In Empires of the Indus, Alice Albinia traces the route of the River Indus from Pakistan and Afghanistan, upstream through west India and to its source in Tibet. Part travelogue, part history lesson, Albinia goes where angels fear to tread in her quest to trace the route of the River Indus. During the journey, she shares details about the myths and legends associated with the river, which through millennia, has been worshipped as a God and used as a means of imperial expansion.
A major portion of the book is set in Pakistan, and as an Indian reader, it gave me a rare glimpse into that country’s culture and history. While it is a known fact that Pakistan is a Muslim dominated country, what is not so widely known is just how badly it treats its minorities.
For instance, Sheedis — an African-Muslim tribe — have worked very hard to erase their rich musical past, having all but given up playing the mugarman, an African drum, and singing and dancing in order to better assimilate themselves into Pakistani culture. Still, the community largely remains mired in poverty and illiteracy. Another tribe that is tenuously holding on to its culture is the Kalash, who live in the remote Bumboret village, 150 km north of Pirsar.
“Neither Muslim, Hindu or Buddhist, the Kalash religion is syncretic, involving a pantheon of gods, sacred goats, and a reverence for river sources and mountain tops. [But] Such is the pressure from Islam in Bumboret, few young Kalash seem proud of their pantheon, or even to know of its existence.” — p. 225
Albinia travels through remote areas of Pakistan, through the now Taliban-infested Swat region (which at the time of her travel itself was seeing a resurgence of that fundamentalist faction) and into Afghanistan on foot, as she traces Alexander the Great’s route along the River Indus as he set out on his campaign to conquer India. What is most surprising is the danger she knowingly put herself into in this quest, but it is heartening that she met a number of helpful people along the way.
Vast swathes of regions that Albania travelled across are now disconnected from the rest of Pakistan due to the heavy floods there, which have set back the country’s infrastructure by at least 30 years. So in a way, her book serves as the most recent glimpse into the culture, geography and people of that area.
From Pakistan — the bulk of her 305-page book is about her travels through Pakistan and her two cross-overs into Afghanistan — Albinia travels into India and then Tibet as she traces the Indus to its origin — the Senge Khabab. Her trip to India is covered in one 22-page chapter, while the last chapter, 24 pages, details her travel through Tibet, up to the source of the river.
Though her travels through these two countries are glossed over, this is an interesting novel given the breadth and depth of history and geography that she covers. If you want to know more about Pakistan, or are an avid historian, you’ll definitely like the book.
If you’ve read this book, do let me know what you thought about it!