India Through the Eyes of Travellers

The Indian subcontinent is marked by well-defined geographical frontiers. However, the different geographical zones of the subcontinent have by no means ever functioned as isolated units. Rather human interaction has always been the norm that cut across mountains, rivers and regions. The Himalayas could be crossed at various points, such as the Bolan, Gomal and Khyber passes, whereas various networks of overland routes facilitated interaction with China, Central Asia, West Asia and Europe. All this paved the way for the movement of traders, travellers, pilgrims, settlers, soldiers, goods and ideas. Naturally, as a result, we often find the mention of India in various foreign texts, which basically echo the perception of India held by the people from other lands as to what they noticed here and concluded to be worthy of being accounted for. However, certain issues must be taken into cognisance while dealing with these accounts. It is imperative to distinguish between the statements based on hearsay and personal experiences, between perceptive observations and cases where the writers erred. For example, the Indica of Ctesias, dated 4th century BCE, is a highly unreliable account full of bizarre stories about the subcontinent and its inhabitants that had been collected by the author while living in Persia as a royal physician.

Megasthenes’s Indica and Other Greek Works

The Mauryan period was marked by flourishing trade relations with the Western world and also the exchange of emissaries between Maurya and Hellenistic kings. Thus, we find mention of the various Mauryan kings in the Greek accounts, such as that of Chandragupta, who is referred to as Sandrocottus and also that of Bindusara, who is referred to as Amitrochates and their capital Palimbothra which is Pataliputra. Megasthenes’s is work is one such very important work. Megasthenes was the representative of Seleucus Nikator to the court of Chandragupta Maurya. However, nothing is known regarding the frequency and duration of his visits to the Mauryan court. Nevertheless, there is a possibility that as a royal ambassador, his exposure to the Indian society was socially and geographically restricted. Megasthenes’s seminal work Indica, which is an account of his travels and experiences in India, has unfortunately not survived, and only fragments of it have been preserved in later Greek and Latin works such as those of Diodorus, Strabo, Arrian and Pliny. The later Graeco-Roman writers were nevertheless by no means unanimous in their opinion regarding the accuracy and reliability of Megasthenes’s account. Strabo and Pliny highly Info 1criticised his work, whereas contrarily, Arrian was more trusting. Diodorus, on the other hand though, did not make any disparaging remarks about Megasthenes, but he excluded those sections of the latter’s work that he considered to be strange and unbelievable stories about India and Indians. Now whether these later writers had direct access to Megasthenes’s work or whether they depended on some secondary accounts is not certainly known. These Greek writers, having aimed not only to inform but entertain their audience as well, thereby selected those very parts of Megasthenes’s account that they thought would interest the audience and excluded those that they concluded to be boring. Megasthenes’s Indica described various aspects of the country such as its size and shape, rivers, soil, climate, plants, animals, produce, administrative, society and legends. However, both Megasthenes and the later Greek writers seem to have erred in many cases. For example, Aelian, by citing Megasthenes, concluded that Indians did not engage in the practice of borrowing and lending money on interest. Again, Strabo opined that Indians were ignorant of the arts of writing and fusing metals and that they never consumed wine except during sacrifices. Now one thing that needs to be taken into cognisance is that the Greek references to Megasthenes’s Indica represent the subcontinent perceived through a double lens, the first being that of Megasthenes himself and the second is that of the later Graeco-Roman writers and their interpretations of Megasthenes’s account.


Many Chinese monks travelled to India crossing the mountains, plateaux, and deserts to collect authentic manuscripts of Buddhist texts, meet Indian monks, and visit places of Buddhist learning and pilgrimage. One such figure was Faxian or Fa Hien. Faxian, who visited the subcontinent during the reign of the Gupta emperor Chandragupta Vikramaditya, his travels extended from 399-414 CE and were primarily confined to northern India. He visited places such as Peshawar, Taxila, Mathura, Kannauj, Sravasti, Kapilavastu, Sarnath, and many others. He info 2wrote an account of his travels entitled Gaoseng Faxian Zhuan (A Record of Buddhist Kingdoms). This is, in fact, the earliest first had Chinese account of Buddhist sites and practices that were prevalent in India. His account indeed played a very crucial role in influencing Chinese perceptions concerning the subcontinent. Faxian primarily intended to obtain and bring texts dealing with monastic rules to China. His accounts solely focus on Buddhist monasteries in different parts of northern India and other related aspects such as the number of monks, their practices, description of places of Buddhist pilgrimage and the legends associated with them. There is hardly any information pertaining to the lives of the ordinary people, and the ones that are there tend to be rather idealised. As per Faxian, Buddhism and Hinduism were the most popular religions in the subcontinent during this period, the former being more popular in the regions of Punjab, Bengal and Mathura. Also, his account sheds light on the internal and foreign trade relations of India and its ports. It is from his accounts that we come to know that India during this period had trade relations with China, countries of Southeast Asia, West Asia and even Europe.


Another important Chinese monk who travelled to India was Xuanzang, who left his home around 629 CE and spent nearly 13 years travelling the length and breadth of the subcontinent. He succeeded in collecting numerous manuscripts, but some of these were unfortunately swept away and lost in the flood waters of the Indus during his homeward journey. After returning to China, he wrote an account of his travels entitled “Da Tang xi yu ji”. Despite being a monk himself, Xuanzang was nevertheless a very keen observer of politics, that in turn can be attributed to his family background. It must be noted here that some of his ancestors were not only distinguished scholars but also occupied high administrative posts. However, in certain cases, Xuanzang seems to have idealised the Indian situation. For example, as per him, in India, people who violated filial piety had their nose or ears, or hands or feet cut off or were sentenced to exile. Such statements seem to be guided by his desire to emphasise the importance of filial piety that was highly cherished by the Chinese. However, a group of scholars are of the opinion that Xuanzang’s info 3perception was, in fact, not biased. In order to prove their contention, they point out as to how Xuanzang also praised many non-Buddhist kings and at times criticised the Buddhist ones. Xuanzang’s account is indeed a very crucial source for the study of cross-cultural perspectives in the ancient times that was addressed to both the audience of Chinese monks and the Tang emperor. In addition to the vivid descriptions of the doctrines and practices of the Indian Buddhist monks, stupas, monasteries and pilgrimage sites; it also sheds a considerable amount of light on various aspects of 7th century India, such as its landscape, climate, produce, cities, caste system and the various customs prevalent in India. His account also gives us a lot of information regarding Kannauj and its then king Harsha, whom Xuanzang portrays as a virtuous and brave ruler favourably inclined towards Buddhism. As per Xuanzang, Harsha divided the state’s income into four parts whereby one-fourth was reserved for the routine administrative expenditure of the government, one-fourth for the salaries of the government employees, and one-fourth for scholars and one-fourth as charity to Brahman and Buddhist monks. Xuanzang describes his audience with the king, that ultimately culminated in the establishment of diplomatic relations between Kannauj and the Tang court. In fact, even after his return to China, Xuanzang continued to play a crucial role in promoting religious and diplomatic exchanges between India and China. Xuanzang’s account also provided us with other information, such as the prominence of cities like Prayag or the increasing importance of Kannauj, Harsha’s capital that now replaced the hitherto maintained prominence of Pataliputra. He further states that Sravasti and Kapilavastu had lost their religious importance and that Nalanda and Vallabhi now emerged as important centres of learning.


Various factors such as the rapid political expansion of Arabs, the unity provided to it by the spread of Islam, the growth of urban centres and lastly, the patronage of the Caliphs had a major impact on intellectual ideas and technology in Asia and Europe. Al-Mamun, who was a 9th century Abbasid Caliph, founded an academy called Beyt-al-Hikma, i.e., House of Wisdom in Baghdad. Scholars of this academy engaged in the work of translating Greek, Persian and Sanskrit texts on philosophy and science into Arabic. Although Arab scholars initially relied heavily on Greek works but soon, men such as Jaihani Gardizi and Al-Biruni developed their own points of view. Al-Biruni, who was a resident of Khwarizm or Khiva, was one of the greatest intellectuals of early medieval times, and he also travelled to India. His Tahqiq-i-Hind deals with a wide range of subjects, including Indian scripts, sciences, geography, astronomy, astrology, philosophy, literature, beliefs, customs, religion, festivals, rituals, social organisation, and laws. One of the most important credits of his work is that it has enabled historians to identify the initial year of the Gupta era. As per Al-Biruni, the Gupta era began 241 years after the initiation of the Shaka era. Therefore, since the latter began in 78CE, the Gupta era can be placed in 319-20CE.


Ibn-Batuta was a Moroccan traveller who visited India in 1332-33CE during the reign of the Muhammad-bin-Tughluq. The latter even appointed him as the qazi of Delhi. Ibn-Batuta’s work Rihla provides us crucial information regarding India’s social and cultural life in the 14th century. He was highly fascinated by paan, i.e., betel leaves and coconuts and wrote descriptively about them. Also, his account sheds light on the condition of Indian cities during this period which, as per him, were vibrant and densely populated. He particularly describes Delhi in great detail.


Many foreign travellers visited the Vijaynagara empire as well. Among them, special mention may be made of Info 6Domingo Paes, an Italian merchant who visited India between 1520-22 CE. He dealt in length with the ancient city of Hampi under the reign of the Tuluva king Krishnadeva Raya. He wrote an account of his travels entitled “Chronica dos reis de Bisnaga” which is undoubtedly one of the most crucial sources of information regarding the Vijaynagar empire. He described various aspects of the empire, such as its advanced irrigation technology, which enabled peasants to produce high yielding crops at low prices, busy market of precious stones, the prosperous condition of the city, and he compared its size with Rome.


Thomas Roe was an English diplomat, a member of the House of Commons during the reign of Elizabeth I, who visited the Mughal court of Jahangir in the period between 1615-19. He primarily aimed to obtain protection of the factory of the British East India Company at Surat. His work’ Journal of the Mission to Mughal Empire’ is undoubtedly an important source of study of this period.


Bernier was a French doctor, philosopher and historian who came to India in 1656 and stayed for 12 years in the Info 8Mughal empire. He often engaged in a comparative analysis of Mughal India with contemporary Europe, especially France attempting to portray the latter as superior. His account sheds light on the contemporary social and economic scenario. As per him, there was no private property in land in Mughal India. He further stated that the artisans hardly had any incentive to improve the quality of their work as majority of the profits were appropriated by the state, and he gave detailed descriptions of the karkhanas or workshops.


  • Chandra, Satish. Medieval India: From Sultanate to Mughals, Part One Delhi Sultanate (1206-1526). New Delhi. Har-Anand Publications Pvt Ltd, 2012.
  • Singh, Upinder. A History of Ancient and Early Medieval India, From the Stone Age to the 12th Century. Delhi. Pearson, 2009.
  • Singhania, Nitin. Indian Art and Culture. Chennai. McGraw Hill Education (India) Private Limited, 2020.


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