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Land of the Seven Rivers

Sanjeev Sanyal traces the history of India through its geography, from Gondwana to Gurgaon

Rajiv Shirali  |  New Delhi 

describes his account of the rise and fall of urban civilisations in India as “a journey from Gondwana to Gurgaon”. Gondwana is the super continent of which India was part – along with Africa, South America, Antarctica and Australia – millions of years ago, and Gurgaon, the author says, is “the face of twenty-first century India … chaotic, unplanned, infuriating but undeniably dynamic….”

History, he says in his introduction, is not just politics but the result of the complex interactions between a large number of factors, of which geography is one of the most important. Mr Sanyal, no expert, has written a gripping yet thought-provoking account.

The fortunes of four successive urban civilisations in India are dealt with. The first was the Harappan or Indus-Saraswati civilisation in north-west India and parts of present-day Pakistan, which was at its peak between 2600 BC and 1900 BC. It had disappeared by 1400 BC, as the Saraswati river from which it drew its sustenance dried up.

The second civilisation, which belonged to the period between 1300 BC and 400 BC, was located in the Gangetic plains. Its main cities were Pataliputra (the imperial capital), Taxila (an intellectual hub near present-day Islamabad), the port of Tamralipti in the east (across the river from Kolkata), Kaushambi (near Allahabad), Varanasi, Rajgir, Sravasti and Ujjain.

The third cycle of urbanisation was centred on Delhi, the most prominent city of this phase, which began with the sacking of Prithviraj Chauhan’s Delhi and ended six and a half centuries later with the sacking of Mughal Delhi in the wake of the failed revolt of 1857. By this time, however, the fourth cycle was well under way in Calcutta, Madras and Bombay (as they were known then).

The book has a geographic focus, but it offers a well-rounded picture of the India of those times. By Mauryan times (roughly 300 BC to 200 BC), India already had a north-south highway-cum-trade route (the Dakshina Path) that made its way from the Gangetic plains to the southern tip of the peninsula; and its east-west counterpart, the Uttara Path, which ran from eastern Afghanistan, through Punjab and the Gangetic plains to the ports of Bengal. The latter would be known as Sadak-i-Azam during Sher Shah Suri’s reign, and as the Grand Trunk Road under the British.

By the first century AD, there was a flourishing maritime trade between India and the kingdoms to the west, as well as with Southeast Asian kingdoms. Ships sailing from West Asia to India brought Italian and Arabian wine to modern-day Bharuch, and India even ran a large trade surplus with the Graeco-Roman world. The resulting constant one-way flow of gold and silver coins at one stage even forced Roman Emperor Vespasian to discourage the import of Indian luxury goods and ban the export of gold to India. Clearly, the Indian love of gold, silver and imported alcohol is not new, Mr Sanyal points out.

Other present-day parallels – and contrasts – are also noted. For instance, the country already knew of foreign investment in education (a much-debated topic today) — Nalanda University may have been founded by the Gupta dynasty, but its subsequent growth was partly funded by the Srivijaya kings of Sumatra. Then again, the inability to balance the budget goes back at least as far as the regime of Aurangzeb, who found that revenues that exceeded the combined revenues of the Shah of Persia and the Ottoman Sultan were not enough to pay for his Deccan wars.

Strangely, while the growth of Calcutta, Madras and Bombay in the 19th century is labelled the fourth cycle of urbanisation, the building of the new city of Delhi after 1911 is not considered part of this evolution. The author notes, however, that the country “is now embarking on a phase of rapid urbanisation that will make India an urban-majority country within a generation”. But Lutyens’ Delhi comes in for a great deal of criticism. Mr Sanyal writes that “the new city was not built as a practical hub of commerce and industry. It was meant as a display of imperial power…”

Jawaharlal Nehru’s 1950 decision to invite Le Corbusier (“a French fascist”) to build the new city of Chandigarh – and to give him the mandate to “create a city that was ‘unfettered’ by India’s ancient civilisation”, although the new city was to be built “at the heart of ancient Sapta-Sindhu and very close to the Saraswati-Ghaggar” – is predictably pilloried. Mr Sanyal argues that rigid master plans are bad for cities, they cannot create a “living ecosystem”, and that Chandigarh “has generated little of economic or cultural value” after half a century of existence.

Nehru, he writes, had wanted Chandigarh to be the symbol of India’s future. That honour has instead been claimed by Gurgaon — which came up in newly liberalised India after outsourcing companies, once they found that the necessary real estate was not available in Delhi because of its rigid master plan, crossed the border to Gurgaon. Gurgaon, he writes, is a good metaphor for modern India, with its “private sector dynamism, the robber-baron element and a government that is struggling to keep up”. The Harappans, he believes, were better at maintaining municipal order.

A Brief History of India’s Geography
Sanjeev Sanyal

331 pages; Rs 499

First Published: Thu, December 13 2012. 00:18 IST