Salman Rashid

Travel writer, Fellow of Royal Geographical Society

India the fertile

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Just to refresh the readers’ memory: In antiquity, the land of India was essentially the valley of the Sindhu River. That is, it was what is today Pakistan. The Aryans were overwhelmed by its great rivers and sang hymns to them. The Rig Veda, truly the most beautiful composition of poetry ever composed by humans and one which loses none of its magnificence even in translation, celebrates the rivers.

We read of the Sindhu to which its tributaries flow “Like mothers to their calves, like milch-kine with their milk, so, Sindhu, unto you the roaring rivers run/You lead as a warrior king your army’s wings what time you come in the van of these swift streams.” (Rig Veda, Hymn No. 75).

That is not all, however. The nine quatrains of this celestial hymn make the flesh crawl and mist the eye for their exquisite beauty and their celebration of the dharti and her rivers. The Sindhu was the river whose channel through the mountains was cut by none other than the god Varuna so that it “ran on to win the race”. This was the river that flowed, “Like floods of rain that fall in thunder from the cloud, so Sindhu rushed on bellowing like a bull.”

And then, in a paroxysm of emotion, the poet creates the most moving lines, “Flashing and whitely-gleaming in her mightiness, she moves along her ample volumes through the realms/Most active of the active, Sindhu unrestrained, like to a dappled mare, beautiful, fair to see.” This is the most precious tribute ever paid to this greatest of our rivers, whose name has transformed through classical Persian and Greek to become India. So powerful is the original Sanskrit, that its poetic splendour is not diminished even in the English version. The Rig Veda then goes on to celebrate the Ganga, Yamuna, Sutudri (Sutlej), Sarasvati, Asikni (Chenab) and Vitasta (Jhelum) besides several others. But it is the Sindhu that “in might surpasses all the streams that flow”, which captivates the poet of those centuries past.

Now, with rivers worthy of such worship, the land could only have been fertile beyond measure. When the Macedonians and Greeks came to India with Alexander, they, much like the writers of the Rig Veda, were amazed by the fruitfulness of the country. Here, even in very ancient times, the husbandman could coax two crops from the earth. There were, besides, vegetables and fruit no end.

A good example of the marvels that impressed the westerners was the sugar cane, “tall reeds that exuded honey”. Even the mango, referred to as a honey-filled bean growing upon trees, was something they had never experienced before. When Alexander returned to the Chaj Doab between the Chenab and the Jhelum rivers after the revolt on the Beas, it was August, with the rains coming down in torrents. The mangoes were ripe and the men fell upon this unfamiliar fruit, gorging themselves beyond capacity. The result was a large number of cases of diarrhoea among the soldiery and followers!

But with their superior airs, the westerners were not ready to concede that the fertility of the subcontinent had anything to do with the annual flooding of the land by its great rivers. In fact, to be fair with them, they could not have known this connection. They invented a Greek source for this over-abundance of food instead. Dionysus, it was said, had invaded India at some very early date. Since he was the god of fertility whose worship released the spirits of the earth and of fecundity, it was he, the Greeks believed, who gave this wonderful land its fruitfulness.

The creator of the Dionysus myth is said to be the dramatist Euripides (484-406 BCE). Interestingly, however, Arrian (died circa 160 CE) writing on Alexander, dismantles the Dionysus myth. He says he should “hardly care” to delve into this myth because “nobody knows who this Dionysus was, nor the date of his invasion of India…”

Today, we know that the celebrated fertility of the subcontinent was because of its rivers that annually overflowed their banks to enrich the land with alluvium. And, chief among these rivers, so the magical, magnificent Rig Veda tells us, was the Maha Sapta Sindhu.


posted by Salman Rashid @ 00:00,


At 30 August 2014 at 15:56, Anonymous Muhammad Athar said...

Great Article

At 30 August 2014 at 16:21, Anonymous Salman Rashid said...

Thank you, Athar.

At 30 August 2014 at 17:29, Blogger Lahoremassagist said...

Great piece of history

At 30 August 2014 at 19:44, Anonymous Dr. How said...

Rivers overflow because of monsoon.
monsoon exist because Himalayas blocking jet stream
and temperature difference between land and southern sea.
River exist because mountains.
mountains exist because tectonic plates colliding.

Classical Indus Valley civilization ended because of 400 year drought.
Judaism was created because of collapse of farming in west asia.

There is your dichotomy.

At 31 August 2014 at 14:28, Anonymous Amardeep Singh said...

"S+Indu"....chinese call the land on east of river Sindhu as "Indu". Indians are locally called as INDU. Today it stands divided between India and Pakistan, so Chiese now refer to India and Indu and Pakistan as Pakistan. When Arabs crossed Sindhu, I believed the land on this side started getting refered as the culture belonging to "Hindu". The history from Vedas to today's Chinese language bears testimony to the common heritage of this land.

At 1 September 2014 at 09:05, Anonymous Dr.How said...

Mr. Rashid,

Did you see that Goverment of India released a two volume
encyclopedia on India-China contacts. You can download the pdf
from site.
Just google the following one at a time.


At 1 September 2014 at 11:31, Anonymous Salman Rashid said...

Thank you, Dr How. This will definitely go into my reading list.

At 1 September 2014 at 11:31, Anonymous Salman Rashid said...

Spot on, Amardeep.

At 5 September 2014 at 22:19, Blogger Unknown said...

Wow!!! Have to definitely grab Rig Veda for Autumn reading. Any suggestions for a good English translation?

At 6 September 2014 at 07:20, Anonymous Salman Rashid said...

Memoona, I have Griffith's translation. I like it. I don't think you can get a copy in Pakistan. Do look around, though. I must say, the poetry is so beautiful that no translation can ever take anything from it.

At 15 September 2014 at 12:30, Blogger Brahmanyan said...

Wonderful post. I am moved by your love for beauty expounded in Rg Veda. Vedas are repository of revealed knowledge of ancients lived in the sub-continent. Original with Translation is available in net "Sacred texts".


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Deosai: Land of the Gaint - New

The Apricot Road to Yarkand

Jhelum: City of the Vitasta

Sea Monsters and the Sun God: Travels in Pakistan

Salt Range and Potohar Plateau

Prisoner on a Bus: Travel Through Pakistan

Between Two Burrs on the Map: Travels in Northern Pakistan

Gujranwala: The Glory That Was

Riders on the Wind

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