Travel literature review: Empires of the Indus

Empires of the IndusEmpires of the Indus: The Story of a River by Alice Albinia

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4 star

Reviewed by Sanchia de Souza

Sanchia de Souza lives in Bangalore, India, from where she goes to the Himalayas at least once a year. Pakistan, that country on the other side of the looking glass from India, is at the top of her travel wishlist for 2011. She is an avid Thorn Tree user.

Alice Albinia’s Empires of the Indus is a deeply revealing book, looking at a South Asian past that is familiar, but doing so using a rare perspective of following Pakistan’s great river for its stories. In discussing how the Indus has been used, and abused until it has become a site of ecological devastation, it was a particularly timely read, with Pakistan currently suffering with floods.

Albinia’s tale goes upstream from the Indus’ mouth in Karachi to its source at Mount Kailash, and simultaneously moves back in time fifty million years, from a present day urban context to a geological beginning that transcends human history. Throughout her travelogue Albinia reflects on the past, in a narrative that flows from history into the present and back again. Starting in Karachi, she moves on to Thatta, home to the Sheedi descendents of African slaves, and to the tombs of Sufi saints in the deserts of Sindh. Further on, at Nankana Sahib, the birthplace of Guru Nanak, she considers Sikhism, the religion he founded. Her route continues over the Khyber Pass and into Afghanistan, as she writes about the Mughals and about Mahmud of Ghazni and his invasions. Back in Pakistan, the Buddhist centre of Mingora is one more stop on the way to following in the footsteps of Alexander the Great, before visits to Gilgit and Kalash with their living cultural remnants of ancient civilizations. From the ruins of Mohenjo Daro and Harappa, she crosses into Ladakh, and then into Tibet, to end her journey and the book where the Indus is born.

This has never been an easy journey. What makes it more difficult is the present lawlessness over some of the route and the ongoing violent political conflicts that often threaten Albinia’s search for the river's history. She frequently expresses sorrow and frustration with present conditions, even describing how she wept in sheer emotional exhaustion after reaching Tibet. Nonetheless, the agony of decisions to move on when warned about danger, sometimes taking local guides with her into places that even they were anxious about visiting, seemed to be hurried over. Though there was no doubt that she had been tremendously courageous throughout, going alone where few women would dare to, I was left with some niggling questions about how responsible Albinia was in making this journey.

The strength of her history writing ultimately comes from her parallel journeys through the past and present. She is truly set apart by her scholarly approach and attention to archival, archaeological, and anecdotal sources, but precious as well is the illuminating depth of her observations and understanding as a contemporary traveller through a landscape few from outside Pakistan have explored in any depth.

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