Historically, the Indus river is the birthplace of Indian civilization, and the site or channel for most of India’s encounters with the world, be it comings or goings. Etymologically, it is just as indispensable: It provides the root for the word “India”. From the magnificent sites of Harappa and Mohenjodaro to the musings of Vedic civilization, the raids of Alexander and Mahmud of Ghazni to the rock edicts of Ashoka and the preachings of Guru Nanak, the river is a kind of dictionary of world history and culture and the locus of a thousand myths.
One would have thought it impossible that any one observer of the river could give us a sense of its entire story, but Alice Albinia’s startling and finally remarkable book, Empires of the Indus, attempts to do just that. Albinia, an intrepid traveller still only in her early 30s, sets out to map the river not just in space—from the Indus Delta in Pakistan to the source of the river in Tibet—but also in time, chapter by chapter, from modern Pakistan all the way back to the Neolithic Age.
Downstream: Albinia finds the Indus, which also flows through Leh, is under threat from human activity. Ramesh Pathania / Mint
Several themes emerge from Albinia’s book. The first is of the river as a source of livelihood, providing fish, serving as a means of transport, bringing water for the home and the fields. We know that irrigation canals feeding off its richly silted mountain waters were built by people as far back in time as the Indus Valley civilization. In time, the Kushan empire and then the Mughals would attempt to harness its power and fertility on a large scale. The modern network of dams and canals on the Indus is a legacy of the British.
An officer of the East India Company first mapped the river under the guise of taking a present of fine horses upstream to Lahore for Maharaja Ranjit Singh, and proclaimed the fact that control of the Indus would enormously further the cause of British trade in India.
But the Indus is also the site of less prosaic longings and feelings: of wonder at its rush and force, of pleas for its protection and benevolence, of love of its strength and goodness. The Rig Veda venerates “the unconquered Sindhu, quickest of the quick” and marvels at how all the other great rivers of the land come rushing to meet it “like mothers crying to their sons”. Journeying down the river in modern Sindh, Albinia makes the acquaintance of dozens of river cults, each with its honorary saint, usually a mystic proclaiming the higher unity of traditional divisions such as that of Hindus and Muslims.
She also comes across songs and poems which narrate old stories and legends about the river, such as those collected by one of its pre-eminent poets, the 18th century Sindhi writer Shah Abdul Latif. The hold on the imagination of the Indus and other rivers of Punjab is evident, too, in many of the metaphors in the literature of Sikhism, such as this poem of Nanak’s quoted by Albinia: “Lord, Thou art the mighty river,/Thou knowest and seest all things,/How can I, a poor fish, know/ Thy depth and thy expanse?”
Albinia’s travels take her across Pakistan, Afghanistan, Kashmir and Tibet (with all the hardships these border crossings involve), and at several points in the book, the reader feels like toasting her enviable perseverance and stamina. Crossing the India-Pakistan border at Wagah, she charms the immigration officer on one side with her Urdu and that on the other with her Hindi; she seems to think nothing of treks in the mountains lasting several days, or long voyages in decrepit motor boats on the river. Her journey culminates in a particularly arduous expedition to the source of the Senge Tsampo, which is the Tibetan name for the river, on which she finds the river dammed to a standstill by the Chinese.
Albinia’s final diagnosis (like that of Julian Crandall Hollick, another intrepid writer-adventurer, in his book Ganga published last year) is that of a river in crisis through “mankind’s folly”. The quirks of modern geopolitics, the strain on water resources, the awesome power of technology, and the compulsions of economic expansion have, for a long time now, been eating away at the river’s rich ecology, and at many points in her journey she finds the river dangerously distant from the Vedic description of it as saaransh, “flowing for ever”. Vigorously dammed and contested, the Indus may, in the long run, be damned.Respond to this review at firstname.lastname@example.org