Book review- ‘Empires of the Indus’ by Alice Albinia
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.
The one where I travel to the past on my time machine…BOOKS!
Yesterday I stumbled across few rare books, travel journals, letters, and periodicals dating back to the 19th century. And I can’t wait to explore these treasures. Given my obsession with history, there’s an ever increasing want to know about the lives of the people in the eras long gone by; their thoughts, lifestyles, experiences and their work. Their lives intrigue me. The past intrigues me. My sister often chides me that I should have taken up archaeology or history as a profession. But I love medicine more, and my love for history has just remained something that I pursue in leisure. I remember the old skeleton passed down to me by a senior during my first year in medical college for the anatomy classes. And during the hours I spent studying its bones, I inevitably got drawn into wondering about its life, what was it like, its dreams, were they fulfilled, or was its life difficult, and I wondered about its family too. That was just the beginning. I still can’t make myself regard any object that might have sustained life before as just a clinical specimen, and often wonder about the life associated with it in the past. It can be a bother at times, because I tend to get emotionally attached not just to patients but even to anatomical specimens in the lab, wondering about the lives of the people they belonged to!
I relish each and every word in the old classics of literature and especially travelogues, as I had earlier written. The journeys undertaken before the advent of modern transport highly interests me. Invasions, seafaring journeys, Viking plundering, pilgrimages undertaken by missionaries, settlers in search of a new land, voyages undertaken to explore the world in the past, the observations of the people is something I thoroughly enjoy.
So here are the books I came across yesterday:
1. I came across few children stories, written and illustrated during the turn of the 20th century. One is called “Abroad”, which takes us on a journey to Paris and is abound with the thrills of exploring a new place. Beautifully illustrated. Another is a short story called “A day on Skates” by Hilda Van Stockum (in 1934), a story about a Dutch picnic which is again very beautifully illustrated. The others are “The Windy Hill” written by Cornelia Meigs in 1921, and “Goody Two Shoes” published in 1888. But my favorite is “The Latchkey of My Book House” written in 1922. I can’t wait to complete it. Two books are based on Christmas. One is a collection of sketches of Washington Irving called “Old Christmas”, published in 1886. Another is a book of poems for children called “Christmas Roses”, published in 1886 too. And the last one is a delight for animal lovers, a story told about the lovable antics of a laughing kitten, Tinker trying to teach a puppy, Floppy, how to play a gramophone etc wonderfully portrayed through a series of photographs. A visual delight. It’s called “Mischief Again” by Enid Blyton and Paul Kaye.
2. Among the travelogues…I found few of the books on my reading wish list this year. I found “Travel Diary of Peter Mundy in Europe and Asia (1608-1667)”, “Travels in Arabia Deserta” by C.M.Doughty, “The Mirror of the Sea” by Joseph Conrad, and “The Sea and the Jungle” by H.M. Tomlinson. I had been craving to get my hands on these books for a long time now and to say that I’m thrilled to have found them at last would be a huge understatement. The book “The Sea and the Jungle” is “the narrative of the voyage of the tramp steamer Capella from Swansea to Para in the Brazils, and thence 2000 miles along the forests of the Amazon and Madeira Rivers to the San Antonio Falls; afterwards returning to Barbados for orders, and going by way of Jamaica to Tampa in Florida, where she loaded for home. Done in the year 1909 and 1910. And the book is dedicated to THOSE WHO DID NOT GO.” These are the gems of travel literature. For more information on the other books, see my reading wish list for 2009 and if you know where I can get the rest of the books in the list, PLEASE let me know.
3. Then I found few works of English and American women residing in India in late 19th century and early 20th century. One is the “The Modern Marriage Market (1898)” by Marie Corelli (1855-1924), Flora Annie Webster Steel (1847-1929), Susan Hamilton and Susan Marie Elizabeth Stewart-Mackenzie Jeune St. Helier. Another is “The laws of higher life” by Annie Besant. And also “Between Twilights” by Cornelia Sorabji. Here’s an excerpt from her book.
“In the language of the Zenana there are two twilights, ’when the Sun drops into the sea,’ and ‘when he splashes up stars for spray,’ . . . the Union, that is, of Earth and Sun, and, again, of Light and Darkness. And the space between is the time of times in these sun-wearied plains in which I dwell. One sees the world in a gentle haze of reminiscence…reminiscence of the best. There, across the horizon, flames the Sun’s ‘goodbye’”
4. And a dance manual…”Dancing” by Mrs. Lilly Grove first published in 1895. The chapters chronicles the dances of the eras long gone by, ritual dances, English dances, dances from rest of UK, Bohemian, Gypsy, Hungarian and polish dances; and dances from France, Germany, Holland, Belgium, Scandinavia, Lapland, Portugal, Spain, Italy, India, Persia, China, Japan. It also has chapters on Ballet, Practical use of dancing, time and rhythm of dancing…and even one called DANCES OF THE SAVAGES!!
5. I don’t know Urdu and Sanskrit and the Indian verses of the past were heavily influenced and generously peppered with Urdu and Sanskrit words. So I was very happy to find the book “India’s Love Lyrics” by Laurence Hope (1865-1904). She had translated many Indian love verses to English, and succeeds in retaining the meaning and melody of the original verses.
6. But the most treasured and highly valued objects are two letters and a book about women doctors that I stumbled upon while surfing the net. They are scans of the original handwritten letters written by Dr. Anandibai Joshee (M.D, 1886) to the Principal of Women’s Medical college of Pennsylvania informing him about her educational qualifications, financial status, and the reason for her interest in pursuing medicine as a career. I read the letter thrice. 1885! A married Indian woman of 18 years decided to pursue medicine as a career in America with the seventy dollars she had in hand in 1885! Think about the social scenario then, and the huge step she had undertaken and also successfully completed. I salute her! I also read another letter by Anna S. Kugler to her alma mater describing her life as a medical missionary in India, struggling to make the people adopt modern medicine and she had a tough battle to fight against the superstitions prevalent at that time. Another is a book by an American medical missionary to China, chronicling her time in the hospital there and the hardships involved. Precious treasures for me.