If you want to understand why Pakistan and Afghanistan are in such a tumultuous state, Alice Albinia’s Empires of the Indus is a great place to start.
Part travelogue, part history, this wonderfully written book not only takes us up this great river from the bustling port of Karachi to its source in Tibet, but it also transports us back to distant civilizations that rose and fell along its banks over the past five thousand years and shows how the problems of the present are inextricably linked with the past.
The author’s deft blending of the ancient and the modern and her linking of it to the region’s varied geography is one of the great strengths of the book. But perhaps most impressive of all is her sheer bravery (or is it folly?) as she pushes herself and her at times reluctant companions through dangerous situations in Afghanistan and Northern Pakistan – not to mention heavy hailstorms as she makes her final trek to the river’s source in the climax of the book.
With her consummate scholarship, Albinia provides some fascinating insights into the history, religions, and culture of the Indus region, including the invasions it has suffered from Alexander the Great through to the British Raj. In addition, she provides some marvelous descriptions of the former Buddhist “Shangri-La” of Swat and the mystical landscapes of Ladakh with its old Buddhist stupahs and prehistoric stone carvings.
But in the end, her real concern is for the River Indus itself, which in places is dying thanks to the environmental predations on man, most notably as a result of the growing number of dams that are being built on it.
“But for how long will the waters continue pouring forth?” she asks in the book’s somber conclusion. “The river is slipping away through our fingers, dammed to disappearance. The Atharva Veda calls the Indus saraansh: flowing for ever. One day, when there is nothing but dry riverbeds and dust, when this ancient name has been rendered obsolete, then the songs humans sing will be dirges of bitterness and regret. The will tell how the Indus – which once ‘encircled Paradise’, bringing forth civilizations and species, languages, and religions – was, through mankind’s folly, entirely spent.”