘rename’ Ghaghara as Saryu river in the lower part of the stream flowing from Gonda onwards till it covers Uttar Pradesh. A report in the newspapers said that in 2016, the then Irrigation Minister of Uttar Pradesh, Mr Shiv Pal Singh Yadav too had asked the officials of the department for the change.  

We don’t know what happened to the proposal of Uttar Pradesh government but the it need to be amended as based on that suggestion many local newspapers provided the information that Saryu river is born at place called Paska Sukarkhet near Trimuhanighat in Gonda district which is not correct. We don’t need to weave a magic or myth to prove that Saryu existed as it is beautiful river rise from the mountains of Uttarakhand’s Bageshwar district. There is no doubt that Saryu river in our scripture is considered to be extremely holy and there is a sentiment of the people living on the bank of the river for its renaming but it needs to be done by the government of India as it should not be confined to merely the issue of Uttar Pradesh but Uttarakhand and Bihar too need to be included in the process. I will explain it here further why Saryu is not a myth but a beautiful river and need to be protected, preserved and celebrated.

The Source of Saryu

Saryu is a very magnificent river emerging from the mountains and fountains of Sarmul forests near Shahshradhara (many call it Saudhara (Hundred streams), five kilometres from Jhuli Gaon, in the Kapkot block of district Bageshwar in Uttarakhand. It is a non-glacier river and pass through Kapkot, Seradhar and other places to have its first major Sangam at Bageshwar, a historically and mythologically important place, with river Gomti. So, it can be said that Saryu emerge from Central Himalayan region in Bageshwar district which is source of two important river basins. The first one is Pindar basin and the other is Saryu basin. Pindar is a Himalayan river and is a link between Kumaon and Garhwal as after flowing from the Pindari peaks it travels through various smaller and bigger villages and towns to ultimately unite with holy Alaknanda at Karnprayag in the Chamoli district of Uttarakhand. The Alaknanada from there on move downwards and ultimately meets Bhagirathi at Dev Prayag and river Ganga is born out of their confluence. Saryu unlike Pindar continue its journey downwards making a historic sangam at Bageshwar town. The extreme north part of the district Bageshwar is mostly snow covered densely forested zone. The average altitude from the sea level is above 4000 meters for the Pindar Basin Between the great Himalayan region and between 2000 to 4000 meters for the narrow and deep river valleys in the Saryu basin.  Before reaching Panar in Pithauragarh district, apart from river Gomti, Bhrapadigad, Jalaurgad, Bhaurgad, Alaknandi, Saniyangad flows into Saryu and strengthen it. After traversing about 130 kilometers from its source, Saryu has a grand confluence at Pancheshwar Mahadev in district Champavat, which has a stunning landscape. Though its mainly two rivers that meet here yet people feel that it is the confluence of five holy rivers of Himalaya named Dhauli, Gauri or Gori, Kali, Ram (Poorvi Ram Ganga) and Saryu. The irony is that the river afterward is known as Sarda or Sharda which has no relation with either the sentiment or geographical reality of the river though downhills, the river pass through Purnagiri hills and perhaps named after that but it does not reflect with the reality of the fact that it is actually Saryu river.                                                                                                                                                    

It is important to understand Saryu and the history and mythology surrounding it. Historically ruled by Katyuris from the 7th century AD till 13th Century, Bageshwar is the land of Lord Shiva and Shakti which could be found in the historical temples at Baijnath, Bageshwar, Jageshwar and other places. Katyuri rulers of Uttarakhand were Shaivite and dedicated followers of Lord Shiva as well as worshipper of Shakti too.  Some of the were also influenced by Buddhism.


The entire Bageshwar, Champawat, Pithauragarh regions bordering with Nepal have stunning landscape, green valleys, meadows and powerful impact of Lord Shiva in the daily lives of people. You will find temples dedicated to Lord Shiva at every mountain peak to river valleys. The confluence of Saryu and Gomti here in front of the Bagnath temple has a history as mythology suggest the two rivers as symbolic of Ganga and Yamuna and hence the importance of the place as Sangam. This place is famous for ‘Uttarayani mela’ held on Makar Sakranti day in January. According to legend, the river Saryu got stuck near his Ashram where the sage Markandeya was in deep samadhi and his disciple sage Vashistha was worried about the flow of Saryu could impact the prayer of sage Markandeya and hence prayed to Lord Shiva. Shiva who then took the form of a Vyaghra or Byaghra or Tiger and goddess Parvati, that of a cow, to test the conviction of his devotee Markandeaya.  Even in his deep meditation when sage Markandeya heard the mooing of the cow, he immediately got up find as what happened to her and then fed her. Lord Shiva was extremely pleased to see this and blessed Rishi Markandeya and sage Vasisht. After that, Lord Shiva removed all the obstacles and Saryu river then moved ahead from this place on her natural direction. A temple devoted to Lord Shiva and Parvati is located here on the confluence of Saryu and Gomti here named as Bagnath Mandir. It is said, Bageshwar is named after Lord Bagnath or Lord Shiva. Like Ganga, river Saryu too had a holy linkage with Lord Shiva and hence it is considered holiest river in the Kumaon region.

The journey after Bageshwar and magnificent confluence at Pancheshwar

After Bageshwar the river flows downwards and form the boundary with district Pithoragarh and meets Panar at a place called Panar on Pithoragarh Gangolihat road. Five kilometres flowing down and a beautiful Poorvi Ramganga from the Nandakot range flows into Saryu at a place called Rameshwar. Practically, Eastern Ram Ganga is said to be three time bigger than Saryu yet the river that move ahead is named as Saryu.  The beautiful location of Rameshwar has a extraordinary landscape and temple on the bank of Saryu. The river Saryu move ahead and looks pristine when pass through the serpentine landscape to meet river Kali at Pancheshwar, about 90 kilometres. Pancheshwar is famous for ancient temple of Pancheshwar Mahadev on the Sangam point of river Saryu and Kali which comes from Kalapani and pass through Dharchula, Joljibi and Jhulaghat towns before coming to Pancheswar for its confluence with Saryu. The Kali river work as the boundary line between India and Nepal and had Dhauli, Gauri Ganga from Indian side and Chamelia from the Nepalese side before meeting Saryu. While India and Nepal have issues on Kali and its origin and that is a different issue to deal with, the fact is river Kali is not considered as holy or pious in the entire region. Even on the Sangam at Pancheshwar, it is the Saryu river in which most of the Pujas take place including cremation. The ancient Shiva temple in Pancheshwar is actually dedicated to local deity Lord Chamu Mahadev, considered to be a form of Lord Shiva. The temple is located between Saryu and Kali and gives a superb view. The bio diversity of the area is simply unparalleled with Golden Mahaseer and other kinds of fish a treat to nature lover and fish watchers.

Kali, Sharda or Saryu

It is intriguing as why the river after the merging of Kali with Saryu is known as Sharda or Sarda?  We all know that till Tanakpur barrage, the river is known as Mahakali in Nepal but India named it as Sarda or Sharda, thus denying the historic mythological importance of Saryu. The locals have their own myths about it as it passes through Purnagiri hills, one of the Shaktipeeth devoted to goddess Sharda, sister of goddess Kali. While locals everywhere provide the rivers a local name, it is also the fact that this water that travel all the way to Ayodhya and onwards and historically the river in Ayodhya has Saryu name and that has not happened all of a sudden. The reality is that the name change might have happened a certain point of time ignoring the geographical as well as cultural realities that Saryu is the name of the river when it passes through Ayodhya. How is it possible that Saryu after Pancheshwar ceases to exist when it is the same stream moving ahead embracing all other streams, rivers in it and emerges in Ayodhya.

From Pancheshwar, the river then flows onwards and the water is divided between India and Nepal.  The size and breadth of river now grows enormously as it pass through the foothills of Tarai in Tanakpur where a barrage, (a collaboration project between India and Nepal) , is built on the river. Water is diverted between India and Nepal for irrigation purposes. In fact, this is the first river link exercise undertaken long back that has helped serve water for the irrigation purposes in Central and Eastern Uttar Pradesh. The Sharda Canal pass through Surai Forest and Pilibhit Tiger Reserve while the original river actually passes through the forests and finally emerge at Lakhimpur Khiri and finally flows into incoming river which is known as ‘Ghaghara’, another mystery because the original river that emerge from Kailash Mansarovar or Himalayas is known as Karnali in Nepal. So Mahakali remain as Mahakali in Nepal but is converted to Sharada or Sarda as most of the English officials pronounced it that way.  In the broader discourse Sarda or Sarju or Saryu are used synonymously for the river which continue its journey until it meets the other river named as Ghaghara coming from Baharaich. They have a massive confluence and after Chahlarighat, the breadth and size of the river become extremely wide and look like oceanic. The new river should have been known as Saryu but there was no clarity on it as river Ghaghara has no historical background as well as the river is officially formed at Ghaghara barrage in Bahraich (original river is Karnali from Nepal) while Saryu has travelled a big journey from Bageshwar. Ghaghara’s journey from Ghaghara Barrage in Kailashpuri, Katarniyaghat Tiger range in Baharaich district towards Lakhimpur Khiri and Sitapur to have its confluence with Sharda or Saryu is too short and without any historical or mythological importance hence the new river should have been called as Saryu for its mythological-historical importance. One does not know as why this gross mistake happened but it needs to be corrected. The naming and demarking rivers are important and it is not merely the issue with Saryu but some other rivers too which I have found in my work on these rivers. The facts are clear. The river Sharda and Ghaghara after their confluence should have known as Saryu but sadly or ignorantly, it continued to have the name Ghaghara and only at Ayodhya it was called Saryu which resulted in various theories as if the river did not exist without understanding the historicity of Saryu already existing in the Himalayas and considered to be one of the most pious and pure rivers. In fact, at the confluence of Sharda and Ghaghara, the villagers continue to refer the river as Saryu ji. So, it is a fact that most of the people living on the bank of the river term it as Saryu and not Ghaghara.

During my journey in tracking various rivers from Himalayas and then in Uttar Pradesh and Bihar, I have found an interesting phenomenon. For all religious purposes people would refer the rivers which has mythological superiority hence even in places like Gonda and Baharaich, Trimuhani ghat, various old signboards refer the river as Saryu. In places after Ayodhya, people or devotees in most of the ghats on Ghaghara actually refer her as Saryu. When I was going to Teendhara near Chirand, Saran district of Bihar, the boatman, Ashok Yadav, continuously spoke about the river as Saryu ji and rarely mentioned Ghaghara.

Mythological importance matter more than size or length of any river

It is also important to understand that rivers in India have mythologies attached to them and it does not matter whether it is a stream or big, a river is considered to be big because of her mythological and religious connection.  The source of Kali river is Kalapani but the Nepalese side refused to accept it as they say that it is a purely stream when meet with Kutiyangti ( Nepal claim that Kutiyangti is the real Mahakali river) but the British refused to accept their claim as they said it is not the size but the mythological value and hence felt the source of Kali was Kalapani near Om Parvat. This fact can be corroborated further when we see the journey of river Ganga and Yamuna. Bhagirathi emerging from Gaumukh is considered to be the source of river Ganges despite the fact that Alaknanda at Devprayag is far bigger than it to make it Ganga. Similarly, Yamuna start from Yamunotri as a smaller stream but most of the rivers it meets in the beginning look bigger than the original one. Hanuman Ganga at Hanuman Chatti is bigger than it and at the grand sangam in Kalsi, river Tons is about two and half time bigger than Yamuna and yet merge its identity in Yamuna. Subsequently, Chambal at Bhareh is a much bigger river but again give up its name to Yamuna. At the Prayagraj, Yamuna is bigger than Ganga but after their confluence the river that move ahead is known as Ganga.

We don’t know why this injustice was done to river Saryu but time has come when it should be restored. Economic reasons seem to cause the denial of legitimacy to Saryu because from Tanakpur onwards the water has been used for irrigation purposes. Similar things happened with Ghaghara and both the rivers bring devastation during monsoon. The reasons are emphatically  man made as most of the Lakhmipurkhiri, Pilibhit, Sitapur belt face the huge loss during the monsoon. Similarly, the Ghaghara too have the similar stories of disaster and devastation. One can assume that if Saryu was legitimised by the British like the Ganges, it would have been difficult for them to exploit its resources and play with the river. In fact, water is also flown from Ghaghara barrage into Sarda-saryu river near Sarda Sagar, Lakhimpur Khiri.  It is important to understand that Saryu is not a mythic river in some religious text but a reality, a beautiful river that rises from Uttarakhand and pass through various forests and towns before coming to Ayodhya and ultimately flows into river Ganga in Saran district of Bihar. Let the government take a call on it which will not merely restore the identity of Saryu from Pancheshwar onwards not as Sarda but as Saryu till its journey end in Ganga at Teendhara in Bihar. Let the people of this country know that Saryu rises from Sarmul forests in Uttarakand and after traversing through various places including Ayodhya ultimately merge with Ganga and move ahead as Ganga to complete rest of its journey till Bay of Bengal.

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Vidya Bhushan Rawat

Vidya Bhushan Rawat is a social and human rights activist. He blogs at twitter @freetohumanity Email: [email protected]

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