Foreign Travellers’ Accounts;

A vivid impression about the life in ancient Indian society can be gleaned from the contemporary literary creations. The Arthashastra of Kautilya, Sakuntala of Kalidas or the Panchatantra of Vishnu Sharma, every piece of literature of the past transports us back to those times.
Non-Religious Texts : Foreign Travellers’ Accounts

Namaskar and welcome once again to the story of our fabulous land - India.

India was sometimes called a ‘Golden Bird’ – or Sone Ki Chidiya. This appellation not only reflected its material riches but also the richness of its spiritual attainments. Both these allurements attracted the fortune seekers from far and wide. Some came to this mysterious land to acquire wealth and riches, while others came to attain knowledge and spiritual salvation. India, in its turn, never disappointed its visitors.

Some of these visitors have left a first hand account of the places they visited, people they met, events they witnessed and the experiences they underwent. All these accounts are a treasure-trove of information – a boon to the chronicler of the past.

The oldest accounts of India which have come down to us from abroad are of the Greeks. But although India figures in the writings of Herodotus and Ctesias, these consist largely of incredible tales. The most realistic and perhaps the most important of these is Indica by Meagasthenes.

Meagasthenes was an ambassador sent by Seleucus Nikator, a general of the Alexander the Great, to the court of Chandragupta Maurya. Meagasthenes resided at Pataliputra, near modern Patna, and also travelled around the country. He describes India’s two largest rivers – Sindhu and the Ganga; roads that were provided with shady trees and rest-houses; trees that grew in India, especially the great Banyan tree, the branches of which grew downwards and took root; the fertile land and the ambient climate; animal life, particularly the tiger, langur, talking parrots, horses and elephants. In fact Meagasthenes goes on to narrate how the wild elephants were caught and trained in the art of warfare.

Meagasthenes has described the people of India with admiration. He has given a graphic account of their physical features, their dresses, diet and social customs. According to him the people of India were divided into seven classes according to their occupation:
• Philosophers
• Peasants
• Herdsmen
• Craftsmen and Traders
• Soldiers
• Overseers and Spies, and
• Councillors or Assessors.

Of particular interest is Meagasthenes’ account of the capital city, Pataliputra, situated on the banks of Ganga. The administration of civil and military affairs of the state as well as the trade and commercial activities of the people are also described in detail.

The original work of Meagasthenes is no more available. It survives only in the form of extensive extracts in the works of the later Greek authors, and all of them regarded Megasthenes’s work as a standard one on India. Indica commands great importance for the historians because it was only through this work that in 1794 William Jones was able to establish the first firm date of India’s history - that of Chandragupta Maurya.

India had a thriving foreign trade with the west. One of most extensive and authentic source of this fact is the famous work Periplus of the Erythrean Sea. This work by an anonymous Greek author who settled in Egypt and came to India in around A.D. 80. He has left for us detailed information about navigational, commercial and even political information about India at that time. In fact, we even find some of the Satavahana rulers mentioned by name in his account. This short account of full of many valuable information about the economic activities of ancient India, otherwise unknown to us. It is, therefore, not surprising that the Periplus is regarded by the historians as ‘worth its weight in gold’.

Apart from the Greeks, India had a flourishing trade with Rome: hence, it was natural that contemporary Roman authors too mention India in their narratives. Thus we have a geographical account of India by Ptolemy in his book Geography of India, written in about 130 A.D.

Yet another account of India comes to us from the pen of Pliny. In his work Natural History, Pliny wrote about Indian plants, animals and minerals. The most interesting observation of his was that Rome was losing a lot of bullion to India through its import of luxurious goods. Besides Pliny there were other Roman writers of a later date in whose works we find valuable information about India.

While these accounts of India have come down to us from the west, with the spread of Buddhism we have a number of pilgrims from the east — especially China — who have left us very valuable accounts which help us to reconstruct the history of the period. The earliest of these is Fa Hian, a Buddhist monk who was in India between A.D. 405 and 411.

Fa Hian’s book A Record of Buddhist Kingdoms tell us a great deal about India of 1,500 years ago. At the age of 25, Fa Hian set out on his journey to and for the next fourteen years he was away from his home. He spent six years travelling, six years in India and two years in Sri Lanka. His voyage covered thousands of miles over mountains and across oceans. Among the places Fa Hian visited were: Gandhara in Afghanistan; Purushpur of Peshawar, the ancient capital of the Kushanas; Skardo in Kashmir, where Chandragupta Vikramaditya held a Panch-Parishad, or a five year assembly, Mathura, Kapilvastu, Sravasti, Rajgriha, Patliputra and Gaya. After living in India for six years, Fa Hian boarded a ship at Tamralipti and sailed for Sri Lanka.

Although main mission of Fa Hian was to collect Buddhist manuscripts and visit the monasteries, he has left an account which throws invaluable light about India in the fifth century.

Following the footsteps of Fa Hian, more than sixty Chinese travellers visited India and have left accounts of their travels. The most important of these was Hieun Tsang, who visited India two hundred years after Fa Hian.

Hieun Tsang began his journey at the age of 29, and set out for the land of Buddha in 629 AD. Like Fa Hian, he was away from home for about fifteen years, i.e. from 629 to 644 AD. The greater part of this period was spent in India. Hieun Tsang carefully noted down all that he saw, but unlike Fa Hian and I Tsing, his observations were not confined to religious matters alone. His travel account, known as Travels or Records of Western Lands, comprises of twelve books, containing details of political, social, economic and religious lives of the 7th century Indians.

Hieun Tsang visited several places in India, including: Kashmir, Kulu, Jullandhar, Thanesar, Kurukshetra, Mathura, Kannauj, Prayag, Sravasti, Kapilvastu, Kusinagara, Banaras, Sarnath, Gaya, Vaisali, Pataliputra and Rajgriha. Hieun Tsang then reached his destination –Nalanda, the great seat of learning in those days. He spent a couple of years in Nalanda, learning Sanskrit, and studying Buddhist texts. After leaving Nalanda, Hieun Tsang first went to Karna-Suvarna, and then to Samtata and Tamralipti. From there he went along the east coast of Orissa and passing through Kalinga went to South Kosala or Berar and thence to Andhra. He travelled as far south as Kanchipuram and then turned to Maharashtra, and then via Broach to Malwa. From Malwa he went to Saurashtra, then northward to Sindh, Multan and as far as Makran up to the border of Iran. He then crossed the Indus and returned to Nalanda where he took up teaching. It was at Nalanda that Hiuen Tsang came in contact with the ruler of Assam and through him King Harshvardhana, the Maukhari ruler of Kannauj.

Harshvardhana was greatly impressed by this young Chinese monk. He invited him to Kannauj where Hiuen Tsang was made to preside over the great Buddhist council. Hiuen Tsang too was immensely impressed by the King about whom he gave the greatest details. What, in fact, Megasthenes had done for Chandragupta Maurya, Hiuen Tsang did for Harsha. Thus we get details of his administration, his economy and above all, his personal life.

No account of Harsha and his reign and even the contemporary political and religious condition of India during this period can be satisfactory unless the historian turns to the account of Hiuen Tsang.

From the 8th century onwards, when the Arabs conquered Sindh, India figured prominently in the chronicles written by the Muslim scholars. Of these the most important is Abu Rihan, better known as Alberuni. The story of Alberuni’s association with India itself is an interesting story.

Alberuni was born in 973 AD in the territory of Khiva in Central Asia. By the age of forty he was well versed in all the Arabic works on science, mathematics, astronomy and astrology. When Khiva was invaded and overrun by Mahmud of Ghazni, and Alberuni among others was taken as prisoner to Ghazni. Later all these prisoners were exiled to India.

During the years of his exile in India, Alberuni availed of the opportunity to study its people and their culture. He even learned Sanskrit, studied the ancient texts and was familiar with such diverse subjects as mathematics, chemistry, philosophy, religious rites, customs, astronomy and astrology of India. Alberuni translated or wrote about twenty-four books in Arabic, among which his work on India, his Tehqiq-i-Hind, is the most outstanding. This voluminous book is considered as the most comprehensive account of India ever written by a foreigner.

Famous writer Will Durant calls Alberuni “one of the greatest scholars of Asia.” In a more recent work on Indian History, John Keay points out that Alberuni’s “celebrity in the Arab world would owe much to his mastery of Sanskrit and access to Indian scholarship.” Alberuni’s work is the last major literary source for the history of ancient India.

Among the literary sources, the accounts left by the foreigners hold a unique position. About their importance, the famous historian KAN Sastri has this to say in his book Age of the Nandas and Mauryas:
“ The accounts of any country and its people by foreign observers are of great interest to the historian of that country. For they enable him to know what impression is made upon the minds of such observers and to estimate with greater confidence, the part played by it in the general history of the world.”

However, none of the literary sources, whether native or foreign in origin, especially those of ancient India, must be taken at its face value. As far as possible, a historian must corroborate the picture he builds from these sources with non-literary ones like archaeological remains, coins and inscriptions. These we shall discuss in our next episode.

For now, it’s Good Bye.

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