Land of seven rivers: History of India's Geography

BOOK: Land of seven rivers: History of India's Geography
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SANJEEV SANYAL
Land of the Seven Rivers

A Brief History of India’s Geography

To Varun and Dhruv,
that they may know where they came from …

Introduction

As we make our way through the second decade of the twenty-first century, India is undergoing an extraordinary transformation. This is visible everywhere one looks. After centuries of relative decline, the Indian economy is reasserting itself. The result is an urban construction boom that defies imagination. Almost overnight, whole new cities are being built. Nowhere is this more true than in Gurgaon where I lived as I wrote this book. Where there had been wheat and mustard fields till the mid-nineties, there are now malls, office towers, apartment blocks and highways. Even as I write these words, I watch yet another condominium block rise up.

Boomtowns like Gurgaon, however, are merely one facet of the changes being experienced by India. Mobile telephones and satellite television, combined with rising literacy and affluence, have changed the dynamics and aspirations of rural and small-town India. The children of farmers are moving to the cities in the millions. By all accounts, India is likely to become an urban-majority country within a generation and its cities need to prepare for the influx of hundreds of millions of people. Existing cities will expand, new cities will rise and villages will be transformed. The old ways are clearly declining.

The economic rise of India is to be welcomed in a country that has long been plagued by poverty but change is not without its price. Natural habitats are being drastically altered and often ravaged by activities like mining, sometimes legal but often illegal. I am told that there are now barely 1706 tigers left in the wild
1
. Dams and canals are altering the fortunes of sacred rivers even as factories and cities empty their untreated waste into them. As urbanization and modernization churn the population, communities are being torn apart and with them we are losing old customs, traditions and oral histories. Many reminders of the country’s history are being paved over by new highways and buildings.

I am very conscious that we live in a time of rapid change. However, it is important to remember that India is an ancient land. In the long course of its history, it has witnessed many twists and turns. Cities have risen and then disappeared. There have been ‘golden’ periods of economic and cultural achievement as well as periods of defeat and humiliation. Over the centuries, many groups have come to India as traders, invaders and refugees, even as Indians have settled in foreign lands. The country has endured dramatic changes in climate and natural habitat. In short, India has been through all this many times before.

The scars and remnants of this long history are scattered all over the landscape. If one cares to look, they will stare back even from the most unlikely of places. New Delhi, the national capital, is a good example. It is merely the latest in a series of cities to have been built on the site. Amidst the frenetic pace of modern life, the older Delhis live on in grand ruins, place-names, urban villages, traditions, and sacred sites. Even older
are the ridges of the Aravalli Range, arguably the oldest geological feature on Earth.

Much has been written about Indian history but almost all of it is concerned with sequences of political events—the rise and fall of empires and dynasties, battles, official proclamations and so on. These are undoubtedly important but I have little to add to what has already been said about the emperor Akbar’s
mansabdari
system or the Morley-Minto reforms of 1909. However, history is not just politics—it is the result of the complex interactions between a large number of factors. Geography is one of the most important of these factors. Moreover, this relationship works both ways—just as geography affects history, history too affects geography.

This book is an attempt to write a brief and eclectic history of India’s geography. It is about the changes in India’s natural and human landscape, about ancient trade routes and cultural linkages, the rise and fall of cities, about dead rivers and the legends that keep them alive. Great monarchs and dynasties are still important to such a history but they are remembered for the way in which they shaped geography.

Thus, the book focuses on a somewhat different set of questions: Is there any truth in ancient legends about the Great Flood? Why do Indians call their country Bharat? What do the epics tell us about how Indians perceived the geography of their country in the Iron Age? Why did the Buddha give his first sermon at Sarnath, just outside Varanasi? What was it like to sail on an Indian Ocean merchant ship in the fifth century
AD
or to live the life of an idle playboy in Gupta-era Pataliputra? How did the Mughals hunt lions? How did the Europeans map India? How did the British build the railways
across the subcontinent? The process of change still goes on and, in the last chapter, we will look at the huge shifts being caused now by the process of urbanization and rapid economic growth.

While the primary focus of this book is on the history of India’s geography, the converse, too, is a secondary theme that runs through the book. In other words, the book is also about the geography of India’s history and civilization. One cannot understand the flow of Indian history without appreciating the drying up of the Saraswati river, the monsoon winds that carried merchant fleets across the Indian Ocean, the Deccan Traps that made Shivaji’s guerilla tactics possible, the Brahmaputra river that allowed the tiny Ahom kingdom to defeat the mighty Mughals and the marshlands that dictated where the British built their settlements. Furthermore, the book will also consciously bring out the technologies—from kiln-fired bricks and ship building to map-making and railways—that have influenced the way we think of India.

The very idea of India, its physical geography and its civilization, has evolved over the centuries. Yet, despite all these changes, it is astonishing how India’s civilizational traits have survived over millennia. The ox-carts of the Harappan civilization can still be seen in many parts of rural India, essentially unchanged but for the rubber tyres. The Gayatri Mantra, a hymn composed over four millennia ago, is chanted daily by millions of Hindus.
2
This is not just about longevity but about a civilizational ability to take along an incredible mix of ideas, cultures and lifestyles that, despite their apparent differences, are still a part of the overall patchwork. There are still remote tribes that retain a hunter–gatherer lifestyle that
has changed little since the first humans entered the subcontinent. This is not just about a lack of ‘development’. The Sentinelese tribe of the Andaman Islands deliberately retains its Stone Age culture and ferociously resists outside contact despite repeated efforts by the government. Who are we to ‘civilize’ them?

One of the persistent misconceptions about Indian history is that Indians have somehow never conceived of themselves as a nation and, consequently, never cared about their history. This idea was often repeated by colonial-era officialdom for obvious political ends. As Sir John Strachey put it in the late nineteenth century, ‘The first and most essential thing to learn about India—that there is not, and never was an India.’ Half a century later, Winston Churchill would echo the same point when he said that ‘India is a geographical term. It is no more a united nation than the equator’. A corollary to this point of view was the argument that since Indians were never conscious of their nationhood, they did not care for their history (or their freedom).

Curiously, this colonial-era idea has somehow remained alive—it is still not uncommon to hear people, even scholars, say that Indians are an ahistorical people. As we shall see, this is totally incorrect. There is more than enough evidence to show that Indians have long been conscious of their history and civilization. Indeed, from very ancient times, Indians have gone out of their way to record their times as well as to create linkages to those who came before them. This sense of civilizational continuity is so strong that foreign rulers, including the British, have repeatedly acknowledged Indian civilization even as they have tried to give themselves legitimacy.

Indeed, the British systematically drew on the political symbolism of India’s past. In front of the Rashtrapati Bhavan (Presidential Palace) in New Delhi is a tall column called the Jaipur Column. It is a sandstone shaft topped by the ‘Star of India’. There is an inscription on its base, conceived by Lord Irwin and Sir Edwin Lutyens, that reads as follows: ‘In thought faith,/ In word wisdom,/ In deed courage,/ In life service,/ So may India be great.’ The column was a gift from the princely state of Jaipur and was erected by the British when they built a new imperial capital in the early decades of the twentieth century.

At that time, the British may not have known that India would become independent a few short years after they had completed the project. However, it is as if they were very conscious that they were inheritors of a very ancient imperial dream. They would have been aware that in the context of India’s long history, the period of British rule would one day become just a speck. Therefore, by erecting the column, they were determined to leave a stamp of their times. In doing so, they were following a practice that went back at least to the third century
BC
.

Delhi has several other imperial columns. One stands in the fourteenth-century ruins of Feroze Shah Kotla. The column stands erect amidst the crumbling walls of the old palace complex, oblivious to the cheering crowds of the nearby cricket ground and the swirling traffic of ITO. The polished sandstone shines as if it was put there recently. Yet, this column carries an edict by Emperor Ashoka from the third century
BC
. It is one of two Ashokan columns that Sultan Feroz Shah Tughlaq got transported with great care to his
new city (the ‘New’ Delhi of its time). This one is said to have been brought from Topara near Ambala, Haryana and erected here in 1356
AD
. The other pillar—brought from Meerut—stands near Bara Hindu Rao Hospital on the North Ridge, not far from Delhi University, at the northernmost point of the Aravalli range.

The Sultan appears to have realized that the two columns were very old and represented a great imperial power. The one in Feroze Shah Kotla is said to have been carefully wrapped in cotton and silk and transported on a forty-two-wheel cart pulled by two hundred men, and finally brought by boat to its current location. The Sultan was very keen to know what the inscriptions said. He asked the local Brahmins to translate them but the Brahmi script had been long forgotten and they were unable to help.
3
It would be another five centuries before the script was deciphered.

Yet another of Delhi’s imperial columns is commonly called the Iron Pillar and stands in the Qutub Minar complex in South Delhi. It is made of almost pure iron and yet has not rusted despite being exposed to the elements for fifteen centuries. The inscription is dedicated to the Hindu god Vishnu and tells of the exploits and conquests of a king called Chandra (often interpreted to mean Emperor Chandragupta Vikramaditya of the fifth century
AD
). The column was probably brought to Delhi either in the late eleventh or early twelfth century and placed in the middle of a temple complex. The temples were destroyed and replaced by mosques in the late twelfth century when the city passed into the hands of Turkish conquerors. However, the pillar was allowed to stand. Why? Perhaps the new rulers wanted to link themselves to
the past. Perhaps they wanted to overshadow it with their own column, the stone tower of Qutub Minar built to commemorate the victory of Islam.

Over the centuries, the Delhi of the Qutub Minar would be replaced by newer Delhis, each built by an emperor who proclaimed a new era. The city we see today was decreed in 1911 by George V, Emperor of India. The official proclamation was read out at Coronation Park to the far north of the city. It is the same spot where Queen Victoria had been proclaimed the Empress of India. Here, too, a column stands to commemorate the event.

Again and again, we see how a primordial imperial dream symbolized by the columns has survived over millennia. Whether Muslim or Hindu, Indian or British, successive rulers appropriated this idea and its symbols to strengthen their rule. It survives in modern India in the form of the Mauryan lions in the national emblem and the chakra (or wheel) in the national flag—symbol of the ‘Chakravartin’ or Universal Monarch. The founding fathers of the Indian Republic, too, were conscious that they were inheritors of a very old civilization.

The imperial dream is but one of many extraordinary continuities in India’s ancient civilization. Some of them are overt but many more lie hidden. Take for instance, the ratio 5:4 which implies that the length is a quarter longer than the breadth (1.25 times). This ratio was commonly used in the town planning of Harappan cities in the third millennium
BC
. The city of Dholavira in Gujarat, for example, is 771 metres by 617 metres. Over a thousand years later, the same ratio appears in Hindu texts like the
Shatapatha Brahmana
and
Shulbha Sutra
that use the ratio in their precise instructions on how to build fire-altars for Vedic ceremonies.
4

Another millennium later we find the same ratio mentioned in the vastu shastra texts (these texts are still used in the same way the Chinese use feng shui). In the sixth century
AD
, the great scholar Varahamihira states that a king’s palace should be built such that the length is greater than the breadth by a quarter. The Iron Pillar of Delhi mentioned earlier is also designed in the same ratio: the overall length of the pillar is 7.67 metres while the section above the ground is 6.12 metres, a ratio of 5:4.

It is obvious that this ratio was considered special for a very long time. So when the seventeenth-century Mughal emperor Aurangzeb wanted to praise his vassal Maharaja Jai Singh, he called him ‘Sawai’ (meaning that he was worth a quarter more than any other man). This title was used by Jai Singh’s descendants till the kingdom of Jaipur was absorbed into the Indian Republic. Even today, a tourist visiting Jaipur will see a small flag fluttering above the old royal flag—it’s the extra quarter—a reminder of the old town planners of Dholavira. It is appropriate, therefore, that Jai Singh is remembered mostly for the town planning of the city of Jaipur.

BOOK: Land of seven rivers: History of India's Geography
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