Land of the Seven Rivers or Sapta-Sindhu, that is how India has always been known. Despite its ever-changing political borders. Despite rulers who came from all directions to rule some part of it. And despite its changing demographic profile. In Land of the Seven Rivers, Sanjeev Sanyal has tried to trace a history of the geography of India through the ages. Right from the time the landmass started pushing the Himalayas up and stood as a dominant peninsula. Geography cannot be independent of history. So he segues into history every now and then, telling you who came from where, when and why. Who stayed back and who went back. What did they bring with them and what did they take away.
The key take away is that India was never defined by a geographical boundary; it was always defined by the common civilization. The concept of India has been beautifully defined in two other books: India – Sacred Geography by Diana Eck and India my Love by Osho.
Moving Chronologically, the author begins from the time people started migrating out of African jungles. And genetically tracing the origin of most Indians to a small group that migrated literally once upon a time. Some time is spent at Indus Valley civilization and the river Saraswati, followed by Maurya dynasty and its famous king Ashoka. After this time the history is better known. And he talks about the dynasties that came. And how the empires moved boundaries all the time. Coming from European countries to India and setting up their own small posts in the coastal areas has been well narrated. Along with the formation of 3 big Indian cities of Calcutta, Madras, and Bombay all of which have been re-named.
A constant theme that Sanjeev Sanyal follows is the global nature of existence ever since recorded history. The influence of India on world civilizations. And the existence of animals across the continent and linking them to history. He particularly explores the mentions of lions and tigers in the hunting stories, in the royal emblems and in names adopted by certain communities. Another theme is the history of cartography. And the role it played in the history. And the power it has to keep the peace or ignite a war. I loved some of his stories of how the mapping of India was done, especially the stories of the people who did this task with total dedication.
If you know a bit of history, there may not be much that is new to you. But the writing style is so good and interesting that you would still read the book. The author probably knew this. And he made sure to include some quirky stories in each chapter. Stories that most people would not know, like how did Mt Everest got its name or the fact that dark complexion was prized in India over fair ones, that keep the reader completely engrossed. He keeps pointing at the twists and turns that can only be called a stroke of destiny that changed the course of history many times. And you can only see this looking back in time. Some of the key observations that I picked up from this book are:
- Ramayan’s story moves along the North-South Axis of Indian geography while that of Mahabharata moves on East-West, and Varanasi stands at the crossroads of these two ancient trade routes. And this continues to date as NH2 and NH7 meet somewhere here and Mughalsarai is the central hub of Indian Railways. Isn’t it interesting?
- The University of Oxford was being laid when Nalanda and Vikramshila were being destroyed.
- Dark skinned people were preferred to light skinned ones and that is why the protagonists of our stories like Krishna and Draupadi are dark. In fact so is Laila in Laila-Majnu’s story (this is my addition, not from the book). Paintings in Ajanta are a testimony to this, where most beautiful women are painted with cinnamon colored complexion.
- The original name of the Mughals was Gurkhani.
- Most importantly, this constant reference to travel writers through the ages tells the role they play in chronicling times and documenting history first hand. And in the most neutral ways. As we know the hired history writers create history through their pen rather than tell you as it was.
If the confluence of history and geography interest you, Read Land of the Seven Rivers by Sanjeev Sanyal!
You may buy this book – Land of the Seven Rivers A Brief History of India’s Geography by Sanjeev Sanyal at Amazon.
Read the authors another book review.