Empires of the Indus by Alice Albinia


Empires of the Indus had been on my reading list for a very long time. I read Leela’s Book by Alice Albinia earlier. Mahabharat has inspired that book which is a sort of mythological fiction. As I always say, I read the book when the book chooses the time. So probably this was the time to read it. Right after I read ‘Buddha in Central Asia’ by Sunita Dwivedi who also talks about some of the areas around Indus. The two books completed an experience that for now seems to be limited to reading about the region only.

Author Alice Albinia goes upstream on Indus. She starts from Karachi and Thatta at the mouth of Indus. And goes right up to the Himalayas traversing between the political boundaries and bureaucracies of Pakistan, Afghanistan, India, and China. It is a fascinating journey of a woman in search of an ancient river. And tracing the histories of the regions. Regions that once lived or continue to live on its fertile banks. She puts light on the current conditions of people living in the valley of Indus and looks back at their history of how they reached here. What have they retained of their original culture? And how they have adapted to their adopted land.

Most beautiful part of the book, Empires of the Indus, is when she travels through Swat valley – the region that belonged to Vedic times. And in all probability, Rishis wrote the Rig Veda here. Her discovery of burial sites with circular stones to mark them. Something similar to Stonehenge in the United Kingdom which was a bit of a surprise. I had never heard of that.

Her discovery of the prehistoric paintings on the rock faces is not surprising. But the similarity in what is painted across the length of the river is intriguing. Alice mentions that the reason there are so many animals painted on the rock faces is because, as a ritual, people used to paint the animal they ate – ritually keeping it alive on the rock face. You can never say if it is true or not, but the reasoning seems logical. Probably gives an insight into the dietary habits of our earliest ancestors.

Her description of Hindus who clean the filth in Pakistan is disgusting, to say the least. Author’s story on Ethiopians or Sheedis is eye-opening, who have merged with native Muslims. Her Story on Guru Nanak had nothing new for me as we studied all that in school but the description of the current state of Sikh shrines and the way pilgrims are treated with suspicion is saddening. Alice’s forays into Harappa and Mohen-jo-Daro left me longing for those places, yet again. Her exploration of Sufis and their culture raised a lot of questions in my mind.

As a personal journey, Empires of the Indus is a travelogue of a single woman trying to remain within the cultural norms of the conservative culture she is exploring. Her command of the local language of course helps. But so does her immense respect for people she meets. Her adaptability to stay wherever possible also helps. Most of the areas she traveled had no hospitality infrastructure as tourists hardly visit these areas. So she stays in people’s homes, usually in the areas marked for women of the family. Except in one place where the locals keep her away from the women.

Her walks through the wilderness and her quest to complete her journey are incredible, and so is her research. Her description of the river and its courses enchants and leaves a longing in you. Overall it is not a happy book, but it gives so much insight into the past and the present of Indus and its culture. As someone interested in ancient Indian history and Indus Valley civilization, through Alice’s journey I could traverse that path a bit.

You must read Empires of the Indus.

You may buy this book – Empires of the Indus The story of a River by Alice Albinia at Amazon.

If you like books on ancient cultures, check out these reviews as well.

Book Review - Empires of the Indus

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  1. I read Alice Albania’s book some years ago and it left a deep impact on me. Her love and/or fascination for the Indus comes through clearly in the book. Her talent as a writer carries her readers along on her journey and quest to understand the object of her love better. This book features high on my shelf of all-time great reads.


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