The following is an excerpt from Pragati, a national interest review magazine. It describes India at various stages in history through the eyes of various foreigners who visited the nation in those times.
Excerpts from perspectives on India.
Megasthenes, c. 288 BC
(From Ancient India as described by Megasthenes and Arrian, translated by J W McCrindle.)
The inhabitants, in like manner, having abundant means of subsistence, exceed in consequence the ordinary stature, and are distinguished by their proud bearing. They are also found to be well skilled in the arts, as might be expected of men who inhale a pure air and drink the very ﬁnest water.
It is accordingly affirmed that famine has never visited India, and that there has never been a general scarcity in the supply of nourishing food. For, since there is a double rainfall in the course of each year,—one in the winter season, when the sowing of wheat takes place as in other countries, and the second at the time of the summer solstice—the inhabitants of India almost always gather in two harvests annually: and even should one of the sowings prove more or less abortive they are always sure of the other crop.
But, farther, there are usages observed by the Indians which contribute to prevent the occurrence of famine among them; for whereas among other nations it is usual, in the contests of war, to ravage the soil, and thus to reduce it to an uncultivated waste, among the Indians, on the contrary, by whom husbandmen are regarded as a class that is sacred and inviolable, the tillers of the soil, even when battle is raging in their neighbourhood, are undisturbed by any sense of danger, for the combatants on either side in waging the conﬂict make carnage of each other, but allow those engaged in husbandry to remain quite unmolested. Besides, they neither ravage an enemy’s land with ﬁre, nor cut down its trees.[The Ganges] which at its source is 30 stadia broad, ﬂows from north to south, and empties its waters into the ocean forming the eastern boundary of the Gangaridai, 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. [Thus Alexander the Macedonian, after conquering all Asia, did not make war upon the Gangaridai, as he did on all others; for when he had arrived with all his troops at the river Ganges, and had subdued all the other Indians, he abandoned as hopeless an invasion of the Gangaridai when he learned that they possessed four thousand elephants well trained and equipped for war.]
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.
Xuanzang, c. 629 AD
On examination, we ﬁnd that the names of India (T’ien-chu) are various and perplexing as to their authority. It was anciently called Shin-tu, also Hien-tau; but now, according to the right pronunciation, it is called In-tu. The people of In-tu call their country by different names according to their district. Each country has diverse customs. Aiming at a general name which is the best sounding, we will call the country In-tu. In Chinese this name signiﬁes the Moon.
The countries embraced under this term of India are generally spoken of as the ﬁve Indies. The entire land is divided into seventy countries or so. As the administration of the government is founded on benign principles, the executive is simple. The families are not entered on registers, and the people are not subject to conscription. The private demesnes of the crown are divided into four principal parts; the ﬁrst is for carrying out the affairs of state and providing sacriﬁcial offerings ; the second is for providing subsidies for the ministers and chief ofﬁcers of state; the third is for rewarding men of distinguished ability; and the fourth is for charity to religious bodies, whereby the ﬁeld of merit is cultivated. In this way the taxes on the people are light, and the personal service required of them is moderate. Each one keeps his own worldly goods in peace, and all till the ground for their subsistence.
Those who cultivate the royal estates pay a sixth part of the produce as tribute. The merchants who engage in commerce come and go in carrying out their transactions. The river-passages and the road-barriers are open on payment of a small toll.When the public works require it, labour is exacted but paid for. The payment is in strict proportion to the work done.
Zahiruddin Muhammad Babur, 932 AD
(From The Baburnama—Memoirs of Babur.)
Most of the provinces of Hindustan are located on flat terrain. So many cities and so many provinces—yet there is no running water anywhere. The only running water is in the large rivers. Even in cities that have the capability of digging channels for running water do not do so.
The cities and provinces of Hindustan are all unpleasant. All cities, all locales are alike. The gardens have no walls, and most places are flat as boards.
In Hindustan the destruction of building and villages and hamlets, even of cities, can be accomplished in an instant. Such large cities, in which people have lived for years, if they are going to be abandoned, can be left in a day, even half a day, so that no sign or trace remains. If they have a mind to build a city, there is no necessity for digging irrigation canals or building dams. Their crops are all unirrigated. There is no limit to the people. A group gets together, makes a pond, or digs a well. There is no making of houses or rising of walls. They simply make huts from the plentiful straw and innumerable trees, and instantly a village or city is born.
Most of the people of Hindustan are infidels, whom the people of India call Hindu. In our country the people who move about the countryside have clan names, but in India even those who dwell in towns and villages have clan names. Every craft and trade is passed from father to son.
Hindustan is a place of little charm. There is no beauty in its people, no graceful social intercourse, no poetic talent or understanding, no etiquette, nobility or manliness. The arts and crafts have no harmony or symmetry. There are no good horses, meat, grapes, melons, or other fruit. There is no ice, cold water, good food or bread in the markets. There are no baths and no madrasas. There are no candles, torches or candlesticks.
The one nice aspect of Hindustan is that it is a large country with lots of gold and money. Another nice thing is the unlimited numbers of craftsmen and practitioners of every trade. For every labour and every product there is an established group who have been practicing that craft or professing that trade for generations.
Lord George Nathaniel Curzon, 1904
(From Lord Curzon in India, a selection of his speeches, compiled by Thomas Raleigh, Macmillan, 1906)
(India) is like a fortress with the vast moat of the sea on two of her faces, and with mountains for her walls on the remainder. But beyond those walls, which are sometimes of by no means insuperable height and admit of being easily penetrated, extends a glacis of varying breadth and dimensions. We do not want to occupy it, but we also cannot afford to see it occupied by our foes. We are quite content to let it remain in the hands of our allies and friends; but if rival and unfriendly inﬂuences creep up to it, and lodge themselves right under our walls, we are compelled to intervene, because a danger would thereby grow up that might one day menace our security. This is the secret of the whole position in Arabia, Persia, Afghanistan, Tibet, and as far eastwards as Siam.
He would be a short-sighted commander who merely manned his ramparts in India and did not look out beyond; and the whole of our policy during the past ﬁve years has been directed towards maintaining our predominant inﬂuence and to preventing the expansion of hostile agencies on this area which I have described. It was for this reason that I visited that old ﬁeld of British energy and inﬂuence in the Persian Gulf: and this also is in part the explanation of our movement into Tibet at the present time; although the attitude of the Tibetan Government, its persistent disregard of Treaty obligations, and its contemptuous retort to our extreme patience, would in any case have compelled a more active vindication of our interests.
I have had no desire to push on anywhere, and the history of the past ﬁve years has been one, not of aggression, but of consolidation and restraint. It is enough for me to guard what we have without hankering for more.