A Journey Down
R I V E R
I N D U S
As much as it is a geographical travelogue—travelling 2000 miles and across four countries from the mouth of River Indus to its source, the book Empires of the Indus, is also a journey into the histories, cultures and religions of the places that the river traverses. The river and its mysteries had intrigued the author Alice Albinia, when she was studying Indian history. "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, it's demonized neighbour." Says Albinia , "The book is history told as a journey. There is fertile interaction between history and the present and they are always in contact." She explains explicitly in the preface, "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 these chronicles, memories and myths—that is the inheritance of the people who live in the Indus valley."
It took Albinia, who is from London, four years of travel and research to complete this endeavour—she had to learn the language of Urdu and often had to wear the burqa to travel through the harsh and strict religious climates of certain terrains. The Indus, Albinia describes, is a capricious river that flooded during springtime and it was difficult to navigate. Albinia begins by attempting to journey through the delta by boat. As she does so, she engages with the history of the lower Indus. A fisherman named Baboo is her guide, boatman and a modern day historian in a subverted sense. For much of the history is lost or not sanctioned by the state, the delta reduced from 3500 kilometres to 250 kilometers, the salt water sucked into the mangroves—this chapter dwells sadly like a lamentation on the death of the river. During most part of the British rule of the sub-continent—the Indus valley remained terra incognita and it took more than 200 years for them to con quer the river. For the East India Company at that time, Sindh was a "fractious and intractable province". The Talpur family that ruled Sindh, the strategic province on the lower Indus, insidiously cultivated the myth of an invincible Indus, "magnified the difficulties of navigating the Indus, and arrayed its rocks, quicksands, whirlpools, and shallows in every communication; asserting that the voyage to Lahore had never been performed in the memory of man." It was Alexander Burnes, a disguised spy who finally travelled upstream with the help of the Talpur family and wrote floridly about the Indus. That brought on the British attack one after another.
Interestingly, Albinia has tried to retrace the paths of historical figures like Burnes and Alexander the Great. She says, "Alexander is both a folk hero in the west and in the east and the Pathans consider him as their ancestor. It is beautiful. In this part of the journey, I had read all about Alexander and I just followed his route." Albinia examines the histories of different nations and how each views a single historical character like Sultan Mahmud
who crossed the Indus. "In
Pakistan, he is viewed as
one who waged war with
India, in India as one who looted the country, the British used him to foment religious problems and today he is used by politicians in India. He is the perfect model of history impacting on the present day." The River Indus is sacred to four religions and suffused with myths, histories and politics—this journey up the river is beautifully told. You can almost hear the murmurings of the river, the legends, the incantations of the Qur'an and the Rig Veda intertwined in the rhythm of the words.