Empires of the Indus
EMPIRES OF THE INDUS: THE STORY OF A RIVER by Alice Albinia John Murray, 2009, 366 pp., £9.99
May 2009, volume 33, No 5

Alice Albinia’s book Empires of the Indus: The Story of a River brings to life almost all major episodes in the long history of human settlements along the river Indus. The river rises on the northern slopes of Mt. Kailash in the Gangdise range of the Himalayas in the region of Tibet. Mt. Kailash is the source of three great river-systems of South Asia—the Tsangpo-Brahmaputra, the Ganges and the Indus. The Indus is as old as 20–40 million years. It starts in Tibet and meanders into the Arabian Sea. When it begins its journey near Mt. Kailash it is difficult to fathom that the Indus and its tributaries would cover a journey of about 3,200 km and empty into the Arabian Sea. Before the final amalgam, the river moves with a relentless surge down the mountains, freezing and melting, breaking through rocks, skirting the foothills of the Himalayan ranges and mating with the Kabul river in one of the most picturesque sites at Attock before flowing into Punjab and Sindh. The Indus has fascinated numerous travellers since time immemorial. Ibn Batuta claimed to have crossed it in 1334.

Among modern-day scholars, the geographer Aural Stein wrote that he wanted to follow ‘through the Indus gorges the footsteps of those old Chinese travellers’.1 However, by the middle of the 20th century C.E., the Indus got completely demystified. It now faces considerable amount of environmental degradation when it reaches the lower portions of the Sindh valley. It is indeed a tragedy that by damming rivers like the Indus, the governments of the day are contributing to the process of their disappearance.

Akin to the flow of the Indus through several millennia, hordes of people of diverse identities have reached the Indian sub-continent from the north-western side. Some of them—like Alexander, the Macedonian emperor; Mahmud of Ghazni; and Mohammad Ghori—came to conquer. A countless number have settled down along the course of the river. Indo-Europeans, Persians, Greeks, Turks, Mongols are some of the ethnic groups that may be counted among them. Both, the peaceful and combative aspects of their onward movement can be gleamed through the rock-art of the pre-historic period and the artefacts and monuments at different points of the flow of the river. The other entry-point—the Arabian Sea—brought another set of people to the lower portions of the Indus. The Indus is, therefore, witness to the saga of these migrations, conflicts and intermingling of all those who made the riverside their abode. Alice Albinia has undertaken the daunting task of narrating the several millennia old history of human life around the Indus.

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