The Empire of the Indus

Originally published in The Friday Times. January 02, 2015.

The Empire of the Indus…

The Indus, the longest river in Pakistan, is one of the most mesmerizing geographical features of the region. Centuries of history entwined with its past and miles of geography playing its host have lent the status of a marvel to the river…


Indus – the giver of life, the taker of life! Theological associations with the river were strong. He also belonged to the lineage of people hailing this river as a god. These mighty waters, this authority, what could this be if not for a god? The ancient Hindu scriptures referred to Indus as the only male river god, reducing the standing of others (sexist as it seems now). Abbasin, ‘the father of Rivers’, was how it was known in the north. The Rig Veda, on more than one occasion, waxed lyrical about the river’s charm. The river brought them light, he believed. Right from where it roused in the Tibet, the Indus brought along hymns of life and hope. Guru Nanak, the founder of Sikhism, is said to have been exalted within the same waters. It was as he bathed in the river one day that the reality of life was unveiled to him. Sufis used the river as an inspiration, if not a muse. Lal Shahbaz Qalander’s poetry is replete with mention of the Indus. The story of Indus, the worshippers of this river-god believed, in many ways paralleled the story of humanity itself – the quest for the ultimate. And that the river wasn’t just a water-body in motion, it responded. The river, just like humans, was alive. And it commanded. Indus the creator – Indus the destroyer!


“It’s dark and the river is in flood,

There is water all around me.

How am I going to meet Mahiwal?

If I keep going, I will surely drown.

And if I turn back,

I would be going back on my promise.

And letting Mahiwal down

I beg you (O pitcher!), with folded hands,

Help me meet my Mahiwal.

You always did it, please do it tonight, too.”

Indus in Sind

In 1947, lines weren’t sketched only through Punjab and Bengal – all the elements of nature had to be divided similarly


Partitions don’t just create new recognized international borders, they divide a people too; slicing away at the hearts of many. In 1947, lines weren’t sketched only through Punjab and Bengal – all the elements of nature had to be divided similarly. Our nautical miles. Your air-space. Our coal reserves. Your productive fields. And since it always comes down to water for survival, the two created countries signed on the Indus Water Treaty in 1960, allocating the water of specific rivers to either country. This move by Ayub Khan was essential. The next day, an in-mate in a Gujranwala mental facility, who, reminiscent of Manto’s Toba Tek Singh, killed himself. There was a single scrap of paper by his side that read something like, “Who are they to divide our waters? Who are they to divide our waters?!”


Tuesday, January 21, 2014; The News International. “Islamabad: In an alarming development, India plans to build another dam on the Chenab River with 1,380 MW capacity in Held Kashmir called Kirthai Hydropwer Project, breaching the 1960 Indus Waters Treaty (IWT). The new project will not only damage the water interests of Pakistan but will also inflict a huge blow to the environment of the lower riparian country.”


“Baba, how long is this river?”

“Longer than you can imagine zwe, it spans states and cities. More than three thousand kilometres, if you can remember that!”

“And how deep, baba?!”

“Deeper than you can imagine! Uncoil a charpoy, and it’s seven times the length of its rope straightened. And you know just beneath the bed of this river, there flows a stream of milk, pure and tasty, as if from heaven!”

“Why can’t I have that milk, baba? I don’t like the one mor makes me drink!”

“Haha. We cannot have that milk, zwe. The masharaan said there are a number of magical creatures in this river, both good and bad, but all will prevent you from accessing the stream.”

“So there’s no way, baba?”

“There’s one. If only you grow up to be a good man and an obedient son, that God may bless you with this bounty!”



Years now, and the issue of the Kalabagh Dam is still up in the air. Weighed down by political myopia, molested by personal interests. Another dam, Tarbela, stands about some 300 kilometers north of the proposed site of the controversial Kalabagh. Tarbela, the biggest Earth filled dam in the world, isn’t just a spacious water reservoir, though it’s that too. It’s the story of “taming” this impossible river, a feat incredulous by every standard. More importantly, it’s the embodiment of a young country’s impressive resolve to shine. But enough on the political and economic fronts, it has a personal side too. The construction of the dam submerged about 135 villages, displacing a hefty number of people. In the winters, when the river runs dry and the water level in the dam descends, people still visit the site to spot the illusory sign of one’s home, the mark of a beloved’s grave. Those who had their villages on higher altitude have a better chance of scoring. But then monsoon arrives, and water rises up vindictively to claim what’s now its; submerging this mausoleum of memories in the dark. “For the country”, they smile. And go back to their new homes, in Khalabat township, in other areas. And then there are those who still haven’t got one, the government’s promises of re-allocation have turned out to be false for them. “For the country”, they smile too.


The website of the World Wildlife Fund Pakistan says about the Indus River Dolphin that “it is a flagship species and is an indicator of the biological health of the aquatic and terrestrial environment adjoining the Indus River”. The local folklore says the fish was a woman, cursed by a saint and thus converted to a blind fish. Known also as ‘Bhulan’, only about 1300 fish of the variety survive presently. Many organisations are working for the cause of protecting these endangered species but the industrial waste dumped in the Indus and skirmishes over water allocation have adversely affected the fish.


“Array Sarkaar, come with me to Uderolal. The picture there you see of the man with white beard sitting on the pala-fish over the Darya-e-Sindh? That’s him, our Zinda Pir, Uderolal, Darya Shah. Our Jhulelaal, sir! All these nonsense they tell you about destroying Hindu Mandirs here and there, don’t listen sir jee. Come with me on Cheti Chand, and I’ll show you our real culture. For Hindus, he’s the Sindhu God: God of the Indus, you see. For Muslims, he’s Khwaja Khizr. All people come there, all pray together. There’s no enmity, none. Jhulelal unites us all, bhaiyya. He’s the one to have created our tolerant culture – warning a tyrant ruler against the ignoble act of forced conversions. In God he believed, my peer; his love wasn’t dictated by religious boundaries. For all, haan, he was. Come with me, you’ll see it for yourself. When he was leaving this Earth and ascending to the skies, Muslims and Hindus initiated a brawl as to whose religious structure they would erect in his memory. Darbaar or Samadhi, sir jee? That’s when a voice came from the skies and told the people that there should be something acceptable to everyone. You see, sayieen, how beautiful! And that’s how it has continued for centuries, yes. Come with me to Uderolal, sir. Oh yes, yes, near Sukkur. And then you’ll know! Jhulelaal Bera-Hi-Paar!”



The 2010-2011 floods that hit the country wreaked havoc upon the already precarious state of a nation. Some opined the floods were divine wrath, other conjectured India was to be blamed. Many only saw this as a telluric calamity. Numerous villages were washed out completely. The loss of a civilization, to look at it one way. Even as long ago as 3000 B.C, mother Indus had been giving birth to various civilizations – the Indus Valley most notably. Mohenjodaro and Harappa had cemented their presence in the memory of history. A number of other places had been cursed to live in history’s selective amnesia. And of the 800 cities the Indus Valley is said to have comprised, only about 90 have been discovered. But the efforts to unearth them are still in progress. The Indus this time, however, was sterner in its mode of extermination. One perfect stroke, and gone from a nation’s conscience forever.


It was in the 500 B.C that Darius sent Scylax over to explore the mysterious Indus

This was the probable spot were Sohni drowned in water, in this tributary of the Indus. Though the bodies of the lovers were discovered later, and perhaps buried too (there’s a tomb), the presence of Sohni in the water was still mulled over. Locals believed, depending on who you asked, that the forlorn girl still blessed or cursed the river. For a foreign journalist to be present here was unusual, this wasn’t a popular tourist spot. He took pictures of the water, the locals took pictures of him. “Sir, one photu please?!” But then, unusual was good. It was fitting. That what the river inspired was as unusual as the river itself. Indus, the romance of the past, the desire of the present. The appeal of the river was disbursed judicially among the extrovert and the introvert. Adventurers frequented it, so did philosophers. It was in the 500 B.C that Darius sent Scylax over to explore the mysterious Indus. Poets and saints had always found an uncanny resort of art on the banks of the river. He, the journalist, let the vision of the furious waters sink in. The quiver of the waves wasn’t calculated but there was a cadence to this un-calculation.

Indus River Sukkur


Greetings, people! This is Mithankot, where I’m joined by Sutlej, Bias, Ravi, Chenab and Jehlum. Punjnad, they call the place a little north up. Satnad, they called us once; too bad Saraswati died her untimely death and Cholistan was converted into a desert. Anyway, I’m as much in reality as I’m in fiction; academics love to work out my potamology, thinkers dwell upon the poetry in my waves. They remind me of how I’ve lent my name to a province in this country, and also that the name of India has been derived from mine. I’m the life-line of this region, they suggest. It’s empowering and humbling – only a little uncalled for at times. For you see, I’m exceeded in my complexities and contradictions only by these people I flow through. There, can you see those people? That one’s from the north. The one on the right is from the South. The lady, you see the lady, it’s her first visit. I think I can see a child too. The lad in orange is saying a prayer there, the old man by him cringing. Religion, culture, ethnicity, geography and history aren’t the bonds these people share. It’s me! I separate them, I join them. They fight with each other for possessing me; they come to each other’s rescue when my tributaries run wild. It isn’t an easy equation they share, but the only common one. The similar denominator, me, they all agree upon. “Indoi”, the outsiders had called them once. “People of the Indus!” My people! Out of all the various identities the outsiders could devise for these, they chose me. Maybe the citizens of this Empire of the Indus had no other reference strong enough.

Yours truly,


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