Four volumes as treasure trove of information
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.
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