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Reclaiming Saryu: From Sarmul forests to Ayodhya and onward

Ayodhya's Essence: Beyond the Ram Temple, explore Ayodhya's plural culture, its historical saints, and the enduring beauty of the Saryu River weaving through the town's traditions

Ayodhya 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 the legend of Lord Rama and his kingdom. In the 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 Tirthankaras 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 gives it a sanctity.

Rivers are our civilisation and identity of a city

Rivers in the Indian context hold a special relation with religious values, forming a crucial part of our culture, history, and mythology. They are not only sacred for religious purposes but also integral to the identity of a city. In fact, a beautiful river flowing through a city adds to its glory and gives it a majestic appearance. The crisis that Yamuna faces 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. Of course, Ganga, Yamuna, Saryu, Kali remain absolutely stunning and magnificent when they descend from the serpentine Himalayan valleys in Uttarakhand. Anyone who visits Rishikesh can vouch how glorious and mesmerising Ganga is at Munikireti, in front of Swargashram.

Unfortunately, in the rest of north India our beautiful rivers have been relegated to sewage drainage and urbanisation and ‘development’ has destroyed the sanctity of our rivers.Apart from Varanasi, Ayodhya is another town where the river looks 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, the Uttar Pradesh cabinet approved a proposal to ‘rename’ the Ghagra River as the Saryu River in the lower part of its stream, flowing from Gonda onwards until it covers Uttar Pradesh. A report in the newspapers said that in 2016, the then Irrigation Minister of Uttar Pradesh, Shiv Pal Singh Yadav too had asked the officials of the department for the change. 

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Beautiful Saryu | Picture Credit: VB Rawat

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 here further why Saryu is not a myth but a beautiful river and needs 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 passes 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 emerged from Central Himalayan region in Bageshwar district which is the source of two important river basins. The first one is the Pindar basin and the other is the 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 Karnaprayag in the Chamoli district of Uttarakhand. The Alaknanada from there move downwards and ultimately meets Bhagirathi at Dev Prayag and river Ganga is born out of their confluence.

Saryu unlike Pindar continued 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 Pithoragarh district, apart from river Gomti, Bhrapadigad, Jalaurgad, Bhaurgad, Alaknanda, Saniyangad flows into Saryu and strengthens 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 it’s 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 them were also influenced by Buddhism.

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Saryu and Kali rivers sangam at Pancheshwar | Picture credit: VB Rawat


The entire Bageshwar, Champawat, Pithoragarh 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 Sankranti day in January.According to legend, the river Saryu got stuck near his Ashram where the sage Markandeyawas 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 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 to find out 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 in 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 the holiest river in the Kumaon region. 

The journey after Bageshwar and magnificent confluence at Pancheshwar

After Bageshwar the river flows downwards and forms 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 RamGanga is said to be three times bigger than Saryu yet the river that moves ahead is named as Saryu. The beautiful location of Rameshwar has an 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 Pancheshwar for its confluence with Saryu. The Kali river works as the boundary line between India and Nepal and had Dhauli, Gauri Ganga from the 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 biodiversity of the area is simply unparalleled with Golden Mahaseer and other kinds of fish a threat to nature lovers and fish watchers. 

Kali, Sarda or Saryu

It is intriguing why the river, after merging with Kali, is known as Sharda or Sarda. Till Tanakpur barrage in Nepal, the river is called Mahakali, but in India, it is named Sarda, overlooking the historical 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 travels 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 at a certain point of time ignoring the geographical as well as cultural realities that Saryuis 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.

saryu river in india ayodhya sarda sharda
Sarda Canal at Banbasa Indo-Nepal border

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 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 Kheri 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 remains as Mahakali in Nepal but is converted to 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 continues its journey until it meets the other river named as Ghagra coming from Bahraich. They have a massive confluence and after Chahlarighat, the breadth and size of the river become extremely wide and look 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 Bahraich district towards Lakhimpur Kheri and Sitapur to have its confluence with 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 why this gross mistake happened but it needs to be corrected. The naming and demarking of rivers are important. It is not only an issue with Saryu but also with some other rivers, as I have found in my work. The facts are clear. The river Sarda 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 Sarda and Ghaghara, the villagers continue to refer to 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 Ghagra. 

During my journey in tracking various rivers from the Himalayas and then in Uttar Pradesh and Bihar, I have found an interesting phenomenon. For all religious purposes people would refer to the rivers which have mythological superiority hence even in places like Gonda and Baharaich, Trimuhanighat, various old signboards refer to the river as Saryu. In places after Ayodhya, people or devotees in most of the ghats on Ghaghara actually refer to 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.

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Author at Saryu, in Ayodhya

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 its 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 times bigger than Yamuna and yet merges its identity in Yamuna. Subsequently, Chambal at Bhareh is a much bigger river but again gives up its name to Yamuna. At the Prayagraj, Yamuna is bigger than Ganga but after their confluence the river that moves 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 Lakhmipur Kheri, Pilibhit, Sitapur belt face the huge loss during the monsoon. Similarly, the Ghaghara too has 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 Kheri. 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 passes 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 ends in Ganga at Teendhara in Bihar. Let the people of this country know that Saryu rises from Sarmul forests in Uttarakhand and after traversing through various places including Ayodhya ultimately merge with Ganga and move ahead as Ganga to complete the rest of its journey till Bay of Bengal.

Vidya Bhushan Rawat

The author is an activist and is currently working on Impact of Ganga and its tributaries in the Himalayas and the plains of India

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