For all of Lord Curzon’s unpopularity as the viceroy of India – not to mention his racist mindset and the infamous announcement of the partition of the undivided Bengal – his appointment of John Marshall, barely twenty-six years of age, as the head of the Archaeological Survey of India in 1902, was an act of prudence. Marshall encouraged archaeological studies and spearheaded excavations which were to change the chronology of ancient India.

Prior to the great unearthing of the mounds in the valleys of the Indus, it was thought that India’s civilisation dated back only to the time of Alexander’s invasion.

The history before that was in the realm of the unknown. In 1921, the epoch-making discovery of the site of Harappa and the following year at Mohenjo-daro brought to light the existence of a singularly uniform civilisation (3300 to 1500 BCE), located in what is now Pakistan and north-west India up to the Arabian Sea. It was

“...closely akin but in some respects even superior to that of contemporary Mesopotamia and Egypt.”

The discovery became a source for

“...popular perceptions of India’s ancient past...”

and inspired a nationalistic sentiment of a

“...glorious golden age.”

Later, in post-Independence India, the Indus civilisation became a revered reference for the nationalistic Hindutva cultural claims of the Hindu-Vedic society and the Sindhhu Saraswati Sabhyata (Indus–Saraswati Civilisation).

An intriguing aspect of the Indus Valley relates to the circumstances that brought an end to the civilisation. It is largely evidenced that the civilisation between 1700 and 1500 BCE witnessed widespread climate change in the form of rainfall deficiency and drought, and as one theory suggested, the numerous settlements on the Indus flood plains were engulfed by mud. The impact of it was undoubtedly telling but of significance also was the resilience of the society and the means of adaptation that the settlers practised until it became unsustainable.

The Indus civilisation – Harappa, along with Mohenjo-daro, Lothal, Dholavira, Kalibangan and numerous other sites – presents an intricate relationship of the monsoonal and fluvial changes, and their societal impact. The Harappans harnessed flood inundation irrigation (sailaba) and dry farming (khushkaba) in the arid plains.

Methods like storing rainwater and then channelising it for irrigation was also extensively applied. Evidences of check dams and reservoirs, for example, in Dholavira, confirm hydraulic interventions that helped the people to cope with decreasing rainfall and the eastward shift of the rivers.

Such knowledge many millennia prior to the development of the world’s largest irrigation system in the Punjab remained instructive, none more so than the fact that the Indus basin, while extremely productive, is equally unpredictable with frequent changes in the course of the rivers and variation in flow.

Over 5000 years ago, the Indus civilisation teemed with tigers, rhinoceros and elephants as they roamed the “moister regions”, a radical contrast to the ecology today. The river system also had a different profile. Mohenjo-daro in the Sindh Valley was flanked by two parallel rivers which flowed to the sea – the westward Indus and the eastward Mihrān. During the period of the Indus civilisation, the Indus was a subsidiary branch of the Mihrān, which was possibly the Hakra in its upper reaches and dominated the hydrology of the region by channelling the waters of all the rivers of the Punjab to the sea.

The courses of the two rivers in successive periods intermittently changed, at times being close and connected, and at other times, distant and independent. The existence of two rivers with an eastern flow and a western flow at the mouth of the ocean is noted by the chroniclers of Alexander of Macedon during his campaign in the Punjab. But the Indus or the western flow, as observed, had a greater volume.

Many centuries later, the two rivers were recorded by the Arabs. Al-Baladhuri in the ninth century, followed by the tenth-century historian and traveller, El-Masʿūdī, and the eleventh-century Persian scholar, Al-Beruni, all describe the domineering Mihrān while the Indus is actually referred to as the river Sindh – the classical Islamic geographers’ interpretation of the basin. By the fourteenth century, there are fewer references to the Mihrān, possibly with the eastern flow merging with the western flow of the Indus. Later, as observed during the Tughlak period,

“...the western branch which flowed under Thatta was the mainstream so broad that you could not see from the left bank the battle that was being fought on the opposite shore.”

With the British colonial rule, the Indus as a nomenclature got firmly established. During 1808-10, the Englishmen in their diligent survey of the Sindh, Kabul and Lahore regions of the Indus basin, while referring to the accounts of the Arab travellers and the ancient texts, observed the contradictions in the descriptions of the rivers. Quite perplexed by the interchanging emphasis on the Mihrān and Indus, the British cartographers broadly concluded that the river Sindh was the Indus.

Thus above its junction with the Chenab, the Indus was called Sindh; from this point to Aror it was the Panjnad; and from the city to its mouth it bore the name of Mihrān.

The varying nomenclature and uncertainty over what was to be regarded as the main stem required a powerful expression of unification and, under the British administration, the Indus became the all-encompassing river – it was not only the Sindh but also the Panjnad and the Mihrān.

The Punjab plain made up of doabs or the land between rivers was a “staging-point” for invaders as they descended from the wuthering heights of the mountain passes on the north-western side to enter India. There the exhausted invaders halted, organising their army and preparing stratagem to capture the seat of power, whether it was Taxila in the fifth-century BCE, or Lahore till the thirteenth century and later Delhi.

The defenders of power would pre-empt the invaders by meeting them at the entry points in the plains or at times greet them to form alliances. Several clashes and bloody battles were an outcome. The Punjab shaped India’s destiny in profound ways and its location brought an interrelation of war and peace, and an intersection of race, language and culture that led to a variety of descriptions through different times—the “sword arm of India”, the “gateway of India” and the “seedbed of new ideas”, to cite a few.

Rivers never failed to capture the imagination of the people and different cultural ages christened Punjab through its rivers – the Sapt Sindhu (land of seven rivers) in the Vedic time, the Persian pronunciation (“s” as “h”) being Haft Hind; the Panch Nad (land of five rivers) in the Mahabharat age; and when the Greeks came to Punjab they named it the Pentapotamia. Punjab with its rivers was a great melting pot, and

“...beating and being beaten by hordes of warriors and invaders gave rise to a composite culture which bore the imprint of every age through which it passed and every race and culture with which it came into contact.”

Edward Gibbon’s The History of the Decline and Fall of the Roman Empire is an indispensable source tracing western civilisation from the height of the Roman Empire to the fall of Byzantium. In a grand narrative unmatched during the time it mentions, briefly, Alexander of Macedon in the Punjab with Greek references to the rivers that joined the Indus – the Hydaspes (Chelum/Jhelum), Hyphasis (Beyah/Beas), Ascesines (Chenab), Hydraotes (Ravey/Ravi) and Renney or Hesidros (the Suteldj/Sutlej).

Indus Basin Uninterrupted

Excerpted with permission from Indus Basin Uninterrupted: A History of Territory & Politics from Alexander to Nehru, Uttam Kumar Sinha, Penguin Books.