Land of the Seven Rivers is a brisk run through the many geographies of India, and how civilisations in India were impacted by geography. It also looks at the continuity and change in Indian history.
I am from a generation that learned to use Atlas’and school, and i grew up loving maps. My brother and I used to quiz our selves on places and locations, using maps. The map, as we mostly know it, was first formally produced only about 600 years ago. As Sanyal points out
The first edition of the atlas had seventy sheets and was called the Theatrum Orbis Terrarum (Theatre of the World).
Sanyal, Sanjeev. Land of seven rivers: History of India’s Geography (p. 190). Penguin Random House India Private Limited. Kindle Edition.
Physical geography fascinated me, as did the concept of changing political boundaries. An uncle had given us a well thumbed edition of lost mysteries of the world. It is the age at which i read Joseph Conrad, and Alistair MacLean, Wilbur Smith, and Kundanlal Munshi – and the curiosity about places, and history grew. It’s still there. What interested me when i grew up was sociology, and anthropology. Just curiosity. As i grew up, my reading grew, and so did my curiosity 🙂
The first book i read that looked at all these aspects was Guns, Germs and Steel – a short history of everybody for the last 13,000 years. Essentially how geography impacts people, who in turn impact events, and therefore history. IT got me to start looking at the map again. When i teach, i use the historical maps of india to look at how people and areas have evolved – to build a deeper understanding of the diversity that is India. i ask students to look beyond the mundane and ask, could geography change the way we look at things – The land locked north india, and how do its people differ from the sea faring south. There is no answer to this, at least not a ready made answer – but, it gets people thinking -which is the important point.
Sanjeev Sanyal’s book – Land of the Seven Rivers – looks as the massive landscape of India from two points of view – the first is the physical geography of the region – the Himalayas to the North – almost acting as a barricade against China; and the peninsula to the south, where the oceans became the link to both the lands to the west and the east of India. The second is the historical perspective, where rather than see the entire periods as distinctive, isolated empires, with their own unique histories – there is a continuity that runs through the Harappan civilisations, till the modern republic of India.
Sanyal begins by asking the very basic question – who were the Indians, where did they come from, and tracks three distinct migrations in pre-history. He believes, and offers enough evidence that the Aryan migration theory was a myth. I have worked with multiple scientists who work in this area, in genetics, in archeo-astronomy, who believe that the Aryan migration theory no longer has any basis.
The Land of the Seven Rivers refers to the river Saraswati, the paramount river in the Rig veda. And, traces back the decline of the Harappan civilisation to the drying up of the Saraswati, for long considered a mythical river.
surveys and satellite photographs confirm that it was once a great river that rose in the Himalayas, entered the plains in Haryana, flowed through the Thar–Cholistan desert of Rajasthan and eastern Sindh (running roughly parallel to the Indus) and then reached the sea in the Rann of Kutchh in Gujarat. Indeed, the strange marshy landscape of the Rann of Kutchh is partly due to the fact that it was once the estuary of a great river.
Sanyal, Sanjeev. Land of seven rivers: History of India’s Geography (p. 46). Penguin Random House India Private Limited. Kindle Edition.
He believes that the mighty Saraswati survives today, as the must diminished Ghaggar, that flows in Haryana.
But, this is less about the Saraswati river, and more about the civilisation that arose there. The Harappan civilisation. Sanyal advances the hypothesis, that the people who migrated from the banks of a dying river, took their civilisation with them, and become the forerunners of later civilisations. He refers to the symbols that are common across eras. the wheel, the lion.
From Harappa to modern India, Sanyal takes us through a brisk walk through history and geography, kingdoms and heroes. It includes minor detours to lands where Indian influence spread- Srilanka, Indonesia, Cambodia, Thailand, Vietnam. And while Sanyal weaves various threads – universities, trade, kingdoms, empires, war, invasions – he takes us through a journey of many histories of India – all linked, and interwoven like a fine tapestry. pull one thread out, and you will end up destroying that tapestry.
One of the more curious things that i learned from the book, was that cartography as a science did not exist in India, till the Europeans introduced it to us. For Sanyal this was the crucial gap in technology that really left a people who were far ahead of the world, lagging behind. The invasions, and the constant collapse of kingdoms, did not help. But, it was the lack of this technology that was the killer.
This is by no means an academic exposition. But, will be a good starting point for anyone curious about history. The what if’s, are plausible, and will hopefully take the reader inquiring for more in other books. The author’s dry with comes will make you smile in many places. There is a bit where is describing Harappan city planning, especially their sanitation.
Many houses, even modest ones, have their own bathrooms and toilets connected to a drainage network that emptied into soak-jars and cess pits. The toilet commodes were made up of big pots sunk into the floor. Most interestingly, as historian Upinder Singh points out, the toilets came equipped with a ‘lota’ for washing up. 2 This must count as one of the most important and enduring of Harappan contributions to Indian civilization. Unfortunately, the toilet design did not survive quite as well as the lota.
Sanyal, Sanjeev. Land of seven rivers: History of India’s Geography (p. 39). Penguin Random House India Private Limited. Kindle Edition.
There is another passage, where he is describing traffic jams caused by bullock carts,
The bullock-cart caravans were driven by nomadic castes called Manaris who travelled the trade routes with their families and belongings. At every stop a temporary village of tents would be set up. Each group had a chieftain who could be identified by a string of pearls. Often there would be quarrels between the leaders of rival caravans and matters could be escalated all the way up to the Emperor17. In other words, the ill-tempered truck drivers that one encounters in modern Indian highways have a long lineage.
Sanyal, Sanjeev. Land of seven rivers: History of India’s Geography (p. 199). Penguin Random House India Private Limited. Kindle Edition.
if you are curious about Indian history, this is a good starting point for an overview.