Land of the Seven Rivers

“A Brief History of India’s Geography” proclaims the strapline, which was why I picked the book during my usual travel tradition of stocking up for a long flight at the airport bookstore. How much do natural elements such as terrain or weather inform the evolution of a civilization? Prisoners of Geography tackles this question head-on while Seven Rivers uses it as the guiding principle in tracing India’s history from 5000 years ago. While my initial reservations about reading yet another narrative of history bound by 70-year-old borders were not entirely allayed, Sanyal does make an attempt at looking beyond the boundaries of northern Indian history to extend occasionally to present-day Pakistan, southern India and the islands of South-East Asia.

The name of the book comes from the description of the “Sapta-Sindhu” region in the Rig Veda, the oldest of the Vedas. It’s primarily North India and some part of Pakistan (though Sanyal argues that it’s just Haryana and Punjab). It gives you a taste of the geography that the book hopes to cover. The central premise is the question: Who are the Indians?

Sanyal begins the answer to this question, which takes him the rest of the book, with the Indus Valley or Harappan Civilization. He focuses on the geographic reasons for the establishment and decline of the civilization. He expertly intertwines Vedic mythology with established history, although in a couple of places the lines are uncomfortably blurred. This isn’t the work of an academic historian or geographer, though; it is the deep-rooted interest of an economist and captivating writer.

Sanyal proposes an interesting theory: that the Harappan civilization could have been home to the people who composed the Rig Veda. He bases his theory on the River Saraswati. The Rig Veda describes the Sarawati river as “great among the great, the most impetuous of rivers” and is called the “inspirer of hymns”, suggesting that the Rig Veda was composed on its banks.

The Rig Veda places the Saraswati river between the rivers Yamuna in the East and Sutlej to the West. Since no modern Indian river fits the description, it was believed that the Saraswati was a mythival river. It is supposed to be “invisible”or “underground”, reminding me of the River Alph from Kubla Khan:

Where Alph, the sacred river, ran
Through caverns measureless to man
Down to a sunless sea.

The Saraswati is even supposed to drain into a samudra or sea!

The Rig Veda also does not mention “iron”, says Sanyal, indicating that it must have been composed during a Bronze Age civilization. Sanyal makes the case that the Ghaggar-Hakra river system, which is a seasonal river between the rivers Yamuna and Sutlej, could be the river Saraswati of the Rig Veda.

Apparently, satellite imaging of the area has shown that the river was much larger. It seems that the Yamuna and Sutlej were its tributaries and that they changed course due to the tectonic activity of the unstable Himalayan region.

If the Ghaggar is the river Saraswati and
if most Harappan settlements were along its banks and
if the drying up of the river caused its eventual decline and
if the Rig Veda was written in the Bronze Age when the Saraswati was a mighty river with no knowledge of it drying up, which is mentioned in the subsequent Vedas,
then it stands to reason that the people who composed the Vedas were part of the Harappan civilization.

Setting aside the questions that I have about horses, lions and the Great Bath, first the question is checking the veracity of the claim about the River Saraswati. Sanyal’s writing style is simple and effective, encouraging me to continue reading about the history that he talks about, which I think is a win for the narrator, no matter the outcome.

So, about the River Saraswati drying up and causing the Harappan civilization to decline, this is a paper that I found published in Geology (2012). The paper says that it is true the Yamuna and Sutlej were tributaries of the Ghaggar-Hakra:



Our data show that the Yamuna likely flowed west, not east as it does now, at least prior to 49 ka.

“ka” is the geological term “kilo-annum”, meaning 1000 years. This says that the Yamuna did flow west about 49000 years ago. In context, the Harappan civilization is dated to about 5000 years ago.

While drainage from the Yamuna may have been lost from the Ghaggar-Hakra well before development of the Harappan Civilization, flow from the Beas and Sutlej may have been more recent in Cholistan, if still prior to 10 ka. Loss of these rivers might be expected to have had a catastrophic effect on sustaining settlement in this region, but our evidence argues against this.

Water in the small Ghaggar-Hakra (or Sarasvati) River would have been further reduced by monsoon weakening from 4.2 ka (Enzel et al., 1999; Staubwasser et al., 2003; Wünnemann et al., 2010), but evidence for dramatic changes in water sources was much earlier. While drainage capture is dramatic in the eastern Indus Basin in the late Quaternary, it appears to have occurred prior to human settlement and not to have directly caused the Harappan collapse.

Could this small river really have been the mighty Saraswati from the Rig Veda?

There is an alternate theory that says that the early references to the Saraswati in the Vedas could be the Helmand river in Afghanistan. Avestan and Sanskrit are closely related Indo-Iranian languages with a phonetic shift, so “sapta-sindhu” in Old Sanskrit is “hapta-hindu” in Avestan. The Helmand river in Avestan is called the “Haraxvati”. Could it be?

While Sanyal has curated interesting moments from India’s history, his work doesn’t even stand up to scrutiny by an amateur. This makes me distrust his claims. The two people that he mentions frequently in the book are Michel Danino and B.B. Lal. Danino is the author of “The Lost River: On the Trail of the Saraswati”, which is probably quite informative, but I’m distressed that it is the sole reference for several statements made by Sanyal.

On B. B. Lal, this is how Sanyal introduces him: “The archaeological evidence suggests that they [the Harappans] slowly drifted east and south, and that their culture and genes lived on in India. However archaeologists and historians disagree bitterly on this. Romila Thapar, an eminent historian, is of the opinion that the ‘material  culture shows no continuities’. In contrast, B. B. Lal, a former Director General of the Archaeological Survey of India and one of India’s most celebrated archaeologists, argues that ‘many of the present day cultural roots are rooted in the Harappan civilization’.

I can’t help but feel that Sanyal doesn’t particularly care for Ms. Thapar and greatly admires Mr. Lal. This could also be because he elaborates the similarities between Harappan and Indian cultures but doesn’t bother to explain why Ms. Thapar has a different opinion. Romila Thapar is a recipient of the international,  prestigious Kluge prize awarded to “individuals whose outstanding scholarship in the humanities and social sciences has shaped both public affairs and civil society”. Having heard of neither of these people before reading this book, I am more curious about what the Indian woman who has been the visiting professor to Cornell, Penn and College de France, has honorary doctorates from universities of Chicago and Oxford among others, and who has been offered the Padma Bhushan twice but has declined because she does not accept non-academic awards has to say over the man who has a graduate degree in Sanskrit and the Vedas and who obviously views the world through those lenses as his works are about proving the “historicity” of the Hindu God Lord Ram, or proving that “Aryans” are indigenous to India through the Vedas. It isn’t that I don’t think interesting historical nuggets can be gleaned from these ancient texts, I take umbrage at using them as the basis for conducting archaeological research. You shouldn’t start off with “The Mahabharata happened because the ancient texts say so; let’s set out to prove it”. I think it is going to take a lot of digging to understand both sides of the argument especially because I’m predisposed to one and am frustrated that the only proof that the other offers is the Vedas. As Sanyal says in his book, it’s like trying to understand the history of the Holy Roman Empire by reading the Bible (and taking what’s written in it as historical fact).

The best of the rest of the book is when Sanyal talks about peninsular India. While the river civilizations of the North were constantly in turmoil with invaders often seizing the throne (the Mauryas, the Guptas, the Mughals), the southern part of the present-day country flourished because of trade. With the predictable monsoon winds of the Indian Ocean, these kingdoms traded with the Arabian Peninsula, the islands to the south and China. “The Monsoon Marketplace”, as John Green calls it:

It is interesting and refreshing to read about peaceful cultural exchange, along with the goods they traded. Islam entered India not by the sword, but with the building of the Cheraman Juma Mosque in the 7th century by a Chera King (map of the kingdom below)  who was said to have converted after meeting Prophet Muhammad in Arabia; Syrian Christians, said to be the followers of St. Thomas, one of Jesus’ 12 apostles, who came to India, are an important part of Kerala’s population even today; and the Cochin Jews are supposed to have arrived with King Solomon’s merchants! A neat little stock to add to the land of Hinduism, Buddhism, Jainism, Sikhism and Zoroastrianism.

It’s also a relief to see this side of Indian history:

Vijayanagara, Chera and Chola empires

Rather than this more mainstream one:

Maurya, Gupta and Mughal empires

I’ve always wondered what was south of the kingdoms from the maps in history textbooks. None of these maps are in Sanyal’s book unfortunately, which is a shame.

The bits that I particularly enjoyed are the travellers that Sanyal introduces: Fa Xian, a buddhist monk rediscovering the lands of the Buddha, John Mandeville who said the place was ruled by a Christian king John Prester (and who perpetuated the myth of the the mystical East,  home to women with heads of dogs. You would think these stereotypes were a thing of the past, but you’ve clearly not watched Doctor Strange) and of course, Crash Course favourite, the intrepid Ibn Battuta, one of the world’s greatest travellers:

The rest of the books focusses of Delhi, which isn’t quite as interesting to me because it seems like anyone who talks about Indian history starts and ends with Delhi. Not that the history of Delhi, or the 7 other cities it’s built on from Qila Rai Pithora to Shahjahanabad and that’s not counting the mythical ones like Indraprastha, isn’t fascinating, it’s just that I wish I had a more complete picture of the rest of the country.

Overall I quite enjoyed the rich and accessible content of Sanyal’s book. Personally, it could have done with a few more maps and a lot less of Vedic texts as history but the mercantile adventures made up for it!

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