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A comprehensive account of the India outsiders saw


Four volumes as treasure trove of information

Manju Gupta

The India They Saw: Foreign Accounts: 5th Century BC - 7th Century AD (Vol. 1), Sandhya Jain (Ed.), Ocean Books Pvt Ltd, Pp 415, Rs 750.00

It was on a visit to India that Sir Vidiadhar Naipaul, the Nobel laureate in literature, suggested to the publisher to prepare a compendium of foreign perceptions of India down the ages as he felt that the current generation had little or no information on the grandeur of the ancient Indian civilisation, whose lasting influence is visible even today in South-East Asian countries like Indonesia, Thailand, Cambodia, Sumatra, etc. The outcome of the suggestion was the publication of this book under a series, which carries three other volumes on the same theme, but pertaining to different periods.

This book talks of the early European travellers and colonial historians who discussed the Indian system of codifying the key facts and lessons of history as mythology and who were interested in the political history and forms of government, administrative and social systems, military techniques and rules of warfare, taxes, climate and physical landscape, agriculture, trade and commerce, ports, mineral resources, mining and deep sea excavation, social and economic conditions of the Indian kingdoms, the morals and manners of the people, the religious diversity and co-existence and the actual as well as the ideal conduct of kings. The Europeans were fascinated by the multitude of tribes and their linguistic variations with the Indians presenting a matchless cultural continuity even in the primeval epoch and the innumerable settlements in the form of village and fortified cities.

Modern scholars believe that the ancient Greeks recklessly transposed Greek mythology and even topography on to the Indian landscape to impress their domestic audience regarding their king’s heroic exploits. Thus the editors have carefully sifted through the records of these foreign guests of India to present India’s civilisational journey, her ideas and philosophies, customs and practices, material wealth and grandeur and ability to marry mundane existence to the quest for spiritual truth and liberation.

It is generally agreed that the Phoenicians were probably the first Mediterranean people to explore the Arabian Sea and import Indian products as early as 975 BC. Indian philosophy and wisdom captivated the outside world and there were early contacts between Indian and Greek philosophers. Ktesias, a contemporary of Hippocrates who was the famous physician, presented the interesting story of Indian merchandise, merchants and envoys, thus signifying regular traffic by land and sea routes.

India’s legendary wealth enticed Alexander who marched through Persia and Afghanistan but could not cross the Beas river, as his soldiers became nervous over the native resistance. His retreat, however, fortified the trade routes as he appointed local governors in the provinces through which he had marched. He was followed by Eudoxus from Egypt and then by Megasthenes from Greece, who arrived in India in 302 BC and penned the first dated accounts of the time. India ran a lucrative sea trade with the Persian Gulf ports of Mesopotamia and the Red Sea port of Egypt. By now the Romans had become a predominant power in the Mediterranean and had a roaring sea trade with India. The Periplus of the Erythraean Sea, written in the mid-1st century AD, gives a detailed account of the voyage undertaken by Egyptian navigator Hippalus across the Arabian Sea to Monziris (Cranganore) and the goods traded at each port.


The India They Saw: Foreign Accounts: 8th - 15th Century AD (Vol. 2), Meenakshi Jain (Ed.), Ocean Books Pvt Ltd, Pp 319, Rs 750.00

The book then shifts attention from the west to the east to talk of India’s maritime trade with China going back to 680 BC, when her merchants sailed eastwards, marketing Indian products such as rubies, pearls and sugar. The book highlights the volume of spiritual traffic to India in those difficult days.

ThE second volume presents some very touching but factual observations on the practice of sati in India, as seen by foreign travellers like Alberuni, Odoric of Pordenone, Friar Jordanus, Ibn Battuta, Nicolo Conti, Hieronimo di Santo Stefano. The system of devadasi is also given in some detail.

The world scenario altered significantly with the advent of Islam and the attendant era of Arab expansion. The Arabs conquered Baghdad in AD 634, Syria in AD 636, Persia Between AD 636 and 650, Egypt in AD 642 and Carthage on the northern African coast in AD 698. In AD 711, they crossed the Gulf of Gibraltar and entered the Iberian peninsula. The following year, Sindh also came under their control. The string of conquests from Spain to India enabled the Arabs to take over the major economic units of the Mediterranean and the Indian Ocean and dominate the important maritime and caravan routes.

Europe became preoccupied with the threat of Islam and fought nine crusades between AD 1096 and 1291, while the age of Arab travellers, geographers, merchants and historians commenced with the Islamic ascendancy. Many of these travellers kept diaries of their journeys and the earliest such account was by a merchant named Sulaiman, who wrote it around AD 851, when India was at a high point in her intellectual and cultural attainments. The Arabs transmitted knowledge of Indian numerals, mathematics, philosophy and logic, mysticism, ethics, statecraft, military science, medicine, pharmacology, toxicology, veterinary science, astronomy and astrology to the outside world. Games like chess and chausar were taken from India.

An Arab author from Andalusia refers to an Indian book on tunes and melodies. Indian fables and literary works found reflection in the Thousand and One Nights. The early Arab attempts to study Indian culture and social life were manifested in the works of Sulaiman, Ibn Khurdadbibh and Masudi among other. Even before his arrival the celebrated Alberuni possessed some Indian works in his library, which were translated into Arabic under the Abbasid caliph, Al Mansur and the Barmakid vazirs of Harun-ul-Rashid. Among these were five Brahmasiddhanta and the Panchatantra. This tradition ended with Alberuni in the first quarter of the 11th century. They describe the grandeur and wealth of the kings of India, singling out for special mention the Palas, the Gurjara Pratiharas and the Rashtrakutas. The Arab appellation for the Pala kingdom was ‘the kingdom of Dharma’ after Dharmapala, the greatest ruler of the dynasty. They relate that in the Pala country was woven a cotton cloth so fine that it could pass through a ring.

However, the Gurjara Pratiharas by Al-Jurz of Arab writers were depicted as the ‘enemies of Islam’ par excellence. They were said to possess a cavalry unrivalled by any other king of India. Pepper was the main item of trade on the Indian coast as also ointments, medicinal substances, poisons, incense, ginger, spikenard, camphor, cloves, nutmeg, sandalwood, musk, cinnamon and rhinoceros horn. In Arabic language, words of Indian origin existed mostly for spices, medicines and perfumes. In addition, precious stones and diamonds, elephant tusks and textiles like silk, brocade, cotton and jute were valuable items of trade.


The India They Saw: Foreign Accounts: 16th - 17th Century AD (Vol. 3), Meenakshi Jain (Ed.), Ocean Books Pvt Ltd, Pp 419, Rs 750.00

The third volume in this series of four volumes begins with the arrival of Vasco da Gama on the western coast of India, near Calicut on May 27, 1498, heralding the restoration of Europe’s links with the subcontinent after an interval of almost eight centuries.

Indian traders, using the sea route through the Persian Gulf, would unload heir wares on the northern tip of the Gulf from where these would be carried through Syria to the port of Tyre and acre on the eastern Mediterranean coast. Goods transported through the Red Sea were offloaded on the eastern coast of Egypt and taken to the ports of Alexandria and Carthage on the southern Mediterranean coast. Alexandria and Carthage were, in fact, the principal transit points for trade between India and Europe.

Available evidence indicates that at the outset only Indian ships sailed the Indian Ocean, crossing the Persian Gulf and the Red Sea. It was only after the discovery of the direction of the south-west summer monsoon by the Greek, Hippalus, on the eve of the Christian era, that Roman ships began visiting Indian shores. Romans began to import a variety of goods from India, including Kashmiri wool, musk, ivory and precious stones. Pepper from India had become by now an essential item in European cookery and was also used in the preparation of medicines and drugs. Trade also promoted cultural exchange, which was particularly marked in the realms of philosophy, religion and language as testified by Greek and Roman writers.

By AD 1179, Portugal had begun to emerge as an independent kingdom as the port of Lisbon and the Tagus valley had been won from the Muslims in AD 1147. Thus with its extensive coastline on the Atlantic, Portugal was in the forefront of maritime explorations. 

On July 8, 1497, four ships under Vasco da Gama sailed from the harbour of Belam at the mouth of the Tagus. With his landing, India became accessible to Portuguese conquistadors, traders travellers, scholars and clergymen. “The 16th century could, in a sense, be termed the Portuguese century, for no European power could challenge its mastery of the sea route to India,” claims the book. The defeat of the Spanish Armada in 1588 by Holland and England, however, signalled the end of this monopoly and in 1595, the first Dutch fleet entered the Indian Ocean. In the 17th century, the Dutch, with their British camp followers, seriously undermined the Portuguese. The French also entered the Indian trade in the second half of this century.


The India They Saw: Foreign Accounts: 18th - mid-19th Century AD (Vol. 4), Meenakshi Jain (Ed.), Ocean Books Pvt Ltd, Pp 419, Rs 750.00

In the wake of the commercial and political expansion of Europe in the 18th century, there was a remarkable increase in the number of Europeans visiting India, not merely for trade but also in search of her fabled ancient wisdom. For the rising middle classes of Europe, India increasingly came to embody not merely a principal source of their economic prosperity, but “a symbol of the re-discovered human soul.” Philosophers, scholars and poets were repulsed by the “provincialism” of Europe, which they considered a rather insignificant appendage to Asia.

From the early 18th century missionaries also became active in India. A German Protestant mission was established at Tranquebar, a small Danish colony on the Coromandel Coast, in 1706. However, the general shift of political power to the British in South India saw the eventual retreat of the Jesuits and the growing influence of the German Protestants, who came under the wings of the Society for the Promotion of Christina Knowledge in London.

Meanwhile, in 1727, the French Royal Librarian, the Abbe Bignon, resolved to enrich the royal collection with oriental works, particularly “the main Indian works on Indian chronology, the history of their kings, their religion and customs.”

Another Frenchman, Antoine-Louis Polier, arrived in India in 1758 and stayed on for 30 years. He was permitted to copy the Vedas by the Raja of Jaipur and this he did in 11 in-folio volumes, now preserved in the British Museum. French intellectuals also focused on a ‘scientific’ analysis of Indian history and used authentic (and sometimes, unknowingly, fake) Indian texts for their philosophical speculations and philological studies. British contribution was no less.

(Ocean Books Pvt Ltd, 43/19 Asaf Ali Road, Daryaganj, New Delhi-110002;

Politics in foreign aid for development

Nidhi Mathur

Foreign Aid in South Asia, Saman Kelegama (Ed.), Sage Publications India Pvt Ltd, Pp 336 (HB), Rs 750.00

$img_titleThe efficacy of foreign aid as a developmental tool over the last few decades in South Asia has been mixed. It has received mixed success in terms of developmental outcomes. This book, which is a compilation of papers by a number of scholars drawn from South Asia and which has been put together by one of Asia’s most distinguished economists, highlights the country/context-specific role of aid, differentiating between countries such as Pakistan and Afghanistan where aid is increasingly linked to security concerns, with those relating to its role in post-conflict economies, such as Sri Lanka and Nepal. These problem-driven dynamics are then compared to the contrasting role of aid in an emerging economy of the size of India and its role in changing from an aid recipient to a donor, and in least developed countries like Bangladesh, Bhutan and Maldives experiencing a transformation in aid receipts.

Beginning with an overview of the aid reform debate, the first paper by Indrajit Coomaraswamy covers the aid system, the emergence of new donors, synthetic issues, principles of aid effectiveness and moving beyond aid dependence.

The second paper shows that in recent times, South-South Cooperation (SSC) between developing countries has become a growing  dynamic phenomenon in aid flows as opposed to the customary pattern of aid from the developed to developing countries. Such South-South aid flows are gradually changing the direction of aid flows and providing a platform to face the new global changes. It also presents the benefits and drawbacks of such cooperation. An exhilarating aspect of this paper is that while emphasising the need for trilateral cooperation between donors from advanced and emerging economies, India is and will continue to shift from a recipient of aid to a donor.

The next paper focuses on the impact of aid on growth in India through a new approach in aid-effectiveness regarding the composition of foreign aid. It also suggests that the composition of aid (that is, in cash or kind) matters for deriving the maximum benefits, especially in the case of India.

The paper by V Ahmed and MA Wahab focuses on the nexus between aid and security in Pakistan, which, as a frontier nation against violent terrorism, remains one of the highest recipients of foreign aid. Aid flows in Pakistan show fluctuations which make foreign financing an unreliable option for sustainable growth. Terrorism has led to massive economic loss and insecurity, claim the authors of the paper.

The subsequent paper is based on the nexus between aid and security in the case of Afghanistan. With the country’s shaky security environment and low levels of domestic revenue, foreign aid plays a pivotal role in future developmental plans and in sustaining economic growth. In fact, the country’s development expenditure is entirely funded by aid received largely from the US. This paper reveals that with 90 per cent of world’s opium production in Afghanistan, corruption, terrorism and lack of development are fuelled excessively. Better communication channels between the government and the rural communities for improving policy impact and reduction of regional disparities are called for.

The next paper is based on policy priorities for foreign aid in Sri Lanka, since the country has persistently recorded budget deficits and aid has become vital to the island for financing large-scale infrastructural projects as also social ones. The post-war situation has seen a substantial spike in foreign inflows due to the remittances and emergency relief measures. While addressing the post-Tamil-Sinhalese conflict concerns, the paper identifies the contemporary role of aid in Sri Lanka.

The next paper attempts to recommend policy changes in both the recipient and donor countries for making aid programmes effective in Nepal. It suggests revision of this country’s foreign aid policy after the country was declared a federal republic.

The ninth paper discusses policy priorities for foreign aid reform in Bangladesh. It shows that with gradual decline in aid dependence, the country has now evolved from an aid to trade-dependent economy.

The tenth paper discusses the role of foreign aid to Bhutan where one-fourth of the population lives below the national poverty line. It calls for foreign assistance in poverty alleviation and development.

The last paper is on the role of aid in Maldives and how aid has helped the country in making commendable headway in socio-economic development. With tourism being its backbone, Maldives is fast becoming a world-renowned tourist destination that is leading to its rapid economic growth.

The overall message of the contributors is that individual South Asian countries have to get their act together for the best use of aid.

(Sage Publications India Pvt Ltd, B I/1, Mohan Cooperative Industrial Area, Mathura Road, Post Bag 7, New Delhi-110044;

A paradigm shift in democratic governance

Nidhi Mathur

Not for Profit: Why Democracy Needs the Humanities, Martha C Nussbaum, Princeton University Press, Pp 169, $15.95

undefinedCelebrated philosopher Martha Nussbaum foresees a crisis that is likely to be far more damaging to the future of democratic self-government – a worldwide crisis in education. She says that radical changes are occurring in what democratic societies teach the young and these have not been thought through. Thirsty for national profit, nations and their systems of education are heedlessly discarding skills that are needed to keep democracies alive. If the current trend continues, “nations all over the world will soon be producing generations of useful machines rather than complete citizens who can think for themselves, criticise tradition and understand the significance of another person’s suffering and achievement,” warns the author. She is convinced that the future of the world’s democracies hangs in the balance.

What are these radical changes? Martha says that the humanities and the arts are being cut away in both primary/secondary and college/university education in virtually every nation in the world. She points out that what might be called the humanistic aspects of science and social science – “the imaginative, creative aspects and the aspect of rigorous critical thought are also losing ground as nations prefer to pursue short-term profit by the cultivation of useful and highly applied skills suited to profit-making.”

Literature and philosophy have changed the world, but parents all over the world are more likely “to fret if their children are financially illiterate than if their training in the humanities is deficient.” Nussbaum alerts us to a “silent crisis” in which nations “discard skills” as they “thirst for national profits”. As the arts and humanities are everywhere downsized, there is a serious erosion of the very qualities that are essential to democracy itself.

(Princeton University Press, 41 William Street, Princeton, New Jersey - 08540;

A primer on the Nature

Manju Gupta

Atmosphere, Clouds and Climate, David Randall, Princeton University Press, Pp 277 (HB), $ 27.95

$img_titlePublished under a series of short authoritative books for students, researchers and scientists, this book written by a professor of atmospheric science at Colorado State University, highlights the importance of atmosphere and clouds in affecting climate change.

Beginning with the description of the composition of the atmosphere, which is divided into different layers with the lowest being the troposphere and above which lie the other layers, the book says that since the atmosphere is a thin check on the large spherical Earth, air moves around it and which we refer to as atmospheric “circulations” in the form of thunderstorms, fronts, jet streams, tropical cyclones and monsoons.

One of the most important factors influencing the circulation is the rotation of the Earth, which has profound effects on large-scale circulations. Because of the Earth’s rotation, a point on the Earth’s surface is moving towards the east at a speed that depends on latitude and is fastest at the Equator. Earth’s rotation promotes the formation of atmospheric vortices. The hot air over the Equator rises as the sun’s rays reach it directly and emits infrared radiation back into space. The atmosphere regulates these radioactive energy flows and transports energy through the weather systems, such as thunderstorms, monsoons, hurricanes, etc.

David Randall explains how these processes work, how the energy flow and the water cycle in which the water gets heated over the Earth’s surface to rise as vapour and meets the clouds above to condense into water vapour and fall as rain; how the Earth, tilted on its axis, revolves around the Sun, changing the distribution of sunlight and causing the succession of seasons and how turbulence and cumulus clouds carry energy upward to the atmosphere and how other phase changes of water strongly influence weather and climate.

The book is aimed at college undergraduates who are interested in climate and who are familiar with basic physics and geography.

(Princeton University Press, 41 William Street, Princeton, New Jersey - 08540;

The lure of the wild

Ashish Joshi

Tigers in the Emerald Forest: Ranthambhore after the Monsoon, Valmik Thapar, Oxford University Press, Pp 126 (HB), $ 79.75

$img_titleCaptivated by the ‘glint of green’ of the forest, the author, a wildlife enthusiast decided to write this coffee-table book to present eye-catching pictures of egrets flying over the ocean in the early morning hour; dolphins dancing in the Arabian Sea; a Brahminy Kite flashing across the setting sun; the Indian monitor lizard scouring the land for its prey, and many more. 

Valmik Thapar seems particularly taken in by Ranthambhore’s appearance during the month of September which is “the time of plenty, as grass and trees burst into so much life that animals feast, their young are born, and the snakes exit their underground homes to feed in abandon.” Not only does one find that the “amazing monitor lizard is all over, devouring all the snakes it finds,” there is water everywhere and the animals dispersed everywhere. “The forest thickens dramatically, the canopy closes and shady patches look dark and forbidding with a sense of eerie,” says the author.

Valmik vividly describes the other creatures too of Ranthambhore forest. There is the soft-shelled turtle which is a freshwater species with the ability to retreat its parts into its shell. He adds that the turtles being great scavengers figure “largely in Indian mythology and even in Muslim belief.” The other creature is the marsh crocodile which inhabits Ranthambhore’s water bodies and “fights off tigers”; the monitor lizard which is a voracious snake-eater and snakes that are in plenty in the valley of Nalghati. He talks of his favourite snake-pit, where 34 years ago, “I had my only sighting of two damans or water snakes mating in the middle of the monsoon.” As September is the time when the monsoon just gets over, Valmik sees their slithering marks on every track and “I am sure tens of thousands roam the forest, feasting on frogs, insects, eggs, chicks and so much more.” Ranthambhore also boasts of the Indian python.

(Oxford University Press, 1st Floor, YMCA Library Building, 1 Jai Singh Road, New Delhi-110001;

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