River Indus: Flow of life – Part I

Along its 1,800-mile course, the Indus joins cultures from the steppes of Central Asia to the arid plains of the South Asian subcontinent. It affects patterns of thought and behavior, shapes expressions of culture and provides inspiration for art. The hopes and aspirations of its people are reflected in stories and elaborate myths, transmitted through the consciousness of successive generations by bards and story-tellers. It is important to mention that the Indus Valley Civilization originated in the fertile plains of the Indus River, in the third and fourth millennium BC. This civilization, or the Harappan Culture, was coeval with the ancient civilizations of Egypt and Mesopotamia, and is recognized as the third major civilization in the history of humankind. Mohanas, the boat-people of the Indus valley, still live along its banks, near the shrine of Khwaja Khizr and elsewhere. They traverse the mighty river on boats which have remained essentially similar in design to those depicted in the art of the Indus Valley Civilization thousands of years ago.

To the Sindhis, it is known as “Purali”: the capricious river whose floods can make and destroy civilizations

Alice Albinia in her excellent book ‘Empires of the Indus: the Story of a River’ reminds us how the Indian subcontinent derives its very name from the great river. The ancient Sanskrit language referred to the Indus as “Sindhu”. Later, the Persians entitled it the “Hindu” and through the subsequent eras, it finally came to be known as India. Albinia has painstakingly researched how the Indus region excited the imagination of Europeans from early antiquity. The lure of the Indian subcontinent had reached the West even in the time of Alexander the Great, and ever since then, exotic tales of this enchanting land have spurred on the ambitions of many a great conqueror.

Alice Albinia

Sohni meets her tragic end in the Indus which up till recently had been a facilitator in her love-story, but suddenly becomes the ultimate obstacle in allowing it to continue

The multitudes of peoples who live along the banks of the Indus know it by a number of names. To the Sindhis, it is known as “Purali”: the capricious river whose floods can make and destroy civilizations. Further up the course of the river, the Pashtuns refer to it as the ‘Nilab’ (blue water), ‘Sher Darya’ (Lion River) and ‘Abbasin’ (father of Rivers). The mountain people of Baltistan know it as ‘Gemtsuh’ (the Great Flood), or ‘Tsuh-Fo’ (the Male River).

The tragic events of 1947 have severed the Indus physically from the Indian landscape but it remains, even today, a powerful unifier of India and Pakistan, for Pakistan would not survive without the might of the Indus and India would not be the progeny of the Sindhu Sagar if the Indus were not there.

Globalization and integration into the world economic system have transformed the Indus and the lives of those who live along its banks. Today, an extensive network of dams, barrages and canals has been built along the course of the river, from Mangla in the north to Sukkur in the south. In the south the fresh waters of Indus have become saline in some places, and communities have moved from agriculture to fishing with the construction of barrages.

Indus as a source of belief systems

Though the last three Vedas proclaim the River Ganges to be one of the most important ‘holy rivers in India,’ the first sacred text ascribed this position to the Indus River. A hymn from Ralph Griffith’s ‘Hymns of the Rig-Veda’ describes the reverence and significance given to the ‘Sindhu’: “ May we, unharmed, serve bountiful Visnu, the God who slayeth none: Self-moving Sindhu hear and be the first to mark.”

Here the ‘Sindhu’, referred to as ‘Sarasvati’, is a witness to the acts performed by the people in the name of Visnu. It is also seen as a protector for the people: “This stream Sarasvati with fostering current comes forth, our sure defence, our fort of iron. As on a car, the flood flows on, surpassing in majesty and might all other rivers.”

As a result of the role attributed to the river, the Indus was also a main component of the everyday-beliefs of the people. It was used as a reference to carry out various actions such as bringing health to those who were sick: “Here these two winds are blowing far as Sindhu from a distant land. May one breathe energy to thee, the other blow thy fault away.”

The river was also given due importance when using charms against jealousy: “Brought hitherward from Sindhu, from a folk of every mingled race, fetched from afar, thou are I deem, a balm that cureth jealousy.”

Sassui, a Hindu orphan, was found in the Indus by a Muslim washerman who raised her as his own child

According to Griffith, the river may also have been referred to as a mechanism to gain strength before a battle was to be fought on the shore of the Indus. In this particular hymn, Sindhu’s strength, beauty, and influence have been focused upon, and it represents an undefeatable symbol:

“1. The singer, O ye Waters, in Vivasvan’s place, shall tell your grandeur forth that is beyond compare. The Rivers have come forward triply, seven and seven. Sindhu in might surpasses all the streams that flow. 2. Varuna cut the channels for they forward course, O Sindhu, when thou rannest on to win the race. Thou speedest o’er precipitous ridges of the earth, when thou art Lord and Leader of these moving floods…”

Despite a radical transformation in the social environment of the subcontinent, one can see how the belief systems associated with the river have persisted in various forms

In the modern day Pakistan, the Indus continues to hold certain significance in the lives of many people. The only difference is that this significance is now interlinked with Islamic religious beliefs. Albinia in her book narrates an event near Sufi saint Khawaja Khizr’s shrine where she sees a woman drop the Qur’an in the middle of the river where the water is thought to be in its purest form. She carries out this action as she believes that she will receive a blessing and her sick child will become healthy again. To Albinia’s skeptical comments on her actions, she replies that she should know better as she is educated.

Despite a radical transformation in the social environment of the subcontinent, one can see how the belief systems associated with the river have persisted in various forms and remain a significant part of the current social reality in India and Pakistan.

Indus Legends and Folklore

The story of Sohni-Mahinwal is a well-known legend in the region called the Subcontinent. Sohni, a potter’s daughter, is forced to marry her cousin. However, her heart remains with Mehar, a local merchant who transforms his life for her. Every day after nightfall, Sohni crosses the river to see him. The love story continues until her sister-in-law discovers the truth and substitutes the baked clay pot Sohni uses to cross the river with an unbaked one. Sohni meets her tragic end in the river which up till recently had been a facilitator in her love-story, but suddenly becomes the ultimate obstacle in allowing it to continue. Sindhi Sufi poet Shah Latif mentions this very moment in his poem:

“Pot in hand, trust in God, she enters the waves;
Her leg in the dogfish’s mouth, her head in the shark’s,
Bangles twisted, hair drifting through the water,
Fishes, big and small, crowd around her
Crocodiles waiting to devour her.”

(translation from Albinia’s book)

Thus Sohni meets the destructive end associated with carrying forth a lover’s ambitions. However, she is no longer tied to the ‘material body,’ and ‘is united in death with the beloved.’ Sassui figures as another protagonist in Shah Latif’s stories. Here too, the Indus plays a pivotal role. Sassui, a Hindu orphan, was found in the Indus by a Muslim washerman who raised her as his own child. Sassui later falls in love with Punhu, a Baloch noble, who acts as if he is from a modest background in order to court her. Punhu’s privileged family resents this transgression and takes him away against his will. Sassui’s journey to search for Punhu into the vast expanse of the Balochistan desert denotes her separation from the Indus lands – her precious belonging – and thus becomes a metaphor for the impact of two separations: from love and belonging. This is what makes Sassui an ideal in the mystic sense, for her path is what ‘yogis’ and ‘fakirs’ have ventured to follow through centuries. She symbolizes the difficulties associated with undertaking ‘the quest for God.’

Thus, folk romances were used as a method of imparting mystical education. They were also used by Qadi Qadan (d.1551), Abdul Karim of Bulri (1635-1623) and Mian Shah Inat (d.circa 1700) amongst other Sufis saints.

Xuanzang (c. 645 CE), the Chinese Buddhist monk who travelled 10,000 miles from China to India to see Buddhism in Swat, also writes about the power of the Indus as part of his famous pilgrim chronicles. While crossing the Indus on his way back to China, his boat toppled over and he lost his possessions. He noted this incident as follows:

‘The River Sin-tu [Indus] is pure and clear as a mirror… Poisonous dragons and dangerous spirits live beneath its waters.
If a man tries to cross the river carrying valuable gems, rare flowers and fruits, or above all, relics of Buddha, the boat is
engulfed by waves.’

This belief had been propagated by the local king, who told the monk that ‘whoever attempts to cross the river with seeds of flower is subject to similar fortunes.’ The grandeur and force associated with the river has been a powerful metaphor over the centuries.

Samina Quraeshi, in her book ‘Legends of the Indus’, writes that the Indus is also a major component of the story of Allor. At one point, Allor was the capital of a kingdom situated on the riverside. This story revolves around Allor’s Hindu prince Dillu Rao and a Muslim merchant Saiful Mulk. All river merchants who came to Allor were charged one half of their cargo by Dillu Rao. However, once Dillu Rao ordered Saiful Mulk to provide him with the toll and an attractive handmaiden named Badiul Jamal. It is said that Mulk requested that he be given eight days in order to fulfill the demands. Simultaneously, however, he managed to ‘raise a mighty dam on the river upstream from Allor.’ As a result the river was steered away from the influence of the wicked prince.

Samina Quraeshi

Quraeshi holds that in all these stories what is important is ‘not the particular moral of the story, but the common feature it has with all other stories of this region: the river. The river dominates the folklore of this region, whether as an artery for commerce, a grave for loves or a balmy surface for boats to float on. Even in the tales of the desert, of the rock hills of Baluchistan, water – or its antithesis, sand – are protagonists in each plotline.’

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