The Indus River And The Land Of Many Silences

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Turning south from Sukkur the road runs straight and true through some of the more fertile regions of Sindh. Cultivation here is plentiful but, in the absence of effective irrigation, depends to a great extent on the moods of the Indus. Though the river flows sluggishly for most of the year it has a tendency to flood-a tendency that is the basis for more than 40 percent of Sindh’s agriculture. Over the millennia the Indus has deposited so much alluvium along its path that in many places its banks and even its bed are above the level of the surrounding plains. This is why it is capable of inundating very extensive areas of countryside but it is also why the river has come to be regarded as a temperamental and sometimes dangerous ally by the people who live in close proximity to it. Unconstrained by mountains or steep and stony valley walls, it has changed its course suddenly and capriciously several times over the last five centuries.

One such change of course dramatically improved the fortunes of Hyderabad, some 320 kilometers to the south of Sukkur, in the mid-eighteenth century. Hyderabad was then known as Nirunkot, and the Indus flowed peacefully enough to the east of it. In 1758, however, the unpredictable river flexed its muscles and shifted into a new course to the west of the town. A few years later, because of the havoc further south that had resulted from the change of course, Sindh’s ruler, the saintly Ghulam Shah Kalhora, moved his capital to irunkot, at the same time renaming it Hyderabad. In 1768, to mark the importance of the town and to render it more easily defensible, he ordered his soldiers to vacate its old dried mud fortress and to begin work on a massive new structure of burnt brick. This fort, built in less than a year, has a foundation stone which bears the inscription ‘0 God, bring peace to this city’. But Hyderabad was to see its fair share of wars. Ghulam Shah died in 1773 and was buried in an imposing mausoleum not far from the fort. Ten years after his death the Kalhora family was overthrown by the Talpur dynasty, which originated in Baluchistan. Slightly more than half a century later the Talpurs were overthrown in their turn, after a violent and bloody war, by the invading British.

The oval fort built by Ghulam Shah still stands today, in the center of modern Hyderabad, and bears very little evidence of the skirmishes that have taken place outside the one-kilometer circumference of its walls. Around them, traffic moves ceaselessly. Horse-drawn carts mingle with more elaborate six-seater landaus. A whole local industry is given over to carriage-making and the craftsmen are renowned for their painstaking attention to detail. It is an absorbing experience to watch a master at work embossing a huge wooden wheel with bright nails and chrome, or carving intricate designs into the tailboard of a landau. The route out of Hyderabad at first takes you westwards, crossing the Indus at Kotri on a huge combined road-and-rail bridge about 400 yards (365 meters) long. Here, on the banks of the river, water-melons are cultivated in great abundance as they have been since time immemorial. It is interesting that the Spanish word for water-melon, sandia, is a colloquial adaptation of ‘Sindh’. The fruit was originally brought from here to Spain more than one thousand years ago when the Arabs ruled over an empire that stretched from the Indian Ocean to the western Mediterranean.

After Kotri, the road turns southwards, still following the Indus. To the east the land stretches away green and fertile, well-irrigated by canals and providing a favourable environment for such crops as wheat, cotton and tobacco. The southern route, however, quickly brings you to a flat, monotonous, sandy desert. This is the Sind which one writer has described as a land of many silences: ‘Silence of the desert and the immensity of light without shade; silence as of drowsy forenoon of those peaceful stretches of the river that have no allurement for the fisher; silence more solemn of the dreary wastes where the river joins the sea on a lonely coast.’ It is also the Sindh of mystics and saints whose bones now lie interred within its earth beneath a multitude of tombs. And it is the Sindh of great and gifted poets like Shah Abdul Latif who in the early eighteenth century wrote:

All speak of the open path,

I want one who suggests the complex one.

Go not near the open road,

Seek after the complex one,

Suffer tribulation and come out raimentless.

Only rare ones enter the complex path;

The abode of the beloved is confusion for men,

They that walk the wilds

Are never misled;

Who walk the open road

Get plundered on the way.

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