Most of what I learnt (by rote) from History and Geography textbooks in school has long been forgotten - or in some cases re-learnt from less drab sources later in life - but among the earliest of the details to have stuck in the memory are the names Sutlej, Chenab, Ravi, Beas and Jhelum. These were presented to us as the five tributaries of the mighty Indus river and for one reason or another they are as much a part of my childhood mythology as the names of the Mughal emperors or the planets of the solar system.
As I began reading Alice Albinia’s Empires of the Indus, I realised that the Indus had completely slipped out of my mind since I read about it in those school years; for all I knew, it had dried up and no longer existed. Subconsciously, I suppose I’ve always been aware of its importance – the growth of the Indus Valley Civilization around its banks, the fact that India’s very name derives from that of the river – and I had a vague understanding that much of what remained of the Indus was now in Pakistan, but I never had occasion to think consciously about it. Growing up, other rivers – the ones that flowed in India and the ones that were given prominence in Hindu mythology as I had read it – acquired disproportionate importance (it seemed like the Ganga had always been the pre-eminent river of the subcontinent, stretching back to the earliest times).
In many ways, then, reading Empires of the Indus was a form of re-education. I was a bit puzzled by the first chapter, which is partly a primer to the creation of Pakistan in 1947 (an act that left most of the Indus in the newly created country, relegating it to the fringes of the consciousness of most modern Indians) and partly an account of Alice Albinia’s own visit to Karachi and her encounters with lower-caste sewer workers. There’s very little in this chapter about the Indus itself, apart from references to its exploitation and the slow poisoning of its waters, but soon it becomes clear what Albinia is trying to do. It turns out that her book is equal parts a history and a travelogue: in its former capacity, it moves more than 5,000 years back in time to tell the story (in reverse-chronology) of the great river and the civilisations that flowered under its aegis; simultaneously, as a travelogue, it covers a distance of 2,000 miles, from Karachi – near where the Indus ends in the Arabian Sea – all the way upstream to the Senge Khabab, the mouth of the river in Tibet. This is the author’s modern-day journey of discovery, one that reveals a great deal about the millennia-old relationship between rivers and human settlements.
It’s a journey that takes Albinia north from Karachi, through the Indus Delta to the old port of Thatta, where she meets the Sheedis – descendants of African slaves brought to Sindh by Muslim traders – and visits the tombs of Sufi saints; from here on to the west Punjabi village of Nankana Sahib, the birthplace of Guru Nanak, who founded Sikhism (a religion that has water at the heart of its rituals) in the late 15th century; across the border and through the Khyber crossing into what is today Afghanistan, where she reflects on the conquests of Mahmud of Ghazni; and back east towards the hillside capital of Mingora, an Buddhist centre (“Today, Islam and Buddhism appear to be at opposite ends of the religious spectrum: no two religions, perhaps, have such different modern reputations. Yet in north-western India, along the banks of the Indus, the two came into prolonged contact with each other...”).
She then travels further back into the past by shadowing the route taken by Alexander the Great (“whose downfall was caused by something harder to grapple with than military opponents – rivers in spate”) along the Indus to the mountaintop Pirsar; she visits the Kalash villages in northern Pakistan, home to an ancient religion that both predates and shares features with the Rigvedic culture; and the Gilgit valley, one of the migration routes of the ancient Aryans. She finds rock carvings and enigmatic stone circles that attest to pagan cultures and belie the reductive picture of the subcontinent’s past that is often presented to us today. Moving past the ruins of Mohenjodaro and Harappa, she crosses finally into Tibet, where the journey ends on the sacred mountain of Kailash or Kangri Rinpoche. At this point, it has become possible to look beyond human history – which is insignificant on the geological timeframe anyhow – and to think of the pre-human inhabitants of the river, and of its sustenance of life on a much broader scale.
The Indus itself flows majestically in the background of Albinia’s twin stories, a constant if non-intrusive presence (any biography of a river is necessarily the story of the empires it nourished). But just when you’ve become engrossed in a historical tale and almost forgotten about the Indus itself, Albinia drops in an unexpected reference (e.g. the one about Mahmud of Ghazni always returning from his conquests with large quantities of booty, except when his baggage was washed away in the Indus; or the Sindhi poem that laments the drowning of the potter’s daughter Sohni in “the tempestuous, treacherous Indus”) to remind us how much the long, chequered history of the subcontinent owes to this river.
It’s difficult to say whether I enjoyed Empires... more as a travel-book or as a history; each half is dependent on the other for its effect. Albinia’s descriptions of her travels – the potential dangers, the serendipitous and thrilling discoveries of ancient frescoes, having to undertake parts of her journey dressed in a burqa, the melancholy of seeing a giant dam in a Tibetan village – bring a personal, immediate touch to a book that might otherwise have been put together by someone sitting in a library for months on end. This personal touch helps make the book an entertaining and absorbing history lesson.
Empires of the Indus is a capacious work about a river that has long been a silent witness to the transience of human endeavours and human conceit, and of what we call civilisations. Along the banks of the Indus, many different empires, cultures, social codes and religious systems have arisen, thrived and crumbled in the blink of an eye, and this is humbling knowledge. More disturbing is the realisation that a river which (as Albinia points out) the Atharva Veda called saraansh (“flowing for ever”) is now in real danger of being dammed out of existence. “When I think of the Indus now, I remember the eulogies of Sanskrit priests, Greek soldiers and Sufi saints,” she says, “their words come down to us across the centuries, reminding us of all there is to lose.”
[Alice Albinia’s website is here; the photography page has many pictures of people and places mentioned in the book]