Land Of The Seven Rivers: A Brief History Of India’s Geography
By Sanjeev Sanyal
Sanjeev Sanyal is an Indian Ecnomist, an alumni of Delhi University and Oxford, where he was a Rhodes Scholor. He is currently Deutshe Bank’s global strategist
This book is the latest in the series of books on Indian History that have literally exploded onto the national scene in the past few years. However, there the similarity ends. While most of the others can be classified as scholarly treatises, or a few can be classified as incomplete and / or biased; this one is neither scholarly nor is it incomplete. It is a fun book, great to read, and stunningly fast in its pace – especially considering its chosen topic. It proceeds almost like a novel, and is delightfully fast. Yet, it does not stray too much from established history and in general gives a superb picture of the chosen topic
The chosen topic is also different, as can be readily seen from its title. Instead of tracing emperors and empires, colonies and wars or indeed economics, it traces the geography of the land and how it developed over time to become the Indian nation that exists today. The biggest takeaway is that the book debunks the generally held notion of India being a new Idea, and makes a clear case of India being a pretty ancient idea, only the political recognition and identity is new. The entire book successfully forms a running picture in your mind of the India of those days, as each chapter is brought to vivid life by fascinating details about the geography and the cities of those days. It not just the trade route; descriptions of caravans, of people, of roads, of memoirs of ancient travels that bring the road to life in your mind.
The book is a complete history of the formation of India, starting from pre-history and the formation of the Indian Subcontinent. It traces the breakaway from Gondwana – the supercontinent, introduces the theory of plate tectonics, and explains how India collided with Asia. It traces the development of Indian flora and fauna, and then moves onto ask questions such as who were the first humans in India, and who are the Indians?
The book makes a strong case for the people of the lost river, the Saraswati. He combines genetic, archeological and literary evidence to examine this question and derive that the Saraswati must have flowed alongside the Indus, and that the Saraswati was central to this civilization. Fascinating insights have been provided on life in those cities and the house planning etc, and their trade links with the world. Both sides of the Aryan argument have been examined, with the conclusion that the Aryans can only have been from India being supported by genetic evidence, which to my eyes settles the issue once and for all. This phase also covers Raja Sudas, Bharata tribe, the other tribes that fought Sudas, and what happened to them, as well as the role of Guru Vashishtha. It also goes on to trace the links between Avestans, the movement of the tribes etc and tries to guess the modern placement of the same.
We are introduced us to the Age of Lions, and the Mauryan Empire. It traces the origin and development and the ultimate demise of the Mauryan Empire. However, it gives fascinating details not found in other books in so concise a form, including the geograpghy of the times. Imperial buildings and edicts, cities, pathways, aqueducts planning all find a mention side-by-side with the incorporation of the vedic way of life and references to life in those days. The history of Lions in the subcontinent is in particular a fascinating read.
We get to know and understand how India became a trading superpower in the ancient days through this book. Having heard and read of India’s trade prowess, it is a refreshing change to read someone providing fascinating details in interesting prose. It leaves you with a deeper understanding of Indian trade in those centuries. Furthermore, the book delves into the South Indian Dynasties in detail, which is a decided value addition. India’s maritime trade and sealinks find extensive mention, along with tantalising titbits of experiences and difficulties in those voyages.
The book effortlessly takes us through the turbulent changeover phase from Hindu rule to Arab and Mongol invaders. Here the most fascinating part is the development of Delhi over the years, which has been peppered with references to existing ruins and their current status and exact location in modern India. The first steps of the british and the hunt for Asia has been brought to amazing life. The most fascinating read in this part of the book is the mapping of India, and the trigonometric mapping of the nation attempted over a 60-year period, which makes for an enthralling read. Also present is the making of the railway network and the challenges it faced. The book closes with an examination of how India came to acquire Junagarh, Hyderabad, other princely states, Kashmir and going onto Sikkim.
All in all, the book is a fascinating and rapid read, and is written in a generally lucid style. The target audience is the avid reader who is not too connected with history, and is loathe to read historical treatises, but the book gives tremendous value addition even for history aficionados. The writing style is engaging, and at no point does the book meander. The entire 6000 year period has been lucidly covered. Yes. there are deviations in some places, especially in the partition phase, where the author has referred Lapierre and Collins, whose book is certainly not the best on this matter. In some cases, the latest developments have placed a different timeline, as in the case of the Indus Saraswati civilization, which has now been radio-metric dated to 6000 – 7000 BC and beyond. But overall, the book contains a potful of surprises and anecdotes, descriptions and details that come as a surprise, and make the book a collectors item….