Extracts from Empires of the Indus by Alice Albinia

From the Guardian

Water is potent: it trickles through human dreams, permeates lives, dictates agriculture, religion and warfare. Ever since Homo sapiens first migrated out of Africa, the Indus has drawn thirsty conquerors to its banks. Some of the world’s first cities were built here; India’s earliest Sanskrit literature was written about the river; Islam’s holy preachers wandered beside these waters. Pakistan is only the most recent of the Indus valley’s political avatars. I remember the first time I wanted to see the Indus, as distinctly as if a match had been struck in a darkened room. I was twenty-three years old, sitting in the heat of my rooftop flat in Delhi, reading the Rig Veda, and feeling the perspiration running down my back. It was April 2000, almost a year since the war between Pakistan and India over Kargil in Kashmir had ended, and the newspapers which the delivery man threw on to my terrace every morning still portrayed neighbouring Pakistan as a rogue state, governed by military cowboys, inhabited by murderous fundamentalists: the rhetoric had the patina of hysteria. But what was the troubled nation next door really like? As I scanned the three-thousand-year-old hymns, half listening to the call to prayer, the azan, which drifted over the rooftops from the nearby mosque (to the medley of other azans, all slightly out of sync), 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, its demonized neighbour.

At the time, I was studying Indian history eclectically, omnivorously and hastily – during bus journeys to work, at weekends, lying under the ceiling fan at night. Even so, it seemed that everywhere I turned, the Indus was present. Its merchants traded with Mesopotamia five thousand years ago. A Persian emperor mapped it in the sixth century BCE. The Buddha lived beside it during previous incarnations. Greek kings and Afghan sultans waded across it with their armies. The founder of Sikhism was enlightened while bathing in a tributary. And the British invaded it by gunboat, colonized it for one hundred years, and then severed it from India. The Indus was part of Indians’ lives – until 1947. […]