In a verdant valley amid the foothills of the Himalayas, Hindu villagers prayed in silence and piously threw petals into a small puddle they believe was a mighty river some 4,500 years ago. Not far away, an archeologist leaned over a trench to examine freshly excavated pieces of broken pottery.
"We have found remains of so many ancient settlements here. There must have been a very important river flowing," said Sanjay Manjul, 35, squinting as he held up a piece against the sun. "It must have been our holy Saraswati River."
Manjul is not the only one looking for the Saraswati, which was mentioned in the oldest Hindu religious text, the Rig Veda and which devout Hindus believe disappeared mysteriously thousands of years ago. Dozens of archeologists like him have fanned across the northern Indian state of Haryana in the last seven months to look for traces of the river. A group of geologists and glaciologists, armed with satellite imagery maps and remote sensing data, are studying rocks, glaciers and sediments in the Himalayas, seeking any trace of the river's course.
A heady mix of religion, politics, science and archeology drives their efforts, and the results of the search may not only challenge some fixed notions about the earliest civilization on the Indian subcontinent, but could also confirm fears among India's secular historians that the country's Hindu-nationalist ruling party is trying to rewrite history to suit its agenda.
For decades, history books have maintained that the Indus Valley people, who settled an area that straddles modern India and Pakistan about 3000 BC, were the subcontinent's earliest civilization, preceding the birth of Hinduism. Historians have held that the Aryans, said to be the descendents of an Indo-European race who came to India from near the Caspian Sea around 1500 BC, gave birth to Hindu thought.
Hinduism became the region's predominant religion. Today, 84 percent of India's 1 billion people are Hindus.
That predominance, however, did not prevent India from embracing secularism when it achieved independence in 1947 and enshrining it in the country's first constitution. Ruled by the staunchly secularist Congress party for most of the past five decades, India pursued policies designed to ensure equality for Muslims, Christians and followers of other minority religions.
Nevertheless, many Hindus regarded their religion and culture as supreme. A political force since the 1920s, Hindu nationalism reached the peak of its influence in 1998, when the Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP) formed a coalition government with several other parties. The BJP-led coalition set about a slow but systematic program to place historians sympathetic to Hindu-nationalist ideology in charge of research institutions and to introduce changes in history textbooks in schools.
Last summer, the Culture Ministry appointed a special committee of experts to prove that the Saraswati was not merely a mythological river, dismissed by historians as nothing more than a figment of the imagination of Hindu sages who praise it as the "greatest of mothers, greatest of rivers and greatest of goddesses" in the Vedas. If the panel succeeds, the birth of Hinduism would be pushed back at least 1,000 years by establishing that the ancient Indus Valley civilization was Hindu in character.
"Saraswati is not only a matter of Hindu faith, but also fact," said Ravindra Singh Bisht, director of the Archaeological Survey of India, who supervises excavation along what is believed to be the course of the river. "The overwhelming archeological evidence of ancient settlements along the course of what was once the Saraswati River proves that our earliest civilizations were not confined to the Indus river alone. Those who wrote the Hindu Vedas on the banks of the Saraswati were the same as the Indus Valley people."
The BJP-led government already has taken steps to make these findings official. In October, it ordered several significant changes in the history textbooks, one of which was to change the name of the Indus Valley civilization to the Saraswati River civilization.
The first real boost to the Saraswati believers came in the 1970s, when American satellite images showed signs of channels of water in northern and western India that disappeared long ago. When popular folk memory was matched with the images, some historians ecstatically claimed they had cracked the riddle of the revered river. In 1998, groundwater experts dug wells along the dry bed identified in the images and they found potable water, even under vast stretches of desert.
"We still need to study the sediments to prove the origin of the river was in the Himalayan glacier like our Vedas claimed," said Baldev Sahai, a member of the Culture Ministry's expert committee, who was the first, in 1980, to use remote sensing data to study the course of the river. "After that, we can proudly claim to be the oldest living civilization and culture with an unbroken link to our past."
Once the entire course of the river, "from the Himalayas to the Arabian sea" is established, the Culture Ministry plans to turn archeological sites of lost cities along the Saraswati into tourist hubs. And water specialists in the government wish to give new life to the Saraswati River, by reviving old water channels.
The Hindu-nationalist government's quest for the Saraswati has split historians along political lines, with some accusing the government of giving a deliberate Hindu slant to Indian history and others alleging that much of Indian history was written from a Eurocentric perspective by British colonizers and needed to be "Indianized."
"Hinduism was not brought to us by a foreign race called Aryans. It was born here on our land. The Rig Veda was composed here on the banks of Saraswati by indigenous people around the time of the Indus Valley period," said Arun Kesarwani, professor of ancient history at Kurukshetra University. "That is why the quest for Saraswati is important. It will shatter all the prevalent theories to pieces."
But many say that history is being distorted to suit the ruling political ideology.
"This is an assault on history," said historian Arjun Dev. "This version of the past is crucial to their political and religious ideology of Hindu supremacy. They will go to any lengths to achieve this -- even put forth a fake, invented past."
"It is propaganda work," said Suraj Bhan, a retired archeologist. "The quest for Saraswati is not about history, it is myth-making."
For the devout Hindus who pray at tiny ponds and puddles, the Saraswati is both a real river and a deity.
"In our hearts we know this is the water of holy Saraswati," said Prem Vallabh, 75, head priest at a Saraswati temple. "We don't need any scientific proof."