We live at a time when travelling means advance
booking and the mobile and the Internet. The traveller never loses touch with friends,
not even for a day. This book is about travellers who vanished from home for
years and decades, and reached places where they knew nobody. The moment you open
this book, you become part of their adventure.
Reading this book is like boarding an aircraft designed
to flyover India's long history. For company you have famous travellers like Megasthenes, Marco Polo and Alexandra David-Neel. As you soar
into each new chapter, you see an India which is vaguely similar to how we know
it today and strikingly different as well. At times you feel you are watching magic
on a grand scale. Common animals and birds look exotic because you see them through
the eyes of a stranger. Food and dress, weather and natural scenery, markets and
courts and ordinary houses acquire that shiny sharpness which the diary of an observant,
tireless traveller gives to everything.
No single book of history can teach as much as
this little book does, and not only about India and its past. As you read these
accounts left by men and women who were so curious to know the world that they didn't
worry about distances, languages and food, you feel inspired and reassured. Coming
at a time when travelling means running a risk, this book will remind you that
travelling is also a great source of joy, that comfort and security are not everything.
More than 2000 years ago, when a king called
Chandragupta Maurya ruled over most of north India, a
Greek traveller, Megasthenes, visited India. In his
account of his travels, he described many amazing new animals, including these strange
In the east, there is a high plateau beneath
which there are mines of gold, where there are found the ants that dig for that
metal. They are as big in size as wild foxes and run with amazing speed. The
time when they dig is winter. They throw up heaps of earth at the mouth of the
mines. The heap which they throw up consists of gold, the purest and brightest
in all the world. The gold-dust that they dig has to
be subjected to a little boiling. The people of the neighbourhood try to
secretly steal this gold. If they came openly the ants would attack them. So,
to steal without being observed, they place at several places pieces of meat
that would distract the ants and the people could then carry off the gold-dust.
(excerpt from Indika Book VIII in Arrian's Anabasis Alexandri, translated by E. Iliff Robson (1933) and available at http://www.fordham.edu/HALSALLlancient/arrian-
Nine hundred years after Megasthenes
journeyed to India, a Chinese pilgrim by the name of Hiuen
Tsang visited India. His objective was to seek the Buddhist holy
scriptures and return with them to China where he could translate them.
He too travelled extensively across India and had many interesting experiences.
While he was on his way to Prayag-the old name for the
city of Allahabad-Hiuen Tsang was attacked by river
pirates who preyed on unwary travellers on the Ganges. It may be unimaginable today,
but the Ganges then flowed wide and serene and robbers infested the areas that came
under no kingdom. These men were worshippers of the goddess Durga,
and as per their custom, were looking for a man to offer as a sacrifice to the goddess.
They were about to kill Hiuen Tsang when a typhoon struck
all of a sudden, lashing down the trees and everything around. The huge waves of
the river tossed the boats to and fro. The terrified pirates attributed it to the
spiritual power of the Chinese pilgrim and repented their sins. Hiuen Tsang completed the rest of his journey untroubled.
This story and many others detailing his adventures
in India, he later recounted when he returned to China.
The Ancient Travellers
The accounts of Megasthenes
and Hiuen Tsang are some of the earliest written records
of life in ancient India. Other travellers who followed also wrote down their observations
of life around them, though what they wrote was much influenced by their own
backgrounds and what they believed in. Thus their accounts may not be totally
accurate and indeed, as seen from Megasthenes' description
of the gold-digging ants, can be wildly exaggerated.
Travelling in ancient times was difficult. Much
of the world was still undiscovered and means of travelling over dangerous and
unknown terrain were primitive. Nevertheless, traders, nomads and warrior tribes
did travel and move over wide areas, mostly in group. That condition for travel were still difficult in the 4th century AD, 700 year after
Megasthenes'visit, is evident from Fa-hsien's account. At the age of twenty-five, Fa-hsien began his journey from China
to learn about Buddhism in India. In his journal, Fa-hsien describes how dangerous it was to cross the river Indus,
which originates in the Himalayas and flows through present-day Pakistan.
For fifteen days, the travellers followed the foot
of the mountain range. The way was difficult and the hill face was steep, rising
like a hill-like wall of rock. Just beneath were the waters of the river Indus.
In older times men had carved paths along the rocks, and placed ladders along them.
Where the river was narrow, there was a suspension bridge of ropes by which it
could be crossed.
(from A Record of Buddhistic
Kingdoms, by Fa-hsien,
translated by James Legge, e-text available as part of
The early travellers used the forbidding mountainou routes through the northern ranges to enter India.
They moved in carts drawn by oxen and later horses. Megasthenes
took the route that led from central Asia and entered northwest India through
the Khyber Pass. Fa-hsien and
Hiuen Tsang crossed the Himalayas through the passes from
southwest China into India. They then travelled eastwards in India all the way to
Bengal and took the ship back towards China. They encountered many kinds of dangers
in the course of their journeys.
the original texts of both Fa-hsien
and Hiuen Tsang's accounts have survived. Hiuen Tsang, in fact, went on to become a mythical character
in Chinese classical literature. Journey to the West,
a work that makes Hiuen Tsang a mythical hero,
appeared first in the 1590s when the Ming dynasty ruled over China. This book was
inspired by Hiuen Tsang's journey along the Silk Route,
a road that led from China, across Central Asia, to the very edge of Europe, touching
north and northwest India on the way. Journey to the West was later
translated into English and made into a popular television series called Monkey.
More recent accounts about Hiuen
Tsang have tried to trace his journey through India. One of these is Ten Thousand Miles Without A Cloud by Sun Shuyun (published in
1999) and the other is The Silk Road Journey with Xuanzang by Sally Hovey Wriggins
(2004). She was inspired by the character of the monk in Journey to the West and followed the route as described in the novel.
With time, trade and conquest encouraged the movement
of more people. A scholar in Arabic, Alberuni, accompanied
Mahmud of Ghazni when he made his repeated invasions in
India. Alberuni travelled to different Indian
cultural centres in the early 11th century AD. He was a polymath and
was familiar with many subjects and languages. He wrote the most widely read
foreign account about India around the 10th to 12th
A Bewildered Greek in Pataliputra:
The Devout Pilgrim: Fa-hsien
The Monk and the King of Kannauj:
The Man of Science and the Invader:
The Venetian in India
A Moroccan in the Sultan's Service:
The Homesick Russian:
The Englishman Who Met Akbar:
The German in Bombay:
A Changing India: Halide Edib
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