A year ago I bought a copy of the ‘Outlook Traveler’ magazine and was highly intrigued by an extract from Alice Albinia’s book “Empires of the Indus”. But it was only recently while browsing through a bookstore at Mumbai airport I came upon the paperback edition and bought it immediately. But my reading of this delightful book got delayed and it was only yesterday that I sat down to read the book that included two of my biggest passions: Travel and History.
Alice Albinia’s book is the best book in the travel literature genre that I’ve read in recent times. Wanderlust, astonishing sense of adventure, and a never-ending hunger to gather little known facts and the history of every place she visits is what makes her such a brilliant travel writer. A lot of research has gone into the making of the book, and it is evident from the numerous journals, books and ancient scripts she quotes to emphasize her findings. It’s the best kind of book with such a delightful mixture of travel, descriptions of the people, the culture, the history, the flaws, the merits, the geography, the architecture, the political scenario, quaint facts and trivia about every place she sets foot on while tracing the course of Indus.
She traces the Indus from it’s delta in Sindh, Pakistan and reaches up to it’s source in the mountains of Tibet and travelling through Afghanistan, India and China in between. I won’t mention the details of the exhaustive list of facts she unearths during her travels, but here is a glimpse of few intriguing facts that the book describes.
1. Pakistan’s current political, cultural and social scenario through the eyes of a foreigner who is well accustomed to their language and mingles effortlessly into their customs. An in-depth view of the delta region to swat valley. She brings into light for us the various tribes, their cultures, their living conditions within the country...Sheedis in particular, who claim to be descendants of Bilal, an Ethiopian man who was Prophet Mohammed’s companion.
2. She traces and co-relates the origin, rise or fall of various religions on the banks of the Indus. Hinduism, Islam, Buddhism, Sikhism, and Christianity, all evolved through centuries and highly influenced by invasions and pilgrimages on the Indus valley. Hinduism proliferated during the early eleventh and tenth century A.D. and has persisted through the centuries despite invasion by Muslim rulers in the Indus Valley. She describes the Sadhubela temple in Pakistan, the Hindus worshipping Uderolal or Jhule Lal, the river God of Indus who travels on four palla fish. And then there was the spread of Buddhism mainly by King Asoka as far as the borders of Afghanistan. The Buddhist stupas, the Bamiyan Buddha, the Buddhist people of Ladakh and Tibet, Chinese pilgrims tracing the routes of spread of Buddhism centuries ago…everything comes alive in Albinia’s descriptions. Then Islam came with Sultan Mahmud of Ghazni, whose plundering of the famed Indian treasures is a historical legend. Mughals followed but with varying tolerance for other religions, from Emperor Akbar’s exemplary tolerance to Aurangazeb’s zilch religious tolerance.
Then Sikhism started out in 15th century, with Guru Nanak’s birth in the Indus valley, and the spread of Sikhism throughout the centuries by the rest of the ten Gurus, Maharaja Ranjit Singh’s rule, and the holy place Nankana Sahib still in Pakistan. She also visits the Golden Temple in Amritsar, on the banks of the tributaries of the Indus. Christianity came late with the British invasion of India, and it’s spread by Christian missionaries. The influence of British on the people and the customs of this region, the tactics followed by the British to spread their empire are wonderfully detailed too. Right up to the Independence of India.
3. She deals with the Partition of India, the after-effects, the large-scale migration, and the horrible massacres in the name of religion and the geographical boundaries which were peacefully cohabited by the same people for ages. The “divide and rule” policy of British culminating in the Partition of India, the thoughts and arguments of the Indian and Pakistani politicians who witnessed, welcomed or argued this change; a valuable insight is provided by the book.
4. She also describes the people and their varying customs in every place with perfect detailing; the Pashtuns, the Sheedis, the Ladakhis, the Dards, the Kalash being the most interesting. The Kalash have their own religion, resides in mountainous Northern Pakistan, a community whose customs have remained unvaried through thousands of years, believed to be the original Aryans, has the custom of burying people in open coffins, and the women enjoys the kind of freedom which is rare in the country. She also writes about the polyandrous communities of Ladakh and Tibet, where women have dominated men throughout the centuries. The polyandry is more out of necessity than personal choice, the limited resources makes traditional marriages a no-no because inheritance problems will arise in the little provisions the families have.
5. Architecture and heritage sites are a prominent feature in this book. The Harrapan and Mohenjo-Daro civilizations, the Buddhist statues and stupas, the numerous caves and stone circles populating the Indus banks, the temples and mosques dating back thousands of years, and stone carvings some dating back to 80,000 years, she encounters them all. But is dismayed by the indifference these architectural jewels are treated by people and little has been done for their preservation by the archaeological societies.
6. Albinia writes beautifully about her final and highly adventurous journey to the source of Indus in Tibet. But she’s in for a terrible shock when she realizes that the Chinese had dammed the Indus a few months ago and she had actually been following the tributaries of Indus all along. The construction of dams altering the course of a river, that originated far earlier than humans arrived on this Earth and had flowed without anyone disturbing it’s course, for purposes like generating electricity and irrigation has altered the entire geography and as a result the lives of the people inhabiting that region. Poorly planned and injudicious construction of dams by all the countries through which the Indus flows is highly condemned in the book. By construction of the dams in India and Pakistan, Punjab has the best irrigated fields but the people of the delta have to drink diluted sewage water or the highly saline water. Agriculture is impossible and only fishing in the ocean remains the only source of livelihood there. The aquatic animals have suffered too, by dams blocking their routes of migration.
7. She describes the Indian and Pakistani border military camps, the Kargil war, the sentiments of the people involved, Kargil now, and the issue of Kashmir, the object of dispute since Partition.
I’ve left out a million details, but I highly recommend this book to everyone if history and travel even remotely intrigues you.