Saturday, March 31, 2012

The invisible River

During my visit to Coorg district of Karnataka state, India, about two years ago, I was traveling to the headwaters of Kaveri river. I came to know from the driver of my vehicle that I could visit on my way a place called Bhagmandaleshwara, where a temple of the same name is also located. At this place, I was told that I could also see a confluence of three rivers, one of which was Kaveri. I visited this confluence of three rivers. However, after going down to the river bed level, I could only see flows of two rivers joining together, I made some inquiries with the locals, who were also present there. I came to know from them that only two rivers, named Kaveri and Kanika, can be seen. When I asked them about the reasons for calling that place as a confluence of three rivers, I was told that the third river Sujyoti can not be seen because it is an invisible river. There was nothing further to say for me and I returned back to my car.

I have never been able to understand this concept of invisible rivers at many places in India. Perhaps the most glaring example of such a confluence of three rivers with one being invisible, is seen near the north Indian city of 'Alahabad', where a confluence of three famous rivers, Ganga, Yamuna and Sarswati is seen. Here again, we can only see the giant river beds of Ganga and Yamuna. The third river called as The Sarswati river, is invisible again. This Sarswati river could be considered as a sort of an epitome or paradigm of the Vedic culture civilization of pre-historic India. The Vedic culture was supposed to have blossomed and bloomed along the banks of this river, which is claimed as the grandest of all. Yet no one knows for sure, from where this river flowed? Or what was it's course? Though there are many hypotheses. This total disappearance of a giant river, where a great civilization was supposed to have blossomed along the banks, has always puzzled me. I could understand that rivers can change their course but an act of disappearance by a river was always beyond my comprehension or even imagination. It always made me skeptical.

Rivers are normally formed when rain water flowing down the steep mountain slopes in forms of small springs and brooks, joins together to form a larger and larger water body, which we call as river. If the mountains from where the river starts its course, have peaks above snow line or are at a geographical location nearer to the poles than the equator, the mountain tops would have a snow cover round the year. During summer, part of this snow would melt and would form another source of water for rivers. I always thought, that as long as either there is rain fall or snow formation, rivers would continue to flow and can not disappear just like that.

A natural phenomenon that took place near Northern borders of India, in a region known as Hunza, ( Grabbed by Pakistan in 1947 and being held by it at present.) has managed to solve the riddle in my mind about disappearance of rivers. This region of Hunza, lies roughly to the north of Leh. Hunza region is known for its picturesque natural beauty. A river, known as 'Hunza river', flows through this emerald green valley. Hunza valley is famous as an international tourist destination. Hunza river later joins Gilgit river in the south, which also subsequently joins the Indus. In January 2010, this Hunza river just disappeared. The waters flowing down to Gilgit river through Hunza river bed started dwindling down all of a sudden and in a short while, the river just dried.

Pakistan has built a road in this region (illegally grabbed by it from India) and calls it as Karakoram Highway. This road actually travels along the bank of Hunza river. In Hunza valley itself, there are 7 bridges built on the river for this road to pass through. Previous to the disappearance of Hunza river in January, this entire region was subjected to heavy earth tremors and shocks and as a result of which huge cracks and crevices were found to have been developed on the slopes of the mountain ranges here. 4th January 2010, turned out to be particularly unfortunate day for two small towns of Attabad and Ainabad . Major landslides crashed on these villages on that day, completely erasing the existence of these two villages. 20 villagers died and hundreds more were wounded heavily. This incident turned out later to be a major catastrophe for thousands of people living in Hunza valley, because the landslide straightway crashed on the riverbed of Hunza river. Entire hillside with all the debris consisting of loose earth, rocks and stones, falling into the river bed, completely blocked the flow of water. For all downstream villages, Hunza river had just suddenly disappeared.

Hundreds or thousands of small rivulets, springs and brooks that flowed on the mountain sides and fed Hunza river with water, however continued to flow. Since this water had no way to flow anywhere, a huge lake started getting formed near Attabad township location. As the water level increased, about 25 KM long portion of Karakoram highway along with 7 bridges went underwater. Initially, when the landslides took place, it was the peak of winter and most of the springs and rivulets were frozen solid. However as months passed and summer approached, the Hunza lake became 17 KM long and about 353 feet deep. The towns of Fakirbad, Mayoon, Husenabad and Khan were submerged and many villages lost contact with outside world and supplies had to reach these villages only through boats plying on the lake.

Pakistan Government soon realized that disappearance of Hunza river could turn out to be a major catastrophe for the people of the region if the natural dam formed by the landslides gets breached due to increasing water pressure. In such an event,, many downstream villages were likely to be heavily flooded. It is reported that Pakistan Government found itself completely short of money and trained man power to do the job and begged to China for help. Chinese and Pakistan engineers have been trying to make the water-flow opened again in a controlled sort of way, but were not very successful till March 2010. It is estimated that about 196000 cubic meters of debris had fallen into the river bed.

By May 2010, the engineers had some success as they managed to dig out a diversionary canal from the lake about 15 meters deep. Later on, this canal has been dug to a depth of 39 meters. And as a rsult, some water is now seen flowing in the downstream river bed. As summer arrived, snow on the mountain slopes started melting and flowing towards Hunza lake. By July the new canal started carrying 17000 cusecs of water. After this, Pakistan Government officially approached China and requested to help in solving this problem.

It might be possible to open up the river in future by using modern technology and machinery and by controlled breaching of the natural dam to make Hunza river flow with its past glory. However, the entire 2010 event may also be considered as a natural demonstration by the mother nature to show how it can make rivers disappear.
I would never question anyone about truth behind disappearance of mighty Sarswati or for that matter even tiny Sujyoti river.


  1. India should have offered help to Pakistan, when they asked for chinese help. After all war is not going to solve any problems, only make them worse. As true followers of Mahatma GandhijI, we should follow the path of non-violence, and love for our neighbour. Love can conquer all.

    Remember 1947-48? At that time India refused to make a payment of 55 crores to Pakistan, because they attacked Kashmir (which they claim is theirs)
    But Mahatma Gandhiji started a fast in protest. That was his way. He did not say let's go to UN, or whatever. Just pay them.

    Helping Pakistan will go a long way to make it stable, and ultimately in India's interest.

  2. Mhaskar
    Pakistan can not request India to help because the region where this lake has formed is part of former state of J&K and thus legally belongs to India. Pakistan has grabbed it in 1947 war.