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Empires of the Indus

“Empires of the Indus – The Story of a River” is a book about river Indus – the river which gave our country her name, her culture. Everybody in India must have read about the Indus valley civilization and would immediately recollect seeing in their history textbooks the pictures of broken statue of dancing lady and bullock cart from the ruins of Harappa and Mohenjo-Daro cities from this civilization. So when I read that this book was about the journey of author from the mouth of river Indus at Karachi, Pakistan to its source in Tibet, China, I knew I had to pick this up. This is a book which I picked up without any recommendation, and I am so pleased that I went by my intuition. This is surely one of the best books I have read off late.

Author Alice Albinia is a British historian and I must say has done a marvelous job of taking her readers through an amazing journey along the river Indus – of not only the approximately 3,200 KM that the river flows, but also of more than 4500 years back in history. Historical accounts, even when they are told more as stories, get boring at times, especially when they are meant to infer something, or worse to glorify or demean some character or ideology. Alice beautifully stays away from all this, and stimulates your imagination and creativity every time she recreates the historical moments which this river has witnessed over thousands of years.

These are the moments when the Aryans invaders crossed the river and drove away the original inhabitants and established what we call today the Vedic culture…

These are the moments when Buddha’s teachings were inscribed on stones along the river by the first emperor king of country The Ashoka and were spread by monks west across river to present day Afghanistan and north to Ladakh and Tibet…

These are the moments when Alexander the Great must have stood atop the hill at tiny village of Pirsar in present day north Pakistan and looked down and across the river with the thought of conquering what he thought was the last kingdom before the eastern edge of world…

These are the moments when traders carried silk and gold and other precious materials along “The Silk Route” crossing the treacherous terrain of mountains from Tibet to Central Asia…

These are the moments when Muslim Sultans from Muhammad Ghazni to Moghals looted and plundered country’s wealth and propagated their faith, more often than not forcefully…

These are the moments when the Great Gurus like Nanak and Gobind Singh laid the foundation of Sikhism and Emperor Ranjit Singh defended it fiercely from every attack…

In this story of the river, Alice tells us the sub-stories about the Karachi city which was transformed overnight by the Partition into a city of refugees (just like what happened to Delhi), about the Sufi sect and their magical ways, about the African slaves brought to sub-continent through slave trade, about the matriarchal culture practiced by pre-historic people of this land, about the mystical Kalash people who believe they are direct descendants of Aryans and many more such wonders.

It is such a shame that we know so little about history of Pakistan, which barring these last 60 years have been part of our country – making its history our own. It surprises me to no end when I am told that the hills we now call area of Taliban and violent Al-Qaeda hosted Taxilla which was once home of Buddhist teachings of peace and harmony; when I am told that what we call the Islamic Republic of Pakistan is the very place where the most ancient of all Vedas – The Rig Veda was written.

Alice effortlessly moves back and forth across thousands of years of history, her language is lucid and description crisp. She keeps linking the glorious rich past of the river to the present socio-economic penury of religious intolerance and of water shortage – which has brought the two countries at war so often. Through this book, Alice brings to us the forgotten river which gave our country her identity. For all those inclined towards history, and appreciate the fact that last 60 years of animosity with Pakistan is a blink when it comes to thousands of years of being one country, this is an amazing opportunity to know about ourselves and our history.

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