Land of the Seven Rivers, by Sanjeev Sanyal

One line review: Seven Rivers, Five millennia, one history, one nation, one helluva book.

Short review: This book is a second, much grander and a much better attempt by the author to answer one question. This time around though, he goes deeper and farther back in the history of the land of seven rivers – India, presents us with his findings, and posits that India has had a sense of history – one that not only goes back several unbroken thousand years, but has found echo in successive empires and invaders seeking to associate themselves with this history.

As the author travels through the country – in time as well as geography – we are treated to some long-forgotten incidents that should have been part of our curricula, as well as fascinating insights into such endeavours as the mapping of the country by the colonials, which itself was a source of competitive advantage in a manner of speaking.

The second question, which the author attempted to answer in his first book, but with less than middling success, is why India went into decline a thousand years ago. The answer, my friend, is blowing in the wind, and you need to turn the pages to find it. The truth is out there in the hardcover. A must read. Makes it to my best books I have read in 2013 (see this and this for a review of the notable books I read in 2012).

Long review:

In his first book, “The Indian Renaissance: India’s Rise after a Thousand Years of Decline“, the author Sanjeev Sanyal, boldly asked the question – why did India go into a decline a thousand years ago, and why is it emerging only now from that decline? He attempted an answer, but it felt unconvincing, not least of all for the reason that it came all too soon in the book, and without enough reasoning to do justice to either the question or the answer. His second book, “Land of the Seven Rivers”, is a second act, and deserves full five-stars for both the effort and the result.

This time around, Sanjeev takes his time to go back in time and then traces his steps across time and across the country, starting with the Harappan Saraswati Civilization, and then through the millennia, tracing the continuous, unbroken arc of civilization in the subcontinent, persisting through geography and through the assimilation and coping with foreign invasions, starting more than two thousand years ago, and continuing throughout since.

Two insidious charges levelled at India and Indians – that they are “no more a nation than the equator” (pg 5, uttered by many in different forms, this one from the mouth of the one of the biggest racists of the twentieth century, Sir Winston Churchill), and that Indians have no sense of history – have been used time and again. That both charges have little to no grounding in fact is what this book gently attempts to do.

The book cites several points to make the case that Indians have had a sense of history and have exhibited a unity not unlike nation states. Some examples from the book are worth quoting to elucidate the point.

A column carrying “an edict by Emperor Asoka from the third century BC” is one of “two Asoka columns that Sultan Feroz Shah Tughlaq got transported with great care to his new city (the ‘New’ Delhi of its time).” It is said to “have been brought from Topara near Ambala, Haryana” and the Sultan had it “carefully wrapped in cotton and silk and transported on a forty-two-wheel cart pulled by two hundred men…

Another pillar, called the Iron Pillar, stands in the Qutub Minar complex in New Delhi, 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…” Yet the pillar was allowed to stand by Islamic kings. “Why? Perhaps the new rulers wanted to link themselves to the past.

Another strong connection that India has to its past – and we are talking thousands of years in the past – is the ratio 5:4 that

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. … The Iron Pillar of Delhi … 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. … [W]hen .. 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).

A third example is the traditional Indian system of measurements and weights that

bore a striking resemblance to those used by the Harappan people. According to John Mitchiner, the difference was less than 1.8 per cent – not bad for a time lapse of over four thousand years!

Even in the area of trade, Indians had a flourishing trade with the rest of the world –

Mesopotamian tablets mention a land called Mekuha that exported bead jewellery, copper, wood, peacocks, monkeys and ivory.

This tradition of trade would continue for thousands of years, with India running a surplus till the eighteenth century, till the loot by the English East India Trading Company after the Battle of Plassey in 1857 started a reversal that continues to this day.

Perhaps a strong reason why India remained a pacifist yet cultural superpower for millennia has to do something with its ability to assimilate peacefully different cultures and groups. While the history of the first Jews seeking refuge from genocide almost two thousand years ago or the Parsis is well known, Sanjeev suggests that the roots of this “genius” may

lie in the fact that the Vedas do not confine themselves to the ideas of the victors but deliberately include those of the sages from other tribes, including some of the defeated tribes. Thus, the hymns of the sage Vishwamitra, the great rival of Vashishtha, are given an important place in the compilation. In doing so, the Bharatas created a template of civilizational assimilation and accommodation rather than imposition.” The Vedas seem to have been ”

compiled no later than 2000 BC” – this Indian template of cultural accommodation then is as old as civilization itself, but sadly not emulated elsewhere.

In between this fascinating account of civilizational continuity are illuminating nuggets that highlight this point. Like the city of Varanasi, “already a large urban settlement” by the time the Buddha “went there in the sixth century” and delivered his now famous first sermon at Sarnath, “just outside the city.” Sarnath is also home to a large Jain temple dedicated to the eleventh tirthankar, and the town itself derives its name from the word “Saranganath” – “meaning ‘Lord of the Deer’ – another name for Shiva.

Not only religious and “intellectual innovation”, this age witnessed “the systemization of Ayurveda“, but where Sushruta would compiled a “long list of sophisticated surgical instruments and procedures.” “Unfortunately, most of this knowledge would be lost in the medieval era; The era that saw the unremitting onslaught of brutal foreign invasions and centuries of destruction and pillage.

While India had Chandragupta Maurya and Chanakya to thwart Alexander’s ambitions in the third century BCE, and India saw a great expansion of its civilizational reach, to as far as Korea during the era of the Guptas in the fourth and fifth centuries CE, when the Turkic invasions started to “erode the Hindu-Buddhist kingdoms of Afghanistan” in the tenth century CE, there was no such strong kingdom to repel these barbarians, and

the creative heart of Indic civilization had shifted south of the Vindhyas. The most powerful Indian kingdom of that time, the Cholas, ruled in the far south and would not have been concerned with the gathering clouds in the North West.

Before this civilizational decline and thousand years of darkness began, the Guptas would establish the last of the great Indian centres of learning at Nalanda, the great astronomer-mathematician Aryabhatta would have

worked out that the earth was spherical and that it rotated on an axis, …. a remarkably accurate estimate of the earth and of the ration Pi. All this a thousand years before Copernicus and Galileo.

Down south, the Cholas would conduct a massive and successful naval raid against the Srivijaya king of Sumatra in 1017 AD and again in 1025 CE, and represent “very rare examples of Indian military aggression outside of the subcontinent.” India at that time was perhaps also one of the safest countries for not only its citizenry, but also for travellers. This can be gauged from the accounts of the Chinese traveller Fa Xian, who,

in his many years of solo wanderings, … does not appear to have ever been robbed or cheated.” Things would rapidly decline in the coming centuries, because “later visitors like Xuan Zang and Ibn Batuta would all have to face armed bandits.

In “The Indian Renaissance”, the author asked what led to India’s decline, and saw correlation where the evidence pointed more to causation – the unremitting assault by invaders froze all innovation, introspection, and replaced it with an ossification and diffidence that lasted a thousand years. He asks the same question in this book, though it is not as central here as it was in his earlier book. The answer however is there for the reader to read between the lines and in the pages of this book.

The greatest centres of learning in the ancient world were Takshasila – destroyed by Huns in the fifth century CE, and Nalanda – destroyed by Bakhtiar Khilji in 1193 CE and accompanied by the murder of thousands of monks. No other world-class centre of learning would emerge in India after that. What did continue to exist would be ravaged, destroyed, and pillaged?

Hampi of the Vijayanagara Empire was the last of the great cities of the world that India would see, and at “its height in the early sixteenth century it was probably the largest city in the world.” It was destroyed after the Battle Talikota on, ironically, 26 January 1565, and India would not see a great city after that. Despite hundreds of years of rule by the Mughals and two hundred years by the British, not one great city would be built.

Calcutta (now Kolkata) would be one of the largest and most important cities of the world in the late nineteenth and early twentieth centuries, but it would still remain an overpopulated city with its share of a large number of homeless – a defining trait of every Indian city. A thousand years of foreign rule could not offer even one world class centre of learning. The Universities that the British set up provided a modern education to millions of Indians but failed to establish themselves as world-class schools.

“‘This is the best provided city in the world… the streets and markets are full of laden oxen so much so that you cannot along for them.'”

The Harappan civilization had the most advanced urban planning on exhibit in the world at the time. Nothing comparable would emerge after India went into decline, starting a thousand years ago. Muhammad Tughlaq is remembered today as a king with good but impractical ideas that were far ahead of its times. That is history that India’s “eminent historians” would like us to believe. Like his decision to “shift the capital a thousand kilometres south to Daulatabad in 1326 A.D.” accompanied by the diktat that

every single inhabitant had to move with him. We have a macabre tale about how an old beggar was too feeble to make the journey. The Sultan had him tied to a cart and dragged along for forty days. Only his feet arrived in Daulatabad.

Not quite the charming tale of a quixotic emperor that historians would have us believes.

Tales of mass murder and religious intolerance by the Mughal emperors are legion. This glorious empire would start to decline after Aurangzeb; its most intolerant emperor stretched its borders too far and wide. By the nineteenth century it would remain a pale shadow of its past glory:

William Sleeman,

“an official who visited the Red Fort a few years before the revolt [of 1857], tells us of how 1200 members of the family [the Mughal royal family] lived in the palace off the meagre pension but were too proud to work. Instead, there are amusing stories of how some of these princes would try to use their family name to swindle money [this habit of the present-day royal political families in India has not diminished]. Even the palace inside the Red Fort was in a state of severe disrepair. In 1824, Bishop Herber described the palace gardens as ‘dirty, lonely and wretched; the bath and fountain dry; the inlaid pavements hid with lumber and gardener’s sweepings, and the walls stained with the dung of birds and bats.'”

Why some people like William Darlymple continue

to present the court of Bahadur Shah Zafar as a ‘court of great brilliance’ that was in the ‘middle of remarkable cultural flowering’” defies credulity.

Genocide and ethnic cleansing entered the Indian milieu with the Arab and Turkic invaders, and lasts to this day.

“The result was a genocide in which as many as three million people, particularly minorities and intellectuals, were killed. The residential halls of Dhaka University were particularly targeted. Up to 700 students were killed in a single attack on Jagannath Hall. … Hundreds of thousands of women were systematically raped in the countryside. By September 1971, ten million refugees had poured into eastern India. Although this was one of the worst genocides in human history, it is barely remembered by the rest of the world.” [Page 282]

Lastly, the Indian obsession for a fair complexion is the stuff out of which liberal academic careers and television commercial fortunes have been made. It is seen as the most definite proof of the Indian’s inherent inferiority complex. Gentle pointers to Hindu gods like Krishna and Rama as being dark are dismissed as the apologist’s feeble clutching at straws. So it came as a surprise, for two reasons, when I read this excerpt:

“Marco Polo specifically mentions this in his comments about India: ‘For I assure you that the darkest man is here the most highly esteemed and considered better than others who are not so dark. Let me add that in very truth these people portray and depict their gods and their idols black and their devils white as snow.'” [Page 131]

The first reason for the surprise was to learn that the obsession for “whiteness” seems to have been absent in India till as late as the fourteenth century. To put it differently, Indians for close to four thousand years in their civilizational history seemed to have attached no preference to a fair complexion – quite the opposite. The second reason – that this somewhat important factoid should have been so carefully suppressed by our eminent historians. And that is a somewhat embarrassing conversation to initiate without nation’s eminent historians.

What might have been an inevitable blimp, a small decline, in India’s civilizational progress, was however brutally turned into a steep decline of a thousand years. Turkic invaders were successful in ruling over the subcontinent, but sadly unable to contribute anything substantial to its literary, scientific, urban, or civilizational evolution.

Yes, this book is keeper. I look forward to Sanjeev Sanyal’s next book. If you are interested in reading up more on the Harappan Civilization, I cannot recommend a better book than Michel Danino’s The Lost River: On The Trail of the Sarasvati.

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Book Details:

ISBN-10: 0143420933 (Paperback), 0670086398 (Hardcover)

ISBN-13: 9780143420934 (Paperback), 9780670086399 (Hardcover)

Published by: Penguin Books India

Published: 15 Nov 2012

Imprint: Viking

Book Format: Demy

Extent: 352pp

Disclaimer: the views expressed in this review are the author’s personal opinion.


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Abhinav Agarwal

Abhinav Agarwal

Son. Husband. Father. IIM-B gold medalist. Analytics product manager. Reading and photography hobbies.