16 May, 2018


A very long time ago atop a snow covered mountain in Tibet, a tiny drop of water broke out. That tiny drop was followed by another. Then another. Then another. It took thousands of years for the trickle of drops to become a stream. But that’s just a heartbeat on the geological time scale. The gentle stream changed its course over the millennia, slowly finding its path into the Arabian Sea. It went through an excelsis duo of topography and landscape to finally find its way into the ocean at the other end of the subcontinent.

Five thousand years ago when civilization was still an experiment, agriculture was just starting to begin, when man had no love for land, had no concept of property, and had not hierarchized himself by the rich and the poor, some tribe found this rapid stream and decided to rest. Humans arrived in this part of the world braving through dense forests of Africa and arid deserts of Arabia and finally laid the foundations of modern society. Maybe they felt attracted to it. Maybe they were unable to build a bridge. Maybe the leader drank a bit of the water and proclaimed it as the mother. We cannot be too specific about history. Sure there were other rivers further on. More hospitable ones. Ones that flowed through plains rather than the treacherous mountains. But it would take some centuries for man to venture that far ahead. For now, he was content with this dank river valley. And he held some of the water up in his palm and let it flow in the gentle breeze naming it for the first time – “Sindhu”.

For centuries to come, people from all over the world would come and as is with the case with long history, a number of stories would be written on the banks of this river. Stories of love and loss and birth and death and joy and sorrow and war and peace. Every new accent would name the river, its people, and its lands in a new way. Sindhu would be names as Hendu (Iranians), Sinda (Assyrians), Ab-e-sind (Persians), Indos (Greeks), Indus (Romans), Abasind (Afghans), Al-Sind (Arabs), Sintow (Chinese), and Santri (Javanese). The lands on the other side of this river and its people would be named for the river – Indians from the other side of the Indus. It was on the banks of this river that every story about this great subcontinent, flanked by the ocean and the mountains on either side, would be written. It is somewhat ironic that the beginning of India was laid in what later came to be Pakistan. Ironic, because the foundation of Pakistan was laid in India.

But I don’t think we ever identified ourselves as “Indians” or “Hindustaanis”. You only name yourself when you wish to be separated from what is not you. India was given its name by those who were not Indians. First the Mughals gave the land on the other side of the Hendu as Hindustaan and then the British with their funny accents would call us Indians.

I have often argued that Hinduism lacks the basic characteristics of a religion. Hinduism is not a religion per say but a common culture shared by the residents of the Indian sub-continent over thousands of years of existence. In effect, it is more of a Geological concept than a theological one. It was not until the struggle for independence in the mid-19th century that the common culture was unified with common symbols to fight a common enemy that “Hinduism” emerged as a united culture of the people. But if Hinduism was ever to have a starting point in history, it would be on the banks of the river from which it derives its name.

Language, culture, history, music, economics, astronomy, legends of mighty Gods, were first created on the banks of this river. In the beginning, man gave no form or feature to his Gods. Gods were not divine beings who took human form to undertake the tasks like fighting wars and cleansing evil from society. Gods were more approachable and not subject to calls from learned priests who knew special chants and hymns to summon them. Gods were found in nature and provided nourishment. The ancients found their Gods in thunder and soil and fire and air. But the first Gods my people had come to revere was their river. “Mother” they used to call it. Maata. Sindhu Maata. The nourishing force of life which allowed them to settle and organize themselves. Which brought them to salvation from the desert and gave them crops and fruits and bounty to build homes. Sindhu allowed my ancestors to leave the nomadic lives and caves and tame their environment and move to higher goals of life. Sindhu allowed us to take a step forward in exploration and survival and thus was born the Indus Valley Civilization. From there we see temples and symbols of worship to their mother river. The timeless religion. Over the course of the centuries the symbols would give way to complex texts and rituals. And we would try to control and dirty the mother river and her sisters further along the plains. But for then, for the first time, Indians had found home – India.

In the 21st century, my people have the utmost reverence for Ganga. It is the river laying the boundary of India at the north and flowing through the country irrigating much of the fertile lands. However, I have largely been unable to see the Ganga as the mother river. No matter which part of the country I visited it, it felt murk and dirty. The more revered the place, the more people pollute the Ganga with symbols of their devotion. On 1st October 2017, I had the opportunity to visit the Indus, still quite far from the where it is born in the mountains. But close enough for it to be not polluted by the needs of the modern society it helped shape. I walked up to the shores and picked up the water in my palm. Then with the breeze, I slowly let it go. With it, slowed the ages of stories that had been shaped by it. For man has forgotten his past in the flow of time and everything keeps flowing without care of the past. But every now and then, we must look back and see if we show our past enough respect. Maybe they are the glaciers that keeps us flowing. And maybe before it’s too late, our time will melt away. Maybe Indus has too many responsibilities for man to think if his mother has been overworked now. But in that moment on that cold Kashmiri day, in my palm I remembered what my ancestors had revered for ages – Sindhu Maata.