Sapta-Sindhu saga

“The history of any country begins with its geography.” With this startling and seemingly paradoxical statement on the inner jacket flap of this pleasantly-designed book (the author’s second), the reader’s curiosity is piqued.

Economist-environmentalist-urban theorist-writer Sanjeev Sanyal starts off with the admission that he is presenting a history of India’s geography, despite his lack of training as historian or geographer. But his wide research, travels and reading are enough to make the time and labour worth it all.

It is a fascinating, exhausting, yet entertaining read through 305 hard-bound pages of information and analysis. Well-referenced, extremely informative; occasionally, even witty — the 17th century French traveller Bernier is quoted as suspicious about Medieval Delhi’s kebab shops; Sanyal surmises that Bernier may have suffered from ‘Delhi Belly’.

It is a fairly light but deft tome — what one gets is potted history plus a detailed mosaic made up of weaves involving tectonics, genetics, politics, political milestones, environmental factors, cartography, and of course, geographical changes that have shaped India’s civilisational history, even while certain continuities are seen to be maintained through millennia.

India’s political and cultural history is spelt out to the extent needed — but the focus is always on the geographical element. Sanyal starts his story from a billion years ago when apparently, India was part of a land mass called Rodinia.

Significantly, India’s still extant (though diminished) Aravalli range is said to be the oldest land form in existence  on earth since that period. He then journeys on through stages, to the Jurassic Era, 175 million years ago — when India became part of a land mass called Gondwana.

Further tectonic movements happened — breaking and shifting of India upwards towards Asia, around 90 million years ago; during this process, volcanic eruptions created geographical entities like the Deccan Traps — stepped flat-topped outcrops — that helped Maratha warrior-king Shivaji and his band of guerillas outwit Aurangzeb’s armies in the 17th century AD. ­

We also learn that it was geographical advantage of the fierce River Brahmaputra, which helped the Ahom kings of Assam in their defence against Mughal attacks. Through the millennia, India’s geography has played a significant role in the process of the country’s societal development and change.

In the Harappan and Rig Vedic period, it was River Saraswati that swelled Sapta Sindhu India’s pride and fortunes. And it was the Saraswati that eventually dried and disappeared, became the lamented lost river of Indian history. It survives seasonally, as the Ghaggar stream of Haryana — but it is the Ganges, which is now the mighty Indian river, the Ganges, which began life as a marshy depression between the Himalayas and the Vindhyas.

The constantly shifting Indian plate has led to continuous flooding and disappearance of entire civilisations; and the Himalayas still continue to rise a few centimeters every year, despite erosional effects. In fact, as Sanyal points out, recent earthquakes and tsunamis point to a still evolving world.

Sanyal runs the regular gamut — the Bronze and Iron Ages, the various kings and invaders, the civilisations that flourished and were destroyed — either by nature or invasions.

Through it all runs the stream of civilisational continuity — ox carts that have survived in almost the same state as the Harappan period, save the improved rubber tyres; the triumphant Bharata tribe of Rig Vedic period; the close genetic links of Afghani Pashtuns and Indians; the manner in which Iran and India have borrowed from each other’s languages and customs; the two great Indian epics that were probably loosely based on real events, yet provide a base for India’s current geography; the old trade routes on land and sea that helped Indian thought, people and goods to spread through the developed and developing world; the villages of Bandra and Walkeshwar retaining vestigial origins in Mumbai today; the various Delhis since the days of the Mahabharata, Guru Dronacharaya, and his village, Gurgaon.

As the book nears its conclusion, the urban theorist in Sanyal gets vocal, as he bemoans the cost of development; he watches the hymn-laden aarti on the polluted Ganges ghats and wonders whether the ancient Harappans too chanted hymns as they watched the
Saraswati dry up. Gondwana to Gurgaon has been a long journey.

Sanyal finds some good news — the Asiatic lion is breeding again. Indians need to learn from history, ensure the survival of their geography, ensure sustainable development. As the author concludes, “Geography is not just about the physical terrain, but also about the meaning that we attribute to it. Thus, the Saraswati flows, invisibly, at Allahabad.”

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