Monday, October 21, 2013

Review: Land of the Seven Rivers

I read Sanjeev Sanyal's "Land of the Seven Rivers: A Brief History of India's Geography" with much interest after I heard a podcast of his talk at LSE.

It presents Indian history (and prehistory) through the lens of geography and climate. The new perspective allows for some fascinating reinterpretations.

For example, Sanyal claims that the Ramayana was a oriented along a North-South axis (Ayodhya to Sri Lanka), and that the Mahabharata, was more aligned along an approximately East-West axis. Remnants of these paths still exist in the form of segments of national highways.

Similarly, he tells the fascinating story of why Gautam Buddha went to Sarnath to propagate his new philosophy (it sits at the intersection of two important commercial routes, which allows for rapid dissemination of goods and ideas). He dwells on the role of "pillars", and how some of them became a canvas on which successive waves of emperors would carve out their names for posterity.

One surprising aspect (which perhaps should not have been that surprsing) is how much the climate has changed even in the last few thousand years, and how a response to such massive climate change has shaped the course of history (example, the end of the Indus-Saraswati valley civilization). As we deal with a climate crisis of our own, it is useful to look at the massive disruption such upheavals cause.

If another reason to study history is to learn how we got where we are, then I think this book shows us how big of a role Nature and fortune (as opposed to politics and monarchs, which are the usual lens through which history is told) played in shaping the course of events.

The book is full of factoids and clever observation of patterns. Throughout the book there is an underlying concept of "continuity" and the idea of "nationhood" extending from 90 million years ago, through the merger of the Indian subcontinent with Asia, the early river valley civilizations, through the last couple of millennium, up to the present day with a discussion of the Indian diaspora.

It is truly a fascinating read, and very highly recommended. 

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