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India was sometimes called a ‘Golden Bird’. This appellation not only reflected its material riches but also the richness of its philosophical inheritance and 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 any chronicler of the past.

According to the famous historian, K.A. Nilakanta Sastri,

The accounts of any country and its people by foreign observers are of great interest to the historian of the country; for they enable him to know what impressions the country 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.

[K.A. Nilakanta Sastri, The Age of the Nandas and Mauryas, 1967, p. 81.]

The oldest foreign accounts of India which have come down to us are those by the Greek travellers. Although India figures in the writings of the Greek authors such as Herodotus, who is regarded as the ‘Father of History’, and Ktesias, who was a physician to the Emperor in the Persian court, their works consist largely of incredible tales. The most realistic and perhaps the most important of these works is Indika written by Megasthenes, about 2,300 years ago.

Megasthenes was born in Anatolia in modern Turkey in about 350 BC. He was twenty-four when Alexander invaded India in 326 BC. After the death of Alexander, when his kingdom was divided amongst his military commanders, Megasthenes entered into the service of Sibyrtios, the Satrap of Arachosia, a kingdom that can be identified with the region of the Arghandab valley in modern-day Afghanistan, and extending eastward up to as far as the Indus River in modern-day Pakistan.

In about 301 BC Seleucus Nikator, a general of Alexander, who established his independent Seleucid Empire after the death of his master, sent Megasthenes as his ambassador to the court of Chandragupta Maurya. Thus Megasthenes became the first foreign Ambassador to be mentioned in Indian history.

Megasthenes entered the Indian subcontinent through the district of Pentapotamia (in the Punjab region of modern-day Pakistan), and then proceeded to Pataliputra, visiting the holy city of Mathura on his way. During his travels, Megasthenes gathered first-hand knowledge about the country, its soil, crops, climate, flora and fauna, as well as about its natural features. He describes this country as stretching from the Himalayas up to the island of Sri Lanka, which he calls ‘Taprobane’. India, according to Megasthenes, was vast country:

It is so big that it occupies the first position amongst the four parts in which Southern Asia is divided.

He describes in detail India’s two largest rivers – Ganges or the Ganga and Indus or the Sindhu. About Ganga, he writes:

India, [again], possesses many rivers both large and navigable, which, having their sources in the mountains which stretch along the northern frontier, traverse the level country, and not a few of these, after uniting with each other, fall into the river called the Ganges.

About the River Indus, Megasthenes writes:

Another river, about the same size as the Ganges, called the Indus, has its sources, like its rival, in the north, and falling into the ocean forms on its way the boundary of India.

Megasthenes talks about 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:

The Indians enjoy a pure air and drink the very finest water. The soil being very rich grows abundant means of subsistence. Rains visit the country frequently. In the course of one year the Indians receive double rainfall – one during the winter season and the other in the summer season.

As a result, he affirms, that ‘famine has never visited India, and that there has never been a general scarcity in the supply of nourishing food.’

Megasthenes also describes different species of animal life in India, particularly the lions, tigers, monkeys, apes (langur), sheeps, goats, oxen, dogs, and horses, as well as peacocks, ‘talking parrots’, ‘flying serpents’, and ‘winged scorpions of an extraordinary size’.

One animal that overwhelmed Megasthenes the most was the Indian elephant. He writes:

India possesses a vast number of huge elephants, which far surpass those found elsewhere, both in strength and size.

And adds that:

A private person is not allowed to keep either a horse or an elephant. These animals are held to be the special property of the king, and persons are appointed to take care of them.

Elsewhere while describing the elephants, Megasthenes writes about India as:

…a nation which possesses a vast force of the largest-sized elephants. Owing to this, their country has never been conquered by any foreign king: for all other nations dread the overwhelming number and strength of these animals.

In fact, Megasthenes goes on to narrate how the Indians caught wild elephants and trained them in the art of warfare.

It [India] is prolific, besides, in elephants, which are of monstrous bulk, as its soil supplies food in unsparing profusion, making these animals far to exceed in strength those that are bred in Libya. It results also that, since they are caught in great numbers by the Indians and trained for war, they are of great moment in turning the scale of victory.

Megasthenes has described the people of India with great admiration.

It is said that India, being of enormous size when taken as a whole, is peopled by races both numerous and diverse, of which not even one was originally of foreign descent, but all were evidently indigenous; and moreover that India neither received a colony from abroad, nor sent out a colony to any other nation.

About the simple life led by the common Indian folk, Megasthenes writes:

The Indians neither put out money at usury, nor know how to borrow. It is contrary to established usage for an Indian either to do or suffer a wrong, and, therefore, they neither make contracts nor require securities.

Megasthenes has given a graphic account of the physical features, dresses, diets and social customs of the Indian people. At one place he writes about the memorialization of the departed souls by the Indians:

Indians do not rear monuments to the dead, but consider the virtues which men have displayed in life, and the songs in which their praises are celebrated, sufficient to preserve their memory after death.

According to him the people of India were divided into seven classes according to their occupation:

  • Philosophers
  • Peasants
  • Herdsmen
  • Artisans
  • Soldiers
  • Overseers and Spies, and
  • Councillors or Assessors.

At the same time Megasthenes admires the freedom-loving nature of the Indians:

Of several remarkable customs existing among the Indians, there is one prescribed by their ancient philosophers which one may regard as truly admirable: for the law ordains that no one among them shall, under any circumstances, be a slave, but that, enjoying freedom, they shall respect the equal right to it which all possess: for those, they thought, who have learned neither to domineer over nor to cringe to others will attain the life best adapted for all vicissitudes of lot.

Megasthenes travelled to Pataliputra, near modern Patna, the capital of the first major empire in India. He calls it Palimbothra and describes it as ‘the greatest city in the world’.

I have seen the great cities of the east… I have seen the Persian palaces of Susa and Ecbatana, but this is the greatest city in the world.

Megasthenes resided in Pataliputra for some time as Greek Ambassador at the Court of the Mauryan ruler, Chandragupta. He gives an elaborate account of the city of Pataliputra and describes it as a large fortified city:

… this city stretched in the inhabited quarters to an extreme length on each side of eighty stadia [about 12.8 km], and that its breadth was fifteen stadia [about 2.28 km], and that a ditch encompassed it all round, which was six hundred feet in breadth and thirty cubits [or about 60 feet] in depth and that the wall was crowned with 570 towers and had sixty four gates.

We are told by Megasthenes that houses in most of the Indian cities were made of wood and the royal palace at Pataliputra itself was made of timber.

Megasthenes mentions Chandragupta as ‘Sandrakottos’, and describes him as a mighty king having ‘a standing army of 600,000 foot-soldiers, 30,000 cavalry, and 9,000 elephants’ an estimate by which ‘some conjecture as to the vastness of his resources’ could be made.

Megasthenes praises the effective administration in the domains of the Mauryan king and gives details of the government machinery engaged in public affairs in large Indian cities.

Those who have charge of the city are divided into six bodies of five each.

  1. The members of the first look after everything relating to the industrial arts.
  2. Those of the second attend to the entertainment of foreigners. To these they assign lodgings, and they keep watch over their modes of life by means of those persons whom they give to them for assistants. They escort them on the way when they leave the country, or, in the event of their dying, forward their property to their relatives. They take care of them when they are sick, and if they die bury them.
  3. The third body consists of those who inquire when and how births and deaths occur, with the view not only of levying a tax, but also in order that births and deaths among both high and low may not escape the cognizance of Government.
  4. The fourth class superintends trade and commerce. Its members have charge of weights and measures, and see that the products in their season are sold by public notice. No one is allowed to deal in more than one kind of commodity unless he pays a double tax.
  5. The fifth class supervises manufactured articles, which they sell by public notice. What is new is sold separately from what is old, and there is a fine for mixing the two together.
  6. The sixth and last class consists of those who collect the tenths of the prices of the articles sold.

During his stay in Pataliputra, Megasthenes composed his invaluable work, Indika which, it appears, was divided into four books. Unfortunately, the original of this work has perished with the vagaries of time. Few of its fragments, however, have survived in the form of extensive extracts in the works of the later Greek authors, such as Diodorus, Strabo, Pliny, Arrian and Eratosthenes. Of these writers, Arrian, on whose judgment most reliance is to be placed, speaks most highly of Megasthenes, while Strabo and Pliny treat him with less respect. It is true that his work contained many fabulous stories, yet these tales appear not to have been fabrications of Megasthenes, but accounts which he received from the natives, frequently containing real truth, though disguised by popular legends and fancy.

It is quite possible that Megasthenes might have made mistakes in recording certain details. He may even be held guilty of an uncritical acceptance of Indian folklore which might have led him to believe many fables as facts. His observations might also have been coloured by his general tendency to judge the Indian culture by the Greek standards. Nevertheless, his work, Indika was indeed the first most complete account of India then known to the western world, and we should remember that he certainly selected, presented and interpreted his material in a way he thought would be more interesting to his Greek audience.

Indika holds a place of great importance for the Indian historians because it was only through this work that in 1794 Sir William Jones, a well-known Orientalist and the founder of the Asiatic Society of Bengal, was able to establish the first firm date of India’s history - that of Chandragupta Maurya.

Note: All quotations of Megasthenes are from:
Ancient India as Described by Megasthenes and Arrian, Translated and edited by J.W. McCrindle. Calcutta and Bombay: Thacker, Spink, 1877, 30-174.

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