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1Earthly matters: Origins of the Indus Empty Earthly matters: Origins of the Indus on Mon Sep 05, 2011 4:51 am


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The River Indus is Pakistan’s lifeline, the country’s longest and most important river that provides sustenance to millions of people as it flows down from the Himalayan and Karakoram Mountains to the Arabian Sea. One of the world’s earliest urban settlements, the Indus Valley civilisation, flourished on its banks and it has been well traversed by travellers and traders. Yet we know little about its origins — it comes to us via India through Jammu and Kashmir, but its ultimate source is said to be located in Tibet (now part of China).

Just recently, Chinese scientists have pinpointed the sources of not only the Indus but three other major rivers that flow through China and South Asia — the Brahmaputra, Salween and Irrawaddy. The scientists measured their lengths and size of drainage basins and hope that this information will prove to be invaluable for future environmental research.

The research was a result of expeditions and satellite photograph analysis by researchers from the Chinese Academy of Sciences. Previously, the sources of these four rivers were never clearly designated and differing accounts regarding their lengths and drainage areas confused researchers for many years. The four rivers originate on the Qinghai-Tibet Plateau along with the Yangtze, Yellow, Mekong and Ganges rivers, and provide water for about 1.3 billion people.

The determination of the four rivers’ sources was based on a principle commonly accepted within the international geographical community: that the source of a river is defined as the longest branch in the river’s drainage basin.

To locate the headstreams of the rivers and measure their lengths, the Chinese team used remote-sensing images provided by the US Landsat satellite and the French SPOT satellite. These provided the team with high-resolution photos of the Qinghai-Tibet Plateau.

However, the Chinese still wished to verify the accuracy of the images themselves and sent joint expedition teams to conduct four field investigations between 2007 and 2010.

The result of their analysis and field investigations showed that the Indus River originates in a valley northeast of Kailash, the highest peak of the Gangdise Mountain, in Geji County of Tibet. Its headstream, called Banggokong by local Tibetans, is about 30 kilometres away from Senge Khabab, which the Swedish explorer, Sven Hedin, believed was the source of the river more than 100 years ago.

The new findings show that the Indus River is 3,600 kilometres long, against the previously believed 2,900 or 3,200 kilometres. Its drainage area is more than one million square kilometres, according to the new research. The river runs through China, India and Pakistan, with nearly 200 million people living in its drainage basin.

Perhaps it is appropriate that a river that gives life to millions of people originates in a landscape that has been described by conservationists as “sacred”. The International Centre for Integrated Mountain Development (ICIMOD) is currently planning to protect this landscape under their “Kailash Sacred Landscape Conservation Initiative”.

Mt. Kailash has the unique distinction of being the world’s most venerated and least visited holy place. As the sacred site of four religions, the Kailash area is seen by no more than a few thousand pilgrims each year due to its remote location in far western Tibet. There are no planes, trains or buses which can take you anywhere near this region and even in jeeps the journey still requires weeks of difficult travel. The weather is always cold and pilgrims must carry all the supplies they will need for the entire journey.

Once they reach the site and set up camp, pilgrims will spend days walking around the mountain as they pray, and many will also take a short plunge in the freezing waters of the nearby sacred Lake Manosaravar, which means Lake of Consciousness and Enlightenment. Pilgrimage to the sacred mountain and magical lake is said to be a life changing experience. Sadly only a few people on earth will ever get to see this sacred landscape that holds within it the origins of the mighty Indus.

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