Empires of the Indus by Alice Albinia
In a land where it seldom rains, a river is as precious as gold.
Water is potent: it trickles through human dreams, permeates lives, dictates agriculture, religion and warfare. Ever since Homo sapiens first migrated out of Africa, the Indus has drawn thirsty conquerors to its banks. Some of the world’s first cities were built here; India’s earliest Sanskrit literature was written about the river; Islam’s holy preachers wandered beside these waters. Pakistan is only the most recent of the Indus valley’s political avatars. I remember the first time I wanted to see the Indus, as distinctly as if a match had been struck in a darkened room. I was twenty-three years old, sitting in the heat of my rooftop flat in Delhi, reading the Rig Veda, and feeling the perspiration running down my back. It was April 2000, almost a year since the war between Pakistan and India over Kargil in Kashmir had ended, and the newspapers which the delivery man threw on to my terrace every morning still portrayed neighbouring Pakistan as a rogue state, governed by military cowboys, inhabited by murderous fundamentalists: the rhetoric had the patina of hysteria. But what was the troubled nation next door really like? As I scanned the three-thousand-year-old hymns, half listening to the call to prayer, the azan, which drifted over the rooftops from the nearby mosque (to the medley of other azans, all slightly out of sync), I read of the river praised by Sanskrit priests, the Indus they called ‘Unconquered Sindhu’, river of rivers. Hinduism’s motherland was not in India but Pakistan, its demonized neighbour.
At the time, I was studying Indian history eclectically, omnivorously and hastily – during bus journeys to work, at weekends, lying under the ceiling fan at night. Even so, it seemed that everywhere I turned, the Indus was present. Its merchants traded with Mesopotamia five thousand years ago. A Persian emperor mapped it in the sixth century BCE. The Buddha lived beside it during previous incarnations. Greek kings and Afghan sultans waded across it with their armies. The founder of Sikhism was enlightened while bathing in a tributary. And the British invaded it by gunboat, colonized it for one hundred years, and then severed it from India. The Indus was part of Indians’ lives – until 1947.
The very name of India comes from the river. The ancient Sanskrit speakers called the Indus ‘Sindhu’; the Persians changed the name to ‘Hindu’; and the Greeks dropped the ‘h’ altogether. Chinese whispers created the Indus and its cognates – India, Hindu, Indies. From the time that Alexander the Great’s historians wrote about the Indus valley, spinning exotic tales of indomitable Indika, India and its river tantalized the Western imagination.
Hundreds of years later, when India was divided, it might have been logical for the new Muslim state in the Indus valley to take the name ‘India’ (or even ‘Industan’, as the valley was called by an eighteenth-century English sailor). But Muhammad Ali Jinnah rejected the colonial appellation and chose the pious neologism Pakistan, ‘Land of the Pure’, instead. He assumed that his coevals in Delhi would do the same, calling their country by the ancient Sanskrit title, ‘Bharat’. When they did not, Jinnah was reported to be furious. He felt that by continuing to use the British name, India had appropriated the past; Pakistan, by contrast, looked as if it had been sliced off and ‘thrown out’.
During the two years that I lived in Delhi, I wondered about these things – the ironies, misnomers and reverberations of history. But perhaps, to my sun-baked imagination, it was the river itself that was most enticing. I dreamt about that river, which begins in Tibet and ends near Karachi in the shimmer of the Arabian Sea; I tried to picture those waters, which emperors had built forts beside, which poets still sang of, the turbulent, gold-bearing abode of snake-goddesses.
When at last I reached Pakistan, it was to map these layers of history and their impress on modern society. During the past sixty years, Pakistanis have been brutalized by the violence of military dictatorships, enraged or deceived by the state’s manipulation of religion, and are now being terrorized by the West’s War on Terror. But Pakistan is more than the sum of its generals and jihadis. The Indus valley has a continuous history of political, religious and literary ferment stretching back thousands of years; a history which Pakistanis share with Tibetans and Indians. The intertwining of those chronicles, memories and myths – that is the inheritance of the people who live in the Indus valley.
This book recounts a journey along the Indus, upstream and back in time, from the sea to the source, from the moment that Pakistan first came into being in Karachi, to the time, millions of years ago in Tibet, when the river itself was born. Along the way, the river has had more names than its people have had dictators. In Sindh it is called ‘Purali’, meaning capricious, an apt description of a river which wanders freely across the land, creating cities and destroying them. Sindhis also know it as ‘Samundar’, ocean, a name evocative of the vastness of the river within their landscape and civilization. For Pashtuns on the frontier with Afghanistan the Indus is simultaneously ‘Nilab’, blue water, ‘Sher Darya’, the Lion River, and ‘Abbasin’, Father of Rivers. Along its upper reaches these names are repeated by people speaking different languages and practicing different religions. Baltis once called the Indus ‘Gemtsuh’, the Great Flood, or ‘Tsuh-Fo’, the Male River; here, as in Ladakh and Tibet, it is known as ‘Senge Tsampo’, the Lion River. Today, in spite of the militarized borders that divide the river’s people from each other, the ancient interconnectedness of the Indus still prevails.
The river gave logic to my own explorations; it lies at the heart of this book because it runs through the lives of its people like a charm. From the deserts of Sindh to the mountains of Tibet, the Indus is worshipped by peasants and honoured by poets; more than priests or politicians, it is the Indus they revere. And yet, it is a diminished river. The mighty Indus of Sanskrit hymns and colonial tracts was heavily dammed during the twentieth century. Beginning with Britain’s profit-driven colonization of the lower Indus valley, and extending through sixty years of army-dominated rule in Pakistan, big dams have shackled the river, transforming the lives of human and non-human species on its banks and in its waters. Now when I think of the Indus I remember the eulogies of Sanskrit priests, Greek soldiers and Sufi saints. Their words come down to us across the centuries, warning of all there is to lose.
· Extract from Empires of the Indus by Alice Albinia, published by John Murray
Alice Albinia, guardian.co.uk, August 29 2008